“The Science of Meditation” is collaboration between the Dalai Lama, Richard Davidson and Daniel Goldman. It makes clear what works in meditation and what doesn’t, and explains why focusing our attention minute by minute on a single facet of consciousness (a mantra, our breath, stray thoughts) has such a dramatic impact on our well-being and state of mind.
The book shows there is good evidence that regular sessions of mindful attention have a calming effect on the amygdala, the brain’s emotion processor, and reduce impulsive reactions to stressful or negative thoughts and experiences. Mindfulness, they say, can help mute our emotional response to physical pain, and lessen anxiety and mind-wandering (not the kind that feeds creativity but its unfocused opposite). The benefits are apparent, even for beginners, and they increase with practice.
Compassion meditation, which aims to boost empathy, has an even more immediate effect: just 7 hours over the course of two weeks has been shown to boost altruistic behaviour. It is probably no coincidence that this makes us happier, too.
The authors are most interested in the capacity of meditation to cultivate enduring selflessness, equanimity, compassion and the ability to free the mind of negative emotions, all Epicurean objectives.
Davidson has scanned the brains of dozens of highly experienced Tibetan monks. These yogis, whose fellow practitioners have meditated for thousands – in some cases, tens of thousands – of hours, describe themselves as living in a heightened state of present-moment awareness, “as if their senses were wide open to the full rich panorama of experience”.
Davidson claims he has found a neural correlate to this mind-warp: a massive increase in the intensity of gamma waves in the brain, a signal associated with conscious perception. Are these monks living on a different plane of consciousness from the rest of us?
One of their most interesting passages describes what this self-lightening looks like on a neural level, how meditation practice quietens the brain’s default mode network, the constant background chatter that accompanies mind-wandering and self-absorption.
If a wandering mind is an unhappy mind, as various psychological surveys argue, then a focused mind must be worth struggling for. For Goleman and Davidson, the struggle is not so much about individual relief as global salvation, about reducing “greed, selfishness, us/them thinking and impending eco-calamities, and promoting more kindness, clarity, and calm”. (Michael Bond, NewScientist, September 16, 2017)
I myself call meditation “My Peace”, and only wish I had the leisure and the time – and the peace – to do more of it.