One of the most exciting new developments in meditation research has been the realization meditation can prolong life in an extraordinary way.
This knowledge has emerged from the remarkable Shamatha Project, a high level investigation of the effects of intensive meditation. During a closed, 3 month retreat led by Alan Wallace, a renowned meditation teacher, writer and researcher, a vast amount of scientific research data was recorded. Analysis is ongoing but already some remarkably significant findings have been recorded.
One of the first findings on the effects of meditation on the brain were very large amounts of gamma brain waves reported in long-term practitioners (Lutz et al (2004)). An important problem with that study was the fact that we had no idea how these gamma waves came about. Were they caused by the meditation or were the people that took part in this study simply weird people? Recently, a new study was published that shed light on this issue.
When trying to learn about recent advances in scientific understanding of meditation and how it affects our brain and consequently our emotional well-being, Daniel Goleman and Professor Richard Davidson are the two guys who I would want to have explain it all to me. And there is a fabulous cd or mp3 down load from More Than Sound Productions called “Training the Brain: Cultivating Emotional Intelligence” which is a conversation between Dan and Richard on just that topic.
Daniel Goleman talks about the intersection of traditional contemplative practice and modern science.
Through the 1970s and 1980s many excellent books were published on meditation in general. In the therapeutic arena, Pauline McKinnon, an Australian patient of Dr Meares who had used his methods to recover from agoraphobia in 1983, published her own work based on his techniques, In Stillness Conquer Fear. My own first book, You Can Conquer Cancer, with its emphasis on meditation and cancer, was released in 1984. This was followed by my more specific books on meditation, Peace of Mind in 1987, Meditation—Pure and Simple in 1996, Meditation – an In-depth Guide, co-authored with Paul Bedson in 2010 and The Mind that Changes Everything in 2011.
The world of science and technology develops really quickly. Recently I read a very intriguing paper that pushes the boundaries of what we believe about meditation training. In that paper, they investigated the feasibility of delivering a mind-body intervention in a virtual world. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a very frequently-used treatment for a wide range of disorders. What is a common question amongst those scientists studying contemplative practice is to what extent the efficacy of this intervention is in fact caused by social group effects; the fact that people attend weekly meetings, feel part of a supportive group, meet with a charismatic teacher.
As in previous years, I was fortunate enough to attend the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute. At this summer school, a group of scientists and practitioners get together to discuss on-going research into the nature of contemplative practice, and future avenues. What is quite special is that we do not only discuss contemplative practices (such as yoga and meditation) but also practise them ourselves. Every morning starts with yoga and meditation, and every evening ends with it as well. Participants observe silence between the evening meditation and morning meditation. We even have one full day of practice, which is an absolutely interesting experience: in addition to talking about how we can study contemplative practice scientifically, we also get to study ourselves in our own portable laboratory.