The Lama in the Lab
Lama Oser strikes most anyone who meets him as resplendent—not because of his maroon and gold Tibetan monk's robes, but because of his radiant smile. Oser, a European-born convert to Buddhism, has trained as a Tibetan monk in the Himalayas for more than three decades, including many years at the side of one of Tibet's greatest spiritual masters.
But today Oser (whose name has been changed here to protect his privacy) is about to take a revolutionary step in the history of the spiritual lineages he has become a part of: He will engage in meditation while having his brain scanned by state-of-the-art brain imaging devices. To be sure, there have been sporadic attempts to study brain activity in meditators, and decades of tests with monks and yogis in Western labs, some revealing remarkable abilities to control respiration, brain waves, or core body temperature. But this—the first experiment with someone at Oser's level of training, using such sophisticated measures--will take that research to an entirely new level, deeper than ever in charting the specific links between highly disciplined mental strategies and their impact on brain function. And this research agenda has a pragmatic focus: to assess meditation as mind training, a practical answer to the perennial human conundrum of how we can better handle our destructive emotions.
While modern science has focused on formulating ingenious chemical compounds to help us overcome toxic emotions, Buddhism offers a different, albeit far more labor-intensive, route: methods for training the mind, largely through meditation practice. Indeed, Buddhism explicitly explains the training Oser has undergone as an antidote to the mind's vulnerability to toxic emotions. If destructive emotions mark one extreme in human proclivities, this research seeks to map their antipode, the extent to which the brain can be trained to dwell in a constructive range: contentment instead of craving, calm rather than agitation, compassion in place of hatred.
Medicines are the leading modality in the West for addressing disturbing emotions, and for better or for worse, there is no doubt that mood-altering pills have brought solace to millions. But one compelling question the research with Oser raises is whether a person, through his or her own efforts, can bring about lasting positive changes in brain function that are even more far-reaching than medication in their impact on emotions. And that question, in turn, raises others: For instance, if in fact people can train their minds to overcome destructive emotions, could practical, nonreligious aspects of such training be part of every child's education? Or could such training in emotional self-management be offered to adults, whether or not they were spiritual seekers?
These very questions had been raised over the course of a remarkable five-day dialogue held the year before between the Dalai Lama and a small group of scientists and a philosopher of mind at his private quarters in Dharamsala, India. The research with Oser marked one culmination of several lines of scientific inquiry set in motion during the dialogue. There the Dalai Lama had been a prime mover in inspiring this research; in a real sense, he was an active collaborator in turning the lens of science on the practices of his own spiritual tradition.
But the experiments in Madison were merely one manifestation of that deep collective inquiry into the nature of emotions, how they become destructive, and possible effective antidotes. This book renders my account of the conversations that inspired the Madison research, of the larger questions behind the research, and of the greater implications for us all of this sweeping exploration into how humanity might counter the centrifugal drag of our destructive emotions.Assaying the Transcendent
It was at the invitation of Richard Davidson, one of the scientists who participated in the Dharamsala dialogues, that Oser had come to the E. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, on the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. The laboratory was founded by Davidson, a leading pioneer in the field of affective neuroscience, which studies the interplay of the brain and emotions. Davidson had wanted Oser—a particularly intriguing subject—to be studied intensively with state-of-the-art brain measures.
Oser has spent several months at a stretch in intensive, solitary retreat. All told, those retreats add up to about two and a half years. But beyond that, during several years as the personal attendant to a Tibetan master, the reminders to practice even in the midst of his busy daily activities were almost constant. Now, here at the laboratory, the question was what difference any of that training had made.
The collaboration began before Oser went near the MRI, with a meeting to design the research protocol. As the eight-person research team briefed Oser, everyone in the room was acutely aware that they were in a bit of a race against time. The Dalai Lama himself would visit the lab the very next day, and they hoped by then to have harvested at least some preliminary results to share with him.
With Oser's consultation, the research team agreed on a protocol where he would rotate from a resting, everyday state of mind through a sequence of several specific meditative states. To overhear that conversation would have been eye-opening for anyone who thinks of meditation as a single, vaguely defined Zen-like mental exercise. Such an assumption is akin to thinking of all cooking as the same, ignoring the vast variation in cuisine, recipes, and ingredients throughout the world of food. Likewise, there are dozens and dozens of distinct, highly detailed varieties of mental training—too loosely lumped together in English under the term meditation—each with its own instructions and specific effects on experience and, the research team hoped to show, on brain activity.
To be sure, there is a great deal of overlap among the kinds of meditation employed across differing spiritual traditions: A Trappist monk reciting the Prayer of the Heart, "Kyrie eleison," has much in common with a Tibetan nun chanting "Om mani padme hum." But beyond these large commonalities, there is a very wide variety of specific meditation practices, each unique in the attentional, cognitive, and affective strategies they employ, and so in their results.
Tibetan Buddhism may well offer the widest menu of meditation methods, and it was from this rich offering that the team in Madison began to choose what to study. The initial suggestions from the research team were for three meditative states: a visualization, one-pointed concentration, and generating compassion. The three methods involved distinct enough mental strategies that the team was fairly sure they would reveal different underlying configurations of brain activity. Indeed, Oser was able to give precise descriptions of each.
One of the methods chosen, one-pointedness—a fully focused concentration on a single object of attention—may be the most basic and universal of all practices, found in one form or another in every spiritual tradition that employs meditation. Focusing on one point requires letting go of the ten thousand other thoughts and desires that flit through the mind as distractions; as the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard put it, "Purity of heart is to want one thing only."
In the Tibetan system (as in many others) cultivating concentration is a beginner's method, a prerequisite for moving on to more intricate approaches. In a sense, concentration is the most generic form of mind training, with many nonspiritual applications as well. Indeed, for this test, Oser simply picked a spot (a small bolt above him on the MRI, it turned out) to focus his gaze on and held it there, bringing his focus back whenever his mind wandered off.
Oser proposed three more approaches that he thought would usefully expand the data yield: meditations on devotion and on fearlessness, and what he called the "open state." The last refers to a thought-free wakefulness where the mind, as Oser described it, "is open, vast, and aware, with no intentional mental activity. The mind is not focused on anything, yet totally present--not in a focused way, just very open and undistracted. Thoughts may start to arise weakly, but they don't chain into longer thoughts—they just fade away."
Perhaps as intriguing was Oser's explanation of the meditation on fearlessness, which involves "bringing to mind a fearless certainty, a deep confidence that nothing can unsettle—decisive and firm, without hesitating, where you're not averse to anything. You enter into a state where you feel, no matter what happens, 'I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose.' " One aid to this meditation, he added, is bringing to mind these same qualities in his teachers. A similar focus on his teachers plays a key role in the meditation on devotion, he said, in which he holds in mind a deep appreciation of and gratitude toward his teachers and, most especially, the spiritual qualities they embody.
That strategy also operates in the meditation on compassion, with his teachers' kindness offering a model. Oser explained that in generating love and compassion, bringing to mind the suffering of living beings and the fact that they all aspire to achieve happiness and be free from suffering is a vital part of the training. So does the idea to "let there be only compassion and love in the mind for all beings—friends and loved ones, strangers and enemies alike. It's a compassion with no agenda, that excludes no one. You generate this quality of loving, and let it soak the mind."
Finally, the visualization entailed constructing in the mind's eye a fully detailed image of the elaborately intricate details of a Tibetan Buddhist deity. As Oser described the process, "You start with the details and build the whole picture from top to bottom. Ideally, you should be able to keep in mind a clear and complete picture." As those familiar with Tibetan thangkas (the wall hangings that depict such deities) will know, such images are highly complex patterns.
Oser confidently assumed that each of these six meditation practices should show distinct brain configurations. For the scientists, there are clear distinctions in cognitive activity between, say, visualization and one-pointedness. But the meditations on compassion, devotion, and fearlessness do not seem that different in the mental processes involved, though they differ clearly in content. From a scientific point of view, if Oser could demonstrate sharp, consistent brain signatures for any of these meditative states, it would be a first.
Mission Control for Inner Space
Oser's testing started with the functional MRI, the current gold standard of research on the brain's role in behavior. Before the advent of the functional MRI (or fMRI), researchers had been handicapped in observing in a fine-grained way the sequence of activity in the various parts of the brain during a given mental activity. The standard MRI, in wide use in hospitals, offers a graphically detailed snapshot of the structure of the brain. But the fMRI offers all that in video--an ongoing record of how zones of the brain dynamically change their level of activity from moment to moment. The conventional MRI lays bare the brain's structures, while fMRI reveals how those structures interact as they function.
The fMRI could give Davidson a crystal-clear set of images of Oser's brain, cross-cutting slices at one millimeter—slimmer than a fingernail. These images could then be analyzed in any dimension to track precisely what happens during a mental act, tracing paths of activity through the brain.
As Oser and the team entered the rooms where the fMRI studies would be conducted, the scene resembled a mission control room for inner space. In one room a swarm of data analysts hovered over their computers, while in the next another flock of technicians monitored their computer array as they guided Oser through the experimental protocol.
People go into an MRI fortified with earplugs to mute the incessant whine of the machine's huge, whirling magnets, a naggingly relentless dit-dit-dit industrial noise reminiscent of the nightmarish soundtrack in David Lynch's cult film Eraserhead. The sound alone can be unsettling, but even more perturbing can be the sense of confinement. Foam pads pack your head tightly in place, a cage covers your head, and as your body slides into the machine, you realize your face is bare inches away from the top of the slot.
While most people adjust as they lie in the MRI, some feel claustrophobic, and a few may feel vertigo or dizziness. While some research subjects are a bit reluctant to submit to their hour or so in the MRI, Oser's eagerness was clear; he wanted to go right in.
Oser, lying peacefully on a hospital gurney with his head constrained in the maws of the fMRI, looked like a human pencil inserted into a huge cubic beige sharpener. Instead of the lone monk in a mountaintop cave, it's the monk in the brain scanner.
Wearing earphones instead of earplugs so he could talk to the control room, Oser sounded unperturbed as the technicians led him through a lengthy series of checks to ensure the MRI images were tracking. Finally, as Davidson was about to begin the protocol, he asked, "Oser, how are you doing?" "Just fine," Oser assured him via a small microphone inside the machine.
"Your brain looks beautiful," Davidson said. "Let's start with five repetitions of the open state." A computerized voice then took over, to ensure precise timing for the protocol. The prompt "on" was the signal for Oser to meditate, followed by silence for sixty seconds while Oser complied. Then "neutral," another sixty seconds of silence, and the cycle started once again with "on."
The same routine guided Oser through the other five meditative states, with pauses between as the technicians worked out various glitches. Finally, when the full round was complete, Davidson asked if Oser felt the need to repeat any, and the answer came: "I'd like to repeat the open state, compassion, devotion, and one-pointedness"—the ones he felt were the most important to study.
So the whole process started again. As he was about to begin the run on the open state, Oser said he wanted to remain in each state longer. He was able to evoke the state but wanted more time to deepen it. Once the computers have been programmed for the protocol, though, the technology drives the procedure; the timing has been fixed. Still, the technicians went into a huddle, quickly figuring how to reprogram on the spot to increase the "on" period by 50 percent and shorten the neutral period accordingly. The rounds began again.
With all the time taken up by reprogramming and ironing out technical hitches, the whole run took more than three hours. Subjects rarely emerge from the MRI—particularly after having been in there for so long--with anything but an expression of weary relief. But Davidson was pleasantly astonished to see Oser come out from his grueling routine in the MRI beaming broadly and proclaiming, "It's like a mini-retreat!"
A Very, Very Good Day
Without taking more than a brief break, Oser headed down the hall for the next set of tests, this time using an electroencephalogram, the brain wave measure better known as an EEG. Most EEG studies use only thirty-two sensors on the scalp to pick up electrical activity in the brain—and many use just six.