How Meditation Shapes Our Brain
and Helps Us Deal With Destructive Emotions
“If we grasp at a problem, it only becomes more intense... A lot of mental suffering can be prevented by using particular meditation techniques. ”
In this first ‘Meet the Speaker’ Interview, Scott Snibbe and Geshe Tenzin Namdak discuss how meditation shapes our brain through neuroplasticity, helping us deal with negative emotions. They also explore the common ground between quantum physics and Buddhist philosophy and mind-science, referring to Bohm’s theory of implicate and explicate order and the Buddhist view of ultimate reality. Finally, they discuss how the dialogue between science and contemplative traditions can help us address the great challenges of our society.
Scott Snibbe: Geshe Namdak, thank you so much, I’m really excited to do this first meet the speaker interview with you. These are meant to give us a little glimpse of the people we are talking to in the dialogue in November with you and several other distinguished speakers. But the purpose of this is just to get to know you a little better. I’m sure, especially now as a monk, you have a very humble attitude, maybe not wanting always to talk about yourself so much, so I really appreciate you making the chance to do this because I think it will help our audience to understand who you are and how you got here.
We wanted to start out by asking you about your childhood. If you could tell us about some event from your childhood that you think helped define who you are today?
Geshe Namdak: Childhood I don’t know, childhood is a long time ago. But I think when I was a youngster, probably at the time of university I think then only the change of life started to happen so to say. I was studying hydrology and I always had a bit of interest in martial arts, I started with a bit of hard core Tae Kwon Do, then went to Kung Fu and then Tai Chi. And then I got more interested in the philosophy behind those aspects, especially Tai Chi, though I was also quite active on the weekends, on these in big cities in the Netherlands, particularly Rotterdam where those rave parties all night long used to attend on the weekends. So I think in my early 20’s I started to have more interest in spirituality of life – so to say. So I stopped going to parties and I started to study a little bit of Chinese medicine on the weekends, while I was still undergoing my studies of hydrology at the university. And then developed more interest in philosophy and took a direction towards Buddhism in 1993 when I was 23 and I went to a Buddhist centre in the Netherlands called Maitreya Instituut. And actually, in one weekend, I never had attended any teaching before, I had read a little bit, but not much, one weekend, pretty much, changed my mind in a particular way, so to say.
I had many questions in life, like what is the purpose of life, when you really get satisfaction, what’s lacking, and why are some people suffering more than others? So I had those questions, and in this particular form of Buddhism, which is actually science of the mind, and it’s philosophies so, not that I straightway had all the answers, but I could see that there was a lot of information here and openness to reasoning, to research and to ask questions so that brought me realise I can find some answers in this in depth philosophy of the mind so to say.
SS: So it sounds like you were one of these people searching for a deeper meaning in your life. Did that carry through from when you were much younger or was there a specific moment when it flipped for you and you found your life wasn’t satisfactory and so you started searching or were you born in this way searching for something bigger from the start?
GN: No, I don’t think so as a teenager I never really had any interest in any of these matters at all so that cam later in life. I think 18 or 19 and it started developing from there.
SS: And so now obviously, you have made a very deep turn towards the spiritual in your life, can you talk about how that brings you satisfaction and meaning in your every day life now that you have made that decision.
GN: Well to become an ordained person, you change your life so drastically according to a common sense society. So it was quite a decision but, up until now, after being a monk for 25 years, I never really regretted that change. Why is that so? Well because what we try to do, we try to understand our mind, and its constructive and destructive emotions and not only understand it, but how to transform the mind, to generate a more constructive way of thinking, how to eliminate and transform, so to say, destructive emotions. So to train the mind is a long term goal, but over time, you can see that the potentials are there and the possibilities are there and that gives more satisfaction in life.
SS: So it sounds like meaning and satisfaction in your life now comes from these mental techniques that you have learned, the essence of training your mind towards the deeper aspects of understanding reality and the purpose in life.
GN: Yes I think so. To examine the mind and to see the potentials of the mind and possibilities to change, not only to change but to develop more constructive forms of emotions, opposing to the more destructive emotions, that automatically brings more peace of mind and having seen those aspects that gives more satisfaction.
SS: Wonderful. Can you talk about this series that we are beginning in Science and Wisdom, obviously there is science and contemplative tradition, can you talk a little bit about how scientific research has informed any of your meditative practise, or your contemplative training
GN: There are a few points in science that have helped me quite a bit. To see research being done in neuro-phenomenology, that consciousness can influence brain activity and there is the aspect of neuro-plasticity and the possibility to change. So reading that from the scientific background is very supportive to see, not only on a subjective level of experience, it’s kind of a reality, that’s one aspect. And another aspect, we always examine, especially in philosophy, the ultimate nature of reality so to say. So then, if you examine the modern findings of quantum mechanics, especially I’m quite inspired by David Bohm’s view of wholeness, and interpretation of quantum mechanics and that kind of aspect of implicit and explicit orders, it’s very inspiring to see that if you come from a scientific background, with empirical and mathematical language and come to a similar conclusion as we in Buddhist philosophy come to by using power of epistemology and examining reality, it’s very inspiring to see that there is a common ground between the two. And that’s true from the point of view of psychology as well the point of view from quantum mechanics and ultimate reality, it’s very interesting.
SS: Yes, I’m sure you have been watching His Holiness,The Dalai Lama’s many different teachings, the abundance of teachings that he has been giving, many times he has said he now meditates half on quantum physics, when he is considering the nature of reality. Do you have any insights on what he means by that, is that something that you yourself do in your meditation, you know when you are meditating on emptiness and different aspects of reality, do you reflect on quantum theoretical aspects?
GN: I’m not really very well knowledgable on quantum mechanics, but what His Holiness tells his monks to do is to study the theory though we don’t have the knowledge of the mathematics behind it, but the philosophy of it we can study and that can be quite helpful. Because also then we can see that, although things appear very concrete out there, if you look at the quantum level, then nothing exists in a concrete inner manner, so everything is interdependent, and that helps us a lot in our philosophy as well. When we talk about different levels of interdependence, we talk about similar aspects of things that don’t exist from their own side. The wholeness or the connection or relativity of their interdependence is actually more of the whole than the individual parts.
SS: That things don’t exist as they seem on the surface and that when you probe how they exist, it turns out to be interdependent including interdependence with the minds of the perceiver, is that right?
GN: Yes, that’s right. We have a view of the mind school of philosophy for example, it very much talks about these aspects. Whatever is being perceived by a particular individual depends so much on the consciousness of the individual because all of us perceive different objects in different ways. So that correlation between observer and observed is always evident in different forms of Buddhist philosophy. And it’s very interesting to relate that with what we find in modern physics of quantum mechanics.
SS: I wonder if that’s what… I’m always curious. The Dalai Lama has always been much more open with talking about his own practise, and I wonder about what aspects of quantum theory he is reflecting on, because there is that one aspect of breaking things apart into parts, there is a logical analysis that I think we can all understand if we have that education but then, this more mystical aspect, that even science reveals of the interdependence of the mind with the observed phenomenon.
GN: Yes, that’s definitely true. In the mind only it talks about the previous habituation patterns, we have created for a long period of time, and that influences what appears in our mind. It’s very true, in David Bohm’s philosophy behind the things that appear, it’s very much influenced by the observer itself. It’s very interesting.
SS: What do you think the dialogue between science and between contemplative traditions, why do you think this is important? We are about to undertake one, and of course the Mind and Life Institute has been doing this for years, where do you see the importance of this dialogue between science and contemplative traditions?
GN: The dialogue is very important because we use different methodologies. In science we use a different methodology and in more contemplative traditions is a different form of approach, of the reality of the mind but that doesn’t mean that either of those approaches are correct or incorrect. I believe we can learn a lot from each other, especially in the fields of mind science and psychology, because we have an incredible increase in modern society of external developments, that bring a lot of benefits to society, but the internal development is lacking and we see in the recent lockdowns, increases in depression and anxiety and fear and people being unhappy, not satisfied in life. It is quite a problem in society. And that can be addressed and that can be approached by building correlations between scientific research and the contemplative traditions to help people to recognise these aspects in society are a problem – the first step – and then see is there are possibilities to do something about it, using different technologies or different methods to address the issue.
SS: Yes, so the contemplative traditions can help to bring a deeper understanding of the mind to the insights into the material world and the physical world that the scientific method brings. I’m sure you have read a lot of these Mind and Life books like I have, I’m sure I have read at least ten of them over the years, they publish every year, and I’m sure you have attended them, you’ve maybe also seen His Holiness in person. Is there any specific examples that come up for you of where you have seen that dialogue between science and contemplative traditions really work well – for you personally?
GN: Yes, going back to these aspects of the science of the mind, especially the research being done on meditators who have accomplished certain aspects of consciousness, or trained their mind over a sustained period of time, that has incredible effect on brain activity. As we all know in the field of Mind and Life, Richard Davidson, what he has accomplished, together with Daniel Coleman they write these incredible books which actually prove that accomplished practitioners, they produce these gamma waves off the chart of an ordinary brain, and that indicates a kind of spiritual tradition that can train the mind in a way that you can deal much better with afflictions and destructive emotions. The evidence is there, and the methodology is right there, it’s just a matter of connecting the two together – the scientific world and the contemplative traditions. And then i think, if you have a few of those platforms going in society then something more constructive can be done on the level of a more global aspect of helping the different societies in eliminating these destructive emotions or the problems in society, the anxiety and the fear and depression, these problems that many people are facing.
SS: The way that science has shown genuine transformations to the brain and the brain activity that correspond to the brain that meditators report as their inner experience, I think that is probably one of the biggest impacts this has had for you?
GN: I think so because those meditators, they spend a lot of time contemplating these aspects of science of the mind and its philosophy, and by they are producing the results of what it is saying in the scriptures is possible the evidence is there, the methodology is there so methods they work if you apply them in a particular way. It’s very interesting, and very inspiring as well to see the results being produced by this kind of methodology.
SS: Yes, it points to science being able to detect some of these invisible states. Sometimes when people tell me they don’t believe in immaterial things, I say “well do you believe in love?” Or “do you believe in mathematics?” It seems like some of these experiments point toward actually being able to measure some of these things. You mentioned gamma waves, what does gamma waves off the charts correspond to from a spiritual dimension?
GN: From what I have understood from other friends in the field of science, it produces a capacity to deal with issues in life, and not only deal with issues but not to grasp at emotions, they come, they go, it’s a kind of flux. Like if you write in water with a piece of wood it stays for a little bit and then it goes away. That means if destructive emotions come up, because we all have them, but we don’t hold on to them. In a similar way, when i was hearing the story from Paul Ekman, one of the world leaders in facial expressions, who you may have heard of, who examined so many faces for so many years, but when he saw the face of His Holiness he said “I’ve never seen a face like that before”. It’s very interesting, because His Holiness, when you talk about an issue, of course emotion comes and then there is an expression on the face, but then straight away there is laughter, and it is gone, there is not this grasping or that holding on to problems, because everything is in the nature of fluctuation, everything is in a state of impermanence, problems come, abide for some time, and then disintegrate. So if we grasp at a problem, only then it becomes more intense. We all have mental problems, but a lot of mental suffering, I think, can be prevented by using particular techniques. They are available, it has been shown that certain of those techniques have been very beneficial and they seem to work.
SS: It sounds that that idea of gamma waves being very high corresponds to resilience and presence, openness without the tight grasping.
GN: Yes, it is more. One of my friends, he did some research with Dzogchen practitioners, when you talk about people who recognise the ultimate nature of the mind, they also score in the same kind of level. There is also the same spontaneous aspects of the mind that don’t hold on to or grasp the more coarse aspects of the mind that we see in destructive emotions, and it brings more peace of the mind and more happiness, and the capacity to transform so that’s a very positive thing.
SS: Yes, it’s definitely a state we’d all like to be in. Every once in a while I feel little bit of that, and I’m sure you do. The last question.. this is about a wish! If you were granted one wish that science and contemplative wisdom could come together to solve one current pressing problem together, which problem would you choose. You have a lot to choose from right now.
GN: I think the most important issue is the elimination of destructive emotions. Because every problem we have in society, whether physically caused, or caused by verbal expressions, conversations between countries or within a particular society. Every physical action of war, every miscommunication is all rooted in our mental attitudes. And those mental attitudes, they can be transformed. And if destructive emotions become more present, then our physical behaviours can also be destructive and cause a lot of disturbance in relation with other people and society as well as complete countries. We see verbal abuse between different countries, different presidents or whatsoever. If you go back to the origin of all these problems, they are actually rooted in the mind. So if we can do something about that aspect, if we take away destructive emotions or transform them to constructive ones we will have a much more peaceful and happy world.
SS: That’s very wise. All these external problems that we face, from politics to climate change, they’re rooted in the mind and destructive emotions, that certainly seems like the wisest answer. I don’t know how you could lead everyone toward addressing their own destructive emotions but I guess we could work on ourselves. What do you say to that?
GN: It’s not an easy task. But you say wish, so that’s my wish. Whether it’s possible or not, that’s my question, but at least we can go in that direction, to limit all destructive emotions is something to be wished for but not that easy to be accomplished. At least we can start to go in that direction.
SS: Yes, that’s wonderful. And a very nice way to end. I share your wish with you, to eliminate all destructive emotions.
GN: Let’s hope the wish comes true.
SS: Thank you very much, and I look forward to our dialogue with the other participants in a couple of months from now.