So I did make it to the movies yesterday to see Free the Mind, (see post below) which turns out to be as frustrating as it is remarkable. The frustration isn’t the fault of the film; it is simply a fact that the neurology research into how governing one’s thoughts may beneficially impact the functions of the brain and body is merely beginning. (Of course, practitioners of Eastern spiritualities know something about that, but this documentary does not come from that vantage point.) What is remarkable is what we see on the screen, as three people who introduce meditative practices into their lives experience relief from severe symptoms of stress and anxiety. Long story short: two combat veterans, at risk of not getting their pre-war lives back, and one boy, approximately age five, show stunning advancement in reducing the psychological terrors plaguing them after seven days of practicing meditative and mindfulness exercises.
There is more to the movie, and the marvels are in the telling, but it is mentioned repeatedly that the science is incomplete, which is important to remember as you watch. “The brain is the most complicated organ in the universe,” says Dr. Richard J. Davidson, the lead researcher in the film. “We’ve only taken the first very, very small baby step. We’re just beginning this journey.” The scientists do not know why those who meditate enjoy more favorable preventative results from flu vaccination than those who do not meditate. Does meditation produce more neurons? They don’t know, and sometimes they don’t want to know. Davidson, based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (and a self-described “closet meditator”), explains how, when he decided to explore professionally meditation’s possible neurological benefits, he was cautioned against making a poor career choice. He ignored that advice, and has gone on to receive the acclaim of his peers in the forms of numerous appointments, awards, and fame based on his fruitful research.
In the case of the young boy, named Will, it is explained how he had a sorry story of foster home placements due to his behavior. At age three, the Big Nurse juvenile welfare and healthcare establishment diagnosed him with ADHD, and decided he had to be zonked into conformity with the drugs they use today to turn young boys into inanimate objects. The foster parents who intended to raise Will recognized that for what it is, and set about finding an alternative to solve Will’s problems. His behavior is shown a few ways: some difficulty getting along with others (as if that is unique among humans), an inability to focus (Ibid.) and, most significantly, an abject terror of riding in an elevator.
Needless to say, imparting the concepts and methods of meditation to a young boy with Will's history requires a delicate approach, and that patient touch comes in the forms of exercises that show why and when compassion can be expressed, and some practical lessons in the very basics of meditative practice. In the end, Will overcomes his elevator-phobia; where once the mere mention of an elevator would induce tears and anxiety, he concludes the movie, taking a ride up six stories, thanks to his new understandings of how to control thoughts and regulate breathing.
Naturally, the two soldiers have more serious problems to overcome. Their war-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms differ. Veteran Steve is haunted by the moral discrepancy between having been the good man he was before combat, and having become someone else during his service. Everything you’re not supposed to do in civil society, he explains, becomes what you have to do in wartime to survive. “The person I had to be to do my job was a horrible person in my eyes. A horrible person. And I was good at it.” Returned home safely, he struggles to assimilate into his own domestic life, which means overcoming anxieties and regaining the ability to sleep without reliance on Ambien. Veteran Rich is plagued with guilt, believing he could have saved comrades who were killed in action when their Humvee was destroyed by an Improvised Explosive Device. He says he ought to have died in their place. He cannot share his wartime experiences with family or friends, and his domestic life comes apart when his wife leaves him. “Maybe I haven’t really lived since I’ve been back,” he says. “I’ve been just kinda...here.”
The two are shown being instructed in processes more involved than what Will explored. The breathing exercises alone: In through the nose; out the back of the throat. In through the mouth; out the back of the throat. Close mouth, breathe through the back of the throat. Yoga stretching exercises have the men folding and crossing their forearms behind their heads, elbows pointed to the sky and hands placed between the shoulder-blades. (Something I can’t do.) “There’s a region of the brain called the insula that’s literally used for interacting between the mind and the body,” Davidson explains. “This area is dramatically enhanced in its activation during compassion meditation and will enable practitioners who practice compassion meditation regularly to feel the emotion of others more easily.” The brain’s prefrontal cortex, that anterior portion of the frontal lobes which is thought to process actions such as personality expression and discerning good from bad, is shown to have more pronounced activity during the subjects’ meditation. By the end of the documentary, Steve’s and Rich’s symptoms are shown, according to clinical data, to have decreased by about 40 percent after seven days of the meditation therapy. Steve finds enough peace of mind to sleep at night without taking sedatives; Rich says he is experiencing changes he didn’t think possible, that he is happy, feeling “like a kid again.”
As a kind of coda, Davidson finishes the movie reading this poem: