[Buddha-l] monks, meditation and trauma

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at earthlink.net
Tue Apr 7 13:23:13 MDT 2009


Disneyland used to have a section called Tomorrowland (maybe it still does,
haven't been there for many years). It touted all the wonderful things just
around the corner in the future. Futuristic kitchens, gravity-free autos,
etc, etc, "Better living through chemistry" (a corporate slogan that served
as a sly punchline in the 60s, and has undermined the ability of our air and
water to support healthy life). The future eventually arrives, but rarely as
imagined. Watch some of the predictive films of those times for a good
chuckle. You are confusing the dreams some have about what the future might
be, with what is presently the case, and with what sufficient evidence
indicates has a good chance of being the case in the future. Brain
plasticity is the "hot" thing these days, tons of research coming out, but
aside from showing that the brain is not a static organ, and that it can
undergo modifications -- in complex networks of ways -- due to reactions to
external experiences or to how such experiences are experienced, little else
is certain about how "plastic" the brain is or how it really works. Our lack
of knowledge is replaced by hyperactive theorizing and speculation -- which
is fine... that leads to experiments and tests, and actual knowledge is
gained thereby. But on the popular front, people and generalists tend to run
with the penumbras of speculation as if those are the facts. Think of all
the "groundbreaking" announcements one hears on the news about some new
medical breakthrough, which, when you get through the journalistic hype,
usually turns out to be a very mundane laboratory result that -- if it holds
up with subsequent experimentation -- may contribute in some way, years down
the road, to a cure for cancer or diabetes or whatever because it may have
some noticeable affect on some micro-anatomical process that some believe
plays a role in cancer, diabetes, etc. Gamblers call this kind of thing
"long shot."

> Well, let's look at my original comment then:
> "I would suspect the aforementioned example would be the exception
> rather than the rule.

I suspect your suspicion is unfounded. There is a lot of anger, etc., in the
Tibetan community, about many things (and not just among the youth). Let's
do a rigorous poll and get out of the suspicion business.

>It could be that trauma avoided might be
> proportional to meditative expertise.

And here is a tentative cause-effect claim. Obviously a large part of my
comments were directed at exactly this assumption.

>It might also be an interesting
> comment on what aspects of neural circuitry support healing and which
> parts are potentially damaged.

And here we've entered Disneyland...

> I think the more Buddhist take on this might be that given the
> reality of neuroplasticity, no one is a prisoner of karma."

In fact, according to Buddhism we are all prisoners of karma, bound by the
bonds (there is a rich vocabulary for binding conditions, bonds, bondage,
fetters, etc.). Unless you propose to liberate sentient beings through
neurosurgery or chemical alteration of the brain, the physical corollaries
to the cognitive-affective processes are fairly irrelevant, a hobby pursuit
perhaps (think arrow-in-eye story).

> What the assumption is is that trauma can cause changes to the brain,
> and that those changes represent a form of pathology and those
> changes are supportive for mental and emotional suffering that has
> the potential to remain--until neuroplastic changes occur to free one
> from that suffering.

All that can be reformulated more accurately and coherently without recourse
to the brain. The pathology from trauma is already patent, with or without
identified brain correlates. And again, unless you want to fix the problem
by working directly on the brain, the theoretical "neuroplastic changes" you
require would be primarily byproducts of mental interventions and work,
again making the brain story an interesting but irrelevant sidebar vis-a-vis
the cure. "Cure" is a big word, and may involve entirely different
techniques than immunization.

> I'm pretty sure there is science on this.

There are lab results open-ended enough to interpret in a variety of ways,
this being one hopeful way. But this is not fact yet.

> Since it appears a presumption in the research on MBCT is that once
> neuroplastic changes occur in certain patients with depression,
> resiliency is attained and therefore relapse is unlikely, I would
> expect similar resiliency to be possible for various afflictive
> emotions.

"Presumption" is the operative word there. Know any cured depressives?


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