Full Text – Matthieu Ricard on Change your Mind, Change your Brain: The Inner Conditions for Authentic Happiness at Google TechTalk held on March 15, 2007.
Introducing Speaker: Hello, good morning, my friends. For those who don’t know me, my name is Ming. For those who know me, my name is still Ming. I’m the jolly good fellow which nobody can deny. It’s my honor today to introduce fellow jolly good fellow, Matthieu Ricard.
Now Matthieu is a very gifted scientist who became a Buddhist monk. He was regarded as one of the most promising scientists of his generation. Sorry, biologist. I took it from the web. He completed his PhD thesis in 1972 before most of you were born. And unfortunately, he wasn’t able to join Google at that time. So he went to Nepal instead, and became a biologist. No, just kidding, he became a monk. And he has lived and studied in the Himalayas for the past 35 years where he has been doing humanitarian projects.
Matthieu is also a bestselling author. He’s a translator, and he’s a photographer. And all these pictures, they are taken by him. He’s also an active participant in current scientific research on meditation and the brain. And in many of those studies, he is the brain that they’re studying. When you were in high school, did they ever call you the brain? If they did, they’d be right.
So, Matthieu is a very happy man. He’s so happy he wrote an entire book on happiness. And he autographed my book, so I’m very happy. Thank you. Matthieu is one of the most fascinating men I’ve ever met in my life, and —
Matthieu Ricard – Monk, Author, Photographer
You only met me once, so.
Introducing Speaker: Yeah. And I meet a lot of famous people, you guys know that. It is an honor and pleasure for me to welcome Matthieu Ricard to our presence.
Matthieu Ricard – Monk, Author, Photographer
You know, just to go on about, for those who don’t know him and those who know him, there is also an interesting story of a Middle East wise man called Mulla Nasreddin. Many of you could know him. And once he came into a coffee shop, and went straight to the owner and asked him, did you see me enter? And the guy said yes. And then he asked, but, do you know me? And the guy said no. Then how do you know it’s me? So, thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to visit this wonderful enjoyable place where I usually meet people in swimming trunks — moving into the alleys, going to the swimming pool. Occasionally Ming as he leaves his master chef to go off to his office. So I definitely would like to work there, it seems better than being at home.
So probably I have nothing to teach you about happiness. And someone told me actually I should never have written this book because I never suffered very much in my life, so the last person to write a book on happiness and suffering. So anyway, I thought to just share a few ideas because they were very dear to me, and they brought a lot of sense of fulfillment and joy to be alive, and a sense of direction in life. And this came through reading beings of great wisdom. It sort of started like that. We speak of leadership, leadership has to be someone who somehow inspires you by showing you the kind of potential that you could actualize, showing you what you could become, and giving you a sense of direction and inspiration. It’s not very frequent in life. And I was quite lucky in my teens to be born in a family in France where my father was a well-known philosopher, so we had all these great thinkers and poets at home. My mother was an artist, so we had all these surrealist painters and all that coming. Because of musical connections when I was 16 years old, I had lunch with Stravinsky himself, just for two hours with three people all together. And I had an uncle who was an explorer, he went around the world on a sailboat without the engine after the second world war. And the uncle had all kinds of eccentric friends, such as one when we went to see in Paris and there was a small note on his door saying, I left on foot for Timbuktu, and things like that.
So a lot of wonderful people. And in science of course, the lab I was working with, with three Nobel Prize of medicine, Jacob, Mano and Ralph at Pasteur Institute. So it was very exciting. There was definitely a lot of people to look at, as what could I do, where could I be inspired? At the same time, definitely I would have wished to play the piano, you know, like Sviatoslav Richter], or the chess like Bobby Fischer. But I don’t know if you remember about Bobby Fischer, but who wants to become Bobby Fischer? So there was a kind of discrepancy. You could take 100 governors, you would have a number of wonderful people, and some governor with a quite short temper and not so nice to deal with. But same thing with philosopher, same thing with scientist, same thing with artist. No matter what their particular skill or genius was, there was no correlation as such, between their human qualities and their particular genius. So you could try to pick up all the things and make your own salad and try to — but that somehow didn’t seem a bit artificial. Like making a pretzel of all that and thinking is going to work.
So then, I was lucky enough to travel to the Himalayas, and then I met something quite different. Men of wisdom. Men and women of wisdom. And what was special about them — they are all the great Tibetan teachers who have fled the invasion of Tibet towards India and other places — is I didn’t really care so much what they knew in terms of poetry, Tibetan drama, and even Buddhist philosophy in the beginning. That was not my interest at all. But what they were, that was inspiring. The quality, the human quality. And then I thought, I want to become like them, not just know what they know. And so because there was a kind of — the first trigger was seeing a documentary movie on those great teachers, that a friend of mine made for the French television. And at the end of the documentary, there was a five minute silence – one phase of those meditators and hermits, and spiritual teachers, and the Dalai Lama. One after the other, just silent. It was so powerful. It was like 20 Socrates or 20 St. Francis of Assisi, whoever you feel like is represent the wisdom of humanity. Just they are alive in our time. So I said, well, I should go to see.
And then that was very interesting, because, somehow, someone like that — and I’m going to show some images — show you what you could become. It’s a source of inspiration. That this is possible, somebody made it somehow. Then of course you get interested in how, but first you have to see that it makes sense. And so also, in the course of living in the Himalayas, I know, after awhile traveling back and forth, some other things became quite clear about what brings freedom or fulfillment in life. And it seems that we so much put our hopes and fears in the outer conditions.
So now, let’s be clear from the beginning, we want outer conditions to be optimal. Compared to 150 years ago when the life expectancy even in Europe was like 30 years. And who doesn’t want to live long, to be healthy, to have access to education, to have a wonderful working place, harmonious human relations in one’s family, with friends, with people? Even in country where there is peace, where there is not an oppressive regime? So all that we really deeply sort of yearn for that, and that’s right. And we ought to develop that to the maximum we can. And especially in the world where this is far from being granted for many, many places of the world where 3,000 children still die every day of malaria, and all that you know. And there’s so much to do just to bring those minimum outer conditions. Yet it’s quite clear too, that if we only put our hopes and fears in the outer world, it’s not going to work in our search for direction, for meaning, for genuine sense of fulfillment and accomplishment, what do we call genuine happiness.
Genuine happiness doesn’t mean pleasant feelings one after the other, each one more and more intense, piling them up, renewing them, seeking them, and then collapsing of exhaustion at the end. That’s not going to work. So it’s more like a cluster of qualities that we can develop as skills, like openness, genuine altruistic love, compassion, inner strength, some kind of inner peace. And then that gives you a sense of confidence that’s not just like the false confidence of arrogance, but confidence that you are less vulnerable and therefore more ready also to be of service to others, and contribute to a more compassionate and society that gives you a better way of flourishing yourself and others. And because more confidence means less feeling of insecurity or fears, then more readiness to be there for others. So it’s quite clear that the outer conditions themselves are not enough, however necessary or useful they might be. Not enough because we also can clearly see that our state of mind, the way we interpret and translate those outer conditions in our inner experience, are what really determines states of well being and/or misery. And the state of mind can easily override those outer conditions. We can feel terrible in a little paradise, and we can feel still very strong and joyful and wish to go about one’s life, and contribute to the happiness of others, even in the face of adversity. So as the Dalai Lama once gave this striking example, if you move in a very luxurious flat at the hundredth floor of a high-tech skyscraper, for the first time, you just bought it, and then you are totally ruined within, destroyed in your heart, in your mind, all you are going to look for is a window from which to jump.
On the other hand, you could have this great joy to be alive, empathy, whatever, all those human qualities, even when other conditions doesn’t seem nice at all. But because your state of mind is stronger. And that’s such fortunate situation. Because imagine that to find happiness, the world would have to be the image of your desire, your fancies, the universe could be a vast catalog in which you could order all the ingredients for happiness, forget it. It’s never going to happen like that. There still should be 6 billion catalogs, and everyone will choose different items, and they will never work. This is not just — it seems obvious, but great thinkers thought otherwise. Emmanuel Kant wrote that complete happiness will be the compete fulfillment of all our desires, in quantity, quality, and duration. The whole idea of happiness goes to the drain. This would never happen, never. How could that be? But anyway, impermanence is there, even you had for a fraction of a second, everything to be happy. Then one piece was going to be missing the next day. So again, collapse. It doesn’t work.
And we know in real life, I remember, when I was going to Tahiti, with the younger [brother] of my monastery, was the first two Buddhist monks in Tahiti, it was big news. So in the evening news there was two big items. They found a snake in the forest, there’s no snake in Tahiti, and second item, two Buddhist monk arrived in Tahiti. So the next day we were at this wonderful postcard-looking sunset in Paul Gauguin’s house — and he was not there — but very beautifully lit swimming pool, and sitting there and then looking at each other, I said, oh. If we are the owner of that it’s supposed to make us happy. There seems to be no relation. And then if that makes us happy, then what? If we double the size of the swimming pool, we twice as much happy? So of course no relation. It’s the way you interpret things. And we had the confirmation of that about the way of interpreting the world the next morning, because Tahiti looks great on postcards, but it’s pretty hot and damp and wet when you are there.
So we were sitting on a beautiful tree, and there was, imagine, there was this kind of soft, mist, refreshing mist falling from the tree. We were sitting there. Complete bliss, thinking, this is real paradise. Even the trees are air-conditioned. But then someone came and said, you know, those are pissing flies. So our perception of the world changed right away. So let’s assume that the inner conditions for well being are really what will determine the quality of everything that goes by. And that’s a fair assumption.
But then, that we’re in a much better position, because that’s our mind, the final experiencer of that. At least we are not having to modify the whole world to our taste. But we can change our mind. If we change our mind we change our world, that’s the world we experience. So that’s the idea. So for that we need to identify which conditions in our mind are leading to sense of fulfillment and fruition, accomplishment and sense that if we look 20 years ahead, if we look back, we see that somehow that’s the best we could do with our capacities, and we choose the right direction, something that’s really truly meaningful in our life.
So what are those conditions which will nurture that quality? Also the quality of every moment that passes. Because after all, life is not just remembering the past and projecting in the future. That’s the quality of the present moment. That’s what today is made of. Someone says, take care of the minutes, the hours will take care of themselves. So if all the minutes are unhappy, how could the hours and day somehow be fulfilled? So we need that quality. So that has to do with states of mind. And then there are states of mind which are totally detrimental to the quality of that life. Hatred, resentment, grudge, nagging jealousy, obsessive desire, arrogance. All those are just makes you feel miserable, and of course they also induce you to act and speak in ways that also cause suffering around you. So it’s a lose-lose situation, that comes to very self-centered, excessive feeling of self-importance, bringing everything to oneself, and trying to build up a so-called selfish happiness, sometime at the detriment of others’ well being. That’s absolutely not going to work. If a selfish happiness is the goal of your life, then that life is soon going to be without any goal. Because that simple cannot work. The reason it cannot work is that excessive preoccupation with oneself is a constant source of torment and being vulnerable to everything. Criticism, praise, failure, and success. All those will take disproportionate importance, will be like a storm in a glass of water. And each of those will be like small balls bouncing in that small, tiny bubble of the ego, and then hurting you every time. So we need to explode that self-centeredness bubble, and let those bullets get lost in the vast space of open-minded, so that we not just simply obsess, what’s going to happen to me, how do I feel. And all this thing that is just way off is buying trouble for ourself.
So now there are other type of emotions and mental state. We definitely feel as something that is nourishing the sense of well-being, like, say, loving kindness, unconditional love, wanting to — an act of generosity with no strings attached, just mere wish of bringing some happiness or relieve some suffering to others. And some sense of inner peace, inner strength, inner contentment. So all of those together makes it a way of being. And that’s what genuine happiness is. It’s not just pleasant feelings and trying to accumulate them endlessly. Because pleasant feelings are so much fleeting, even you try to renew them, they depend upon circumstances, upon time. The changing nature from one moment to the other, something that is very pleasant, like a chocolate cake, once serving is great, two — see, you become nauseous to the same thing as change of nature. The most beautiful music you can dream of, you might, if you are really hooked onto it, listen three or four times at a row, but imagine 24 hours nonstop. What a fatigue. It doesn’t work. And also it is something that somehow is so centered upon oneself. You can experience intense sensation of pleasure if everyone is suffering even at the cost of other making suffer. It’s not something that is inspiring necessarily and is so vulnerable to change.
Now, happiness as a way of being, as a optimal way of the mind to be, will remain throughout the ups and downs, throughout the different emotional states and give you the resources to deal with whatever comes. So rather than being dependent on the fluctuating changes of ups and downs of life, that’s what gives you the resources to deal with those changing conditions. It’s like the depth of the ocean, it’s always there, compared to the change on the surface where there’s sometimes storms, sometimes beautiful weather, but if you don’t have the depth, then you are in the midst of that weather change on the surface with nothing to refer to. So it is a way of being. Or a manner of being. But manners need to be learned. It is not — it is true that we are more or less born with the kind of traits, we are more or less happy and extrovert kids, or kids which are a little bit more violent, and some others are very sweet, and will give their toys to others. So we have traits, but no, those are just blueprints. This is not the time to elaborate on that, but epigenesis means that even you have these set of genes, at any time there is something that could regulate their expression. There are wonderful studies now done showing that almost any kind of gene that determines traits can be modified by the environment, by receiving and giving love and tenderness. The gene can be for stress, for instance, can be blocked for life, if there’s a strong component of tenderness in very early life. And so those are just potential that we are more or less gifted in the beginning, but the hard work and the interaction can change that. So there is this flexibility in everything, in the genes, in the way we experience the world, so there is margin to change.
And not only that, but by which kind of mystery our mind and the way we experience things, would just change towards happiness just because we wish to be happy? Everything else in life we need to learn. When we’re born, this unidentified crying object cannot speak, cannot walk, can do nothing, would die in few days if the mother wasn’t there with great love and care to make that newborn baby be alive and learn, and learn experience of life and so forth. And then everything in our life, like going to school, learning a profession, building human relationship, all of that comes with learning, with emotional skills, learned by experience. So how come that the most fundamental thing that determines the quality of our life would just come just like that?
So we have to understand that we usually underestimate the power of transformation of mind. We think this is just life, we are like that. This is the human nature to be this mixture of light and shadows, quality and defect. And actually that’s desirable. It would be terribly boring not to have jealousy, or strong passions even that tear us apart. That’s exciting. And the good rule that three days of uninterrupted happiness would be so boring, it’s always the same. My suffering is so vibrant, it always changes, it’s so exciting. But you know, is this true? I was just saying that to justify the fact that we are not quite sure how to change that. And then we try to make a philosophy to fit with that state of affairs. Because in truth, when you are sitting in a beautiful garden or somewhere by a lake, with someone you love, or just like enjoying the beauty of nature and feeling in harmony with the world, with others, with yourself, with less inner conflict, working at the start or something like that, and feel really at peace, are you going to regret the tense atmosphere of the emergency room of a hospital or something? Or if I come now when you’re sitting peacefully and say, please get angry right now. You say, why should I? I’m fine. Or would you like to spend a whole afternoon being terribly jealous? You say no, why, it doesn’t sound such a nice prospect. But if I say, would you like to spend the next two, three hours having compassion or loving kindness as the main state of mind present in yourself? You say, well, that seems pretty neat. So we feel instinctively that even though we can’t escape for the time being those different kinds of mental toxins, we’d rather be well off without them.
But now is it possible to change that? Because we might say it’s so deeply intrinsic to human nature, and we can’t do anything. So yes, in a way, it is in human nature, we all have those positive and negative emotions. So in that sense it is part of human nature. But to be part of something there are different ways of being part of something. You could be part of something like the whiteness of the screen. That’s all over the texture of the screen, and to remove that you would have to destroy the screen. But this is also somehow part of the screen. It’s there on the screen but doesn’t penetrate the screen, doesn’t belong to the screen, doesn’t remain to the screen, and the screen allows it to appear, yet it is not modified as such. But it allows it to appear. So that’s the key.
So in order for all the mental states, mental construct you arise in our mind, whether positive emotions or negative ones, no matter, there has to be some kind of basic screen, or like the light. If I show a torch light to shine on you, the light can show in the garden beautiful flowers, or maybe a pile of garbage. So you might say, this is beautiful, this is ugly. The light allows you to see that, but the light doesn’t become beautiful or ugly. The light is what makes that perceptible, visible.
Likewise, at the fundamental aspect of cognition of the mind, we call that the bay of consciousness, or the pure awareness. It’s a kind of basic cognitive factor, and I think meditators can introspectively experience that, behind the screen of thought this kind of pure, aware presence, or we call that the luminous aspect of mind in Buddhist terms, luminous — not that it glows in the dark or like those Google things shooting from the earth — but that it is luminous compared to a dark object like this stool who has no cognitive quality whatsoever. So it is luminous, it’s cognizant. So now, that is not tainted by hatred, jealousy, and so forth. It allows that to occur, but it cannot be. If hatred was so intrinsically passed, then it would shine on everything. Like if the light was beautiful in itself, everything would be beautiful when you shine the light on something ugly, whatever. That’s not the case. So — because those mental constructs are a result of causes and conditions. You can modify those causes and conditions and that’s the principle of mind training. And that’s what meditation is about. Meditation has many meanings, but the root, the actual literal meaning in Sanskrit, bhavana, means to cultivate. And in Tibetan, gom means to be familiar with something, to become familiar with a new way of being, with new qualities, with a perception of the world that is more attuned with reality. Not seeing the world as solid, autonomous, permanent objects, but as a dynamic, flux, interdependent of ceaselessly changing causes and condition. Even our consciousness is a stream, a dynamic stream, constantly changing. And so it’s also to develop qualities like compassion and loving kindness, so meditation is really to cultivate something. It can be to cultivate enough calm to begin with, like let to mindful breathing, to let the thoughts subside a little bit, and to not being caught in that constant whirlpool, then from that state we can develop those qualities like compassion and loving kindness. So it is something that need to be trained, and everything has to be learned. Otherwise the spoiled brat of our mind is going to continue to run over the place, and then we have this mixture of constant joy and torments, and we can do much better.
We say that’s normal, but normal state is just a pandemic. We are all so much like that that we think it’s normal. But optimal is something else. And this is possible. So we can use all kinds of methods, techniques, that’s what the methodology, or the science, the contemplative science is about. Using antidotes, for instance. Antidote means there are things one to one that are mutually exclusive. You can’t in the same gesture stretch your hand friendly way and give a blow. You cannot in the same moment of thought, want to harm someone and want to do good. It is very simple, but if you think of that, the more you bring, say, altruistic thoughts, thoughts of benevolence in your mind, the less, at those moments, there will be space for malevolence, harmful thoughts, and so forth.
So you can imagine that, yes, we do feel moments of love and moments of resentment, but we don’t cultivate them. We don’t try to generate loving kindness and just keep it flowing in our mind, and remaining in, and feeding it, and preserving it for like five, ten minutes. It’s not something we do. But that’s what we need to do if we want to become that more part of our mind, if we want to change our minute to minute emotions, and moods, and then finally traits, that’s how we learn. You don’t learn skiing by doing it 15 seconds every week. You have to do it a second time. It won’t happen without a minimum of dedication. And to dedicate oneself to something and find the time for it, we need to see the advantages of doing so. And in case of changing one’s mind, advantages are quite obvious.
There are many other ways, but just to give you a quick example, — finds his anger, and by anger here I mean malevolent anger, not indignation in the face of injustice or massacre or something. But anger that really has a component of wishing to harm. And also, when we are invaded by this we are one with the anger. We cannot see anything else. We see the other person or object of our anger as 100% despicable. We can’t see any quality in that person. And we completely associate with this anger, even though a few hours later we might say, I was out of myself, I was no more myself. We know it as something that was like having the flu. You are not the flu, but the flu grips you.
But then we could do something else. Instead of being obsessed by the trigger we could try to dissociate, and look at anger, gaze at it. The role, sensation, and feeling, and emotion of anger, not the causes and circumstances that creates it, because that’s the fuel, that’s the wood that you have constantly on the fire. But look at the fire itself, forget about the wood. If you do so, the fire cannot maintain itself very long. Anger cannot sustain itself on its own. It’s just bound to vanish. It melts away like the morning frost under the rising sun. And that’s a very skillful way of dealing, because it avoids two extremes that do not work. One is venting anger, that people say you should break pianos and all these kind of things to feel better when you’re angry. It doesn’t work, it makes you more and more angry. You get angry easily and more often. Or keeping it as a time bomb somewhere in the back of your mind, and then, again it doesn’t work.
So now here you have, for the time being, solved the problem. You dealt with it, it vanished away, there’s no trace for the time being. It might come back, but you start again. So instead of venting it, or keeping it, which will reinforce the tendency for anger, here, each time you deal with it, with these very powerful intelligence of dialogue with the emotions, you’re actually eroding the tendency. And at some point you will be less likely to become angry, it will be more difficult to make you angry, and you can imagine some time where at least hatred, the wish to willingly harm terribly someone else, could be completely gone from your mind. And that could be a result of mind training. Definitely we can enhance our compassion and so forth.
So it is something that’s highly desirable in our life. It’s not just a luxury. It’s not just a supplementary diet or vitamin of the soul. It’s something that’s really at the heart of every moment that we go by. It’s something that also, with time, we can see in ourself and it really brings some change. And it really brings some more openness so that we have a more fulfilled life, and we can put at the service of others. Instead of the lose-lose situation of seeking this selfish happiness and dis-considering others, when we feel miserable we make others miserable.
Here we have a win-win situation. Loving kindness and compassion are among the most positive of all positive emotions. And that’s what we’re going to show you just now. And also of course, others will perceive it in a positive way. So I just want to show you very briefly since we speak of changing your mind, changing your brain, since some years now, we have been collaborating with neuroscientists. This is an endeavor that was started by Dalai Lama, inspired by him into studying the influence on the brain of a sustained mind training. And the idea was, people who have been — as a concert violinist has been at least 10,000 hours of violin. And there is some areas in the brain which have changed. The area that deals with the fingers, with the motor coordination and all kinds of things. It has vastly increased in activity, even in size. So what happens, not if you learn the piano, but if you learn compassion? If you’re training vigilance and attention, will that change the brain too? If that does, it means that mediation is not just blessing out for a few moments under a mango tree and try to empty your mind unsuccessfully, but it is really a deep change that comes through mind training. So that was a very interesting approach. So we needed to start with experienced meditators, because if there’s a noticeable difference in them, then we can know, how did you reach there? And start with novices.
If there was no difference in those experts, then don’t expect to find one after one week. So here’s the place where they came from, and well, it’s almost as nice in the Google campus, but it’s still easier to meditate there than in the subway. But we can soon have a Google campus in Tibet or somewhere, and I’m sure Ming would be very happy to be standing on top of Everest without oxygen. And so those are the beautiful places where they come from. And, oh, this was in Eastern Tibet August 1st, the hottest day of the year. And the night before we were camping, with Tibetan friends, and we have a quite large tent, and it was snowing at dusk, and they said, we are going to sleep outside. I said, why, we have a big tent? They said yes, it’s summertime. So they slept outside, and in the morning there was 10 centimeters snow on their clothes. So this is what I’m fortunate to see from the window of my small hermitage in the Himalayas, so I can’t complain.
And this is the example of spiritual teachers here. You can see that there’s some kind of beyond word, a kind of human quality that we can’t miss. And in reality it was certainly very strong. It’s almost like human goodness becoming palpable. That’s what Paul Ekman, I think you’re going to receive soon, one of the world’s specialists of emotions, that’s how he described an encounter with the Dalai Lama. There’s something that you almost physically, none of this weird vibes, but something that’s so natural and simple, and yet something that you can really feel. A kind of strength, mixed with goodness, and solidity but at the same time sensitivity. I mean, it’s very hard to describe, but it’s really what makes an extraordinarily good human being. And this cat is certainly one of the fortunate ones.
And here’s my first teacher, Kangyur Rinpoche and then – yes, this is a hermit who comes out of six years of meditation in the hermitage. So the question is, is he so happy because finally he’s coming out, or because he did six years of meditation? And knowing him well, I would favor the second hypothesis that it’s something that he acquired through his training. In Madison, Wisconsin, now the meditators have 256 electrodes, and there are two ways of measuring brain activities. One is to electroencephalogram, that has a very good time resolution, thousands of a second change can be recorded on the scalp, but not so clear exactly where it happens in the brain. So we have to combine that with FMRI, which is magnetic resonance scanner, which gives us a very good three dimensional analysis of where things happening in the brain, brain imaging, but not so good in time-wise. The resolution is one or two seconds. So it’s like a camera in the first case that is very fast shutter speed but not so very focused. Second case is very well focused but slow shutter speed. But if you combine both, you get both spatial and time, temporal resolution. So that’s coming out of two and a half hours in the scanner. Huge relief from that mini-retreat.
This is Richard Davidson, the lead scientist in Madison, Wisconsin. And there are other labs doing this study, in Princeton, and Harvard, and Berkeley, not so far from here, and more and more interest. So there are many states that you can study, because mediation is very varied. So that you can study focused attention, mental imagery or visualization, you can study compassion, and that’s one of the ones we have studied most. And each of these has a different brain signature. So compassion here — I’ll spare you all the reading that — but it’s the unconditional feeling of love that begins with an object but then becomes more and more universal to all sentient beings. And it’s a very powerful and strong feeling of loving kindness. So this is the first paper we published in the PNAS.
And then now the actual first results. So now what we need is to compare things. We need to compare a meditator at rest and in meditation. Where it compared meditators with controlled group, those who are novice in meditation, and see if there’s a difference. So we give the instructions off to them, same instructions that meditator use for many years, and ask them to do it for a week and come back to the lab. And then, in the lab, what we do is a minute of rest, 10 minutes of intense getting in the state of compassion, or focused attention, whatever the subject is. And then doing that again and again, 30, 40 times. In out, in out, and measuring changes. We did it with the experimenters, we did it with the controlled. In case of the controlled, the green line is the resting state. The blue line is also the meditation state. They try, they feel something but it is not strong enough to elicit a strong response in the brain.
Here you see with the meditators that the rest line is the same, but now when they engage in compassion meditation there’s a huge increase, 1200% of the brain waves, particularly in the gamma range, which is connected with the connections in the brain and so forth. And it does happen also, interestingly enough, mostly in the area of the brain which the left prefrontal cortex, which has to do with positive emotions. So compassion is among the most powerful positive emotion. And just to give you an idea, this is a huge increase. Maybe there’s something big happening in the brain if you’re about to be run over by an elephant. But to go from a resting state and 15 seconds voluntarily bring a powerful mental state, that’s never been recorded like that in neuroscience. So everyone’s starting to doubt. Is it an artifact or something? So it took almost a year to make sure that this was really the result of meditation and not just something else. This is just a different way of showing or displaying the same result. Another way, here are the controlled, here the meditators, it’s very, very different.
And we also did real time monitoring. When the compassion meditation takes off, increases, then the meditator will just have a small keyboard with the right and left arrows, he will come up. One, two, three, four, five. Then if you prolong that, after some minutes, he might start losing it a little bit. So he will go down. He’s not going to look at the numbers if not to be influenced, but he is just changing the keys. And then he will come down, maybe four, three, two. And then he brings it back strongly again so he will go up. So these ups and downs turns out to be very closely related to what is actually measured in the brain. This 0.69 correlation, if some of you are statisticians. There’s a chance of one in 40 million times that this is just random due to chance.
And this is now the brain imaging. And here, when they did on compassion, the area that is vastly activated is this left prefrontal cortex, which has to do with positive emotion, joy, sense of enthusiasm. So compassion is, in itself, a most powerful emotion. Now interestingly enough too, the blue signifies a decrease of activity. And that area of the right prefrontal cortex is normally associated with depression, rumination, excessive self-concern, negative effect. So here it seemed that compassion is almost an antidote to depression, which is of course a fascinating avenue of research.
And also this aspiration to relieve suffering that comes with compassion strongly reduces the activity in the amygdala, which is known to be connected with fear and anger. So again, compassion reduces that. It also increases activity in the motor area of the brain. That means compassion comes with a readiness to act, of course, for the benefit of others.
So now attention. Normally, if you have to maintain your attention very sharply, you start losing it out of fatigue. That’s the problem of air traffic controllers, for instance. And if you task where you see flashing numbers very fast and each time there’s a zero you have to press a button, after five, ten minutes you start making more and more and more mistakes, and your score goes down, which is happening here. But with meditators, after 10 minutes there’s no change and now we did that for 60 minutes, absolutely no change. Two errors in 1,000 trials. And they don’t report to be tired, just like a set of flow. This is precisely what the skill is about. You do it naturally, perfectly, without being tired.
But you know, these fly in the face of so much assumptions. William James, the founder of modern psychology, said that no one can maintain their attention more than a few seconds on a given object. So that seems to be quite different here. And this is area of the brain which is activated in the meditators when they perform this attention task, and compared to the controls that just cannot do it that much.
So now, what about short term training? You say, well, it’s great for you to be in the Himalayas for 20 years, what about us? We can go to the swimming pool, yes. There’s a coffee shop around the street, yes. That’s quite good. But what about meditation, which our dear friend is trying to bring to you as a boon, an extra boon in Google? What if we do 30 minutes a day for a few months? Well, that’s exactly what was done in a very highly stressed employees of a biotech company in Madison. They volunteered to do 30 minutes a day for three months. And there was a controlled group we said, we’ll give you the training after, but please come to the lab every week.
So then the measurement was done before and after, so on trait of anxiety, there’s a bunch of questions and analyzers that determine your level of anxiety. You can see here time 1, the controlled group and the meditators, or the apprentice meditators, no difference, and there was a significant difference just after three months.
Now the left, I mentioned about this right and left side activation of the brain — more positive effect on one side or negative ones — as you can see here, at time two — I don’t know why it says three here — that the meditators are much more active on the left side. And surprisingly, the controlled group was even negatively activated. Because it’s kind of boring, you have to come to the lab without doing the meditation. So they act a little bit upset at the end of those three months. But later they went through the training.
Now interestingly enough, the immune system also is boosted. And significantly, not to miss work, they have to get a compulsory flu shot in November so that they don’t skip coming working. So now, when you give a vaccine whether it will work or not depends upon the strength of your immune system. In the first Iraq war, a vaccine that normally will take 80% cases because the soldiers that were going to the war were so stressed, it would only take 50%. So your level of stress decreases the effectiveness of the vaccine.
So here, those who have gone through these three months of 30 minutes of meditation, their immune response was boosted 20%. So that also means the same strength also to fight actually natural flu and other, is related to stress. And now the stress level, which measured with cortisol in the saliva. On the meditators it’s four times less than in the controlled group. That’s not with the novice meditator, that’s with the people doing long retreats. So there’s definitely an effect in those preliminary studies, even for short term. I mean not short term, but a short amount of time every day, already in three months, show a significant effect. And then maybe next year, by something that might make the big time news, we are now studying the aging process, which has to do, some of you might know, at the end of the DNA, the chromosome, they are freed and telomere, it’s a single-branded DNA, and it’s shortened with age. Now it seems the preliminary result, I’ll tell you just between you and me, after three months of intensive meditation, that’s not 30 minutes a day, that’s more like a in a meditation workshop for three months, a significant decrease of the elimination of the telomere. So wow, that would be big news, isn’t it?
Stay young, meditate.
So now, to come back to the outer condition, which I mentioned at the beginning. Now we often see people who are extremely rich, extremely powerful. On top of that they might be strong and beautiful and you hear they are depressed and so forth. You say, what’s wrong with these guys? If I had all that, I would be happy. Why is that’s not the case? Of course, for money, which is one of the obvious candidates, if you are below the poverty line and can’t feed your kids, and suffer terrible conditions, yes. To go above that can make a huge difference in the quality of your life. But now, after that, behind that, then doubling, tripling just doesn’t make any difference.
Here is the GDP in the Unites States. Three times increased from 46 to 96. The gross national happiness, stationary, even slight decrease. Now marriage buy you happiness, here you are. Times zero, five years later. Well, you know Richard Davidson who gave me that slide said, you know, I’ve been married, happy, for 30 years, but that’s what has come out of the study. Yet, there’s another data that shows, it’s still better, a happier reported life, for people who are married or live in companionship rather than people who 49:40are single or separated. But relatively, the change of happiness basically you come back where we were. And now widowhood, you’ll recover from it also.
So external factors only have a limited effect on our level of happiness. They do have, but all together, if you bring all the social factors that — thousands of studies over now 70 years, basically they contribute to something, but only about 15% of your reported happiness. People differ in their emotional disposition or effective style. And though these conditions are relative stable, if you win the lottery you are completely happy, one year later you more or less come back to same level. It can be changed, that’s the point. Meditation has demonstrable effects on the brain and may represent one of the few ways in which purely mental training has been demonstrated to have robust impact on brain function. And this is a meditator and these are the monks escaping from the lab.
So now, here you might say well, there’s a contradiction here. You say that happiness can be trained, and we just showed that before/after marriage, before/after widowhood. Money doesn’t make any difference. So then what? If it’s that stable, what’s the point of meditating? You’re going to make just another of the small peaks and come down. So what’s the point? Well, remember what I mentioned in the beginning. Genuine happiness as a way of being is not the peaks of joy and pleasant and then the lows of depression and so forth. This is the ups and downs. But when you go up and down, you go up and down above and below a baseline. So here, meditation and mind training is raising the baseline. The platform in which you stand in life, the place where you come back, those ups and downs is going to happen. Maybe you’ll be less vulnerable to them, less carried away by them, less affected or impacted by them so that you maintain this sense of direction, of meaning in life. But you can change that.
And so that’s really worth it endeavor in life. And also, to get the inspiration to do that, we need to identify some kind of potential that we have within ourself. We need to at some point sit quietly and say, what really matters for me in life? What do I really want to accomplish in life? Not just feeling questioners, and after you pass some test, and things like that, and then putting that in the machine or in the computer, or going to a professional orientation, and then say, okay, you have this, this, this, that’s what you are good for. But really feel what deeply you would like to spend your life. So that 20 years later, when you look back, you say, I did my best, that’s what I wanted to do, I have a sense of fulfillment, of accomplishment. Otherwise, what’s the point? Even you succeeded in this, this this, this, that, and you feel not so — some sense of accomplishment that’s not there, sense of fulfillment that was worth it for living that way. That’s what we want.
So I think it’s so important to identify within ourself what really matters and then find a way, there’s always find a way to accomplish it. So, I think, if meditation could be as in mind training, not taking the exotic aspect, or Oriental aspect of it, it could become a genuine contribution to a more open, compassionate society, and also to the quality of our life.
So, thank you for your attention.
Ming: I think we have time for some questions, does anybody have any questions?
Audience: Thank you very much, that was fascinating. I’m just curious, with the power of meditation, to change some of the brain wave behavior, for children now with Asberger’s where there’s some brain dysfunction, have you heard about any research in that?
Matthieu Ricard: Well, you know, all this is quite preliminary. There’s been some — well, we have formed a sub-group on education. This is spearheaded by the Mind and Life Institute which doesn’t do research but sort of bring together all these people. And we have now a strong — since last year, we’ve really been trying to study education not only from educators and social but bringing together psychologists, educators, social workers, neuroscientists, and contemplatives. And I think that’s one of the first times that this happened in this very good level of science and contemplation. So there have been obvious ideas of dealing with children which have attention deficit. So this is really beginning approach, but that’s part of what we would like to contribute. More like a secular approach to those things, not just the Buddhist label. There’s nothing wrong with the Buddhist label, but it might look too much like a religious approach and then deprive the tools for actually serving society in a different way.
So I have a friend of mine in France who started that in his school, he called it secular training to attention, looks very good, and everybody is happy about that. Well, I think this is the way to go.
Audience: And so you said it’s the Heart and Mind institute?
Matthieu Ricard: No, the Mind and Life Institute. There’s a website.
Audience: Hi, I keep hearing the number 10,000, tens of thousands of hours of training. And it’s really cool to see the FMRI effects of meditation, but I’m also curious if there have been advances in training, so that random people who can’t go to the Himalayas for 20 years —
Matthieu Ricard: Yes, that’s exactly why we –
Audience: — a simpler biofeedback kind of thing, where people can recognize the state, like the monk who was pressing the keys on the keyboard. He knew what he was feeling.
Matthieu Ricard: Well, we have been thinking of feedback. I know when we start to be hooked on the set of electroencephalogram, and we can look, and you can start generating compassion and you see those gamma waves going zzzz, it’s kind of fun. But at the same time, it’s a little bit interfering. Suppose I see myself in my hermitage, I don’t want to watch that screen on brain waves. And I know I’ve tried to make it go up. I think this is more like a distraction. But I think again, to the 10,000 argument, that’s why we do neurological studies, and our goal is, if there are robust results — there was one groundbreaking paper in PNAS two years ago. And on the stream of coming this year which will really establish that contemplative neuroscience field, maybe better. But the real goal is once there’s been robust study with the expert meditators, it’s really to go to everyone. Otherwise it’s just a curiosity. But if it really applies, and I know in biotech company, certainly you can apply here.
Audience: I’m wondering, so when you’re an expert meditator, you have an average level of happiness that is higher than otherwise. What if you stop meditating? How long does it take to go down? Is it something that lasts for long ever, or not at all?
Matthieu Ricard: Well, you know, the idea of stopping meditating for 20 years to see how miserable I would become, that’s not exactly — I mean, we need very determined volunteers. It’s like the kamikaze of happiness.
Audience: But it becomes like a medicine that you have to take forever?
Matthieu Ricard: No, I think, there are things like skiing. I haven’t skied for 35 years, and I could show you a photo last year, it was a joy after two hours to be able to ski as before. So I think there is something that is so deeply changed, that it certainly remain as it were. That’s that point of well-being of a baseline. It takes time to acquire it, but because of that, it has a really strong and firm foundation. I’m really convinced of that. And actually that’s the real test. We say it’s fine if the meditators are sitting in the sun, basking in the sun with full belly. No problem. Meditation is always good. But then confronted with adverse circumstances, that’s where he or she is put on the scales. And I think that’s where in daily life you can see — and what we need is slow change. The fireworks of mystical experiences don’t last, but it’s like the arm of the clock. When you stare at it, it seems not moving, but when you look from time to time it has changed. So those changes are slow, hence the need for mind training. But because they are slow, they are much more likely to be stable, and that’s the idea. The brain won’t degenerate too quickly, hopefully, and then your experience also. I think it’s something that, at some point, there’s a kind of a sort of a no return point in this kind of baseline. Thank you.
Thank you so much for your attention.