A Tech-Savvy Monk Is Taking Mindfulness to the Masses
Stretched out on an exam table in the neurology wing of Fletcher Allen Health Care, 26-year-old Anna King flinches when her physician, Dr. James Boyd, inserts a long, thin needle filled with a Botox injection in the sole of her foot.
That’s when Soryu Forall chimes in, his voice low and throaty. The 36-year-old Zen Buddhist monk sits perfectly upright by King’s bedside, his hands clasped between his knees, staring intently at her.
“Give in, give in,” Forall coaches the patient. “If there’s discomfort, let it come and let it go. If there’s peace, let it come and let it go.”
By nature, King is chipper and cheerful, the kind of person who conjures up the ease of warm friendship almost immediately, but now she is silent and focused. Seven years ago, she suffered a brain injury after a severe bicycle crash in Hinesburg. “I don’t even remember it, but my body does,” she says ruefully.
Though King was wearing a helmet, King’s July 2005 accident caused severe brain swelling, as well as a rupture in her middle cerebral artery. Today, evidence of the injury lingers on in her slightly halting speech and the jerky movements of her limbs. As part of her ongoing treatment, she sees Boyd, who specializes in movement disorders and botulinum toxin therapy, every three months. The Botox injections are a way of dealing with the muscle spasticity that is one side effect of her brain injury.
But the injections are painful, and King has been experimenting with another sort of therapy to help her weather them: mindfulness training. She began attending Burlington’s Shambhala Meditation Center about three years ago, on the suggestion of a friend. Then, last summer, she met Forall.
On this particular morning, Forall has joined King as a friend. He’s trying to help the young woman cope with pain in the best way he knows how — through mindfulness. Forall describes his technique as “letting go” of one’s struggle with sensory experience while opening oneself up to a more honest, focused interpretation of the world. Even as mindfulness demands a tight focus, Forall says, it requires one simultaneously to relax.
If that sounds like an impossible balance to achieve, fear not: Forall is on a mission to extend the mantra of mindfulness well beyond the bedside. Two years ago he founded the Center for Mindful Learning (CML), which took up residence in the Burlington Friends Meeting House this spring. Forall is especially committed to bringing mindfulness training to elementary and secondary students, and has tapped local schools to pilot an innovative mindfulness software program designed to help learners focus, explore and welcome new challenges.
Does the ancient art of Zen Buddhist meditation clash with the modern trappings of technology? Not according to Forall. He’s a monk with a laptop, intent on taking mindfulness out of the monastery and into the mainstream.
“The modern telecommunications side of our lives and the timeless, experiential side of our lives fit together without any friction,” Forall says. How does he address those pervasive concerns about technology making us anything but mindful — that is, distractible, unhappy and disconnected? “We designed it to be what it is,” Forall counters, “and we can design it to be something better.”
When King’s treatment is over, she sits up and swings her legs over the edge of the exam table. She’s smiling, and looks relieved. Forall remarks later on the “afterglow” that comes from accepting the states of discomfort and peace that can fluctuate during meditation.
By coincidence, the pair bump into Shinzen Young, a Vermont-based bigwig in meditation circles, a few minutes later in the hospital corridor. “You look like you got high,” Young teases King, remarking on her glow.
“I did,” she jokes. “On dharma talk.”
“Soryu Forall” isn’t the monk’s given name. “My parents gave me a very nice name,” he says: Teal Scott. His new name came later, in a Japanese monastery on the other side of the world.
Forall grew up on Dorset Street in South Burlington at a time when the neighborhood was still largely undeveloped, pocketed with forests and fields and ponds. He was a sensitive child — not exactly carefree, he admits, as he remembers once looking out a window at the Marcotte Central School and musing on “all the injustice in the world.” But he enjoyed school until he hit adolescence, when, he remembers, he was confused by the way “people who just a few years before had been generally kind included cruelty in their actions.”
Forall succeeded in his classes, but he wasn’t happy — and didn’t last long at Williams College, where he headed after graduation. He’d eventually return and earn a degree in economics, but a year in, he left school for Japan, seeking a place where he would be allowed to “ask questions full time.”
Forall was 18. “I went from being a child to being an adult in monasteries,” he recalls. “I was not looking for a religion. In fact, I was looking to get out of a blind, faith-based view of things, which I think so many of us are stuck in, even if we say we’re not religious. There are a lot of assumptions that we make, points that we believe in, without questioning. I wanted to have a way to question, to deeply wonder, and then to be expected to find answers.”
And so he studied, learned and traveled — to Japan, to Israel, to a Hindu ashram in South India. In the practice of mindfulness, Forall found what he was seeking, he says: a way of being in the world that brought peace and contentment. When he returned to Vermont, he set his sights on introducing the same techniques to students in the hopes of making school a better environment than the one he’d encountered as a teenager.
Initially he visited classrooms to teach the meditative technique in person. But Forall soon realized that he was limited by time and resources, and that when he left the classroom, the mindfulness practice left with him.
So he decided to go digital. Funded by grants, donations and support from an educational organization called the 1440 Foundation, CML has spent the past two years, and $200,000, developing a guided mindfulness program that teaches three skills: focus, exploration and welcoming challenges. It’s not magic, Forall says: These are skills — and, just like any other skill, they require practice. They can be learned.
Pilot programs at a handful of Vermont schools are bearing out his claim. Mary Woodruff is the principal of Smilie Memorial Elementary School. Forall started leading mindfulness “guidances,” as Woodruff calls them, in person there last spring. He took those experiences, funneled them into CML’s computer program, and returned to the school with software last fall.
Every class at Smilie uses the software for daily five-minute mindfulness exercises. A woman’s cheerful voice greets students when they log in to the program. “Welcome to mindfulness practice,” she intones. “Mindfulness helps us to be happy and successful.” She coaches the students to breath in, straighten up, breath out, settle down.
Then Forall’s voice comes over the system. He introduces a lesson, and often launches into an anecdote about his own school days. Sometimes the lessons have to do with relaxing, or with overcoming challenges. Students are coached to sit up straight, to release tension and take deep breaths.
“What they are in fact teaching are the skills to be a good learner,” Woodruff says. That’s precisely Forall’s aim; he complains that adults and educators too often tell students to focus, but don’t give them opportunities to practice.
At the small Smilie school, teachers are noticing a difference. One parent wrote to Woodruff with the story of her 5-year-old son’s struggle to learn to ride a bike. The boy was growing frustrated by his mistakes — until he stopped, took a great big breath and let it out slowly. When his mother asked him what he was doing, he responded: “I’m doing mindfulness.”
Another Smilie kindergartener turned to an older brother who was ratcheting up into a tantrum at home and repeated that week’s “mindfulness message” from school: “You need to take action to make things better.”
Disciplinary issues have dropped off precipitously at the school — from 78 office referrals over a six-month period in the 2010 school year to just 13 over that same period in 2012.
Woodruff admits that teachers were initially a little tentative about the undertaking. The reaction ran along the lines of “We’re going to do what?” But it was the teachers who unanimously decided this year to continue with the mindfulness pilot project.
Smilie is paying $50 per classroom annually to use CML’s software. Is it worth it? “More than,” Woodruff says.
The benefits of mindfulness don’t just play out in classrooms. Science is increasingly proving that meditation has significant effects on the brain and body. A study published last November in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes found that people with coronary heart disease saw a 48 percent reduction in their overall risk of heart attack, stroke and death if they took a class on meditation rather than a health-education course.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have compared MRI scans of the brains of meditators and nonmeditators — and found differences in their very structure. Long-time meditators, it appears, have more folds in the cerebral cortex, which may be associated with faster information processing.
A few weeks after Forall coached King through her Botox injections, he’s back at Fletcher Allen — but this time he’s the patient. Forall is participating in a research study, overseen by psychiatrist Magdalena Naylor, that investigates the effects of meditation on chronic pain management. His knees peek out from inside an enormous MRI machine, while on the other side of a glass pane, researchers watch images of his brain flicker on a bank of computer screens.
In addition to studying the structural, cognitive and emotional activity of participants’ brains, the study is testing pain management, using a specialized $50,000 machine that applies heat to a subject’s calf. “This is the business end,” says researcher and University of Vermont senior Emily Eck, holding up a small black cube the size of a ring box, which is attached by a complicated series of wires to a rolling cart.
The researchers induce pain in the participants both to test tolerance and to watch how their brains react under the stimulus. One trick to coping with pain, Forall says, lies in not avoiding it. Instead, one welcomes the pain, focuses on it and eventually accepts it. That, he says, is what he tried to help King achieve during her Botox injections. Equanimity follows from allowing sensory phenomena to come and go without resistance, the monk advises.
It’s too soon to say much about the results of the study. The UVM researchers are still recruiting longtime meditators — with at least 1000 hours under their belts — to participate in the brain scans. But early signs suggest that, yes, there are differences between the brains of meditators and nonmeditators when it comes to managing chronic pain.
After about an hour and a half in the MRI scanner, Forall decamps to the hospital cafeteria. He’s happy to participate in the study, he says, and excited about what could be one more avenue for winning converts to the practice of mindfulness. But, as far as Forall is concerned, he doesn’t need a brain scan to know that meditation can make a difference in daily life.
“Right now, sitting in this café, looking at that table, is more satisfying than any experience I had for years of my life, for decades of my life,” Forall says. He doesn’t describe himself as a religious person, but the look on his face is almost beatific. With mindfulness, he says, “We gradually learn to be more aware, more open. And the brilliance around us, and the brilliance within us … that becomes more available to us.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "The New Mindfulness"
CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the location of the bicycle crash.