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6 Nov 2019 | 13:13 | Suwachaseela

The interesting piece by Laksiri Fernando, former Senior Professor of Political Science and Public Policy of Colombo University, ‘Some reflections on Mindfulness Meditation’ (The Island, March 8), expanding on my article ‘Scientific basis of Mindfulness Meditation’ (The Island, March 4) has given me an impetus to do further study on the subject. I am indeed very grateful for his compliments and support. His excellent review article in the Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences titled "Origins of research methodology, Buddhism and the Four Noble Truths", should be read by anyone interested in the scientific method and we should thank Laksiri for pointing out how the ‘West’ has disregarded Buddha’s philosophy and scientific method, a fact I, too, have alluded to in the past.

Prof. Fernando states in his article:

He has also said: "A great disservice had been done by making him [the Buddha] a religious leader thus limiting his discoveries only to his followers but, fortunately, it is changing though slowly…." I am not going to deduct simplistic conclusions from that statement for the current debates on ‘foremost place for Buddhism’ in the present or a new constitution. But it might give some food for thought for the Buddhists to think about, while I have no objection for that ‘foremost place’ or hesitation to appreciate Buddhism as a great religion.

I can reassure it was not a political statement but a fact which I established later in my lecture to the Kandy Society of Medicine but, unfortunately, due to constraints of space the Editor could print only excerpts of my lecture. My endeavours have not been for political recognition of Buddhism but explaining the aspects of the Dhamma that is applicable to all, in addition to challenging some widely held misconceptions. It was the Dalai Lama who, very wisely, said ‘The science and philosophy of Buddhism is for all but the religion of Buddhism is for us, Buddhists’.

Those who argue for the political recognition of Buddhism may, quite justifiably, point out some discrepancies in the arguments. For instance, Malaysia is referred to as a Muslim country and the constitution declares Islam the state religion with only 61% being followers whereas in Sri Lanka 70% are Buddhists. Though some injustices may have been heaped on minorities, Sri Lanka did not even consider discriminatory policies like ‘the Bhumiputra policy’. Further, there have been many instances of the ‘majority’ been discriminated but all these need to be forgotten if we wish to strive for true reconciliation.

In the scientific method, the first step is to show that something works. As far as Mindfulness Meditation is concerned, it was Satya Narayan Goenka who convincingly demonstrated the efficacy, first in unruly school children and then in prisoners.

"Doing Time, Doing Vipassana" is a wonderful film that chronicles the changes VipassanaMeditation brought about in Tihar prison in Delhi, one of the largest and the worst prisons in India which houses 10,000 prisoners of which 9000 are awaiting trial. In May 1993, when a controversial but enthusiastic and young lady police officer, Kiran Bedi, was appointed Inspector General, no one imagined the changes she would introduce. She was of the firm view that the prison system was failing and was looking for new ways for change. She took the suggestion of an Assistant Superintendent, Rajinder Kumar who had personal experience, to introduce Vipassana Meditation. She invited Goenka who conducted a number of ten-day sessions; the results were immediate and dramatic. Many prisoners were deeply affected by the experience, and their attitude changed drastically. The success led to one of the most extraordinary events to take place in prison anywhere: in April 1994, at a special facility inside Tihar, one thousand prison inmates participated in an 11-day Vipassana course - the largest ever held in modern times. Subsequently, a permanent meditation centre was opened in prison.

Sceptics will counter the Indian experience as biased, but that is dispelled by "Dhamma Brothers", a documentary that explores in detail, the lives of four convicted murderers who are in a group that undergoes an intensive ten-day Vipassana Meditation programme devised by Goenka and conducted by Jenny Phillips, a psychotherapist, in a rural prison in Alabama, USA. The programme is so successful that the Christian Chaplain gets it stopped, through the Commissioner of Prisons, as he fears he will have no flock to tender as the prisoners would all become Buddhists! Prisoners had to meditate in secrecy till the programme was reinstituted, once saner counsel prevailed.

Two meta-analyses of trials of the efficacy of Mindfulness meditation have shown positive results. The first, published in the Psychological Bulletin in 2012 showed reduced negative emotions and neuroticism. The second, published in the Journal of American Medical Association in 2015 showed a moderate decrease of anxiety, depression and pain.

The experience of Jill Bolte Taylor, a Neuro- Anatomist who had a bleed into her brain, perhaps, gives a clue as to how Mindfulness Meditation works. Her TED lecture titled "Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight", watched by over four million, reveals a fascinating story. She woke up on December 10th, 1996 with a throbbing headache but disregarded it and got on the exercise bicycle. She suddenly realised altered perception; she was looking at her body from outside. She had alternating signals from the two sides of the brain.

Neurophysiologists believe that the right hemisphere collects data from sensory organs to form an instant picture of the moment and is connected to the whole. It acts as a parallel processor of a computer. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, thinks linearly, methodically and having gathered all the information from the past projects to the future. It produces the concept of self; ‘me’ and works as a serial processor. The two hemispheres are connected by about 300 million nerve fibres.

She felt lighter in the body with no emotional baggage when the right hemisphere dominated but then suddenly the left hemisphere comes alive to tell her that she is in trouble and needs to get help. However, she realizes that she cannot identify letters or numbers and gets her business card to ring for help. It takes 45 minutes to match the shape of numbers on the card with that on the key-pad but when her colleague answers she could not understand nor could she speak coherently. Fortunately, her colleague realised there was a problem and arranged for an ambulance. She heard loud sounds, felt enormous, felt free and spirit flowed freely. She felt she was in Nirvana and wanted everyone else also to be there. The blood clot was removed from the left side of the brain, two weeks later and it took eight years for her to recover fully. She concludes the blood clot on the left side impaired the function of the ‘me’ lobe and the right dominated giving her the feeling of what she calls ‘Nirvana’

What is felt at high levels of meditation is well described and the descriptions tally, to a great extent, with the experiences of some who have had ‘out-of-body experiences’ (OBEs); calm, oneness, time standing still etc. Dr Bruce Greyson, who succeeded Ian Stevenson as Professor of Psychiatry at Virginia University, has studied over 1000 patients and he raises some very interesting points though not all are related to meditation. These OBEs occur mostly in patients who have had resuscitated cardiac arrests but have also been described in patients who were gravely ill. Few instances of patients having these experiences while under anaesthesia for surgery have also been described. We know some drugs can cause hallucinatory experiences. Very rarely, some get these experiences without any of these factors, while they are wide awake.

It is likely that all these experiences occur when the right hemisphere dominates and it is quite possible that by meditation we either make the right hemisphere dominant or suppress the left or do both; the difference is that in all other instances it is transient and not reproducible. Experienced meditators, on the other hand, can repeatedly achieve this. There may be other explanations too.

Brain imaging with MRI and Functional MRI has shown an increase of grey matter in areas dealing with empathy, emotional regulation, meta-awareness etc. A meta-analysis published in 2014 of 21 studies examining 300 practitioners showed consistent changes in eight regions of the brain but the work of Sara Lazar from Harvard University is the most interesting. First, their group compared brain images of meditators against non-meditators which showed significant changes. She has commented that a 50-year-old meditator's brain looks like that of a 25-year old non-meditator. The second study included a group that did Mindfulness Meditation, once a week in the hospital with advice to do so at home for just eight weeks, compared with a matched group who did not do meditation. Four areas; posterior cingulate, Left hippocampus, Temporal-Parietal junction and Pons showed thickening whereas Amygdala, concerned with reacting to stress, got smaller showing that they could cope with stress better. It is surprising such structural differences could be seen in such a short time and the reduction in the size of the part of the brain controlling response to stress is in keeping with what is observed clinically.

The most fascinating studies are those done by the group led by Elizabeth Blackburn. She co-discovered telomeres and telomerase. Telomeres are the caps at the ends of chromosomes which seem to protect them. As chromosome division continues telomeres get progressively short and when they get very small cell division stops. Telomerase is an enzyme that increases the activity of telomeres. These two play a crucial role in the ageing of cells. For these discoveries, she and her colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009. She was approached by Elissa Epel, a psychologist with an interest in Mindfulness Meditation. This unlikely combination of disciplines has produced very interesting results though some scientists question the validity of such a combination. Preliminary data show that regular meditation increases the level of telomerase and delays the shortening of telomeres too. Studies are continuing and it looks as if Mindfulness Meditation retards ageing of cells which will surely translate as health benefits.

Through meditative practices of different types are found in most religions, it was the Buddha who introduced Mindfulness Meditation which scientist are gradually proving to be effective and the practice of Mindfulness is spreading far and wide. Prof Fernando has described what is happening in Australia.

In UK, an all-party parliamentary group produced, in October 2015, a report titled‘Mindful Nation UK’ and ‘The Mindfulness Initiative’, a policy institute that works with parliamentarians, media and policymakers to develop recommendations on the role of mindfulness in public life, has been formed. In their website, they state:

‘Scientific research is generating substantial evidence of the benefits of mindfulness to well-being. There is a great public interest in the field, but access to quality training is patchy. Despite recommendations by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) for the use of Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) to prevent relapse in depression, NHS implementation rates are low, and there is little understanding of how mindfulness could help in other areas of policy.

In an era dominated by statistics, case studies can really bring to life the potential that mindfulness can have for a diverse range of individuals. From schoolchildren to NHS staff, policemen, and members of parliament, mindfulness courses have offered significantly improved wellbeing by reducing stress, fostering compassionate care and providing greater clarity in prioritising the demands of life.’

In the report there is only a passing reference to the Buddha but, I am sure, the Buddha would not have minded it as what matters is that the concept he introduced is benefitting many, irrespective of their religious beliefs.

Is it not time our politicians woke up from their slumber and start programmes that reduce crime, improve productivity and, more than anything else, enhance the education of our children?