Get Smarter, too!

As much as some practitioners – and sometimes I feel the same – would like to say that meditation is only good for spiritual development – liberation -, evidence mounts that it does lots of good things for us.

It may even make you smarter. And help you avoid senile dementia.

Just this morning I’m reading about a  2011 study that shows meditators may increase the volume of the gray matter in the hippocamus. Published by Sara Lazar in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, the study recommends 30 to 40 minutes of meditation daily.

The study is mentioned in an article in a popular magazine (Real Simple) which claims that meditation, as well as several other activities like eating Omega-3, drinking lots of coffee, walking, and learning languages will increase your “brain power” as well as keep the brain healthy and functioning longer into old age. I don’t know what happens if you do all five.

I’m sure these studies on meditation are valid, as the traditional sources of meditation have always said that it’s “good for you” in various ways. But keep in mind that these traditional teachers and texts also warn against making that your reason for meditating.

Trungpa says, “We are not particularly seeking enlightenment or the simple experience of tranquillity — we are trying to get over our deception.” A major part of his teaching was on how to avoid the pitfalls of “spiritual materialism” – practicing for self-improvement, self-aggrandizement. The Zen tradition advises to sit ‘without gaining ideas.’

Zen master Yasutani warned against seeking ‘spiritual visions’. “Don’t squander your energy in the foolish pursuit of the inconsequential,” he said. Ignore them; keep sitting. Perhaps good advice for us who are sometime lost in this flurry of scientific evaluation of meditation.

I think what we in this modern, scientific environment need to realize is that all these various claims for the efficacy of meditation are perhaps true and perhaps desirable, but possibly only attainable if one is not entering into the practice with the goal of self-improvement.

Which certainly fits with the notion that the basic intention in our practice is to lose the illusion, the deception, of self.

A meditation practice fairly entered into – at least in the Buddhist tradition – is aimed at experiencing the truth of existence, the essence of things, because this experience of truth will make one able to function effectively, harmlessly, and compassionately in the world.

Any benefit that flows to one’s own life is considered a side effect.


Stress, ageing, meditation and society

As I continue to read and re-read parts of the article on the research of Elizabeth Blackburn, I get more and more amazed. This is intense, groundbreaking research on how stress ages us. Here’s the basic piece: she and her fellow researchers found:

… a repeating DNA motif that acts as a protective cap [on chromosomes]. The caps, dubbed telomeres, were subsequently found on human chromosomes too. They shield the ends of our chromosomes each time our cells divide and the DNA is copied, but they wear down with each division. In the 1980s, working with graduate student Carol Greider at the University of California, Berkeley, Blackburn discovered an enzyme called telomerase that can protect and rebuild telomeres. Even so, our telomeres dwindle over time. And when they get too short, our cells start to malfunction and lose their ability to divide – a phenomenon that is now recognised as a key process in ageing. This work ultimately won Blackburn the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Then she connected with Elissa Epel, a postdoc from UCSF’s psychiatry department, and the two began working on taking this research into the real world. They did research on mothers, and the findings are powerful:

The results were crystal clear. The more stressed the mothers said they were, the shorter their telomeres and the lower their levels of telomerase.

The most frazzled women in the study had telomeres that translated into an extra decade or so of ageing compared to those who were least stressed, while their telomerase levels were halved. “I was thrilled,” says Blackburn. She and Epel had connected real lives and experiences to the molecular mechanics inside cells. It was the first indication that feeling stressed doesn’t just damage our health – it literally ages us.

Ten years of research since then has added lots to the picture.

“Ten years on, there’s no question in my mind that the environment has some consequence on telomere length,” says Mary Armanios, a clinician and geneticist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who studies telomere disorders.

There is also progress towards a mechanism. Lab studies show that the stress hormone cortisol reduces the activity of telomerase, while oxidative stress and inflammation – the physiological fallout of psychological stress – appear to erode telomeres directly.

This seems to have devastating consequences for our health. Age-related conditions from osteoarthritis, diabetes and obesity to heart disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke have all been linked to short telomeres.

The big question for researchers now is whether telomeres are simply a harmless marker of age-related damage (like grey hair, say) or themselves play a role in causing the health problems that plague us as we age.

…This much we know; telomeres tend to shorten over time. But at age 75–80, the curve swings back up as people with shorter telomeres die off – proof that those with longer telomeres really do live longer. “It’s lovely,” she says. “No one has ever seen that.”

But the most interesting part of the studies to me – and I think I’ve blogged this bit before – is that meditation can help. They have begun researching

… ways to protect telomeres from the effects of stress; trials suggest that exercise, eating healthily and social support all help. But one of the most effective interventions, apparently capable of slowing the erosion of telomeres – and perhaps even lengthening them again – is meditation.

And this bit sounds like a quote from a mindfulness meditation manual:

Theories differ as to how meditation might boost telomeres and telomerase, but most likely it reduces stress. The practice involves slow, regular breathing, which may relax us physically by calming the fight-or-flight response. It probably has a psychological stress-busting effect too. Being able to step back from negative or stressful thoughts may allow us to realise that these are not necessarily accurate reflections of reality but passing, ephemeral events. It also helps us to appreciate the present instead of continually worrying about the past or planning for the future.

… That study, of 239 healthy women, found that those whose minds wandered less – the main aim of mindfulness meditation – had significantly longer telomeres than those whose thoughts ran amok. “Although we report merely an association here, it is possible that greater presence of mind promotes a healthy biochemical milieu and, in turn, cell longevity,” the researchers concluded. Contemplative traditions from Buddhism to Taoism believe that presence of mind promotes health and longevity; Blackburn and her colleagues now suggest that the ancient wisdom might be right.

Barbara’s kensho

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Living with a Wild God, is being wonderful! Not far into it, but I am finding it fascinating, funny, and astounding all at once.

The heart of the story is her early adolescent quest for Truth, and the “mystical experiences” that seemed to attend that search. Growing up in an entirely skeptical, atheist family, she was disinclined to accept anything remotely religious in nature, so discounted these experiences at the time, and only recently – the last few years – has come to reconsider what they mean. The book is her coming to terms with those experiences, and the general quest which she recorded in a diary of sorts.

This description of her first “experience” is so near to my own that I felt I must include it here:

And then it happened. Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels, and words. I was looking at a tree, and if anyone had asked, that’s what I would have said I was doing, but the word “tree” was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language. Was it a place that was suddenly revealed to me? Or was it a substance— the indivisible, elemental material out of which the entire known and agreed-upon world arises as a fantastic elaboration? I don’t know, because this substance, this residue, was stolidly, imperturbably mute. The interesting thing, some might say alarming, was that when you take away all human attributions— the words, the names of species, the wisps of remembered tree-related poetry, the fables of photosynthesis and capillary action— that when you take all this away, there is still something left.

Ehrenreich, Barbara (2014-04-08). Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything (pp. 47-48). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

My own similar experience, as a considerably older seeker, is recorded in the earlier entry here as “Kensho, Krishnamurti and New Mexico“.

Barbara Ehrenreich on mystical experience

This is an interview with Barbara on her recent book _Living with a Wild God_. The interview is wonderful, can’t wait to read the book!

“Well I think the tragic thing about monotheism—and also about science, as I lump them together here—is they require that the rest of the world be dead. There’s this famous quote from Plutarch where a ship is going by and they hear the cry, “The great god Pan is dead,” and that marks the fact that the pantheon of the Greek gods has now given way, or will give way soon, to the risen Jesus, to this one-or-sometimes-three-part god. So, monotheism, all the other spirits and gods—done. And science! The Cartesian worldview is that the world is dead, except for human consciousness. It was only in the last twenty years or so that science began to acknowledge the feelings and thoughts of animals. And creativity. So I find the two kind of similar. As compared to a worldview more like my own, where it’s not all dead. There’s a lot going on. It’s a happening place.”

The online magazine is interesting also.