In 2007, Nick Seaver and his wife, Michelle, did something slightly nuts — or epically wise and prudent, depending on your perspective. They boxed up their belongings for storage, headed out to the Colorado Rockies, and disappeared into mountain silence for 18 months as part of the first substantial study on the physical and emotional impacts of meditation.
"We were your typical over-busy, striving professionals living in New York City," Seaver, at right, says. "If you’d asked me 15 years ago if this is something I'd ever do, I would have said 'no way.'"
The couple's decision to drop out and tune in not only changed their lives, but has since helped scientists document what mystics and monks have quietly understood for millennia: meditation (even 10 minutes a day) can be a powerful antidote to the negative influences our bodies and minds endure while navigating the stresses of daily life.
It all started in 2003 when Seaver happened upon a back-section New York Times article by author Daniel Goleman about the emotional benefits of mindfulness meditation. "I thought, if this is accurate, it should be front-page news," he recalls.
Seaver ordered Goleman's book, "Destructive Emotions," which is based on a dialogue between Buddhist thinkers, including the Dalai Lama, and leading Western cognitive scientists about using meditation to overcome negative, world-damaging emotions like hatred, greed and violence.
Inspired, the couple began setting aside daily meditation time in the midst of their turbo-paced lives. "For me it was torture," Seaver says.
Then that Christmas, Michelle surprised him with a special "gift": a 10-day silent meditation retreat. "It seemed crazy — I was sure it was a cult, but I went," he says.
The sustained meditation was tough — few participants managed it — but the Seavers tasted enough to sense its power. They felt calmer, centered, and filled with a deep sense of well-being.
"It was like I'd been looking at the world through a frosted windshield but hadn't realized it because that's all I knew," Seaver says. "Suddenly, I was able to wipe it clean and see the world differently."
The Shamatha Project
The dramatic effects waned, but not the memories of what might be achieved with enough silence.
In 2006, the couple saw an announcement for a three-month meditation study called the Shamatha Project. Shamatha is a Buddhist meditation practice used to calm the mind. They applied on the spot, assuming they probably wouldn't get in. Months later, they were surprised to receive acceptance emails.
Family and friends thought they'd lost their minds, but the time seemed right. "I was wrapping up a work project and Michelle was looking to change jobs," Seaver says. The couple also needed a breather from their ongoing infertility struggles.
They seized the opportunity and settled into eight to 12 hours of daily silent meditation. Researchers regularly took participants' blood and saliva, gave them psychological tests, and measured their brain activity using EEG (electroencephalogram) caps.
"People often associate these practices with someone sitting at a spa, but they're actually really hard work," says Seaver. Especially initially when repressed negative memories and emotions often bubble up, shaking unprepared participants to their core.
"Part of what you learn is to allow these hobgoblins of the mind to arise and pass without giving them attention or grasping onto them," he says.
Rewiring the brain
The prolonged experience of quieting their minds was so extraordinary that the Seavers extended their stay to 18 months. The decision to return to "engaged" life came only after they to pieces of life-changing news: Michelle was pregnant with twins, and Nick's dad died suddenly a week later.
"We'd been off the phone and Internet and away from TV, living at 8,000 feet, and suddenly we were in the buzz of Manhattan for these really intense events around my father's death," Seaver recalls. "Everything felt kind of garish, like Las Vegas. You see so vividly how we've built a culture that's all about distraction — surrounded by flashing billboards, buzzing smartphones, 8-second soundbites — anything to take you away from the realities of your own heart and mind."
Despite his re-entry revelations, Seaver felt more emotionally available to grieving family and friends than ever before. Though reluctant to hold himself up as special (meditation is designed to dissolve the bonds of ego), it was one of many lasting benefits that he and others experienced.
"You're actually changing the physiology of the brain," he says. "So when you cultivate qualities like loving kindness, compassion and empathetic joy, you're really recruiting neurons to parts of the brain that are involved, like growing a muscle."
In fact, the Shamatha Project spawned several important scientific findings about the seemingly permanent advantages of long-term meditation. Physical benefits included improved ability to sleep, better immune function, and a slowdown of cellular aging. Psychologically, participants experienced increased executive function (greater ability to maintain focus and absorb and retain information), as well as better emotional regulation away from negative emotions (anger, jealousy, low self-esteem and depression) toward more positive emotions (joy, happiness, compassion and a sense of wonder).
Perhaps most interesting were the deeper shifts toward greater purpose and meaning. “Many people found it changed their sense of the nature of reality, which also changed their sense of what’s meaningful,” Seaver says.
Joining the 'In-action' team
A self-described "dad, commuter and busy professional," Seaver now works at an investment firm focusing on purpose-driven companies, and the couple is raising twin daughters. A fairly typical American life by most measures — except that it's different.
For one thing, the Seavers meditate daily, usually with their girls, employing kid-friendly approaches from Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of "The Mindful Child." The couple also helped co-found a secular meditation group last year with two friends in New Canaan, Connecticut, called the Community Mindfulness Project.
In addition, Seaver recently gave a TEDx talk on the couple's retreat experiences and hopes to continue bringing what they learned "down from the mountain and into the suburbs" to inspire and awaken others.
"These aren't just 'on the cushion' practices — it's all about integration into daily life and with others," he says. "We have kids and responsibilities and interesting work opportunities — part of our life's calling is to be on the 'in action' team where we can, hopefully, have a meaningful impact.
Interested in in meditation? Check out Seaver's tips for beginners.
Related on MNN: