The New Science of Mind
Scientists study phenomena. Meditators study experience. And never the twain shall meet.
Until a unique series of dialogues called Mind and Life. JILL SUTTIE reports on the emerging field of contemplative science.
Even forty years ago no one would have put the words "contemplative" and "science" together, let alone organize an international
conference on the topic. Yet in April, scientists, academics, and
meditators from around the world will gather for the inaugural
International Symposia for Contemplative Studies. They’ll share the
latest scientific research on the benefits of training the mind through
contemplative practice, such as better health, cognitive and emotional
regulation, higher performance levels, improved quality of life, social
harmony, and other positive results.
the Enlightenment, science has been militantly distinct from religion,
because it studied (and believed in) only what could be perceived by the
senses and quantitatively measured. Religion or spirituality was a
separate realm of subjective, nonmaterial experience that could not be
observed, let alone measured.
Hangartner, chief operating officer of the Mind & Life Institute,
which is organizing the conference, puts it this way: “Science assumes
that reality is what can be observed from a thirdperson perspective.
Contemplatives, on the other hand, look at a phenomenon—whether external
or internal—and assume that the reality of the phenomenon is not
independent of the conscious mind perceiving it.”
other words, what we know as reality comes into existence in the
meeting between first person and third person—between subject and
object, mind and matter. It does not exist independently in either. For
millennia, the contemplative traditions within the world’s major
religions have studied the landscape of inner experience and practiced,
in a precise and reproducible way, beneficial techniques to train the
mind. Simultaneously, Western science has increased exponentially our
understanding of the material world. Now, an increasing number of
scientists and contemplatives are collaborating in a search for a more
complete understanding of human experience, finding as they do practical
ways to benefit society and improve our lives. This groundbreaking
dialogue began with an unusual East–West encounter in a tiny Himalayan
Engle, a financial planner, entrepreneur, and Buddhist practitioner,
heard a rumor in 1983 that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was interested in
meeting with Western scientists. Intrigued, he decided to see whether
he could make it happen and began inquiring through channels in the
that year, Francisco Varela, a renowned neuroscientist deeply versed in
Buddhist philosophy and meditation, had met the Dalai Lama at a
conference in Austria. They’d discussed the parallels between Buddhist
psychology and what neuroscience research was discovering about the
nature of the mind. When Varela learned of Engle’s efforts, he called
and suggested they work together to create a forum where the Dalai Lama
could exchange ideas with leading scientists. What came to be known as
the Mind and Life dialogues, now in their twenty-fifth year, have been
the most important catalyst for the growing collaboration between
scientists and contemplatives.
first dialogue was held on October of 1987 at the Dalai Lama’s
residence in Dharamsala, a remote village in the Indian Himalayas that
is home to the Tibetan government-in-exile. Varela had invited fellow
cognitive scientists with an interest in Buddhism, and according to B.
Alan Wallace, a frequent interpreter for the Dalai Lama who has himself
written extensively on Buddhism and science, His Holiness was intrigued
by the scientists’ presentations.
didn’t have an agenda,” says Wallace. The Dalai Lama listened
carefully, asked good questions, and shared his own Buddhist perspective
when asked. He was open to hearing what the scientists had to share,
and the dialogue was meaningful for those present. “It was a meeting of
minds,” Wallace says.
meeting was small, private, and intimate. Varela wanted to create an
atmosphere in which participants would feel safe to exchange ideas
freely. “The idea was that the participants could be bold and daring,”
says Wallace, “without having the demand for orthodoxy placed upon them
by their scientific backgrounds and without the worry of peer review.”
Greenleaf, a mathematician then teaching in the computer science
department at Columbia University and now a professor at Goddard
College, made a presentation to the Dalai Lama about artificial
intelligence, which led to an interesting exchange about the future of
robotics and its possible relationship to reincarnation. Greenleaf had
been involved in previous meetings between Buddhists and scientists at
the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, but found them frustrating.
seemed to be a great gulf of understanding between the scientists and
the Buddhists at those meetings,” says Greenleaf. The talks would break
down, he says, with each side unwilling to budge in its views. After
attending the meeting in Dharamsala, he saw hope for fruitful
did the Dalai Lama, Engle, and Varela, who decided to found the Mind
& Life Institute to organize future dialogues. Since 1987 there have
been twenty-three more, each with its own theme, and a number of books
based on the proceedings, starting with Gentle Bridges, edited by Jeremy Hayward and Francisco Varela from discussions in the very first dialogue.
the beginning, Varela understood the historic significance of these
meetings. As a scientist, he knew that science was becoming the paradigm
through which the public understood reality and through which social
policy was being made. As a Buddhist, he knew that observing the mind
through meditation was a viable way to study reality that was shut out
of scientific inquiry.
was particularly interested in bringing cognitive scientists together
with Buddhist practitioners. “It was a natural place for contemplatives
to offer insight,” says Diego Hangartner. “Cognitive scientists are
interested in how we perceive things.”
as Hangartner notes, many cognitive scientists were primarily
interested in looking at consciousness from outside the experience of
it. Varela hoped that the Dalai Lama would be able to convince
scientists to expand their inquiries to include the study of subjective
phenomena that might not fit into their materialist view. In short, to
include the reality of mind—and the experts who have been studying it
for 2,500 years.
have been developing ways to encourage positive emotion through
meditation for thousands of years,” says Daniel Goleman, psychologist
and bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence.
He learned about the Mind and Life dialogues when Varela asked him to
attend the second one, which was held in Newport Beach, California, in
interest in meditation and science went way back to his days as a
graduate student at Harvard. But he didn’t think the science community
was ready yet to embrace meditation practice. However, an old friend of
his from Harvard, a chemistry PhD named Jon Kabat-Zinn, was developing a
program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. It delivered
measurable health benefits the scientific community couldn’t ignore.
1990, Goleman moderated the third dialogue, on health and emotions, and
invited Kabat-Zinn to attend. Goleman says that when the Dalai Lama
learned about the research on how positive emotions improved physical
and emotional health, he saw right away the connection to contemplative
practice. It was then, Goleman says, that the Dalai Lama began to
embrace the idea of teaching meditation in a secular context to benefit a
wide range of people.
moved to the cosmic level at the sixth Mind and Life dialogue in 1997,
which was organized by Arthur Zajonc, a physics professor at Amherst
College who became the president of the Mind & Life Institute late
last year, following the retirement of Adam Engle. He and other
physicists presented the findings of quantum mechanics, which showed
that the properties of elemental particles like electrons are not
independent—their measured size, mass, and velocity were in fact
dependent on the speed of the measuring apparatus. Hearing this, the
Dalai Lama shared the Buddhist perspective that reality does not exist
intrinsically with its own objective properties, but only in
relationship to a perceiving consciousness.
exchange with the Dalai Lama clarified some of the ideas I was working
on at the time,” says Zajonc. The Buddhist view that everything in the
universe is interrelated, he says, seemed to be a concise way of framing
what quantum mechanics and relativity are telling us about the world.
After physicist Anton Zeilinger attended the 1997 dialogue, he invited
the Dalai Lama to his research lab at the University of Innsbruck, where
he was running experiments that explored the foundations of quantum
mechanics theory. Zeilinger was influenced by the Dalai Lama to re-think
some of his ideas and consider new directions in his experiments.
Wallace, who has continued to work as a translator at nearly every Mind
and Life dialogue, recalls the Dalai Lama’s exchanges with Arthur
Zajonc and Daniel Goleman as particularly productive, in large part
because the scientists were open to engaging His Holiness. While he
feels that some scientists seemed more interested in lecturing the Dalai
Lama than joining him in dialogue, he thinks that overall the
discussions have been beneficial—and not just for the scientists.
Dalai Lama was exposed to renowned researchers who informed him and
also gave him a sense of humility,” says Wallace. “He learned that
another form of inquiry deserved respect.” I t was a technological
breakthrough that radically transformed the science of contemplation. A
breakthrough that changed the way we understand the workings of the
brain. That revealed the neurological basis for the ancient art of mind
was called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and it
allowed scientists to observe and measure—in real time—changes in brain
activity as subjects experienced different activities, emotions, and
mental states. It was a scientific bridge between mind and brain.
this new technology, neuroscientists discovered that the brain was not
immutable after early childhood, as previously believed, but could
change structurally and functionally over time in response to
environmental stimulation and mental processing. The brain was not fixed
but plastic. For thousands of years contemplatives had claimed the mind
could be trained. Now the theory of neuroplasticity gave it a
scientific basis. fMRI technology gave scientists the chance to watch it
happening and measure it.
the Dalai Lama attended the eighth Mind and Life dialogue, in 2000, he
heard Richie Davidson of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and other
presenters share the latest neuroscience research using fMRI technology,
as well as data showing the benefits of decreasing negative emotional
heard the Dalai Lama tell Richie Davidson that he should take these
Buddhist meditation methods for handling destructive emotions and study
them,” remembers Daniel Goleman. His Holiness wanted proof the
techniques were useful, and if it was shown they were, to distribute the
results widely so that others could benefit.”
Dalai Lama suggested that Davidson study experienced Buddhist monks,
using fMRI technology to see what was happening to their brains as they
were meditating and producing different mind states. Davidson readily
agreed, and the monks were willing to participate because of the clout
of the Dalai Lama.
Paul Ekman, an expert on emotions and facial expressions, was another
renowned scientist whose work took a new turn as a result of the 2000
dialogue. He had no previous interest in Buddhism, but soon after
meeting the Dalai Lama, Ekman says he felt a strong connection and what
he describes as a feeling of déjà vu.
his presentation to the conference, Ekman explained to the Dalai Lama
how Western psychology differentiates between emotions and moods:
emotions are transient and often follow a specific stimulus, whereas
moods can last hours and have uncertain origins. This interested the
Dalai Lama, says Ekman, because Tibetan psychology makes no distinction
between mood and emotion.
explained further that emotions—both positive and negative—evolved in
response to human needs for survival. Even difficult emotions such as
fear and anger are not inherently destructive, he argued, because they
could be used for good; for example, when anger leads to social
advocacy. “Emotions are never destructive in themselves,” says Ekman.
“It depends on how they are enacted.”
found the Dalai Lama was a keen debater with an open mind, which
impressed him. On the fourth day of the conference, the Dalai Lama
challenged those present to do something constructive as a result of the
dialogue. Ekman took that to heart.
decided to form a steering committee that very night,” he says, “to
work on a program that would be a combination of Western and
contemplative approaches. Alan Wallace volunteered to help.”
led to the Cultivating Emotional Balance project. Ekman and Wallace
worked up a curriculum together and tested it with a group of teachers.
The results of their study, soon to be published, show remarkable
results. “People had decreases in depression and anxiety with effects as
large as have ever been found in the psychological literature,” Ekman
and the Dalai Lama made a strong personal and intellectual bond at the
conference that continues to this day. At the Dalai Lama’s residence in
Dharamsala they have held a series of one-on-one conversations, falling
into deep discussion sometimes lasting many hours. In 2008 they co-wrote
the book Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion, which is based on these conversations.
topic for their next get-together is compassion. Ekman says that’s not
his area of expertise, but says he’s not worried, because he and the
Dalai Lama enjoy challenging each other without much concern for who’s
right or wrong. “We come from different traditions,” he says, “so that
helps give us new perspectives.”
first eight Mind and Life dialogues were private gatherings of invited
scientists and contemplative practitioners. Now it was time to make a
bigger impact—it was time to go public. Francisco Varela and Adam Engle
saw the productive collaborations that were emerging from even these
little publicized events. They felt there was much more potential to
influence scientific thought and culture, and lobbied for the dialogues
to become public forums rather than private affairs. They wanted
mainstream audiences to hear about this unusual collaboration of first
and third person research. The Dalai Lama agreed.
first public Mind and Life dialogue was held at MIT in 2003.
Tragically, Francisco Varela did not live to see it. After undergoing a
liver transplant in 1998, an experience he described in the
extraordinary meditation on the nature of embodiment titled “Intimate
Distances: Fragments for a Phenomenology of Organ Transplantation,”
Francisco Varela died of Hepatitis C in 2001. Richie Davidson took his
place as the research director of the Mind & Life Institute.
2003 public forum was called “Investigating the Mind: Exchanges Between
Buddhism and Behavioral Science.” It focused on three areas under
active investigation in the world of neuroscience: attention and
cognitive control, emotions, and mental imagery. Mind and Life wanted to
challenge the research community to consider partnering with the
“Olympian athletes” of mental training—senior Buddhist monks—to augment
existing research in these areas.
Zajonc, who co-moderated the dialogue, sees it as a turning point for
the Mind & Life Institute. Results from Davidson’s laboratory
research on longtime meditators was reported at the meeting and caused a
the wake of that meeting, a great deal of media coverage led to
hundreds of requests, including from young researchers, for connection
to the work of Mind and Life,” Zajonc remembers.
feels the meeting changed the way scientists understood mind and mental
processes: now they had to take into account the demonstrated effects
of meditation on the brain. He could tell from the enthusiastic response
of the audience that science and spiritual practice (in this case,
Buddhism) were finally coming together—at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, no less.
of those at this historic forum was Dacher Keltner, founder of the
Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
An expert on emotions and compassion, Keltner was awed by the experience
of meeting with the Dalai Lama.
most incredible thing that the Dalai Lama communicates is his person,”
says Keltner. “He is an extremely impressive, compassionate man. He just
lights up a crowd.” But what impressed him the most was the Dalai
Lama’s openmindedness and willingness to update his own views based on
what scientists might discover about the brain. “Compare that with other
spiritual traditions,” says Keltner. “You just don’t see that.”
studies the vagus nerve—a part of the nervous system that seems to play
an important role in kindness and compassion—and the evolutionary
benefit of kindness contagion in populations. He views the Dalai Lama
and other expert contemplatives as compassion savants, and his exchange with the Dalai Lama got him thinking about how to relate their expertise to what he was studying in the lab.
meeting raised some interesting research questions,” says Keltner. “For
example, what happens to the vagus nerve when you have people who can
hold the experience of awe or compassion for three hours at a time?”
the overwhelming response to the 2003 public dialogue, Engle and
Davidson decided to organize the Summer Research Institute, where young
scholars could meet with other scientists and jumpstart their careers.
They realized the field needed younger researchers who could go beyond
small pilot studies and work on longitudinal investigations over time,
research they hoped would eventually interest big science organizations
and funders like the National Institutes of Health.
prime the pump, they created the Varela grants, funded by the Hershey
Family Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation, which provides seed
money for scholars who want to further the study of contemplative
science and incorporate first and third person methods of inquiry into
their research. Since its inception in 2004, the grant program has
stimulated more than sixty articles in peer-reviewed journals, with many
more forthcoming. The Varela grants, which range from $10,000 to
$15,000, have catalyzed more than $12 million in additional funding from
federal and private sources to further the work of contemplative
Britton is one of the young scholars nurtured by Mind and Life, one of
those who will carry the science of contemplation into the future.
assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University, Britton has
attended every MLI Summer Institute since its inception. She has
received two Varela grants herself—to study how school-based mindfulness
programs help students, and how Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy
improves the functioning of people suffering from depression—and has
mentored two students in her lab who have now received a Varela grant of
I found Mind and Life I was divided,” says Britton. “I spent one year
in India studying Buddhism, and the next year at NIH studying
glutamatergic brain receptors.” At the time, she found that neither
side—Buddhists or scientists—seemed to have much respect for each other.
Now she found a sense of wholeness through her work with Mind and Life,
where scientists are encouraged to investigate the mind not just
through brain scans or books, but from their own first person
believes that if scientists were a little more aware of their own
minds— their desires, biases, and distorted perceptions— it would
improve scientific inquiry, and she feels this view is gaining
acceptance in establishment institutions like the National Institutes of
Health, from which she recently received five years of funding to study
Buddhist texts. “They are beginning to appreciate the level of
interdisciplinary expertise that is needed to do good meditation
research,” she says.
young scholars like Britton are undertaking research in contemplative
science, new research centers at major universities have also emerged.
For example, the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA offers
courses and fosters research on mindfulness across the lifespan. Emory
University’s Collaborative for Contemplative Studies brings together
scholars from multiple academic disciplines to study the benefits of
contemplative practices. And of course Richie Davidson’s important work
has grown into the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, founded at
the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2008.
2003 there weren’t any real identifiable laboratories that were doing
contemplative research,” says Adam Engle. “Now there are dozens.”
are sponsors of the upcoming International Symposia for Contemplative
Studies, which will be held in Denver April 26-29. There will be two
departures from previous dialogues: this one will accommodate a much
larger audience, and the Dalai Lama will not be in attendance.
thought it was important to catalyze more interest in contemplative
science, mainly through non-Dalai Lama-related programs,” says Diego
Hangartner. “The conference will allow nonscience people to participate
and will include other contemplative practices.” This is something the
Dalai Lama wants to encourage, he says.
the upcoming conference marks a clear expansion into new territory,
there are some who wonder if the continuing focus on neuroscience and
mindfulness is pulling Mind and Life away from its original mission: to
create a true collaboration between contemplatives and scientists. Alan
Wallace questions whether the strong emphasis on neuroscience and
cognitive science has left scientists and the public thinking that what
happens in the mind is all about what happens in the brain, a premise he
disagrees with. Wallace would like more scientists to reassess their
basic assumptions about the nature of reality, some of which, he argues,
have never been proven.
“Scientists have put too much emphasis on studying the brain and behavior. The mind remains unknown,” says Wallace.
Engle, who recently retired as president of the Mind & Life
Institute, expresses a similar concern. “The dominant view in modern
science right now is that the mind is coextensive with the brain: if you
know everything there is to know about the brain, then you’ll
understand everything there is to know about the mind,” he says. “Well,
that may or may not be true. It’s an open question. It may be the
reverse.” He hopes that researchers will stay open to incorporating the
first person perspective into their work, and that other aspects of
Buddhist thought will influence scientific inquiry.
also feels that scientists have not paid enough attention to making
sure their research serves the goals of humanity. “What the Buddha tried
to do,” he says, “was to investigate the nature of reality and the
nature of the mind, and then use that understanding to provide a way out
of delusion and suffering.” Engle says that if scientists want to
explore the nature of suffering, a third person approach alone, without
an ethic that considers the outcome of the research, won’t be enough.
much of the current research being funded through the Mind & Life
Institute remains focused on neuroscience and cognitive science, Engle
sees a future where the collaborations can flourish in other fields as
well, such as religious studies, philosophy, and anthropology.
gone through a period of specialization,” says Engle, “and I believe
we’re starting to see the limitations of that, in terms of the effects.”
Zajonc, who as the new president of the Mind & Life Institute will
be helping to chart its future course, is particularly interested in
applications of contemplative practice in education. He is steering
committee chair of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher
Education, an initiative of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
that works with professors in a range of academic disciplines in
thousands of classrooms around the world.
only can meditation be used in the classroom to reduce stress or
increase attention,” Zajonc says, “but it can also help students have
greater insight and make connections within the curriculum.” He points
to how meditation can augment economics courses, where professors often
use experiential exercises to teach students about the role of
competition in distributing limited resources. According to classical
economics, individuals will try to maximize their own profits at the
expense of their competitors. But, Zajonc says, if professors first have
their students practice a loving-kindness meditation before beginning
the exercise, students shift their conduct to consider the needs of
clear the goal is to expand Mind and Life’s reach—to wider audiences
and new areas of collaboration. Although it will continue to organize
private dialogues between the Dalai Lama and leading scientists, Zajonc,
Hangartner, and Engle hope the upcoming conference and other public
activities will help convince society that mental and emotional training
programs are important for our future happiness, health, and social
investigation of the mind has been going on in the contemplative world
for 2,500 years,” says Engle. “An incredible amount of wisdom and
understanding has been developed, but it has been held by a relatively
small number of people. We are only beginning to disseminate these
insights to the wider population. That’s exciting.”