Serenity Now

UW Professor’s Research Includes Studying Brain Waves Of The Peerlessly Tranquil Dalai Lama And Other Buddhist Monks.

Jay Rath For the State Journal
Reprinted with Author’s Permission

The search for happiness can take many paths. For example, you might fly Buddhist monks and teachers from India and Nepal to UW-Madison so you can watch the electrical impulses inside their brains while they meditate.

Richie Davidson
Using sophisticated brain imaging techniques,
Professor Richard Davidson, right, is helping to
solve the mystery of autism. Photo: Jeff Miller

At least, that’s what Richard Davidson has done.

The science superstar will present “Be Happy Like a Monk,” an overview of his ground-breaking research into the nature of happiness, at the Overture Center for the Arts this evening.

“In this culture we don’t take our minds as seriously as they are taken in other cultures,” says Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry. “It’s my belief that the emotional mind shouldn’t be treated any differently than other components of the mind, or the body.”

Davidson’s work as director of UW’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior has garnered attention from the London Independent newspaper, CNN, the BBC and a Time magazine cover story.

The leader of Tibetan Buddhism, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, wrote an article for The New York Times after visiting Davidson’s labs. The Dalai Lama also collaborated with Davidson and co-editor Anne Harrington for their 2001 book, “Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature,” published by Oxford University Press.

We can have the same serenity for which Buddhists are popularly renowned, says Davidson.

“Happiness can be thought of as a skill that can be learned in a way that is not dissimilar from learning a musical instrument or athletic skill. If you practice, you will get better at it,” he says.

But, he adds, “To produce the kinds of changes that people really yearn for requires work and training.”

A little background on Buddhism and the Dalai Lama: Siddhattha Gautama founded Buddhism in India around 580 B.C., following extensive travel and study. He became Buddha, “the enlightened one,” after he received a series of visions during three days of intense meditation. (The Deer Park Buddhist Center in Oregon is named after Gautama’s own religious settlement at Benares).

Gautama’s fundamental teaching, wrote H.G. Wells, “is clear and simple and in the closest harmony with modern ideas. It is beyond all dispute the achievement of one of the most penetrating intelligences the world has ever known.”

Buddhism grew to take many forms; the Dalai Lama leads just one branch. The religion strives to overcome three principal forms of craving in the individual — for sensuality, prosperity and personal immortality — in part through “right mindfulness” and “right composure,” two sign posts on “The Eightfold Path” that emphasize awareness, concentration and consideration. In other words, meditation.

Tests here of visiting Buddhists show that “there are some rather profound changes in the brain that occur with this purely mental exercise,” Davidson says.

In “Visions of Compassion,” Davidson and co-editor Harrington identify three steps to Buddhist meditation. The first is relaxation, with an emphasis on breathing. Davidson suggests that we can all benefit from a form of this.

“If we have a moment in our day when we’re not otherwise engaged, we can come back to our breath, since it’s always there, and just pay attention to a few breaths and use that to center ourselves,” he says.

The next step is attentional stability, focusing on a real or imaginary object. The third step is attentional clarity, during which the object is envisioned with increasing vividness.

During Buddhists’ meditation, “we don’t know if they’re changing the structure of the brain, though it’s our hunch that they do,” says Davidson. “But they do change the function of the brain over time, in a rather enduring way. So that kind of evidence suggests that these changes really do persist in a way that infuses everyday life with certain qualities that are cultivated by the meditation.”

For some automatic emotional responses, Davidson says, meditation may be more effective than Western psychology and psychiatry’s cognitive therapy.

In an eight-week UW study of non-Buddhists given meditation training, magnetic resonance imaging and other testing revealed changes, some lasting four months: 50 percent more electrical activity in the left frontal regions of the brain, associated with positive emotions and anxiety reduction, and an increase in antibodies of as much as 25 percent.

“There are some detectable changes after even a week of training,” Davidson says.

He also notes that Buddhist-style meditation is not the only route to happiness. There are other faiths, and other contemplative paths to “right mindfulness.”

“Many different traditions call upon many similar basic mechanisms to call upon these effects,” says Davidson. “I do believe there is something quite generic about this.

“I think the most important thing for the individual is to find the path that he or she feels most comfortable with, and which is most appropriate.”