Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mind power: North Pond Hermit's secret: meditation?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When asked what he did most of the time while he lived in the woods for the past 27 years, Christopher Knight, known worldwide as the "North Pond Hermit" or the "Hermit Burglar," had a simple answer (relayed to the Kennebec Journal by Maine Game Warden Terry Hughes): "I would read books," Knight said, "and I would meditate."
Knight may not, of course, be the ideal exemplar of a meditator. "He stole from people," points out Peter Comas, a member of Vadra Vidya, a Portland-based Tibetan-tradition meditation group. "At its best meditation allows one to become more comfortable with oneself and the world . . . Our approach is not to withdraw from the world," he says. Meditation promotes "a deep sense of ethics, (asking) what does it mean to be a responsible person and to be fully aware of the effects of your activities on other people?"
That said, when practiced regularly over the long term, meditation has been shown in scientific studies to improve concentration and emotional stability, lessening the effects of anxiety and major depression. In other words, his practice might have helped Knight withstand the mental challenges of the solitude and secret life he chose.
Bill Barry, director of the Brunswick Portland Shambala Center, another Tibetan-tradition group, says meditation "changes your material wants that most of us have." He also notes that "most of us are afraid of being alone by ourselves . . . Someone like (Knight) obviously has transcended that fear," a lesson that can come from meditative realization that we are, in fact, always all alone, Barry says.
Other important discoveries have also come from long-term hermit meditators, of which there is a strong tradition in south Asia, such as learning that "our thoughts aren't real," Barry observes.
The exact type of meditation Knight practiced is unclear, but there is evidence that different styles carry strong benefits. Katie Grose, co-director of the Greater Portland Transcendental Meditation Center, says "TM" — a standardized, uniform method of practice — has repeatedly been found in peer-reviewed studies to vastly reduce stress. It also can help heal people with post-traumatic stress; some have speculated that Knight's departure for the woods may have been related to some trauma suffered during his youth.
Meditation may have also helped Knight deal with the cold — he reportedly had no regular source of heat, apart from a stove he only used to cook. He used many sleeping bags, but he may also have used his mind. For one thing, Barry says, meditation can change a person's perception of discomfort, allowing greater toleration of harsh circumstances.
And then there's a Tibetan meditation technique called tummo ("inner fire"), which is said to allow even thinly clad people to remain warm outdoors in freezing temperatures.
A 1982 article in the scientific journal Nature documented the ability of monks trained in tummo to elevate their body temperatures despite cold surroundings. Herbert Benson, the scientist who conducted that research, also documented in a 1985 study the ability of monks trained in tummo to sleep comfortably on bare rock at 15,000 feet in zero-degree temperatures with just a woolen cloak for insulation.
Monks in other studies have been able to slow their metabolisms significantly, and to sit in cold rooms and dry wet sheets with their body heat alone. (A more extreme version is the Japanese practice of taki-shu-gyou, in which a person meditates underneath a waterfall and strives to remain warm and focused without shivering.)
If Knight goes to jail for any period of time, meditation might help him there too. The 2007 documentary The Dhamma Brothers explores meditation practice in an Alabama prison; other similar programs have shown success in reducing inmates' stress in confinement and dealing with often-violent prison culture. Knight, now being held on burglary and theft charges at the Kennebec County Jail, is no doubt already feeling discomfort in the change from living alone outdoors; perhaps his mental skills will help him endure further suffering, if the courts impose it.