The Science of Loving-Kindness Meditation
Let’s talk about meditate on love…
It was a rare opportunity: one of the world’s top brain researchers and one of the most esteemed Buddhist monks in the room at the same time, talking about the effects of loving-kindness and compassion meditation on the brain. Here’s my report from this first-of-its kind course offered by the University of Minnesota last month, a summary of the latest findings on neuroscience and meditation.
Meditating on love and compassion leads to a sharp increase in brain gamma-waves, a significant decrease in inflammation, and a significant increase in immune system response.
These are just a few of the results that physiological tests and fMRI scans have revealed in long-term and beginner meditators who meditate on love and compassion for all beings. Dr. Richard Davidson (“Richie”) from the University of Wisconsin shared these compelling findings from the rigorous peer-reviewed research done at their ‘Centre for the Study of Healthy Minds’. He and his talented group of grad students use a functioning Magnetic Resonance Imaging system (fMRI) to take ‘snapshots’ of brain activity of veteran and novice meditators. One of the veteran test subjects (logging between 10,000-50,000 hours of meditation) is Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who was the other presenter for the course in Minneapolis, and the meditation leader for the 400 of us who attended. (BTW, I talked to over two dozen of these folks during breaks, and although hardly a representative sample, it’s interesting to note that almost all were non-Buddhist, many were Catholic, and over half were health professionals—mostly nurses).
Science and meditation’s shared goal: an unfabricated understanding of reality
Richie’s opening comments set the theme:
“Science is dedicated to investigating reality in a radically honest way; Dharma uses different methods, but the aim is the same: an unfabricated understanding of reality.”
“In our research lab in Madison, dedicated to contemplative neuroscience, we have a meditation space for 25 people where we do weekly sittings”, said Davidson, while his projector showed us a slide of the lab’s futuristic meditation pod that looked like something from Star Trek.
“We feel this type of meditation training should be available to scientists who wish to study the mind.”
His senior researcher, Antoine Lutz, didn’t attend the course, he was away on 6-week meditation retreat. It was cool to hear Davidson say, “we need a very different model for training grad students, one that allows them to do meditation as part of their school work”. Davidson said retreat work should not be viewed as a luxury but as a necessity.
His co-presenter Matthieu Ricard, is no stranger to retreat work, having done over a decade of secluded practice in Nepal under the supervision of the esteemed meditation master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Ricard reminded us that our motivation during the course should be to “above all, to gain the capacity to free beings from suffering”.
“The Buddha’s first talk after his enlightenment linked suffering to a distorted view of reality”, said Ricard.
“But the Buddha was not merely describing obvious suffering, he wasn’t speaking about toothaches or war, we don’t need the Buddha to figure that stuff out.”
“What he really was referring to was the suffering of change; that if a situation is wonderful, we grasp at it and want it to be permanent and so really the most important invisible and deep cause of suffering is our distorted perception of reality.”
“Wanting things to be permanent and thinking that reality is made up of independent autonomous entities, which leads us to reify reality, this causes us to suffer, because it leads us to hope, reject, fear, and so on.”
Socioeconomic background can affect perception
Davidson then chimed in with an example from Jerome Bruner’s earlier research on how socioeconomic background affects perception. Bruner had found that when asked to draw from memory five or ten cent pieces, children from poorer backgrounds judged them to be physically bigger than children from wealthy backgrounds.
“These distortions are potential targets for contemplative practice” said Ritchie.
“Meditation can help diminish these biases so that our perception is less confounded, or at least so we become aware of the bias.”
At this point Ricard reminded us that although many of our projections and perceptions may distort reality, as Dharma practitioners the ones we must address are the distortions that cause suffering. We attach one of three view-points to every object we perceive: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral – these labels clearly do not belong to the object. But these viewpoints need not cause us suffering in and of themselves. They only cause us to suffer if we believe this quality to be permanent and if we try to grasp or reject the object because of the label.
“A physically beautiful person may be an object of attraction to another person,” said Ricard, “but to a tiger they are a meal!” (laughter) “And to a bacterium, they are an entire environment!”
“The classic example is stepping on a rope in the dark: if your mind instantly jumps to label it ‘Snake!’, then you get the follow-on emotions of anxiety and fear.”
“However, when you turn the light on, the distortion in your perception is removed and you relax, ahhh.”
“But when you turned that light on, did you change the rope in some fundamental way? No. Turning the light on does not change the nature of the rope. You didn’t get rid of some permanent identity of the rope nor did you get rid of some aspect of yourself, you just unmasked and resolved a distortion that you had superimposed on reality.”
Not all distortions are problematic (cause suffering)
Davidson said, “From a Buddhist perspective, it’s not necessary that we unmask every distortion in our perception because in some cases, these distortions are the optimal way the mind has for functioning in the world.” “Think of parallel lines, of railway tracks, receding into the distance. We know they don’t touch, but to our vision it looks like they do. But this distortion isn’t causing us any suffering. In fact, some distortions may help you function in reality.”
“So the only distortions we want to address are the ones that are obstacles to happiness.”
“For example, cravings and aversions that emerge from our reification of reality. Buddhism doesn’t pretend that our perception will ever be perfect. It is just concerned about valid cognition that removes suffering.”
“Like with the parallel lines example, we can be aware that our perception is wrong but that needn’t prevent us from still having valid cognition. We can interact with an object without thinking ‘That thing (or person) is intrinsically mine and is permanent.’
OK, so that gives you a bit of a taste of the morning intro; after that, we moved on to the science.
A short crash-course on the human brain
Davidson began his crash-course on the geography of the brain illustrating why ‘the human brain is the most complicated piece of matter on the planet.”
It contains over 100,000 neuronal phenotypes (different types of cells). There are 85,000,000,000 neurons in the brain. The number of connections between these neurons is 10 to 14th power, a number Davidson challenged us to start writing out and see if we could finish before the end of the day. “This is an unfathomable complexity with a potentially unbounded number of mental states,” he pointed out.
One cubic millimeter of brain contains 20,000 to 30,000 neurons.
1 cubic mm of brain contains 4 km of nerve fibers
This one floored me: “1 cubic millimeter contains 4 kilometers of axons (nerve fibers) and 10 to the 9th power synapses.”
“But our best imaging so far only goes down to 5 cubic millimeters of brain.”
“The white matter of our brains is largely made up of myelinated axons (myelin is the fatty tissue around the axon which insulates it from other axons and enables it fast and efficient connectivity – something found only in vertebrates).
“A lot of information in the brain is not fixed but is represented in this structural and functional connectivity and it’s this connectivity which we constantly, wittingly or unwittingly, change thru our habitual mental patterns.”
And this might worry you as much as cheer you up: “as little as two hours of repetitive activity changes connectivity in the brain.”
Using powerpoint Davidson outlined the different lobes and parts of the brain and their functions. One area of great interest is a thin layer of brain right at our forehead, an area of the frontal polar cortex known as ‘Broadman’s area’ which is the most dramatically increased part of the brain mass in humans, something that differentiates us from our primate cousins. It seems to be related to interpreting internal experience.
How does meditation change the brain?
Another area of interest to scientists and meditators is the amygdala, a small section in the center of the brain which seems to control the intensity and duration of how long a negative emotion like fear or anxiety can ‘highjack’ the brain. In one study that looked at mindfulness practice and altruism, after 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation, the physical volume of the amygdala shrank significantly in meditators, and the amygdala recovery time quickened. What this meant was meditators had less emotional stickiness. They recovered more quickly from the kinds of emotional reaction which spill over and color subsequent moments of experience.
But this wasn’t the same for all types of meditation: compassion and loving-kindness meditation correlated with the biggest changes in the amygdala. When presented with images of human suffering, the anxiety or emotional stickiness signaled in the amygdala was lower in those who had done one full day of compassion or loving kindness meditation versus those who had done one full day of ‘open awareness meditation’.
How does meditation change the body?
In another experiment, compassion meditation was taught to adolescents in a foster home for an increasing number of hours. The ones who did no practice showed no change but the ones who did at least 30 minutes a day showed a reduction in C-reactive protein and pro-reactive cytokines—protein indicators of inflammation and potential susceptibility to disease. And the teens who did more meditation experienced a greater reduction. So even for novice meditators living in a stressful situation, there was physiological improvement with as little as two weeks practice, 30 minutes a day.
In another test, university students were divided into two groups. One group did not meditate, while the other group was taught to do 30 minutes of meditation per day for two weeks, a period of time which happened to overlap with them getting their flu shots. When their blood was tested, the meditating students showed a statistically significant increase in flu antibodies over the non-meditators.
The science of meditating on love and compassion
I thought it was interesting that most of the research by Davidson and his colleagues focuses on the effects of meditating on love and compassion, two of the four positive states developed in the classic ‘boundless’ or ‘divine abodes’ meditations in Buddhism. These 4 ‘immeasurable’ practices, also known as the ‘Brahma Viharas’, have not been given as much emphasis in the Western meditation community as ‘mindfulness’ and insight (vipassana) practices.
When it came to further areas of research yet to be developed, Davidson identified the third positive boundless state, sympathetic joy, as something he hoped would garner some attention. Sympathetic joy (‘mudita’ in Sanskrit) is the joy we feel when we perceive the happiness or success of others. Davidson felt sympathetic joy would be a great skill to cultivate among scientists working in a competitive research environment to replace their tendencies towards envy and jealousy when their colleagues make breakthroughs.
Meditating on compassion increases your readiness to act
The afternoon continued with reports on the results of f-MRI brain imaging of long-term meditators. Davidson’s lab has built up a cohort of research subjects, monks, nuns, and lay people, 50% men and 50% women, with over 10,000 hours (3 years) of meditation experience (the average is 34,000 hours in formal practice: all have completed a minimum of one 3-year retreat).
When long-term practitioners meditate on compassion the main effect observed is a huge increase in gamma wave activity – higher than ever reported in any other study. Gamma waves are high frequency brain waves that indicate a huge number of neurons operating in a synchronized fashion. For those who had meditated for long term on compassion, there was dramatic increase in brain activity in the insula (responsible for emotion) and the temporoparietal junction (responsible for empathy). But what surprised Davidson and his colleagues were the fMRI scans that also showed a dramatic increase in the brain region responsible for planned movement. He and Ricard theorized that compassion meditation increases the brain’s ‘total readiness to act, to help’ to jump into action to alleviate suffering. And the more compassion meditation a practitioner had done, the greater were the changes observable in the brain.
As little as 8 minutes produces a result
Davidson was then asked the obvious question, “OK—What’s the lowest dose that produces a result?”
“8 minutes among non-practitioners was enough to produce significant physiological and mental changes” he answered. And what was most encouraging, is he said that it seems that at the beginning stages, among novice meditators, there’s a very strong connection between the amount of meditation practice and the amount of biological change. In other words, especially when you first start meditating, that’s when you make a lot of positive changes in the brain.
So how do we meditate on boundless loving-kindness?
And so now the attendees wanted to know: ‘How do we do it? What is the simple prescription for this meditation?’
Here’s an outline of the simple instruction for boundless loving kindness practice that they have been using in their research.
Start by cultivating a strong feeling of loving kindness in your own being. Feel this loving-kindness viscerally, tangibly, permeating your whole body. Once this feeling of loving kindness is strongly, emotionally and physically present, then imagine it radiating out to all beings without holding it back from anyone. So this feeling of loving kindness permeates all plants, animals, people in all directions, in front, to the sides, behind, above and below. If it diminishes, go back to the beginning, replenish the feeling in your own being and body and imagine it radiating out without limit. This is what the poet Rumi described as an ocean with no outer shore. (Eventually the experience broadens to a realization that there is no inner shore either.) This is the ‘directional method.’
A second method works with ‘categories of people’. It starts the same way, with a strong feeling of loving kindness permeating your own being; then you imagine it radiating out to your teachers and benefactors, your friends, family, and loved ones. Then to ‘neutral people’ (people you don’t know very well); and then finally you visualize this loving-kindness radiating out to difficult people, people you may not get along with.
Do this for 30 minutes, or longer if you can (increased physiological and brain improvements are linked to increased practice time ).
What if you don’t feel much love in your own being to start with?
Then start with a spiritual teacher, benefactor, parent or grandparent, or some source of unconditional love. Imagine their love flowing into you and filling you up until ‘your cup overfloweth’ and you feel that you can radiate this kindness out to others. (It’s worth noting that Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield , Pema Chodron, and Sharon Salzberg caution that some meditators–Westerners particularly–may need to do this ‘self-generation’ of loving-kindness for a year or more, before moving on the ‘radiating outward’ stage.).
It’s unfortunately quite common for people to feel that they have no human being in their experience who represents this wellspring of love; then we are advised to start with a pet: many people report that they start by meditating on the love they feel from their dog. “Start with Fido,” advises Pema Chodron in her retreat CD on the four immeasurables. And if you really feel that there is no person or animal you can refer to as a source of unconditional love, then the classic meditation object you reflect on is the sun: the warmth from the sun.
For those that are interested, there is a lot more about all this research in Davidson’s book The Emotional Life of Your Brain (2012), particularly Chapter 10. Citations for the research above can be found here, and here.
Also check out the 45 minute presentation he gave at the Dalai Lama Centre in Vancouver earlier this year. Davidson and Ricard also previewed some of this material in 1 hour talks they gave at Google and at the Aspen Institute from 2007-2011; links here –
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