Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Learning to rest and resting to learn

It took me a while to write this next blog in the #lojongchallenge because I have been running around at Drepung Loseling monastery in India to teach the monks there about neuroscience in the context of the Emory-Tibet Science initiative. It has been an amazing experience! About every other morning I go for a run, and during this morning's run and the subsequent resting meditation I finally had an idea for this blog. The next Lojong slogan is "rest in the nature of alaya."
Monks resting during a class experiment with heart rate monitors

In the classroom at Drepung Loseling


According to my limited understanding, the idea of this slogan is that after all of the investigation, you can rest in meditation and simply observe the thoughts and emotions. Actually, this led me to think a bit more about a very interesting meditation method common for analytical meditation: first you contemplate and reason about some concept (such as the emptiness of phenomena and self that we talked about before), and then when you get tired, you simply drop the meditation and rest. This method of resting is unique to the practice of analytical meditation, and is what makes it different from conventional study in school. The resting may help to consolidate the insights into your experience, and create a deeper and more embodied understanding.

How would resting enhance your understanding? One possible neural mechanism is that of replay. It has been found in animals that when they sit quietly, then their brain activity replays recent experiences. This replay is mostly visible in hippocampal cells that are sensitive to specific locations in space, which repeat the recent trajectory of the animal, and to some extent predict its upcoming choices. It is thought that such approximate repetition reflects the animal's simulation of recent experiences and allows it to generalize and produce adaptive choices on the basis of that (see this paper for an example of replay and its consequences for decision making in humans). In other words, we continually replay recent experiences when we have a moment of rest, and these allow us to recombine these experiences, encode them in our memory, and generalize them to new situations.

Despite this potential benefit of rest, it is sometimes hard to do. I have written before that I find it difficult to rest, but when I manage to do so, it creates a lot of spaciousness and satisfaction. One powerful moment to rest is when you--as I did this morning--have gone for a run and then afterwards you come home and feel completely exhausted. That is a moment it is very easy to simply drop your mind and rest in the essence of the mind, without any further desires (of course the endorphins created by the running help too!). So, note to self: remember to rest!

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