Frontier of Consciousness

The Mind & Life Institute provides a venue where scientists, contemplative practitioners and scholars can bridge the divide between objective science and introspective practices to help promote behavioral change and human well-being.

The institute sponsors a biannual contemplative studies conference that attracts an international audience. frontiernews The latest was held in San Diego this past November.

During the conference participants explored this interdisciplinary field where scientists and scholars collaborate with contemplative practitioners, philosophers and thought-leaders to share their latest research on mindfulness and other related practices. Stimulating conversations arise easily in this venue as people network with each other to encourage and foster the mission of the Mind & Life Institute which is to reduce suffering and enhance well being by integrating science with contemplative practice and wisdom traditions.

It seemed like a perfect synchronicity to hold this conference just after the recent election. localletter Peaceful, loving spirits gathered together in harmony and awareness exploring the potential for a future to be possible.

Seeds of Change

The Mind & Life Institute was formed in 1987 as a collaboration between neuroscientist philosopher Francisco J. Verala, the Dalai Lama and lawyer Adam Engle. These humanitarians wished to explore the possibility that contemplative practice presents modern science with valid methods for studying human experience. newspoke Recognizing and applying these valuable resources advances scientific theories about consciousness, emotion and cognitive processes.

The Institute lists the Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual leader of Tibet, on its Board of Directors and neuroscientist Richie J. Davidson as well. topicals Ritchie visited the Himalayas with a team of researchers at the turn of the new millennium to measure the effects of meditation on experienced monks. Eventually a few of the monks trusted him enough to visit his lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison for further state-of-the-art brain imaging data.

Davidson’s collaboration with the seasoned meditators led to brilliant discoveries into neuroplasticity and how the monks can reroute neural ruts just by thinking of compassion or mindfully breathing in a spacious awareness of the present moment. tbadaily Davidson’s work is presented in the book, Train your Mind, Change your Brain by Sharon Begley.

French monk Mathieu Ricard was one of Davidson’s first monks to be studied with FMRI (functional magnetic resonant imaging) machines that show pictures of different areas firing in the brain in response to mental states of mind. Correlating the activated brain regions with subjective feelings shows that when one side of the brain is active we enjoy well-being and happiness versus activating the opposite side which correlates with depression. kulfiy

I was introduced to Ritchie’s work in 2002 at a yoga workshop on yoga for depression. In 2005 I attended a Mind Life sponsored Dialogue between neuroscience and Buddhism at Stanford University. In 2007 I attended the American Academy of Religion’s conference in San Diego and first learned of the field of “contemplative studies” at universities like Rice.

At Stanford I learned of B. Alan Wallace and followed up by attending meditation retreats with him in Santa Barbara. He led me to Susan Kaiser who teaches mindfulness to kids and I brought my daughter to her workshop at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) in 2008. pressmagazines In 2012 Rinpoche Anam Thubten visited Bakersfield and his luminous nature inspired attending silent summer retreats with him in beautiful natural areas.

All of this effort to learn mindfulness really stems from Ritchie’s research on neuroplasticity and rerouting negative mental states through meditation. Negative thoughts can literally kill us as suicide sadly illustrates. “Why do you have to die because of one emotion?” asks Thich Nhat Hanh a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who advises us to center our attention at our “navel,” to stabilize ourselves during emotional storms.

Soul Retrieval

Friday’s keynote speaker was Zindel Segal, PhD, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto and a senior scientist at a research institute for Addiction and Mental Health. Dr Segal described applying mindfulness meditation to promote wellness to depressed patients in recovery and is the author of several books including The Mindful Way Through Depression.

Segal described his work with Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for treating depression and other mood disorders and noted the shift in public perception of mindfulness which was “risky” to mention in the field of mental health 13 years ago. Training people in mindful techniques encourages them to become their own therapist and is considered the maintenance version of cognitive therapy which is useful when mental afflictions are latent or quiescent.

Segal said small amounts of negative moods can trigger depressive views. This ruminative, cognitive approach elaborates sad moods into memory.

Citing a poem on insomnia by Billy Collins, Segal illustrated the phrases in the poem that serve as antidotes to a negative view. These elements include:

Relationship or to recognize the familiarity of insomnia, “my oldest friend.”
Tolerate exhaustion, “sack of exhaustion.”
Curiosity which conveys a stance that’s different from reactivity, catastrophizing and judging.

Another protective technique in MBCT is called de-centering, as in dis-identifying from our thoughts to defuse our mood. Segal believes MBCT supports people by teaching them skills that help them recognize their automatic slip into negative thoughts and teaches them to rethink their thoughts as mental habits. Curiousity replaces identification which helps people think about their experiences from a different perspective.

Segal stated that a home practice in meditation is critical to learn decentering skills as training in mindfulness helps people calm their executive center and activate experiential centers. According to Segal’s research, not only will 8 weeks of meditating 40 minutes a day, 20 minutes morning and evening, lead to increased resilience in the present term, it also extends for up to 24 months of protective influence emerging from the 8 week sessions.

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