How did you become involved in the science of meditation?
The Dalai Lama often describes Buddhism as being, above all, a science of the mind. That is not surprising, because the Buddhist texts put particular emphasis on the fact that all spiritual practices – whether mental, physical or oral – are directly or indirectly intended to transform the mind.
So it wasn’t surprising that when a meeting was held in 2000 with some of the leading specialists in human emotions – psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers – they spent an entire week in discussion with the Dalai Lama at his home in Dharamsala, India. Later we agreed to launch a research programme on the short and long-term effects of mind training – “meditation” in other words.
What have we discovered about meditation and the human brain?
Experiments have indicated that the region of the brain associated with emotions such as compassion shows considerably higher activity in those with long-term meditative experience. These discoveries suggest that basic human qualities can be deliberately cultivated through mental training. The study of the influence of mental states on health, which was once considered fanciful, is now an increasing part of the scientific research agenda.
Do you have to be highly skilled to experience the benefits of meditation?
No, one does not have to be a highly trained: 20 minutes of daily practice can contribute significantly to a reduction of anxiety and stress, the tendency to become angry and the risk of relapse in cases of severe depression. Thirty minutes a day over the course of eight weeks results in a considerable strengthening of the immune system and of one’s capacity for concentration. It also speeds up the healing of psoriasis and decreases arterial tension in people suffering from hypertension.
Tell us about your new book, The Art of Meditation.
The book tackles the question: why should we bother to meditate? The answer is that we all have the potential for positive change, which largely remains untapped. That’s a great pity, because we know the virtue of training and learning. We spend years going to school and training in things like sports, but for some strange reason we don’t think that the same need applies to developing and optimising our human qualities.
Tell us about the Mind and Life meeting that will discuss compassion in economic systems.
At the conference – in Zurich in April – will be some bold economists who can demonstrate that altruists are able to influence global markets. In the past, such studies were often refuted by sceptical financial analysts. However, someone like Ernst Fehr, the famous Swiss economist, will show that if altruists make the rules and it is in the interests of selfish people to cooperate, then society can function in a more cooperative way.
Matthieu Ricard is a French Buddhist monk with a PhD in molecular biology. He has participated in numerous experiments into the effects of meditation on the human brain