Can Science explain Mindfulness?


By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Mindfulness meditation, in the pure form as well as in many guises (some of which unfortunately are profit orientated), is expanding far and wide. Nowadays, it is often used for specific purposes to the annoyance of the purists, as it was not originally meant to be so. Going through the vast amount of literature available, I find interesting clashes of opinion but, as a non-expert, my simplistic view is that there is no harm in modifications as long as it is for the good of many. Having practiced Medicine, a scientific discipline tempered with ‘the art of healing’, all my life, what interests me more is to find the scientific basis; how Mindfulness Meditation works? Perhaps, it is no easy task as we still do not know how the mind works and, more intriguingly, what consciousness is and what the relationship to the brain is.

Does Mindfulness Meditation work?

Cynics may say that there is no way of testing; it was meant for complete liberation, attain Nibbana and that cannot be tested. Rather than going to the extreme, there are more mundane ways of testing; like testing of drugs. If a drug, when administered, cures or controls the disease for which it was formulated, it is considered effective, empirically. However, to exclude the possibility of chance or bias, double blind trials are conducted for final proof.

As mentioned in my article on Vipassana Guru, Satya Narayan Goenka (The Island, March 12), when challenged by the Indian spiritual leader Vinoba Bhave, he showed convincing behavioural changes in unruly school children as well as prisoners serving long sentences. Though the first prisoner programme was in Jaipur jail, the most extensive programme was in Tihar prison, New Delhi.

"Doing Time, Doing Vipassana" is a wonderful film that chronicles the changes Vipassana brought about in Tihar prison, one of the largest and the worst prisons in India which houses 10,000 prisoners of which 9000 are awaiting trial, sometimes taking years. In May 1993, when 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 attitudes changed drastically. The success led to one of the most extraordinary events to take place in a 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 the prison. The film ends with a tear-evoking shot of the Superintendent, Vora Baroda, of Jaipur prison receiving prisoners at the end of the course; prisoners hugging him and crying on his shoulders, a scene not likely to be repeated anywhere else in the class and caste ridden society of India.

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 undergo 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 become Buddhists! Prisoners had to meditate in secrecy till the programme was reinstituted once saner counsel prevailed.

One of the innovators in the field of mindfulness meditation is Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He was introduced to meditation by Philip Kapleau, a Zen missionary who came to speak at MIT while Kabat-Zinn was a student there and subsequently studied meditation under the famous Vietnamese Buddhist meditation teacher and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, who lives in Southern France, and Seung Sahn, Korean Zen master who founded the Cambridge Zen centre close to Harvard university.Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in 1979, where he adapted the Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and developed the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program which he named Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme. He removed the Buddhist framework and eventually downplayed any connection between mindfulness and Buddhism, instead putting MBSR in a scientific context. His secular technique, which combines meditation and Hatha yoga, has since spread worldwide and he has authored many best-selling books, starting with "Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness".

Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology and until recently the Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre at Oxford University, UK, co-developed with John Teasdale of Cambridge University in UK and Zindel Segal of the University of Toronto, Canada, a new technique for the treatment of depression; Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) which he readily admits is based on the technique introduced by the Buddha. Multiple trials have confirmed the efficacy and there is data to show that it is superior to currently available drugs in preventing relapses of depression.

There is ample data to prove that Mindfulness meditation and techniques based on it are effective, so much so that a report titled "MINDFUL NATION UK" was released in October last year by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG). Having reviewed the scientific evidence and current best practice in mindfulness training, the committee has developed policy recommendations for the government as well as provide a forum for discussion in Parliament for the role of mindfulness and its implementation in public policy. Some members had taken part in the Mindfulness Meditation sessions held in the House of Commons. They make specific recommendations regarding Health, Education, workplace and criminal justice system.

In the forward to the report the influence of Buddhism is touched upon:

"Mindfulness practices in various forms can be found in all the meditative wisdom traditions of humanity. In essence, mindfulness - being about attention, awareness, relationality, and caring - is a universal human capacity, akin to our capacity for language acquisition. While the most systematic and comprehensive articulation of mindfulness and its related attributes stems from the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is not a catechism, an ideology, a belief system, a technique or set of techniques, a religion, or a philosophy. It is best described as "a way of being". There are many different ways to cultivate it wisely and effectively through practice."

How Mindfulness works

Being not advanced in meditation, I have no personal experience but 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. These OBEs occur mostly in patients who have had resuscitated cardiac arrests; sudden stopping of the heart due to heart attacks or irregular rhythms of the heart 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 was fascinating to listen to someone who experienced this, who described it in great detail.

Lot had been written on this subject but what intrigued me most was the experience of Jill Bolte Taylor, a Neuro- Anatomist who had a bleed into her brain. Her TED lecture titled "Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight" on You Tube is well worth watching. Her brother had schizophrenia which made her develop an interest in the functioning of the brain; why those with mental disease have altered perception. She moved from Indiana to Boston and worked in the Department of Psychiatry of the Harvard Medical School studying the function of brain in normal versus those with mental illness.

She woke up on December 10th, 1996 with a throbbing headache but disregarded it and got on the exercise bicycle. She suddenly realised the altered perception; she was looking at her body from outside. She had alternating signals from the two sides of the brain which she experienced first-hand during this episode.

The right hemisphere collects data from all the sensory organs and forms an instant picture of the moment and is connected to the whole. It acts like a parallel processor of a computer. The left hemisphere thinks linearly, methodically and having gathered all the information from the past projects to the future. It produces the concept of self; ‘me’. It works like a serial processor. The two hemispheres are connected by a bundle of nerve fibres, axons, about 300 million of them that run across, called the corpus callosum.

She felt lighter in the body with no emotional baggage, when the right hemisphere dominated but then suddenly the left hemisphere comes alive and tells 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 matchthe shape of numbers on the card with that on the key-pad but when her colleague replies she could not understand nor could she speak coherently. Fortunately, her colleague realised there was a problem and arranged an ambulance.

She curled upin the ambulance and waited for the inevitable to happen but is shocked when she woke up later in the day. 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.

Blood clot was removed from the left side of the brain, 2 ½ weeks later and it took 8 years for her to recover fully. The blood clot on the left side impaired the function of the ‘me’ lobe and the right dominated giving her the feeling she called ‘Nirvana’

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 to dominate or supress 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, but what the Buddha discovered over 2500 years ago, while benefitting many, still continues to challenge our scientific minds.

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