Monday, November 18, 2013

Mindfulness: What's the buzz?

Guess what? The world’s happiest man came to NUS to give a talk!
Over 1000 people attended this event on 6th November 2013 in the University Cultural Centre. For more official information, take a look here.
That night, there were eight speakers, with Professor Jay L Garfield as the moderator. All their profiles can be viewed here. The edited excerpts below may be time-consuming to read but their discussions of mindfulness is well worth learning!
So here are the eight take-home messages by the eight speakers:
  1. Mindfulness can help in recovering from mental disorders.
  2. Mindfulness is to be experienced by oneself, not just read or studied.
  3. There are well-designed, long-term studies on the effects of mindfulness practice, and it’s all good news.
  4. Mindfulness – being non-judgemental towards others, accepting things as they are – is useful in counseling others, and in opening up your heart and others’ hearts.
  5. The Mind and Life Institute should open up its Asia hub in Singapore!
  6. Mindfulness isn’t enough, we need compassion.
  7. Our brains changes; take control of this change with the practice of mindfulness.
  8. “We need the compassion revolution, let’s go for it!”
We started our discussion with Prof. Kua Ee Heok, a Prof. of Psychiatry in NUS,
“This two hours would change your life. As you can see from the slides, mindfulness in Chinese (念) is not only of the mind, but also of the heart. In Singapore, about 3% of the people with mental disorders are seen by mental health professionals and 5 to 10% by doctors. 20% have some mental disturbances – they can’t sleep properly, which affects their work efficiency, but it isn’t serious enough to warrant labels of mental illnesses. Mindfulness may not treat all mental problems, but it can help a lot of patients.”
Chinese patients with depression associated with diabetes and hypertension are treated with three different methods: Chinese Taoist cognitive psychotherapy (Tai Chi, music, art); Mindfulness therapy; and brief integrative psychological therapy. There is improvement, but no significant difference for the baseline over four weeks for these methods. It is established that these methods are effective, non-medicinal ways to treat mild depression. This is important to prevent the worsening into clinical depression.
He concluded with this statement,
Practicing mindfulness would lead to more compassion, helping the people around you, perhaps even lifting the happiness index of your people (and country).
So far, we have learnt that mindfulness can help in recovery from mental disorders.
Next, we have Dr Arthur Zajonc, the President of Mind and Life Institute.
“Why are you here?
This (Singapore) is no ancient state committed to ancient practices, but a modern society that lives with its heritage. How does one bring these two worlds, of mindfulness and modernity together?
The Mind and Life Institute has been living in the crossing point of Science and Mindfulness. The Mind and Life Dialogues was started at the MIT and gave birth to the Mind and Life Institute. These two great traditions of Buddhism and Modern Neuroscience seeking to investigate the mind are finding their way to a common point because there are suffering humanity.
Questions including “how is it that higher aspirations are obstructed by the addictions in life?” are explored.
When you talk about mindfulness, it is like talking about food. You can talk about it after that, but the function is to cook the food and eat it.”
Dr Zajonc then guided us into a live session of mindfulness training.
“Just sit back, relax, calm down in your seat, calm your mind and pay attention to your breathing.” Here is a sample meditation instruction.
We spent three minutes in our meditation. Some of the audience still refused to open their eyes after the three silent minutes.
Our second point: Mindfulness is to be experienced by oneself, not just read or studied. 
Our third speaker is Dr Clifford Saron, research scientist at the Centre for Mind and Brain.
He investigates what people do when they meditate. However, because it is hard to see into the mind directly, it is more concrete to investigate what people do (differently) after they had meditated.
He introduced us to the central characters in a unique research dialogue: Francisco Varela and Alan Wallace. In fact, most of the speakers there are friends. Some for decades long!
He explained how sadness relates to compassion.
“Sadness can be a catalyst. At some point, you may see suffering until it is unbearable to allow its continuation while being clear-headed enough to see how you can help.”
Alan Wallace taught two 3-months-long shamatha meditation retreats where participants meditate full-time. 60 people from around the world were randomly assigned to training and into two wait-list control groups of 30 persons each.
The first group was exposed to the three months retreat, with the second group as control (not in retreat). They fly the second group in for many of their tests. After a few months, the second group then took part in a separate retreat.
The taught meditations included:
  1. Focus attention meditation; Mindfulness of breathing; Awareness of awareness and
  2. Opening the heart, in particular of the four immeasurables (loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, equanimity).
The expected outcomes are: improved ability to withhold hurtful speech, and to be able to empathize with people more.
They employ multidisciplinary measures, including but not limited to: brainwave measuring, magnetic resonance imaging…..and came up with a measure they describe as Adaptive Functioning. Generally, the higher the score, the more positive a person is.
The results? The retreat group’s scores go up while the control group shows no change. However, after the control group goes into their retreat, their scores go up as well.
Studies has also shown that telomerase (the end of DNA that shortens every time a cell multiplies) increases for mindfulness meditators. This means we can live longer with mindfulness practice!
For the participants, there is a general change in purpose towards life after the retreat.
There are also other factors that they test on, in particular a test on attention. It’s a boring test where the participants have to press a button every time they see a long line and abstain when they are shown a short line. The short lines are rarely shown. This test is hard because they made it difficult to tell the long lines from the short ones.
As you can predict, the score gets better for mindfulness practitioners and it correlates with their scores in Adaptive functioning as well.
The researchers also expect decreased rejection emotions – contempt, disgust and anger – in response to suffering.
To test that, they evoked emotions with intense films and studied the facial expressions of the participants. They even produced a code, measuring sadness based on facial expressions! They found that sadness is a more frequent emotion for retreats-goers and rejection of their emotions are less likely. There is an increased ability to hold complex and painful realities in mind without pushing them away.
The first part of compassion training is to be able to empathize, so this opens the way to compassion training!
Our third point: There are well designed, long term studies of the effects of mindfulness practice, and it’s all good news. 
Our fourth speaker is Dr Carolyn Jacobs, a social worker.
“What is the buzz between mindfulness and social work? It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope. They are constantly changing, but inside it, one could say they are all of our self-identities. Who we are can be shaped, sometimes with a sense of joy. It’s a good skill to be able to enter into people’s life, enrich them, and leave without leaving sadness.”
She related one of her stories.
“Adam, a patient, once visited her. He sang to the woods in the morning, but he was having difficulty in finding time to practice his religion. He thinks he needs to pray in a certain way to fulfill his religious duty.” Dr Jacobs got angry after a year of being his counselor and got counseled instead.
She was reminded of her affirmation towards her ideals: my God loves Adam, however he is, and my job is to breathe with Adam and having the stillness that is born of love and acceptance.
And so, she had the opportunity to practise acceptance the very next time she met Adam.
“Adam came in and said, “Do you mind if I sit on the floor? I need to tell you why I choose you a year ago. I’m going to tell you something that I don’t know if you’re going to accept or not.” He then spoke.”
She knew immediately that this was the time to be non-judgemental. When in doubt, breathe deeply.
“Adam told me that  he had a dream, of stealing, and there was an Afro-American police in his dream. That was the reason he chose me, but the real reason for his unease was that he had been engaged in an affair at around that time too. The ability to be open during our conversations was blocked by the secret of him having an affair.
“Now you’re going to have to deal with your wife and your sense of religion. Next time I want to hear you talked to your wife.” And he did precisely that.”
She ended with this: “your practice becomes clear when you can look into your heart. Who looks outside dreams, who looks inside awakens.”
Our takeaway: Mindfulness – being non-judgemental towards others, accepting things as they are – is useful in counseling others, and in opening your heart and another’s heart. 
Fifth up, we have Dr Diego Hangartner, Chief Operating Officer of Mind and Life Europe.
He was an Olympic level athlete and said that it was his training that brought him there. It is the mental strength to go through the boring training that gets people to such sporting pinnacles; it is the drive to be successful.
He studied pharmacology and specialized in addiction studies. Any addiction begins with the mental desire to experience happiness. One day, he went to Nepal, a place where people were more happy despite the sicknesses there. In comparison, his homeland, Switzerland is clean, but mentally, it is degrading. He thought, “we are experiencing an epidemic of mental illnesses.” And he wondered if there was a Science of the Mind. Then, he discovered Buddhism, learned it for 11 years in Tibet, including being a monastic, and eventually got involved in the Mind and Life Institute.
One of the goals of the Mind and Life Institute is to catalyze contemplative traditions with science, making it a contemplative Science.  There are representatives from the Christian traditions too.
What do Mind and Life Europe do? They promote Mind and Life’s Vision and Missionand translate successful initiatives from Mind and Life.
Among many of their projects are Altruism and Compassion in Economic Systems. Economics, typically concerned with money and resources, is flawed so they are rethinking it with altruism and compassion included.
They will have the next public dialogue and conference with European Symposium on Contemplative Studies in Berlin.
Also, there is the Mind and Life summer research institute where they train scientists to pursue this field. They have established a grant system to seed research in Education, Human Development, Flourishing Initiatives as well as Research Initiatives from first and third person perspectives.
The take-home message? Mind and Life should open up its Asia hub in Singapore! 
Our sixth speaker is Dr Thupten Jinpa, an English translator of Dalai Lama. He shared about “Compassion meditation, the next big thing?”.
“Mindfulness is a buzz, mainly due to works by the Mind and Life Institute.
It is, at its essence, a Buddhist practice which has been completely secularized, to be practiced everywhere. Most of the contemplative practices are from Buddhism, but Dalai Lama advised not to make this a Buddhism-and-Science dialogue but a contemplative science dialogue. There are efforts to invite people of other religious faiths to join in this conversation.”
The next big thing, he believes, is compassion, which is defined as
  • An awareness of suffering (cognitive);
  • Empathic concern (affective); and
  • Wishing to see the relief of that perceived suffering (intention).
The focus is completely on the Other, no longer about the Self. It is often followed by a readiness to help relieve suffering or wanting to do something about it (motivation/action).
For caregivers looking after the terminally ill and mentally challenged, and all of us, eventually caring for our old parents, where does the motivation to care stem from?
The benefit and paradox of compassion are that, by shifting our focus from Self to Others and caring for their well-being, our personal happiness increases as well. It broadens perspectives, improves relationships and gives purpose to our lives. Some studies show how the practice improves health and lengthens life. And we all know the effects of compassion on all of us personally. The one break we get, the one help when we need it most.
The more compassionate you are, the more you benefit from others. So there are Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) for caregivers and everyone too. The Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) in Stanford provides this training.
“Compassion is a part of our motivation system; to train compassion is to be able to better relate to the people around us.”
The take-home message: Mindfulness is not enough, we need compassion.
Our seventh speaker is Dr Richard J. Davidson,  professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
His topic: “Change your brain by transforming your mind”. Like other speakers, he shared his appreciation on how he has made lifelong friends around this topic.
So here’s his story: he wanted to learn more about meditation practices from the inside. So after his 2nd year at graduate school, he went to India to learn meditation. These were practices that can literally transform human minds. After he returned, he was told very quickly that if he wants a successful career in science, this is not a good way to start. And so he pursued a traditional science career.
“There is this concept of neuroplasticity. The brain is able to change, shaped by the forces around us, by our interactions with the outside world. Sometimes willingly, sometimes unknowingly. Most of the time it changes unwittingly. The whole buzz about mindfulness is that we are able to shape our brain willingly by this practice.”
There is this study where the participants were sampled by texting them:
What are you doing right now,
Where is your mind right now,
How happy or unhappy are you?
They found that 40% of our waking life is not spent right here and now. The buzz of mindfulness is to reduce that and to enable us to pay attention. Indeed, we consistently report that we feel better when we are mindful. We can actually learn to pay attention, we can learn to be happy, we can learn well being.
Well being is a skill but we often don’t think of it as a skill, this is what modern science has concluded. That we can actually learn well being.
To test the subject of voluntary cultivation of compassion, they bring long-term meditators into the lab and study the differences. These are individuals who have practiced at least 10,000 hours, which is the entry level expertise for any skill. This group of monks has an average of 34,000 hours of meditation. The good thing about long term meditators is that they can control and alternate between the neutral and meditative states. Mathieu Ricard is one of them. By these testings, Mathieu Ricard got the term: happiest man in the world.
They also developed a kindness programme for kindergartens.
Take home message: Our brains changes, take control of it by mindfulness practice. 
Finally, we have Ven. Dr Mathieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk.
“The mind can be our best friend or enemy, we deal with our minds from morning to evening. If we can change somehow the way we work with our mind, we can change how we perceive things. Control of outer conditions is hard, illusionary. At least with the control of our mind, we can perceive which are the mental states that make us happy and which cause us to act and speak in a way that are detrimental to others’ happiness. So that we know how to develop, and what to let go.
When we look at our minds, they are like restless monkeys. They jump so much all the time that we can’t undo their knots. It’s not about banging the monkeys on their heads, but taming them. So that’s what we try to do in mindfulness training. People try and say that they’ve tried but there are more thoughts than before. It’s not that there are more thoughts than before. This shows the extend of this catastrophe.
We started experimenting with different kinds of meditation. There is a specific kind of signature for each mental state. There are these world specialists of empathy. Caregivers, nurses, etc… Imagine that you are a caregiver, day to day, you suffer by resonating with your patients’ suffering. Eventually, you may burnout.
The common advice is to have distance, but this is not ideal. A caregiver is supposed to give care. So during the MRI, a specialist in empathy asked me to generate empathy, I produced loving-kindness and compassion. They found that it’s not the normal signature of empathy. When I came out, I explained that I’ve gone further, I used it as a step for compassion.
They asked me to just try empathy, not compassion. Then, I imagined the suffering of the people I’ve met with just empathy, and within one hour, it was painful. Imagine this for the caregivers. The researchers then said, now you can generate compassion. Ahhh, it’s like a dam bursting open. Imagining every atom of the people suffering to be filled with loving-kindness.
“In the brain there are two different networks. When you train doctors and nurses, it is essential to train compassion to them.” He showed some pictures of compassion in action, something like this:
“This ability to console others. High social support+happiness+length of life.”
It is possible to have various levels of compassion, and the MRI readings matches the meditators’ effort with how much compassion they are generating.
He ended off with: “We need the compassion revolution, let’s go for it.”
The take-home message: “We need the compassion revolution, let’s go for it!”
Finally, Professor Jay L Garfield asked the panelists two questions:
Just what is mindfulness anyway?
Answer 1: There is a fair bit of confusion as to what mindfulness means. Some scholars try to appeal to the scientific sources, or derive it from the Pali or Sati word. Can you say “mindfulness is when you meditate”? Can you define it as defined in the MBSR? Present moment awareness without judgement. The meaning of the word is in its use. So there’s no need to go back to the Pali term and define it.
Answer 2: There is a lot of usage of terms without defining. Definition will change over time. There is a need for some kind of measures, instead of self-reporting measures which have serious limitations.
Answer 3: The challenge of defining the whole Buddhist terminology within one word. Pali, Tibetan, German, etc… Just look at the experience of the person doing that. The first person perspective is the most useful. The observation that you try to observe the mind and it moves… This is something that is evolving and also needs to be contextualized with practice.
There is a connection between mindfulness and compassion, what is the extent of that connection?
Answer 1: If you try to do compassion without mindfulness, you try to do nothing. Mindfulness is the basic tool. Training is necessary. But training doesn’t mean the work of digging a hole in the ground. It can be just lying on the floor, practising mindfulness of compassion. If at the start you train compassion, mindfulness will be there; you get two at the price of one. Fundamental part of the human condition is this sense of love, and if you do it with mindfulness, it is mental training.
Answer 2: It’s like asking a colour-blind to define red. Experience is the one that we need to work on. So we need to practice and spread this to the world.
So here’s a recap of the eight take-home messages:
  1. Mindfulness can help in recovering from mental disorders.
  2. Mindfulness is to be experienced by oneself, not just read or studied.
  3. There are well-designed, long-term studies on the effects of mindfulness practice, and it’s all good news.
  4. Mindfulness – being non-judgemental towards others, accepting things as they are – is useful in counseling others, and in opening up your heart and others’ hearts.
  5. The Mind and Life Institute should open up its Asia hub in Singapore!
  6. Mindfulness isn’t enough, we need compassion.
  7. Our brains changes; take control of this change with the practice of mindfulness.
  8. “We need the compassion revolution, let’s go for it!”
Personally, I recommend taking up meditation courses for our mental well-being. Just like physical exercise is for bodily health, meditation is great for mental health.
Thank you all for reading.

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