Monday, November 9, 2009

Thinking About Art, Meditation & Science

Here is a new painting. I have been spending a lot of time at the Art Gallery here in Victoria, watching the monks who created the sand mandala and wandering the galleries of old Thangka paintings and statues, attending the curator's wonderful talks and tours. We watched a film about an American woman who makes applique thangkas, regarded as the highest art form in Tibet. Truly amazing to watch the meditative detail as she winds threads around horse hair that outlines the pieces of silk brocade.

A couple who came to look at our house even brought me a book on Buddhist art and architecture from the Met! So I feel like I have been immersed in the ancient world of Buddhist art. And so it wasn't too surprising to find myself being drawn to do something that had an old world look. It's very different from what I usually do, based, in fact, on an old fresco of a Buddha. The colours are mine but the style is much more detailed and delicate.

On the Dharma front, we have been working our way through a series of 5 or 6 DVD's on the Dalai Lama's 2005 Mind Life Meetings lent to us by a friend. Each disc is around 2 hours worth of talks and presentations by scientists on brain research and how it relates to meditation. Some of it is pretty, dry, and sciencey for my taste and yet it all relates. Jon Kabbat-Zinn and Richard Davidson talk about their research on meditation and mindfulness. The work that Kabbat-Zinn has done with his "Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction" makes you wonder why the medical community and schools haven't embraced it more whole heartedly. It's cheap (you just need space and an instructor) and it's effect in influencing the body seems amazing. One piece of research shows the effectiveness of meditation on healing psoriasis, a very tricky skin condition. We get to see what a powerful tool the mind is if used skillfully.

Ajahn Amaro, a monk in the Thai Forest tradition, uses the term "adventitious suffering" to describe the suffering that we conjure up in our minds. He distinguishes it from the suffering of real pain that is part of the human condition. The pain that we create and have control over is this "add on" pain where we worry and fret and imagine possible outcomes.

Some of the most interesting information came from Robert Sapolsky's research that explores the activity of our limbic systems as they relate to stress, the old fight or flight syndrome. Super system when being chased by tigers. Digestion shuts down, detoxification shuts down, blood pressure and heart rate go up, all dedicated to giving us the best chance to mobilize and escape danger. Trouble is in modern society most of our perceived danger is psychological and prolonged and this has serious implications for our health. What protected us and served us well when being persued by tigers on the savannhas doesn't serve us well in cube city or wherever we hang out.

He talks at length about the old 'shock the rat experiments'. Interesting, even though perversely unkind. If poor Ratty (remember him from "The Wind In the Willows"?) has no outlet after being shocked, he develops ulcers. Interestingly if there is another rat in the cage, guess what Ratty gets up to after he receives a shock? If you guessed that he runs over and bites the other rat, you'd be right. And that, apparently, prevents him from getting ulcers. Interesting if extrapolated to human behaviour. Got rats at the office? Oh, footnote. The rat can also bite a piece of wood for the same results. Note to foot: Hurry out and buy large box of wood and distribute to all angry human/rat associates. Also ulcers are avoided if the rat knows when to expect the shock.

We haven't finished our Dalai Lama video marathon but I have to say these DVD's have been great for reinvigorating my dedication to sit. It's great to be reminded of the health benefits of meditation. So excuse me for a moment I'm off to either gnaw on a piece of wood, bite someone or sit on a cushion for a bit. I haven't quite decided.


  1. Some of this goes great with my recent posts on violence. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Hi Nathan

    Yes it does go with your posts on violence which I just popped over to read. That inclination to bite! That is the arising of the violent, self protecting act, isn't it?

    I guess it's about being aware enough to defuse some of our "adventitious" thoughts. The benefits of meditation are as I noticed in your post about watching the crow, is the growing ability to simply be present.

    It is always for me the razor's edge of practice to know the difference between supressing an emotion and not indulging it. Thanks, Nathan for this.

  3. Wow Carole!
    I really like the new piece!


  4. Fascinating...I have to look for those DVD's now! Thanks for sharing such wonderful info. Don't have to go to an office or lab to witness the rat experiment though, I have two teen aged find some splinter free wood...hmmmm. Actually, mostly they get along well...lately I'm the target of my almost 13 year old's venomous incisors! I'm happy to say she does enjoy playing Wild Divine on the computer...the bio feed back helps some.


  5. Thanks for the comments. Sarah your email address doesn't work?? And I fear I've misplaced your phone number again. Have been thinking about you this past week.

    Laura, that's very funny about your daughters (your own personal lab?) as we all have. And reading your comments reminded me that if we can only see those "acts" in a less personal way, it diffuses them somehow. "Oh this is what us humans do" Hard when the bite is happening!

  6. Good information and very interesting! I haven't been meditating and I miss going to the group...the whole process.
    I clicked to enlarge on your piece and the detail is lovely.

  7. Hi,

    You've got an extremely nice blog. Most of the people tend not to recognize what mind power can do to one's accomplishment.