Well Being Study in Madison, Wisconsin

Sunday, March 26, 2017

It was shortly after the election last November when I was reading Buddha Dharma Magazine that I saw an add for a Meditation and Well Being Study at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. My initial intention was to do something positive that would be of help to others in the face of the devastation and helplessness everyone was feeling in reaction to the election. So I embarked on a very long process of application and vetting for the study. As I learned more about what the study would entail, I was a bit apprehensive at the thought of 2 hours in the fMRI machine and 2 nights in the sleep lab among other things. When I got an email telling me that I didn’t qualify for the study, I was actually relieved. Curious that a month later, sometime in January, I got a call telling me that I was advanced onto the next round of interviews: but I thought I was disqualified – oh, that was a mistake. Hummm, how is this going to unfold?

Eventually I was invited to participate as an experienced meditator. Richie Davidson, the primary investigator, is a rock star neuroscientist and friend of the Dalai Lama. I have read a lot about him and his work and was excited to be involved. I wanted to share all the benefits I have found in my meditation practice over the years and how it has positively impacted my life. I would be asked for blood samples and saliva samples, sleep journal and dream reports, interviews and questionnaires about general health and well being, computer tasks, EEG and fMRI scans to measure attention and other responses both at base line and after intensive meditation. In three study visits to Madison over 10 months, it would be a huge commitment. But maybe I could also see my old friends who teach at the Music School. Maybe I could teach some performance practice workshops or master classes with their students. Maybe all the tests would show that I am a “good” meditator! Or not….

Of course nothing was as I expected it would be: My first trip was arranged during spring break, both at Princeton and UW, so no teaching this first visit. A week before I was supposed to travel to Madison, Michael’s brother Ev died unexpectedly. He had been dutifully slugging through the chemo after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer last summer. It was brutal and he was trying to be tough and positive, but he took a sudden turn for the worse and was gone in a few days. We were all devastated. It was a mess trying to change my travel plans to stop in Chicago for the funeral on my way to Madison. Somehow we managed to make it work. I left for the airport right after the luncheon at the country club and several hours later found myself greeted by a cheery grad student – quite a change of scene. Add to all this that my sleep had been quite disturbed for at least a week, both in anticipation of filling out the sleep journal – how many times did you wake up, how long were you awake, how long did it take to fall asleep – and in worry and emotion about Ev. I was trying to be calm and equanimous in the face of all this, but I was actually pretty strung out and emotional. Everyone I dealt with at the Weisman Center for Healthy Minds was very kind and understanding, but this was hardly going to be a baseline visit.

Somehow I got through it all on very little sleep and had a wonderful visit with my old friend David Ronis. I guess all that metta and breath practice in the middle of the night helped me function. I have a lot of experience getting into that slightly wired and super focused state when I am sleep deprived. For this first visit, I was not supposed to do more than my “regular” amount of meditation or compassion practice. Oh well, sorry, but this is how it is right now. The 90 minutes in the fMRI machine went pretty well and I enjoyed the concentration tasks and wasn’t claustrophobic or uncomfortable at all. The life events interview was about as upsetting as I thought it would be – bringing up all the old difficult family stories. I didn’t sleep much after that. The nights in the sleep lab were about as bad as I had anticipated. I slept even less and had no dreams to report.

But I actually learned a huge amount in the four days I was there, especially from the wonderful tech staff at the sleep center. The study is so huge, and there is so much data generated, that my specific contribution won’t make that much of an impact if it is not quite a regular representation. Who knows what the data will show when it is analyzed anyway? It is also comforting to know that I can quit the study at any time, so who knows if I will even go back for the second and third visits when I am supposed to do two days of intensive self practice before all the scans and tests. Who knows, if I do decide to go back, how different my results will look between this first sleep deprived, grief stricken visit and a more “normal” intensive practice visit. I’ll just give over my data with renunciation and generosity and let the big shot scientists see what they see. Overall I saw once again that nothing is more important than family, friendships are precious, and each day that our body functions and we can enjoy the sun on our skin and the wind in our hair is a gift. Keep going from there.

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