A Twitterscript of Richard J. Davidson Interview
by Susan Leem, associate producer
The Dalai Lama and Dr. Richard Davidson trade smiles during the first day of the Mind Life XIV Conference at the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, India on April 9, 2007. (photo: Tenzin Lhwang/AFP/Getty Images)
Richard Davidson is best known for peeking into the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks. With brain neuroimaging, he is trying to understand how their contemplative practices change a human brain — functionally and structurally. We’ve wanted to speak with the neuroscientist for several years now, but it wasn’t until Krista spoke to him at Emory University last fall that we were able to schedule an interview.
Early in his career, Davidson was discouraged from doing this work by his advisors, who feared he wouldn’t find any results. His research has implications not just for practitioners of Buddhism, but also for improving the learning and social behavior of school children. His most thrilling finding is that our brain is more flexible than we realize, even in adulthood.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets:
- As we get set for interview w/ neuroscientist Richie Davidson, enjoyed @SmithsonianMag’s “Top 10 Myths about the Brain”http://bit.ly/kqRdG7 24 May
- Krista is now interviewing neuroscientist Richard Davidson (of @DalaiLama fame)! We’ll be live-tweeting for the next 90 mins. #meditation 24 May
- You might know Davidson for peeking into the brains of Buddhist monks http://bit.ly/kLdczm 24 May
- @Wisc_CIHM he studies “healthy qualities of mind such as kindness, compassion, forgiveness and mindfulness” http://bit.ly/jrMxc4 24 May
- As a kid he was a ham radio operator. And now he studies “contemplative neuroscience.” 24 May
- Davidson’s been on our radar ever since speaking during HHDL’s visit to Emory last year http://bit.ly/izyTdE 24 May
- His friends and colleagues call the Professor “Richie.” 24 May
- “What modern neuroscience is teaching us is that there is a lot of neuroplasticity (in the brain), and change is possible.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “It’s not the genes are unimportant, it’s just that they’re much more dynamic than we previously understood.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “Contemplative Neuroscience—the study of the impact of contemplative practices on the brain.” -Professor Davidson 24 May
- “The Dalai Lama challenged me, he said why can’t you use technological tools to study kindness and compassion?” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “I committed to doing everything I could to put compassion on the scientific map.” -Richard Davidson. 24 May
- 6 emotions studied: Happiness, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness, and Surprise. “This is the best you can do with Western Psychology?”-Davidson 24 May
- RT @FullContactTMcG: I’d be curious to know how we are re-wiring our brains with being becoming multitaskers with an inability to focus. 24 May
- @FullContactTMcG Will forward to Krista in the booth. Thanks. 24 May
- “The best way to teach compassion is to embody it. Through being that the individuals in the vicinity of that person will learn from it.” 24 May
- “That’s what’s so delicious about being in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “The word ‘meditation’ in Sanskrit comes from the word ‘familiarization.’” As in familiarization with one’s own mind. -R. Davidson 24 May
- “There are literally hundreds of different kinds of meditation practices, understood to produce different effects.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “Mindfulness—moment to moment non judgemental attention and awareness.” -Richard Davidson 24 May
- “Based on everything we know in neuroscience, change is not only possible, it’s the rule rather than the exception.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “Our brain is continuously being shaped, we can take more responsibility for our own brain by cultivating positive influences.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “Most people still don’t think of qualities like happiness as being a skill, that can be enhanced through training.” -R. Davidson. 24 May
- “(We need) a different conception of happiness, more enduring and more genuine, not dependent on external circumstances.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “In the Buddhist tradition there’s tremendously rich detail in the description of the mechanics of these (contemplative) practices”-Davidson 24 May
- “I think the messiness and embodied nature of modern life just produces an enhanced signal for our attention.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “In many ways my life has objective signs of busyness and stress, it creates more opportunities for kindness and compassion.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “(We have) no idea how the subjective quality of consciousness emerges from the physical stuff of the brain.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “The idea of transformation meshes perfectly well with conventional scientific understanding.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “The key to a healthy life is having a healthy mind.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “The best way I can mentor and lead those around me is to embody these (mindful) qualities myself.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- “In meditation you experience time slowing down because you can notice more things per discreet moment and you’re more open.” -R.Davidson 24 May
- ”(Re: the value of presence) If we’re multitasking, it’s being present with the multiple tasks before us.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- That concludes our interview with Professor Richard Davidson! Thank you for retweeting. 24 May
The Act of Parenting Is Folding the Towels in a Sweet Way
by Krista Tippett, host
I was struck in that discussion by one story she told, about a man who participated in one of her meditation and Metta or “lovingkindness” retreats; she conducts these for Buddhist practitioners but also for rabbis and clergy and lay people of many traditions. As this man prepared to pack up and go home, he described an unsettling sense of vulnerability, of openness to life which also meant that his defenses were down. He felt blessedly sheltered in the context of that retreat but far too exposed to take his newfound vulnerability out into the world.
This has its corollary in becoming a parent, I think. One’s sense of sovereignty and safety goes into freefall — and stays there. But no one tells you this in advance! As the French theologian Louis Evely beautifully put it:
“(W)hen one becomes a father, or a mother, one suddenly sees oneself as vulnerable, in the most sensitive part of one’s being; one is completely powerless to defend oneself, one is no longer free, one is tied up. To become a father is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart.”
So how to live, how to love, how to know what we can do (and what we can’t) to raise children who will participate in the world’s beauty and its pain and be safe inside their skin. This too is a conundrum, a daunting challenge that we rarely name together. But it is always there if we are raising children not merely to be successful (and there’s lots of advice about that), but to be good and grounded and kind.
As you might hear in the audio above, I went into this conversation with Sylvia Boorstein hoping for some practical wisdom about imparting such qualities of character. In the course of our time together, some of it in exchange with an audience of others with children in their lives, we circled back to the simplest and most daunting reality of all: our children are likely, in the end, to act and live as we act and live. Nurturing their inner lives means nurturing our inner lives, for their sake.
I couldn’t have found a better conversation partner on this. Sylvia Boorstein has four grown children and seven grandchildren, and her spiritual practice is blessedly reality-based. Buddhism, of course, is at its core about embracing reality head on, about minimizing suffering in life by first acknowledging that suffering is a fact of life and resolving not to make it worse.
So, as she describes, this spiritual practice has helped her grasp that her lifelong tendency to worry is simply a quality she possesses, no more remarkable than the fact that she is short and has brown hair. Others of us may have a tendency towards anger, or to reach for sensory comfort when life throws its curve balls. The trick for achieving balance and joy in our own lives — a trick made both harder and more important by the presence of children who exhaust as well as delight us — is first to know this about ourselves.
Spiritual parenting, as Sylvia Boorstein describes it, is not about adding work or effort to our overly busy lives. It is about self-knowledge and “wise effort” that helps us live gracefully moment by moment. It is manifest as much in how we fold the laundry as in how we discipline or praise our children. She offers this, for example, as a simple piece of effort that can reorient our attitudes and responses in all kinds of situations. Rather than asking, “Am I pleased?” in any given situation, we can ask instead, “In this moment, am I able to care?”
Meditation and Mindfulness for All of Us: Six Questions with Sharon Salzberg
by Kate Moos, managing producer
Sharon Salzberg is one of the pioneering teachers of Buddhist thought and meditation in this country. A co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, she has taught mindfulness for 30 years, and is the author of several books, including Loving-kindness, Faith, and most recently, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation.
In our show with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Krista cites Sharon Salzberg’s work as an early conveyor of Buddhist and mindfulness practice in this country. We interviewed her in the very early days of this project for a show called “The Meaning of Faith” and in 2008, at the height of the worst economic downturn this country has seen since the Great Depression, to glean her insights into navigating a world of reduced expectations.
I’ve experimented with mindfulness meditation but never managed to develop a consistent practice. Most recently, my insight on this difficulty is that I want mindfulness practice to deliver me some emotional goods, or put me in a better mood, and when that doesn’t happen I get discouraged. What kind of expectations — if any — should I bring to this experience as a beginner?
Meditation is an experiment we are making, bringing us out of our normal habits of intense self-judgment, comparing, and impatience. Mindfulness isn’t about what is happening; it is about how we are relating to what is happening — how much awareness, balance and compassion are bringing to this moment’s experience, whatever it is.
For example, it is very likely you will find your attention wandering, not 45 minutes after you first begin, but probably within a few seconds. You get lost in a fantasy, or fall asleep. That is normal and not a sign of failure. What I emphasize is that the critical moment in your meditation is the moment you see you’ve been distracted; instead of falling into our usual habits of self-condemnation, that’s a time we can practice letting go while being kind to ourselves, and work with the renewing power of beginning again.
Practicing mindfulness sometimes just seems to make my mind race even more than usual. Are there any ways I can prepare for my practice that will help me slow down before I begin?
It can help to do some walking or movement meditation before sitting, to help settle your energy. These are simple techniques that, if walking, involve feeling sensations in our feet and legs — things like heaviness, lightness, hardness. Or if you are lifting your arms instead of walking, it’s the same effort. Simply feel what’s going on in your body.
And once you sit down to begin that part of meditation, you can set an intention that might help frame all the coming experiences in a bigger context, like “I am practicing to learn balance, neither fighting my thoughts or letting them overwhelm me.” That’s like putting the wide-angle lens on the camera, and you can feel some space from the racing thoughts. Also, remember it won’t last forever. That period of agitation is not revealing who you really are, what your life will now look like forever. This too will pass.
There is almost undeniable evidence that regular meditation brings predictable medical, psychological, and cognitive benefits. Really, it almost appears it makes us smarter and better-looking and it costs nothing. Why do I resist it? Why do I prefer to watch embarrassing television as a way to relax? It seems perverse!
I often say to people, “Isn’t it ironic that if someone said to us, ‘Here is this thing you can do 20 minutes a day, and it will really help your friend,’ we’d probably do it. But to put in that 20 minutes for ourselves is much more difficult.”
It is difficult, but if we really consider the reported benefits, we also see that doing something like meditation isn’t selfish or self-centered. If we become depleted, overwhelmed by the circumstances of our lives, perpetually irritable, or disconnected, we are not going to be able to give much to others.
The common difficulty is why I think it is good to be both reasonable and realistic. Try to make a commitment you can keep — even five minutes a day is a good beginning, and a way to cut through the momentum of our busyness and lack of connection to our inner lives.
We have been creating new shows as part of a series called “The Civil Conversations Project,” exploring how we can create healthy engagement and deeper listening across some of the deepest and most entrenched divides in American public life. We live in a world of very real conflict — conflict that doesn’t evaporate when we decide to be polite or civil to each other. Does mindfulness have a place in helping us navigate real-world conflicts?
I think mindfulness could have a significant place in that navigation. Clearly it helps us have more self-awareness, including helping us be in closer touch with our intentions and motivations: “What do I actually want out of this encounter? Resolution? Revenge? Vindication? Understanding?” We can see our motives and decide if we want to pursue that stance or not.
One of the functions of mindfulness is to give us options. We can see our reactions building early, and not just after we have already pressed “send” on that nasty, hostile email or closed a door we actually hope could remain open. We see what is happening within, without panic or getting lost in the reaction. We know we can follow it out or let it go. And because mindfulness helps us be in touch with a big range of feelings, thoughts, and reactions, we know from experience that we can take a strong, principled stand on something while not demonizing someone else for their views or even their actions. We learn that we can be fierce without hating.
You are one of the early interpreters of Buddhism in this country and have been meditating and teaching for decades. You’re also fairly wired; I first reached out to you about this interview on Twitter, for example. Some people predict that new technologies and mobile communication devices will just make us more anxious and distracted, but you seem to find them very useful. Do you experience a contradiction in this?
I think of myself as not particularly technologically savvy. My iPhone has few apps aside from The Weather Channel and a flashlight (though I think I am on a meditation app myself), and there are probably a thousand things my computer can do to make my life easier that I haven’t yet learned. But from the first time I did a tele-teaching, and heard that someone was calling in from Moscow, I loved the idea of our being able to connect to each other so easily.
I do spend quite a bit of time on Twitter (I confess), have done a tweet chat and have more coming. I do find these things quite useful. What’s sad is sitting in a hotel lobby somewhere and seeing every single person in there constantly on a cell phone or PDA, seemingly not noticing where they actually are. And since I do it myself, I try to remember to bring my attention back to my breath and the present moment.
Any final words for someone starting out?
The proof of the benefit of meditation comes in your life. You might not have a great breakthrough experience sitting this Thursday morning, though of course we would like that. It might show itself in your greater ability to begin again once you’ve made a mistake, or really listening to someone rather than mostly contemplating all the other things you need to do as they converse.
There needs to be a critical look at whether meditation is worth your pursuing, but we need to practice it for a while before evaluating, and then evaluate on the basis of your life. After all, we don’t practice mindfulness meditation to become a great meditator; we practice to have a more balanced, aware, and connected life.
Photo of the author by Liz Matthews.
A Necessary and Vital Moment for Jon Kabat-Zinn and Being Mindful in All of Our Senses
by Krista Tippett, host
» audio-only download (mp3, 51:09)
I’m listening with new ears this week to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s practical approach for calming ourselves, and also being a nourishing presence in the world. Before this interview, I had read and heard of Jon Kabat-Zinn for years. But I hadn’t really grasped that he is first a scientist — a molecular biologist — and second one of the world’s leading experts on meditation. And it was when I listened to talks he’d given at Google and MIT that I really wanted to have this conversation with him.
He is the real thing — a teacher — with a personal combination of erudition, warmth, wit, and wisdom. As we began to speak, he told me that the seeds were planted in his earliest life with his microbiologist father and painter mother to pursue the nature of the human condition in its fullest sense.
In more than three decades of work at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Jon Kabat-Zinn has contributed mightily to demystifying meditation — taking it out of a box that says it is only for Buddhists or special practitioners, then studying its effects clinically and bringing the fruits of his research into life-changing work with the ill and dying, with leaders, and with Olympic athletes. He has followed a conviction that began to grow in him after he began to meditate while a doctoral student at MIT in 1966: that if the deepest insights behind mindfulness meditation are true, they must be true for everyone, in every circumstance. That is, the facts of impermanence and imperfection as a commonplace part of life apply to us all; we all struggle to live gracefully with those realities, and we all create suffering for ourselves and those around us as we resist and deny them.
The real challenge that defines our humanity is this: how do we take on reality as it unfolds, navigate it, and truly stay awake and alive in this moment of life, whatever its contours. And here is the silver lining, if you will, of Buddhism’s frank insistence on suffering as a feature of life: a parallel insistence that equanimity and even joy are within our grasp in every moment, without anything at all needing to change. The stakes for getting this right are high. As Thoreau said, in one of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s favorite lines, “Only the day dawns to which we are awake.”
He also points out that our wondrous, seductive, addictive new generations of technologies — at once liberating and stress-inducing — are themselves changing us. And they will force us to re-examine the deepest meaning of what it means to be human. Part of this work, surely, will be in living into our understanding of that second level of knowing that we know — of sovereignty over our minds, of awareness that encompasses “thinking” but also transcends it and can galvanize it towards greater sanity, creativity, and healing.
There is a paradox here that I love, and that I explore with delight with Jon Kabat-Zinn in this conversation. That second level of knowing — being mindful — is not about being in one’s head, just as meditation is not about sitting with one’s thoughts. It is first and foremost about rooting in the whole of experience. In the first instance, this means rooting ourselves in our own bodies, in all of our senses, in breath, in the mind itself as a “sense” and not just a cognitive realm. There are a couple of minutes in this hour in which we hear Jon Kabat-Zinn conduct an introductory meditative experience for employees at Google, which we also partake of by way of radio. This spiritual technology or way or living, however you want to name it, is immediately effective and at the same time an engagement for a lifetime. It is about “coming to our senses” in the fullest sense of that phrase.
We don’t have to schedule a trip to the monastery to enjoy the benefits of stopping for bells of mindfulness. We can use many ‘ordinary’ events in our daily lives to call us back to ourselves and to the present moment. The ringing of the telephone, for example: many of my students pause to breathe in and out mindfully three times before they pick up the phone, in order to be fully present to themselves and to the person calling them. Or when we are driving, a red light can be a wonderful friend reminding us to stop, relax, let go of discouraging thought patterns and feel more space inside.
—Thich Nhat Hanh, from his interview in Friday’s Huffington Post.
I greatly appreciate Marianne Schnall’s line of questioning here. She could’ve gone philosophical on us, but she didn’t. She’s seeking advice on how to better understand and operate in this frenetic, always-connected world we live in. How do we vacation and relax? How do we prioritize our relationships with people and our electronic gadgets? These are real questions we are all struggling with in the most ordinary of ways. Which reminds me of this quote that I almost featured:
“Relationships are like a forest: it takes a long time to build up precious trust, but one really thoughtless act or remark can be like a lighted match that destroys everything.”
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Prayer, Attention, and Will
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
As I was listening to last week’s program, one part that stood out to me was Krista’s question to Stephen Mitchell about the last line in his book, The Enlightened Mind, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” A quote from the French philosopher Simone Weil, Mitchell responded:
Well, that’s a marvelous definition. I love that. I think that could be as close as someone can get to a wonderful definition of prayer. In that sense, prayer has nothing religious about it. A mathematician working at a problem or a little kid trying to pick out scales on the piano is a person at prayer.
Weil has come up before at SOF, as a potential candidate in another run of programs about historical figures (we just finished the first series with our program about Sitting Bull). Intrigued, I did a bit of searching an found the quote in an essay by Weil titled “Attention and Will,” from Gravity and Grace, the first collection of her essays to be published in book form. Here’s the same quote with a bit more context:
We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.
The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them. To beg for them is to believe that we have a Father in heaven. Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.
Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud man. It is the result of a mistake.
Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.
Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.
Dharma Talking with Cheri Maples
» download (mp3, 12:53)
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
I recently caught up with dharma teacher Cheri Maples, who appeared in our 2003 program “Brother Thay: A Radio Pilgrimage with Thich Nhat Hahn.” Back then, Maples was a police captain (later an assistant attorney general) in Madison, Wisconsin. She spoke with Krista about what it means to be a compassionate cop who practices mindfulness awareness on the job.
We’ve re-aired “Brother Thay” seven times (!) since its inaugural broadcast, and noticed that people consistently resonate with Maples and her personal story. Maples was in town recently to deliver a dharma talk (PDF) so I decided to go and see what’s changed in her life since she and Krista last spoke.
Maples reflected on the surprising ways in which her life changed course after she accepted an invitation from Thich Nhat Hahn to travel together to Vietnam in 2007. The following year, the Zen master formally ordained her as a dharma teacher through a ceremony called “The Transmission of the Lamp.” She is no longer employed by the state, but she’s still involved with the criminal justice system through a new organization she co-founded called The Center for Mindfulness and Justice.
Maples drew a standing-room only crowd for her dharma talk that evening. She spoke about gratitude, joy, wonder, tenderness, and mystery. Here’s something I jotted down that stuck with me: “The hell in your life is the compost of your enlightenment.”
The Ceaseless Society
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
I’m not going to lie. I’m really enjoying Jon Kabat-Zinn. His Google talk introduced me to some very simple techniques that I’ve been using lately to help me fall asleep faster. Bedtime is when my mind is freed from all restraints, unfortunately. That’s when the hamsters go nuts, and it usually takes me an hour to fall asleep, on average. But just breathing the way Jon Kabat-Zinn shows has helped me bring my ETA to sleep down to about 15 minutes. Joy.
He jokes about how, in the 1960s, while some Westerners were heading off to forest refuges in India to learn to meditate, counterintuitively, he discovered meditation at perhaps the most accomplished technical institute in the world, MIT. Here he is back at MIT in 2006 to talk about the increasingly hectic pace of life in the 21st century. (He gets on stage around the 18:00 minute mark.)
In his conversation with Krista, Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about one aspect of that hectic life: our 24/7 networked reality and the difficulty it poses. In some sense, I think this is going to be a generational thing, a matter of conditioning. But one worthwhile question he asks is, “Who are we going to be without the technology?” I’ve been thinking about this alongside my recent discovery of Ray Kurzweil and his thoughts on the future of human evolution, A.I., and digital networks. I’ll be set to retire around the time the singularity happens in 2045, and by that time, apparently, we might be living in some kind of Matrix society (i.e. lots of trench coats and sunglasses?).
Here I am blogging on the Web about how networked we all are and will continue to be. Well, fine, I can’t escape. The machines have me. OK, time to take a breath. I could choose to be paralyzed by the immensity of the big problems of civilization or the little ones in my life, or I could just…whew…relax a little bit, stop freaking out, and start each day fresh.