1st International Conference of Contemplative Studies
1st International Conference of Contemplative Studies
The International Symposia of Contemplative Studies kicked off their first conference ever in Denver Colorado over the weekend of April 26-29, 2012, by having Jon Kabat-Zinn give the opening speech to the audience and I knew that the experience was going to be one of a kind. What an amazing idea to bring together for the first time, contemplative teachers from multiple traditions of religion and spirituality with scientists who research and study the effects of contemplative practice. I had the pleasure of attending this conference recently and felt that many of the teachers and scientists (some of whom are monks and PH.D’s) are reporting much of the similar ideas and conclusions that I am communicating through my work. I will be sharing the findings that were shared with me at this conference and my reflections & thoughts on my humble yet privileged experience of “being present”.
What is a contemplative practice and how is it being defined?
Wikipedia claims the root word for contemplation is Latin for a building for worship, meaning in the temple; and in a religious sense it means meditation or prayer. In Greek philosophy, Contemplation was an important part of the philosophy of Plato; Plato thought that through contemplation the soul may ascend to knowledge of the divine forms. In Christianity, contemplation refers to a content-free mind directed towards the awareness of God as a living reality. This corresponds in some ways; to what in Eastern philosophy is called Samadhi, or one-pointed concentrated awareness. In Eastern Christianity contemplation literally means, the state of beholding God, or union with God, known as theoria or as theosis. The process of changing from the old man of sin into the newborn child of God and into our true nature as good and divine is called theosis. Contemplation as a practice is finding resonance in the West for businesses – for example in Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization– and in universities in fields as diverse as architecture, physics, and the liberal arts. The innovative leader and giant company of Google has lead the way with their promotion of mindfulness meditation from Jon Kabat-Zinn that can even be seen on YouTube. For this conference most of the studies were on mindfulness meditation, yoga and compassion training; and reported the positive health benefits that science and research is seeing from the results of these practices. Initial results have showed effects such as lowering anxiety, depression, negative emotions levels, reducing pain, and boosting the immune system.
Compassion, Empathy, and Gamma Brainwaves
Compassion training and developing empathy were the first topics I attended; I was interested in particularly the loving-kindness intention training techniques. Compassion training is reported to help the insula and cingulate cortices areas of the brain which is being linked to empathy and even 7 minutes can make you feel more connected. Compassion is to contemplate someone’s suffering with the wish to relieve that suffering by using a loving-kindness intention. Empathy is feeling the pain of another and many times at this point we can ourselves become distressed or we can use compassion and become aware of possibilities that can help another in love and kindness. Using compassion training we work to do several things; stabilize the mind, create compassion toward a loved one, create compassion toward self and others, and creating compassion for shared humanity and using active compassion throughout one’s life. According to early research, those who have had compassion training are 6 and a 1/2 times more likely to show compassion to oneself, and 3.5 times more likely to show compassion to others. This training has been shown to lower anxiety levels and reduces stress hormones in the saliva and has tremendous potential for social growth as we know that more compassion in the world could alter it almost overnight.
Gamma brainwave states have been shown to correlate with compassion and loving-kindness states measured in the brain with EEG machines, and at this conference it was reported that long-term meditation is correlated to higher gamma brainwaves. This study indicated that long-term states develop in people who have meditated anywhere from 6,000-10,000 hours. They have more gamma brainwave states and they reoccur more often in sleep and throughout the day. Other research on neuro-plasticity and compassion or mindfulness training would support that fact that we have long-term and short-term changes in our brains which can develop new pathways or re-grow different parts of the brain.
Meditation Effects on Pain
Mindfulness meditation and its relationship to pain and suffering had some interesting and profound results. It was reported in a study of participants that 20 minutes for 4 sessions of mindfulness training, participants experienced a 40% reduction in their intensity of pain, and a 57% reduction in the unpleasant pain sensation. This seems quite high especially considering that the study stated that when using morphine as a solution for pain, studies indicate that participants usually report 20-25% reduction in pain. This is only one study but there is beginning to be a plethora of research indicating a reduction in pain and tension through mindfulness training. We believe that when the client changes their relationship to pain by observing it and letting it be, knowing that sensations in the body are not permanent, the pains become less. When we don’t react to the pain but observe its coming and going, the suffering only comes when we add resistance to the pain. Studies also indicated that the more meditation that the participants had done, the more sensitive they were to pain, although the pain hurt less. One of the conclusions with this work was the fact that the pain experience does not seem to change but the anxiety associated with the pain, as well as the resistance to the pain changes and therefore we are seeing significant reductions in pain when using mindfulness meditation.
Studies have been conducted using mindfulness for eating problems, called mindful eating. We do know that mindfulness does not correlate to weight loss but most diets do not correlate to long-term weight loss either. We do have studies that report that the relationship to eating improves and that many people end up having an easier time losing weight after completing a mindfulness-based program. Many of the researchers think that this is because it is much easier to focus on your goals and not get trapped by the self defeating thoughts and emotions that can come from the untrained mind. It becomes about nutrition and finding balance between eating healthy and treating yourself from time to time, it’s about quality not quantity. Participants disengage from habitual patterns and move away from the struggle of over-eating. Participants move toward savoring their eating by nourishing the body and accept themselves as they are, shifting the perspective of the eating experience. Several studies revealed that eating junk food when you are stressed is what causes the belly fat and abdominal fat. Through reducing stress, regulating the emotions, and developing strategies to relate to food in a different perspective; mindful eating can be a powerful tool for many to use and develop the power to change their relationship to the eating experience and to themselves.
For me the most powerful talk came when a neuroscience, a Buddhist, and a Christian monk took the stage to talk about health, compassion training, and basic human spirituality. We got to hear that the goal of compassion training is a healing one but it is also in order to develop compassion as 2nd nature. This means that we feel more empathy and therefore more compassion to help others if we have the power. From the perspective of all three, they each used different language but insisted they were all talking about the same shift in perspective as you use a contemplative practice; the metaphor was different doors to the same room. What the practice does, whether it’s contemplative prayer, mindfulness meditation or compassion training, is allow you to observe your thoughts, emotions, and concepts of yourself. You sit and observe countless self-concepts until you can’t observe anymore “I’s” and this is your true self or Buddha nature or Christ self, as explained. The only way you can truly experience this Self is by being present; this shifts our perspective from ego to a more connected perspective of who you are. As we examine the role of Jesus, it is from a mystical point of view, which we can tell from much of his speaking throughout the Gospels (The Bible and Gnostic scripture). You love your neighbor as yourself because in the higher perspective, you and your neighbor are one. Through inner-wisdom you develop the perspective that your inner-nature or essence is the same as all human beings despite the fact that they may be of different culture, skin color, or background. In this way we have a basic human spirituality with universal principals that we can always be grateful for and the only time we can ever be truly grateful, or be one with the Higher Perspective is in the present moment.
Yoga was the main topic of another interesting lecture that I attended at the conference and the subtle bodies were mentioned to a minimal degree. Yoga means to yoke or union between God and man, between the microcosm and macrocosm; which pretty much fits the exact definition of contemplative practice defined earlier. There is no real difference between yoga and meditation, yoga is meditation in movement, and the heart of any yogic practice is meditation. Yoga aims to steady the mind and develop subtle energy or prana, sometimes called chi. Breathing and breath-work are central in any yoga or meditation practice and helps develop the energy centers or chakras throughout the body. My experience and research has lead me to believe that the subtle energy body is a key to the health of the body and overall general health of a person. The subtle body was mentioned in this workshop in that it can be developed through yoga and can be important for healing. Research has shown that yoga can decrease sleep disturbances, stress hormones, as well as anxiety and frustration, and cancer related symptoms. Yoga, as many Americans have discovered, has increasing benefits to health and healing and many studies, many which are just beginning, are proving just that.
At the end of the conference Richard Davidson gave the keynote and explained that contemplative studies is only in a beginning stage and has a long way to go, referring to the new area of study as just in kindergarten, compared to where he sees the field going. Davidson mentioned that other practices other then meditation need to be further studied, such as epigenetics, centering prayer, and more yoga. Davidson went on to say a true mind-brain-body integration needs to take place in the future for contemplative studies. Research has indicated some positive changes in those who practice as little as 10 minutes a day and even bigger changes happen for those who have practiced several thousand hours throughout life. The last speaker was different but he made an impact, as he is a Senator named Jon Ryan. He explained that adding more compassion and empathy toward our neighbors and ourselves could go a long way in any situation. Senator Ryan believes we need to build an infrastructure for a mind/body medicine highway that all hospitals, military bases, schools and an emphasis on teens and kids, businesses and health centers should have some type of access to holistic health programs. He also stressed teaching the reasons that one should practice contemplation. Teach the understanding of the healing effect that emerges as a person’s perspective shifts which impacts people’s lives when they start a contemplative practice and he encouraged the audience to push this idea out into the world.
Contemplative Practice as a vehicle for Political, Social, and Transformative Change
Contemplative practice can be used as a vehicle for social, political, & transformational change. The why of the practice is the most important aspect for change because when you practice you start to see that life is one whole connection and you are an integrated part of the whole; which many times this experience is healing within itself. If we can understand by experiencing the truth of this connection, which is done through contemplative practice, we can start to transform ourselves, our communities, and the world at large. When we live by a shift in perspective, which is to be more mindful and compassionate to ourselves and others we create systems whether social, political, or economical that make sense for this new perspective or worldview. Through contemplative practice, our view of our own nature, the nature within, and the nature of the Earth opens our minds and our hearts to the true reality that life is connected and everyone is part of that connection. Currently our systems, politically economically and socially, are based on the fact that we are separate and this is why we see a breakdown of these systems at this time in history. But as the old system continues to fall apart, a new paradigm emerges and we have new opportunities to update the systems to a more complete view of humanities love, connection, and wholeness.
Reflecting on my privilege to be at the 1st International Conference of Contemplative Studies, I had several comments as both as a practitioner, a scientist, and a teacher. As the conference was winding down I had the honor of discussing the implications of contemplative studies with a colleague of mine. We were led to discuss the effects of healing versus curing; to cure is to clear the symptoms of something that is troubling a person, but many times medicine cures the symptom but not the root issue. Healing is not only to possibly clear the symptoms, it’s to get to the root of the problem; it also empowers clients to cope with their suffering and pain. Healing also helps relieve suffering to help clients cope with life, despite the inevitability of pain and suffering. Healing is about turning the traumas or pain that we have experienced into a source of strength and compassion for ourselves and our life. I believe that this conference has given us a start to be able to quantify the experience and health that comes from a contemplative practice. As we continue to study the effects of contemplative practice, I believe we will continue to find significantly valid studies that prove how powerful and effective these practices are for a person’s health, well-being, performance, and a tool for global change.