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Meeting up with the Dalai Lama to talk about the mind

Photo courtesy of the Dalai Lama Trust
Lewisburg psychotherapist Hanno Kirk; his wife, Jo Weisbrod; and their Vietnamese friend, Minh Chau Le, flank the Dalai Lama in Dharmasal, India, after a personal meeting in early September.
Photo courtesy of the Dalai Lama Trust
Lewisburg therapists (from right) Jo Weisbrod and Hanno Kirk and their friend Minh Chau Le talk with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, about neurofeedback, the subject of a recent book written by Kirk.

Dr. Hanno Kirk had edited and contributed to a new book, and had an ambitious mission. He wanted to put that book, entitled “Restoring the Brain: Neurofeedback as an Integrative Approach to Health” (CRC Press), into the hands of the Dalai Lama, who has long been interested in the science behind how the mind functions and achieves calmness and healing.

A Lewisburg-based psychotherapist, Kirk is one of only two therapists in West Virginia who offer neurofeedback as part of their practice. And he succeeded in his Dalai Lama mission — it took a trip to India in early September to accomplish it, and a private session with the world-renowned Buddhist teacher and Tibetan spiritual leader-in-exile.

First, it might be useful to explain neurofeedback and why a Buddhist monk might be interested in its claims in the first place.

“Neurofeedback is basically nudging the brain to learn how to self-regulate itself,” said Kirk. He has used the technique on a range of patients, everyone from veterans sufffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, children and adolescents with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders or other behavioral issues, to people who suffer from high anxiety, panic attacks or childhood traumas.

An initial, 150-question intake form and 90-minute session and the first 20 minutes of a regular session are devoted to finding out what’s going on with a client, what their issues are and which part of the person’s brain is “over-aroused, under-aroused or unstable,” said Kirk.

“When I have a bipolar person, for example, we know there is instability. When we have someone with migraines or with epilespsy we know there’s instability. When we have someone with high anxiety or PTSD or panic attacks, those are all in the same category. Then we know the right lobe of their brain — the emotional part of the brain — is constantly on fire and overaroused,” he said. “And it interferes with clarity and decision-making.”

Electrodes are attached to different parts of the scalp and connected to a computer which serves up videos, music, even games, as it feeds back the electrical activity of the brain to a client.

“They get three types of feedback — one is visual, what they see on the screen. One is auditory, in the sense there is music, usually. And the third one is a tactile bear. And the bear is keyed into the computer so when the brain is really engaged with the signal, it vibrates more. And when the brain is not engaged with the signal it vibrates less. So the brain is constantly getting feedback on how it’s doing.”

Essentially, neurofeedback involves listening to the brain “and thereby creating a loop,” said Kirk. “By you watching a video that is geared by the computer to what the brain is watching, the brain is observing itself, like a dancer standing in front of a mirror and adjusting her posture in real time.”

The goal is to promote the brain to “self-regulate,” working at a very basic level of brain organization and trying to influence the brain to achieve greater balance and improve functioning, Kirk said.

“For instance, when you’re really anxious and beset by fears or emotional problems, usually the right lobe of the brain is in a constant state of high arousal. It robs the left side, the rational side of the brain, of the energy to function properly.”

The technique is not without its critics, who assert that claims for the technique are overstated and yet-to-be-confirmed with large enough clinical trials. In a 2013 column in Pscyhology Today online, Dr. Christian Jarrett, wrote a piece subtited “Neurofeedback therapy has promise, but it’s no shortcut to enlightenment.” The article went on to say: “I don’t doubt that most neurofeedback therapy clinicians are well-meaning and well-trained. But looking at the literature, it seems there’s good reason to be skeptical about using their techniques, especially as a short-cut to elation and enlightenment.”

Kirk responds to such criticisms by noting that “The medical and psychiatric professions in the United States have a hard time changing their paradigm of brain functioning.”

He addresses this issue in the first chapter of the new book, noting that the dominant Western view that the brain is “a neurochemically controlled mechanism” has led to an ongoing emphasis on finding pharmaceutical solutions to brain “dysregulation.” Pills, in other words, as opposed to a person using neural feedback to control or manage undesirable behaviors or disruptive mental manifestations and achieve a calmer, more centered life.

“And that’s, in the sense, where the commonality with Buddhism comes in,” Kirk said. “One of the common aims in Buddhist meditation is to create balance and calmness.”

The aim of Buddhist practice is to work with the mind to be free from suffering states of being, for your own benefit and that of others, he said. “One of the precepts in Buddhism is that ultimately what we want to do is get ourselves calmed down, but also then have this move outward in waves of goodwill toward other people.”

So, off to Dharamsala, India — the home base of the Dalai Lama — he pointed himself in early September, along with his wife, Jo Weisbrod, herself a mental health counselor, hypnotherapist and creative arts therpaist based in Lewisburg. She now works mainly with clients dealing with trauma, often using a technique called EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), which involves reducing the long-lasting effects of distressing memories by stimulation of the brain through eye movements.

Kirk came to Dharamsala with the “Restoring the Brain” book, which features contributions by 12 authors including himself.

“Neurofeedback is a powerful tool for training the brain,” writes Kirk in his introduction. The brain is a self-regulating communications system and when mental dysfunction occurs, it can be understood and treated as “an acquired brain behavior” that can be redirected with the help of neurofeedback.

“I wanted to share that with the Dalai Lama because I know he’s very interested in neuroscience. Basically, for the last 25 years, he has met and gathered with the Mind and Life Institute and top neuroscientists in discussing how brain science and Buddhism intersect. So, I knew he was very keenly interested in this.”

He and his wife also wished to attend a four-day retreat on Buddhism led by the Dalai Lama. He was invited to the event by a Vietnamese woman, Minh Chau Le, who the previous year had led a group of a half-dozen practicioners trained in neurofeedback to train Tibertan doctors working at the Men Tsee Khang Clinic in Dharamsala.

The woman was able to get the Lewisburg couple VIP passes so that they were placed onstage with the Dalia Lama, about a dozen feet away, in a room full of nearly 1,000 other people.

During a break, the Dalai Lama motioned Kirk over, who explained who he was. “I told him that I had a book I wanted to give to him and we wanted to talk to him about neurofeedback and what it could do for the people in the clinic.”

At 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, they were summoned to the Dalai Lama’s private office, first passing through some intense security, said Kirk.

“They check everything. You go through metal detectors and they go through your purse and anything you have carried with you. They make sure the pen is not a poison pen. It was very thorough.”

Soon, they were seated in the Dalai Lama’s study, the couple and their Vietnamese friend on a couch, the Dalai Lama on a chair with two male secretaries nearby.

Kirk had already spoken to the director of the clinic, which had received a donation of $40,000 worth of neurofeedback equipment the year before, along with the arrival of the doctors trained in the technique. But the doctors had not been using the equipment or technique, Kirk told the Dalai Lama.

“What we found out is that the doctors were so overworked that they really didn’t have time or space to do the neurofeedback. It takes about 35 to 40 minutes to do a neurofeedback session. And in that time, they felt guilty for not seeing other patients. In other words, they felt they could have seen two to three to four other patients in that time. That’s how much of a crush their patient load was. So we realized that wasn’t working. Plus when they offered it to people they looked at it kind of askance, They were more used to traditional Tibetan medicine.”

Kirk proposed to the Dalai Lama that the solution was to create a separate facility for neurofeedback sessions separate from the medical treatment rooms. Kirk proposed bringing some local social workers, nurses and pyschologists for neurofeedback training to California, who would return and offer neurofeedback sessions instead of relying on the clinic’s overworked doctors.

“He immediately said, ‘Well, this is a new mission; we can do this.’ Then, in rapid Tibetan he gave instructions to his secretaries about something, I don’t know what because I don’t speak Tibetan,” said Kirk.

“But it was very encouraging. So, that’s what we’re proceeding on. He asked me a lot of questions about neurofeedback. And I explained to him how it works and what it can be used for. And we told him that the doctors there felt that the most urgent need would be for things like asthma, migraine headaches, nerve pain, autism and developmental problems.

“Then we got into a philosophical discussion. I explained to him there is a commonality of goals between Buddhism and neurofedback. And that both have as one of their main goals to calm and balance the mind. He immediately latched onto that and cracked a joke: ‘Oh, so you mean we can do in a few weeks what it takes some monks 50 years to do?’”

They all laughed, said Kirk, noting that the Dalai Lama went on to joke how it would be good to bring the technique to the United Nations.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make everyone there do it?” said the Dalai Lama. “Especially Putin, Bashar Al-Assad and that troublesome baby boy from North Korea, Kim Jong Un?”

At the end of the 20-minute meeting, Kirk complimented the Dalai Lama and said: “Of all the Dalai Lamas, you’re the scholar Dalai Lama. And he sort of demurred and said: ‘Oh, No. No. I’m just a jack of all trades and a master of none.’”

The trio of guests was each presented with a traditional white silk scarf, or khata, blessed by the Dalia Lama, who draped them over their necks, touching foreheads.

The experience was “transformative” for him and for his wife, said Kirk, who describes himself as a “Buddhayo-Presbyterian.”

“Sunday mornings I sing in my church choir and have for the last 25 years. And in the evening on Sunday afternoons we have our meeting of our Buddhist sangha in the same church in the basement, and we do insight meditation.”

Contact Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com, 304-638-9784 or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.

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