Vipul Shaha shares a summary of Dr. Richard Davidson’s session at Bodhi Online Program
Contemplative Practices, Neuroscience and Education
Dr. Richard Davidson,
Director, Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Hosted by: Anaadi Foundation, Tamil Nadu, India
November 9, 2021
Dr. Richard began his career as a Neuroscientist and a Psychologist with a simple question: why is it that some people are more vulnerable to life’s challenges and why are others more resilient? Early part of his career, he focused a lot on the adversity side of this continuum, the mechanisms that were associated with vulnerability, anxiety, stress and depression. He first met HH Dalai Lama in 1992 who inspired him to study kindness & compassion. Later HH Dalai Lama directly urged him “to investigate Contemplative Practices and Wisdom Traditions of the East by using the tools of modern science and to turn them into a form that anyone would feel comfortable in practicing them. If found to be valuable, then to disseminate them widely.”
Dr. Davidson’s research work has been largely to find where is the overlap, the sweet-spot, the intersection between modern science and ancient contemplative insights & practices. It is deeply informed by Buddhism.
Below are some key aspects of his work that he shared with the audience.
Foundations & Insights from Modern Neuroscience that have supported the connection between ‘Contemplative Practices’ and ‘Human Wellbeing’.
Neuroplasticity: the idea that the brain is being constantly shaped. It happens all the time. It is happening in a way we’re not aware. We’re being constantly bombarded with information that is shaping our brain all the time. We typically have very little control over that information. We often have only a dim awareness if any of the forces that are shaping our brain. The invitation in all of this work is that we can actually take more responsibility for our brain by training our mind. The amazing finding that has been consistently demonstrated is that when we train our mind, our brain also changes. This is extraordinary!
Epigenetics-Genomics: we are all born with a sequence of base pairs which constitute our DNA. However that sequence for the most part won’t change for most people. What can change is the extent to which a gene is turned on or turned off. We can think of genes like little volume control that go from low to high and that is very dynamically influenced by our environment, our demeanour, by our emotions and we know just to give of many examples: the way in which a mother behaves towards her offspring will induce changes in the epigenetic changes in the offspring. So a mother who is loving and very nurturing will induce one set of epigenetic changes and if an infant is unfortunately born in an environment where the infant does not receive such love & nurturing, it will induce another set of epigenetic changes. Those epigenetic changes regulate our brain chemistry, our brain anatomy, our brain function, they influence our behaviour and experience and those epigenetic changes can actually persist and they can persist for an entire life of an individual and they even can be passed from one generation to another. This really gives us some deep scientific insight into ‘Karma’ and this is really profound in terms of the new way of understanding this that has come from the study of how our genes are regulated which is the science of epigenetics.
Mind-Brain Connection with Body: the understanding of the bi-directional influence between the mind and the body. We now know more about the pathways, the signalling systems through which our minds & brains influence our bodies and through which our bodies in turn can modulate our mind and our brain. Our minds are embodied minds and this body of ours plays a very important role in shaping our experience and also our minds play an important role in shaping our bodies. This is important because we know from large epidemiological research that people who report higher levels of (mental) wellbeing are physically very healthy. This isn’t true of everyone but if we look at hundreds of thousands of people, we see these associations. If we train our mind and if we cultivate wellbeing, it will have potential beneficial effect on our physical health. It’s not going to influence everything, it will not cure every illness. It suggests that when we cultivate wellbeing we’re influencing not only psychological wellbeing but it also gets under our skin and inside our bodies and promotes our physical wellbeing.
Every human being comes into the world with innate basic goodness. Innate preference for pro-social interactions. Kindness is part of our biology, kindness is part of our genome, our true nature. When we do practices to cultivate loving-kindness & compassion, we’re not creating them out of nowhere, rather we’re familiarizing ourselves with the basic nature of our own minds, and this is what a human mind is. We think of kindness in the same way other scientists think of language. We all know that every human being has the innate biological capacity for language but in order for that capacity to be expressed we need to be raised in a normal linguistic community. Children who are raised in very adverse circumstances in the wild, they don’t develop normal language. Kindness is something similar—we come into the world with the seeds for kindness but they need to be nurtured and there are practices that have evolved over thousands of years that can be used to nurture kindness and it turns out that those practices have important effects on the brain and the body.
Wellbeing is a skill.
Like learning to play an instrument, the more we practice, we get better. In a similar way we can cultivate the skill of wellbeing.
Four Pillars from the Framework for Wellbeing:
Awareness: capacity that is called ‘Meta-Awareness’—knowing what our minds are doing. Example, when reading a book and losing track of what we have just read, the mind is lost, it is somewhere else—the moment we recognize that our mind is elsewhere, is a moment of meta-awareness, it’s a moment of awakening. It’s exactly what is trained in certain forms of Mindfulness. Meta-awareness can be trained, strengthened and creates changes in our brain that allow for those changes in the brain to endure. When we meditate, it is not just for the experience we have on the cushion when we are meditating. After all, if that’s what happens, it would be like taking a drug and when the drug wears off you’re back to your baseline, but that’s not why we meditate on the cushion but because it has the potential for transforming every aspect of our lives. Infusing every aspect of our life with these qualities and so this is what the alterations in our brain enable by providing the foundation for the enduring changes that might occur.
Connection: qualities that are important for healthy social relationships. Qualities such as kindness, gratitude, empathy, compassion. Research shows that all of those qualities can be trained and cultivated.
Insight: Understanding at a deep experiential level how our minds actually work. Particularly around the construct we call ‘self’, this narrative we have around ‘our-self’. Every human being has this narrative, has a narrative about who he/she is. Insight is about how this narrative actually shapes us, how we experience the world. We know that our beliefs, our expectations, our self-concept filters the world and literally defines the world in which we live. What a healthy mind is about is not so much about changing the narrative but about changing our relationship to the narrative so that we can see the narrative for what it is. That is something that can be trained. There are many meditation strategies that have been developed in the ancient contemplative traditions that allow us to cultivate this kind of insight.
Purpose: understanding the direction in our life, to sense where our life is headed and to connect our core values to what it is that we’re doing. Here it is not so much about finding something more purposeful to do but rather how can we connect meaning & purpose to everything that we do, literally everything including tasks that are routine—how can we connect those to our core values and our sense of purpose.
In the West we see that there has been certain privileging of ‘Mindfulness’ through ‘Dharma’ teachings. While Mindfulness is certainly beneficial, in order to promote optimal human flourishing, we need all of them (4 pillars). One size does not fit all. People differ where they have particular strengths and where they may need more training. One of the important questions for modern scientific research is whether we can be more granular in helping a person to identify what particular practices maybe more beneficial to that particular person given where that person begins—the starting place.
The cultivation of wellbeing is an urgent public health need even before the pandemic, the trajectory that the humanity was on, was not a particularly healthy or sustainable one. Rates of distractibility across the world have been increasing, rates of loneliness are going up across the world. Loneliness is greater than two-fold a risk factor than obesity. These are not simply subjective experiences but they also accompany changes in the body which are consequential to our health. Depression is sky-rocketing across the world. Lancent published rates of depression across the world pre-Covid & post-Covid. They are higher during Covid than pre-Covid. In some countries they’re 30% higher—astronomical how significant this change is! Depression is the leading cause of morbidity worldwide according to WHO!
The widespread cultivation of wellbeing can help prevent many of these problems upstream and particularly if we can incorporate these practices into our educational systems so that we can train the next generation of our children to start off their life on a more positive trajectory, this will be enormously consequential. When human beings first evolved on this planet, none of us were brushing our teeth. It’s not part of our genome. But now it’s something all of us do for our personal dental hygiene. Our minds are even more important than our teeth and yet most of the world doesn’t take as short of a time as we take to brush our teeth to nourish our mind and so we need to do everything we can in every possible way to incorporate these practices in our daily routine because the very future of humanity depends on it!
Dr. Davidson led the group into a key takeaway practice that of gratitude & appreciation and emphasized on the importance of cultivating the habit of looking at the positive side of things.
He also told the audience that the best form of meditation is the form you actually do with the important reminder that one size does not fit all!
Reference books and links:
Healthy Minds Innovations & Center for Healthy Minds: https://hminnovations.org/
Science and Wellbeing:
Plasticity of Well-Being:
How Mindfulness Changes the Emotional Life of Our Brains:
TEDx Talk by Dr. Davidson:
MIT Center for Brain and Cognitive Sciences:
Anaadi Foundation & Dharma Gurukulam
Books on Neuroscience:
1. The brain that changes itself by Norman Doidge.
2. The mind and the brain by Jeffery Schwartz and Sharon Begley.
3. Train your mind, Change your brain by Sharon Begley
4. The emotional life of your brain by Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley.
Altered Traits by Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman
The universe in a single atom by HH The Dalai Lama