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Mindful : June 2018
are engaged and how these networks interact with each other. Saron: It’s also possible that a person could get to similar places practicing some other skill with tremendous dedication to achieve a high degree of mastery. Think about the years of intense physical and mental training for an Olympic-level skier or a world- class violin soloist. The line between formal meditation practice and other focused activities blurs, but medita- tion can certainly be a complementary component. My wife says her cello practice and meditation practice are like two sides of the same coin. We have much more to learn about that. I also think there are styles of practice that may be more prone to fixation. There are many stories of people com- ing out of retreats unable to attend to daily living effectively. Neuroplasti- city is a two-way street, and you can maladaptively reorganize so that daily life actually becomes more complex. Jha: That’s why when we’re devel- oping prog rams, we need to think in terms of a suite of practices. How do you set a program up so that it doesn’t cause people to hyper-fixate on cer- tain practices that may become prob- lematic for them? Jon Kabat-Zinn did a really good job in developing MBSR. He didn’t just put in concentration practices. He has open monitoring practices in there. He’s got not just breath awareness and sitting, but body scan, and the sequence it’s offered in may correct against fixating tenden- cies. In my lab, we take a very similar approach. Since the networks them- selves are complex and their inter- relationships are equally complex, it seems unlikely that a single kind of training would be the silver bullet. Saron: I advocate a balanced perspec- tive on practice goals: There’s a whole spectrum from getting a little more focus and control of myself to achiev- ing altered states of consciousness such as we read about in the autobiog- raphies of great practitioners. Differ- ent goals yield different regimens, and different kinds of attention will need to be paid to those who take part. Barry Boyce: In training people, it seems very important to keep ambi- tions in check. If we have a program trying to help the average person take mindful pauses in daily life, we don’t say this is suddenly going to lead to astounding life changes. Modest goals are fine. The more you elevate the promise, the more attention must be given to the protocols, because you don’t get the benefits of training for nothing. Results are in proportion to time and effort. Saron: That’s a principle that should become widespread. Barry Boyce: Some people say mind wandering is our biggest problem; others say it’s just our mind at play. Jha: We need to be careful with the terminology. When I refer to mind wandering, I mean having off-task thoughts during an ongoing task. That can certainly have deleterious effects. The other version is when you’re not trying to complete a particular task at hand, but rather you are allowing the free flow of conscious experience. That can look an awful lot like what I just referred to, but there is a critical difference: It’s consciously engaged and doesn’t have the kind of negative outcomes that can occur when you’re asleep at the switch. Saron: This is where creativity comes in. You’re allowing for the emergence of that unconscious intelligence I referred to earlier. You don’t cut off access to it. That’s mind wandering with awareness. You value the content that emerges along the way—discov- ering things you didn’t know you were looking for. It gets back to the awe I was talking about earlier. I encour- age everyone to look at something National Geographic did with the work of Jeff Leichtman and his lab at Harvard. It’s very high-resolution 3-D images of teeny tiny portions of mouse visual cortex. It’s breathtaking to look at all that’s going on there in a 4-minute video narrated by Jeff. He talks about coming to a point where you relax and say “OK. I don’t get it!” When Leichtman asked his stu- dents to consider if knowing every- thing possible about the brain is a mile, how far have we traveled? Their answers tended to range from a quar- ter-mile to three-quarters of a mile. His answer: 3 inches. Our mandate in life as scientists is to be drenched in noncomprehension and to be sus- picious of when we really think we know how things work. That points to the irony of con- forming mindfulness training to a tinker toy version of reality, instead of something that could suggest the possibility of motivating people to investigate the vastness of their own mind. As Francisco Varela suggested, that is where science and contempla- tive practice can meet: as complemen- tary paths of deep inquiry. Vinod Menon once said to me at a UC Davis MIND Institute talk in Sacramento that “as our methods improve, our models will completely change, and our current models will look infantile.” Having been part of right brain/left brain dogma 40 years ago, I can attest to that. Jha: My son, who is a big physics kid and appreciates all that we’ve learned in the long history of physics, asked whether I think we’ll know everything there is to know about the brain in 200 years. If I tell him “no,” his response is something like “Why are you bothering?” And yet, we do bother, because it’s like a practice: You hold in mind those open questions all the time, as you continue to focus on learning what you can as it presents itself to you now. ● June 2018 mindful 55 science