And I bet I wouldn't have been quite so wracked by dread when the police were questioning us in separate rooms of the house—at least until I overheard the other officer ask, "She took away your what? Most importantly, I know I would have forgiven my son much more quickly, and the whole thing wouldn't have felt so traumatic. I might even have gazed upon him with compassion. Looking back, I realize I was completely underutilizing my own brain.
It is small comfort that so many otherwise sane mortals share this failing. Our attention flickers, our patience ebbs and—propelled by fear, malice, craving and other deeply inscribed passions—we lurch from impulse to action. In contrast, practiced Buddhist meditators deploy their brains with exceptional skill. Drawing on 2, years of mental technology—techniques for paying careful attention to the workings of their own minds—they develop expertise in controlling the flow of their mental life, avoiding the emotional squalls that often compel us to take personal feelings oh, so personally, and clearing new channels for awareness, calm, compassion and joy.
Their example holds the possibility that we can all choose to modulate our moods, regulate our emotions and increase cognitive capacity—that we can all become high-performance users of our own brains. A Buddhist scholar who examines the interface between science and religion, he believes that much of human suffering is our own doing. Our feelings contract around threats to our sense of self and cloud our sense perceptions.
We end up reacting, as if we had no other choice. Meditation alters what we tend to think of as stable mental traits—anxiety, for example, or anger. Practitioners discover that feelings are events that rise in the psyche like bubbles off the bottom of a pot of boiling water.
As the result of an extraordinary convergence of scientific research into interior states and new understanding of an ancient spiritual tradition, says Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the pioneering Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, "Buddhist meditation is leading to an expansion of the science of what it means to be human.
Some 10 million Americans say they practice some form of meditation. Buddhism is unique among spiritual traditions in its emphasis on psychology. Its core teachings encourage practitioners to shake off suffering and discover happiness. The very concept of self-improvement informs bhavana , the Sanskrit word commonly translated as "meditation," though it literally means "cultivation.
It remains a radical notion in the West that benevolent states of mind such as concentration, kindness and happiness can be developed with practice. Apart from a growing "positive psychology" movement, many of whose leaders are in fact strongly influenced by Buddhism, Western scientists are still largely oriented toward healing the mentally ill, rather than improving the lives of the functionally OK.
Recollect Freud's humble goal: to transform hysterical misery into common unhappiness. Western science is content to believe that each of us has a more or less genetically determined set point for well-being—and that happiness and love happen to us.
The Buddha framed things differently. He taught that our default mode may be to suffer, but only because of ignorance. We can transcend our lot by learning to quiet the mind in meditation—not merely to relax and cope with stress, as the popular notion of Buddhism holds, but to rigorously train oneself to relinquish bad mental habits. Rather than being an end in itself, meditation becomes a tool to investigate your mind and change your worldview.
You're not tuning out so much as tuning up your brain, improving your self-monitoring skills. You start looking in and seeing how your mind works, and you change your mind, thought by thought," explains Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, scientist and French interpreter for the Dalai Lama. They say, 'Let's be spontaneous; passions are the beauty of life.
But many modern people understand the notion of getting fit with physical training. Encouragement for this new way of thinking comes from an unusual ally. Neuroscience is furnishing hard evidence that the brain is plastic, endowed with a lifelong capacity to reorganize itself with each new experience. Violinists' brains actually change as they refine their skill.
So do the brains of London cabbies, whose livelihood depends on the sharpness of their memory. Likewise, through repeated practice in focusing attention, meditators may be strengthening the neural circuitry involved in the voluntary control of attention. One Tibetan lama told Wallace that before training, his mind was like a stag with great antlers trying to make its way through a thick forest; the animal got snagged on branches time after time.
But after many years of practice, his mind was more like a monkey in a jungle, swinging freely from vine to vine. Such adepts are the Lance Armstrongs of meditation, says Davidson, whose pioneering brain scans of monks provide tantalizing evidence that emotions like love and compassion are in fact skills—and can be trained to a dramatic degree.
Studies also suggest that the monastic life is not a requirement; even brief, regular meditation sessions can yield substantial benefits. Nor is a belief in Buddhism necessary.
Drop by drop, you fill a jar. One recent study at Massachusetts General Hospital found that 40 minutes of daily meditation appears to thicken parts of the cerebral cortex involved in attention and sensory processing. In a pilot study at the University of California at San Francisco, researchers found that schoolteachers briefly trained in Buddhist techniques who meditated less than 30 minutes a day improved their moods as much as if they had taken antidepressants.
There are many types of meditation, and they can be used to develop a number of mental skills. This attitude focuses on practices that address common emotional struggles.
Through basic meditation techniques, it's possible to cultivate a longer attention span, develop emotional stability, understand the feelings of others and release yourself from the constraints you place on your own happiness. Computers, pagers, video games, telemarketing calls, nonstop e-mail—all blast our attention span to smithereens. Modern life does a swell job of distracting us. But perhaps the problem lies not in our cell phones but in ourselves.
After all, we're the ones constantly making choices about what to attend to and what to ignore. The trouble is, most of us make these choices semiconsciously at best. We don't even attempt to control our attention, perhaps because we don't know how. Buddhists maintain that the capacity can be refined through a consistent practice of meditation: The mind is by nature unstable, inherently distractible, and meditation is a means of stabilizing it. Cultivating concentration doesn't just stabilize and clarify the mind, it can also improve creativity and productivity while enhancing relationships.
Imagine if you actually paid attention percent to your spouse! The strategy that starts you on this road is mindfulness , which means both cultivating nonjudgmental awareness of a specific object and seeing deeply into things. A common approach is to focus on an object or on the sensations of your own breathing, noting every inhale and exhale, and patiently returning your attention to your breathing each time it wanders.
With practice you can detect patterns in those fluctuations. It's like you're flexing a muscle in the brain. University of Wisconsin's Davidson contends that the mental exercise of meditation strengthens and stabilizes neural networks in the medial prefrontal cortex—the brain's executive control center, involved in the regulation of attention. The effort in the exercise is to balance awareness between dullness and distraction. To do so, you use the self-monitoring process that psychologists call metacognition : awareness of awareness.
It's what lets you know when, on the one side, you're starting to drift off and need to muster fresh interest and, on the other, you're getting distracted and need to bring your attention back. As you gradually fine-tune your concentration, you notice the habitual chaos of your thoughts and, gradually, the calm that lies behind them.
In his book, The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind , Wallace describes a nine-stage program to achieve quiescence, a state the Buddhists call shamatha pronounced sha-ma-ta. As one Buddhist scholar put it, attention becomes "an oil lamp unmoved by the air; wherever the awareness is directed, it is steady and sharply pointed. Even among novices, studies show, a brief meditation session can be more effective than a nap in improving performance on tests that require concentration.
But its benefits don't stop there. Meditation can radically transform emotion. Much of our emotional experience consists of gusts of negative feelings blowing through the brain. The feelings torture us without being intrinsically related to experience.
The perturbations often function as our own worst enemies, clotting our minds, keeping us from seeing and responding clearly. In other words, they diminish our capacity to live our lives. Negative emotions are so distressing, studies show, that given a choice many people would rather endure great physical pain—say, high-voltage electric shocks. Nevertheless, folks freely gorge on oversize portions of mental anguish, what Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky calls "adventitious suffering—the pain of what was, what will be, what could be or what someone else is experiencing.
Decades before Sapolsky's studies, pioneering cognitive psychologist Albert Ellis put forth the then-radical idea that painful emotions spring more from people's beliefs than from reality itself: Thoughts alone could lead to anguish.
Today cognitive behavioral therapists, including an aging Ellis, counsel patients to relieve emotional distress by changing the content of their thoughts—challenging their beliefs and testing new possibilities. Buddhist meditation addresses the same issue a bit differently. It changes your relationship to your emotions more than the emotions themselves.
It allows you to see mood fluctuations moment to moment so that you can navigate around them. You can avoid the mental "grasping" of judgmentalism or an impulsive need to act. The approach appears to be effective. In a study led by psychologist Zindel Segal at the University of Toronto, meditation successfully prevented relapse of depression in patients with a history of recurrent mood disorder. Meditation becomes a kind of "dashboard for your emotions," Wallace says.
Visit Our Stores. Stranger Diaries Elly Griffiths [isbn] Elly Griffiths writes a spooky ghost story and a chilling murder mystery tangled into one creepy novel. World Before Us A Novel Aislinn Hunter [isbn] The World Before Us is a complex story about the disappearances of a young woman and a small girl into the same forest over years apart. Ella Minnow Pea A Novel In Letters Mark Dunn [isbn] A series of letters between family members in times when language and alphabet usage is restricted and punishable by banishment.
Duckworth the Difficult Child Michael Sussman, Julia Sarda [isbn] When a giant snake comes out of young Duckworth's closet and swallows him whole, his parents refuse to believe it.
Changeling Joy Williams [isbn] Strange, haunting, esoteric, unlike anything I've read before or since — Williams is a gem, and Changeling is not to be overlooked. Dunce Mary Ruefle [isbn] I came late to Mary Ruefle's poetry, influenced by her many passionate admirers among the Powell's staff. Arias Sharon Olds [isbn] Sharon Olds is one of the most prestigious and critically acclaimed living American poets today, and her latest collection her 15th! The Secret Commonwealth: Book of Dust 2 Philip Pullman [isbn] The Secret Commonwealth continues the adventure and brilliant world-building of The Book of Dust , as a college-age Lyra sets out to learn more about Dust, and a city in the desert said to be haunted by daemons.
Farmblock Christopher Franceschelli, Peskimo [isbn] Franceschelli and Peskimo are an unstoppable board book superhero team.