Meditation for the collective good – All In The Mind – ABC News

Tom Cronin: When we start meditating we start transcending the current status quo that’s inside our programmed head. We are very deeply conditioned and programmed to think in a particular way. When you start meditating you start questioning some of those programs and you start breaking free of that structure that has been sort of in a constant loop inside your head and the collective head of the society’s minds, and that’s where we are going to start to see systems change coming through, once the collective starts changing their minds individually.

Lynne Malcolm: Hi, it’s All in the Mind on RN, I’m Lynne Malcolm. Today, the potential of meditation and mindfulness for the greater good of society.

Daniel Berry: A lot of the qualities of attention that mindfulness has been linked to were really related to this feeling empathy for other people, and I thought maybe mindfulness might enhance this feeling for others because they were feeling compassion.

Lynne Malcolm: That’s Daniel Berry, Assistant Professor of Psychology at California State University, San Marcos. We’ll hear later about his research on whether mindfulness training can promote pro-social behaviour.

Now let’s enter The Portal. It’s a book and film which explores the power of meditation for the world, through the personal stories of individuals moving through crisis. Tom Cronin and Jacqui Fifer are co-writers of The Portal.

Tom Cronin: Rather than telling you how to transform, we show you how people have transformed. You go on a journey with six people that have all gone through their own personal crisis and transformation, showing that each and every one of us has that capacity to do that. So it’s quite an immersive journey of exploration through other people’s stories.

Jacqui Fifer: Yes, it’s an experience of the role that crisis plays in our evolution, and we are looking at it on a really personal level but against a global backdrop of a species and a system that is evolving at the moment and the role that we personally play in that process.

Lynne Malcolm: Earlier in his life, Tom Cronin spent 26 years as a broker in finance, trading bonds. But then things began to change for him personally, and eventually motivated him to begin a meditation movement called the Stillness Project, and then to produce The Portal.

Tom Cronin: Well, many years ago I had my own personal crisis. This was back when I was a broker, and the first 10 years of that was kind of clichéd Wolf of Wall Street style, lots of drinking and drugs and partying and lots of money and a very frenetic job. I had been experiencing through particular lifestyle habits and choices some serious ramifications which was extreme stress response in my body, so a lot of anxiety, depression, insomnia, even agoraphobia. I had to leave work for a period of time, and was in quite a dark place, really struggling with finding any sort of hope and passion in life.

And I discovered meditation by default or by the universe organising it but it really was a transformational experience for me and I noticed very quickly all of those anomalies, those symptoms dropped away quite quickly, and meditation played a significant role in redirecting my life and I became so passionate about wanting to share that with the world that I founded the Stillness Project, but also felt compelled to use other mediums to get that powerful message of how good meditation can be to redirect our life and transform our lives. So that’s when the film and the book started to morph as an idea.

Lynne Malcolm: In The Portal, Tom Cronin and co-writer Jacqui Fifer describe the world as being in a unique developmental stage of evolution.

Jacqui Fifer: That’s the way I’m looking at it, so that helps me stay excited about it rather than feel hopeless, which I think a lot of people are feeling at the moment when we look outside and we see the news and we wonder what the hell is going on, what does the future hold for us, all of us, and is there even time to make a difference. And I think that one of the things that I think is interesting about meditation is that it allows you an opportunity to see beyond the current set of circumstances. It’s a space of creation. So I think we are really needing to create a whole different system and innovate. We’ve got the technology now to be able to do it but in ways that we’ve never actually expanded that far before, and using all of these tools, I think that’s really the pathway.

Lynne Malcolm: Tom, it’s talked about that we are at a tipping point in the world. What are the main concerns?

Tom Cronin: Yes, I like the way Daniel Schmachtenberger expresses it in the film as a phase shift, the point that we are at, where we are seeing exponential levels of improvement. We are also seeing exponential levels of decay. The main concern is that if we don’t shift our state of consciousness which will lead to a shift in the way we lead our lives and the physicalities of the way we live our lives and all the physical dilemmas that we are facing, then what could potentially prevail would possibly be an eradication of the species, being the human species. We lose up to 10,000 species a year at the moment on the planet and there’s no reason why, with our current actions and our current trajectory, if we don’t make some changes then that that could be a human one as well. But we are very excited about the possibility of there being a dramatic shift to improving things on the planet, with humans in it.

Lynne Malcolm: You mentioned Daniel Schmachtenberger, and he was one of the people that you’ve interviewed, he is a philosopher. Tell me about his take on where we are at and what are some of the solutions?

Tom Cronin: He does say in a very non-judgemental way that it can go either way; to a higher level of order or to a lower level of chaos. And so the way we can move through that ultimately, like he says, is challenging the systems, shifting our state of consciousness, shifting our state of mind. It’s the state of mind that created the problem and it’s going to be the state of mind that’s going to solve the problem, and that’s why I come from the perspective of we need to get people meditating because when we start meditating we start transcending the current status quo that’s inside our programmed head. When you start meditating you start questioning some of those programs and you start breaking free of that structure that has been in a constant loop inside your head and the collective head of the society’s minds, and that’s where we’re going to such see systems change coming through, once the collective starts changing their minds individually.

Lynne Malcolm: The Portal features the ideas and work of nine people. Some are experts in their field and others tell their personal stories. One of these which really moved producer Jacqui Fifer is the story of Due Quach.

Jacqui Fifer: Due’s family were refugees from Vietnam. Obviously that was a challenging time, the refugee experience, but they were also dealing with persecution, being from Chinese extraction in Vietnam, so it’s a long-term feeling of displacement in your country. So then she grew up in a new country with that same sense of displacement in quite a violent area, with parents who were trying to adapt culturally, wanted their children to assimilate, didn’t even really want to teach them their native language so that they would not grow up speaking with an accent, like really, really mindful of how do I create the best opportunities for my children in this new land of opportunity.

So they were in an area that was quite violent and a lot of drugs, so she was exposed to a lot of stuff as a young girl, but studied and got a scholarship to Harvard, and everything came to a head in Harvard and she had a bit of a breakdown. And then she decided to teach herself neuroscience to heal her brain from the developmental trauma she was experiencing. So I just think in terms of somebody who’s been through so much and who has such a high performance kind of a mindset that no matter what is going on and how deep you get, what are the ways that I can get myself out of this?

And she has got a really nice knack of just being able to talk through some of the really everyday strategies that she had, like trying to get herself switched into a more positive frame of mind rather than negative, listening to jokes, listening to more positive music, watching comedies, just…it seems funny to say it but that was allowing her to activate her brain in a different way that it hadn’t been activated. And all of that experience, and being a first-generation college student she is now implementing that in the work that she does with people who come from similar kinds of communities, so I really love the loop that she’s done on that.

Lynne Malcolm: And another person you spoke to was Amandine Roche and she’s worked with people in Afghanistan. Tell me about her.

Tom Cronin: She was a United Nations human rights lawyer and was doing great work with the UN but noticing herself and her colleagues were all incredibly stressed with trauma and PTSD from the environments that they were working in. So she started to realise that how can she simply go about as United Nations peacekeeper when she doesn’t experience inner peace. So she developed the Inner Peacekeeping Program, which was a strategy to enable those peacekeepers to start having their own inner peace using meditation and yoga and mindfulness practices.

And from there she realised that the change that she was bringing into people’s lives was much more impacting through her meditation and yoga than through her lawyer practice, so she actually became, by default, a yoga meditation teacher and is now primarily focusing on that work with very challenging environments. She says most of Afghanistan is experiencing PTSD right now and we have to start working through that by helping them get free of those challenges.

Lynne Malcolm: The personal stories told in the book The Portal have a common thread. The people have found a way through some sort of personal crisis using meditation.

So, Tom Cronin, is facing adversity necessary to experience some sort of life transformation?

Tom Cronin: It’s certainly not necessary because many people have become enlightened without crisis. But if there is crisis, then what is it there for? What is the way through it and what do we learn from it? If we keep banging our head against the wall, eventually we’re going to think this is really painful and maybe I should try something different. This is what crisis is, it’s a cue for change. And there’s a beautiful quote; suffering is proportional to our resistance to change, and happiness is proportional to our ability to embrace change.

We don’t need to get to that breaking point for change, we can deviate and navigate an alternative route before we even get to crisis, and that’s where becoming more conscious enables us to be more intuitive about the path that we are walking, and that alleviates the need for these major catalytic events in our lives to give us some guidance or cue for something different. So if we are in crisis then we have to start looking within ourselves and asking what is this teaching me, what am I here to learn, what is the point of this?

Lynne Malcolm: So you’ve talked about the power of meditation to save the planet. How have each of these people that you featured in the film felt that they’ve contributed to the greater good, the collective, to save our planet?

Tom Cronin: I was always taught, and I’m a strong believer in this, that the greatest gift we can give to the world is the reduction of our own suffering and an experience of happiness, first and foremost. And one thing that we see firstly happen in all of their lives is they’ve gone from that place of turmoil and conditioning and deep scarring from their upbringings to a much lighter place, a much more conscious place, a much kinder place of living. And that’s the first step in the process, is to transform their own inner world and not be bound and attached to the past and affected by the scars of the past.

The next step tends to be something as a natural unfolding, and we are seeing that in quite a few of these people in the stories, that they are naturally compelled then to want to share that with the world. And so from there they feel this compulsion to start running programs and writing books and creating retreats and things like that, so a lot of them have moved into that space now, doing phenomenal things in the world.

Jacqui Fifer: It’s the ‘me to we’, isn’t it.

Lynne Malcolm: Yes, so how does that experience of interconnectedness build through individuals practising mindfulness and meditation? How does it go from the individual to the planet, the greater collective?

Tom Cronin: The only way we really are going to get the shifts happening is individually, but collectively through the individuals. So it’s a one by one process. Multiply that into 100,000, 1 million, 1 billion and 7 billion, that’s when we are going to start to see major systems changes, major collective shifts on the planet.

Lynne Malcolm: Some would argue that sometimes passively focusing inwards may prevent people from effective action for change, that individuals meditating is not enough, that action needs to be made as well.

Tom Cronin: It definitely needs to be twofold. Where meditation is the great starting point…and the analogy like to use when they get asked this question is the same thing that happens when we get notified when the plane is about to go down, that you must put your face mask on first before you put someone else’s on. When you are stressed, angry, tired, worn out and affected by scars of the past, your capacity for leverage in creating change in people’s lives is quite limited, so it must start with the individual first to find that inner peace, to find that connection, to find that infinite unconditional source of love and light and compassion really gives us greater leverage and greater scope to create greater change in other people’s lives.

Jacqui Fifer: I think there’s a default through these processors to want to touch other people, to want to expand beyond your own individual experience, and that probably involves diving deep and going to places where internally…exploring parts of you that you maybe weren’t super comfortable with. If you are meditating and maybe not doing the rest of the work, I wonder whether you could get stuck in that phase.

Lynne Malcolm: Jacqui Fifer, director and co-writer along with Tom Cronin of the book and film The Portal which explores the potential collective good that can come from individual’s practice of mediation.

You’re with All in the Mind on RN, I’m Lynne Malcolm.

Whilst scientific research into the effect that meditation has on individuals is still in its infancy, more and more scientists are now exploring this field.

Daniel Berry is Assistant Professor of Psychology at California State University, San Marcos. His research investigates whether training in mindfulness meditation could promote pro-social feelings and behaviour. He explains his recent series of experiments to Diane Dean.

Daniel Berry: We brought college students into the lab, and they thought they were participating in a study about how social interaction over the internet was influenced by being actively engaged. So we had them listen to either a mindfulness audio recording, it was about 10 minutes long, or various controls. In some studies we used a relaxation recording where they did progressive muscle relaxation, and in others we just had them focus their attention.

After that we had them watch an online ball tossing game that was played by other people, but in reality there was no other people there, the whole thing is staged. They see some avatars on a computer monitor in front of them tossing this ball around, and after a couple of seconds one of the three avatars is completely excluded from the game.

Immediately after that we take a couple of measurements from them, and one of them we just tell them, ‘Why don’t we have you write some emails to the other players, and they are going to receive them at the end of the study.’ So people usually end up saying something about the ostracism, they might say something really mean to the perpetrators of the ostracism, or they might do something really nice and try to comfort the person, the victim who was ostracised. And we have condition blind raters code them. So people who are not involved in the study and they don’t know what experimental conditions folks received.

And right after that we have them join in on the game. We just simply counted the number of throws that the participant gives to the person who was just excluded, and what we found in this research across several studies is that even brief mindfulness training promotes helping behaviour toward these people who are ostracised. They write them more comforting emails and they also throw the ball to them more in the game.

But another important key here is we also measured this ability to feel for and feel as the other person does. In our field we call them something else, they are called compassion and personal distress or empathic distress. So we measured these two emotions and they can tell us a little bit about the motivation that the person was feeling. If they are feeling compassion, it seems like they were more focused on the person’s predicament, they wanted to help them, they were concerned for them. And if they are feeling empathic distress, this is feeling as another person is. And sometimes this can be kind of tricky if we are feeling as another person is, we might confuse that for our own pain and it’s not the pain of the other, when it’s really all about the other person’s pain. And what we found was, yes, the people who were in the mindfulness condition were more helpful, but by measuring these emotions we also found that they were more helpful because they were feeling compassion. Or in other words they were feeling for the person, the ostracism victim.

Diane Dean: Quite a significant problem for society is how to assist the underprivileged, the unemployed or the homeless. Often these groups rely on the work of charities. Can mindfulness training promote more consideration of these particular groups?

Daniel Berry: We tested something similar to that in my dissertation research, although it doesn’t get at it specifically. And actually don’t know if the results are all that positive. In my dissertation we had graduate students train in either four-day mindfulness training or four-day sham mindfulness training. We told them that they were meditating but we gave them simpler instructions that didn’t guide their attention through meditation experiences. So what they were doing instead, we might say stuff like; just take deep breaths as we sit in meditation.

And before and after they did this training, we actually measured them using end-of-day surveys. So before they went to bed at night they filled out social interactions that they had with strangers, and we recorded the race of stranger who they said they interacted with. And some of the interactions that they could check off were helping behaviours, like offering up money to a stranger. We also measured things like positive interactions, so maybe smiling at a stranger, and also negative interactions, making a gesture at somebody on the interstate or on the highway while they cut you off, things like that, ways that we typically interact with strangers on the day to day.

But right now it is looking like mindfulness training doesn’t seem to boost these helping behaviours that are more spontaneous out in the real world. So there’s not really a difference between mindfulness and sham meditation, at least what I’m seeing in my data from my dissertation. So I think that could speak a little bit to this idea about offering up help to people who are homeless, but I don’t know if anything has been done on that quite yet, and our results really can’t speak directly to that because, again, we don’t know the status of the people who they were interacting with, their social class, whether or not they were homeless or if they had a home.

Diane Dean: You’ve also been doing some research on resilience in the face of social threat, a situation which can involve a certain degree of anticipated behaviour. Can mindfulness training help to build resilience in the face of social threat, or ostracism?

Daniel Berry: Sure, and one way that we’ve studied this is actually really similar to the one study I just told you about. Instead of having our participants watch somebody else being ostracised, we had them experience ostracism in the same way. They were thrown into a ball tossing game thinking that they were playing with other people, and in reality they weren’t and they were excluded from that game by the other two software generated players. And ostracism is a really important social threat because if we are ostracised by the group, that could have several implications other than just hurt feelings. We may not have access to the resources of the group any more.

And what we found…we gave people either, again, brief mindfulness training, 10 minutes, or an attentional control. This brief training in mindfulness, without even knowing that they going to be ostracised of course, seems to reduce the distress response to it. So some ways that we measure this distress, it’s all self-report right now but we are looking at their self-esteem after they are ostracised. So people who have just had brief training in mindfulness don’t take as big of a hit in their self-esteem as folks who have not had that training. Also we rate people’s feelings of belongingness to the group, and it seems like these mindfulness trainees don’t experience, again, as big of a hit to their sense of belongingness as people who have not received this training after ostracism.

Diane Dean: So, Daniel Berry, mindfulness can promote empathy, but can it be effective in understanding cultures and groups who are outside our day to day activities? And can this effect be measured neurologically?

Daniel Berry: I’m not just interested in mindfulness can promote empathy toward anybody out there in the world, I’m interested if it can promote empathy in circumstances where it really counts. And more often than not when we are interacting with people outside of our racial category, or it really works with any kind of social category, it could be your political beliefs or even something as simple as the sports team that you pull for, when we are interacting with folks outside of our social category we show them less empathy.

And one thing that we’ve learned not from our lab of course but from other labs is that when people see faces of others showing pain and neutrality, like a neutral expression, no emotion at all, is that we tend to have a gap of empathy for people outside of our racial category or ethnic category, and we don’t have that gap for people inside of our category. For example, if you are a white individual who is seeing a face of a white person showing pain, what these neural signals will show is that you are feeling the pain as if it’s you, and we can see that in the EEG.

So what we are looking at right now, and we’ve finished data collection on this study but we are still analysing it, so I wish I could tell you the results, but we just don’t know yet, but the hypothesis is that even just this brief mindfulness training will take away this gap, or in other words we will start to feel as others do regardless of their social category.

Diane Dean: So, the applications of mindfulness are really promising, but is it perhaps over-sold?

Daniel Berry: I’m aware of the hype and am also aware of the concerns about that. I think this happens a lot in some areas of research where a topic really catches fire like mindfulness has in the last couple of decades, and we get to a stage where it seems like some of the effects are not either as strong as we thought they would be or maybe it’s that they don’t even exist at all, we just got really lucky with those first few studies.

What I will say about this issue of being mindful of this hype about mindfulness is that researchers like myself and colleagues really need to focus on doing high quality work where they are isolating their variables and we are making sure that we are doing the experiments so that we can make causal inferences about mindfulness. So I think the high quality research will continue to come, and it might be that we find that maybe this isn’t as beneficial as we once thought, but until we actually continue doing these tests through experiments, we can really say it but we don’t really know if that’s true.

Lynne Malcolm: Daniel Berry, Assistant Professor of Psychology at California State University, San Marcos, speaking with Diane Dean.

Meditation has been practised for thousands of years in cultures across the world, but it’s recently become more popular in modern life, in the western world. Tom Cronin explains why he thinks this is.

Tom Cronin: I think partly because of the need of the time. When we are in a dark room the first thing we go looking for is the light switch, and we have created quite a dark room for ourselves with the way we are living our lives, and so people are looking for tools and devices to try and bring some level of balance back into their life. They are sleeping every night, they are going to the gym, they just can’t seem to get beyond the state of overwhelm and anxiety that they are in, and so the next step is to look for something else, and that’s the inflection point that we can get to where we can go down that path of drinking and drugs or whatever it is, some level of addiction, all we can go to another path for a tried and tested model that has been around, as you said, for thousands of years, and so it’s starting to assimilate into our lives in a much bigger way now, out of need.

Lynne Malcolm: Tom Cronin and Jacqui Fifer are co-writers of the film and book The Portal: How Meditation Can Save the World. What are their hopes for the future of the planet?

Jacqui Fifer: I was talking to somebody about this yesterday. All of the stuff that I see is all about future possibility, it’s all about positive tech, it’s all about the shifts that can happen in climate, it’s all about the technology that already exists that can be rolled out on a wider level to make really, really positive steps. So that’s my world and I want to live in that place because that allows me to contribute in the best way that I can.

Lynne Malcolm: And Tom?

Tom Cronin: Look, there’s only evolution. My perspective is that everything is evolving. And if it means for a better experience for all sentient beings on the planet, and that must include animals, and I think I would also go as far as the natural world, if that evolution needs to occur without humans destroying things for other species and other sentient beings, then that’s evolution if they’re in the way and they need to be removed from the process, because it will be so much better if there is an existence on this planet that isn’t as destructive. But to include humans in that process, I’m really optimistic as well. I think we are very conscious race that is becoming more conscious, and we just need to really break the shackles of our own individualisation and neediness and start to experience a collective unification and a greater sense of not just collective unification amongst humans but amongst the natural world as well, that’s really, really imperative.

Lynne Malcolm: Tom Cronin, co-writer along with Jacqui Fifer of The Portal. Head to the All in the Mind website for details of the film and the book, which is published by Murdoch. Diane Dean is the producer, and the sound engineer today is Simon Branthwaite. I’m Lynne Malcolm. Thanks for your company, catch you next time.

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