There’s a method to mind over matter. A new book shows the way
“How is a mantra any different from my obsessive patients who can’t stop saying shit-shit-shit?” asked an incredulous professor of clinical psychology, when Daniel Goleman first set out to research the effect of chanting, at Harvard University, more than four decades ago.
The answer was simple – the expletives were involuntary while a mantra is a voluntary focusing tool. The clinical psychologist wasn’t convinced, but since then, science writer Goleman and neuroscientist Richard Davidson, chair of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, have collaborated on studies that use modern imaging tools to demonstrate how meditation not just improves physical wellbeing but also tweaks the brain’s neural pathways to cultivate empathy, altruism, equanimity and compassion.
Meditation calms the brain’s emotion processor, the amygdala, to reduce impulsive reactions to stressful or negative experiences and thoughts. Instead of focusing on the pop applications of meditation – using it to lose weight or improve business performance – Goleman and Davidson focus on its capacity to free the mind of negative emotions and develop what they call “highly positive altered traits”.
The genesis of their experiment was the Dalai Lama’s challenge to them to scientifically prove whether the time-tested practices of taming destructive emotions worked when stripped of their religious and cultural trappings.
Using fMRI, PET and a “battery of cutting-edge data-analyzing programs” at his lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Davidson scanned the brains of dozens of Tibetan monks – the largest pool of deep meditation practitioners studied anywhere – to confirm how deep meditation leads to “remarkable, positive changes in brain and behaviour”.
Everyone doesn’t get it right. The duo recount the cautionary tale of Swami X, who abandoned his wife, two kids and job as a manager of a shoe factory in India to seek fame and fortune in the US. In the mid-1970s, he asked Goleman and Davidson to study his yoga prowess at the Harvard Medical School’s Massachusetts Mental Health Center. What followed was a disaster. When the swami was asked to lower his blood pressure, it went up, when he was asked to raise it, it went down. In between bidi-breaks in the lavatory, all he did successfully was put his heart in atrial fibrillation, a state where the heartbeat becomes rapid and irregular and damages the organ.
The angry swami blamed his failure on the toxic tea he drank!
Meditation and monetising clearly don’t work, say the authors, but when done right, the benefits of meditation to both the mind and body are colossal.