I’ve been pondering the exact mechanism why people can miraculously heal themselves and their lives when participating in Peace Intention Experiments, when I thought of Richard Davidson.
A psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Davidson spends his life attempting to locate where a particular emotion is triggered in the brain.
He has been particularly intrigued to discover that people with negative emotions have persistent activity in regions of the right prefrontal cortex.
He wondered whether the opposite was also the case, whether positive emotion led to more activity in the left frontal lobes. His brain research had come to the attention of the Dalai Lama, who decided to lend the University of Wisconsin a group of senior Tibetan monks who were highly skilled in meditation.
When Davidson tested one of the monks, he discovered more activity in the left frontal lobes than he had ever recorded. According to his neuroscientific measurements, this was the happiest man he had ever seen.
These results also suggested something even more significant to Davidson. Neural registration of emotion appeared to be highly plastic — or mutable — a learned skill that could develop with certain thoughts over time. Davidson went on to conduct extensive experiments with Buddhist monks to determine whether meditation actually conditions the mechanism of the brain to enable its owner to become happier and more empathetic.
Davidson and his colleagues recruited other Buddhist meditators highly experienced in a type of practice called “compassionate meditation” (Nyingmapa or Kagyupa in the Tibetan tradition), as well as a group of volunteers from the university community with no experience in meditation.
The novice meditators were given instruction in meditative practices written by Matthieu Ricard, a French-born Buddhist monk with a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, who acts as the main interpreter for the Dalai Lama.
For one hour per day for a week, the new meditators were to engage in a twenty-minute practice in “pure (non-referential) compassion” – an unconditional readiness and availability to help all living beings.
To train the participants in this state of mind, Ricard instructed them to think about someone they cared about, such as a parent, sibling, or partner, and to allow their minds to be invaded by a feeling of altruistic love (wishing well-being) or compassion (wishing freedom from suffering) for that person.
Ricard predicted that, after practicing this exercise for a short time, the novice participants would be able to generate a non-specific feeling of love and compassion toward all living things.
Both experienced and novice meditators were then placed in MRI scanners and told to adopt a state of compassionate meditation or a relaxed state of no emotion, positive or negative, while Davidson played various sounds — a woman in distress, a baby’s joyful laugh, or simple background noise — while measuring their brain waves and comparing activity during meditation and the relaxed, neutral state.
As Davidson predicted, brain activity was greatest during times of compassionate meditation while the baby’s cry was played.
Although it was far greater in the expert meditators than the novices, even the new meditators showed a greater sense of generalized compassion during meditation than when at rest.
It’s clear that practicing compassionate meditation regularly can sensitize us to others permanently, so that we are available to others in the way that Bishop suggests.
And that’s what Davidson’s monks show. They possess a brain circuitry of compassion that is more active than normal even during rest. As his research of novice meditators demonstrates, this ability can develop fairly quickly.
The Buddhist practice of compassionate meditation is very much like our natural impulse to give of ourselves unconditionally, which is exactly what happens during an Intention Experiment, when my participants are selflessly intending for peace.
And the biggest clue about our experiments from Davidson’s work is the area of the brain where activation occurs: the temporal parietal junction, in the right hemisphere.
Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has discovered that, during certain forms of meditation, the parietal lobes get damped down. This part of the brain helps us to generate a three-dimensional image of our bodies and to orient ourselves, and so enables us to work out “self” from “not self.”
Newberg also discovered during his research that a practitioner of compassionate meditation loses the sense of self and other and enters a perception of oneness.
The unconditional readiness to give during an Intention Experiment — part of our natural impulse to connect — helps to dissolve individual boundaries, enabling us to step out of our individuality and into the space between.
And that’s exactly the space where miracles happen.