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

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