Marieke van Vugt
I am a neuroscientist studying memory and decision making using neural activity and computational models. In my free time, I am a dancer. I have been a student of Sogyal Rinpoche since approximately 1998. I am fascinated by the human mind and brain, and like to study it both from the first-person perspective (my own mind) and the third-person perspective (other people's minds).
I am currently at a retreat in Lerab Ling, where we had a visit by an amazing lama from Sikkim: Yangthang Rinpoche. One of the most penetrating teachings he gave was about renunciation. Now that may sound really scary or irrelevant for modern life, but in fact I felt it was exactly about how to be a real practitioner of meditation in today's complex and busy world. The teaching gave me a lot of things to think about, which inspired me to write this blog, as a means of reflection.
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.
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.
I recently attended a retreat with Sogyal Rinpochein Amsterdam. One of the main themes of the retreat was about how to take the blame. Now this may seem like quite a strange concept: why should we be willing to take the blame in situations? It definitely was something to think about for me, which is why I am writing this blog.
With a recent article on the Huffington Post by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on meditation and running and Jerome's recent post on biking, I felt it was a good time to share my own experiences in this domain. Last Thursday I ran my first race, a half marathon. I did it kind of impulsively and for fun (some of you may wonder what kind of fun that is, and I myself started doubting that in the last few kilometers as well... Nevertheless, it was a very interesting experiment in what my mind does when my body wants to give up. In particular, many meditation techniques, especially those related to kindness, were of immense benefit.
I recently read a very interesting paper by Shadlen and colleagues, who discussed the neural correlates of decision making. In this paper they discussed the issue of responsibility: if our brain is fully deterministic, and our actions are governed by our brain, then can we said to be responsible for our actions? In particular, if there is a lot of noise in our brain, and that causes us to accidentally commit a negative action. So the question is: what are we to do?
Last week for me was a whirl-wind of emotions. I was getting ready for a conference, and at the same time had to deal with a co-author on a paper who kept wanting to change things (which involved me doing a lot more work in time that I simply did not have). In short, it was a great chance to work with my emotions. And today was the travel day to the conference, with the lovely surprise that someone decided to jump in front of the train, such that all trains were out of commission and I had to find another route to Berlin. Yet, surprisingly, after not dealing with the previous issues very elegantly, this last little bit of train delays did not disturb me majorly. At every road block (e.g., a bus driver driving very slowly although all passengers had a connection to catch on the other end) somehow there was a voice in me that said something about that all these feelings and emotions were just that: thoughts and emotions (and not atom bombs!).
One of the things I recently got to think about is discipline. The interesting thing is that discipline is a double-edged sword: it can be very productive, but it can also make you very neurotic. While people often consider me to be an amazingly disciplined person, I frequently wonder whether I am in fact too neurotic.
I recently attended a weekend by Patrick Gaffney, who is an amazing teacher on the topic of compassion. Not surprisingly, this was what the weekend was mostly about. He defined it very beautifully as the spontaneous wisdom of the heart.
I recently bought a house (for the first time ever!) and moved into it a few days ago. I was surprised at how unsettling the whole experience was, and yet, it showed me how practice helps you to be at home wherever you are. In preparation for the move, I was somewhat scared of the prospect of living out of boxes for a few days.
And then there are all the unknown things that you could be forgetting... While I spent many a meditation practice going through lists in my head of what I could be forgetting, the practice also made me more calm and settled, and confident that somehow it was going to be all right. While I am quite a nervous person, just simply sitting helped me to avoid getting too caught up in worry. After all, if you can make intercontinental moves, a move within a city shouldn't be so bad... Then as more and more boxes got packed, I was surprised to see how little I really need. What I imagined to be terrible really wasn't so bad. I was actually quite comfortable between the boxes, and life just went on.