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Summary of Dr. Richard Davidson’s Session

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’.

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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:

Kind­ness Cur­ricu­lum:

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.

  1. Altered Traits by Richard David­son and Daniel Gole­man

  2. The uni­verse in a sin­gle atom by HH The Dalai Lama


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