Scientists study phenomena. Meditators study experience. And never the twain shall meet. Until a unique series of dialogues called Mind and Life. Jill Suttie reports on the emerging field of contemplative science.
Even forty years ago no one would have put the words “contemplative” and “science” together, let alone organize an international conference on the topic. Yet in April, scientists, academics, and meditators from around the world will gather for the inaugural International Symposia for Contemplative Studies. They’ll share the latest scientific research on the benefits of training the mind through contemplative practice, such as better health, cognitive and emotional regulation, higher performance levels, improved quality of life, social harmony, and other positive results.
Since the Enlightenment, science has been militantly distinct from religion, because it studied (and believed in) only what could be perceived by the senses and quantitatively measured. Religion or spirituality was a separate realm of subjective, nonmaterial experience that could not be observed, let alone measured.
Diego Hangartner, chief operating officer of the Mind & Life Institute, which is organizing the conference, puts it this way: “Science assumes that reality is what can be observed from a thirdperson perspective. Contemplatives, on the other hand, look at a phenomenon—whether external or internal—and assume that the reality of the phenomenon is not independent of the conscious mind perceiving it.”
In other words, what we know as reality comes into existence in the meeting between first person and third person—between subject and object, mind and matter. It does not exist independently in either. For millennia, the contemplative traditions within the world’s major religions have studied the landscape of inner experience and practiced, in a precise and reproducible way, beneficial techniques to train the mind. Simultaneously, Western science has increased exponentially our understanding of the material world. Now, an increasing number of scientists and contemplatives are collaborating in a search for a more complete understanding of human experience, finding as they do practical ways to benefit society and improve our lives. This groundbreaking dialogue began with an unusual East–West encounter in a tiny Himalayan hill station.
Adam Engle, a financial planner, entrepreneur, and Buddhist practitioner, heard a rumor in 1983 that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was interested in meeting with Western scientists. Intrigued, he decided to see whether he could make it happen and began inquiring through channels in the Buddhist community.
Earlier that year, Francisco Varela, a renowned neuroscientist deeply versed in Buddhist philosophy and meditation, had met the Dalai Lama at a conference in Austria. They’d discussed the parallels between Buddhist psychology and what neuroscience research was discovering about the nature of the mind. When Varela learned of Engle’s efforts, he called and suggested they work together to create a forum where the Dalai Lama could exchange ideas with leading scientists. What came to be known as the Mind and Life dialogues, now in their twenty-fifth year, have been the most important catalyst for the growing collaboration between scientists and contemplatives.
The first dialogue was held on October of 1987 at the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, a remote village in the Indian Himalayas that is home to the Tibetan government-in-exile. Varela had invited fellow cognitive scientists with an interest in Buddhism, and according to B. Alan Wallace, a frequent interpreter for the Dalai Lama who has himself written extensively on Buddhism and science, His Holiness was intrigued by the scientists’ presentations.
“He didn’t have an agenda,” says Wallace. The Dalai Lama listened carefully, asked good questions, and shared his own Buddhist perspective when asked. He was open to hearing what the scientists had to share, and the dialogue was meaningful for those present. “It was a meeting of minds,” Wallace says.
The meeting was small, private, and intimate. Varela wanted to create an atmosphere in which participants would feel safe to exchange ideas freely. “The idea was that the participants could be bold and daring,” says Wallace, “without having the demand for orthodoxy placed upon them by their scientific backgrounds and without the worry of peer review.”
Newcomb Greenleaf, a mathematician then teaching in the computer science department at Columbia University and now a professor at Goddard College, made a presentation to the Dalai Lama about artificial intelligence, which led to an interesting exchange about the future of robotics and its possible relationship to reincarnation. Greenleaf had been involved in previous meetings between Buddhists and scientists at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, but found them frustrating.
“There seemed to be a great gulf of understanding between the scientists and the Buddhists at those meetings,” says Greenleaf. The talks would break down, he says, with each side unwilling to budge in its views. After attending the meeting in Dharamsala, he saw hope for fruitful collaboration.
So did the Dalai Lama, Engle, and Varela, who decided to found the Mind & Life Institute to organize future dialogues. Since 1987 there have been twenty-three more, each with its own theme, and a number of books based on the proceedings, starting with Gentle Bridges, edited by Jeremy Hayward and Francisco Varela from discussions in the very first dialogue.
From the beginning, Varela understood the historic significance of these meetings. As a scientist, he knew that science was becoming the paradigm through which the public understood reality and through which social policy was being made. As a Buddhist, he knew that observing the mind through meditation was a viable way to study reality that was shut out of scientific inquiry.
Varela was particularly interested in bringing cognitive scientists together with Buddhist practitioners. “It was a natural place for contemplatives to offer insight,” says Diego Hangartner. “Cognitive scientists are interested in how we perceive things.”
However, as Hangartner notes, many cognitive scientists were primarily interested in looking at consciousness from outside the experience of it. Varela hoped that the Dalai Lama would be able to convince scientists to expand their inquiries to include the study of subjective phenomena that might not fit into their materialist view. In short, to include the reality of mind—and the experts who have been studying it for 2,500 years.
“Buddhists have been developing ways to encourage positive emotion through meditation for thousands of years,” says Daniel Goleman, psychologist and bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence. He learned about the Mind and Life dialogues when Varela asked him to attend the second one, which was held in Newport Beach, California, in 1989.
Goleman’s interest in meditation and science went way back to his days as a graduate student at Harvard. But he didn’t think the science community was ready yet to embrace meditation practice. However, an old friend of his from Harvard, a chemistry PhD named Jon Kabat-Zinn, was developing a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. It delivered measurable health benefits the scientific community couldn’t ignore.
In 1990, Goleman moderated the third dialogue, on health and emotions, and invited Kabat-Zinn to attend. Goleman says that when the Dalai Lama learned about the research on how positive emotions improved physical and emotional health, he saw right away the connection to contemplative practice. It was then, Goleman says, that the Dalai Lama began to embrace the idea of teaching meditation in a secular context to benefit a wide range of people.
Discussion moved to the cosmic level at the sixth Mind and Life dialogue in 1997, which was organized by Arthur Zajonc, a physics professor at Amherst College who became the president of the Mind & Life Institute late last year, following the retirement of Adam Engle. He and other physicists presented the findings of quantum mechanics, which showed that the properties of elemental particles like electrons are not independent—their measured size, mass, and velocity were in fact dependent on the speed of the measuring apparatus. Hearing this, the Dalai Lama shared the Buddhist perspective that reality does not exist intrinsically with its own objective properties, but only in relationship to a perceiving consciousness.
“This exchange with the Dalai Lama clarified some of the ideas I was working on at the time,” says Zajonc. The Buddhist view that everything in the universe is interrelated, he says, seemed to be a concise way of framing what quantum mechanics and relativity are telling us about the world. After physicist Anton Zeilinger attended the 1997 dialogue, he invited the Dalai Lama to his research lab at the University of Innsbruck, where he was running experiments that explored the foundations of quantum mechanics theory. Zeilinger was influenced by the Dalai Lama to re-think some of his ideas and consider new directions in his experiments.
Alan Wallace, who has continued to work as a translator at nearly every Mind and Life dialogue, recalls the Dalai Lama’s exchanges with Arthur Zajonc and Daniel Goleman as particularly productive, in large part because the scientists were open to engaging His Holiness. While he feels that some scientists seemed more interested in lecturing the Dalai Lama than joining him in dialogue, he thinks that overall the discussions have been beneficial—and not just for the scientists.
“The Dalai Lama was exposed to renowned researchers who informed him and also gave him a sense of humility,” says Wallace. “He learned that another form of inquiry deserved respect.” I t was a technological breakthrough that radically transformed the science of contemplation. A breakthrough that changed the way we understand the workings of the brain. That revealed the neurological basis for the ancient art of mind training.
It was called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and it allowed scientists to observe and measure—in real time—changes in brain activity as subjects experienced different activities, emotions, and mental states. It was a scientific bridge between mind and brain.
Using this new technology, neuroscientists discovered that the brain was not immutable after early childhood, as previously believed, but could change structurally and functionally over time in response to environmental stimulation and mental processing. The brain was not fixed but plastic. For thousands of years contemplatives had claimed the mind could be trained. Now the theory of neuroplasticity gave it a scientific basis. fMRI technology gave scientists the chance to watch it happening and measure it.
When the Dalai Lama attended the eighth Mind and Life dialogue, in 2000, he heard Richie Davidson of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and other presenters share the latest neuroscience research using fMRI technology, as well as data showing the benefits of decreasing negative emotional states.
“I heard the Dalai Lama tell Richie Davidson that he should take these Buddhist meditation methods for handling destructive emotions and study them,” remembers Daniel Goleman. His Holiness wanted proof the techniques were useful, and if it was shown they were, to distribute the results widely so that others could benefit.”
The Dalai Lama suggested that Davidson study experienced Buddhist monks, using fMRI technology to see what was happening to their brains as they were meditating and producing different mind states. Davidson readily agreed, and the monks were willing to participate because of the clout of the Dalai Lama.
Psychologist Paul Ekman, an expert on emotions and facial expressions, was another renowned scientist whose work took a new turn as a result of the 2000 dialogue. He had no previous interest in Buddhism, but soon after meeting the Dalai Lama, Ekman says he felt a strong connection and what he describes as a feeling of déjà vu.
In his presentation to the conference, Ekman explained to the Dalai Lama how Western psychology differentiates between emotions and moods: emotions are transient and often follow a specific stimulus, whereas moods can last hours and have uncertain origins. This interested the Dalai Lama, says Ekman, because Tibetan psychology makes no distinction between mood and emotion.
Ekman explained further that emotions—both positive and negative—evolved in response to human needs for survival. Even difficult emotions such as fear and anger are not inherently destructive, he argued, because they could be used for good; for example, when anger leads to social advocacy. “Emotions are never destructive in themselves,” says Ekman. “It depends on how they are enacted.”
Ekman found the Dalai Lama was a keen debater with an open mind, which impressed him. On the fourth day of the conference, the Dalai Lama challenged those present to do something constructive as a result of the dialogue. Ekman took that to heart.
“I decided to form a steering committee that very night,” he says, “to work on a program that would be a combination of Western and contemplative approaches. Alan Wallace volunteered to help.”
This led to the Cultivating Emotional Balance project. Ekman and Wallace worked up a curriculum together and tested it with a group of teachers. The results of their study, soon to be published, show remarkable results. “People had decreases in depression and anxiety with effects as large as have ever been found in the psychological literature,” Ekman says.
Ekman and the Dalai Lama made a strong personal and intellectual bond at the conference that continues to this day. At the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala they have held a series of one-on-one conversations, falling into deep discussion sometimes lasting many hours. In 2008 they co-wrote the book Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion, which is based on these conversations.
The topic for their next get-together is compassion. Ekman says that’s not his area of expertise, but says he’s not worried, because he and the Dalai Lama enjoy challenging each other without much concern for who’s right or wrong. “We come from different traditions,” he says, “so that helps give us new perspectives.”
The first eight Mind and Life dialogues were private gatherings of invited scientists and contemplative practitioners. Now it was time to make a bigger impact—it was time to go public. Francisco Varela and Adam Engle saw the productive collaborations that were emerging from even these little publicized events. They felt there was much more potential to influence scientific thought and culture, and lobbied for the dialogues to become public forums rather than private affairs. They wanted mainstream audiences to hear about this unusual collaboration of first and third person research. The Dalai Lama agreed.
The first public Mind and Life dialogue was held at MIT in 2003. Tragically, Francisco Varela did not live to see it. After undergoing a liver transplant in 1998, an experience he described in the extraordinary meditation on the nature of embodiment titled “Intimate Distances: Fragments for a Phenomenology of Organ Transplantation,” Francisco Varela died of Hepatitis C in 2001. Richie Davidson took his place as the research director of the Mind & Life Institute.
The 2003 public forum was called “Investigating the Mind: Exchanges Between Buddhism and Behavioral Science.” It focused on three areas under active investigation in the world of neuroscience: attention and cognitive control, emotions, and mental imagery. Mind and Life wanted to challenge the research community to consider partnering with the “Olympian athletes” of mental training—senior Buddhist monks—to augment existing research in these areas.
Arthur Zajonc, who co-moderated the dialogue, sees it as a turning point for the Mind & Life Institute. Results from Davidson’s laboratory research on longtime meditators was reported at the meeting and caused a sensation.
“In the wake of that meeting, a great deal of media coverage led to hundreds of requests, including from young researchers, for connection to the work of Mind and Life,” Zajonc remembers.
Zajonc feels the meeting changed the way scientists understood mind and mental processes: now they had to take into account the demonstrated effects of meditation on the brain. He could tell from the enthusiastic response of the audience that science and spiritual practice (in this case, Buddhism) were finally coming together—at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, no less.
One of those at this historic forum was Dacher Keltner, founder of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. An expert on emotions and compassion, Keltner was awed by the experience of meeting with the Dalai Lama.
“The most incredible thing that the Dalai Lama communicates is his person,” says Keltner. “He is an extremely impressive, compassionate man. He just lights up a crowd.” But what impressed him the most was the Dalai Lama’s openmindedness and willingness to update his own views based on what scientists might discover about the brain. “Compare that with other spiritual traditions,” says Keltner. “You just don’t see that.”
Keltner studies the vagus nerve—a part of the nervous system that seems to play an important role in kindness and compassion—and the evolutionary benefit of kindness contagion in populations. He views the Dalai Lama and other expert contemplatives as compassion savants, and his exchange with the Dalai Lama got him thinking about how to relate their expertise to what he was studying in the lab.
“The meeting raised some interesting research questions,” says Keltner. “For example, what happens to the vagus nerve when you have people who can hold the experience of awe or compassion for three hours at a time?”
Following the overwhelming response to the 2003 public dialogue, Engle and Davidson decided to organize the Summer Research Institute, where young scholars could meet with other scientists and jumpstart their careers. They realized the field needed younger researchers who could go beyond small pilot studies and work on longitudinal investigations over time, research they hoped would eventually interest big science organizations and funders like the National Institutes of Health.
To prime the pump, they created the Varela grants, funded by the Hershey Family Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation, which provides seed money for scholars who want to further the study of contemplative science and incorporate first and third person methods of inquiry into their research. Since its inception in 2004, the grant program has stimulated more than sixty articles in peer-reviewed journals, with many more forthcoming. The Varela grants, which range from $10,000 to $15,000, have catalyzed more than $12 million in additional funding from federal and private sources to further the work of contemplative science.
Willoughby Britton is one of the young scholars nurtured by Mind and Life, one of those who will carry the science of contemplation into the future.
An assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University, Britton has attended every MLI Summer Institute since its inception. She has received two Varela grants herself—to study how school-based mindfulness programs help students, and how Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy improves the functioning of people suffering from depression—and has mentored two students in her lab who have now received a Varela grant of their own.
“Before I found Mind and Life I was divided,” says Britton. “I spent one year in India studying Buddhism, and the next year at NIH studying glutamatergic brain receptors.” At the time, she found that neither side—Buddhists or scientists—seemed to have much respect for each other. Now she found a sense of wholeness through her work with Mind and Life, where scientists are encouraged to investigate the mind not just through brain scans or books, but from their own first person perspective.
Britton believes that if scientists were a little more aware of their own minds— their desires, biases, and distorted perceptions— it would improve scientific inquiry, and she feels this view is gaining acceptance in establishment institutions like the National Institutes of Health, from which she recently received five years of funding to study Buddhist texts. “They are beginning to appreciate the level of interdisciplinary expertise that is needed to do good meditation research,” she says.
As young scholars like Britton are undertaking research in contemplative science, new research centers at major universities have also emerged. For example, the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA offers courses and fosters research on mindfulness across the lifespan. Emory University’s Collaborative for Contemplative Studies brings together scholars from multiple academic disciplines to study the benefits of contemplative practices. And of course Richie Davidson’s important work has grown into the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, founded at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2008.
“In 2003 there weren’t any real identifiable laboratories that were doing contemplative research,” says Adam Engle. “Now there are dozens.”
Many are sponsors of the upcoming International Symposia for Contemplative Studies, which will be held in Denver April 26-29. There will be two departures from previous dialogues: this one will accommodate a much larger audience, and the Dalai Lama will not be in attendance.
“We thought it was important to catalyze more interest in contemplative science, mainly through non-Dalai Lama-related programs,” says Diego Hangartner. “The conference will allow nonscience people to participate and will include other contemplative practices.” This is something the Dalai Lama wants to encourage, he says.
Though the upcoming conference marks a clear expansion into new territory, there are some who wonder if the continuing focus on neuroscience and mindfulness is pulling Mind and Life away from its original mission: to create a true collaboration between contemplatives and scientists. Alan Wallace questions whether the strong emphasis on neuroscience and cognitive science has left scientists and the public thinking that what happens in the mind is all about what happens in the brain, a premise he disagrees with. Wallace would like more scientists to reassess their basic assumptions about the nature of reality, some of which, he argues, have never been proven.
“Scientists have put too much emphasis on studying the brain and behavior. The mind remains unknown,” says Wallace.
Adam Engle, who recently retired as president of the Mind & Life Institute, expresses a similar concern. “The dominant view in modern science right now is that the mind is coextensive with the brain: if you know everything there is to know about the brain, then you’ll understand everything there is to know about the mind,” he says. “Well, that may or may not be true. It’s an open question. It may be the reverse.” He hopes that researchers will stay open to incorporating the first person perspective into their work, and that other aspects of Buddhist thought will influence scientific inquiry.
Engle also feels that scientists have not paid enough attention to making sure their research serves the goals of humanity. “What the Buddha tried to do,” he says, “was to investigate the nature of reality and the nature of the mind, and then use that understanding to provide a way out of delusion and suffering.” Engle says that if scientists want to explore the nature of suffering, a third person approach alone, without an ethic that considers the outcome of the research, won’t be enough.
Although much of the current research being funded through the Mind & Life Institute remains focused on neuroscience and cognitive science, Engle sees a future where the collaborations can flourish in other fields as well, such as religious studies, philosophy, and anthropology.
“We’ve gone through a period of specialization,” says Engle, “and I believe we’re starting to see the limitations of that, in terms of the effects.”
Arthur Zajonc, who as the new president of the Mind & Life Institute will be helping to chart its future course, is particularly interested in applications of contemplative practice in education. He is steering committee chair of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, an initiative of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society that works with professors in a range of academic disciplines in thousands of classrooms around the world.
“Not only can meditation be used in the classroom to reduce stress or increase attention,” Zajonc says, “but it can also help students have greater insight and make connections within the curriculum.” He points to how meditation can augment economics courses, where professors often use experiential exercises to teach students about the role of competition in distributing limited resources. According to classical economics, individuals will try to maximize their own profits at the expense of their competitors. But, Zajonc says, if professors first have their students practice a loving-kindness meditation before beginning the exercise, students shift their conduct to consider the needs of others.
It’s clear the goal is to expand Mind and Life’s reach—to wider audiences and new areas of collaboration. Although it will continue to organize private dialogues between the Dalai Lama and leading scientists, Zajonc, Hangartner, and Engle hope the upcoming conference and other public activities will help convince society that mental and emotional training programs are important for our future happiness, health, and social harmony.
“The investigation of the mind has been going on in the contemplative world for 2,500 years,” says Engle. “An incredible amount of wisdom and understanding has been developed, but it has been held by a relatively small number of people. We are only beginning to disseminate these insights to the wider population. That’s exciting.”