Each day had a specific topic: Friday was on Empathy & Compassion as the Basis of the Human, Care and Therapeutic Relationship, Saturday’s focus was on taking care of ourselves as a first step towards being a care giver, and Sunday was focused on compassionate caring for others. In each session you might have one of the leading scientific researchers presenting the latest results, applied methods presented by a cutting edge doctor and personal reflection or meditation lead by an experienced Buddhist practitioner. Sogyal Rinpoche gave a keynote speech on the first and last day.
In addition to attending the conference, Andy Fraser and I teamed up to conduct interviews with about a half dozen of the speakers, which will gradually get posted on the blog over the coming weeks.
One thing that I noticed is that the depth of understanding that the scientists and doctors have about traditional Buddhist practice is much greater than in years past. This is resulting in a healthy and fruitful dialog about what in Buddhism naturally can be adapted for use in a secular context and what is actually religious.
In fact, I had some pretty interesting informal (i.e. not recorded for the blog) conversations with several of the speakers about this. For example, is believing in reincarnation an important part of Buddhist practice? Of course, this gets us into the deep end of the pool almost immediately. It usually takes many years of philosophical study and practice to really understand what a Buddhist master means by the word “reincarnation”, since basic philosophy refutes the idea of an independent self or soul (a point that many modern scientists would agree with).
Another topic of discussion was around the capacity of a being to be aware of their own awareness as a product of evolution. For example, light was a naturally occurring phenomena even before biological organisms evolved to have an “eye organ” that could sense it. Is the capacity for awareness of one’s own natural awareness (a crucial step in the most profound systems of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice) the result of biological evolution? I remember discussing these topics with scientists twenty-five years ago and finding that no one actually thought that awareness was an interesting aspect of an organism to study.
There is a lot more to say and many posts to say it in. So for now, we’ll just let one of the speakers say how they found the conference: Paul Gilbert, OBE head of the Mental Health Research Unit, and Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Derby, where he developed Compassion Focused Therapy for people with high shame and self-criticism. He makes the point about how crucial it is for care givers, trained for caring for others, to also learn how to care for themselves.
More videos from the 2013 Buddhism and Medicine Forum