How-To Guide on Mindfulness Meditation from a Stanford Neurosurgeon
Professor of Neurosurgery, Stanford University
The simple practices of mindfulness meditation can help us accomplish major goals in life. Just concentrating on our pattern of breathing, for example, brings us into a more reflectional state that helps us quiet our inner, distracting dialogue. In this interview, Stanford neurosurgeon James Doty reflects on his own experience with meditation and explains how taming your mind and opening your heart can help you reclaim some of life’s most difficult experiences. Everyone’s life is beset by truly challenging obstacles. Instead of treating our own burdens as character flaws, or flaws in our circumstances, we can achieve new levels of empathy through meditation.
Over a year ago
James Doty: I get asked this question of, “Geez, I haven’t meditated. How do I get started?” And it’s hard for many people because what many of us don’t appreciate is that — and I use the term in my book, a DJ, but it’s this internal dialogue and it is a dialogue that isn’t necessarily who you really are at all. It is a collection of events, experiences, commentaries from your environment that oftentimes you allow to define you. And not necessarily in a positive way. And as a result, you have an emotional response when you’re listening to these voices or this dialogue or the DJ, if you will. And the first thing that I recommend people do, and certainly as one of the bases or the legs of doing mindfulness or meditation, is to simply breathe in and out and be attuned to that. And as you get distracted if it’s really distracting, actually consciously think about the air going through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. And the very nature of that type of concentration distracts you from the dialogue. And once you’ve mastered that and you pay attention to the fact that oftentimes your muscles are very tense because again you’re carrying your emotions. And with intention, go through actually and say, “I’m relaxing the muscles in my feet, my legs, my chest, my abdomen,” and so forth.
And sort of go through this process with intention doing each one of these things and with that intention it also distractions you from listening to that voice. And once you’ve done that for a period of time, then you suddenly realize the very nature of that action, the consistency of that; you’re no longer having that same emotional response or you’re not starting to listen to that dialogue. And that starts releasing you. And then the next step as you learn these techniques, the wonderful thing is you can actually change the dialogue. And change it to one where it is a supportive dialogue. One of the greatest challenges of people in the West is they have this negative internal dialogue and it’s the nature, unfortunately, of our society. In Eastern cultures — actually it’s interesting — it doesn’t really exist. And so when you, if you will, stop the DJ and then change the dialogue to one that is nurturing, supportive of yourself, the most wonderful thing that happens is your physiology changes and then the manner in which you react or interact with other people becomes completely different. And having been through this myself and seen this and taught this, it’s really quite extraordinary — the possibilities. Because when you take the time to do that breathing; when you take the time, if you will, to tame the mind; when you take the time to open your heart and recognize that not only are you suffering, but that everyone in some way or other has their own burdens. All of those steps then allow you to be much more thoughtful, kind, and interested because then you recognize that the other person is just like you. And when you recognize that key aspect, then what you do to others, you’re doing to yourself. And if you treat yourself with kindness, compassion, love, it’s so much easier then to give that gift to other people. And it changes not only that other person; it changes the entire environment around you.
On a cold winter evening, six women and two men sat in silence in an office near Harvard Square, practicing mindfulness meditation.
Sitting upright, eyes closed, palms resting on their laps, feet flat on the floor, they listened as course instructor Suzanne Westbrook guided them to focus on the present by paying attention to their bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions, and especially their breath.
“Our mind wanders all the time, either reviewing the past or planning for the future,” said Westbrook, who before retiring last June was an internal-medicine doctor caring for Harvard students. “Mindfulness teaches you the skill of paying attention to the present by noticing when your mind wanders off. Come back to your breath. It’s a place where we can rest and settle our minds.”
The class she taught was part of an eight-week program aimed at reducing stress.
Studies say that eight in 10 Americans experience stress in their daily lives and have a hard time relaxing their bodies and calming their minds, which puts them at high risk of heart disease, stroke, and other illnesses. Of the myriad offerings aimed at fighting stress, from exercise to yoga to meditation, mindfulness meditation has become the hottest commodity in the wellness universe.
“We were tasked to find ways for the community to cope with stress. And at the same time, so much research was coming out on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation,” said Jeanne Mahon, director of the wellness center. “We keep offering mindfulness and meditation because of the feedback. People appreciate to have the chance for self-reflection and learn about new ways to be in relationships with themselves.”
More than 750 students have participated in mindfulness and meditation programs since 2012, said Mahon.
Part of mindfulness’ appeal lies in the fact that it’s secular. Buddhist monks have used mindfulness exercises as forms of meditation for more than 2,600 years, seeing them as one of the paths to enlightenment. But in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, mindfulness is stripped of religious undertones.
“In and out of the classroom, these student-athletes are immersed in a highly competitive culture,” said Denham. “This is stressful. This kind of training can develop a more-skillful mind and a sense of focus and well-being that can help them better maintain control and awareness of their thoughts, emotions, and presence in the moment.”
The growing interest in the field is reflected in Harvard’s course catalog. This spring, Lazar is teaching “Cognitive Neuroscience of Meditation,” Ezer Vierba leads an expository freshmen writing course on “Buddhism, Mindfulness, and the Practical Mind,” and Metta McGarvey teaches “Mindfulness for Educators” at the Graduate School of Education.
Due to high demand, McGarvey, who holds a doctorate in human development and psychology, teaches a three-day workshop for educators. It offers tools to enhance their work and their focus through breathing practices and self-compassion exercises.
Mindfulness meditation made easy
A daily practice will provide the most benefits. It can be 10 minutes per day, however, 20 minutes twice a day is often recommended for maximum benefit.
“A lot of them are working in really tough environments, with all kinds of pressures,” said McGarvey. “The rates of burnout in some of the more challenging environments are very high.”
Ayesha Hood, a police officer from Baltimore who is interested in running a day care center, attended McGarvey’s workshop last fall, and found it helpful. “As a police officer, I live in high stress, and as a public servant, I tend to neglect myself,” she said. “I want to calm myself and be conscious about it.”
Christine O’Shaughnessy, a former investment bank executive who lead workshops at Harvard, said, “All day we’re bombarded with social media, colleagues, work, children, etc. We don’t have time to spend it in quiet reflection. But if you practice it at least once a day, you’ll have a better day.”
To skeptics who still view mindfulness as hippie-dippy poppycock, O’Shaughnessy has four words: “Give it a try.” When she first signed up for a mindfulness workshop in 1999, she said she was skeptical too. But once she realized she was becoming calmer and less stressed, she converted. She eventually quit her job and became a mindfulness instructor. (She recently launched a free meditation app.)
“Doing mindfulness is like a fitness routine for your brain,” she said. “It keeps your brain healthy.”
“We don’t know what consciousness is, or what it does,” said Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D. in his lecture The Mind is Not the Brain “There’s no known, obvious reason, why we should be conscious at all, or exactly how the mind works.” His conclusion, based on significant research, was: “…The mind is field-like. That it’s not constrained to the inside of the head.”
(See embedded video for this full lecture.)
There is growing scientific acceptance for Mr. Sheldrake’s thesis, some of which he outlines in his lecture. In fact, consciousness studies is one of the most exciting frontier areas of science today.
A growing group of scientists in consciousness studies theorize the mind as an energy-like field surrounding and separate from the body.
Mind is a separate entity not “reduced to brain cell processes”
Nobel Prize winning neuroscience Professor Eccles supports the theory that the mind is a separate entity and cannot be “reduced down to the brain cell processes,” according to the Horizon Research Foundation.
An article on the Foundation’s site, asserts “we will never be able to account for the formation of consciousness through the electrical and chemical processes of the brain.” For skeptics, it’s important to realize that all articles on the Research Foundation’s website are reviewed or prepared by scientists directly involved in research.
Photo of Professor John Eccles, Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist. Image courtesy of John Curtin School of Medical Research, Australian National University. Wikimedia Commons.
Professors Karl Popper and John Eccles demonstrated that research indicates a conscious event happens before the relevant brain event, in The Self and Its Brain.
These eminent scientists theorized not just mental and conscious events as separate from the brain, but a self-conscious mind distinct from both.
“Consciousness appears to be present in 10-20 percent of those who are in cardiac arrest.” The author explained, “brain cells need to communicate using electrical pulses… How is it then that we have a clinical scenario in which there is severe brain dysfunction, the worst possible type, with an absence of electrical activity in the brain, but somehow thought processes, with reasoning, memory formation and consciousness continue and are even heightened?”
Well documented near-death studies, together with research conducted on patients who undergo cardiac arrest, lead to a growing acceptance that the mind continues after the brain function ends.
Buddhist perspective: duality of mind and brain
From a Buddhist perspective, the duality of mind separate from brain has been accepted since the beginning, and, in some ways, seems a critical support for fundamental Buddhist beliefs in rebirth and karma.
“There are many explanations of what the mind is and of the different categories of mind,” said His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a speech in England in 2008. “For example, there’s a difference made in Buddhism between primary minds and mental factors.” His Holiness explains the two types: “One is brought forth by sensory perception as its immediately preceding condition and the other lacks sensory perception as its immediately preceding condition.”
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
Until recently, these beliefs have been treated as “faith” fundamentals, supported by authority of the Buddha, and eloquently championed in Dharma debate. Increasingly, there is more and more support amongst scientists specializing in consciousness studies. Promising research may allow us to also anchor our concept of mind, in convincing proofs.
Dr. Alexander Berzin, in his lecture The Conventional Nature of Mind, described it this way: “You can describe experiencing from the point of view of physically what’s happening – there’s the brain and the chemicals and electric stuff – or you can just describe it in terms of subjective experience of it. So we’re talking about the subjective experience of it when we talk about mind.” He went on to explain that the Four Noble Truths are experienced by the mind.
Where is Mind?
Dr. Sheldrake, in his lecture The Mind is Not the Brain, first touches on the important discussion of “just where is the mind?” He describes mind as field-like, similar to the gravitational field of the world, “which stretches out far beyond the earth.”
Mind, thought by many theorists to be separate from the brain, is often described as a field, similar to a gravity field.
Mind as fields around the systems they organize
In ancient Buddhist belief, the heart is the seat of the mind. Today, we think of the brain. Either way, science is shedding light on the real nature of mind — that these fields are within and around the systems they organize, according to Dr. Sheldrake. He uses examples such as magnets and gravity which expand beyond the source — for example, by metaphor, the Earth as the brain, and the gravitational field of the earth as the mind. “And I think the same is true of our minds.”
“If the mind is just the brain, which is the normal assumption within academic and medical worlds,” he continued, “then mental activity is nothing but brain activity,” a notion he then elaborately deconstructs as erroneous.
He uses an elaborate example of the mechanism of vision, or seeing, describing first the physiological and neurological mechanism, then the two clear options that explain how we actually “see”. Either the images are projected inside our skull or brain in a form of “virtual reality” or they are exactly where appear, because the mind is able to project or see beyond the brain exactly where it is.
Doctor Sheldrake, a leading scientist researching mind.
Can you influence something just by looking at it?
He illustrates this by asking the question, “Can you influence something just by looking at it?” He cites studies that indicate that over 90% of people can “feel” when people are looking at them, even when they have their back turned to that person. In scientific studies, there’s overwhelming evidence this is a genuine phenomenon. He illustrates with training examples from the security industry, where it is standard training to security personnel to never look directly a suspect’s back.
The Dalai Lama expounded on the nature of mind in a 2014 speech in Cambridge: “In general, the mind can be defined as an entity that has the nature of mere experience, that is, “clarity and knowing.” It is the knowing nature, or agency, that is called mind, and this is non-material.”
“Buddhist literature, both sutra and tantra, contains extensive discussions on mind and its nature. Tantra, in particular, discusses the various levels of subtlety of mind and consciousness… with references to the various subtleties of the levels of consciousness and their relationship to such physiological states as the vital energy centers within the body, the energy channels, the energies that flow within these and so on.”
Mind Field Theory
The concept of energy channels (often called chakras) and energy body—as described by his Holiness—has been well accepted for centuries in most parts of Asia. In Buddhist visualization, mind and energy are naturally visualized as separate from body in some practices. This aligns with newly emerging science in the field of consciousness studies.
Aligning with this ancient thought, Dr. Sheldrake—a pioneer in consciousness field theory—explains the mind as a field, similar to a gravity field. He supports this with extensive blind research studies, and illustrates with examples such as bird flocks and fish schools, who seem to almost telepathically communicate. He also delves into Quantum particle theories in support of his theory.
Symbolizing the cycle of life, the bud, blossom of a Lotus, and wilted blossom, then the new bud of new life—mind is thought of as transcending physical existence.
Why is this important?
The brain, in relative dualistic terms, is a physical, impermanent implement. The mind is not impermanent. This is plausibly theorized by research from Professors Popper and Eccles who describe “a Self-Conscious Mind” independent of the brain, that functions even after cardiac arrest.
Self conscious mind, surviving cardiac arrest, is reassuring to those of us who believe that mind survives death. Although rebirth is supported by various other research and near-death studies, the notion of conscious mind surviving physical death adds a new dimension to death meditation and daily practice.
Video Highlight: “Ask a Monk” Are the Mind and Brain Different