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 recently came across a very interesting TEDx talk by a colleague and collaborator of mine: Willoughby Britton, who is an assistant professor and clinical psychologist at Brown University. Here is the link.
I returned home from my retreat a few days ago. Now is arguably the most interesting time: how do I integrate all that I learned at the retreat in my day-to-day ordinary life? Because that is the real test! Actually sometimes being on retreat is quite safe and easy. Our normal environment is where we get pulled most strongly into our patterns and habits.
I am still blogging from the retreat (this might seem like a contradictio in terminis, but for me blogging is a way to reflect on the teachings we receive during the retreat).
A few days ago we had a wonderful visit from Lodi Gyari Rinpoche, who is one of the most important advisors for the Dalai Lama. In that capacity, he has not had a lot of time to practise, but he has a lot of experience bringing his practice into daily life.
A large part of science operates as if cognition and emotion are completely different things and have nothing to do with each other. A recent paper by Sahdra and colleagues is different. She studied not only how the meditators in her sample improved on a cognitive task, but also how that was related to socioemotional functioning. And it turns out to be quite related!
I recently published a study that I did at Shambhala Mountain Center. We went out there to test a group of meditators who were engaging in an intensive month-long retreat where they meditated 8--10 hours a day. We were interested in whether their visual short-time memory would be affected by their intensive meditation practice. We hypothesized that people would have clearer mental representations of the stimuli after the intensive practice, than before, but that they would not change in the speed with which they would forget stimuli.
I spent last week at the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute, a very special place where scientists and contemplatives get together for 6 days to practise, discuss and think about how we can study contemplative practice scientifically. For people like me, who are both scientists and practitioners, those are an amazing opportunity. It does not happen often that you get a chance to engage in science with people and practise meditation and yoga with them as well.
A recent study showed that participants in a three-month shamatha meditation retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado had an increase in their telomerase length. Telomerase decrease has been associated with aging (Cawthorn et al (2003), so an increase in telomerase length would correspond to an increase in longevity. Although of course we'll have to wait quite a few years to check whether this really is the case, and although the statistical significance for these effects is weak, I think these results are quite interesting.
My teacher said during the recent retreat in Amsterdam that we should study ourselves: our habits, where we get distracted, where things go wrong, what triggers our emotions and what pushes our buttons. This resonated quite deeply with me, given that after all, I am a scientist. But I found that it is not only helpful to study your more gross patterns of mind by asking these questions about how you function in situations you encounter in life.
During a recent retreat, the teacher said something that really hit me: every time you practise, it is like meeting a buddha. He encouraged us to make the place where we practise a really special place where the environment would be a sacred place where we get to meet with our true selves. When I went back home, this really stayed with me. Every time I sit down to practise I now try to consciously remember how special it is in fact to practise and to get to meet a buddha. What a great gift to myself to take the space and time and really be. This is probably the only time during the day that I get to really hang out in the spaciousness and enjoy.