The next major wave in meditation seems to have been propelled by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s first book, which detailed the use of mindfulness in the therapeutic setting. Full Catastrophe Living was published in 1990 and has catalysed huge interest in mindfulness among both the lay public and the scientific research community.
In 1992 Sogyal Rinpoche published his spiritual classic The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which to date has sold over two million copies and has been translated into over 30 languages. This book established that works written by traditionally trained spiritual leaders who can understand and speak in the vernacular of the West could become major bestsellers on the popular market. As a consequence, mainstream publishers entered this arena and many great books subsequently appeared.
Now to the beginning of the twenty-first century and a series of breakthroughs in neurological research that are well summarised in Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself. Doidge is a research psychiatrist who has documented revolutionary discoveries in the new and incredibly exciting field of neuroplasticity.
Doidge collated recent clinical and research findings that clearly demonstrate how our brain changes both its physical structure and function according to how we use it. This knowledge supplants the long-held view that while the brain grows and develops up until the age of about eight years, from then on it remains anatomically static with no potential for new growth. The realisation that this is not so and that the brain can regenerate has tremendous potential for those hoping to recover from major head injuries or disease, while at the same time it informs how repetition reinforces function and changes anatomy.
Put simply, the more we do something, the more our brain adapts physically to facilitate us doing it better. The catch is that this applies equally to bad habits as to good ones, so the whole notion of how we use and train our mind takes on even greater significance. Indeed, this new field of neuroplasticity also clearly confirms the old adage of ‘use it or lose it’ and has great implications for a healthy and mentally active old age.
The year 2007 was a vintage year for mind science breakthroughs. In The Mindful Brain Daniel Siegel, psychiatrist, educator and leader in the field of mental health, introduced recent research identifying what have been termed ‘mirror neurones’.
These specialised cells are located within particular areas of the brain, notably the frontal and parietal cortex as well as the superior temporal area. They form a system that appears to have the capacity to mirror internally what we as people are experiencing externally.
This ability seems to be directly related to our potential to feel empathy, to resonate emotionally with somebody else and to imitate a wide range of practical behaviours. In other words, mirror neurones may well have a prime place in allowing us to tune in to what others are doing and feeling. As we experience, so we feel and so we do.
Siegel points out that our capacity to tune in to our own internal states is crucial in determining our capacity to tune in to those of others. If we want to develop empathy with others, we are wise to develop empathy with ourselves.
In relation to healing, mirror neurones are another emerging area of research that point to many possibilities. First, when it comes to developing or changing to healthy habits, role models may well play a crucial role. It is common knowledge among lifestyle-based therapists that authenticity is essential if effective therapeutic relationships are to develop. The therapist needs to genuinely display the qualities and lifestyle advocated, and in so doing provide a sound template to mirror.
It is the same with meditation. The traditional role of the teacher has been to demonstrate the experience of the meditation directly via their presence. Again, mirror neurones allude to the benefit of spending time with experienced teachers and the benefits that are likely when we learn how to merge our minds with theirs. Mirror neurons add a scientific rationale to the age-old tradition of having a guru, as well as the more recent phenomena of mentors and role models.