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Marieke van Vugt

How should we conduct research on contemplative science? News from the first European Mind & Life Summer Research Institute

Impression from European Mind & Life Summer Research Institute Impression from European Mind & Life Summer Research Institute

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 meeting took place on the beautiful Fraueninsel ("Women's Island"), somewhere in the middle between Munich and Salzburg. You can only get there by boat, making sure that everyone was already quite relaxed by the time they arrived. The meeting took place in a monastery where still 22 nuns are living. Our hostess, Frau Scholastika, welcomed us with a beautiful speech, saying that "the mind is open, the heart even more," and that the Benedictines receive every guest like they would receive Christ. What a wonderful welcome!

The first full day of the Summer Research Institute was dedicated to neurophenomenology, which is the combining of neuroscience with phenomenology to study experience, mind, consciousness according to one definition. However, Michel Bitbol argued that we need a much stronger definition in which it in itself is a method of contemplating the reality that transforms the contemplator. What do you do? You first suspend judgment of what you think things are, and then you turn your attention to the direct experience. As you really take this seriously and see how reality is much more complex and less graspable that you might have thought, then this should transform the way you live. Elena Antonova too argued that we should develop a feeling of groundlessness ourselves as neuroscientists such that we don't get stuck in asking the wrong questions. I think it is an interesting tension between our work of scientists, which is simplification, and making sure that we do nor over-simplify reality. That evening I presented a poster on my work on modeling meditation using computational models.

The second day was more about scientific findings rather than philosophical reflections on how to conduct science. Tania Singer presented some first findings from a large study on compassion she is running. She showed how compassion is distinctly different from empathy, where empathy is associated with negative feelings and pain and burnout, compassion is associated with positive feelings and good health. She also showed how people who say they are very pro-social are not actually so prosocial in their behavior! Olga Klimecki showed how compassion training increases helping behavior in an economic game, while working memory training does not. Antoine Lutz also shared a very precise model he is working on that can classify different types of meditation.

The third day of the meeting was devoted entirely to silence and meditation. I am sure that the nuns must have been thrilled! Tsoknyi Rinpoche taught about being not too much into our head and actually relaxing before opening ourselves up to the world. Fred von Allmen then encouraged us to investigate our experience: how do we react to different sounds and sights? How do we engage with the world when we exit the meditation hall? To end the day, Martine Batchelor explained about the mechanisms by which we project our likes and dislikes onto the world, rather than "creatively engaging" with it. She encouraged us to keep instead asking the question "what is this?" It was a very powerful exercise indeed. It made me really aware of how much time I spend thinking about "me," "my welfare" and so on.

After everyone had settled into the silence, it was time to return to the work of discussions and thinking. We focused on clinical applications next. Willem Kuyken reviewed the work on the application of mindfulness for depression. While initial findings were promising, a lot of work needs to be done on what are the active ingredients of this intervention, since it does just about as well as anti-depressant medication. A tantalizing finding was that self-compassion seemed to be involved in the beneficial effects of this intervention: as self-compassion increases, you become less depressed. He also showed how MBCT for parents seemed to reduce their reactivity to their kids, which may cause the kids to grow up much more mentally healthy, and thereby run less risk for depression. However, it's also important to be critical of our own results, as Paul Grossman cautioned, and to not be too much pressured by the current drive in science for quick and dirty results. Another interesting bit of the day was by Rupert Gethin and Stephen Batchelor, who brought in the ethical dimensions that were traditionally part of the practice: mindfulness is not about feeling better, but rather about not harming others. Stephen Batchelor even drew a parallel with the Western traditions of the Skeptics.

The last day of the meeting brough in even larger perspectives of what the function is of Mind and Life in Europe. Martijn van Beek gave a provocative talk about how we as scientists studying contemplation should aim to lead a vita contemplativa, a contemplative life. Only in that way can we be sure we do not lose the richness of the first-person, phenomenal experience of the practice when we try to capture it in our models and experiments. I think everyone agreed that Mind and Life is a really important community in our life, and helps to bring the humanity into the practice of science, and maybe even the practice of life!