Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Scientific Voice of Meditation: A conference with a difference

Located in the lush green woods on the banks of Hudson River, 60 miles from New York is the Garrison Institute. It is here that the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute held its extraordinary meeting this year (June11-17). This annual conference brings together a number of well known scientists and Buddhist scholars engaged in contemplative practices to synergize and share their different perspectives to deepen our understanding of the human mind.

The Institute was established in the year 1987 after a series of informal meetings initiated by a well-known neuroscientist from Paris, Dr. Francisco Varela (1946-2001), who along with Mr. Adam Engle an American businessman met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness evinced keen interest in scientific research to unravel the secrets of the mind and strongly felt that Buddhist meditation practices can significantly contribute in enhancing our knowledge of the mind. Subsequent conferences have each led to the publication of a number of books which are listed at the end of this article.

Apart from these books there have been numerous scientific research articles, investigating the claims of meditation practitioners and establishing through scientific methodologies the veracity of these claims.

What really goes on at these conferences? How do people of the two traditions---the scientific and the contemplative traditions—interact with each other? How do scientific studies on meditation get initiated? I got an opportunity to find answers to these questions at the most recent Mind & Life Summer Research Institute held at Garrison, New York. The participants were Research Fellows and Special Investigators from various universities engaged in research in meditation.

It was indeed an honor to be in the midst of such well-known leading figures in the scientific world such as Dr. Richard Davidson, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dr. David Meyer, Dr. Daniel Siegel to name just a few. Also present were Venerable Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, Tibetan Buddhist Master of the Kagyu Order, Venerable Sik Hin Hung, of the Mahayana tradition, from Hongkong and Venerable Barry Kerzin, Buddhist monk of Tibetan tradition. Besides providing spiritual inspiration, their openness to discuss their experiences in meditation and Buddhist philosophy enriched the discussions and lent directions to scientific research. Special mention should also be made of the person who led some of the meditation sessions, Sharon Salzberg, the author of many books on the subject, in particular, Loving Kindness and one of the founders of Insight Meditation Society at Massachusetts. Her warmth and glow exuded a certain presence at the conference, taking the practice of meditation to new levels of application.

The day typically began with one hour session of Yoga, followed by one hour of sitting meditation ending with a few minutes of walking meditation. These sessions were led by Dr. Kabat-Zinn who has authored several books on Mindfulness meditation as well as pioneering Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program for chronic pain patients at the University of Massachusetts. The rest of the day was interspersed with talks by scientists on their work with contemplative practices and presentations of research findings particularly of MRI and EEG studies on brain activity of meditators. Small group discussions paved the way for initiating studies in specific areas such us introducing meditation to children in schools, and using it as a clinical intervention in a variety of settings.

The last day of this unique meditation research retreat was fully devoted to meditation including the practice of Noble Silence. It was indeed awe-inspiring to watch people of such eminence leading simple lives, following the rules laid out for meditation with total surrender and acceptance. It brought on a feeling of oneness with humanity, all walking on the path of dhamma.

List of Books published as a result of discussions in Mind & Life Conferences:

1. Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of the Mind. Edited by Jeremy Hayward and Francisco Varela. Shambhala Publications
2. Consciousness at Crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Brain Science and Buddhism. Edited by Zara Houshmand, Robert B. Livingstone and Allan Wallace. Snow-Lion Publications
3. Healing Emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions and Health. Edited by Daniel Goleman. Shambhala Publications
4. Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying: An exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama. Edited by Francisco J. Varela. Wisdom Publication.
5. Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature. Edited by Richard J. Davidson and Ann Harrington. Oxford University Press.
6. Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama.
Daniel Goleman. Bantam Doubleday Dell

The author is a practitioner of Vipassana meditation as taught by Shri S.N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayaji U Ba Khin. She attended the conference as a Research Fellow as a result of her research work concerning teaching meditation to children in India, Singapore and Malaysia. She also works as a part-time Lecturer in Psychology in Uni-SIM, Singapore.

Published in "For You" a Buddhist magazine in Singapore
With Sharon Salzberg at the conference

Children's Meditation Course Workshop

April 4th to 8th, 2007 were memorable days for those taking part in the first Children Course Workshop organized by the Vipassana International Centre, Singapore. The workshop was conducted by Mrs. Sabrina Katakam, based in Hyderabad, India and recently appointed “Teacher” in the tradition as taught by Mr. S. N. Goenka. She effectively facilitated the activities which energized and inspired the participants apart from training them to become knowledgeable in the theoretical aspects of Dhamma.

The aim of the workshop was to acquaint existing Children Course Teachers (CCTs) with recent developments in the children’s meditation courses, particularly in India, and also familiarize the volunteers who serve in various capacities in these courses, with the proceedings. For the thirty participants (from both Singapore and Malaysia), there was never a dull moment as they had plenty of opportunity to discuss and clarify their doubts with a teacher who is articulate, approachable and who has the unique gift of explaining the Dhamma as applied to everyday life.

The day began with an hour of group meditation followed by rigorous exercises –a common feature especially in residential courses for children and teenagers. The first day of the workshop was spent in orienting participants to a brief history of children’s courses as well as its development and spread to different countries. The highlights of the day were a refresher on the Noble Eightfold Path in an interactive and interesting manner as well as completing a self assessment paper (on the theoretical aspects of meditation). The answers to the paper were discussed and completed so that everybody had the benefit of participation.

The following two days saw the participants’ role-playing as children and teenagers while the CCTs rehearsed conducting meditation sessions. Apart from being a fun-filled activity it also prepared the CCT to face a group of children and the questions that they might raise. Narration of stories as well as games was also carried out and there was a total sense of involvement and participation by all members. All days had three one hour group meditation sessions to calm, recharge and refocus one’s energies and the day ended with a metta session from the teacher. The workshop culminated with a Teenager’s course on the last day.

The course attended by nine girls and six boys 13 to 18years of age, was conducted by Sabrina herself who has years of dedicated service in children’s courses, to enable the workshop participants to get a first hand practical demonstration of the ways in which they could interact with teenagers. While instructions in a meditation course come from the Principal Teacher Goenkaji, the CCTs have the responsibility to conduct it on his behalf. Before and after each meditation session, the conducting teacher briefly interacts with the children, first orienting them to the session and at the end of it asking a few questions to make sure that they have understood the instructions. This both inspires the children and also keeps them involved in the proceedings of the sessions.

The course began with a discourse explaining the precepts (sila) and anapana meditation in a simple language at a level that the teenagers can relate to. This was followed by three meditation sessions each of about 45minutes duration interspersed with short breaks in which the teenagers engaged in non-competitive games. The final session was a discourse on the benefits of the practice and also suggestions on how this practice can be maintained. The discourse ended with ‘metta bahavana’ where the teenagers learn to spread the happiness and peace they have received to all people around them.

In these days of chaos, confusion and a plethora of dangerous avenues thrown open to young people, parents are constantly in search of providing an anchor for them which can help in keeping them safe and focused. The importance of meditation for youngsters can never be overstated. For this we need a trained group of adults to conduct and teach in meditation courses for young people.

It is in this context that a workshop such as this becomes very significant and pertinent as it helps participants understand the theory behind the practice and how to respond to issues raised by children during a meditation course.

For further details on courses for children (8yrs-12yrs) and teenagers (13yrs-16yrs) conducted by the Vipassana International Centre, Singapore look out for their newsletter or an announcement in this magazine or visit

Radhi Raja

Note: This article was written long back for a Buddhist magazine in Singapore but for various reasons was not published.
Sabrina conducting a group meditation in Singapore.
Sabrina conducting the workshop in Singapore