A hush fell over the room as Youngey Mingyur Rinpoche took the stage to begin his teaching. Rinpoche, the revered Tibetan Buddhist lama, teacher, and so-called "happiest man in the world" was commencing an Introduction to Awareness Meditation event, hosted by the New York Open Center. Nearly every seat in the large auditorium was occupied.
"How many of you have learned meditation before?" he asked the crowd, solemnly. Many of the audience members raised their hands. "Oh, great. Then I don't have to teach you!" he quipped, tilting his head back to chuckle. Though Rinpoche's joking demeanor makes him a popular teacher, he is serious when it comes to meditation practices.
Rinpoche's teaching is informed by contemporary scientific research. He considers himself to be, as he put it, "a short red guinea pig" -- a test subject for some of the most cutting edge neurological theories, and a firm supporter of the ongoing dialogue between science and Buddhism.
Like the Dalai Lama, Mingyur Rinpoche had an early interest in scientific inquiry, and worked with Richard Davidson's University of Wisconsin laboratory to explore the impact of meditation on the brain. Rinpoche's interest started at the age of ten, when he met the scientist Francisco Varella in Nepal. "I was very curious" he told the The Huffington Post. "First I started with cosmology, and then learned a lot about neurology." He came to believe that contemporary scientific theory and his meditation practices were aligned. "Science and meditation teachings are exactly parallel" he explained "but they don't speak the same language."
In order to pursue his mission of understanding and transmitting the values of meditation, Rinpoche submitted himself to a series of fMRI tests at Wisconsin University. "After that, they told me I was totally crazy" he joked. What the laboratory tests found, however, had dramatic implications for the scientific community.
Working with the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Research, Mingyur underwent brain imaging scans to test the effects of meditation. The studies found that the brain changed significantly during meditation. "The result", said Rinpoche, was that my gamma synchronicity was very high. They told me they had never seen this level of synchronicity before." Gamma synchronicity is the synchronicity of gamma rhythms that represent different populations of neurons "working together" in a network, in order to carry out cognitive functions.
The gamma activity, increased by meditation, remained high even after meditation had ceased. The studies indicated that meditation was an example of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change). Simply put, the laboratory concluded that meditation physically alters the brain. "Thirteen years ago they said it was impossible to change the brain after a certain point." Rinpoche said. "Now, they realize that the brain continues to develop your whole life. From a meditation point of view, of course, this has always been true."
While participating in scientific discoveries played a significant part in Mingyur's practice, as he writes, "theoretical understanding alone is simply not enough to overcome the psychological and biological habits that create so much heartache and pain in daily life."
Making friends with gossipy neurons
By understanding how the mind changes the brain, Rinpoche hopes to inspire new audiences to try meditation. "Many studies have shown that meditation is good for the mind. It's also good for the body; it is good for the immune system, blood circulation, and overall sense of happiness" he said. At the Open Center event, Rinpoche told his audience: "you know, you have gossipy neurons. One day, one of your neurons might say to another neuron 'you're very fat and ugly.' Then another neuron might say 'oh, yes! You're very fat and ugly.' Then the neurons start to gossip, and they decide it's true. And if the neurons don't gossip, you know, they get a little insecure. They like to make problems. Many of our problems we create for ourselves this way. Meditation can help stop the gossipy neurons, and show them how to relax."
To his students, Rinpoche is a guide, who helps make difficult meditation practices and theories accessible. He recommends meditation for both bodily health and mental development. "In the West, some people try to use meditation to fight thoughts and emotions" he told The Huffington Post. "What I've found is that in meditation you don't have to fight your thoughts and feelings. Instead, you can make friends with panic, depression, pain, or any other problem. You can use your thoughts and feelings to train your mind."
As he concluded his talk, Rinpoche gave his audience two pieces of advice. "How do you make friends with your panic? Through meditation. You meditate by being aware, and relaxing. It's very simple".
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