Our Trip to India: A Look Back

by Siegfried Othmer | November 14th, 2014

by Siegfried Othmer, PhD

Our Trip to India: A Look Back
Going to India had not been on our bucket list when this opportunity arose, but the potential significance of our undertaking became clear to us rather quickly. And now, as we look back, we see the realistic possibility of our hopes being realized. It has been amazing to observe the ongoing mental gymnastics of Western-educated academic minds in order to reject the implications of self-regulation based therapies. This has been so for the entire twentieth century, and it continues even now. The proposition goes against the grain of their intellectual upbringing. Practicing professionals may even see this development as a threat to their livelihood.

Accompanying this obtuseness was the long-term rejection of the very possibility of brain plasticity, even though sound scientific evidence has been on hand for half a century, quite independently of any therapeutic implications or claims. It is possible that once the self-regulation disciplines are integrated into health care, the historical neglect of self-regulation-based therapies may come to be seen as the greatest blunder in the field of medicine over the course of the twentieth century.

So why not bring our methods to those who approach health care with self-regulation as the organizing principle, and as an explicit objective for their therapeutic strategies? Here we may finally find a congenial environment for the acceptance and spread of brain-based rehabilitation for deficits in mental function and cerebral regulation.

With the escalation in the use of formal testing in Western medicine, the traditional skills of observation are no longer being honed, and no longer even taught. If one is going to rely on the test results in any event, why not just get on with it? For this reason as well, it is attractive to approach those who still rely a great deal on their observational skills for their hypotheses.

On the downside, technology transfer is difficult under the best of circumstances. May we not be facing too much of a technological barrier? That remains to be seen, and matters lie somewhat in our hands through ongoing support. But in one sense the problem is not nearly as serious as might be supposed. It is not required that users from other medical traditions recapitulate our modern understanding of brain function.

At the clinical level, it is sufficient to adopt the Skinnerian black box model of the brain and simply investigate the input-output relationships at the phenomenological level. Skinner insisted that the brain be studied through the realm of behavioral observation, but such behavior was construed narrowly, with a focus on the motor system. In neurofeedback, we simply enlarge the scope of brain behavior to include all of its regulatory activities, however they may be observed.

It goes without saying that those of us engaged at the development end do want to take advantage of what is currently understood about brain mechanisms, but that burden does not also fall on the end user, the clinician. It is far more important that the clinician be attuned to the client, and that is not in question with the therapeutic traditions at Men-Tsee-Khang. Observation is their tool kit.

Our journey took place almost exactly forty years after Elmer Green and Alyce Green went to India to study yogis and their claims for physiological regulation. Even at that time hope was expressed by yogis that biofeedback would come to India. They would feel both validated and supported by this technology. And yet that did not happen at the time. It has taken the intervening forty years for the technology and the understanding to mature.

Our adventure also took place forty years after the publication of New Mind, New Body by Barbara Brown. It has taken all this time to liberate neurofeedback from the grip of the medical model and the prescriptive approach to protocol determination, and to evolve a method that is more congenial to the very concept of self-regulation. ILF training places the self at the center of self-regulation. The brain does not need direction so much as it needs information, which we provide in abundance.

Of course we went with an objective not only to confer knowledge but to receive it. One conversation between Christopher deCharms and one of the Tibetan scholars led to the following response:

“You have in your neurobiology a knowledge of the intricacies of the total picture which is truly amazing. Really heartening and exciting. What do we have? We have, as it were, the government. We have the knowledge of the main thing which is controlling, of mind. The thing which controls this entire process, that is what we Tibetans have to offer.”
— Kamtrul Rimpoche

Indeed, the Tibetan masters have explored the depths of the human mind in a manner that is difficult for the uninitiated even to apprehend, and that includes me. But we can respect what has been accomplished over the generations, the centuries, the millennia. What is the truth test for subjective experience, from our distance? It is the consistency in the claims being made across time. And then there is what we observe among those who practice what has been learned. In the lives of self-abnegation, we see the evidence of extra-ordinary mastery.

Finally, we observe the remarkable magnanimity of spirit exhibited by the Dalai Lama. He is a living example of equanimity; one foot is in the timeless realm while another is firmly planted in what he has been given now. While he surveys a history of his people being repressed and tortured, yet indomitably sending their children out of Tibet so they will grow in a free Buddhist life, he is a man who laughs frequently during his teaching, who engages in practices of increasing joy and who works tirelessly on improving the lives of every sentient being—with the exception, he allows, of the occasional mosquito.

The text from which the Dalai Lama taught includes the Bodhisattva vow, a magnificent vow in how to conduct a life of kindness and service. Shantidiva, who wrote the vow, said he must have been out of his mind because he, himself, was one that needs to be saved…he was as confused and ignorant, and had as much aggression and craving, as other people. He said therefore ‘I had better get busy and really use the precious human birth I have, the remaining days, to come closer to this wish.’ So, we come home from our trip, thinking about our work, imagining serving Tibetan sweet tea at our Summit next summer, and finding these words of the vow meaningful for our remaining days in helping to reduce suffering through our work:

“May I be a protector to those without protection,
A Guide for those who journey,
And a boat, a bridge, a passage
For those desiring the further shore.”

Siegfried Othmer, PhD

One Response to “Our Trip to India: A Look Back”

  1. Doris Dehm says:

    Thank you so much for your wonderful recount of your journey to India.
    I enjoyed reading about all your adventures, the teaching, the obstacles, and of course, the meeting with the Dalai Lama.
    I am really proud to be associated with your institute.
    You and Sue, and all your fellow travellers, must be so satisfied and pleased that you took on this long trip to help people on the other side of your world.

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