The Science of Zen Training

A bibliography of research in psychology, neuroscience and leadership

This is a scan of my brain taken at Stanford in 2015, when I took a graduate level course called Introduction to Techniques in Neuroscience. It was one of my favorite courses while in business school.

By hitting publish on this post, I have started compiling and sharing a bibliography of the scientific research backing up Chozen-ji's approach to Zen training and why it works—and I am of two minds about it.

On the one hand, it is quite practical to show that there is evidence to support why we train the way we do here. There is a method to what seems to some on the outside like madness. And I would like for people to know about it because I think it would do many people much good to take it up.

Indeed, my confidence in Chozen-ji's approach to forging excellent people has been buoyed the past few months. I believe that we do, indeed, have an impressive secret sauce to making people stronger, more sensitive and fearless.

However, to share this recipe and the evidence behind it approaches trying to "sell" Zen training. Many in mindfulness, secular Buddhism, yoga, etc are doing an excellent job of selling—in a former colleague's words, "doing a head fake" with new meditators and spiritual practitioners. Sold on the idea of increasing their productivity and bettering their sex lives, decreasing stress and improving their health, people have taken up meditation, yoga and mindfulness in the hundreds of millions. 

But those people selling meditation know that the lures of superficial, incremental improvement are only to get folks in the door. They believe there is a teleology of meditation: that once you start, you cannot but ask the bigger questions. You just can't lead with that because the true benefit or goal—enlightenment, maybe?—is too difficult to put into an advertisement or spec sheet. Thus the head fake.

Paradoxically, the mystery behind Zen training—that which cannot be put into a quantifiable value proposition—may actually be the most important driver for someone to start and stick with it. Indeed, the people who stick it out at Chozen-ji are usually the ones who arrive on their worst day or with a big, existential question—including how they can level up to truly be the leader their community and the world needs. Other than that, the roshis often say that finding Chozen-ji is karmic. There's no way you'd go through training that’s this tough otherwise. 

Asking yourself if this is really what you should be doing—for your screaming knees, for your sense of self and for what you could be doing in the world—is a necessary part of Zen training. The promise of better productivity—even better sleep and sex!—are insufficient to get you through those moments. If a relaxing time is what you're after, better to have a beer or go to the beach.

With that preamble, here are some of the aspects of Zen training at Chozen-ji that I find particularly effective—and what science I have found that backs up their efficacy. I would love to add to this list! If you know of any studies or findings that belong here, please email them to me using this form on my website


Breath

In zazen (seated meditation), the martial and fine arts and beyond, Chozen-ji training focuses on making the breath long, and low in the belly. The chest does not rise and fall with the breath. Instead, the abdomen below the belly button is conscientiously expanded and contracted.

Psychology Today, May 9, 2019—Slow breathing and long exhales stimulate your vagus nerve, combat the fight/flight response and regulate Heart Rate Variability

Biofeedback, Winter 2015—Long term dysfunctional non-abdominal breathing contributes to risk for illness and anxiety


Posture

Posture creates a frame for the breath. Slump over, and the breath is stifled, unable to get long and low. In sitting and standing straight, one's ki (vital energy) can flow throughout the body, you can breath deeply, and you can have the feeling of being big—moving through the world like a giant boulder.

Peper Perspective, July 3, 2018—Correct posture decreased anxiety and improved performance among math test takers.


Feel your feet on the ground

Whether it's your feet on the ground or your rear sitting down, the point is to move the strength of your awareness down from your head and below your belly button.


See 180 degrees

When the amygdala hijacks the brain, the fight or flight mechanism kicks in and one's peripheral vision narrows. At Chozen-ji we are constantly invoked to see 180 degrees, or 360 degrees. It's about vision, but it's also about fine-tuned and ever-present awareness.


Pain & Physical discomfort 

When we do zazen, we don't move. Pain during zazen is therefore inevitable, but it's not inevitable or inescapable that our minds have to stop, getting stuck on the pain. I sometimes say we are manufacturing the conditions that would usually prompt a fight or flight response—but, alongside experiencing the pain, we still breathe low and slow, feel our connection to the ground and see 180 degrees. This, I tell beginners, is how we build strength. It's also how we start to dis-identify ourselves with pain, so it may cease to be identified as "me", "my pain" or even "pain".

The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Pain, 2017—By one definition of the central nervous system, what we know as pain is actually the product of two parallel systems in the brain or neuromatrices. The first processes potentially harmful stimuli, called noxious sensation. But it's only the second that then codes this perceived sensation as "pain". So pain can be understood as a subjective experience.

Psychology Today, April 19, 2012—Emotional and physical pain are experienced in similar regions of the brain. I'm waiting for a study testing whether a kind of exposure therapy with physical pain can be effective in addressing our responses to emotional pain and mental distress.

Journal of Neuroscience, 2019—Sleep loss heightens one's awareness of noxious sensation—what we usually identify as pain—and lowers the threshold for pain.


Anti-Individualism

It is a fact that everyone is different. We just don't need to indulge in being different or fetishize what makes us different. The forms of Zen training—uniform clothing, rules, forms of developing technique in the martial and fine arts, ceremonies and the choreography of daily life while training intensely—push you to throw yourself and what you want to do away, again and again. Stripped of that, then you can really ask yourself, "Who am I?" And you can also begin to explore what it means to be in accord with the Tao, or the rhythm of the universe.

Harvard Business Review, August 6, 2018—It may be that the most effective leaders are not the ones who seek to individuate themselves, seeing themselves as natural leaders and standing apart from their group. Instead, believing oneself to be a good follower and endeavoring to be a good member of a group may be the best marker for an effective leader. "People will be more effective leaders when their behaviors indicate that they are one of us, because they share our values, concerns and experiences, and are doing it for us, by looking to advance the interests of the group rather than own personal interests."


Taking care of others before yourself*

Zen is in the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, focused on collective rather than individual enlightenment. The greatest goal is to be a bodhisattva—someone who puts off their own liberation to bring as many other beings along with them as they can. Chozen-ji's belief that you can approach Zen through the body translates this conceptual understanding into practical, physical actions that take care of others before one takes care of oneself. It creates social glue, but it also has some sort of impact on the individual. Somehow, as you take care of others before yourself and others do the same, you are better taken care of and you get better at taking care of yourself—without guilt, without embellishment and without hesitation.

Emotion, 2016—Focusing on yourself and typical "self care" behaviors—even enjoying a personal hobby or a favorite meal—don't make you happier. What does, though, is "prosocial behavior" or any act that focuses on benefiting another person. Doing these result in greater and lasting feelings of joy, contentment and love, and fewer negative emotions. In contrast, self-focused behavior shows no impact on either positive or negative emotions.

*For more on my personal crusade against ‘self care’, see my 3-part series entitled “Beyond Self Care”.


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