Mind and Life Institute

Mindfulness meditation physically changes the brain

Crystal Shepeard, Truthout: In 1987, a lawyer, a neuroscientist and Tenzin Gyatso, known more commonly as the 14th Dalai Lama, had a meeting about science and spirituality. The three felt that the use of science as the dominant method in which to investigate reality was, at best, incomplete. They were convinced that “well-refined contemplative practices and introspective methods could, and should, be used as equal instruments of investigation.” This would, in turn, complement scientific discoveries, adding a more humane element to science.

It was from that meeting that Adam …

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Mind and Life: Discussions with the Dalai Lama on the Nature of Reality

Mind and Life - Discussions with the Dalai Lama on the Nature of Reality

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

The Mind and Life Conference (ML), a production of the Mind and Life Institute, is an almost yearly gathering of Western scientists and Tibetan Buddhists, led by the His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso). Mind and Life: Discussions with the Dalai Lama on the Nature of Reality is a product of the 2002 conference, the tenth (X) in the series.

The Mind and Life Institute emerged as “a bold experiment” in 1987 from the efforts of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Adam Engle, and Francisco Varela. Between ML IX and X, co-founder and visionary scholar Francisco Varela passed away, a tremendous loss for all of us who seek knowledge in the realm of consciousness studies. Varela has been ably replaced by Richard Davidson (author, most recently, of The Emotional Life of Your Brain).

Among the luminaries attending past conversations are neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio, philosopher Owen Flanagan, psychologist Daniel Goleman, anthropologist and Zen priest Roshi Joan Halifax, psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, Cistercian monk and founder of the Centering Prayer movement Father Thomas Keating, cellular geneticist and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, and philosopher Evan Thompson, among many, many others.

The Scientific Coordinator at ML X was:

  • Arthur Zajonc, Ph.D., Professor of Physics at Amherst College

Participants were:

  • Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, the XIVth Dalai Lama of Tibet
  • Michel Bitbol, M.D., Ph.D., Directeur de recherché at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, France
  • Steven Chu, Theodore and Frances Geballe Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Stanford University
  • Ursula Goodenough, Ph.D., Professor of Biology at Washington University
  • Eric Lander, Ph.D., geneticist, molecular biologist, mathematician, and the founder and director of the Whitehead Institute Center for Genome Research
  • Prof. Dr. Pier Luigi Luisi, Professor of Macromolecular Chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
  • Matthieu Ricard, Ph.D., Author and Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu and French interpreter since 1989 for His Holiness the Dalai Lama
  • Arthur Zajonc, Ph.D., Professor of Physics at Amherst College

The interpreters were:

  • Geshe Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., President and chief editor for The Classics of Tibet Series produced by the Institute of Tibetan Classics in Montreal, Canada.
  • B. Alan Wallace, Ph.D., Visiting Lecturer, Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

When I began reading this book, my expectations, based on watching videos of the last several Mind and Life Conferences, no doubt skewed my experience of the book at first. Having seen those videos of recent conferences, I kept waiting for the book to get into the dharma, but that is not the book’s purpose, although there is certainly some Buddhist philosophy later in the book.

As one might guess from the list of Western scientists present at ML X, the topic was the “nature of reality,” and the book is essentially a condensed summary of how Western science makes sense of life, consciousness, and the universe. The first chapter looks at the elementary particles from which matter emerges, then moves through complexity theory (2), the complexity of life (3), how life unfolds (4), the human genome (5), and then consciousness to ethics (6). Along the way, there are interviews with Matthieu Ricard, Richard Gere, and His Holiness the Karmapa.

Readers interested in a crash course in the fields of physics, biology, and psychology will receive a solid grounding in the areas where theory is well-established and a sense for the open questions with which researchers still grapple. The conference structure allows that each day features a morning session of scientific explication and an afternoon discussion session. Pier Luigi Luisi does a good job of presenting this flow of the five days, although there are a couple of adjustments in the timeline in the interest of literary coherence.

Through the first half of the book, the Tibetan contingent offers little opposition to the Western model of physics and biology. However, when the topic eventually shifts to consciousness in the latter part of the book, the different perspectives on consciousness fully emerge. Western science, or at least the more forward-thinking version presented in these conferences, theorizes that consciousness is an adaptive, complex, and emergent property of the brain, making it clear that not all consciousness researchers believe it is fully reducible to the physical brain. The Tibetans, however, strongly disagree, holding that consciousness consists of gross and subtle consciousness, with the gross level based in the body and its sensations/perceptions and the subtle level shaped by the brain, but not subordinate to it. In fact, many authors who work in the interplay between Tibetan Buddhism and Western science believe consciousness exists independent with or possibly from – and ontologically prior to – matter and life (such B. Alan Wallace).

Here is the Dalai Lama’s explanation of the Buddhist view:

[W]e ask what consciousness actually arises from. What is it that turns into consciousness? According to Buddhist principles, consciousness can arise only from a continuum of phenomena similar to itself, in the same way that formations of mass-energy give rise to formations of mass-energy. It is a similar continuum. Subtle consciousness is a radically different type of phenomenon; therefore it can arise only from phenomena similar to itself. Matter, configurations of mass-energy, is radically dissimilar to consciousness. … Matter cannot transform into or become consciousness. (p. 181)

The Dalai Lama admits that this view is a form of dualism, and suggests that Western science has its own dualisms, such organic and inorganic matter. But he also argues that dualisms are inherent any time there are two things and not one, and “Dualism makes sense only in relation to a very specific context.”

Eric Lander tried to challenge the Dalai Lama on the rather esoteric nature of the gross/subtle distinction, asking if this doctrine is not simply an unproven but accepted assumption in the absence of any evidence, logic, or proof. His Holiness countered, however, with an argument based in the scientific method he learned from his Western teachers.

First of all, it’s not true that this is merely an assumption. There’s an empirical basis that is repeatable. There is a systematic training that can lead to the empirical conclusion that a continuity of consciousness transcends the limitations of one body, one life. This is not something unique to Buddhism; it preceded Buddhism, and it is not embedded in one ideology or one belief system. There are different modes of meditation within Tibetan Buddhism, different avenues to that experience. (p. 182)

What the Dalai Lama presents here is the essential nature of scientific inquiry. There are three steps: (1) Instrumental injunction, to know this, do this practice or experiment; (2) Direct apprehension, an immediate experience of the data generated by the injunction; and (3) Communal confirmation, comparing your results with others who have performed the same injunction (Wilber, 1998). His Holiness argues that other monks in other disciplines have replicated the reality of subtle consciousness in their own experiments, so there is a communal confirmation.

Where this leads, of course, is into the ongoing conflict between subjective, introspective knowledge (first-person) and objective, observational knowledge (third-person). Western science and, indeed, Western philosophy still struggle with admitting that first-person experience has any scientific validity. In fact, Massimo Pigliucci, in his rant against a review of this book by Michael Bond in Nature magazine (13 November 2008), argues that “‘a science of introspection’ is an oxymoron.” In fact, he states that introspection “is not and cannot be ‘science’ because science is based on the idea of independent verification of empirical findings” (para. 7).

Fortunately, the scientists and philosophers who engage in these dialogues with the Dalai Lama are more open-minded. While several of the Western scientists admit lacking the meditative experience necessary to make sense of the Tibetan worldview, they are nonetheless curious and seek some form of understanding that fits within their own worldviews. For now, however, both sides are somewhat entrenched in their own perspectives, but we benefit from their efforts to hold their own views more lightly.

Pigliucci, M. (2008, Dec 6). “Consciousness, Meditation, and The Dalai Lama.” rationallyspeaking.org.
Wilber, K. (1998). The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

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New books for new thinking in a new year

I thought to write about books to ring in the New Year last Sunday, but my column was due almost a week ahead and I was still enjoying all the wonderful holiday treats hanging around my home. Not to mention the parties, the bowl games and champagne.

But now that the New Year is here and I’m in diet/resolution mode, I’m ready to share my collection of, shall we say, new thinking books, the ones we hope will shape us up physically and mentally.

Let’s start with a master. The Dalai Lama continues his dialogue with scientists and experts with the Mind and Life …

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Roundtable: meeting of the minds

wildmind meditation news

Tricycle Magazine: Tricycle sits down for a free-ranging discussion with several pioneers of the dialogue between science and Buddhism.

Since 1987 the Dalai Lama has met biennially with small groups of Western scientists to talk about the nature of mind and reality, and to plan collaborative research between science and Buddhism. These sessions, organized by the Mind and Life Institute, are designed to explore not only what Buddhism and modern science can learn from each other but also what they can learn by working together. Studies sponsored by Mind and Life are beginning to unravel the brain mechanisms underlying contemplative practice, providing scientific validation of the beneficial effects of meditation practice.

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Meditation or medication?

Cliff Bostock, Creative Loafing Atlanta: In January 1991, I woke up one morning in the blackest depression of my life. There was nothing unusual about the day, although Operation Desert Storm had begun the day before. I remember lying in bed, listening to reporters on CNN describe what sounded like a video game. No death or blood.

For months afterward, I felt as if I awoke every morning covered in black soot. I’d have to spend a few hours sweeping the soot away before I could do anything productive. The psychic pain of depression this deep is difficult to describe. Contrary to what many people think, it can produce a physical sensation, pain that cannot be exactly located. For me, it was this pain that made me contemplate suicide continually. The wish was not so much to die as to end the pain with a violent act.

I made a contract with my therapist that I would not kill myself until I’d given a tricyclic antidepressant time to take effect. As I’ve written before, I recall the exact moment the drug took effect. I’ve heard many people over the years report the same experience. For me it was as if my heart suddenly revved up and I became fully present in my body. The depression vanished.

As is also true of many others, I realized that I’d probably been depressed most of my life. A few months later, my doctor switched me to the relatively new drug called Prozac. This produced a phenomenal change in me, not only treating my depression, but making me far more productive in my work and more extroverted than I’d ever been.

My doctor told me I’d likely need to be on the drug the rest of my life. My depression was not situational. In fact, my bout of suicidal thinking came during a good period of my life. Like many others, I seem to be predisposed to depression.

I certainly didn’t mind the idea of being on an antidepressant the rest of my life, if it continued to work so well. Unfortunately, though, after two years, the drug had little effect and I returned to a state of dysthymia – low-level depression. I tried many other antidepressants but nothing ever returned me to the state I enjoyed as a newcomer to Prozac.

I’ve got plenty of company. Repeated studies of the drugs have also demonstrated another surprise. Although the actual figures are debatable, the placebo effect is remarkably high in the use of antidepressants, particularly in treatment of mild depression. It’s no wonder they seem to lose effectiveness after a period. Considering that antidepressants are among the most prescribed drugs in the country, finding a way that more effectively treats depression is a priority in the mental-health field.

To many Atlantans, it was probably a surprise last week that the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, has become part of the effort to find an effective, long-term treatment. Here to accept a professorship at Emory, the Dalai Lama conducted a daylong conversation with scientists on the subject of “Mindfulness, Compassion and the Treatment of Depression.” Incredibly, 4,000 people showed up to hear the conversation – which ought to be indicative of the topic’s importance, as well as the Dalai Lama’s celebrity.

I did not attend, but like many others who have been engaged in a meditation practice for some time, even if fitfully, it is no surprise that an increasing body of evidence suggests that it not only can reduce the pain of depression but actually help restructure the brain, which the new science of neuroplasticity has observed in studies of Buddhist monks.

The direct benefit of meditation is that it develops awareness – or “mindfulness” – of the way one’s thoughts and feelings arise spontaneously. With practice, it becomes increasingly easier to leave behind the array of symptoms (including physical ones) that add up to the experience of depression – or any other habitual way of thinking, for that matter.

This is especially true in the practice of compassionate mindfulness. Studies have shown that compassion can literally be taught (which is one reason I believe meditation should be taught in public schools). When we approach the world and ourselves with compassion, suffering paradoxically becomes less burdensome.

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The Mind and Life conference

Marissa Kimsky, Emory Wheel: While scientists are searching for a cure-all pill for mental disorders, new research shows that the cure may not be in a bottle, but could rather be found in Tibetan meditation.

Hundreds gathered in the Woodruff Physical Education Center to hear discussions on this pioneering research on meditation and mental disorders. This research was presented in a dialog in the 15th Mind and Life conference: Mindfulness, Compassion and the Treatment of Depression.

Mind and Life was organized by a scientist and an entrepreneur in 1987 to establish a dialog between Buddhist philosophers and scientists. It has proven to be extremely successful, encouraged countless studies on the benefits of meditation. The organization has inspired an initiative to teach Buddhist monks science, and it encourages a common goal between researchers and Buddhists to improve minds, lives, societies and the world.

Emory, one of the leading institutions for meditation research in the country, hosted the conference for the first time on Saturday, prior to the installation the Dalai Lama as a presidential distinguished professor on Monday.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama entered the room and immediately showered the crowed with affection. He lowered into a bow and clasped his hands together, blessing the audience.

The Dalai Lama was an extremely active participant throughout the conference, asking several scientifically in-depth questions and suggesting new directions for future research projects.

Co-founder of Mind and Life Adam Engel reflected as he opened this conference.

Twenty years ago, when the conference series began, the Dalai Lama had a request of the scientists.

“First investigate the positive effects of meditation,” the Dalai Lama said. “If you find it successful, please teach it to your society in a purely secular manner in order to benefit everyone.”

This has been the goal of the researchers for the past 20 years. Researchers Richard Davidson, Helen Mayberg, Charles Nemeroff, Charles Raison and Zindel Segal presented findings from multiple successful neuroscience projects geared towards improving the mind and mental balance. Buddhist scholars at the conference, including the Dalai Lama, John Dunne and Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, connected these studies to Buddhist philosophy.

This was not necessarily an easy task for the Buddhist scholars.

“Speaking to the Dalai Lama on Buddhism is like speaking to Jesus on Christianity,” Dunne said.

Throughout the conference, both Buddhist scholars and scientists agreed that depression could be characterized by the sufferer’s inward focus.

Buddhism strives to accomplish the opposite — to turn one’s perspective outwards through compassion and mindfulness meditations.

Both of these forms of meditation were investigated by scientists in their experiments. Psychological and physical evidence showed that individuals suffering from depression were able to overcome the symptoms through compassion meditation.

Davidson used samatha, a Tibetan Buddhist form of mindful meditation, in his studies and found that it improves concentration. The functional MRI brain scans taken during this practice showed more activation in the frontal-parietal areas, regions of the brain designated to higher cognition.

Raison foresees using meditation to prevent more than just depression. He also thinks it can help prevent diseases associated with stress, such as depression, anxiety, heart failure, high cholesterol, cancer and diabetes. “Our interest is in looking at meditation as a potential strategy to protect against the emotional and medical diseases that arise from stress,” he said.

Dean Robert Paul and University President James W. Wagner also spoke at the event. Paul said he sees Emory’s research moving towards developing meditation as a prescription within preventative psychiatry, the medical practice of preventing mental disorders.

Mind and Life is also working to facilitate inter-religious dialog. Currently centering prayer, a contemplative Catholic tradition is also being investigated by other Mind and Life researchers and the conference strives to integrate various other contemplative traditions into the studies as well. Dunne believes that the research benefits not only neuroscience but an enormous array of disciplines.

“Mind and Life research also helps build a greater research network on contemplative based interventions,” Dunne said.

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