Meditation, Neuroplasticity, & Happy-Wiring the Brain

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All at once the roshi, the room, every single thing disappeared in a dazzling stream of illumination and I felt myself bathed in a delicious, unspeakable delight. . . . For a fleeting eternity I was alone--I alone was.

As found in Philip Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen, this kensho occurred after the roshi's instructions for the student to keep practicing. Sit, just sit, says a Zen roshi when a disciple asks how to obtain enlightenment. The roshi means just meditate, and in the practice things open up and may even open into something as described by Kapleau.

That is one approach to meditation--to awaken, suddenly or over time--but whether it happens or not, the practice has byproducts. Byproducts are one thing and Enlightenment, Awakening to Presence--call it what you will--is another that cannot be scientifically documented, and indeed, it is something toward which scientists maintain a skepticism, one I cannot share.  Something else there is about meditation, however, that has scientists interested, for they have evidence of it.

In 2002 in the Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal, Antoine Lutz and colleagues designated two meditation groups, one experimental, one control. The control group were naives, beginners. The experimental group of eight people, Tibetan Buddhists, had meditated for years. The findings surprised Lutz and his team.

Before using the groups, Lutz positioned 128 electrodes on the head of monk Mattieu Ricard, PhD in Genetics. Ricard had over 10,000 hours of meditation. As he did with the others, Lutz instructed Ricard to generate feelings of compassion not directed at any particular object. This objectless meditation is regarded as "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion." In turn, the feelings generated happiness.

As Ricard fell into deep meditation, something phenomenal happened. Lutz noticed Ricard's neural structures were firing in synchrony with other structures. This is known as Gamma-Band oscillation.

In some cases, the Gamma rhythms in the monks' brain signals were the largest the scientists had seen, except in pathological states such as epileptic seizures, or deep anesthesia. The Gamma waves oscillate at roughly 40 cycles per second. They indicate intensely focused thought, but are usually weak and difficult to see.

"Those emanating from Ricard were easily visible, even in the raw EEG output." Ricard's left prefrontal cortex was active. It is the area responsible for positive emotions.

After the phenomenal readings with Ricard, Lutz and colleagues set up an experimental group as they were worried that something might be wrong with their equipment or methods. Their control group was composed of college students inexperienced in meditation.

The experimental group yielded similar results.

In contrast, the control group of naive meditators did not generate Gamma.

The conclusion was inescapable: "In the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the monks had actually altered the structure and function of their brains." In doing so, in feeling compassion, they had become happy.

Ricard, 60, has been dubbed the "happiest person in the world" by popular media. When young he was a very promising molecular biologist but abandoned a future in the limelight of science  when he moved to Darjeeling in 1972, studying under Kangyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan master in the Nyingma tradition. Celibate since age 30, he lives at the Schechen Monastery in Nepal.

To read more about Mattieu Ricard,click here.

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