Matthieu Ricard

Train your mind, change your brain

Cultivating the Inner Condition for Genuine Happiness

Wednesday, 28 October 2009, 16:00, Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Matthieu Ricard, former molecular biologist, Buddhist monk, French interpreter for H.H. Dalai Lama and author will talk on the vital role of mind training for achieving genuine happiness and on the impact that long term mind training has on the brain. He will give insights on the latest research in neurosciences involving expert meditators and their ability to monitor mental events and generate positive states such as compassion and focused attention.

We all seek some kind of happiness and a sense of fulfillment. No one wakes up in the morning thinking, "May I suffer the whole day." When we engage freely in any long-term activity, we do so in the hope that it will increase our well-being or that of others. We usually look outside for the causes of happiness. Likewise, when things go wrong, we instinctively search for outer remedies and try to change the conditions to suit ourselves. This often fails as, unfortunately, our control of the outer world is limited, temporary and often illusory. In fact, it is our mind that translates outer conditions into happiness or suffering, and, even though it may not be easy to transform one's mind, it is something that lies within the reach of our capacities.

We know that our state of mind can override outer conditions: in the midst of difficult circumstances, we can preserve one's inner strength, dignity and peace of mind. On the contrary, we may live in a "little paradise" where all the outer favorable conditions are gathered and yet feel great suffering within. Thus it is clear, that although outer conditions can considerably influence our well-being, they don't dictate it. It is indeed highly desirable to enjoy a long and healthy life, freedom and access to knowledge, but it is even more important to identify the inner conditions that lead to genuine well-being and those that destroy it. For this, we first need to apply insight and mindfulness. Secondly, we must cultivate the states of mind that favor authentic happiness and eliminate the afflictive thoughts and emotions that undermine it. This requires determination and perseverance. The whole process is call "mind training" and it lies at the heart of contemplative science.

Through introspective inquiry we gradually discovers that although some mental processes such as craving and hostility may be effective in the short term for acquiring specific objects that have been deemed desirable, or conducive for our survival, they are not conducive to the genuine flourishing of our self and others.

Can one rid one's mind from afflictive emotions?

This all depends on whether afflictive emotions are inherent or not to the fundamental nature of mind. There is a fundamental quality of mind that is present at all times: the basic quality of knowing, of being aware. This basic awareness is needed for the arising or any thought, remains as the basis of every thought that goes through the mind. It is also clear that craving, hatred and the feeling of self-importance require the presence of pure consciousness to arise, but are not inherent to pure consciousness. Pure consciousness can be compared to a mirror. The mirror allows the arising of images on its surface, ugly or smiling faces, but these images do not belong to the mirror itself and do not penetrate it. Since craving, hatred, jealousy and other afflictions are not permanent features of the mind, but arise because of transitory causes and circumstances; they can be neutralized and eventually eliminated.

Two diametrically opposed mental states cannot arise at the same time toward the same object. This is the rationale for first discovering the direct opposites of mental afflictions and then cultivating those antidotes. Thus the more we generate loving kindness in our mind, the less there will be room for hatred in our mental landscape. This is why mental training or familiarization, which is the true meaning of meditation, is crucial for dealing effectively with afflictive emotions as they arise so that they don't build up into lingering moods and, eventually, afflictive traits or temperament.

Mental training and brain plasticity

Over the last twenty years, neuroscientists have found that the brain is more "plastic" than was long believed, that its circuitry can be changed by outside as well as inside events. It was only in 1998 that neuroscientists discovered that new neurons are continually being generated in the adult brain. This faculty to change, whether by creating new neuronal connections or reinforcing existing ones, is called brain plasticity. The study of musicians who have played ten thousand hours of their instrument has shown, for instance, that the area of the brain that controls the movement of fingers had been considerably enhanced. Could mind training directed at increasing mental states such as altruism, compassion, inner calm and patience result in changes of similar magnitude? This is what new research programs are now trying to investigate.

Brain plasticity has long been a focus of Richard Davidson, a prominent neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, who has been studying the brain circuitry of emotions for the last two decades. Davidson hopes to learn whether the study of trained meditators can provide insights into the mechanisms of brain function or new therapeutic approaches for psychology. This collaboration has been catalyzed by the Mind and Life Institute, which was created in the 1980s by Adam Engle and the late neuroscientist Francisco Varela to foster a dialogue between Buddhist scholars and Western scientists. Over fifteen such meetings, each lasting several days, have been held since 1981. In September 2003, the meetings went public for the first time, with a conference called Investigating the Mind, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-sponsored by MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research. For three days, panels of neuroscientists and Buddhist scholars took the stage with the Dalai Lama before an audience of 1100, mostly scientists, to discuss attention, mental imagery, and emotion. Since then public meeting have been held in a number of places.

Because of advances in brain imaging and other behavioral tests, it has now become possible to learn more precisely and scientifically about those inner workings, and to test meditators' first-person insights with Western research techniques and to better understand the mental states they achieve through meditation.

Richard Davidson and his collaborator Antoine Lutz have been working with Buddhist meditators who have from 15,000 to 40,000 hours of meditation over 15 to 40 years in order to study the brain activity associated with positive emotions such as “unconditional compassion”. A few major publications about this fascinating research have appeared in various scientific journals. Similar research is also taking place at Princeton, Berkeley, Harvard, Zurich and Maastricht.

The purpose of Buddhist contemplatives getting involved in such collaboration is to share a wealth of introspective experience that might helpful for cultivating emotional balance, remedying attention deficit, cultivating authentic well-being and developing human qualities, thus contributing to a better world.