Mind and Life XXII – Sessions 2, 3, and 4

Session 2 served as a review for the current state of Contemplative Science, recent findings, and its collaborations with mainly Buddhist practices.  Richard Davidson of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds described experiments where adept practitioners alternated between a neutral state and one of compassion inside an fMRI to highlight which areas of the brain become active.  He also spoke briefly of an experiment where the subject was told in advance that at some point, pain would be experienced through a node; they would be given a signal ten seconds before the pain was introduced.  Novice practitioners showed heightened stress throughout the duration of the experiment, while veteran meditators only exhibited stress only after the warning signal.  The latter group was able to remain focused and calm during the majority of the test, while the former group was overtaken by the anticipation of pain throughout the experiment.

Matthieu Ricard then gave a presentation that acted as a follow-up to Thupten Jinpa’s remarks from Session 1.  He went into detail describing ‘the Path,’ the means by which one liberates oneself from suffering.  “It is the purification of the misconstruction of reality,” he said.  Many people are addicted to the causes of suffering; but numerous recitations and meditations are all attempts to come to a clearer understanding, to have the right perception of the mind.  This maturation process takes time and patience, however.  “You cannot pull at grass to make it grow faster, you will only kill it.”

His Holiness mused whether there could be future experiments where practitioners remain in one state for long periods, apart from compassion (which has been utilized in many experiments to date) – like admiration or devotion.

Rajesh Kasturirangan of the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore then entered the conversation, stating that this conference and collaboration is extremely good for India.  He noted that western science entered its Renaissance when new material and ideas were ‘discovered’ from other parts of the world.  A similar spurring of enthusiasm for research in India could be fostered from these dialogues among distinct traditions.  A big concern for him, however, was the gap in understanding of the mind between Indian traditions and the West.  Maybe, in his view, we need to gather the ‘mental taxonomy’ from India, as its traditions have developed a rich tapestry of concepts and terms over thousands of years to describe minute distinctions, similar to the way Alaskan eskimos have forty words for ‘snow.’

In Session 3, Swami Atmapriyananda gave another presentation, this time about the Vedanta tradition.  A driving concept behind this is the necessity of ‘seeing things as they are.’  Leave out the preconceptions you bring to a situation, and just witness it as it is, not as you want it to be.  Swami stated that everyone wants to be happy all the time, because happiness is their basic nature, their natural state.  There are many steps of purification, which allow a clearer view of one’s inner self, her luminescent self; the goal is to de-hypnotize oneself.  There is not just the little ‘I’ apart from the rest of the world – ‘I’ is part of everything.  An analogy was made to a balloon.  “Think of your ego as the air filling up the balloon.  If it pops, where does the air go?”  He explained that it goes nowhere, because it just remerges with all the rest of the air, the rest of the universe.  The ground of reality, in the Vedanta view, is supreme consciousness, not demarcated by individual egos, but all unified.

Session 4 was highlighted by Muni Mahendra Kumar of the Jain tradition describing the steps of Preksha meditation.  Among several other aspects, he noted that during the meditation, there is perception on many levels, or ‘ordinary’ things like breathing and of the body but also of deeper ideas like psychic centers and colors.

Shirley Telles described studies in schools of the effects of meditation on students, and the effects ranged from increased attention to improved memory.  There are also lab studies underway involving dharana versus dhyana meditation, which is, in a sense, effort-ful versus effort-less meditation.  Richard Davidson presented findings on behalf of BN Gangadhar, who was unable to attend the conference.  Gangadhar’s studies were on yoga, especially on subjects who suffer from depression or schizophrenia.  Cortisol, a ‘stress’ agent, was found to be reduced during yogic exercises.  In fact, yoga was demonstrated to be more beneficial than regular exercise for reducing stress.

At the end of the session, His Holiness said, “After yesterday and today, I am leaving very excited.  Now, it’s like we have a ‘spiritual supermarket!’”  He gave a word of caution, however, foreseeing that there could be possible confusion in mixing up traditions and elements.

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