The World Wide Web
The Dalai Lama's unique, decades-long relationship with fellow Buddhists and UW researchers in Madison
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Meanwhile, Richie Davidson’s plans are no less lofty or ambitious. That 1992 meeting led to years of visits from Tibetan monks, sent to UW–Madison by the Dalai Lama so Davidson could examine their brains. And while that earlier work focused on longtime “professional” meditators, one of his recent studies is with novice practitioners—studying the brains before and after of people who have never before attempted meditation. Davidson claims that after just two weeks of meditating thirty minutes a day, the brains of these new meditators show measurable, demonstrable changes.
But it’s not just about the findings; it’s about using them to help others. The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds has two major prongs: One, it conducts fundamental, neuroscientific, biological and behavioral research in its laboratory. Two is translational research—studying real people in real contexts with very real impact. For example, Madison’s preschool 4K students, particularly the more socioeconomically stressed segment, are now learning simple techniques with Davidson to cultivate mindfulness and kindness. And his work with PTSD-impacted soldiers is one of the subjects of a new Danish documentary called Free the Mind. Davidson says not all forms of meditation produce the same kinds of changes, that there are “literally hundreds” of different ways in which to meditate, and so one future challenge is to better match meditation styles to individuals. Ultimately, he hypothesizes that mind-control techniques such as meditation can facilitate health in this country in many ways, from decreasing bullying to combatting the obesity epidemic.
“If this turns out to be true, every health care insurance company in the nation is going to want to be on this bandwagon,” says Davidson. “It’s kind of like physical exercise was in the 1950s, when the vast majority of the population did not engage in regular physical exercise [and now most do]. I think it’s not unreasonable to expect that twenty years from now the same thing is going to be said of these mental practices.”
And get this: Davidson says he and his colleagues are nearly ready to publish a paper on their research looking at changes in epigenetics—the regulation and expression of genes—exploring whether it’s possible to influence the expression of our genes through mental practice.
“I think the implications of this work are really revolutionary,” says Davidson. “I believe when this is published it will make major headlines because this is absolutely groundbreaking. It’s never been shown before. We see changes in gene expression over the course of just eight hours of practice.”
It’s no wonder the Dalai Lama is so interested. His Holiness first got to see his mountaintop request come to fruition when he attended the grand opening of Davidson’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds back in 2010. The two men continue to meet three or four times a year.
“One of the amazing things he says is that he has two priorities for the rest of his life,” says Davidson. “One is to work on behalf of the Tibetan people. And the other is to keep meeting with scientists. Those are his two priorities. For someone like him to say that is incredible.”
And no, Davidson has never studied the Dalai Lama’s brain. He did ask him—once—back in 2001. It was more a formality, the kind of thing he would have forever kicked himself for if he hadn’t—but he says he knew the Dalai Lama would say no, and he did. Davidson has, on occasion, however, taken a peek at his own brain, but he doesn’t keep any kind of data. “That’s not why I practice,” he says. For him, it’s a bigger picture thing. Playing his part in the global whole, this web that connects us all to one another. It’s about interdependence. Ethics. Science. Spirituality. Compassion.
“I think that any kind of change has to begin with ourselves, and I think most people would agree that we’re in a friggin’ mess right now in the world,” says Davidson. “And the mess has been created by us. It’s a product of greed, it’s a product of lack of compassion, it’s a product of not being able to understand our interdependence among ourselves and among the physical resources on the planet. And in order to promote more positive change I think that we need to each embody it ourselves first.”
It’s heady stuff. And it’s all happening right here.
“I think that Madison is the epicenter of this work in the world right now,” he adds. “And I think it will, for the foreseeable future, continue to be.”
Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine.