Yesterday James and I joined some of the researchers on the trip, Olav, Gord, and Breezy, at 7:00 am in order to reach Namche before the rest of the group. We were headed towards the monastery in order to take EEG recordings to measure cognitive function from monks during a variety of activities including measuring their EEG during a 10 minute quiet time, 5 minutes of EEG while meditating, and EEG during a counting exercise. Discovery Channel contacted the group and asked if we could take film and take photos for a segment they would be doing on the research called Daily Planet. Discovery Channel had a short list of different shots they would like of the monks, monastery, and research group for their show so pressure was at an all-time high for James and I.
The trek from Monju to Namche took about 4 hours which was relatively short. The trek was short but was a bit more intense than the previous day’s trek to Monju. I found myself climbing several steep grades with a day pack filled with 3 liters of water, a warm jacket, my GoPro, and equipment for taking photos, a role I’ve happily taken on while James captures footage. I found myself staying at a slow steady pace and being passed by tiny porters and Sherpas with huge heavy self-made back packs filled with equipment, tools, food, or water. Easily five times the weight I was carrying. They were passing me with ease, some of them much older in their 60s.
When we arrived to Namche we were ushered to the lodge where we would be staying to drop off our bags and for a quick hot tea. From there we were then supposed to head to the monastery to get an idea of the room, lighting, and where we could take the variety of shots needed. The research team would set up equipment and then we would reconvene when the monks were ready for recording.
We were welcomed first into the dining hall to observe the monks coming for their lunch for a donation to the monastery. I walked around the room taking snaps of monks reading cross legged at cushioned planks on the floor waiting their turn for lunch. It seemed as though they were ordered to lunch in a sense of hierarchy. The room was striking. It made for beautiful photos as monks robed in deep maroon and gold scooped spoons full of hot steaming white rice in a room painted in vibrant turquoise, red, yellow, and gold. They were all so kind while being photographed. They never spoke but they always gave reassurance with their eyes.
After observing the dining hall we were taken to the room where the research was supposed to be conducted. The room was full of every color imaginable. In the back there was an alter containing several lit candles in front of various giant gold statues with the Buddhist eye painted on the middle. There were round hanging drapes with tassels on the ends in each corner and many golden vases carved with beautiful pattern on various alters. The monks would be measured for the EEG waves in a row facing large windows covered by orange and white patterned curtains. The room was very dark and made for a difficult place to gather photos and film. James set up the cameras to account for the darkness but it was still very tough to get quality photos in the room.
While we were getting acquainted to the temple we were informed that the monks would like to start the research immediately! This is something none of us were prepared for, but when the opportunity presents itself to take EEGs, photos, and film of monks.. you just kind of go with it! The monks would be brought in a few different groups, four at time. We all nervously rushed around attempting to prepare for the first group of monks. I timidly looked for a spot that would give me the best lighting for photographs of the monks as the lighting was a bit tricky. We were not allowed to use external lighting or flashes so finding the perfect spot with the perfect lighting would be imperative.
The first group of four was brought in and the room was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. The monks entered in a sense of hierarchy once more. They walked to the alter covered in brass lit candles, kneeled brining their forehead to the ground, and stood back up. The monks did this three times each before finding their seats. From there Breezy and Olav fitted them with their EEG recording device. It was such a bizarre scene, four monks sitting in front of Mac laptops with EEG electrodes on their heads. A translator then came in and told the monks about the various tasks they would be asked to complete.
It was amazing to watch their EEG signals coming in on the computer screen during each exercise. All of the monks took the exercise very seriously, there was one particular monk that kept looking away from the computer screen and the stone faced monk who never blinked an eye to his right kept nudging him to pay attention. It was quite funny.
After the first group, which was by far the most intimidating, following groups of four monks at one time would come into the room for 2 hours following. The monks would range in hierarchy and age. Monks as young as 15 years old even came in to have their EEGs recorded! It was interesting to see how as age decreased so did the level of focus.
Originally we were unsure of the number of monks that we could get to participate. We ended up having 25 monks come through for the research in groups of 4 at a time. It was amazing and they were all so open to being a part of the research.
After the 25 monks had their EEGs recorded the chairman of the monastery came to meet us and blessed us with white silk scarves, known as a Khata. The white is meant to symbolize the pure heart of the giver. It was a very powerful sentiment and something I will cherish forever.