How can mindfulness -- a practice of opening the heart and mind -- help us become happier?
I recently returned from the 2011 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute in Garrison, NY. This is an annual gathering of scientists, philosophers and contemplative teachers so they can enter into a dialogue about the research related to meditation and mindfulness.
One hundred and fifty people from all over the world are chosen to attend by Mind and Life. This was a rare opportunity to spend a full week with colleagues whose enthusiasm and interest in mindfulness and its implications equal my own. I met many remarkable people whose love of inquiry is inexhaustible. The week’s conversations at mealtimes and in between were filled with questions, challenges and answers. The faculty or keynote presenters fueled these fires with their questions and challenges. We also meditated together several times a day. I could not wait to get up each morning.
These are the people who are looking inside the workings of the human brain mostly through functional MRIs. People are placed into MRI scanners while meditating, being mindful, being distracted, etc. The researchers are looking at what is different about long term meditators’ brains as opposed to the brain of someone who has never meditated. Already many things have come to light about compassion, our attachment to our lovers and families, and how the brain can regain equilibrium after stress. Teaching mindfulness for anxiety and depression have gained wide acceptance. Many think the brain is the “final frontier” of science. Clearly there is much more we do not know than we do.
In the early days of research, monks who spent most of their lives meditating were studied. In a slide we saw in a presentation, the monks laughed at the scientist as he demonstrated the multi-channel EEG (electroencephalography-recording of the electrical activity in the brain), sort of a skull cap with multiple leads. Why were the monks laughing? Because they could not understand why the scientist would put something on their head to measure something that has to do with the heart.
It was my “AHA” moment.This was why something felt just a little out of sync for me and suddenly I felt better. I am not a scientist although I love and have studied a good deal of science in my time. I am a teacher and what I teach people is way to suffer less. I have talked about this many times before in this blog but never was it more evident to me. The neuroscience is really exciting, almost seductive, to those of us familiar with evidence based practice and who long for validation by the traditional medical community that these practices work, they are cheap and people benefit in ways we cannot measure from them. But I came to teach mindfulness and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) 18 years ago because I was a practicing meditator and a nurse and suddenly there was Bill Moyers on TV showing how people at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester were getting relief from their physical and emotional pain by meditating and learning how to be mindful. The pivotal “AHA” moment of my life.
When I teach my classes we talk a lot about the heart. We talk of the heart opening, the heart softening, the heart feeling lighter. Mindfulness is a practice of the heart. I suspect someday we may see the now invisible ties that bind the head and heart on some scanner. I couldn’t help but think of the lines from the Derek Walcott poem “Love After Love:”
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door…..
Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you have ignored
for another, who knows you by heart…
I wish all of these earnest and good people who truly want to find a way to make mindfulness as a treatment more accessible to everyone all the best. I will help and support them in what ever way I can; I will marvel at what they find. Our conference ended with a call to everyone to dedicate the work we do to ending suffering; I hope for that with all my heart.
Writer Lenore Flynn, who taught mindfulness to my students in the "Reading and Writing a Happier Self" class at the University at Albany, SUNY, this past spring, was one of a very select few teachers chosen to attend the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. A long-time teacher and practitioner of mindfulness, she runs a mindfulness program in Albany at www.solidgroundny.org. This post appeared first in the Albany Times Union's Holistic Health blog. P.S. The rainbow image at the top of this page is not a flying saucer. :)