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Rosenkranz recently received a grant to investigate the efficacy of mindfulness training as an intervention for asthma. Stress will be induced in the subjects via a psychological stressor commonly used in stress studies, so the researchers can see the patterns of brain activity occurring when the subjects with asthma experience stress. Tests measuring changes in the cells in the subjects’ lungs and other markers related to the experience of asthma symptoms will be conducted before and after MBSR training to see how the subjects’ relationship to the psychological stressor changes and how those changes affect physiology relevant to asthma. Using the resulting data, they’ll be able to associate the changes in brain activity with the changes in inflammation in the body.

“That way,” Rosenkranz says, “we can start to identify the mechanisms through which something like MBSR practice might affect physiological processes associated with disease.”

If you study a phenomenon in people who have a particular disease, it’s also helpful to study people who don’t have it. In that way, researchers can determine that what they observe is not something happening only in the physiology of those with the disease. In a stress-response study with healthy individuals Rosenkranz’s team put capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers, on subjects’ skin. It causes the release of inflammatory molecules from nerve endings in the skin, which causes a “flare response.” They exposed this group of subjects to a standard stressor, as above, and measured the intensity of the flare response afterward. They did this both before and after MBSR, to see if MBSR buffers the effects of that stressor on the inflammatory response in the skin. Naturally, medical research proceeds cautiously and slowly. As results of this ongoing research become known in coming years, it may lead to breakthrough interventions using meditative practices for a variety of disease conditions where stress may be a key factor.

Emma Seppala had been passionately educating herself about veterans for a long time before joining CIHM. Reading about the suicides and other aftereffects of the trauma they had endured in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated her to want to help them. After arriving at CIHM, she received a grant from the Disabled Veterans of America to implement programs. Seppala started doing yoga and meditative breathing with the veterans, and found it helped them. Davidson encouraged her to start a pilot study. As a result, the center offers free programs to local veterans and is developing a research agenda to evaluate the effects of these types of programs for those returning from war zones.

“One of the main issues for researchers,” she says, “is not really knowing the population they’re studying. It also makes it hard to recruit subjects because you’re spending all of your time in the lab and very little time around regular people, so to speak.”

For the pilot, Seppala recruited a group of ten vets in the active group and ten in the control. She tried some meditation with them, but she quickly found that “when you ask vets suffering from post-traumatic stress to sit down and meditate, after not too long, they find it difficult to sit there and do nothing. They’re too antsy, too jumpy, and have too many recurring memories for this to be comfortable. They’re much more comfortable doing something active that relaxes them and subsequently allows them to deal with recurring memories with more ease. With post-traumatic stress, your mind is saying one thing—for example, ‘there’s no danger to me in this coffee shop’—but your body is saying another—such as ‘I’m freaked out. If I hear the bang of a coffee cup, I might just run the hell out of here.’”

But when Seppala worked with breathing, it helped the vets relax into their bodies. The main “intervention” she uses with the vets is Sudarshan Kriya, a type of yogic breathing traditionally used for purification. “It’s rhythmic breathing,” she says, “that just settles you into a really deep state of relaxation.”

Typically, vets with post-traumatic stress experience recurring traumatic memories, and sleeplessness is a big problem; they’re usually treated with medication or exposure therapy (simply speaking, exposing a traumatized person to what they fear, but in a safe environment), but often not very successfully. Medication has side effects and exposure therapy is very trying for many vets. Sleep deprivation aggravates the trauma. Davidson and Seppala want to test the effectiveness of using techniques that do not involve medication. That yogic breathing works so well for the vets encourages Davidson that he is on the right track with his contention that meditative practices are not one size fits all. Some practices are ill-suited to some people in some circumstances, while others may be perfectly suited to them.

Seppala is hypothesizing that there is phenomenon known as “memory reconsolidation.” Trauma sufferers have strong emotional relationships with the memories that emerge in their minds, but if the memories can be “reconsolidated,” their relationship to them changes. “I believe the breathing puts them into such a deep state of relaxation that when the trauma emerges, they create a new relationship with the memory,” she says.

One vet had been assigned to do interrogations using extreme measures, torture essentially. Stateside, he never slept. After some days of doing the Sudarshan Kriya program, he reported that he fell asleep on the couch watching television, a normal experience for many but a breakthrough for him. “I remember everything that happened over there, but I realize that’s not me anymore,” he told Seppala. That’s the past. I don’t have the same emotional connection to it.”

What challenge could be more compelling for the human mind today than the survival of our planet? CIHM has a project in the design stages that would study how meditative practices might alter the way individuals make decisions about how we use resources, and therefore alter the collective effect we have on our environment. Donal MacCoon, the scientist developing the project, told me about the Happy Planet Index, a measurement of sustainability developed by the New Economics Foundation that is expressed as a fraction. Illustrating the index on a whiteboard, MacCoon explained that the numerator is a measurement of wellbeing in a society that represents tangibles such as longevity and lack of illness and intangibles such as contentment. The denominator represents how much of the earth’s resources a society is using to reach its level of well-being or happiness. Developing precise numbers to represent these values is challenging, but one thing we know for sure is that in North America, we have great well-being by objective measures, but it comes at the cost of an enormous amount of resources.

What MacCoon wants to know is whether meditative practices could help us achieve higher levels of well-being— both tangible and intangible—at a lower cost to the planet. One way to approach this would be to follow people’s buying habits and see whether they were altered by meditative practice, since the consumption habits of individuals add up to the consumption habits of a society. “How else will we improve this deadly number except by finding ways to be healthier and more content while using less?” MacCoon asks. “Technological advancements will probably not suffice to sustain us. Emotional dysregulation is one of the reasons we overconsume in our pursuit of happiness and also one reason it is hard to change the way we live. Since meditative practice has been shown to reduce emotional reactivity and makes us more aware of the larger effects we have on the world around us, perhaps meditation can help us maximize sustainable well-being.

From the March 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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