The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation
In the early 1990s, shortly after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama sat down for a five-day dialogue with a group of ten Western scientists and one philosopher of mind, seeking a scientific perspective on what Buddhism calls the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion — the primary classes of emotion that cause us to harm ourselves and those around us. The wide-ranging conversation, the synthesis of which was later published as Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, aimed to bridge ancient spiritual practices and modern findings in biology, cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience in an effort to reveal the human mind’s capacity to transcend its own fundamental flaws.
The first public dialogue, Mind and Life XI, held September 13 and 14, 2003, at MIT, was cosponsored by the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. It was entitled “Investigating the Mind: Exchanges between Buddhism and Bio-behavioral Science” and featured a range of neuroscientists, psychologists, and scholars. It was documented in the book The Dalai Lama at MIT, edited by Anne Harrington and Arthur Zajonc. The very fact that the conference took place at MIT was itself historic, a major and early public acknowledgment of the confluence of these diverse ways of investigating the mind and the world.
In this volume, the convergence of science and the contemplative traditions is represented by the coming together of highly regarded and experienced practitioners in both worlds to meet in conversation on the topic “The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation.” A gathering of this scope and magnitude would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Yet it came to pass in 2005, arising from an earlier and equally unthinkable public meeting held at MIT, and from a stream of smaller invitational meetings that have taken place since 1987 under the auspices of the Mind and Life Institute and with the abiding interest and enthusiastic engagement of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is widely known that the Dalai Lama has had a lifelong passion for science and its potential, with all its attendant limits, for contributing to a deep understanding of natural phenomena and an elucidation of the nature of things.
As a consequence, the Dalai Lama has been engaging scientists both privately and publicly his entire life. At first, the Mind and Life meetings took place in private, usually at the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, India. They were conceived as a kind of tutorial for His Holiness to familiarize himself with various domains of science that he was particularly interested in but had never had the occasion to study as part of his traditional education as a Buddhist monk, especially given his unique life situation from the age of two as the recognized incarnation of the previous Dalai Lama, and thus the titular leader of all Tibetan Buddhists, as well as the leader of the Tibetan people.
In the early Mind and Life meetings, it rapidly became clear that His Holiness’s grasp of the concepts and experiments being described to him was that of a natural-born scientist. He was often out ahead of the explanations, asking cogent questions and anticipating the next experiments. Moreover, it quickly became evident that the scientists involved were at least as profoundly affected by this modest Buddhist monk as he was by them. Thus, the Mind and Life Dialogues became an ongoing mutual exploration of some of the most profound questions facing humanity in terms of science, ethics, and morality, such as:
The nature of mind,
The nature of the universe and our place in it,
The nature of reality, and
The potential for the healing and transformation of afflictive emotions into more positive mental states, leading to greater health, harmony, happiness, and possibly both inner and outer peace.
Over the years, these dialogues have included psychologists and neuroscientists, physicians and philosophers, physicists, molecular biologists, and educators, and also contemplatives and monastics from various Buddhist lineages as well as other spiritual traditions. Increasingly, more Tibetan monks and nuns have joined as observers and students of these dialogues as a result of His Holiness’s efforts to promote a greater exposure to the modern scientific worldview within the monastic community. Each meeting has resulted in a book describing the proceedings and capturing, in large measure and each in its own unique way, the excitement and power of open minds in true dialogue, together exploring fundamental questions of potentially profound import to the modern world.
The closing chapter of this book, The Mind's Own Physician, will summarize some of the exciting new developments that have taken place in the science and clinical applications of meditation in the intervening years. In 2005, the field was still young. Six years later, we could say that is still very much the case. Yet so much more work is now being done in the field as meditation in general and mindfulness-based interventions specifically have become recognized lines of research and authentic career-building trajectories for young clinicians and basic scientists. Because of the rate at which the field is advancing, almost twice as many papers were published in 2010 as in 2005. Thus, the 2005 meeting both took a reading of the status of the field at that time and helped define some of the promise that seems to have propelled it forward.
Since the time of the meeting, a new professional journal called Mindfulness has appeared (2010), as well as a website that offers a comprehensive listing of all research papers on mindfulness, including a monthly bulletin with updated listings Mindfulness Research Monthly. Moreover, several premier journals have devoted either special issues or special sections to mindfulness (for example, Emotion in 2010, Journal of Clinical Psychology in 2009, and Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy in 2009), and it is likely that more are in the pipeline. Of considerable note is that one of the professional journals that has devoted a special issue to the topic of mindfulness isn’t a scientific publication at all but a journal dedicated primarily to Buddhist scholarship in the modern context: Contemporary Buddhism. The journal’s editor in chief invited Mark Williams of Oxford University and Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School to be guest editors of the issue, published in July of 2011, which is structured explicitly to encourage a cross-discipline conversation among Buddhist scholars, clinicians, and scientists on topics related to mindfulness as it moves increasingly into mainstream secular settings and applications. Among other topics, it addresses the question of definitions of mindfulness and issues related to the fidelity of modern mindfulness-based interventions to the original teachings as documented in early Buddhist texts and those of later schools as Buddhism spread from India and Southeast Asia into China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan over the first millennium following the Buddha’s death. Such an improbable scholarly conversation across widely divergent disciplines is highly indicative of the degree to which the confluence of streams has already occurred, and speaks to its multi-directional nature.
Currently the Mind and Life Institute operates through four divisions, all working together to promote scientific understanding and individual and cultural well-being.
Mind and Life Dialogues with the Dalai Lama set the scientific agenda by exploring which areas of science are most ripe for collaboration with contemplatives and how that collaboration can be implemented most effectively.
Mind and Life Publications report to the greater scientific community and the interested public on what has occurred in our dialogues.
The Mind and Life Summer Research Institute is an annual, week long residential symposium retreat for researchers and practitioners of science, contemplation, and philosophy to explore how to advance the hypotheses formulated at the Mind and Life Dialogues and the Institute’s research initiatives.
The Mind and Life research grant program provides seed research grants to investigate the hypotheses thus formulated and explored.
Because of this amazing history of collaboration between hundreds of dedicated scientists and diligent contemplative practitioners, today the Dalai Lama stands at the forefront of the dialogue between science and spirituality, a conversation that he believes has enormous potential to help the human family meet unprecedented global challenges.