Varela Awards

2014 Request for Proposals

The Mind & Life Institute is seeking applications for the Mind and Life Francisco J. Varela Research Awards (Varela Awards) for Research Fellows. The Varela Awards are an integral component of the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. Beginning in 2004 and named for one of Mind and Life’s co-founders, neuroscientist Francisco J. Varela (1946 – 2001), these grants of up to $15,000 are awarded annually to Research Fellows who have recently attended the Summer Research Institute.

Francisco J. Varela believed that contemplative training offers cognitive science novel methods for investigating human experience. He also believed that the embodied, phenomenological perspective can best provide insight into the nature of the mind, reducing our tendency to dwell in the abstract with all of its habits and preconceptions. In his vision, contemplative training not only provides a new domain for scientific study, but more importantly offers resources for advancing scientific theories and models of consciousness, emotion and cognitive processing. For example, empirical examinations of contemplative techniques can be applied to emotion regulation, attention, working memory, and associated neural plasticity; such research can greatly contribute to our understanding of the neural substrates underlying these processes and their development. Furthermore, contemplative practices are being used increasingly in clinical and educational settings, yet much remains to be learned regarding the relationship between the elements of contemplative practices comprising these interventions and desired outcomes. In all of these areas, contributions from the humanities can offer valuable contextual grounding for the study of these practices and their theoretical underpinnings.

The Varela Awards emphasize empirical examinations of contemplative techniques with the ultimate goal that findings will provide greater insight into the mechanisms of contemplative practice and its application for reducing human suffering. Varela Awards applicants should therefore indicate how the proposed research on contemplative experience will address outstanding theoretical and empirical issues relating to the study of the mind in their respective fields of research.

Examples of possible research questions include:

  1. How does contemplative practice change both the structure and function of the human brain?
  2. How can contemplative science contribute to debates surrounding the relationship of the mind and brain, for example regarding the nature of consciousness?
  3. How can contemplative science shed light on pro-social behavior such as altruism, forgiveness, hope, and generosity?
  4. What, if any, are the health benefits of religiously grounded contemplative practices?
  5. What new methods and conceptual frameworks can arise from contemplative science to help us better understand religious experiences such as meditation, prayer, and other ritual activities (or new methods and conceptual frameworks to help us understand the mind and brain)?

Mind and Life views the Varela Awards as an essential feature of its overall strategy of pursuing new insights at the boundary between spirituality and science. These awards are a key vehicle for increasing the number of first-rate scientists, scholars and clinicians involved in the emerging fields of Contemplative Neuroscience, Neurophenomenology, Contemplative Clinical Sciences and Contemplative Studies. Preference is given to proposals using rigorous experimental designs that evaluate both state and trait effects of contemplative practice, as well as those that incorporate “first-person” contemplative methods, employing introspective investigation and reports on subjective experience. This grant program also encourages the active collaboration of scientists with contemplative scholars/practitioners in all phases of research. A general ancillary outcome of the Varela Awards will be the mapping of future directions in emerging field of Contemplative Science, and how the research might benefit all the disciplines involved – Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, Clinical, Social, and Developmental Psychology, Contemplative Scholarship, Philosophy and various contemplative traditions. The overall purpose of the Varela Awards is to promote the interdisciplinary study of the mind with the goal of relieving human suffering and positively impacting society.


Grants of up to $15,000 (USD) are awarded annually through a competitive application, review and selection process. Applications are reviewed and selected based on five criteria: significance to the field, approach/design, innovation/novelty, quality of the applicant and likelihood of success, and strength of academic environment. Proposed research should be completed within a 2-year period, and annual progress reports are required for awardees to remain in good standing. It is expected that the completion of proposed research will result in the submission of findings to a peer-reviewed scientific journal and/or conference. To be eligible for a Varela Award, the applicant must have attended the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute within the last five years (i.e., for 2014 applications, one must have attended a Summer Research Institute in 2010 or later). This grant is intended as a career development award, and is open to graduate students and post-doctoral fellows currently affiliated with a research institution, and junior faculty up to their third year of appointment.

Varela awards may not be used for indirect costs, administrative costs or overhead. To apply, please submit the following materials between September 5 and October 8, 2014:

  • Research Proposal (2-3 pages, single-spaced, 1200 words maximum), including:
    • Title
    • Background and Significance
    • Methods
    • Expected Outcomes
    • References (not included in page limit)
  • Abstract (200 words maximum)
  • Applicant’s current CV (NIH biosketch style preferred)
  • Detailed budget (in US dollars; award covers research costs only, and may not be used for the applicant’s salary – please consult FAQ for details)
  • Two letters of recommendation, which can be emailed separately or submitted with the online application. Letters should speak to the ability of the applicant to perform the proposed research, and the potential of the applicant to contribute to the field of Contemplative Science.

Varela Awards online application form (coming in September)

Proposals are accepted between September 5 and October 8, 2014 and awardees are announced in December 2014. For more details, please email with specific questions.

Download the 2014 Varela Awards RFP (updated 6/11)