Tania Singer: Different Forms of Meditation: Mindfulness, Awareness and Compassion

Interview with Patricia Lüning-Klemm at the Heiligenfeld Congress 2019 

A: Professor Singer, thank you very much for taking the time for an interview on the topics of the Congress at the Akademie Heiligenfeld: Mindfulness, evolution, consciousness, being human. You gave an impressive lecture this morning on the topic: The mental training of mind and heart from the perspective of social neuroscience. You have introduced that in your long-term study, the ReSource Project, you have explored with 300 people how brain, stress and behavior change through mental concentrated mindfulness exercises. What are the main findings of this study?

B: An important goal of this study was to differentiate between meditation and mindfulness and to understand what kind of mental exercise has what effect. As part of the multi-method study, we collected 90 different parameters such as subjective well-being, brain, behaviour, status of the immune system or hormonal regulation. Among other things, we conducted brain scans and qualitative interviews. We compared three different types of meditation: A so-called presence module with the research focus on attention-based mindfulness such as paying attention to the breath or directing attention to the body via body scan. The aim was to learn to direct the mind to the present moment while being alone with oneself. We then compared the effects of this approach with the effects of the affect and perspective modules. While the presence module is aimed solely at the meditator, the affect module involves the social sphere through exercises of heart opening or compassion. The same applies to the perspective module, which, however, does not train emotional, but socio-cognitive abilities such as the adoption of perspectives.  The aim is to develop the quality of an inner observer or a bird’s eye view of one’s own patterns of thought and personality. In addition, by changing the perspective, it is also practiced to take on the mental perspective of another person in order to recognize that the other person may start from completely different beliefs than I do.

A: How does this change of perspective change the inner attitude? We are inclined to interpret immediately or to give good advice?

B: At first it is only a matter of accomplishing and practicing the change of perspective at all. How would the event be judged, for example, from the perspective of the “inner gypsy”, the “manager” or the “inner judge”?It is about getting to know the identification with one’s own personality parts and then also learning to let go of these again, in the knowledge: That is only a part of me. Person A, for example, describes a situation from everyday life from the perspective of his or her own inner personality and the listener then filters out possible beliefs from what he or she has heard: Speaks there a kind of inner strict judge or rather an offended little child. What kind of person is this and what beliefs and thoughts does this person have? This kind of 10 minute partner exercise, the so-called contemplative dyad, (meditative dialogue) is introduced at the beginning of each social affect and perspective module in a three day retreat.

A:What are the main differences between the different modules?

B: The application and exploration of the three modules led to very different results. The awareness presence module is very effective in focusing perception on physical events, being more in the present and increasing attention. However, it does not help to reduce social stress and cultivate compassion and altruism. For this you need this compassion effect module. Social intelligence develops with the practice of the perspective dyad, with the development of the inner observer who can make this cognitive flight of birds. At the neuronal level, we also observe structural changes in different brain networks, depending on the training module, which form the basis of these different abilities. It is really important to differentiate which meditation and which mindfulness exercise one practices every day, because the effects on the brain, body, behaviour and the way stress is processed are different. Depending on where you are and what you need, one module is more suitable than the other and leads to different results.

A: They explore how people interact with each other in social areas. Today we observe more and more often the loss of a respectful relationship to each other. Can mental training change consciousness structures that have been stored in neural networks for many years? What kind of training on a broad basis would lead to loving interaction with each other?

B: If the qualities of compassion, love and altruism are required, then the results clearly indicate that heart mediation or affective dyad exercises are much more effective than e.g. mindfulness apps based only on attention enhancement. Important is the training of compassion, gratitude and loving kindness. However, the affect module is not sufficient if, for example, a kind of “global compassion” is to be trained. This also requires the ability to cognitively put oneself in the shoes of people who are not close and familiar to you and for whom you cannot spontaneously develop compassion because they may even have hurt you or are completely foreign to you because of your religion. In order to develop global compassion, these people must be included in the circle of compassion. This requires wisdom and the ability to adopt a cognitive perspective.

A: Has this knowledge developed from your research or was global compassion already part of the training?

B: Our goal was to use the 3-fold nature of these modules to pave the way for the development of global compassion:

First the basic module to arrive at the presence in yourself and the body at all and to learn to tame your mind. Then comes the emotional affective module, which unfolds this strong motivation to love and care. And then there is the cognitive third perspective for developing the ability and wisdom that other people are different, have different beliefs, and can even behave incomprehensibly from their own perspective. My beliefs have also not been learned from the absolute point of view, but from time to time, even if sometimes so young that I am no longer conscious of it. To carry out this change of perspective is an important prerequisite for the development of global compassion. For it is easy to develop compassion for your children when they have not just screamed through at night, but more difficult to feel this for a person who has really harmed me or left me or who does not behave according to my moral principles.

A: So it’s about working on these inner reconciliation processes?

B: Exactly.

A: As you describe it, there are big differences, depending on whether someone in Transcendental Meditation is meditating on a mantra or someone else is meditating on the name Jesus Christ, or whether someone in the sense of open awareness is trying to leave this horizontal path in order to have a deeper experience of emptiness or stillness in a vertical situation.

B: Exactly, these are completely different forms of cultivation of the mind. It would be expected that the different meditations would lead to different results. “Fingerprints” of mediation are also very different in experience. For example, during a heart meditation, people tend to perceive red, yellow, and warm colors. And when observing thoughts, dark green, blue and black are more likely. This does not only occur randomly in one person, but the perceptions of the participants are very similar.

A: Does this happen spontaneously?

B: Spontaneous. We never explicitly talked about color perception during the briefings for the various mental training exercises. The observations were very consistent. And so it was surprising.

A: Could you imagine that this kind of meditation can be explored with your grid or would you have to develop a completely different scenario?

B: We know open awareness well, it fits more into this mindfulness presence module. Those who now practice Open-Awareness Meditation in an accepting loving way for the rest of their lives would also be able to come to the developments described above. Probably many ways lead to a more conscious and compassionate being. In the ReSource project, of course, I only refer to a period of three months with the application of secularized training forms that we can measure, and so the results must be understood.

A: Internal states of consciousness lead to external behaviors. A person who acts under stress lives out anger differently than a relaxed person. What would you recommend as a daily exercise to a person who wants to learn to deal with anger and rage differently without therapeutic means?

B: A dyad exercise of the affective module helps to remember every day a difficult situation from everyday life, to perceive the corresponding feeling and body perception, to react to it with an accepting and compassionate attitude.

A: You become your own therapist, so to speak?

B: It teaches you to identify difficult emotions, to feel them and then let them be there with acceptance and not to push them away or to transfer them to other people. This does not replace therapy. But it is a first step.

A: May I ask what in your personal life has led you to be so intensively involved in researching consciousness processes and their possibilities for change?

B: I used to work in opera and theatre and it’s also about exploring different states of consciousness. The question of the plasticity of our consciousness has always fascinated me. Later in my life, I took part in many retreats and workshops that dealt with consciousness expansion or personality development. The possibility of inner transformation has always fascinated me. Then at some point I had the chance to explore these areas scientifically in my professional life.

A: First of all was one’ s own experience, the personal experience?

B: Exactly, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to develop this work at all, because I wouldn’t have known what practices and exercises there were. It was important to experience them for oneself. Then we developed and refined these exercises over many years with many experts.

A: And now it’s your job to bring these insights to the outside world! How would you determine that the study results have arrived in social and cultural areas? Perhaps you can name three characteristics?

B: If we achieve that some of these exercises are part of the normal curriculum in schools, that children learn how to regulate their emotions, control their thoughts better, understand their self and their personality parts better, then we have achieved a lot. I would also like to see empathy training and also dyad exercises as basic training to strengthen resilience for everyone in hospitals and nursing services – especially for those who have a lot to do with the suffering of others, such as nurses and doctors, refugee helpers, crisis workers, social workers of all kinds. Finally, aspects of this training should also be included in the economic and political spheres, since social skills are also in need there on a daily basis.

A: Health insurance companies report that the increasing incidence of psycho-physical illnesses is increasingly leading to early retirement with high social costs. How could the results of this study lead, for example, to the target group of teachers retiring less early?

B: As mentioned above, it would be good to bring programmes like the ReSource project into these institutions in an adapted form. In any case, as our results suggest, this would increase resilience and better stress management. At the same time, however, work must also be done on the respective institutional structures.

A: So much remains to be done. Thank you very much for the interview.

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