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Marieke van Vugt

A contemplative neuroscience perspective on stress

Mind & Life XXV meeting Mind & Life XXV meeting www.mindandlife.org
I was very lucky to attend the recent Mind & Life meeting between the Dalai Lama and neuroscientists. The theme of the meeting was stress, which indeed seems a pretty timely topic in today's challenging world. In fact, as I continue on the path of meditation I am starting to be more aware of just how much stress I have in me every moment.

Why is stress so interesting? First, while a lot of our neuroscience today is about the brain, we need to think about the body too, because the body houses a tremendous amount of cognition and wisdom as well (see for example this paper). There was some short discussion about how your mental state may affect your physical experience, and how this may be accomplished through what the Tibetans call "wind energy" or lung.

Another thing that's very interesting about stress is that there is both good stress ("eustress") and bad stress. In other words: you are not just a victim of a stressful environment. Howe stressful you perceive your environment to be depends on you. David Siegel for example mentioned how important it is to avert hopelessness and worthlessness, because that is what causes bad stress. This explains why mentally taking on other's suffering, as is done for example in the practice of Tonglen, can actually reduce depression and make people feel better, even though it also involves some stress. Both he and Lis Nielsen further emphasized the importance of a supportive community in poor health conditions. I wonder whether this online What Meditation Really Is community could also provide that care. But at least I know from my own experience how much it helps to have a meditation community, especially when things do not go so well.

Quite notable also from the dialogue was a discussion about the importance of self-discipline. The Dalai Lama even equated self-discipline with self protection. Because Lis Nielsen showed that there is evidence for poorer health in individuals with low self-discipline, the Dalai Lama took this chance to point out that it is crucial to enhance our positive emotions with global education on secular ethics. A better education could lead to more self control, as could more positive emotions, which tend to reduce focus on your own wants, and increase focus on what others need. On a critical note, the cause-effect relations between these phenomena remain to be established.

The last strain of research that was discussed involved the neural mechanisms behind stress, and protection against stress. For example, Richard Davidson showed that self-regulation depends on connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala. This connectivity is dramatically reduced in kids who have been exposed to severe stress. On a positive note, some of these effects can be reversed with emotional and contemplative training. One very powerful way to develop positive emotions, according to Matthieu Ricard, is to practice loving kindness and compassion, which gives a lot of courage and self-confidence. An important insight was that this practice of compassion is very different from empathy, a mere sharing in feeling of the distress of others without doing something about it--in fact that can lead to burnout. The day ended with an inspiring note of the Dalai Lama to all scientists in the audience to really do our work with a motivation of compassion. A very inspiring meeting indeed!

If you want to know more about this meeting, you can check out some excellent youtube videos: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLOafJ4rP1PHx8fTzEhEBkxscr_oyxLQdi&feature=plcp-a.