The Dalai Lama and neurofeedback: spirituality and practicality meet in Dharamsala, India
By Peggy Mackenzie
Hanno Kirk and his wife, Jo Weisbrod, two well-known local residents, were given a very serendipitous opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama last month. They returned only two weeks ago and appear to still be floating from the experience.
The absolute highlight of their trip was a private interview with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
Kirk is a licensed psychotherapist currently in private practice in Lewisburg, specializing in children and adolescents with behavioral and autistic spectrum disorders, as well as persons with trauma issues, including veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Weisbrod, a licensed professional counselor and hypnotherapist, also in private practice, specializes in creative arts and trauma therapy.
Kirk has just compiled and edited a book called “Restoring the Brain, Neurofeedback as an Integrative Approach to Health” published in July by Taylor and Francis Group, a world leader in scientific publishing.
“Neurofeedback is a powerful tool for training the brain,” writes Kirk in his introduction to his book. The brain is a self-regulating communications system. When mental dysfunction occurs, it can be understood and treated as acquired brain behavior that can be redirected with the help of EEG-based neurofeedback. As a non-invasive, non-pharmacological approach to health, neurofeedback works on the principle that the brain continually reviews how it is doing and thus becomes a very good observer of its own functioning via the visual, auditory and kinesthetic feedback it receives. With sufficient reinforcement, the brain can move towards better self regulation and balance.
The Dalai Lama is known to hold that science and Buddhism go hand in hand, Kirk said in an interview in his Lewisburg office. He said that according to the Dalai Lama, Buddhist teachings are based on tenets and principles which can be rationally examined and analyzed, rather than blind faith, as is the traditional Tibetan way for seeking happiness and release from suffering. The Dalai Lama, as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, is constantly searching to bridge the gulf between spirituality and science. He has long sponsored retreats with the world’s top neuroscientists under aegis of the Mind Life Institute. He has actively encouraged brain research on the effects of meditation methods.
Kirk knew this, and was determined to present His Holiness with his newly released book. While attending a training for advanced neurofeedback practitioners in California this last July, Kirk was invited by one of his colleagues, who was planning to lead a group of Vietnamese Buddhists to attend a four-day teaching of Buddhist principles and meditation methods by Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, this September.
Last year a group of neurofeedback instructors had gone to train the local physicians at the Men Tsee Khang Clinic, the Tibetan medical center in Dharamsala. The intent was to give the doctors there a tool for treating “traumatized” Tibetan refugees with what they assumed was PTSD. At the end of the training, they donated $40,000 worth of neurofeedback equipment for use with the patients.
One of the goals of Kirk and Minh Chau Le, the leader of the Vietnamese delegation who had invited him, was to follow up on how the doctors had fared in the year after the training. After meeting with the director and the doctors, they found there were several obstacles to making full use of the equipment. The doctors at the clinic thought that neurofeedback would be useful for resolving a host of physical problems like migraines, nerve pain, epilepsy, autism and asthma. But spending 35-45 minutes doing neurofeedback with the patients, when during that time they could have seen 3-4 other patients made the doctors feel guilty, and so the neurofeedback equipment sat idle.
“To our surprise we also found that PTSD was not a common presenting problem for the Tibetan refugees,” said Kirk. In traditional Buddhism, suffering is accepted as a part of life, and extreme suffering is considered a valuable learning. Practicing Buddhist meditation, and being supported by their cultural beliefs, seemed to have kept the refugees from developing the typical PTSD symptoms Westerners exhibit.
On the first day of the Dalai Lama’s teachings, Kirk was surprised find that he and Weisbrod had been accorded VIP status, which meant that out of the 800 attendees, they were given seats on stage within 15 feet of His Holiness during the entire four-day teaching. During the first morning break, the Dalai Lama, sitting on his teaching throne, glanced over at Kirk, and motioned for him to approach, asking, “Who are you?” and “Where are you from?”
The two minutes that followed allowed Kirk to talk to him about the uses of neurofeedback and also to present him with copy of his book. His Holiness seemed quite interested and promised him a private meeting. Kirk was thrilled.
“At 6:30 on Sunday morning we were awakened by a call that His Holiness had requested to see us that morning,” Kirk said. After a very strict security screening, accompanied by Minh Chau Le, they were ushered into the Dalai Lama’s private audience room. His Holiness came in and engaged in lively dialog with them, peppering them with questions. He expressed “considerable interest in neuroscience, specifically how neurofeedback can augment Buddhist practice and Tibet.” Kirk explained that neurofeedback and Buddhism have a common goal of calming and balancing the mind. He added that in some instances this can be accomplished with as few as 20 sessions, lasting around 35 to 45 minutes each.
“He took off on that and cracked a joke,” said Kirk. “So you mean that we can do in a few weeks what it takes some monks 50 years to achieve?” His Holiness exclaimed. “We all laughed,” Kirk said.
Kirk went on to explain that when the mind is calm and centered, then it can more easily devote itself to the discipline of Buddhist practice. Here the Dalai Lama remarked with frustration how often he hears the complaint, “But I just don’t have the time to meditate!”
Kirk added, “We got into a philosophical discussion of how when the mind is quiet and balanced, it is automatically more organized and more resilient to stress, and less easily distracted. When that is true, then the heart can more easily open to love and compassion.”
At this point Kirk related how the Dalai Lama “went into fanciful fantasy imagining how wonderful it would be to have neurofeedback for everybody at the United Nations, ‘especially for Putin, Assad, and that troublesome baby boy from North Korea!”’
“We all cracked up with laughter,” Kirk recalled.
Min Chau Le and Kirk also presented the findings from the Men Tsee Khang Clinic. His Holiness was very interested in the update and the reasons why neurofeedback was not being used. We asked for his guidance to separate the neurofeedback areas from the traditional medical clinic to allow the doctors to resume their traditional Tibetan care for their patients. We also suggested that specially trained social workers and nurses would ideally go for professional neurofeedback training in California. The Dalai Lama “immediately endorsed both suggestions,” and stated very firmly, “This is a mission. I can do this!” He turned to one of the two aides in the room and in Tibetan gave instructions.
Kirk presented him with his book and another book on trauma, adding humorously, “I hope we haven’t overloaded you with too much bed time reading.” He responded with a hearty laugh.
“As we were departing, His Holiness presented each of his three visitors with a small golden Buddha statue, and blessed each as he placed a long, white silk scarf around their necks before they parted.
“All three of us were floating when we left the meeting. We were struck by his wit, lively intelligence, and the warmth and love that emanated from him,” Kirk said. “All in all, it was a very successful trip. It went far beyond our expectations, both in practical and spiritual terms.”
What’s next for Kirk and Weisbrod? Perhaps a trip to Cuba to introduce neurofeedback techniques to at the medical school in Havana. “The groundwork has already been laid. The next step is getting the requisite government approvals,” he said. But for now, both are still in a blissful state. The visit to see and talk with the esteemed holy man seems to have transformed them, profoundly deepening the meaning and value of their daily lives.