Last week I traveled to the University of Wisconsin to participate in a scientific study of experienced meditators. It seems to be a rigorous study that is looking at the effects of mindfulness and loving kindness on stress, sleep, lifestyle choices, brain function, attention, and compassion. I don’t really know exactly what they are studying because the researchers only inform subjects of generalities, but from the perspective of the guinea pig it sure felt rigorous. There were many hours of computer tasks, surveys, fmri scans, pain, shock, and stress tests, and sleep monitoring over the course of 2 days.
I left this first session with two strong impressions. The first impression was of being immensely appreciative of the selfless generosity of the many participants who volunteered for this stressful and exhausting study. People can be so generous sometimes. Why do we volunteer to be monitored through one unpleasant task after another?
I was motivated partially by simple curiosity about these meditation studies, but mostly by devotion to meditation, plus a tinge of pride that my mind might be worth monitoring. Mostly it was the devotion to meditation that inclined me to sacrifice the time, comfort and energy for this experiment. Maybe it will result in findings that could encourage others to meditate. But why would someone in the control group do it?
The second impression I left with was of raw human vulnerability and humbleness. It is a deeply unsettling feeling to be a guinea pig for someone else’s experiment—especially experiments that emphasize stressful and unpleasant tasks. Being continuously monitored, having the inner workings of the brain monitored while doing waking tasks and sleeping, being monitored during social stress and pain tests, and filling out surveys one after the other, all created a rather raw sense of vulnerability. I left with greater compassion for the many people who have been studied doing one thing or another at universities and research institutes around the world.
Through mindfulness meditation we are accustomed to watching the mind in activities and in stillness, in both pleasant and unpleasant situations, but usually our attention is directed to events that we naturally encounter in the structure of our days, or that will support the activities and social groups that we engage with. The artificial environment of the laboratory sets a different stage. It focuses attention on our every response, but in an oddly impersonal and mechanical way. It will be interesting to see if they are able to measure any meaningful effects. I wonder how they can measure the ephemeral experiences of liberation from greed, hatred, and delusion, or the development of wisdom, equanimity, and clarity—this is the reason that I meditate. I don’t think we need more studies to show that meditation reduces stress and makes for a healthier lifestyle—that has already been demonstrated.
Well, this study occurs in three phases. Two more trips to Wisconsin ahead.