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Marieke van Vugt

Mapping my mind: a summer doing contemplative science

At work at the Scholar's House At work at the Scholar's House

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.

The moment I arrived in Amherst with my heavy suitcase, I felt very much at home. After spending the day trying to get myself organized (groceries, bike, ID card, and so on), the group of scholars was welcomed in a Welcome Reception at the House (as we affectionately called it). Many scholars from the region came to greet us, and chat with us, which was a wonderful way to arrive there, and make connections. That was only the beginning of my stay at the wonderful house, which is a very inspiring place. Situated somewhere on the rim of the quaint Amherst College campus, it is a beautiful house with spacious offices, a library, kitchen, dining room, living room to have meetings, and, last but not least, a meditation hall. During my work there, it would not be uncommon for me to spend some time programming on my model, then feel like "how does this work," go to the meditation room to check in my own meditation practice how this component of the model might work, and then go back to my computer.

After only a few days, it was time for the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute, a yearly meeting of scientists and practitioners about how we can study contemplative practices scientifically. This meeting is one of my favorite meetings of the year, because it combines contemplative practice and science quite seamlessly. Every day, we start with an hour of yoga and an hour of meditation practice, after which the science starts (not too infrequently during breakfast ;-)). It is also a place where I get to hang out with some of my role models, such as Richard Davidson, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Roshi Joan Halifax, Barry Kerzin, and many others. This year, the contemplative part of the meeting was led by Roshi Joan Halifax and Tsoknyi Rinpoche, who were a hilarious team together (see this video for an impression of Tsoknyi Rinpoche on this blog). Who knew that meditation could be so fun? We devoted an entire day to silence and meditation, in which we switched from focusing on concepts about meditation to our own mind. For the first time at these meetings, we spent a lot of time talking about the Western neurosis of wounded love; how Westerners tend to be unable to just simply love without condition--we are conditioned to always strive for something extra, we can never relax in it being enough. I think investigating the role of meditation or contemplative practice in dealing with this issue is a very important direction for future research. 

From Buddhist scholars such as Thupten Jinpa and Maria Heim, we learned about the Abhidhammic conception of the mind and its associated component processes. What surprised me was how much the different scholars actually disagreed about these matters (it's almost like Western psychology!). Other fascinating talks included one by Sara McClintock on the character-forming qualities transmitted by story-telling, Richard Davidson presented some interesting work on mind wandering (how can we measure that experimentally in meditators?). Young scholars presented some very creative studies, such as one by Paul Condon, who looked at how likely participants in a mindfulness study were to yield their seat for a wounded person in the waiting room. I am actually amazed that he found that after a mindfulness course, willingness to yield their seat was increased, although those prosocial qualities were not taught explicitly during the course.
Practising at the Scholar's House
In short, the Summer Research Institute was a wonderful and exciting place to get myself in "contemplative science mode." I then went back to the scholar's house in Amherst, where I got to hang out with some amazing fellow scholars. My office mate was Silke Rupprecht, who does some very nice work on training school teachers with mindfulness to provide them with more emotional skills. We spent a good deal of time discussing the intricacies of our respective work (click here for a further list of scholars and their bios/projects). Going to work at the house every day was a tremendous joy. Using the meditation room to clarify my thoughts and ideas about meditation was just a great experience! And where else do you get to study Abhidhamma for your work? That in itself was interesting, because I found out that (at least in my interpretation) Abhidhamma gives a very detailed picture of what goes on in your mind at any particular moment, but it is less focused on how one moment gives rise to the next. And this process is exactly what I'm trying to focus on in my model! Thinking about processes is actually quite hard, and maybe that's why we have to simulate them on the computer, to see what their implications are. Overall, the summer was very exciting, but way too short. Luckily, I did have some time to go on retreat myself, and ditch my computer for about 2 weeks, before the academic year started again.

For more information about the Summer Research institute and about my work in Amherst, check out Mind & Life's excellent new newsletter.