Sola explores intersection between science and meditation

Toby Sola '14 pictured above, has practiced mindfulness since middle school. Recently he's become interested in how science can empirically prove the benefits of meditation on one's emotional health.
Toby Sola '14 pictured above, has practiced mindfulness since middle school. Recently he's become interested in how science can empirically prove the benefits of meditation on one's emotional health.
Toby Sola ’14 pictured above, has practiced mindfulness since middle school. Recently he’s become interested in how science can empirically prove the benefits of meditation on one’s emotional health. Photo By: Toby Sola

Some Vassar students practice sports, others practice French vocabulary or ballet positions, but few practice mindfulness like Toby Sola ’14. And he’s got it down to a science.

For those not familiar with meditation, the idea of mindfulness can be difficult to wrap one’s head around. But it’s actually quite simple. Mindfulness is about dealing with everyday situations with everyday practice.

Sola gives three reasons for practicing mindfulness: to reduce suffering, increase fulfillment and be more kind to others. “If your mindfulness is at a certain level, even just the relaxation of your muscles is better than an orgasm,” Sola explained. “It’s insanely fulfilling and meaningful, even with the simplest of things. Life simply lived is dripping with meaning and fulfillment if you know how to approach it.”

Sola was introduced to mindfulness practices in middle school, but became interested in the intersection between science and meditation during his time at Vassar. He has since participated in groundbreaking studies at Harvard University and the University of Vermont and is now sharing his knowledge of mindfulness in an ongoing project on campus.

As a result of “mysterious but serious” health complications his junior year, Sola was forced to take a year off from Vassar. During this time, he was introduced to Shinzen Young, a meditation teacher who combines psychology with a variety of traditional meditations from all over the world in what Sola refers to as a “universal menu of mysticism.”

In other words, Shinzen doesn’t teach one form of meditation, like breathing, for example, but rather an eclectic and highly ordered system of meditations that are based upon the work of a variety of mystical traditions, from Native American Shamanism  to Christianity.

An important feature of Young’s system is a “periodic table of sensory elements,” which includes all the senses of mind and body.

In 2012, Shinzen extended an invitation to Sola to participate in a study at Harvard with neuroscientist David Vago. Vago’s study involved 20 participants (chosen out of a pool of over 300) practicing meditation in the lab throughout the course of a week. While there, Sola was tested in a variety of ways, including with FMRI machines (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), which means that his brain activity during meditation was caught on video. Among other things, Sola says the study might have lead to the discovery of a new form of emotional regulation that one can rely on during at all times of the day.

“If you’re having a conversation, you can meditate on the person’s voice,” he explained. “If you’re in class, you can meditate on the professor’s voice. If you’re driving a car, you can meditate on the cars around you. It’s all very practical.”

With extensive practice, meditation has fulfilled Sola in ways big and small, and he hopes to impart what he has learned to other students.

In simple terms, when the human brain processes emotion, our limbic system is triggered and then suppressed by the frontal cortex, which sends neurotransmitters that basically say, “Calm down.” We all have some form of this biological emotional regulation. But with meditation, the suppression part isn’t necessary. Instead, the brain is triggered by emotion, but “calms down” without the use of neurotransmitters. “With meditators we saw emotional regulation via awareness and openness,” explains Sola.

Back at Vassar, Sola has spent his senior year essentially trying to prove Shinzen’s theory of multiple meditation methods through his own scientific studies.

“One of the things I’ve been exposed to here at Vassar is pedagogy, or the importance of how you teach something,” he said. His studies use independent and dependent variables to isolate how some forms of meditation work differently than others in order to prove the benefits of teaching a combination of them.

Last semester, Sola’s study involved two groups of student volunteers. Both groups were provided with the same definition of mindfulness: concentration power, sensory clarity and equanimity. They also received the same reasons for practicing mindfulness and instructions on how to practice in daily life.

What differed was that one group worked with just breathing exercises, while the other experienced Shinzen’s “full grid” of mind and body. “As I expected, the full grid group had more ease practicing in daily life and more suffering reduction during negative emotional experiences,” said Sola. “However, the breath group, as you might expect, more or less reported deeper experiences during class while we were meditating.” His findings were in alignment with Shinzen’s philosophy, but Sola wanted to continue to experiment.

This semester, Sola has three meditation groups: one just working with breath, another working with breath and the “self system”—mental talk, mental image and emotional body sensation—and a third working with breath and “world”—physical sound, physical sight and physical body sensation.

“I’m expecting to see the group that just works with breath to have the deepest concentration during class,” Sola said. “I’m expecting that the ‘self’ group to have the most suffering reduction during negative emotional experiences. And I’m expecting the ‘world’ group to have the most ease practicing in daily life.”

I sat in on one of these group sessions and the student participants (who are unaware of the different groups), responded with enthusiasm and curiosity to Sola’s teaching. The class takes place weekly in the library meditation room—a welcomed break from studying.

At the beginning of class, some students shared their experiences bringing what they learned into daily life. Two students tried meditating while swimming. Another student felt she had made a breakthrough during this particular session.

As with most things, practice makes perfect. It takes time to understand both the techniques involved with meditation and your own individual reactions to the process.

And while it is entirely about getting in touch with yourself and the world around you, the use of scientific methods helps Sola to understand the ways in which mindfulness can be achieved. And meditation never ends.

“That’s the whole point.” For Sola, this is just the beginning. Post graduation, he will be continuing his work with Shinzen in his own home in Burlington, VT, where he plans to establish a residential training center for the practice and teaching of meditation combined with social justice.

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