Monday, July 27, 2015

At the Intersection of Mindfulness and Compassion in a Complex World (I)

Though my view is as spacious as the sky,
My actions and respect for cause and effect 
are as fine as grains of flour. 

- Padmasambhava

I have a tremendous appreciation and respect for the Buddha-dharma and its teachers. The Buddha-dharma is part of me anywhere and everywhere I go. But if I have a criticism of meditation and mindfulness as they are taught today, it concerns a disrespect of the effects of karma for students. Many of the people arriving at the gates of practice are facing multiple difficulties in their lives. Meditation and mindfulness are a balm, but encourage passivity in the face of those difficulties and, initially, teach only the simplest interpretation of karma by focusing on personal responsibility and self-improvement when the systems of our society, even if not all the people in those systems, are corrupt. 

Has Tibet won autonomy from China? How much harm have its people suffered in the interim? 

Are the only options in the face of extraordinary levels of suffering in the US and across the globe, meditation, malnourishment, deprivation and self-immolation? 

If that's the case then none of us, not even the Dalai Lama, can say we've avoided doing harm by sitting.  

Moreover, the wave of meditation and mindfulness that's sweeping across the US as a counter-current to unregulated capitalism is at risk of de-powering, if not outright harming, some of the individuals most aware of the need for a more altruistic approach. If a major demographic is the white middle class woman looking either for self-improvement, a strengthening of some sense of spirituality, or recovery from depression or depressing circumstances, what are the long term effects on equality for all women going to be if the primary recommended response is passive acceptance? Moreover, in contrast to a view voiced at a Mindfulness and Compassion Conference I attended recently, the Sanghas I've been a member of have been racially diverse and included traumatized, low income and unemployed.

There aren't enough monasteries in the world, let alone the US, to accommodate all the individuals arriving at the gates of practice. A traditional role of monasteries has been to provide protection as practitioners move through the ranks of perceptual shifts meditation gives rise to. 

In addition, the meditation and mindfulness movements, as well as funding for neuroscience research fueling those approaches, are at risk of burning themselves out if they don't recognize a need beyond introspection, one that recognizes the reality of phenomena and circumstances. Precisely because karma is not only the result of our own actions.

From the kamikazi pilot to the middle class white woman to the peace activist, the majority of karma lies in the roles other people project onto us -- good and bad --whether we've recognized and agreed to those roles or not. The lethargy of our social and political systems demonstrate in bringing about positive change is, in part, caused by the inertia of thousands and millions of people accepting things as they are, in addition to different strategies for how problems should be resolved.

I'm convinced that to address the wrongs within corrupt systems we all need to learn to communicate more effectively with ourselves as well as others. 

In that regard, one of the best books I've read in recent years is Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication. If you haven't already read it, read it now! The forward by Arun Gandhi, alone, is worth the price -- or the trip to a library.

For one thing, in my case, Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication put me in touch with the types of questions I should be and should have been asking of my feelings. Feelings are highly sensitive indicators of distress. But if we only sit with them allowing them to dissolve into forgiveness, equanimity and kindness, none of us will ever develop the ability to think outside the box or do more than accept the status quo.

Considering our society's continued inability to identify and negotiate needs-based solutions across political boundaries such as race and/or religion, socio-economic status and gender, and considering the increasingly rapid depletion of our planet's natural and economic resources, accepting the status quo is simply not good enough.

The disconnect we experience in communication about serious problems ranges from individuals to political parties and countries. 

Using some of Rosenberg's suggestions and using my past feelings as a guide, I'm going to unpack some of my experiences as a woman in academia because it's the situation I'm most familiar with. One issue I'll be addressing is the continued low number of women in faculty ranks in spite of being recipients of approximately fifty percent of doctorate degrees

My sense, however, is that some of the problems, as well as strategies for resolution, are generalizable. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

My Head-On Collision with the Traffic of Capitalism's 'Golden Gate Bridge' (III)

Back to the hostile take-over. When the biotechnology company failed to respond to my emails over the next few months, it became obvious that the same day responsiveness and collaborative interactions I'd experienced with Research Genetics were a thing of the past. 

It felt like I'd suddenly been materialized on a tightrope. Though I didn't have problems focusing on work, once home, my mind would spiral out of control replaying conversations with colleagues, as well as trouble-shooting experiments in my lab. Thankfully, encountering Eckhart Tolle's description of his own mind in a similar state in The Power of Now let me know I wasn't alone in my experience.

I knew that being on hyper-alert, over-sensitive to the slightest rebuff from colleagues and failures in experiments wasn't going to help me traverse the tightrope I found myself on instead of the well-delineated tenure track I'd expected. I started meditating more intensively. I also read ~10 pages of dharma a day and found my first Sangha -- not only as a support for sitting, also as a social support separate from academia.

It didn't take long for me to learn to shut-down mental spirals at the outset. I also grew more attuned to the beauty in my environment and drew on it as source of strength and patience. I rediscovered my amazement and appreciation for simple things. I began to see the many ways the quality of my life had suffered due to gradually increasing stresses of work over the years.

A practice that began, at least in part, as stress reduction, affirmations, and positive psychology, grew to include the four immeasurables, the four foundations of mindfulness, the eight-fold path, and tonglen in its foundation.

When the time came to go up for tenure, I can't say I thought I had a strong case in spite of my lab's extraordinary findings in the interim. So I was surprised that my faculty advisor insisted. (Every assistant professor is assigned a senior faculty member as an advisor and meetings are scheduled a minimum of once a year.) It seemed as though he knew something I didn't.

My tenure seminar was stellar. It would have been impossible for it to be otherwise. I viewed the seminar as the summary argument of a defense lawyer in front of judge and jury. Or perhaps, even more accurately, my last chance to present all we'd accomplished -- in front of a firing squad.

A few days later, my faculty advisor pulled me into his office. I was expecting some words of consolation or an apology for the difficulty of, but necessity for, their decision. 

His opening words: "NOW WE KNOW HOW YOU FOOLED US!"

My response while he continued in a similar vein was to tap into my breath and send him kindness and understanding. Somewhat like the social worker in That Bird Has my Wings that, in complacency, believed Jarvis' second foster parents more than Jarvis, my advisor had failed to listen and do his job. Whether unintentionally or purposefully, I'll never know.

For any Zen practitioners, being denied tenure and being stripped of one's ordination are not that different. Here's the mirror. And the shadow.

A Means-Whereby

As a measure of the seriousness of the circumstances, a few months after the hostile take-over I explicitly told my husband to stay where he was even though, after getting the NIH grant, I'd bought a house in the hopes of encouraging him to join me.

Although I was still working toward tenure, my primary goal became to plant as much of a seed as possible for the hypothesis that the type of protein we were studying, an ion channel, could play a direct role in the intracellular signaling pathways responsible for neuronal plasticity.

The traditional accepted role of  ion channels is the generation of an electric current that is the language used to communicate within and between neurons, as well as muscle fibers. Without the current generated by the flow of ions through the pores of ion channels, information exchange in the brain and body would be forced to depend on the much slower process of diffusion.

Our findings suggested that ion channels are not limited to that role: Channels containing mutations that prevented ions from flowing through their pores were still able to affect intracellular signaling pathways.

[In fact, my lab was not the first to show the potential multiplicity of roles for an ion channel. The first, most well-described example was for the interaction between L-type calcium channels and channels in the sarcoplasmic reticulum. That example was in muscle and seemed to be viewed as a special case, as opposed to an indicator of the flexibility of roles that might be applicable to all ion channels. In addition, the link was direct: conformational changes in the L-type calcium channel directly triggered changes in the sarcoplasmic reticulum channels, as opposed to interacting with intracellular signaling proteins. There are other examples that appeared simultaneously or since. It would be interesting to write a review -- now, ten years after.]

By the time I was informed of the tenure decision my focus was primarily on getting the last two research papers published and my graduate students their Ph.D. degrees. When I rejoined my husband, I pushed my disappointment aside and focused on the papers.*  I also searched 
for employment in the area and any free-time I had I spent knitting: A sweater for my husband. Ten or more pair of socks.

What happened next is going to break your heart. Well, at the very least, it broke mine.

Both manuscripts went through a couple of rounds of review. We had tested the model using transgenic fly lines containing specific mutations in the channel gene to confirm an in vivo role. I had hoped that the fact that four distinct transgenic fly lines confirmed the overall model as well as specific hypotheses would  permit reviewer's comments to be dealt with through revision of the text. That was not the case.

Though 'threatening' might not have been the best word choice in my previous post, any finding that challenges the predominant paradigm or way of thinking is subject to more stringent criteria for publication. And that's how it should be. I remembered the difficulties researchers 
had encountered decades before when trying to convince the larger neuroscience community that ion channels could be modified by phosphorylation. Unfortunately, I no longer had a lab.

I recruited the help of a longtime collaborator. Her lab's initial findings, a first step before attempting to address the reviewer's comment, failed to replicate ours. There could have been several reasons for the failure, including but not limited to modification, masking, or deletion of the transgenic constructs due to stresses during shipping or deleterious effects of the inserts given that the channel we were studying has been implicated in several forms of cancer.

It gets worse. When I went back to check the files corresponding to the data in question, the relevant files were missing. After trying and failing to contact the graduate student that performed the experiments, I let go of the thought of publishing the papers. It was the only responsible thing to do. And I was days away from starting a new job.

What did it feel like? If you love the Buddha-dharma the way I do, you might understand this comparison: It felt like being Dogen and being forced to destroy half the Shobogenzo, with no possibility of recreating it. It felt like being a witness to the destruction of the final chapters of Buddhacarita.

*Unpublished Manuscripts:

Hegle, AP, Marble, DD & Wilson, GF. Conductance-independent gating of CaMKII associated with Ether a-go-go K+ channels.

Marble, DD, Clyne, JD, Sun, X-X, Ganetzky, B, Griffith, LC, & Wilson, GF. Bi-directional regulation of Drosophila EAG potassium channels by calcium-dependent mechanisms.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

My Head-On Collision with the Traffic of Capitalism's 'Golden Gate Bridge' (II)

The effects of the hostile takeover of Research Genetics on my research and career weren't immediately apparent. No crowd gathered. No ambulance drove me and my passengers, the other members of my lab, to an emergency room for X-rays. No circle of frowning physicians conferenced around my bed while I lay in a coma. It wasn't a car accident. What it was was a tipping point.

A tipping point is usually identified in retrospect as the critical moment of change in a progression of events. A tipping point affects perception to cause reinterpretation of preceding events. A tipping point is the proverbial straw that breaks a camel's back, but it's only one straw in the bundle.

Good Luck, Bad Luck 

There's an old Zen story called Good Luck, Bad Luck about a farmer who inherits a horse to help him with his field work. This version is as told by Anthony De Mello in The Song of the Bird:
There once was a simple farmer who lived and struggled alongside his neighbours and friends, trying to exist and fulfil a peaceful life. One day news arrived from far away, that his old loving father had died. His neighbours gathered to grieve, but the farmer simply said, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?" 
In time relatives brought a very fine horse of great cost and fine breeding, left to the farmer by his father. All the villagers and neighbours gathered in delight with him to celebrate his good fortune, but he just said, "Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?” 
One day the horse escaped into the hills and when all the farmer’s neighbours sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?” 
A week later the horse returned with a herd of wild horses from the hills and this time the neighbours congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?” 
Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?” 
Some weeks later the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg they let him off. Now was that good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?

It would be a mistake to say I didn't know how difficult even a partial recovery from the impact of the hostile takeover would be. What made it particularly difficult is that I was only months away from having to renew my lab funding. Good luck, namely receiving an R01 award from the National Institutes of Health on my first try, even if  only an award for three years, now had turned decidedly bad.

Without the antibodies that were on that truck to California, convincing grant reviewers was going to be nearly impossible. What I didn't suspect were the cumulative effects of lingering sexism and increased competitiveness as capitalistic concerns invaded academia.

I also didn't anticipate that the very thing that was a major source of my enthusiasm and perseverance would contribute to my downfall. My research was threatening to be the start of a paradigm shift. That was why it was worth the work and the other sacrifices in my life, at least to me.

The paradigm the scientific community and pharmaceutical corporations were invested in was that neuronal plasticity, learning and memory, and the resulting changes in behavior were a consequence of activity dependent changes in the concentration of calcium inside cells. To be clear, my research,  if it had been allowed to proceed unhindered, would not have negated previous results but called them into question. be continued…

Saturday, July 4, 2015

My Head-On Collision with the Traffic of Capitalism's 'Golden Gate Bridge' (I)

The last few years my mother was alive a frequent refrain I heard was that she wasn't going to mind when death arrived. She said, now that she was in her eighties, when she looked back she could see the many ways she'd had a good life. Since I retired, and especially during the Practice Period at Green Gulch, I've had the chance to reflect back and inquire about the many ways my mother's statement can be applied to my own life. 

One of the main things that stands out is my contribution as a scientist — not only my research, also my contribution in terms of energy and enthusiasm to the larger community. (Check out my Curriculum Vitae on the Pages of this website! View All.) As a scientist I was very much at the cutting edge of the research on neuronal plasticity that serves as a foundation for the Dalai Lama's efforts to bring meditation, mindfulness and compassion to society. 

image from TIME's Beautiful, White, Blonde 'Mindfulness Revolution 
by Joanna Piacenza in The Huffington Post

Most scientists and business savvy geeks will admit that simply showing that different areas of the human brain light up during meditation is not much more advanced than the archaic practice of phrenology though it might qualify as "sexy" marketing. An irony that may escape any mindful vegetarians reading this blog is that, however regrettable, much of the scientific data that is being used to market meditation and mindfulness relies on decades of animal research for it's interpretation — not just young sexy blondes as some advertisers might lead you to believe. (I'm in my late 50's and post-menopausal, thank you very much!) More seriously, as I said to a handful of people during my visits to Sanshin-ji and Green Gulch this last year, I meditated and 'mindfulnessed' myself out of what some would call a near perfect life, near perfect because all careers, marriages and especially 1920s bungalows need work and cooperation to maintain. It is this observation, as much as my credentials and thirty or more years of meditation and mindfulness experience, that qualifies me to comment on, even critique, the Mindfulness Revolution and the gimmicks used to market it whether in real life or online.

My Head-On Collision with the Traffic of Capitalism's 'Golden Gate Bridge'

So what happened? What was the event that caused me to dare compare my life to Grace's? My head-on collision wasn't with a car, but rather with a major biotechnology company that bought out a much smaller company, Research Genetics, I had hired and was collaborating with to make antibodies to the protein that was the focus of my research. One morning the employees arrived at work to face security guards who escorted them to their offices to remove personal belongings and escorted them back out. A couple of weeks later I received email notification of the buyout and was informed that the animals being immunized, the protein fragments that my lab had worked to purify that were being used to generate the immune response, and the various anti-sera were on a truck transporting them from the east coast to the San Fransisco Bay Area where the biotechnology company was located. It was months before I heard from the biotech company again. Obviously, the immunization protocol was not being maintained during that time… be continued, possibly with the occasional commercial break like my last post. Links and credits for this post will be added tomorrow when I have access to my laptop and wireless... It's not easy being homeless!