Saturday, August 07, 2010


Interesting topic and discussion - among the illustrious participants:
Howard Gardner, Geoffrey Miller, Brian Eno, James Fowler, Rebecca Mackinnon, Jaron Lanier, Eva Wisten, Brian Knutson, Andrian Kreye, Anonymous, Alison Gopnik, Robert Trivers, Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua D. Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Marc D. Hauser, Josua Knobe, Elizabeth Phelps, and David Pizarro.
This is a who's who of consciousness, morality, neuroscience, and development. There's a lot to see, read, and digest - I'll likely have more to say later.


An Edge Conference

Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua D. Greene, Jonathan Haidt,
Sam Harris, Marc D. Hauser, Josua Knobe,
Elizabeth Phelps, David Pizarro


By John Brockman

Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in evolutionary biology, physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, psychology, engineering, the chemistry of materials: all are questions of critical importance with respect to what it means to be human. For the first time, we have the tools and the will to undertake the scientific study of human nature.

This began in the early seventies, when, as a graduate student at Harvard, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers wrote five papers that set forth an agenda for a new field: the scientific study of human nature. In the past thirty-five years this work has spawned thousands of scientific experiments, new and important evidence, and exciting new ideas about who and what we are presented in books by scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Steven Pinker, and Edward O. Wilson among many others.

In 1975, Wilson, a colleague of Trivers at Harvard, predicted that ethics would someday be taken out of the hands of philosophers and incorporated into the "new synthesis" of evolutionary and biological thinking. He was right.

Scientists engaged in the scientific study of human nature are gaining sway over the scientists and others in disciplines that rely on studying social actions and human cultures independent from their biological foundation.

No where is this more apparent than in the field of moral psychology. Using babies, psychopaths, chimpanzees, fMRI scanners, web surveys, agent-based modeling, and ultimatum games, moral psychology has become a major convergence zone for research in the behavioral sciences.

So what do we have to say? Are we moving toward consensus on some points? What are the most pressing questions for the next five years? And what do we have to offer a world in which so many global and national crises are caused or exacerbated by moral failures and moral conflicts? It seems like everyone is studying morality these days, reaching findings that complement each other more often than they clash.



Culture is humankind’s biological strategy, according to Roy F. Baumeister, and so human nature was shaped by an evolutionary process that selected in favor of traits conducive to this new, advanced kind of social life (culture). To him, therefore, studies of brain processes will augment rather than replace other approaches to studying human behavior, and he fears that the widespread neglect of the interpersonal dimension will compromise our understanding of human nature. Morality is ultimately a system of rules that enables groups of people to live together in reasonable harmony. Among other things, culture seeks to replace aggression with morals and laws as the primary means to solve the conflicts that inevitably arise in social life. Baumeister’s work has explored such morally relevant topics as evil, self-control, choice, and free will. [More]

According to Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, humans are born with a hard-wired morality. A deep sense of good and evil is bred in the bone. His research shows that babies and toddlers can judge the goodness and badness of others' actions; they want to reward the good and punish the bad; they act to help those in distress; they feel guilt, shame, pride, and righteous anger. [More]

Harvard cognitive neuroscientist and philosopher Joshua D. Greene sees our biggest social problems — war, terrorism, the destruction of the environment, etc. — arising from our unwitting tendency to apply paleolithic moral thinking (also known as "common sense") to the complex problems of modern life. Our brains trick us into thinking that we have Moral Truth on our side when in fact we don't, and blind us to important truths that our brains were not designed to appreciate. [More]

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt's research indicates that morality is a social construction which has evolved out of raw materials provided by five (or more) innate "psychological" foundations: Harm, Fairness, Ingroup, Authority, and Purity. Highly educated liberals generally rely upon and endorse only the first two foundations, whereas people who are more conservative, more religious, or of lower social class usually rely upon and endorse all five foundations. [More]

The failure of science to address questions of meaning, morality, and values, notes neuroscientist Sam Harris, has become the primary justification for religious faith. In doubting our ability to address questions of meaning and morality through rational argument and scientific inquiry, we offer a mandate to religious dogmatism, superstition, and sectarian conflict. The greater the doubt, the greater the impetus to nurture divisive delusions. [More]

Evil, says Harvard psychologist and evolutionary biologist Marc D. Hauser, evolved, and emerges in daily life, as an accident of our brain's engineering. Unlike any other creature, present or past, only we combine processes of the mind that have independent and highly adaptive consequences for survival to create the ingredients of evil. When our desire for personal gain combines with our capacity for denial, we turn to excessive harms, aimed at eliminating, effacing, humiliating, and obliterating those who stand in the way. [More]

A lot of Yale experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe's recent research has been concerned with the impact of people's moral judgments on their intuitions about questions that might initially appear to be entirely independent of morality (questions about intention, causation, etc.). It has often been suggested that people's basic approach to thinking about such questions is best understood as being something like a scientific theory. He has offered a somewhat different view, according to which people's ordinary way of understanding the world is actually infused through and through with moral considerations. He is arguably most widely known for what has come to be called "the Knobe effect" or the "Side-Effect Effect." [More]

NYU psychologist Elizabeth Phelps investigates the brain activity underlying memory and emotion. Much of Phelps' research has focused on the phenomenon of "learned fear," a tendency of animals to fear situations associated with frightening events. Her primary focus has been to understand how human learning and memory are changed by emotion and to investigate the neural systems mediating their interactions. A recent study published in Nature by Phelps and her colleagues, shows how fearful memories can be wiped out for at least a year using a drug-free technique that exploits the way that human brains store and recall memories. [More]

Disgust has been keeping Cornell psychologist David Pizarro particularly busy, as it has been implicated by many as an emotion that plays a large role in many moral judgments. His lab results have shown that an increased tendency to experience disgust (as measured using the Disgust Sensitivity Scale, developed by Jon Haidt and colleagues), is related to political orientation. [More]

Among the members of the press in attendance were: Sharon Begley, Newsweek, Drake Bennett, Ideas, Boston Globe, David Brooks, OpEd Columnist, New York Times, Daniel Engber, Slate, Amanda Gefter, Opinion Editor, New Scientist, Jordan Mejias, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Gary Stix, Scientific American, Pamela Weintraub, Discover Magazine.


Each of the nine participants led a 45-minute session on Day One that consisted of a 25-minute talk, followed by 20-minutes of discussion.

Day Two consisted of two 90-minute open discussions on "The New Science of Morality". The first session, "Consensus/Outstanding Disagreements", led by Jonathan Haidt, explored the the scientific aspects of where we are, how much consensus we have, and what empirical or theoretical questions are still outstanding in the science of morality. The second session, "Applications/Implications", led by Marc D. Hauser, gave the participants an opportunity to think big about how the science of morality can be applied to make the world a better place, make governments work better, improve corporate governance, law, the Internet, etc. The goal for Day Two: to begin work on a consensus document on the state of moral psychology to be published on Edge in the near future.

We are pleased to make the entire 10-hours of talks and discussions available to the Edge community. Over the next month we will serialize the conference by rolling out one or two of 45-minute sessions as an Edge Edition. This will include HD video of the 25-minute talk (with complete text), the 20-minute discussion, and a doublowdable audio MP3 of the talk. We will end the series with the last two ninety-minute discussions on "The New Science of Morality". ...


The Dalai Lama on a Pure Refuge from Suffering

by H.H. the Dalai Lama, Tsong-ka-pa
and Jeffrey Hopkins

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

We live in an ocean of cyclic existence whose depth and extent cannot be measured. We are troubled again and again by the afflictions of desire and hatred as if repeatedly attacked by sharks.

Our mental and physical aggregates are impelled by former contaminated actions and afflictions and serve as a basis for present suffering as well as inducing future suffering. While such cyclic existence lasts, we have various thoughts of pleasure and displeasure: 'If I do this, what will people think? If I do not do this, I will be too late; I won't make any profit.' When we see something pleasant we think, 'Oh, if I could only have that!'

...Day and night, night and day we spend our lives in the company of the afflictions, generating desire for the pleasant and anger at the unpleasant, and continue thus even when dreaming, unable to remain relaxed, our minds completely and utterly mixed with thoughts of desire and hatred without interruption.

To what refuge should we go? A source of refuge must have completely overcome all defects forever; it must be free of all faults. It must also have all the attributes of altruism--those attainments which are necessary for achieving others' welfare. For it is doubtful that anyone lacking these two prerequisites can bestow refuge; it would be like falling into a ditch and asking another who is in it to help you out. You need to ask someone who is standing outside the ditch for help; it is senseless to ask another who is in the same predicament. A refuge capable of protecting from the frights of manifold sufferings cannot also be bound in this suffering but must be free and unflawed.

Furthermore, the complete attainments are necessary, for if you have fallen into a ditch, it is useless to seek help from someone standing outside it who does not wish to help or who wishes to help but has no means to do so.

Only a Buddha has extinguished all faults and gained all attainments. Therefore, one should mentally go for refuge to a Buddha, praise him with speech, and respect him physically. One should enter the teaching of such a being.

A Buddha's abandonment of defects is of three types: good, complete, and irreversible. Good abandonment involves overcoming obstructions through their antidotes, not just through withdrawing from those activities. Complete abandonment is not trifling, forsaking only some afflictions or just the manifest afflictions, but forsaking all obstructions. Irreversible abandonment overcomes the seeds of afflictions and other obstructions in such a way that defects will never arise again, even when conditions favourable to them are present.

--from Tantra in Tibet by H.H. the Dalai Lama, Tsong-ka-pa and Jeffrey Hopkins, published by Snow Lion Publications

Tantra in Tibet • 5O% off • for this week only
(Good through August 13th).

Discover great articles, new releases and dharma news
in the latest edition of
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Brendan O'Neill - The Truth about Tibetan Buddhism

This is an interesting article to find in Reason Magazine - but it's also a look at what Tibetan Buddhism looks like when a rational scientific mind views some of the ritualistic prerational elements of Buddhist belief and practice. And it's also a look at the worst element of American spirituality and religious appropriation - spiritual materialism.

The piece has accumulated almost 300 comments, so this is another article on Buddhism that seems to have hit a nerve.

The author clearly has an agenda - and also knows little of the origins of Buddhism and why the Tibetan forms have developed the way they have. Despite the ignorance on display, some of the points are very valid.

The Truth About Tibetan Buddhism

There’s more to this ancient religion than Hollywood celebrities would have you believe

Many Westerners before me have visited Tibet, popped into some monastery on a mountainside, and decided to stay there forever, won over by the brutally frugal existence eked out by Tibetan Buddhists.

I have exactly the opposite reaction. I couldn’t wait to leave the temples and monasteries I visited during my recent sojourn to Shangri-La, with their garish statues of dancing demons, fat golden Buddhas surrounded by wads of cash, walls and ceilings painted in super-lavish colours, and such a stench of incense that it’s like being in a hippy student’s dorm room.

I know I’m not supposed to say this, but Tibetan Buddhism really freaked me out.

The most striking thing is how different real Tibetan Buddhism is from the re-branded, part-time version imported over here by the Dalai Lama’s army of celebrities.

Listening to Richard Gere, the first incarnation of the Hollywood Lama, you could be forgiven for thinking that Tibetan Buddhism involves sitting in the lotus position for 20 hours a day and thinking Bambi-style thoughts. Tibetan Buddhism has a “resonance and a sense of mystery,” says Gere, through which you can find “beingness” (whatever that means).

Watching Jennifer Aniston’s character Rachel read a collection of the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Central Perk on Friends a few years ago, you might also think that Tibetan Buddhism is something you can ingest while sipping on a skinny-milk, no-cream, hazelnut latte.

Or consider the answer given by one of Frank J. Korom’s students at Boston University when he asked her why she was wearing a Tibetan Buddhist necklace. “It keeps me healthy and happy,” she said, reducing Tibetan Buddhism, as so many Dalai Lama-loving undergrads do, to the religious equivalent of knocking back a vitamin pill.

The reality couldn’t be more different. The first devout Buddhists I encountered looked neither healthy nor happy. They were walking from their villages in southern Tibet to Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest site, and the journey had taken them nearly three months. Which isn’t surprising considering that with every third or fourth step they took, they got down on their knees and then fully prostrated themselves on the ground, lying flat on their bellies and burying their faces in the dirt, before getting back up, taking a few more steps, and doing the painful prostration thing again.

It looked life-zappingly exhausting. They moved at a snail’s pace. Their foreheads were stained grey from such frequent, unforgiving contact with the bruising earth. They wore wooden planks on their hands, which made a deathly clatter every time they hurled themselves downwards. I’d like to see Jennifer Aniston try this. Tibetan Buddhism sans latte.

You soon realize that no Tibetan Buddhist sits cross-legged on cushions all day long while staring into space and thinking about the universe. No, worshipping Buddha is a full-on physical workout. At the Lamaling Temple on a hillside in Nyingchi County in south-east Tibet, I saw women in their 50s doing the prostration thing, like an archaic version of a Jane Fonda workout.

The temple itself is packed with weird statues. Red demons with contorted faces. Smug-looking Buddhas smiling patronizingly at the poor, exhausted worshippers. There’s a statue of the “Living Buddha” (now deceased) who administered this temple in the 1950s and 60s and it is wearing sunglasses. Terrifyingly, it looks like a cross between the Buddha and Bono.

The Lamaling Temple, like others I visited, is painted in the most obscene colors. No inch of wall or centimeter of roof beam has been left untouched by the possibly colorblind decorators of Tibetan Buddhism’s sites of worship. Everywhere you look there’s a lashing of red or green or bright blue paint, a weirdly fitting backdrop to the frequently violent imagery of this religion: the statues of sword-wielding demons, the fiery paintings, the images of androgynous Buddhas, some with breasts, others with balls. “Peace” and “calm” are the last words that come to mind when you’re inside one of these senses-assaulting places.

The Lamaling Temple also brings home the fact that Tibetan Buddhism, like every other religion on Earth, is made up of various, sometimes horn-locking sects. 

I excitedly lined up an interview with one of the monks and asked if he’s looking forward to the day when the Dalai Lama returns from exile in northern India. He patiently told me—dumb Westerner that I am—that he doesn’t worship the Dalai Lama, because he is a member of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism while the Dalai Lama is head of the Gelug school. Then there’s the Kagyu school and the Sakya school—making four in total—which have hot-headed disagreements and have even come to blows in recent years over which deities should be worshipped and which should not. Religion of peace? Yeah, right.

Tibetan Buddhism has a whole lotta hang-ups about gays and girls, too. It says gay sex is “unnatural.” The Dalai Lama declared in a talk in Seattle in 1993, during one of his whistle stop, U2-style world tours, that “nature arranged male and female organs in such a manner that is very suitable… same-sex organs cannot manage well.” (Someone needs to explain to His Holiness how gay people get it on.)

And as Bernard Faure of Columbia University says: “Like most clerical discourses, Buddhism is… relentlessly misogynist.” So while Tibetan women can become nuns, they can’t advance nearly as far as men. Because according to Buddhist teachings it is impossible for women to become “the perfectly rightfully Enlightened One,” “the Universal Monarch,” “the King of Gods,” “the King of Death,” or “Brahmaa”—the five highest, holiest positions in Buddhism.

Of course, this only means that Tibetan Buddhism is the same as loads of other religions. Yet it is striking how much the backward elements of Tibetan Buddhism are forgiven or glossed over by its hippyish, celebrity, and middle-class followers over here. So if you’re a Catholic in Hollywood it is immediately assumed you’re a grumpy old git with demented views, but if you’re a “Tibetan” Buddhist you are looked upon as a super-cool, enlightened creature of good manners and taste. (Admittedly, Mel Gibson doesn’t help in this regard.)

I am well aware of the fact that I am not the first Westerner to be thrown by Tibet’s religious quirkiness. A snobby British visitor in 1895 denounced Tibetan Buddhism as “deep-rooted devil-worship and sorcery.” It’s no such thing. But what is striking, and what caused me to be so startled by the weirdness, is the way in which this religion has come to be viewed in Western New Age circles as a peaceful, pure, happy-clappy cult of softly-smiling, Buddha-like beings. Again, it’s no such thing. The modern view of Tibetan Buddhism as wondrous is at least as patronizingly reductive as the older view of Tibetan Buddhism as devil-worship.

Frank J. Korom describes it as “New Age orientalism,” where Westerners in search of some cheap and easy purpose in their empty lives “appropriate Tibet and portions of its religious culture for their own purposes.” They treat a very old, complex religion as a kind of buffet of ideas that they can pick morsels from, jettisoning the stranger, more demanding stuff—like the dancing demons and the prostration workout—but picking up the shiny things, like the sacred necklaces and bracelets and the BS about reincarnation.

It is all about them. They have bent and warped a religion to suit their own needs. As the Tibetan lama Dagyab Kyabgon Rinpoche puts it, “The concept of ‘Tibet’ becomes a symbol for all those qualities that Westerners feel lacking: joie de vivre, harmony, warmth and spirituality… Tibet thus becomes a utopia, and Tibetans become noble savages.” Western losers have ransacked Tibetan Buddhism in search of the holy grail of self-meaning.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked in London.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche - Is Buddhism a Religion?

This is an interesting article at Huffington Post from the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche -Is Buddhism a Religion. Seems maybe a he struck a nerve, with over 790 comments since this morning.

I love this article - much of what he says echoes Stephen Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, although I am guessing that as a Tibetan Buddhist, the Ponlop would not align himself with Batchelor's approach.

Is Buddhism a Religion?

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche - Buddhist teacher
Author, 'Rebel Buddha' (due out in October, 2010)
Posted: August 6, 2010 06:58 AM

We often talk about Siddhartha, the young man who became known as the Buddha, as if he were a god. The fact is that he was just a simple Indian guy, a human being like you and me. We think of him as some kind of super-genius for having attained complete spiritual awakening, but in fact his real genius was in showing how any one of us can attain the same awakening as he did. We describe him as a prince and a member of the elite royalty of his time, and we think that must have given him an advantage over us -- but the reality is that most of us today are probably better off, in material terms, than Siddhartha was.

We talk about his kingdom and so forth, but what the prince Siddhartha had was really no more than what you might find in any middle-class American household. He might have had more wives, but you've got more gadgets, more technologies and comforts and conveniences. Siddhartha didn't have a refrigerator, and you do. He didn't have WiFi, or a blog, or Facebook or Twitter. He might have had more houses and land, but you've got a more comfortable bed than he had. Maybe you even have one of those new, space-age Tempur-Pedic beds. Think of how much time you spend in bed, and how important your bed is. I guarantee that Siddhartha had a worse bed than you have.

The point is, we shouldn't mythologize Siddhartha's life and think that his spiritual awakening was due to his special circumstances. Most of us today actually live in conditions very similar to Siddhartha's, in terms of our material situation.

Siddhartha was a truth seeker, nothing more. He wasn't looking for religion, as such -- he wasn't particularly interested in religion. He was searching for the truth. He was looking for a genuine path to freedom from suffering. Aren't all of us searching for the same thing? If we look at the life of Siddhartha, we can see that he found the truth and freedom he was seeking only after he abandoned religious practices. Isn't that significant? The one who became the Buddha, the "Awakened One," didn't find enlightenment through religion -- he found it when he began to leave religion behind.

The Lure of Religious Trappings

A lot of people prefer to think of Buddhism as a religion. It's easy to see why, when Buddhism abounds with religious trappings: the rituals and the chants and the golden statues sitting on the shrine. Buddha himself never wanted to be deified in any kind of icons; at the beginning, he told his students no icons, no worshiping. But it's said that he had a very devoted student who kept pestering him, requesting his permission to make a statue of him, until finally the Buddha gave up and allowed the first image to be made. And now we have all these elaborate golden icons that look like they were dug out of an Egyptian pyramid. It's nice to have these reminders, but we must remember that's what they are: reminders of something, an example to be followed, not idols to be worshiped.

If our goal is to turn Buddhism into a religion, that's fine -- in America we have freedom of speech and the Bill of Rights. We can make Buddhism into a religion, or a branch of psychology, or a self-help program, or whatever we want. But if we're looking for enlightenment, we won't find it through relating to the Buddha as a religious idol. Like Siddhartha, we'll find real spiritual awakening only when we begin to leave behind our fixed ideas about religious practice. Seeing the Buddha as an example and following his example -- recreating, in our own lives, his pursuit of truth, his courage and his open mind -- that's the real power of Buddhism beyond religion.

Truth Has No Religion

Siddhartha actually became the Buddha through his failure at religion. He saw that the ascetic practices he'd been engaged in were not leading him to true liberation, and so he left them behind. But he had five colleagues who continued their religious practices of asceticism, and they regarded Siddhartha as a failure. From their point of view, he just couldn't hack it, and that's why he gave up. Later, after he attained enlightenment and became known as the Buddha, they became his first five disciples; but at the time when he left behind their religious program, they regarded him as a failure. I find that very encouraging. As spiritual practitioners, we should be open to being a failure. We can take heart in the fact that Siddhartha found enlightenment not through his great success at religious practices, but through his failures.

As Buddhists, Siddhartha's example is the most important one for us to follow. He was a great explorer of mind and its limits. He was open-minded, seeking truth, with no preconceived agenda. He thought, "Okay, I'll do these religious practices and see if I can find the truth that way." He did the practices, he didn't find the truth, and so he left the religion. Like Siddhartha, if we really want spiritual enlightenment we have to go beyond religiosity. We have to let go of clinging to preconceived religious forms and ideas and practices.

Religion, if we don't relate to it skillfully, can trap us in another set of rules. On top of all the ordinary rules we are already stuck with in this world, we pile on a second set of religious rules. I'm not saying there is anything bad about religion or rules, but you should be clear about what you're seeking. Do you want religion and a set of rules to follow, or do you want truth? Truth has no religion, no culture, no language, no head or tail. As Gandhi said, "God has no religion." The truth is just the truth.

If you are interested in "meeting the Buddha" and following his example, then you should realize that the path the Buddha taught is primarily a study of your own mind and a system for training your mind. This path is spiritual, not religious. Its goal is self-knowledge, not salvation; freedom, not heaven. And it is deeply personal. Without your curiosity and questions and your open mind, there is no spiritual path, no journey to be taken, even if you adopt all the forms of the tradition.

Robert Augustus Masters - A Psychotherapy For The 21st Century
Robert's new book, Spiritual Bypassing, is now available at Amazon

This is an excellent new article from Robert Augustus Masters in the The Crucible of Awakening (Issue 64, August 2010). If you would like to study with Robert (and I sure wish I could - maybe down the road), he is starting a new mentorship/practicum - I'll include the info below the article.
A Psychotherapy For The 21st Century

We need — really need — a psychotherapeutic approach for the 21st Century that is not only inclusive enough to hold the incredible complexity and fears of our times, and deep enough to guide us into and through our darkness and woundedness, but that also is as efficient as it is effective. Just about everyone could use at least a few sessions of such psychotherapy — which is far, far more than just “talk” therapy — especially those who are convinced that they don’t need it.

Sensing what lies ahead and taking fitting action is of course of paramount importance, but so too is clearly knowing — and knowing more than just intellectually — from where we are coming, to the point of not being bound by it. Without a lucid sense of — and intimacy with — our conditioning (whatever we did to adapt to or survive our early influences), we will tend to identify with it, letting it make “our” choices.

High quality psychotherapy teaches us, firsthand, to know our conditioning so well that it cannot masquerade as us or run the show. Psychotherapeutic work can be — and ought to be — far more effective, far more efficient, far more creative. It involves coaching but is much more than coaching; it involves consulting but is much more than consulting; it involves healing but is much more than healing. It has so much potential to catalyze and support truly life-giving changes — yet so often falls far short of this, often to the point of normalizing such dysfunction.

Whatever its approach — cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic-analytic, humanistic-existential, transpersonal, or eclectic — psychotherapeutic practice often tends to settle into the shallows after a honeymoon with potential depth, sometimes then cutting off the work prematurely or, perhaps even worse, keeping psychotherapist and client together too long in a therapeutically rationalized codependence, roughly paralleling in many cases the very dysfunction that first made some sort of psychotherapy seem necessary.

If a psychotherapeutic approach stays put, simply reinforcing and operating from within its already-established methodologies — be they conventional or unconventional — it will of course still in some cases do some good, but will miss out on doing a deeper good, namely that of playing a foundational role in the denumbing, awakening, healing, and integration (both personal and collective) needed if we are to move through this century’s enormous challenges with any substantial success.

This is not about psychotherapy making some minor changes or embracing more alternative approaches (which themselves often suffer from overattachment to or inordinate fondness for their methodology), but about opening itself up enough — with regard to both depth and width — to become a truly integrative undertaking, as efficiently effective as it is compassionately present, working intuitively and practically with our physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual dimensions.

This constitutes a tremendous shift. Yes, it is already happening here and there, but has not yet been significantly embraced by the vast majority of psychotherapists. “Integrative Psychotherapy” is not a new concept, but its actual practice has not yet taken root in very many places — and its deep practice is far from common.

Such practice, at once dynamically intuitive and radically inclusive, wastes no time in getting to the heart of the matter. It does not merely collect data and connect some dots and supply some analysis and insights, but uses whatever is being presented, however obliquely or ephemerally, to help create access to what truly matters, in the process of which the crucial connections, insights, and fitting follow-through clearly emerge. The times we live in require something that generates genuine healing and breakthrough effectively and quickly (without rushing, however!)
— and this takes us through rather than above or around our pain, at a pace optimally suited for us.

Intuitive integrative psychotherapy can do this, with as keen an eye for detail as for context, taking into full account what is going on with us not only personally but also collectively, teaching not adjustment to a diseased culture (which most of us would agree we already have), but navigational skills for both our internal and external realities. Not only does such psychotherapy help wake us up to who we are and what we are doing, but also gets us really functioning, no longer investing our energy and attention in outdated or life-negating patterns of behavior.

These are scary and increasingly unstable times, more and more easily undercutting our capacity to comfort or distract ourselves. Many of us are feeling an amplifying not just of personal fear, but also of collective fear. Psychotherapy that has become genuinely integrative does not drug or mask this fearfulness, but skillfully guides us into and through it, until its energies are no longer committed to fear’s programs, but are simply available for more life-giving purposes. No lengthy string of sessions is needed for this; the journey begins before the first session is over, with us already starting to really understand, right to our marrow, that most fear is just excitement in drag.

The storm we dread is already here level upon level, gathering undeniable momentum; what’s needed are not higher decks or thicker walls or more engrossing distractions, but navigational savvy — which we don’t acquire to a significant degree without having put in some quality time in psychospiritual bootcamp, developing intimacy with our own darkness and dysfunction, an intimacy that provides us not only with an inside look at the darkness and dysfunction all around us, but also with the capacity to deal with it sanely and skillfully.

Such self-exploration can, given the darkness it must enter and travel through, very easily go awry — detouring, for example, into narcissism or spiritualized dissociation — but doesn’t have to, especially when it is carried out under the able guidance of deep-diving, truly integrative psychotherapy, in which all of our dimensions are taken into fitting account, being allowed to coexist and co-evolve in fruitful tandem.

Unfortunately, most psychotherapy is not equipped to do this. Again, not only must psychotherapeutic work become much more effective, but also much more efficient — and this is no more possible for most schools of psychotherapy than is significant change for our schooling system (mistakenly termed our “educational” system). With few exceptions, we simply don’t have time for long-term psychotherapy. Seeing a psychotherapist once a week for years is usually a case of codependence in professional drag, militating against getting the needed work truly done. Not seeing or not admitting that we don’t have much time is itself a sign of dysfunction and unresolved wounding, the proverbial head-in-the-sand.

The psychotherapy we now need does not make our head-in-the-sand situation more comfortable or tolerable, but instead wakes us up to both our current situation and our conditioning, empowering us to take fitting action.

Psychotherapy that does not get to the heart of the matter in the very first session with a client (or group) is not the kind of psychotherapy we now need. It’s not that psychotherapeutic work has to be rushed, but that there’s a way to quite quickly identify and work with what’s not working, a way that is more than what is traditionally thought of as psychotherapy, much more. It is far more intuitive, far more body including, far more emotionally literate, and is naturally integrative, working with the totality of each client even as it uncovers, illuminates, and coherently connects relevant details.

About intuition: It doesn’t help that our culture tends to devalue or marginalize it, especially when comparing it to rationality. We easily juxtapose “intuition” with superstition and fringe-thinking and psychic pretensions, even as we under certain conditions grant considerable weight to our “gut” feelings and hunches. But intuition is not fringy or fuzzy or a lesser way of knowing. Intuition is what we sense — to take but one mode of intuitiveness — when we suddenly find ourselves in a difficult situation or crisis, and have no time to consider what to do.

I’m not talking about knee-jerk reactivity or mere impulsivity, but about a sense of direct knowingness that is neither cognitively or emotionally based (even though it may peripherally include and be colored by cognitive and/or emotional material).

Intuition is there for all of us, but we may be so compellingly established elsewhere — in, for example, excessive abstraction or emotionality — that we don’t really register the voice of our intuition. A mind jammed with thoughts has little or no room for intuitive messages to get the attention they need. If we’re filled with anxiety, messages of fear will block out or cloud over messages of intuition — and may even masquerade as them.

We need to clear space so as to be able to readily hear our intuition, and we need to learn to trust it. Skillful psychotherapists hear their intuition loud and clear, because they cultivate enough quiet space internally to pick up intuitive messages, hints, directives very quickly — it’s second nature to them.

(Some would call intuition instinctive knowing, but intuition is more than instinct, carrying instinct’s imprint in much the same way that a symphony orchestra carries the imprint (or echo) of the first musical instruments. Instincts are drives, innate and automatic, taking over with compelling authority when necessity demands it, whereas intuitions, however instinctually informed, are readings, inviting not our submission but our attunement to and alignment with their message. So instead of being driven, we are guided. Intuition is the result of instinct learning to speak, to represent reality through fitting messages, verbally, pictorially, and otherwise. Instinct is a very fast takeover; intuition is a very fast download.)

“Integrative” means inclusive in a radically comprehensive manner. All of our dimensions (physical, mental, emotional, energetic, social, spiritual) are taken into account, and brought together — integrated — in a fully functioning whole that requires no diminishing or overriding of individual differences. So “integrative” is more than eclecticism, more than a slapped-together reunion of disparate elements, more than a merely intellectual framing of the various qualities that constitute us personally and culturally. “Integrative” leaves nothing out, even as it keeps a discerning eye on whatever enters or would enter its domain.

The mess we’re in has arisen because of our massive longtime collective dysfunction — ecological, economic, political, relational, religious — having reached its tipping point with minimal interference along the way. The Titanic has hit the iceberg, and is going down, even as we scramble to normalize things, hoping for the best; but there’s no going back. We’re in crunch time, and all too many of us still don’t think it’s all that bad, seducing ourselves with hope (nostalgia for the future).

The fact that just about every crisis is an opportunity in disguise doesn’t register very deeply when we’re in denial that the ship is going down. Doing some psychotherapy so that we can occupy an upper deck or get more comfortable with our furniture just makes things worse, as does engaging in spiritual practices that float us above what’s going on. What’s needed, in part, is a psychotherapy that potently opens our eyes — and, soon thereafter, our entire being — to what’s happening, while at the same time empowering us to make the best possible use out of the situation. Inner action to outer action, catalyzed by fitting interaction.

Before us — and also behind us — is a bloody amalgam of unresolved wounds, mishandled pain, and crippled leaders. So, so much pain. So much hell. And so much blindness. Just look at America — a crippled giant still enduring civil (actually, not so civil) wars, trying to “help” other nations when it can’t even help itself. The suffering is overwhelming, and the solutions to it mostly underwhelming and, more often than not, simply making things worse. Designing better umbrellas for acid rain...

Various programs and strategies, mostly governmental, have arisen to deal with such suffering outwardly, and other program and strategies, psychotherapeutic, pharmaceutical, and otherwise, have arisen to deal with it inwardly. And the results? Mostly just more dysfunction, more numbness, more turning away from what really matters. What’s actually going on simply doesn’t get much air time; the case of mistaken identity most of us are suffering rarely gets addressed, let alone even seen. The pain we’re in is mostly medicated away, risen above, avoided, muted, turned away from, as if it has nothing to teach us, and conventional psychotherapy is complicit in this. And so is plenty of nonconventional psychotherapy, as when it makes a spiritual virtue out of bypassing pain.

The partial healing that most psychotherapy at best catalyzes doesn’t help much with our cultural dilemmas; we’re then just not far enough along to make much of a difference. We’ve come too far to be caterpillars, but not nearly far enough to really fly; from our chrysalis we still tend to operate and think in the old ways, even though we’re starting to know better.

So what to do? Regression does not work, especially when it slips to a level — fundamentalism — where we are sure we’re on track, clinging to our certainty so tightly that we don’t know we’re clinging. And getting ahead of ourselves — engaging in premature transcendence, for example — also doesn’t work, leaving us just as ineffective to bring about needed change as if we were to go to the opposite extreme, into the “only way” tunnel vision of fundamentalism. What we can do is recognize where we are — in bigtime transition — and uncover and work in real depth with whatever is slowing or obstructing our maturation.

It’s time for psychotherapy, wherever possible, to expand its chambers and to make a leap into a more fitting way of working, a passage into a truly integrative approach to healing and awakening. The times demand it. We are, to put it mildly, at one hell of an edge, and we need to have access to the kind of psychological/spiritual work that helps us make the very best use of our time at the edge. Psychological bandaids won’t do; nor will just recontextualizing our thoughts; nor will mere emotional discharge; nor will spiritual bypassing. Something deeper and more inclusive is needed, something simultaneously vital and conscious and integrative.

Psychotherapy is not just for those who are deeply troubled or severely impaired. It’s for all of us — that is, if it is sufficiently deep and inclusive and unconstrained by preset methodologies.

This of course is a very big “if ” — clouded by the considerable failings of psychotherapy in general. There is an enormous range of skill among psychotherapists, along with an great variety of psychotherapies, few of which are integratively informed. But only an intuitively-based integrative psychotherapy has enough reach and depth to work for all of us. If psychotherapy isn’t integrative, it’s too limited; and if it isn’t strongly intuitive, it’s too fixated, lacking the presence and flow and creativity needed.

So we need a psychotherapeutic approach for the 21st Century that is sufficiently inclusive to hold the incredible complexity and fears of our times, and sufficiently deep to guide us into and through our darkness and woundedness. Such an approach serves both as a crucible and sanctuary for the needed work, transporting us from fragmentation to wholeness, from frozen yesterday to fluidly alive now, from being at war internally to making compassionate space for all that we are.

Healing means to make whole. Imagine a psychotherapy which serves the journey to wholeness with optimal effectiveness and efficiency, liberating us not only to be who and what we really are, but also to act decisively from that perspective for the good of one and all. It would be an understatement to say that we need to have such work become far more common.
For those who are interested in studying with Robert Masters:
Starting November 11th!


An opportunity to directly learn from a master psychotherapist and spiritual teacher (1) unique, exceptionally effective psychotherapeutic, spiritual, and bodywork/energywork skills; and (2) how to creatively and effectively integrate these in counseling and coaching work.

2010-11 Apprenticeship/Training Program

The purpose of this training is to deepen the capacity of participants to effectively counsel others through a dynamic, intuitively structured approach that integrates body, mind, emotion, energetics, and spirit.

To this end, the training will blend exceptionally deep work on oneself and equally deep work with others, in personal, social, and spiritual contexts. Healing will be the primary intention and activity. Approaches that are taught and practised will be held, as much as possible, in a perspective that transcends them.


NOTE: The Practicum is intended for those who want to learn and practice a deeply intuitive, integral, and bodywork-including approach to psychotherapy, and who at the same time also want to participate with kindred spirits in a year of exceptionally deep personal (and interpersonal and transpersonal) work, during which they will learn skills that will serve them in every area of their life.

Graduates of previous practicums have not only found themselves at home with new skills (sufficient enough to begin working as an integral counselor), but have also done work of such depth — and not just a few times, but many times — during the practicum that they invariably emerge more grounded, open, intuitive, and confident about both themselves and their ability to
effectively guide others.

Much of the depth and quality of the work done has to do with being with a group of individuals who are all deeply committed to their own healing and awakening. In such a setting, there’s not only more than enough safety and trust, but also a rare intimacy, generated by sharing such deep work both as a participant and as a counselor-to-be.

The Practicum will take place over 5 four-day modules in Boulder and Ashland. Each module will include individual and group work, plus facilitation by participants of each other’s work (with fitting feedback and guidance from Robert and Diane).

After the training concludes, participants who have attended it in its entirety will receive a diploma indicating that they have completed a one-year training in Masters Integral Psychotherapy.

PREREQUISITE: Previous work with Robert and Diane.

TUITION: US$7000. Nonrefundable deposit of $1000 required. Lodging and meals will be extra. Contact to arrange payment.

November 11-14, January 6-9, March 3-6, May 5-9, July 7-11

Catherine Dulac - Sex Battles in the Brain

Excellent - more pieces to the puzzle of who we are and why . . . .

Catherine Dulac - Sex Battles in the Brain

About the Lecture

The expression of certain genes depends on whether they were inherited from the mother or the father, a phenomenon known as imprinting. Catherine Dulac has discovered that a surprisingly large number of brain genes are imprinted, often in complex ways. Her findings have broad implications for understanding the inheritance of behavioral traits and disease susceptibility.

Diploid species such as mammals inherit two copies (alleles) of each gene, one from the mother and one from the father. For most genes, the maternal and paternal alleles are expressed at equal levels. But for imprinted genes, only one allele is expressed while the other is silenced.

Twenty years ago, David Haig proposed an evolutionary explanation for imprinting based on genetic conflict between the parents. For species such as mammals, in which the mother contributes more resources (through pregnancy and lactation) than the father, he proposed that genes from the father maximize their fitness by inducing the offspring to consume more maternal resources, whereas genes from mother benefit by sharing resources with their siblings.

This idea was supported by findings that paternally expressed genes tend to promote embryonic growth and maternally expressed genes tend to restrict growth. But sibling competition does not end at birth. It continues after birth, through competition for food, parental attention and so on -- and these behaviors are controlled by the brain.

For this reason, Dulac and colleagues sought to identify imprinted genes within the mouse brain. Using high throughput sequencing technology, they were able to study gene expression patterns in the cortex and hypothalamus of adult mice, and also in the embryonic brain. These mice were derived by crossing two strains of mice that diverge enough to have at least one difference at every gene, allowing the researchers to identify the parental origin of every transcript.

Remarkably, Dulac and colleagues have identified some 1300 imprinted genes – more than ten times the number that were previously known. The expression patterns of these new genes are surprisingly complex. A given gene can be imprinted in the cortex but not in the hypothalamus or vice versa. Or it can be imprinted in the embryo but not in the adult. In some cases, the same gene can give rise to different transcripts with different patterns of imprinting.

There is also an intriguing bias to the pattern of imprinting. In the cortex, the majority of imprinted genes are maternally expressed, whereas in the hypothalamus the majority are paternally expressed. This is consistent with Haig’s model, in which paternally derived genes are expected to promote competitive behaviors whereas maternally derived genes will tend to promote cooperation and sharing with siblings.

Dulac’s team also examined the imprinting of the X-chromosome, which carries a disproportionate number of genes expressed in the brain. Females inherit two copies of the X chromosome, and it is well established that one copy is silenced in every cell, a phenomenon known as X-inactivation. In general, the maternal and paternal X are thought to be silenced with equal probability, but Dulac found that in the cortex, there is a 20% bias toward expression of the maternal X and silencing of the paternal copy.

Finally, Dulac describes how some imprinted genes show different patterns of expression in male and female offspring. For example, an allele inherited from the father can be silenced in male but not female offspring, or vice versa. The significance of this finding is not yet fully clear, but one implication is that it provides a potential explanation for sex-specific disease susceptibility.

Catherine Dulac

Higgins Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University
Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

Catherine Dulac is investigating the molecular biology of olfactory signaling and is interested in the developmental processes that ensure appropriate connections between the olfactory sensory neurons and the brain.

After completing a Ph.D. in developmental biology at the University of Paris, Dulac joined the laboratory of neuroscientist and HHMI investigator Richard Axel at Columbia University in New York City in 1993. As a postdoc in Axel's lab, Dulac developed a new technology for generating libraries of complementary DNA in individual neurons and, using that technology, identified the first family of pheromone receptors. In 1996, Dulac joined the faculty of Harvard University and was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator one year later. She has published more than 50 papers and continues to accumulate honors, including her 2004 election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Culture Wires the Brain: A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective

More evidence for the biopsychosocial and integral models of brain and neuroscience - culture has a powerful influence. This is subtle and preliminary research, but it's part of trend showing that interpersonal elements impact brain development (think attachment science and interpersonal neurobiology) and that collective cultures wire the brain differently (at least in part) than do individualistic cultures.

Journal reference:
Park et al. Culture Wires the Brain: A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2010; 5 (4): 391 DOI: 10.1177/1745691610374591

Culture Wires the Brain: A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective

ScienceDaily (Aug. 3, 2010) — Where you grow up can have a big impact on the food you eat, the clothes you wear, and even how your brain works. In a report in a special section on Culture and Psychology in the July Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychological scientists Denise C. Park from the University of Texas at Dallas and Chih-Mao Huang from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discuss ways in which brain structure and function may be influenced by culture.

There is evidence that the collectivist nature of East Asian cultures versus individualistic Western cultures affects both brain and behavior. East Asians tend to process information in a global manner whereas Westerners tend to focus on individual objects. There are differences between East Asians and Westerners with respect to attention, categorization, and reasoning. For example, in one study, after viewing pictures of fish swimming, Japanese volunteers were more likely to remember contextual details of the image than were American volunteers. Experiments tracking participants' eye movements revealed that Westerners spend more time looking at focal objects while Chinese volunteers look more at the background. In addition, our culture may play a role in the way we process facial information. Research has indicated that when viewing faces, East Asians focus on the central region of faces while Westerners look more broadly, focusing on both the eyes and mouth.

Examining changes in cognitive processes -- how we think -- over time can provide information about the aging process as well as any culture-related changes that may occur. When it comes to free recall, working memory, and processing speed, aging has a greater impact than does culture -- the decline in these functions is a result of aging and not cultural experience. Park and Huang note that, "with age, both cultures would move towards a more balanced representation of self and others, leading Westerners to become less oriented to self and East Asians to conceivably become more self-focused."

While numerous studies suggest that culture may affect neural function, there is also limited evidence for the effect of cultural experiences on brain structure. A recent study conducted by Park and Michael Chee of Duke/National University of Singapore showed evidence for thicker frontal cortex (areas involved in reasoning) in Westerners compared to East Asians, whereas East Asians had thicker cortex in perceptual areas. Park and Huang observe that using neuroimaging to study the impact of culture on neuroanatomy faces many challenges. They write, "The data are collected from two groups of participants who typically differ in many systematic ways besides their cultural values, rendering interpretation of any differences found quite difficult." In addition, for each study, it is important that the MRI machines use identical imaging hardware and software.

The authors conclude, "This research is an important domain for understanding the malleability of the human brain and how differences in values and social milieus sculpt the brain's structure and function."

On the instantaneous enlightenment through recognition of the nature of the mind

Today's Dharma Quote from Snow Lion Publications . . . .

A Study of the Life and Thought
of the Tibetan Master
Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen

by Cyrus Stearns
a Tsadra Foundation Series book


Dharma Quote of the Week

The Tibetan controversies about instantaneous enlightenment through recognition of the nature of the mind have been studied by David Jackson. As he shows, it is mainly members of the Kagyu traditions in Tibet who have maintained this doctrine, although it is certainly common in Chinese Ch'an Buddhism and in the teachings of the Great Perfection in Tibet. Dolpopa quotes the position that is the object of his refutation: "Recognizing the very essence naturally purifies them, without rejection." This expresses the view that through recognition of the essence of the thoughts as the dharmakaya they are purified or dissolved into the dharmakaya, and also the idea that any affliction that arises is actually a manifestation or self-presencing of primordial awareness itself. Thus there is no need to reject thoughts or afflictions, which are naturally purified by means of the recognition. This type of viewpoint is widespread in Tibetan Buddhism.

In contrast to these views, Dolpopa claims that the definition of an ordinary sentient being or a buddha, and of samsara or nirvana, is determined by the presence or absence of the incidental and temporary obscurations that veil the true nature of reality. It is not determined solely by recognition of the nature of the mind or the thoughts.

...While the ground buddhahood of the dharmakaya and the resultant buddhahood of the dharmakaya have not the slightest difference in essence, they are distinguished as ground and result by means of the presence or absence of incidental stains.

--from The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen by Cyrus Stearns; a Tsadra Foundation Series book, published by Snow Lion Publications

The Buddha from Dolpo • Now at 5O% off
(Good until August 13th).

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Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Power of Disengagement - Playing Mind Games

Today's Daily Om is an especially good reminder that spiritual materialism and spiritual bypass come in a variety for forms - and engaging with someone committed to these defenses can be very unhealthy. Better to walk away.

The Power of Disengagement

Playing Mind Games

Rather than being heart based, some have learned to play mind games or go on power trips in the service of their ego.

For better or worse, many people have been raised to believe that communicating in an honest and open way will not get them what they want. They have learned, instead, to play mind games or go on power trips in the service of their ego’s agenda. People stuck in this outmoded and inefficient style of communication can be trying at best and downright destructive at worst. We may get caught up in thinking we have to play the same games in order to defend ourselves, but that will only lead us deeper into confusion and conflict. The best way to handle people like this is to be clear and honest with them.

As with all relationships and situations in our lives, we must look within for both the source of our difficulties and the solution. Reacting to the situation by getting upset will only entrench us more deeply in the undesirable relationship. Only by disengaging, becoming still, and going within can we begin to see what has hooked us into the mess in the first place. We will most likely find unprocessed emotions that we can finally fully feel and release into the stillness we find in meditation. The more we are able to do this, the less we will be bothered by the other person’s dramas and the more we will be free to respond in a new way. In the light of our new awareness, the situation will untangle itself and we will slowly break free.

Whenever people come into our lives, they have come for a reason, to show us something about ourselves that we have not been able to see. When unhealthy people try to hook us into their patterns with mind games and power trips, we can remind ourselves that we have something to learn here and that a part of us is calling out for healing. This takes the focus off the troubling individual and puts it back on us, giving us the opportunity to change the situation from the inside out.

What do you think?
Discuss this article and share your opinion

Buddhist Geeks #182: Exchanging Dharma – Client and Colleague Mindsets (Hokai Sobol)

Here is part 3 (and last) of the Buddhist Geeks interview with Hokai Sobol - Listen to part 1, The Invisible Forces that Shape Western Buddhism and part 2, Exchanging Dharma – The Consumer Mindset. It has been an excellent discussion.

Buddhist Geeks, #182: Exchanging Dharma – Client and Colleague Mindsets

BG 182: Exchanging Dharma – Client and Colleague Mindsets
02. Aug, 2010 by Hokai Sobol

Episode Description:

We’re joined by Buddhist teacher and scholar Hokai Sobol, as we continue exploring the different mindsets that we often take, while exchanging Dharma here in the West. In the last episode he described the Consumer mindset, and in this one goes on to speak about the Client and Colleague mindsets. He explores the healthy and unhealthy versions of each, as well as how each of the three mindsets differ from one another.

This is part 3 of a multi-part series. Listen to part 1, The Invisible Forces that Shape Western Buddhism and part 2, Exchanging Dharma – The Consumer Mindset.

Episode Links:


Fadel Zeidan - The busy mind on meditation

More good research on the benefits of mediation - Even brief sessions can help with multitasking, dealing with deadlines - and pain relief, too. This article comes from the Charlotte Observer.

The busy mind on meditation

Even brief sessions can help with multitasking, dealing with deadlines - and pain relief, too

Posted: Monday, Jul. 19, 2010

Fadel Zeidan has proven that minimal training in meditation can lessen the perception of pain in research subjects.

He also has shown that similarly brief sessions of meditation can increase cognitive function - the ability to multitask, recall items in a series and complete tests on a deadline.

Now, he wants to find out why even short stints of meditation affect the brain that way.

As a post-doctoral fellow at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, Zeidan is building on research he started at UNC Charlotte. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to capture images of the brain, he is examining how mindfulness meditation affects pain perception.

The research is ongoing, but the preliminary results look promising.

"Meditation doesn't take the sensation of pain away," Zeidan said. "It teaches people to cope with the pain. The emotional reaction to pain makes the feeling of pain worse."

If the MRI can show Zeidan and his colleagues how meditation helps us cope when we hurt, doctors and patients can find a better way to treat pain, especially in chronic suffers for whom medication does not work.

"We can start to pinpoint how, using our minds, we can self-regulate," he said. "If it has to do with reducing your anticipation, regulating your emotions, or increasing relaxation - if you know why, you can figure out the best method to teach people to deal with pain."

Zeidan and his colleagues will present initial findings from the MRI study at the 13th World Pain Conference in Montreal in August.

Just a little meditation

Zeidan's is the first line of research to examine how much a very brief course of meditation can change the way humans react to stimuli. Previous research, though prolific, has looked at Buddhist monks or people who have spent dozens of hours and, in many cases, hundreds of dollars studying meditation at retreats in far-flung locations.

The impracticality of that bothered Zeidan. So he set out to determine the benefits of meditation for people living in a go-go culture.

"I felt that, especially as an American, we want things quick and easy," he said.

Mindfulness meditation is an often nonreligious practice based on developing a discipline of the mind and body. Typically, practitioners sit comfortably in a quiet room and focus on the changing sensations of breath and body. When a thought or a disturbance in the room distracts them, they learn to acknowledge the distraction and then let it go by returning focus to the breath.

"You can do this a million times in your practice," Zeidan said. "Your brain becomes not only aware of its body and mind, it becomes more aware of your environment in a less stressful way."

He first learned about meditation during a high school philosophy class, when a teacher showed his students the basics. He has practiced mindfulness meditation ever since. So the results of his research into how meditation affected people who had never practiced it (and, in some cases, knew nothing about it) did not completely shock him.

But the extent of the results did.

In his first study, on pain perception, research volunteers were asked to rate their reaction to small but painful electric shocks. Each volunteer was tested before and after the shocks, but between baseline and subsequent testing, they were instructed to do one of several things: practice mindfulness meditation; relax and read; relax and breathe deeply; or complete a "math distraction" exercise, counting backward from 1,000, subtracting seven each time.

Feeling less pain

The meditation group, which received about seven minutes of instruction on each of three days and then practiced for a little more than 10 minutes, reported a much lower perception of pain across the board. Those research volunteers showed less sensitivity to both low and high pain, even though they did not meditate during pain stimulation.

The only other group to show significant decreases in pain perception was the math distraction group, in which volunteers did the counting exercise during pain stimulation. They reported less sensitivity to pain at the high end but not the low end of the spectrum.

Zeidan suspects mindfulness meditation curbs pain because the practice teaches the brain to prioritize what's important at the moment. It's the breath, not the pain.

That focus becomes even more vital in Zeidan's second study, the results of which suggest that studying mindfulness meditation for a few days can help you power through your to-do list more quickly, perform better at work or juggle a hectic schedule with grace.

Research volunteers practiced mindfulness meditation for 20 minutes on each of four days or listened to an audio recording of a book, J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit." Both groups scored better on cognitive tests compared with baseline results. But only the meditation group showed notable improvement.

The meditation group soared on a timed, computerized "n-back test," a new technique that measures working memory and the ability to focus. The test asks the subject to learn the next item in a series while remembering the previous item. It gets faster with each correct answer.

On average, those who meditated got 10 correct answers in a row. They ranged from tripling their improvement in performance to demonstrating a statistically significant difference when compared with the control group.

"Both groups did about the same on non-timed tests, but the mindfulness meditation group did significantly better with all the timed tests, which suggests they were better able to sustain their attention more efficiently," Zeidan said. "Being in control of your emotions will probably help you do better on an attention task."

He said the results suggest that everyone should try a little mindfulness meditation.

Leslie Rawls, who teaches meditation at the Charlotte Community of Mindfulness (, has practiced mindfulness meditation for 17 years as part of her study of Buddhism. Many benefits she has experienced mirror those that Zeidan reports.

"Stronger focus and concentration, the ability to let go of stories that my mind tells me about what's going on," she said. "A great sense of peace most of the time. The ability to better listen to others and be present for other people."

Zeidan's current research will use the MRI to determine how the brain reacts to that practice.

"We're starting to see how meditation, after brief training, alters the conscious experience, how the mechanisms relieve pain," he said.

Pain is intrusive; it takes over your consciousness and attention.

Zeidan is using MRIs in hopes of understanding the brain mechanisms involved in the self-regulation of pain with techniques such as meditation. For instance, focus and attention are regulated by one area of the brain, while emotional response to physical pain is regulated by another.

If he can pinpoint those mechanisms, he and his colleagues are on the path to a better treatment for pain sufferers.