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28.05.2014
You must have JavaScript enabled in your browser to utilize the functionality of this website. This handheld megaphone is compact, lightweight and includes a carrying strap for convenience. A jittery teenager held a pistol to my wife’s head and robbed us a few blocks from our home in Houston.
Curious about the roots of meditative practice, I started reading about Buddha’s quest to diagnose the cause of human suffering, and came across the idea that we suffer because we are attached—we always want things to be other than the way they are. ONE OF THE MOST AMBITIOUS STUDIES of the psychological, physical, and behavioral effects of meditation ever undertaken is The Shamatha Project, a multi-million dollar effort led by neuroscientist Clifford Saron of the University of California, Davis.
As a Harvard undergraduate in the early 1970s, Saron befriended future meditation researchers Richard Davidson and psychologist Daniel Goleman, and took up the practice himself.
Saron says that the project asked: “What do people do differently because they have meditated?” There were also more specific questions. The study monitored the brains, bodies, and behavior of 60 people recruited through ads in Buddhist magazines. Heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle activity, among other things, were recorded during tasks.
Last year, the research team reported that at the end of the retreat, the first group had telomerase levels that were 30 percent higher than those in the control group. The research team also reported that members of the retreat group consistently improved in a test measuring impulse control, which also contributed to their overall sense of psychological well-being. Rosenberg says, meanwhile, that participants were more moved by certain film scenes of suffering they were shown, and less likely to recoil from them than members of the control group. Retreat participants even came away with a sharper sense of visual perception, as revealed by tests that measured how accurately they distinguished between lines of slightly different length during a repetitious exercise. The perceptual changes, response inhibition, and overall psychological adaptive functioning results were replicated when the members of the control group went through their own retreat.
DESPITE HIS ENTHUSIASM FOR THE FINDINGS, Saron cautions that they should not be over-interpreted. Social psychologists have found, for example, that most people are happier and less anxious from their mid-50s onward.
Saron notes that even if you’re just sitting around, doing nothing in particular, if you do it regularly, you’re bound to alter your brain in some way—perhaps for the better. With a trove of data still awaiting analysis, Shamatha Project researchers expect to continue publishing papers for several more years. SCIENTISTS AGREE THAT MUCH OF THE ILLNESS plaguing people in the developed world—conditions like heart disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and many autoimmune disorders—is exacerbated by chronic stress.
Elissa Epel lists some of the common mental habits that keep stress alive in the brain and the body in a state of high alert. One clue to how meditation reduces stress came in 1971, when Harvard’s Herbert Benson took physiological measurements of people engaged in Transcendental Meditation, loosely based on a Hindu practice of mantra repetition.
Mind-body research gathered momentum in the 1990s, when positron-emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning made it possible to look inside a meditator’s brain. Then, in 2005, Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar found physical differences in the brains of experienced meditators. Now, there’s a lot less mind wandering and anxiety, and that claustrophobic feeling of being trapped inside my head amid a thicket of panicky thoughts has largely faded. A few months later, I had too much to drink at a party and felt as though I was asphyxiating. A biologist and psychologist, Borysenko had collaborated at Harvard with Herbert Benson, who in the late 1960s began investigating how mental states can affect physical well-being. Although only a fraction of the data has been published so far, the experiment offers powerful evidence that a regular meditation practice can sharpen our perception, promote a greater sense of well-being, and encourage a more empathic response to others. The subjects had to have had prior meditation experience, including at least one previous retreat with Wallace, and be willing to spend three months at a meditation center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado.


They also built a blood lab used for, among other things, spinning serum samples in a cooled centrifuge for later measurement of telomerase, an enzyme believed to preserve or even rebuild telomeres—and perhaps protect cells from aging.
Wallace instructed subjects in the practice of shamatha (“calm abiding”), a series of methods for enhancing one’s attention, such as mindfulness of breathing. There were also 15 computer-based measurements of attention and emotional response, questionnaires on mood and experience, a daily meditation log, and extensive interviews conducted at all stages of the process. They found the participants had undergone major improvements in their sense of purpose in life and noted that the degree of improvement correlated directly with telomerase levels.
As the retreat progressed, she says, the meditators also showed greater fluidity in their emotional responses. Remarkably, many of the improvements seen in both groups persisted for months after the retreats ended. A key question is whether the improvements seen during and after the retreats were due to meditation or to some other factor.
The participants in this study were in their late 40s on average, so maybe they were better adjusted and more inclined to respond to meditation than the larger population to begin with. Meanwhile, other scientists continue their efforts to replicate and better understand the project’s findings. When we perceive threats, the body’s “fight or flight” system is activated, releasing bursts of cortisol and adrenaline that speed up the heart and breathing, constrict blood vessels and trigger a cascade of other reactions. He reported striking stress-reducing changes, such as lowered heart rate and a slower rate of oxygen consumption, which he dubbed the “relaxation response.” Another clue came in the late 1970s, when Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, wondered whether meditation might help patients with stress-related problems. In a 2003 study, Richard Davidson and Kabat-Zinn reported that immune function improved in people who had just completed an eight-week MBSR course, as measured by their antibody response to a flu shot. MRI scans showed they had a thicker layer of tissue in the prefrontal cortex, a region thought to help integrate emotional and cognitive processes. In 1988, my wife and I moved back to New Mexico, and within a year I had joined a Zen center. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, People Magazine, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and many other publications. Neuroscientist Clifford Saron, of the University of California, Davis, and a Who’s Who of peers, are spending millions to find out.
At the emergency room, they decided I was just hyperventilating but the next morning I woke up feeling disoriented, with tingling extremities.
Her book, published in 1987, perfectly described the intense anxiety I’d been experiencing.
I certainly felt better, yet I couldn’t help wondering why meditation “worked.” How might modern science explain the benefits of a mind-focusing technique taught 2,400 years ago by an Indian spiritual teacher?
And, through alleviating stress, meditation may even play a role in countering the effects of aging.
Allan Wallace, a former Tibetan Buddhist monk and founder of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, who proposed that they measure the effects of meditation on people in an intensive retreat setting. They were randomly divided into two matched groups of 30, the second group serving as a control group that would later go on a retreat of their own. Next door, in the psych lab, retreat participants performed exacting computer-based perceptual and attention-gauging tasks. He also taught them to cultivate what Buddhists call the Four Immeasurables—loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. Blood samples were tested for telomerase, hormones such as oxytocin, vasopressin, and cortisol, and for several types of molecules called cytokines. On the other hand, the control group didn’t show the same responses until they went on retreat.
If this stress response stays stuck in the “on” position, this can lead to heightened inflammation and potentially damage tissues throughout the body. Drawing on his knowledge of, among other things, yoga, as well as his training in Korean Zen meditation, Kabat-Zinn created an eight-week program he called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.


The researchers also noted increased brain-wave activity in the left forebrain—a pattern, they pointed out, that had previously had been associated with better immune response. The differences were most pronounced in older subjects, suggesting that regular meditation practice might even offset the cortical thinning that normally comes with age. Our doctor thought I had mononucleosis, so I spent the next three weeks resting, obsessing about what was wrong. Saron eventually received a sizable grant from the Fetzer Institute, along with other funding, and assembled a large research team that included Wallace as the meditation instructor and Erika Rosenberg, a research psychologist at UC Davis and longtime meditation teacher.
The first group underwent tests during their retreat that were also administered to the control group; later, the control group was tested during their retreat. At times, they wore caps studded with 88 electrodes hooked up to an electroencephalograph that recorded their brain waves as they watched disturbing movies. Each person meditated alone an average of seven hours a day, and also met twice daily for guided meditation with the rest of the group and had weekly interviews with Wallace. When we’re stressed, cytokines trigger inflammation throughout the body, which can cause serious problems if unchecked.
In 1982, he reported that chronic pain sufferers saw a 50 percent reduction in their self-rated symptoms after undergoing a course in MBSR. In 2010, Lazar and her colleague Britta Holzel reported greater neural gray matter density in before-and-after testing of the brains of people who had undergone MBSR training, possibly as the result of the creation of new neurons.
Attending intense seven-day Zen retreats called sesshin, I was frustrated to find that even after practicing for some years my head was still often swimming with anxious thoughts—what meditation teachers call “monkey mind.” All those hours spent on the cushion are probably necessary, though. Coinvestigators included a veritable Who’s Who of meditation researchers, including Richard Davidson, who had been studying brain activity of Tibetan Buddhist monks in his laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Elissa Epel, a research psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleague, molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn. A video camera meanwhile surreptitiously captured their facial expressions, allowing researchers to rate their emotional reactions using the Facial Action Coding System developed by psychologist Paul Ekman, Rosenberg’s mentor.
In a brain-and-body feedback loop, if the central nervous system detects the presence of cytokines, it releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which tells cells in the spleen and other organs to dial back the immune response. Kabat-Zinn hypothesized that as people learn to see their thoughts and symptoms as separate from themselves, there is an “uncoupling” of the pain stimulus from their emotional responses.
Only after you realize the same thought has popped into your head for the ten-thousandth time do you finally lose interest in it.
We spent months unraveling the skein of childhood dysfunction I had long taken for granted.
And for the first time in two and a half years I found some respite, some intervals of feeling whole and relaxed.
In 2009, Blackburn shared the Nobel Prize in medicine for showing how telomeres, the bits of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes like the tips of a shoelace, help protect chromosomes as cells divide. Members of the control group, who were going about their daily lives at home, were periodically flown in for screening as well.
With repeated cell division the telomeres get shorter, until the cell dies or lapses into a form of suspended animation called senescence. MBSR has since been shown in numerous studies to substantially benefit people suffering from conditions as diverse as psoriasis, fibromyalgia, cancer, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and obesity. Epel and Blackburn have shown that stressed-out people, such as Alzheimer’s patient caregivers, tend to have shorter telomeres and are in effect aging prematurely. I still spent most of my waking hours registering every wayward thought and physical sensation.
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