Marieke van Vugt
I am a neuroscientist studying memory and decision making using neural activity and computational models. In my free time, I am a dancer. I have been a student of Sogyal Rinpoche since approximately 1998. I am fascinated by the human mind and brain, and like to study it both from the first-person perspective (my own mind) and the third-person perspective (other people's minds).
Last fall I had the amazing opportunity to travel to India to participate in the Science for Monks programme. Science for monks is a project that has been established by the Library for Tibetan Works and Archives to teach monastic graduates (mostly geshes) about Western science. They have created this programme at the request of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Every year a group of monastic graduates from a wide range of monasteries all over India (this year even including some from Bhutan) travel to study together for a month and learn the basics of physics and neuroscience. The programme is mostly taught by faculty from the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco. However, towards the end of the programme, some scientists currently doing research are invited to share some of their latest findings. This is how I came in. I was requested to come to India to teach about my work on computational models of the mind and meditation. You can imagine I was pretty excited!
I attended the first European Mind & Life Summer Research Institute. These institutes are designed to bring together researchers, philosophers, practitioners, and clinicians to talk about how to engage in the science of contemplative practice. As pretty much all the previous Summer Research Institutes (that took place in the United States), this was quite an engaging and thought-provoking week.
The second day of the Meditation & Human Values in the Workplace conference moved from the individual to the organizational level. We started out by hearing from Federico Daini-Jôkô Procopio, a Zen monk who also works with many organizations and businesses. He opened our eyes to seeing our colleagues as marvelous human beings, rather than as ways to make profit. He also made the point that since we spend so much time at work, we may just as well try to make it a place to work with ourselves and eventually maybe to become buddhas. He invited us to see how actually from one moment to the next everything is possible, if you can just open your eyes. This way of seeing was really quite an eye-opener for me: maybe we can really try to see our organization or business as a place where people come together to develop their talents, and find themselves. Rather than focus on maximizing profit we could see business as a way to together contribute to society.
On the last day of the conference, Monique de Knop shared her experience in being a top manager in the Belgian government. She dissected what wisdom in the workplace really means. Being wise it not necessarily always being gentle. Actually, it is most importantly being solid and stable. She explained how she developed her wisdom by first listening to spiritual teachings, using her meditation as a laboratory to get to know her mind, finding mental calm, contemplating actions, and the finally acting from that ethic. This personal ethic is really important in bringing wisdom in an organization, but in addition you can manifest it in your actions. When you see your workers as a potential to be developed, rather than a resource to be used, then work can be a place where you develop yourself.
With economic crises and various corporate scandals under our belt you may wonder whether meditation and human values actually exist in the workplace. Right now a group of people is investigating this question in Lerab Ling. I am participating as one of the speakers in the conference on Meditation and Human Values in the Workplace, and the first day I already learned a lot.
Last summer, I was lucky enough to spend almost 2 months as a visiting scholar at the Mind & Life Visiting Scholar house in Amherst, Massachusetts. In this house, scientists come from all places in the world to work on projects related to contemplative science. I was there to work on a computational model of meditation practice. The aim of such a model is to build a bridge between western psychological theory and Buddhist psychological theory, and to derive testable predictions of the effects of meditation on cognition.
In addition to the First Mindfulness conference in Europe that I blogged about a little while ago, this year hosted another first: the European Symposium for Contemplative Studies organized by Mind & Life in Europe. This symposium took place in Berlin and its theme was the role of contemplative practice in relieving suffering for individuals and society.
Eating is a very touchy topic in our society (see also this recent article on WMRI). There are enormous social problems associated with addiction to food (listen for a discussion of this to Upaya's podcasts about Zen Brain). In fact, for many of us, food occupies a significant portion of our moment-to-moment thoughts. Can we bring some of our meditation wisdom to bear on this aspect of our lives?
If you are anything like me, you spend a good deal of time interacting with other people. Is it possible to integrate meditation in your interaction with others, and if so, what does it feel like? The attitude cultivated in meditation is one of openness, softness, and spaciousness. You can focus on the other person just like any other focus of meditation. This means that you are not focussing on something else, which is actually exceedingly rare these days. This in itself is already a large gift to the person you interact with, because we really see the other person, and don't we all spend a large portion of our time trying to be seen?
Many meditation retreats, such as the well-known 10-day vipassana retreats consist not only of sitting meditation but also include frequent periods of walking meditation. To the bystander these walking meditations look something like zombie apocalypse--making them not immediately suitable for practising them in daily life. But you can adapt these methods to make the times you are getting from one place to the other be moments of sanity in your otherwise busy day.