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).
In the recent study on decision making in meditators that I wrote about before, the decision that meditators made was accompanied by a very different pattern of brain activity from controls. Upon receiving an unfair offer, meditators activated more of the right posterior insole and posterior parietal cortex, about which I have written before. The right insular activation would even predict whether the person was going to make an accept decision, and its activity correlated with the amount of self-reported mindfulness (scientists measure mindfulness with a questionnaire in this case, which is not perfect, but the best measure we have).
A recent study by the renowned Montague lab in Frontiers in Neuroscience looked at how meditators behave in an Ultimatum Game, one of the many economic decision paradigms that are around. Erric already mentioned this research before, but I wanted to give a little more context. So what did the study look like? In the Ultimatum game, a proposer offers to split a sum of money with a responder. The responder can choose to accept or reject the offer. If he accepts, then both people receive the amount of money designated to them by the proposed split. If the responder declines, both people receive nothing. If you were completely rational, you would always accept the offer, no matter how small, because something is better than nothing. However, it turns out that people often do not accept all offers. They only accept offers when they are somewhat fair (i.e., when they receive at least 20% of the money).
Currently Sogyal Rinpoche is conducting a retreat in Amsterdam called "How to be Happy." We started yesterday with a very powerful teaching that seamlessly blended integration instructions with a deep teaching on meditation. What struck me in particular was how Rinpoche taught on how we can work without stress. We can work hard, yet we have to not create stress. And when do we create stress? Rinpoche mentioned two ways: one is when you bang your head against the wall, you keep forcing yourself to go on when your at a dead end. Sometimes it is then better to take a short break, so you'll feel better, and often in that break you'll see a new solution.
To my mind, some of the most convincing evidence that meditation has a serious impact on one's functioning is how serious long-term practitioners deal with pain. One example is a story relayed by Matthieu Ricard of a lama who was tortured by the Chinese for many years, and when after his release the Dalai Lama asked him what he was most afraid of, he said it was of losing his compassion for his torturers. Similarly, Garchen Rinpoche, during his visit to Lerab Ling said that he did not suffer at all during his time in prison camp. Clearly they have a different way of dealing with pain than we do.
I have somewhat of an interest in trying to make my work as efficiently as possible, so I can spend more time meditating and doing other things. I guess it's a casualty incurred from having lived in the US for many years. Anyway, a technique I have recently been experimenting with is the pomodoro technique in combination with the well-known meditation advice of practising short sessions, many times over. The idea of a pomodoro is a period of 25 minutes you devote to a single task with a clear goal, followed by a few minutes break. After this you are ready for another pomodoro. By breaking up your day like that in small chunks, you are motivated to really focus on one task, and feel like you have accomplished something rather than wasting your whole day doing everything and nothing. I then realized this was a perfect chance to bring meditation in the workday: every time you accomplish a pomodoro, you simply drop in for one minute, do whatever you need to do, and get ready for your next pomodoro. No chance to forget your next meditation session. Such brief meditation sessions are surprisingly powerful because they renew your focus, clarity and calm. Normally I always forget to take these brief meditation breaks, but in this way they happen naturally--they are part of the schedule! So the productivity gurus of today are reinventing what meditators have known for a long time.