John Yates, PhD on NeurOptimal

Dear Community,
I want to make this letter availabe again (it was on yahoogroups) - it made me curious about Neurofeedback first time.

John Yates, author of the book “The Mind Illuminated” wrote this around ten year ago (I can not recover the exact date):

"My Dear Dharma Friends,

I would like to share with you a new development with potentially huge implications for Dharma practioners and meditators in particular. This is good news for all of us, not bad.

We have recently been investigating certain very interesting synergistic effects between meditation practice and a form of neurofeedback technology called Zengar Neuroptimal. After having carefully evaluated the effects of Zengar on the quality of practice of several meditators whose practice I have been monitoring very closely for quite a long time, we decided to try using Zengar as an adjunct to practice during the course of a 10 day retreat.

Before I go on, I want to remind you that I have been practicing traditional Buddhist meditation techniques for almost 40 years and have been teaching meditation for about 8 years. I also have a PhD and my “day job” for many, many years was as a professor of neurosciences, teaching neurophysiology, neuroanatomy and neuropathology to students in the health care professions. Needless to say, I have approached this entire topic with a great deal of healthy skepticism and caution.

Each of eight retreatants agreed to participate in a single Zengar training session every day during the course of the retreat. Neurofeedback sessions were a little over one half hour long each, so this required about 45 minutes out of each person’s daily practice schedule. The daily practice schedule included 9 forty-five minute sitting meditation sessions, 2 before breakfast, 3 between breakfast and before the main meal of the day, 3 in the afternoon, and 1 after an evening Dharma talk and before going to bed. Sitting practice alternated with 45 minute walking meditation sessions throughout the day. All but one of the participants were meditators that I have been instructing for several years, and all but two of them had done at least one retreat with me before, so I was quite familiar with their meditation progress both in and out of retreat. I had been working with the meditator who had not previously done retreat with me for approximately a year, and so was also very familiar with her meditation experience. The meditator who I had not previously instructed has had 40 years of practice experience under the guidance of other widely known teachers, and so was personally competent to evaluate the quality of his own practice experience during the retreat.

To briefly summarize the results of this uncontrolled and therefore admittedly rather unscientific experiment, all participants felt as though they had experienced some benefit from the Zengar training, enough so that they were unanimous in wanting to continue with it as an adjunct to their practice. As their teacher, I felt that most of the participants, and particularly those who were less advanced in their practice at the start of the retreat, had experienced more noticeable improvement than I would normally have expected for a retreat of this duration. In a few cases this was dramatic. People do typically experience considerable improvement in the quality of their practice during retreats, and often achieve significant breakthroughs as well, so that makes it very difficult to discern which effects might have been the result of intense practice in deep retreat, and which might be in fact due to the neurofeedback. All participants were reminded of this fact repeatedly, and asked to do their best to be objective in their evaluation. Nevertheless, every one of them, and myself as their teacher, were in agreement in feeling that the neurofeedback had made a positive contribution. It will be interesting to see if the progress achieved during retreat regresses as much post-retreat as usual. We have some preliminary reasons to suspect that it might not.

It is my impression that the more advanced a meditator is in his or her practice, the more subtle is any influence of the Zengar training.

For example after a very large number of Zengar sessions (30 plus), I personally have not been able to detect any effect on my meditation or on my emotional state or other mental functions in daily life. But I did notice almost immediately a dramatic improvement in my ability to remember my dreams, and in the vividness, intensity and complexity of the dreams as well. Since dream yoga practices are currently the main focus of my personal practice, this has been a very great boon. The 40-year practitioner in the ten day retreat also reported a tremendous increase in vividness and intensity of dreams, and in the frequency and quality of lucid dream states. He also did not report any noticeable meditation effects, but was motivated to continue with the Zengar training in the future nevertheless. Indeed, the most common report from all meditators was an increase in dream recall, vividness and intensity.

On the other hand, experienced meditators who are still subject to some degree of mind-wandering, distraction, and restlessness have reported significant improvements in the quality of their concentration with Zengar. This has been typically accompanied by the development of strong piti.

One case prior to the retreat involved a meditator who had for several years repeatedly and consistently, in and out of retreat, arrived at the point of strong concentration, accompanied by the arising of the initial physical sensations and energy movements that are the prelude to piti, but had not been able to move beyond this point. Often the intensity of the physical sensations was very unpleasant, associated with strong energy surges, jerking, sweating, and even nausea. After her first Zengar session, she experienced a breakthrough to the full arising of piti-sukkha, and has since continued to be regularly successful at achieving effortless stability of concentration and mindfulness accompanied by piti. Coincidence? Continued Zengar training has subsequently allowed her to use this ability to pursue Mahamudra practice.

Another case, also prior to the retreat, involved a meditator with several years of practice who had been plagued by anxiety that made it difficult for her to sleep at night, and that constantly intruded in her meditation practice, producing agitation and restlessness. After a series of Zengar sessions, all anxiety has dissappeared, she sleeps well at night, regularly achieves deep meditative states approaching Samatha, and has been able to overcome the bodily discomfort associated with long sitting.

These examples, combined with the experiences of several of the meditators on the 10 day retreat, suggest that Zengar may be particularly effective in helping experienced meditators who have become “stuck” at a particular stage in their practice.

There also appears to be a trend in these experiences which would suggest that the most dramatic benefits of Zengar training are likely to be seen in new meditators and in meditators in the early stages of the practice who are particularly plagued by forgetting, mind wandering, monkey mind, restlessness and agitation. It is an unfortunate fact that many would be meditators do not get beyond the early stages of extreme distractibility, and this training would be of enormous value to them.

Specific information about the system is available from the inventors at and by doing internet searches on “zengar neurofeedback”. This is not the first time that neurofeedback has been tried as an adjunct to meditation, but the Zengar system works in a very different way than most other neurofeedback systems. Neurofeedback most typically tries to “up train” or increase certain frequencies of brain activity, and/or “down train” or decrease other frequencies. For example, because meditators show an increased amplitude in certain EEG frequencies referred to as alpha and theta, neurofeedback trainers have tried “up training” alpha and theta to improve meditation.

In general, all such attempts have produced mixed and uncertain benefits, and have inspired little interest or excitement within the meditation community. Zengar is different in that it does not focus on particular frequencies of the EEG, and does not attempt to “push the brain in a particular direction. Instead, it alerts the brain to unusual patterns of activity and allows the brain to normalize or “optimize” its own functioning.

It should be understood that the primary application of neurofeedback is in the treatment of a huge variety of cognitive and emotional disorders, and it is often, although not always, used in combination with other treatment by psychologists and others in private practice. Nevertheless, it is basically an unregulated modality. Zengar enjoys a particularly good reputation within the professional neurofeedback community, is extremely easy to learn to use, and is also quite safe to use. It is also rather expensive. The equipment costs $9500 to purchase, and professional neurofeedback practitioners typically charge anywhere from $60 to $100 per session. A typical course of treatment in a therapy setting involves 15 to 20 sessions. At the moment, cost may create the greatest barrier to meditation teachers and practitioners being able to try it out for themselves. We are fortunate enough to have received a donation to help us purchase the equipment, and are making it available in the spirit of the Dharma for serious practitioners at every level to use by donation and at no cost. No one is refused due to inability to contribute financially. If our initial impressions regarding its usefulness continue to be supported, we may begin raising money for the purchase of additional equipment. This may prove to be an effective model for general application in the meditation community, and is consistent with Buddhist practice of not charging for Dharma and relying upon donations to fund centers, buildings, facilities, equipment, etc.

In joy,


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