[Buddha-l] monks, meditation and trauma

S.A. Feite sfeite at adelphia.net
Mon Apr 6 07:14:43 MDT 2009

On Apr 4, 2009, at 5:04 PM, lharrington at wesleyan.edu wrote:

> So far, I haven’t found much to work with. The only reference to  
> anything
> close to a flash-back are allusions to memories of past lives. Does
> anybody have any suggestions about where I should focus my research?

I think the first thing that's important to keep in mind is that PTSD  
is a modern discovery and therefore it may be advantageous to look at  
more modern descriptions and treatments which utilize Buddhist  
contemplative approaches. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, MD, an expert  
on mental illness and mindfulness meditation has made some  
interesting comments on mental illness and the patterns that allow  
them to arise. He comments that virtually every diagnosis in the DSM- 
IV, the standard handbook for diagnosis of mental and emotional  
illness, come from the two extremes of "Rigidity" or Chaos" or some  
combination of the two. For example, with PTSD he observes that one  
person might exhibit chaotic states like flashbacks and emotional  
lability, as well as "rigid states of avoidance and numbness". What  
they're finding is that healing of such patterns has a lot to do with  
the "resonance circuitry" of the brain, especially the various  
functions of the prefrontal cortex (there are nine such functions).  
Matthieu Ricard points out in his Google talk that when talking to  
various refugees who escaped from Tibet who were severely abused and  
tortured by the Chinese, one of their greatest fears was *that they'd  
lose their ability to feel compassion for their to torturers* (!). So  
much of who they were and what they did and how they saw the world  
was about generating and maintaining lovingkindness for all beings,  
that the thought of losing that ability was just unthinkable. And  
maybe there were some who could resist falling into hatred and  
extreme aversion, but I think realistically we can imagine what  
forcing monks who generated compassion full-time to systematic  
torture would or could do to such mindstates. While we now know that  
generation of compassion has noticeable, neuroplastic changes to the  
brain, we have to also admit that severe torture, esp. over long  
periods of time would also leave it's own imprint on the brain as  
well: one not easily escapable from.

It would seem to me what modern psychiatric and neurological insight  
is telling us, that in order to free ourselves from such patterns, we  
essentially need to create a meditative space where the circuitry of  
the prefrontal cortex will "reweave" it's inter-neuronal connections.  
One thing we know for certain is that in allocentric forms of  
meditation we create changes in the prefrontal cortex so that our  
ability to form and appreciate the minds of "others" is greatly  
enhanced. In fact it's so enhanced that in adept Buddhist  
practitioners, even when presented with extremely averse images like  
a burn victim or a horribly deformed child, these important areas of  
integrative interbeing in the prefrontal cortex just "light up". Show  
that same imagery to Jane or Joe on the street and this circuitry of  
the prefrontal cortex does an interesting thing: it shuts down. *It  
goes dark.* The importance of this is touched on by Daniel Siegel in  
a lecture given at Claremont School of Theology at the Neurosciences  
and Spirituality Conference. If I were to recommend one lecture on  
Buddhism and Neuroscience to watch from the last year, this would be  
it (esp. the last 6 minutes or so). It can be found at:


It may be helpful to be familiar with Siegel's _The Mindful Brain:  
Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being_ to grok  
some of the references in this lecture.

I take it you're familiar the research already being done on PTSD in  
Iraq War veterans using Buddhist meditation?, it's this type of work  
that would probably carry over quite well into Tibetan refugees.

Are you familiar with MBCT?


Steve Feite

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