The Healing Power of Mindfulness P6

Daniel Vinograd



So I go in there, and I knew them all because it was a small community and everybody likes each other. But I was, of course, terrified. It’s like a lot hangs in the balance. Somebody says, “What’s this ‘he who dies before he dies does not die when he dies’?” This is the first question on my thesis. I’ve worked five years on this research, and they want to know… “he who dies before he dies.” Of course, they were pushing 50. I was 27 or something like that; they were in their 50s and thinking ahead. (laughter) That obviously piqued some interest. “You die before you die, you don’t die when you die. I want that.”


I said, “Do you really want to know?” They all said yeah. I said, “It might take some time.” “We’ve got time.” So actually, I would say half of my thesis defense was actually unpacking what mindfulness is about to these guys. This was in 1971, by the way. I wrote it up; it’s a chapter called “Dying Before You Die Deux” because the first “Dying Before You Die” was the other story that I told about first encountering meditation at MIT.


That’s just to say that I didn’t want to continue a career in molecular biology; I wanted to bring my training as a scientist together with my training in meditation, because it seemed like everybody’s doing the science, but nobody’s paying attention to the balance between thought and this other function of our brains and nervous system that no one’s paying attention to called awareness, that is painfully obviously bigger than thought because whatever thought you have or whatever emotion you have, you could embrace it in awareness. And not have to do anything with it, but it would change by virtue of simply holding it in awareness, if you were patient enough to do it. Especially if it didn’t feel good.
That’s what we teach now, and it’s come into the mainstream of medicine in ways that are really astonishing. The National Institute of Health is funding hundreds of studies on mindfulness to the tunes of hundreds of millions of dollars. The idea that that would have been the case in 1979, I like to say, more improbable than that the Big Bang would just all of a sudden stop and implode back on itself. And yet it’s happening. Mindfulness is now in the mainstream of medicine.


I’ll just show you some pictures before we go to questions. Would that be all right with you? Are you still awake? (laughter) Good. Because you don’t ever have to stop, even when you go to sleep. It’s being present. That’s all. Being fully present. Is anybody good at this? No. So don’t make, “Ugh, I’m no good at this.” Nobody’s any good at it. But all you need to do is be a little bit better than automatic pilot, and your life will rotate. It will be very, very different.


Every time anger comes up, the default mode comes up – whether it’s anger or anything else – Thich Nhat Hanh likes to say the reason we have to practice mindfulness, the reason we have to cultivate it intentionally, is that we’re busy cultivating the opposite all day long. Cultivating anger, cultivating jealousy, cultivating low self-esteem, cultivating all sorts of negativity in the emotional domain or in the thought domain.


The people who are doing the telomere research are saying that their research is showing that the real stress comes from thinking. This is a biological and molecular biological consequence that accelerates aging and accelerates heart disease. You can’t interview people who die of sudden cardiac death, but if you could, you’d find out probably it was a thought that did it. The wrong thought at the wrong time – dead. (laughter)


I’m actually not joking. It’s so serious that we need to laugh, and I want to say that about meditation too: it may have seemed like I’m not taking this stuff seriously. This stuff is so serious that it’s too serious to take too seriously. And I’m serious. (laughter)


If any of you were alive back then, this is the cover of Time Magazine back in 1983, four years after I’d started this stress reduction clinic. I look back on that time and I say, “Stress? What stress?” Compared to now. There was no internet, there was no email, there was no instant messaging. There were no computers, except mainframes. I used to say in the early ’80s, once I had my first PC, which was gigantic, that I could get more work done in a day than I used to be able to get done in a month. Well, that was in the mid-80s. Now, it’s like I can get more work done in a day than I can get done in a year. That’s not so good. We’re always “on.” Not so good. We’re not computer servers; we’re human beings.


Here is the evidence from Liz Blackburn’s lab and Alyssa Epple, who is the mindfulness researcher in her lab, proceedings in National Academy of Sciences showing telomere length as a function of years of chronicity of care giving of children – this is parents with children with severe medical disabilities. It’s an unavoidable stress; you can’t just walk out on your kids, “I don’t do stress. Sorry, goodbye children.” No, you can’t do that.


But look at this, also, in that study: this is a perceived stress scale. It’s the perception of stress that makes the difference. If you are just dealing with it because it’s the way it is, then you can be more transparent to the stress; your telomeres are longer. If you take everything personally, your telomeres degrade. So if you want one take-home message from this – this turns out to be harder to enact than it is to say – don’t take things personally when they’re not personal.


Then you might ask, “When are they not personal?” That’s a good question to keep asking yourself. It may be they’re never personal. It may be that the you that you think you are is not the real you. That you’re much bigger. Now the neuroscience is actually showing that. You want to be your narrative self? Fine. Then you’re using certain regions of the brain. You want to be your direct moment-by-moment experiential self, grounded in the body? You’re using lateral networks in the brain, a whole different brain profile. So you choose.


One is related more to happiness. The left activation in the prefrontal cortex, if you put monks in the scanners, and I’ll show you some pictures of that, they have tremendous activation in the left prefrontal cortex, and particular regions that have to do with approach and that have to do with emotional balance.


When we train people in MBSR, they shift from right activation to left activation in eight weeks. Their brains actually change structure in eight weeks. Work out of Sara Lazar’s lab, a German postdoctoral fellow who’s training with us in MBSR, and who has been our student, Britta Hertzel [sp], for years from Germany, young neuroscientist, has demonstrated that major regions of the brain change with eight weeks of mindfulness training and MBSR, including the hippocampus, including the cerebellum, including the posterior singular cortex.


All of these are involved in making meaning in self-regulation, in perception, decoding, memory, and learning. Not bad for eight weeks of what looks a lot, if you were looking in from the outside on our patients, looks a lot like nothing. They do nothing lying down; then they do nothing sitting; then they do nothing walking. Like this, like the Night of the Living Dead, really slow, meditative walking. (laughter) They’re doing nothing. And healthcare is paying for it. Amazing. How did they pull that off?


It turns out that brains are changing not just in terms of activity; in terms of structure. Significant thickening in those regions I mentioned, significant thinning in the amygdala, which is the emotional reactivity center, the threat center that triggers, fires off all the time whenever we feel threatened or accosted in one way or another.


God, I’ve got a whole talk here that I’m not going to give. How many of you see a triangle? Raise your hand if you see a triangle in this picture. Okay. Keep your hands up there. Look around so that you know you’re not alone if you see a triangle in that picture. It’s interesting, because there’s no triangle in that picture. The triangle’s defined by a three-sided figure, and what your mind does is it puts in the sides. If we shifted that little Pac-Man the tiniest little bit… so the mind can actually see things that are not there. The brain actually does that. It’s so good at that.


If I had time, I would show you this movie, which – how many of you have seen this image? Yeah, you can’t use it anymore. But I’ll just play it anyway. Anyway, it’s a movie, and they’re passing around basketballs, and you ask the room to count the number of times the people in the white shirts pass the basketballs. I could get it to work, but it would take too long. So you’re counting the number of times the people in the white shirts are passing the basketballs, one basketball per each, the whites and the blacks, and then in the middle this gorilla comes out. (laughter) And then goes off to the other side. But when you ask people to count the number of times the people in the white shirts pass the basketball, they don’t actually see the gorilla.


If we did it and none of you had seen it – 95% of people would have counted the number of times the people passed – usually you get a Poisson distribution, so you can’t even count correctly. (laughter) But then you don’t see the gorilla. Why? Because the brain has told itself, “The white shirts are what’s important. Tune out everything that’s not white.” Well, the brain, it turns out, is fantastic at – I just showed you. It sees things that aren’t there, and it doesn’t see things that are there. Not very reliable. (laughter)


Now, does that apply to you? I’ll leave that for you to decide. Just ask your spouse or your mother or your father. (laughter) Because that is part of the default mode. We are out of touch, seriously out of touch, with a lot of different elements of this.


This is just a quote from William James, basically saying if we could learn how to bring the mind back when it was wandering, that would be a good thing. It turns out the Buddhists have been doing that for thousands of years.


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