Mindfulness and the Brain

Mindfulness and the Brain

Discussion date: Thu, Jul 19, 2007 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, after ourmeditation period, Still Water regular David Martin-McCormack willfacilitate a program on Mindfulness and the Brain. David’s emphasiswill be especially on how brain scientists and mindfulness teacherseach understand how we get attached or stuck on ideas or emotions, andhow we can get unstuck. This is a program that was orignially scheduledthree months ago and was put aside at the last moment because of theevents at Virginia Tech. David’s notes are below. Please join us if youcan. (The best times to join us are just before our meditation periodbegins at 7 pm, just before our walking meditation at 7:25, or justafter our walking meditation at 7:35.)

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


David’s Notes:

Unlikemany of the world’s religions, Buddhism does not find a conflict withmodern science. In fact, the current Dalai Lama and many very seriousBuddhists argue that modern science is today validating much of whatthe Buddha discovered. There is a significant scientific activity byBuddhists and Buddhist scientists attempting to understand thescientific basis of the Buddha’s enlightened understanding of theworld. It seems that the Buddha discovered major principles of how thebrain works that are only now being understood by today’s scientificcommunity.

This Thursday we will address some of themost important of these discoveries and how they relate to meditationpractices. I have found that knowing at least some of what is happeningin our brains and bodies when we meditate makes it easier to accept.For me, I find I can more readily accept a teaching when I think I know why it works than if I am just told to try it and see if it works.

Wewill talk about three components of our brains: 1) the ancientreptilian brain that actually gives commands to our bodies to do justabout everything, 2) the more-recently-evolved part of our brain thatis primarily responsible for emotions and 3) the “cognitive” part ofour brain that only mammals possess.

We will talk aboutmeditation and non-judgmental observation and why they appear to workin the context of what we know about the brain.

Finallywe will talk about a Tibetan concept called “Shenpa” that roughlytranslates into “hooked” or “triggered”. We will go over a strikingexample of shenpa. We will talk about what appears to happen in thebrain when we feel shenpa. And finally, we will talk about how to getunstuck and why it works.

David Martin-McCormick


From Pema Chodron, “The Shenpa Syndrome” 

September 2002 dharma talk, Berkeley, CA. http://www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema/shenpa3a.php

Theusual translation of the word shenpa is attachment. If you were to lookit up in a Tibetan dictionary, you would find that the definition wasattachment. But the word “attachment” absolutely doesn’t get at what itis. Dzigar Kongtrul said not to use that translation because it’sincomplete, and it doesn’t touch the magnitude of shenpa and the effectthat it has on us.

If I were translating shenpa itwould be very hard to find a word, but I’m going to give you a few. Oneword might be hooked. How we get hooked.

Another synonym for shenpa might be that sticky feeling. In terms oflast night’s analogy about having scabies, that itch that goes alongwith that and scratching it, shenpa is the itch and it’s the urge toscratch. So, urge is another word. The urge to smoke that cigarette,the urge to overeat, the urge to have one more drink, or whatever it iswhere your addiction is.

Here is an everyday example of shenpa. Somebody says a mean word to youand then something in you tightens—that’s the shenpa. Then it starts tospiral into low self-esteem, or blaming them, or anger at them,denigrating yourself. And maybe if you have strong addictions, you justgo right for your addiction to cover over the bad feeling that arosewhen that person said that mean word to you. This is a mean word thatgets you, hooks you. Another mean word may not affect you but we’retalking about where it touches that sore place—that’s a shenpa. Someonecriticizes you—they criticize your work, they criticize yourappearance, they criticize your child—and, shenpa: almostco-arising….

If you catch it at that level, it’s very workable. And you have thepossibility, you have this enormous curiosity about sitting still rightthere at the table with this urge to do the habitual thing, tostrengthen the habituation, you can feel it, and it’s never new. Italways has a familiar taste in the mouth. It has a familiar smell. Whenyou begin to get the hang of it, you feel like this has been happeningforever.

Generally speaking, however, we don’t catch it at that level of justopen space closing down. You’re open-hearted, open-minded, and then…erkk. Right along with the hooked quality, or the tension, or theshutting down, whatever… I experience it, at the most subtle level,as a sort of tensing. Then you can feel yourself sort of withdrawingand actually not wanting to be in that place.

It causes you to feel a fundamental, underlying insecurity of the humanexperience that is inherent in a changing, shifting, impermanent,illusory world, as long as we are habituated to want to have groundunder our feet.

Discussion Date: Thu, Jul 19, 2007


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