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!
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.
Whether we're long-term meditators or just getting started, we invest time out of our day to meditate because we believe or have experienced that meditation has benefits. Some of us may experience this as increased focus, others as decreased stress. What we may not be aware of, however, is the extent of the benefits that meditation can have. Recent scientific research shows that it can improve both our physical and mental health in surprising and significant ways. Not only can it sharpen our attention skills and lower our stress - as we would expect - but it can also boost our memory, increase our feelings of happiness, make us more compassionate to others, strengthen our immune function and make us more resilient! It even has the capacity to change our brain structure in beneficial ways. Of course, many of us know there is a certain intangible aspect to meditation that research may never be able to fully capture. However, the growing field of meditation research provides sufficient data to keep us inspired to continue with our daily practice! Below is an info graphic that summarizes some of the benefits research is showing:
Clifford Saron, PhD at UC Davis, is a pioneer of Meditation Scientific research. His ambitious Shamatha Project where they randomly assigned 60 healthy people with prior meditation experience to an intensive 3-month meditation retreat or a control group.
What many people might not know is that Dr. Saron is a meditator himself. At the Buddhsim and Medicine Forum, I asked him if being a meditator influences him as a scientist. He proceeded to give a fascinating account of crucial events from his childhood up to the present day have contributed to his work.
I just downloaded the new, absolutely free eBook, edited by Tania Singer and Matthias Bolz. Believe me when I say, you gots to get this! It’s called Compassion: Bridging Practice and Science it is the result of a workshop organized by Dr. Singer in the atelier of Olafur Eliasson and included some of the world’s top Buddhist scholars and teachers, scientists and representative from the best places doing compassion based training and research.
Doctors, Nurses and care givers of all kinds often report that they go through periods of apathy, hopelessness, anxiety and depression in response to constant exposure to human suffering. This is sometimes referred to as “Compassion Fatigue”. Even being exposed to lost of negative stories in the news can trigger symptoms in people. So what is going on?
Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo’s compelling new documentary “Free the Mind” is not only transformatively moving but informative and hopeful. There's something restorative about watching the gentle, compassionate story highlighting the use of the non-pharmacological methods of mindfulness, yoga and meditation to overcome the anxiety and trauma suffered by the film’s subjects.
The fourth installment of the Buddhism and Medicine series of conferences, a grand experiment bringing together Buddhist Masters, Doctors and Scientists, took place from May 31st through June 2nd at the Lerab Ling Buddhist Retreat Center in France. This year’s forum topic was “Compassion, Empathy and Health” and was attended by over 800 people.
In our previously posted video conversation with Adam Engle, co-founder of the Mind and Life Institute we spoke about the emerging field of emotional/mental fitness. In this video, we discuss whether the traditional goal of profound spiritual transformation, popularly referred to as enlightenment, has any role to play in the new emotional/mental fitness industry.
Co-founder and former Chairman of the Mind and Life Institute R. Adam Engle has thought pretty deeply about what ancient contemplative practices have to offer the modern world. He argues that most of the biggest problems in the world and for individuals are made by human beings. But recent developments in contemplative science are paving the way for a transformation in the way we view ourselves and our relationship to the world that could be a powerful force for positive global change.
Last May, Adam and I sat down and spoke for almost three hours. Frankly, it was one of the most fascinating conversations I had all year. At a certain point, I asked if I could turn on a camera and here is a fraction of what went down. More to come…