Happiness, Buddhism and a Graceful Freestyle
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on July 16th, 2010

Among all religions Buddhism may be the most science-minded. (Although many people argue that Buddhism isn’t a religion, but—like yoga and TI–a practice, with contemplation and inquiry as its object.) The Dalai Lama developed an interest in neuroscience, decades before I did.

For both Buddhism and TI, discoveries about neuroplasticity—i.e. observations that the brain is constantly rewiring itself—reveal that our practice methods create changes in brain infrastructure. When the Dalai Lama said that the purpose of life is happiness, and that purpose is achieved through training the mind, he spoke literally, not figuratively. TI has been seeking to replace the traditional belief–that you improve at swimming by training the body–with a new principle that you improve by training the brain. And that this—because it’s a form of moving meditation–is also a proven way to experience Flow, a state of almost unmatched happiness.

In an unprecedented convergence of Western science with Eastern philosophy, Dr. Richard Davidson, a University of Wisconsin professor of psychiatry, brought 32 subjects to his Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience in Madison and wired them for study. Half were Buddhist monks, each of whom had 10,000 to 50,000 lifetime hours of meditation. Half were control subjects with no previous training, who were taught the fundamentals of meditation for two weeks prior to the experiment.

All were placed in an MRI scanner and asked to think compassionately about people close to them, then about mankind in  general. The scientists reading the scans knew that optimistic and constructive thinking activates the left frontal cortex, while stress or depression activate the right frontal cortex.  When the monks meditated on compassion, they showed an average of 100 percent greater activity in the left frontal cortex; two showed increases of 700 to 800 percent. The novice meditators increased activity in that area by just 10 percent.

This study was the first to document that thinking patterns can be learned in the same way as physical skills–by stimulating cell growth in the region of the brain where that kind of neural activity occurs. The scans revealed that thousands of hours of meditation had grown significantly more robust brain circuits and, with it, the ability to generate far more “brain power” in that region. In other words, brain power is no different than muscle power—a result of targeted work that adds ‘functional tissue’ in a particular area of the physical body.

“People are not stuck at certain preset points,” Dr. Davidson says. “We can take advantage of our brain’s plasticity to enhance chosen qualities.” In another study at Massachusetts General Hospital, and MIT, brain scans showed that regular practice of mindfulness increased cortical thickness in an area of the right hemisphere that we use to sustain attention and increase sensory awareness—two essential capacities for improving a stroking pattern!

From Aspiration to Achievement

These were my most exciting and empowering insights in all the time since I began swimming in 1966 or coaching in 1972. They revealed that: (1) The mindsets and behaviors that lead to Mastery are learnable; (2) Literally every perception or action that occurs from the moment you  cross the threshold to the pool deck, or approach the shore of a lake is controlled by the brain; and (3) Any rational objective can be brought to fruition through the application of strategic mindfulness.

  • If you expect to improve continuously at swimming, you will.
  • If you interpret something in your environment—crowded lanes, rough water, not enough time, too-warm or too-cold water—as an opportunity to “strengthen a circuit”. . . though every other person in the pool finds it annoying or inconvenient . . . you will turn it into an opportunity.
  • If you focus on finding and fixing inefficiency in your stroke, it will improve before you leave the water.
  • If you decide to complete a 20-mile marathon—no matter that you can barely complete 25 yards now—you will!

How different from the wishful thinking I done for the first 25 years of my swimming life.

The TI Self-Coached Workshop has been designed upon this principle.

4 Responses to “Happiness, Buddhism and a Graceful Freestyle”

  1. Heidi says:

    Thanks. Again, very helpful. I’ve been concentrating lately on looking for the positive in everything (not the way I usually roll) and I’m finding myself much happier (imagine that!). For example, I have a 5K race on August 14th and have recently come down with a horrible infection; fever, cough, sore throat… Obviously it has derailed my training. I have been frantic. However, I realized that since there is very little I can do about the illness, I might as well just calm down and focus on other things right now. My anniversary and son’s first day of kindergarten are both before the race and I’m now more focused on those events than I was before. See, every cloud and all that stuff ;).

  2. Heidi
    Wisdom comes with experience. Over the almost 40 years I’ve coached there were countless times when I had an athlete at such a keen edge of fitness and preparedness for an important meet, such as the national championship. And they came down with an illness. The first few times that happened, I was nearly distraught with the expectation that the illness, the interruption in training, the path to recovery would undermine months of preparation. Then the illness would pass, the big meet would come and . . . they would swim great. After that happened a few times I realized that months of good preparation would easily see you through a week or so of illness and interrupted training. That made it easier to take those things in stride when I began swimming Masters around age 40.

  3. Alyson says:

    I really appreciate this post. I have read about Chi running, too, and am approaching all my exercise in new ways: running, cycling, swimming. Tuning in to my body, stilling and focussing my mind, seeking beauty and grace. SO DIFFERENT from sweaty painful effort and far more appealing and pleasurable to me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  4. It really is quite a departure from the “No Pain No Gain” “Feel the Burn” and “Pain is just weakness leaving the body” philosophies. But I’ve also spoken numerous times with world record-setting swimmers, asking them “How did it feel to swim faster than anyone in history.” None described feeling pain. All described their swims in language that would be very familiar to anyone who has read about Flow States. It made me realize that seeking Flow States in training would probably be better for “average” athletes as well. And certainly something that would increase our motivation to do the thing that brings us pleasure.

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