Two Sciences of Mind

Barry Boyce reports on the dialogue between cutting-edge science and Buddhism’s 2500-year study of the mind.

Barry Boyce
1 September 2005
dalai lama neuroscience neuroplasticity mind and life institute science brain buddhism francisco varela eleanor rosch
Left: MRI of a head-section showing the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, the pons and medulla, and the cerebellum. Image by Mehau Kulyk / Science Photo Library.

In 1979, two cognitive scientists, Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch, and a computer scientist named Newcomb Greenleaf — all freshly minted Buddhists — organized what was to be a groundbreaking conference at The Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Recently established by Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the institute was designed to be a place where meditation traditions and western scholarship would meet on common ground.

The conference, entitled “Comparative Approaches to Cognition: Western and Buddhist,” would be an exciting convergence of East and West. While some participants remember it as stimulating in new and different ways, Rosch describes it as combative, an intellectual melee just short of chair-throwing. As she tells it, “We thought naively that the things we were discovering about mind through Buddhism were so meaningful and right-on that our colleagues would immediately want to sit down and discuss how this deep understanding of the mind fit into the various sciences. Wonderful things would happen. Instead, they looked at the thick reader we compiled, largely from Buddhist sources, and said, ‘What is this?’ When Francisco and the rest of us gave talks, they would say, ‘Huh?’ When the meditation sessions on the schedule failed to immediately provide the ‘information’ that they needed to ‘understand’ what we’d been saying, they reacted, ‘We’re at a conference and you’re asking us to sit here and do nothing?’ When it came time to discuss, they simply revolted. Clearly, we hadn’t gone where they were.” The Buddhism-science dialogue was off to a difficult start.

Francico Varela, the conference’s leading light, was a walking Buddhism-science dialogue. As an undergraduate student in biology in his native Chile in the early sixties, he had burst into the office of professor Humberto Maturana and blurted out that he wanted to study “the role of mind in the universe.” Maturana, always a free-thinker, replied, “My boy, you’ve come to the right place.” The professor became his mentor and allowed him to explore notions about mind and body incorporating ideas from French phenomenology. Varela went on to Harvard and proved he had no fear of detail by earning his Ph.D. for a study of information processing in insect retinas. He was sure his career would take off in Salvador Allende’s new Chile, but not long after he returned home, the political tides turned, and he had to flee Colonel Augusto Pinochet’s military regime with only $100 in his pocket.

Varela ended up back in the United States, and in 1974, at a point when he felt cast adrift, he encountered an old friend he had met while living in Boston, Jeremy Hayward, a physicist who was a student of Trungpa Rinpoche. Hayward arranged for Varela and Trungpa to meet, and when Varela let on that he was struggling to find what exactly to do, Trungpa Rinpoche offered to teach him how to “do nothing,” quite a feat for someone with a mind as active as Varela’s.

He took to meditation with a vengeance. He saw it as the means for inquiring into his favorite subject, “mind in the universe.” While behaviorism had long since thrown out subjective investigation as so much twaddle, Varela was determined, according to Eleanor Rosch, “to reinstate first-person experience as a source of scientific knowledge, and open scientific inquiry to methods such as meditation.”

When Rosch met Varela in the late seventies at one of Trungpa’s programs, she had just started practicing Buddhism. She had made some pioneering discoveries in the emerging field of cognitive psychology and, like Varela, she saw meditation as the ultimate research tool, the one she had been looking for all her life. The Naropa meeting whetted their appetites, but it left them wanting something more – and better.

dalai lama neuroscience neuroplasticity mind and life institute science brain buddhism francisco varela eleanor rosch
His Holiness the Dalai Lama and participants discuss neuroplasticity at the twelfth Mind and Life conference in Dharamsala, 2004. Photo (c) 2005 The Mind and Life Institute.

Meanwhile, the man whose name is now listed as Tenzin Gyatso at the top of the roster in every Mind and Life meeting was quietly having discussions with scientists every chance he got. His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama grew up in a place of extremely advanced learning that was nevertheless unblessed by the hand of Western science and technology. Yet every book, every vehicle, every machine, every device that came to him from the West while he was growing up became an object of intense curiosity, something to tear apart and put back together. The world of mechanisms was meeting the world of meditation.

When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 at age twenty-four, he quickly saw how much the Western scientific ethos dominated affairs in the larger world. He had some catching up to do. He was determined to learn more and test what he knew, having just passed the difficult examinations for the Geshe Lharampa degree, the equivalent of a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy.

Before the Dalai Lama became a celebrity and a Nobel Prize winner, he was a humble monk leading a country that didn’t have a seat at the United Nations. People didn’t defer to him the way they do now. Nevertheless, he was able to develop friendships with a number of prominent European scientists, who were quite kind to him and genuinely enjoyed his company as an interlocutor. One of the first was Carl von Weizsäcker, brother of the one-time president of West Germany and assistant to the quantum physics luminary Werner Heisenberg. For days at a time, von Weizsäcker would sit with the Dalai Lama tutoring him on quantum physics and its philosophical implications. His Holiness also had the good fortune to befriend the physicist David Bohm, who had spent a great deal of time with Krishnamurti. His Holiness carried on a decades-long conversation with Bohm that, in his words, “fueled my thinking about the ways Buddhist methods of inquiry may relate to those used in modern science.” He also developed a close relationship with Sir Karl Popper, the most prominent philosopher of science. He learned from Popper’s teachings how the logic of science relied on abstraction, usually in mathematical form, and instrumentation (microscopes, telescopes, etc.). By contrast, the logic of Buddhism relied on natural language and examples drawn from unmediated personal experience.

Not all of the Dalai Lama’s interactions with science were so positive. In 1979, while Varela was wrestling with the crowd at Naropa, the Dalai Lama faced a hostile clutch of scientists at a conference in Russia, where one of them felt he was postulating the existence of a soul. If this dialogue was going to get off the ground, someone clearly had to draw up better terms of engagement.

For his part, Varela was determined not to repeat what had occurred at the Naropa meeting, so he set down some guidelines for any future meeting about Buddhism and science: participants must not only be knowledgeable, they must have something to contribute and be open to dialogue. It would be a few more years, but he would get the chance to organize the kind of meeting he envisioned, and the Dalai Lama would be the one to make the difference. In 1983, now back in Chile, Varela traveled to a conference on science and spirituality in Austria, where he ended up sitting next to the Dalai Lama, who peppered him with questions about the brain. They were kindred spirits – a meditator who had come to science and a scientist who had come to meditation. They vowed to talk again.

In 1985, Varela heard from his friend Joan Halifax of a plan hatched by businessman and Buddhist Adam Engle to hold a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and scientists about the shared ground between Buddhism and modern physics. Varela persuaded Engle that brain science would be a better place to start and they formed a partnership that led to the first Mind and Life meeting, “Dialogues between Buddhism and Cognitive Science,” held in Dharamsala, India, in October 1987.

Varela was the scientific coordinator for the meeting, and he developed a template that called for a small, committed group of participants, each of whom would make a presentation on a different aspect of a topic area. Discussion would be facilitated by the coordinator and the Dalai Lama would be an active participant throughout. This has been the format, with minor variation, for all twelve of the Mind and Life dialogues that have been held to date.

Several years after the first Mind and Life meeting, Varela found himself tromping around the mountains and caves above Dharamsala. He was there in an effort sanctioned by the Dalai Lama to use sophisticated instruments to measure what was going on when yogis meditated. His partner in that effort, Richard Davidson, was – and is – a leading authority on the relationship between brain and emotion and a pioneer in developing and applying techniques for measuring brain activity. He holds several academic chairs in psychology and psychiatry and is the director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Richie Davidson, as he likes to be known, has long been interested in trying to demonstrate scientifically what meditation might do. In the early seventies, he was a Harvard colleague of Daniel Goleman, who would go on to become a champion of the principle of “emotional intelligence” and write a best-seller by that name. In their Harvard days, Davidson and Goleman co-authored a paper that argued that training attention through meditation would create “lasting and beneficial psychobiological changes.” While a layperson can rely on anecdotes and personal reports to determine whether or not there are “beneficial changes,” a scientist needs hard data.

Fortunately, as Davidson’s career progressed, so did the science on brain function. The Society of Neuroscience, only established in 1970, would go on to become the largest and fastest-growing society in all of experimental biology. By the late eighties, neuroscientists were taking very detailed pictures of brain activity, and by the late nineties they were taking videos. Because of such advances in brain-imaging technology, researchers could now gather hard data about the beneficial effects of meditation. Talking about such data was one of the primary focuses of the 2000 Mind and Life conference, coordinated by Goleman, with Davidson, Varela, Paul Ekman, another prominent emotion researcher, and others in attendance. The results of that meeting, and a follow-up session the next year at Davidson’s lab, are the subject of Goleman’s book, Destructive Emotions.

Researchers in Davidson’s lab have been able to chart brain activity in meditators in a way that has never been done before, primarily by using a functional MRI, which videotapes brain function (unlike the standard MRI, which only takes snapshots). They combine this information with data from an electroencephalograph (EEG), which measures electrical activity at the surface of the brain. While the EEG technician at your local hospital might attach several dozen sensors to a patient’s head, in Davidson’s lab they use up to 256. The raw EEG data is enhanced by software that triangulates from the sensors and reports on activity not only on the surface but deep within the brain. Davidson told me recently that his goal is to “establish through scientific research the validity of methods that have been developed in Buddhism for 2,500 years.” Through objective verification of their benefits, Davidson believes, “these practices could gain wider acceptance both in the mainstream culture and the medical community.”

Davidson’s team and his collaborators have done two types of studies, one with people first learning to meditate and another with extremely experienced and adept practitioners. In the first kind of study, they are trying to find out what benefits accrue for someone whose meditation is regular but of limited duration. Jon Kabat-Zinn has done extensive research into the health benefits of mindfulness meditation and has long been involved with Mind and Life, so Davidson collaborated with him on a recent study of workers in a high-tech company who took a two-month training program in meditation. It showed significant changes in brain activity, declines in anxiety, and beneficial changes in immune function.

The study of what Davidson calls “the Olympic athletes of meditation,” those who have done from 10,000 to 55,000 hours of practice, is intended to show “what the limits of human plasticity are.” When Davidson began his career, he couldn’t get much traction because the brain was treated as a computer by the reigning behaviorist view. The brain is now known to grow and change based on how it is used. So Davidson asks, “What does very intensive training do to the mind? We’ve come to appreciate the value of physical training, but we have not given the same kind of attention to the mind. In our work, we now view happiness and compassion as skills that can be trained. When we look at advanced practitioners, we are stretching how people think about the furthest reaches of human development.”

Among other findings, Davidson’s work has shown that meditators can regulate their cerebral activity, yielding more focus and composure. By contrast, most untrained subjects asked to focus on an object cannot limit their mental activity to a single task. The monks who had practiced the longest showed the greatest brain changes, leading Davidson to think that they may have effected permanent changes. His most intriguing results have come from observing advanced practitioners meditating on compassion. The brain changes observed during this practice seem to show that intensively generating goodwill produces indicators of an extreme state of well-being. While the sources of all kinds of disorders and dysfunctions have been studied extensively, there is almost no literature on what these scientists sometimes call “healing emotions.”

Paul Ekman, unlike Davidson and Kabat-Zinn, has had no long-term interest in meditators or meditation. Ekman, who recently retired as the head of the Human Interaction Laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco, studied the emotions for fifty years. He more or less stumbled into his recent involvement in studying meditators. “It all started with the meeting in Dharamsala,” he recently told me. “I only went to the meeting because my daughter had lived in a Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal and was very moved by the cause. I thought it would be a great treat for her to meet the Dalai Lama. Now, having met the Dalai Lama myself, I’ve developed an interest in what he’s doing, for what I can learn both as a person and as a scientist.

“When I completed my training 45 years ago, my supervisor said, ‘If you can increase the gap between impulse and action, you will benefit your patient.’ He didn’t know that’s a straight Buddhist view: the spark before the flame. That may be a place where through practices of one kind or another, it may be possible to do what nature did not intend for you to do, to become a spectator of yourself and decide whether you want to go along with it, and if so in what fashion.” Some think this convergence of neuroscientific thinking and Buddhist teachings is extraordinary. In the abhidharma (sometimes called “Buddhist psychology”) one is said to solidify experience through a chain of twelve mental events known as the nidanas. Some masters teach that the chain can be broken at the moment between “craving” and “attachment,” and unconditioned, open experience can occur in that gap.

Ekman says that “Increasing the gap between impulse and action is very unusual emotional behavior, but based on the studies I’ve done with a few monks, I believe that is something they can achieve. What these extraordinary people can do shows us the outer limit of what humans are capable of.”

As a result of the 2000 Mind and Life meeting and at the behest of the Dalai Lama, Ekman agreed to launch the Extraordinary Persons Project. His main subject in a precursor to this project was someone who has also been studied extensively in Davidson’s lab, the monk and fellow Mind and Life interlocutor Matthieu Ricard. A long-time meditator, Ricard served for twelve years as aide and translator for the great Dzogchen master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

Ekman’s specialty, developed over years of painstaking study of minute movements of the face, is the Facial Action Coding System, a method of cataloging emotions based on minute changes in facial muscles, such as raising the inner eyebrows, tightening the eyelids, or lowering the corners of the mouth. How well someone can detect such microexpressions is regarded as an indication of empathy, as well as a skill that enables one to uncover deception and ill-intent. Consequently, Ekman has been vigorously sought out to help law enforcement and anti-terror agencies.

Ekman was curious to see whether meditators, who might be expected to be more attentive and conscientious, would do well at detecting lightning-fast changes in facial expressions. When presented with a videotape showing a fleeting series of facial expressions that one must correlate with an emotion, Ricard and another meditator scored higher than any of the five thousand other people tested. As reported in Destructive Emotions, Ekman said, “They do better than policemen, lawyers, psychiatrists, customs officials, judges – even Secret Service Agents,” the group that had previously held top honors.

Ekman also decided to test whether Ricard could alter the startle reflex, the physiological response to a sudden loud noise. Following standard procedure, the researchers told the subject that they would count down from ten to one, at which point a loud noise would go off, the equivalent of a pistol fired near one’s ear. “I documented that Matthieu was able to focus his attention using a meditative practice so as to minimize any sign he had been startled,” Ekman says. He told the Dalai Lama, “I thought it was an enormous long shot that anyone could choose to prevent this very primitive, very fast reflex.”

What Ekman and Davidson have discovered in their research has nothing to do with holding a Buddhist worldview. For his part, Davidson says, “I am a hard-nosed Western neuroscientist. The level of description of mind and the level of description of brain are very different, but I also believe that mind depends on brain and without brain there is no mind.” While in Buddhism, mind transcends embodiment, as evidenced by reincarnation, in neuroscience mind or consciousness is considered an “emergent property”; it just pops up where there are brains.

In Buddhism, emotions such as the “three poisons” – aggression, clinging, and delusion – are generally talked about as something to counteract or transcend. Ekman talks about emotions in Darwinian terms, as adaptations to the environment. They allow us to operate automatically, pre-thought. Ekman says, for example, that what he would call “fear” is required to be able to maintain the state necessary to react when driving at high speeds on a freeway. You could spend a long time talking about whether fear is good or not, but Ekman feels “it is not very helpful to just use words, because we may be using them in very different ways. We need to rely on examples. That’s what I try to do in the dialogues.”

Ekman and Davidson and the Buddhists they’ve been talking to seem not at all focused on who’s right and who’s wrong. The methodologies of science and Buddhism are mutually respected. For example, the fact that the notion of “mood” appears to have no formal place in Buddhist teachings and yet is a widely used notion by laypeople, clinicians, and researchers in the West is leading both Buddhist teachers and scientists to think about how they study and teach. In today’s Buddhism and science dialogue, insights are not so bound up with authorship. Who discussed the virtue of having “elasticity of mind”? The Buddha? No. Charles Darwin, in The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals.

dalai lama neuroscience neuroplasticity mind and life institute science brain buddhism francisco varela eleanor rosch brain cells micrograph cortex mammalian brain star-shaped cells astrocytes
Immunoflorescent light micrograph of brain cells from the cortex of a mammalian brain. The star-shaped cells, astocytes, provide support and nutrition to nerve cells, and may also play a role in information storage.

Matthieu Ricard started his professional life as a molecular biologist. Now, after many decades as a monk, his molecules have become the subject of study for biologists. His discussions with physicist Trinh Xuan Thuan, published as The Quantum and the Lotus, and his vigorous give-and-take with his father, the renowned philosopher Jean-François Revel, published as The Monk and the Philosopher (a best-seller in France) demonstrate his ability to discuss Buddhist understanding deftly outside the context of Buddhism. This has made him an ideal participant in Mind and Life dialogues and a laboratory subject who can report his subjective experience with scalpel-like precision.

Ricard is concerned that the average person is afraid of the mind, and that this fear is taking a great social toll. If you ask someone to look into their mind, he says, “A surprisingly common reaction is ‘I don’t want to look into my mind. I’m afraid of what I’m going to find there.’” He feels that many people may find the notion of meditation and working with the mind more attractive if they can see that “we vastly underestimate the magnitude of change that is possible. If studies can provide robust evidence for the effect of mind training, that will be of great value to society.”

When his father the philosopher challenges superstition in Buddhism, Ricard makes a strong case that contrary to popular belief, Buddhists do rely on verifiability. Buddhists are asked to examine what they have been taught and they commonly trust what they are told by a teacher by “evaluating all sides of their character.” He says that faith has a place in life, but not blind faith. The average person is constantly holding beliefs because “they accept the competence of those who provide the information.” He believes that “many people need to hear information about meditation from people they deem competent.” His book The Case for Happiness, now being translated into English, is part of that campaign. “I am willing,” he says, “to take a few trips a year to the States from Nepal to spend a few weeks on this research. It is time well spent, if I can serve as a bridge between worlds. The culture is training people’s minds in one direction right now. They need to see that another direction is possible.”

In his concluding statement in The Quantum and the Lotus, Ricard says that one of the main reasons that “science has been led into a dialogue with Buddhism” is the dilemma that has emerged through quantum mechanics and relativity of “trying to reconcile the apparent reality of the macrocosm with the disappearance of solid reality as soon as we enter the world of particles.” Arthur Zajonc (rhymes with science), editor of The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama, is a physicist who has peered, at times side by side with the Dalai Lama, into the topsy-turvy world that lies far beneath the naked eye.

Zajonc notes that there is a kind of natural kinship between Buddhism and neuroscience, since Buddhism has had so much to say about the mind and can provide reliable evidence of effectiveness. “When you switch over to the physical sciences,” he says, “you are in a very different territory.” Buddhism could be said to offer a science of the mind, but there is nothing in Buddhism that looks much like the highly mathematical world of Western physics. If physics were limited to predicting what happens when a hammer hits a nail, there wouldn’t be much to talk about, but because physicists since Einstein have strayed into looking into the nature of reality, it engages the philosophical side of Buddhism and doctrines like emptiness of inherent nature and codependent origination. The philosophical convergences lead to seminars like “Quantum Nonlocality & Emptiness in Madhyamika Prasangika,” recently presented by physics professor Vic Mansfield as part of the Namgyal Buddhism and Science Dialogue.

Referring to a meeting in 1998 with the Dalai Lama at the Institute for Experimental Physics at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, Zajonc says, “We really worked on the nature of reality, why things look the way they look, when deep down they are actually quite different.” This question relates to two “problems” in modern physics. The first is the nonlocality problem: in the so-called “macro” world, we think of objects as discrete and unconnected, but at the quantum level, there really are no objects; everything is intimately connected with everything else. The second is the measurement problem: at the quantum level, the data that comes back to you is completely different depending on the question. It’s as if you were to ask a person, “Are you a boy?” and they say yes, but when you ask, “Are you a girl?” they also say yes. This kind of breakdown in logic has caused physicists to regard the quantum arena as random, despite Einstein’s retort that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Buddhists and cosmologists can also get into a tangle on the beginning of the universe, since Buddhists are into beginninglessness. At the same time, notions of time seem to provide a point of convergence, since many Buddhist teachings upset conventional notions of time in the same way as the principle of relativity does.

Just like the mind scientists, Zajonc does not seem motivated by figuring out who’s right. In his book, he describes many points in dialogues when everyone breaks into peals of spontaneous laughter. “It’s amazing,” Zajonc says. “It literally breaks you up. It breaks up your ideas and leaves a kind of humor. Nonlocality, randomness, interdependence – these are like quantum koans. If you try to think them out in a conventional way, you will fail. Sometimes I think one needs a new level of insight to be able to put your mind around them. Furthermore, our technological advancement far outstrips our ethical development, our capacity to make sound judgments about what we’ve unleashed.”

On this point, Zajonc is passionate. “At the beginning of our scientific revolution,” he says, “there was division of labor. Science would take care of natural knowledge. All ethical considerations would be given to the church. The yogi knows that this is not actually possible. Knowledge brings power. As a scientist, you have the power, but you should also know the value of interconnectedness. When the genetic researcher Eric Lander was in dialogue with the Dalai Lama, he was struck when the Dalai Lama asked about the intention behind it all. Science has an ethic of leaving intention out of the picture, but with the nuclear problem and biotechnology, we find ourselves with moral dilemmas that our Enlightenment worldview is not fully able to handle.

“Our knowledge cannot be so object-oriented. In contemplative traditions like Buddhism, knowledge is insight-oriented. You don’t ingest units of knowledge; you transform how you see reality. If we educated people in a way that transformed their experience rather than just filled them with information, it would be an enormous help, but we tend not to. We have examples in the West, such as Goethe’s attempt to develop a contemplative science of insight, but the Buddhists have been doing it that way for a couple thousand years.”

Eleanor Rosch is skeptical about the Buddhism and science dialogue. She thinks it may be heading in an unhelpful direction. “For many it’s not a dialogue,” she says. “There’s a frenzy about this kind of thing. I get frequent e-mails from people who want to study meditation from the scientific point of view so they can ‘get rid of all that mystical Eastern stuff and find out what’s really going on’ – by which they mean neurons firing in the brain and similar functions. Then there are Buddhists who want to ‘prove’ that meditation ‘works.’ Often research shows more about the preconceptions of the researchers and audience than it does about the mind. For example, what metaphysical beliefs might you harbor that would make you wildly excited to learn that when people pay attention in meditation, they show the same pattern of brain activity as when they pay attention anywhere else? Rather than scientists and Buddhists stretching their minds together, I see Buddhism frequently colonized as a feel-good, flat-abs caricature of itself no different from any other materialist reductionist doctrine.

“I respect the Dalai Lama’s desire to establish a universal ethic of compassion by means of science,” she continues, “but given the present world dynamic, is allying Buddhism with the extremes of secular rationalism the way to do that? People ignore good science all the time. Buddhism might offer something unique to religious polarization: a middle way of spirituality beyond ego. It can stimulate religions to excavate the contemplative and meditative paths in their own heritages, such as the Jewish meditation movement and Christian centering prayer. What people really need is to find deeper contemplative experience before their competing thought systems lead them into a massive conflagration.”

Matthieu Ricard would respectfully disagree with Rosch about the value of the dialogue and the direction of the research. “I don’t see that what we are doing affects Buddhism negatively. We are not making Buddhism-lite. I am very disturbed when that happens. Buddhism remains Buddhism. We are simply offering food. To offer someone food that we know how to produce and that they need now, we don’t have to turn them into horticultural specialists.” As far as reductionism goes, Ricard contends that “No one doing sound science could gain any support for the reductionist viewpoint from what we’re doing. You can never answer the question of who decided to meditate on compassion in the first place. That is beyond the scope of scientific research.”

Questions about fortifying materialistic thinking and the possibility of co-opting Buddhism will undoubtedly remain. Some will question whether this dialogue helps in the development of a genuine contemplative tradition, as Arthur Zajonc seems to believe, or may lead us away from it, as Eleanor Rosch suggests. But the research will go on. Grant applications for research at prominent institutions like the National Institutes of Health, MIT, and Princeton that contain “mindfulness” or “meditation” are no longer scoffed at, and research centers focusing on meditation are likely to spring up.

Alan Wallace, a former Buddhist monk who studied with Arthur Zajonc, has been an interpreter and an active participant in every Mind and Life conference. He is also the author of the anthology Buddhism and Science and recently founded the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. The institute has picked up on work that Paul Ekman was doing at the behest of the Dalai Lama on “cultivating emotional balance,” and is training schoolteachers, nurses, and other health professionals in “secularized meditation” techniques and other forms of working with emotions. The Mindful Attention Program will study whether meditation can aid people with attention deficiency hyperactivity disorder. Finally, the Shamatha Project will observe people meditating in a special facility over the course of a year.

Paul Ekman, who is on the board of the Santa Barbara Institute, is excited about this study, but he says, it’s the “second-best study.” The best study, he says, would be “to do something like what was done in the famous studies of cardiac disease, where they started with 4,000 people. If we started to look at 4,000 teenagers in the Bay Area, and studied them every few years, inevitably some of them would get involved with meditation. We would have known what they were like and who it was who got involved. Then, we would follow them for the next twenty-five years. That is the research that needs to be done.

“The only problem with the Santa Barbara Institute study is that people willing to spend a year in a meditative retreat are not Buddhist virgins. We’ll see what changes over time, and we’ll see what their nervous systems and their emotional lives are like at the start and how they change. We’ll learn a lot from it. But I would have liked to have seen them twenty years earlier, to find out what they were like before they got involved, and what it was that got them involved. Someday, someone will do that. It takes dedicating a lifetime to it. My mentor did a forty-year study of hypertension. It takes a career to do it. People who have been influenced by Buddhism, I would think, would be more willing than others to dedicate the time, since they are less preoccupied with their own cravings for glory and recognition.”

On March 24, 2000, Francisco Varela took the floor in the Dalai Lama’s meeting hall to give the last of his many presentations in the dialogue between Buddhists and scientists that he had done so much to get started. On the verge of tears, in his gestures and soft words he implicitly thanked the Dalai Lama for making it possible for him to be there. Several years earlier, when he was dying of cancer, he had been ambivalent about receiving a liver transplant. Suddenly he received a fax from the Dalai Lama encouraging him to prolong his life. Now, although frail, he was back in action, flashing a PowerPoint slide onto the screen. He made the case for Buddhists and neuroscientists to collaborate for the good of the human race, a case he had been making for more than twenty years, since a time when there were few people actually called neuroscientists, a time when people were laughing him out of the building. By the time the proceedings were published, he would be dead, but the movement he helped to start flourishes.

Barry Boyce

Barry Boyce

A longtime meditation practitioner and teacher, as well as a professional writer and editor, Barry Boyce is the editor of and a primary contributor to the book The Mindfulness Revolution: Leading Psychologists, Scientists, Artists, and Meditation Teachers on the Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life. He also worked with Congressman Tim Ryan on his books A Mindful Nation and The Real Food Revolution. Barry is also co-author of The Rules of Victory, a commentary on the strategic principles that underlie Sun Tzu’s Art of War.