Saturday, April 25, 2015

Can Mindfulness Rewire the Brain to Cause Kindness, Compassion, and Ease?

The Dalai Lama issued neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison a challenge: instead of spending so much time studying conditions like fear, depression, and anxiety, why not apply your rigorous scientific methodology to studying the qualities of kindness and compassion? That was in 1992, and Dr. Davidson has been doing just that ever since.

One manifestation of Dr. Davidson’s work is the mindfulness training going on in schools like Glenn Stephens Elementary, here in Madison where I currently teach. Our 4K classes have been learning the power of empathy and kindness through mindfulness as part of their social emotional curriculum; and our fifth graders and their teachers are learning mindfulness techniques as well. Both experiences are part of larger research studies being conducted by the UW's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, founded and headed by Dr. Davidson.

This week I was invited to watch and discuss an incredible documentary on the power of mindfulness meditation (thank you, Marci of Backyard Yoga!) called Free the Mind: Can You Rewire the Brain Just by Taking a Breath? The film traces two unique research projects at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. In one a group of veterans, all suffering from PTSD, went through an intensive meditation training program. The purpose of the training was to attempt to rewire their brains so that they could reduce the amount of daily trauma they were suffering. The research methodology was rigorous, using MRIs, attitude inventories, and other methods of documenting and analyzing emotional and physical changes in the men. A corollary project was going on in the Waisman Center’s preschool program. The children participated in compassion meditation training.

The focus of the film was on two Iraq war veterans suffering from PTSD and a five year old suffering from ADHD and extreme anxiety.  One of the veterans had witnessed unforgettable horrors during the war including when one of his buddies had all four limbs blown off. The other had been an intelligence officer and interrogator and suffered immense guilt over what he’d done to others. The five year old had many manifestations of his anxiety, but the most visible and heart wrenching was his deep fear of elevators. 

The men made measurable improvement in their ability to deal with their PTSD in just seven days, with residual effects in the months afterward. The film ended with the little boy getting onto the Center’s elevator with a group of his classmates—although not without trepidation—and riding to the sixth floor to look out the window from that height.

I’ve been reading a lot about the success various schools have been having with meditation techniques such as Transcendental Meditation. Celebrities like Anderson Cooper and Jerry Seinfeld have reported on how learning meditation changed their lives.  The technique used by Dr. Davidson and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds is called “mindfulness.” 

Dr. Davidson is quoted on the movie’s website as saying, “We actually have no idea of how conscious experience arises from this blob of matter that weighs three pounds. It’s really still very much a mystery.” And, "The brain is the most complicated organ in the universe...we're just beginning this journey [of discovering how it works]."  Watch for more posts on this subject as I begin to explore my own mindfulness and the work of people like Dr. Richard Davidson.

If you’d like to read more this topic, try these titles:

Read about my experience when the Dalai Lama came to Madison.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Wisconsin Film Festival Features Peter Anton in "Almost There" Documentary

One of the jewels of the Madison cultural scene is the Wisconsin Film Festival. This year’s 150 films are spread throughout seven theaters over a span of eight days.  Run largely by the grace of a huge volunteer force (headed up by a relatively small paid staff), the festival prides itself on its diverse offerings from a wide variety of international fair to “Wisconsin’s Own” offerings, from student films to a recently discovered Orson Welles film.

This year my husband Mark and I lucked into a couple of tickets (thanks, Stan and Theresa!) to the festival’s showcase documentary, Almost There.  Described as a “coming-of-(old)-age story,” the film traces the discovery of 83 year old “outsider” artist Peter Anton who was found living in isolated squalor in East Chicago, Indiana.  At times hard to watch, the film takes the viewer on an emotional journey as Anton’s first chance at artistic recognition is brought low by a potentially sordid discovery about his past. But this particular tortured artist ultimately demonstrates his resiliency and this particular audience member (me) was left with a sense of awe and wonder at how his life turns out. 

The film probes many facets of the human experience: creative obsession, mental illness, the heroic if unappreciated willingess of individuals to step up and try to make a difference in another person's life, and so much more that you have to see it to get it. What I was amazed by was the way in which Anton, irrascible and often demanding, drew people to him. From the little girl who cleaned up his pastels at the Pierogi Festival to the neighbors and social workers who made sure he had a place to live and food to eat, people constantly looked beyond his scabbed face and unkempt hair and clothes to the inner man. While some might say he used those who reached out to help him, in the end he gave as much as he took in terms of lifting others up. There were just an incredible number of layers to this film.

Almost There was co-produced and co-directed by Chicago filmmakers Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden who were just as repelled by and drawn in to Anton’s life as the people they interviewed and featured in the documentary. Their ability to take eight years worth of footage and tell a difficult yet compelling story with honesty, focus, and the unexpected twists and turns of life makes the film Oscar quality in this reviewer's opinion.

For those who find in-depth studies of humanity on the personal level to be as fascinating as I do, I highly recommend this film if it screens anywhere near you.