Inspired Minds: Mind Your Meditation

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Richard Davidson is working to build bridges between modern science and
ancient spiritual wisdom, and between hard-nosed academics and the Dalai Lama. As Vilas Research Professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, he has done pioneering research that scientifically supports what yogis have known for centuries: Meditation and mindfulness practices improve health. Using modern technology and self-reported data, Davidson's studies—which were conducted on Tibetan monks as well as Westerners—show that meditation changes the biochemistry of the brain, improves mood, and lowers stress.

Yoga Journal: What does your work mean for yogis?

Richard Davidson: Our findings indicate that regular practice of meditation changes the brain, in ways that foster a more positive emotional response to things. Although people know subjectively that this practice does good things for them, our research helps provide a scientific account of what may actually happen to the brain and the body as a consequence of practice.

YJ: What has been the mainstream reaction to your work?

RD: It has been quite good. In September 2003, we held our first public meeting between scientists and the Dalai Lama at MIT, which had some extremely well known participants, including several Nobel laureates. We believe that the rigor of science and the rigor of practice are very consistent with each other. So I think that our work is having a tremendously important effect.

YJ: How does your personal practice influence your area of research inquiry?

RD: My practice [primarily sitting meditation] is important to me. It helps keep balance in my life. And it gives me a first-person account that convinces me of its importance on an experiential level. It has been responsible for nourishing my desire to continue to do the research and try to make a difference.

YJ: Some of your research has shown that happiness has a biological component. What makes us happy?

RD: I think a genuine happiness is derived from the small things in life, from the encounters one has with people in all walks of life throughout the day. I think those small encounters, when they are done with presence, clarity, and openness, bring a genuine form of happiness.