The marriage of science and meditation

A Stanford University neuroscientist and meditation instructor talks about the transformative power of Buddhism and why happiness is a trainable skill


Dr. Philippe Goldin, a psychologist who heads the Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience Group at Stanford University, runs a National Institutes of Health-funded lab that studies adults with social anxiety disorder, and offers training in mindfulness meditation.

We caught up with Dr. Goldin, who spent six years in India and Nepal studying various languages and Buddhist philosophy.

Soul’s Code: What’s the appeal of Buddhism for you?

GOLDIN: Androgyny. The goal— the ultimate goal — of mental development is to become completely inclusive of all qualities, and I thought that was incredible . . . That was a model of being that I had not been introduced to before — the way you could develop wisdom and compassion and skillfulness, that it’s not abstract, and that there are actual steps towards being able to train your mind. And that other people had done it, and you could do it too if you’re willing to make the effort.


Soul’s Code: Is that your personal spiritual practice?

GOLDIN: I lead meditation groups. I also try to practice every day — a little bit, formal and informal. What I call meaningful pauses, to redirect my attention to notice what’s happening in my mind, my body; observing habits and trying to let go.

Soul’s Code: Does your work confirm studies that have shown how monks have apparently boosted the capacity of their brains through thousands of hours of meditation?

GOLDIN: The people who are the superstars? Yeah, we do expect them to be different in some of the tests and measurements. But I’m more interested in how you can take the regular person and teach them skills to work with themselves. To me, that’s how you get at the masses.

I’m working with the regular Joe, with Joe the plumber. I’m really interested in the regular person, people who are suffering from depression, anxiety, stress and how you can teach them skills that they can learn to implement so that they can have their own direct experience working with their mind, introspection.

Soul’s Code: Is there heightened interest in your field now, given the stressful economic times?

GOLDIN: Now — and in fact, always. Our current culture is set up to induce fear. Most of the signals we have are about, ‘It’s not okay to be the way I am.’ That causes tension, anxiety and stress — be it economic, the fashion models in magazines, or how we’re supposed to be parents, or how we’re supposed to be children.

Our culture is really not very healthy, and the demands placed on people at work — inter-personally — is huge right now. There is tremendous stress and a real lack of training in how to be okay with oneself.

Soul’s Code: Is that the type of training you are doing at Google?

GOLDIN: Last spring I was contacted by them about doing a research study, and I just started more and more projects with them. Google is doing some fantastic work on developing programs to train employees in emotional balance and emotional intelligence. Everyone there is super intelligent, so pure IQ is not the issue.

They’re actually addressing how (to help employees) be able to be skillful with their own emotions, for their own benefit and for the benefit of others. Lots of companies recognize that if a person feels anxiety about coming to work, or has incredibly low self-esteem, or suffers from anxiety or depression, that that’s completely counterproductive.

Soul’s Code: Can people control how happy they feel?

GOLDIN: You could consider happiness a trait, but I think it’s a trainable skill. And that skill rides on psychological flexibility. And part of that is being able to be emotionally aware, and to be able to work with or regulate and modulate you’re emotions . . . To me, psychological flexibility is the basis for being happy and well.

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4 Responses to “The marriage of science and meditation”

  1. this is a very optimistic article and i love that. if we can realize that we can change how we perceive ourselves and those around us, that is half the battle. everyone has the right to be happy. some people just seem to be born optimistic and happy, but goldin’s point that we can choose to be happy are words to live by.

    he’s so correct in his analysis that our society is extremely unhealthy…but i think we are moving towards “the light”, so to speak. great interview that give me much to think about, thanks!

  2. Great interview. Here is a story in the Wall Street Journal that refers to the “superstars,” as Goldin calls them, and the phenomenon of “neuroplasticity”.

    The brain itself is organically altered by meditation, as observed in the organs of the world’s foremost practitioners:

    The term refers to the brain’s recently discovered ability to change its structure and function, in particular by expanding or strengthening circuits that are used and by shrinking or weakening those that are rarely engaged . . .

    Lately, however, scientists have begun to wonder whether the brain can change in response to purely internal, mental signals. That’s where the Buddhists come in. Their centuries-old tradition of meditation offers a real-life experiment in the power of those will-o’-the-wisps, thoughts, to alter the physical matter of the brain.

    In a striking difference between novices and monks, the latter showed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves during compassion meditation. Thought to be the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits, gamma waves underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness.

    That Goldin is applying this to the workplace and the average Joe from his academic berth is remarkable. All power to him!

    Scans of Monks’ Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning

  3. Excellent content and style…keep up the good work!


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