Contemplative practice, meditation, and mindfulness are ancient, from prehistory to the foundations of every major religion and modern practice.
In the 21st century, an expanded neuroscience as a field of study has investigated contemplative practices for their medical and psychological benefits. Based on brain scans and large-scale research, there is compelling evidence that mindfulness techniques and meditation can increase attention and focus, strengthen clarity and understanding, and enhance the presence of positive emotions such as empathy and compassion.
Scholar and Naropa collaborator Amishi P. Jha, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology at University of Miami and principal investigator of the Jha Lab, has shown a link between mindfulness and increases in attention and focus.
Jha asserts that humans spend as much as 50 percent of their time in a state of involuntary, self-focused distraction that called "mind wandering." Mind wandering can lead to decreased perception and productivity, and is often associated with negative emotional states.
Her research shows that people who engage in mindfulness practices, even for a short while, show a marked increase in their ability to remain focused and complete simple tasks successfully.
People who engage in mindfulness are more able to employ the wandering mind's more productive cousin, "constructive reflection." Constructive reflection is the thinking process by which we gain insight, clarity, and a sense of purpose. By engaging in contemplative practice, Naropa students have the potential to strengthen their focus and attentiveness and become better able to engage in constructive learning.
Friend of Naropa, Richard Davidson, PhD, William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is showing through his research in neuroplasticity that people can learn empathy and compassion as skills, just as they can learn to play a musical instrument or train in athletics. He further asserts that meditation can increase positive emotions such as compassion and can bring a greater sense of personal happiness.
Positive emotions have been linked with better health, longer life, and greater well-being in numerous scientific studies. On the other hand, chronic anger, worry, and hostility increase the risk of developing heart disease, as people react to these feelings with increased blood pressure and stiffening of blood vessels.
Davidson's research indicates that meditation, like what is included in Naropa's contemplative approach, may lead to increased positive emotions, which leads to mental and physical well-being. There are also benefits in creative learning and the blossoming of wisdom.