Summer Research Institute–Part 1

Despite the surfeit of Ph.D.s and the serious subject matter, there is a distinct air of summer camp about the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. The old hands who’ve been to four or five SRI’s (as we refer to the institute around the Mind and Life office) greet the newcomers like camp counselors, giving them the inside information on how the place works and where everything is.

A stroll across the Garrison grounds to the banks of the Hudson River.

On registration day, the vans from the train station were on an endless loop, disgorging hordes of young people who stared at the soaring gothic building and sweeping green lawns that form the Garrison Institute, where the SRI is held each year. Garrison is a former monastery, and the dorm rooms reflect that no-nonsense heritage, with a simple single bed, a table and chair, and a closet. The walls are bare and air conditioning is courtesy of the breeze: perfect for detachment and contemplation.  When the monastery was built, the church saved the architectural hoopla for the chapel, which is now the meditation hall. The gothic rib-vaulted ceiling, tall stained-glass windows, parquet floors, and cloistered wooden balcony seem a little incongruous with the gold Buddha in the Lady’s Chapel, but after the first few minutes, it starts to work.

Mind and Life president Arthur Zajonc greets the audience opening night of the Summer Research Institute.

The highlight of the first night last night was a filmed interview with Mind and Life co-founder Francisco Varela. The interview was shot just a few months before his death of hepatitis C, and he was reflecting on his childhood, his work as a neuroscientist, and his adventures in contemplative practice. He knew he was dying, and choked up several times during the interview, as did the audience. There wasn’t a dry eye or an unmoved heart in the house.

Two participants in the Summer Research Institute discuss the film about Francisco Varela

Today was the introduction to this year’s theme: the situated and embodied mind. It was kicked off by philosopher Evan Thompson, who gave an overview of the conceptual framework. Thompson’s talks, although delivered in ordinary terms and solid organization, are always at the highest conceptual levels and require focused attention to fully appreciate.

Philosopher Evan Thompson

Thompson’s talk was followed by Diego Hangartner’s discussion of life in a Tibetan monastery, as well as Emory University religion professor Sara McClintock’s presentation on Buddhism’s 12 links of interdependent emergence, and Buddhist scholar Bhikhu Annalyo’s talk on early Buddhist texts and their perspective on the body. The question-and-answer period with a large faculty panel that followed prompted a host of probing and provocative questions from the audience.

Dinner in the dining hall was a tasty offering of vegetarian dishes, and the large hall rang with lively conversation (each evening there is enforced silence from 10 pm through the first 15 minutes of breakfast; when the bell rang ending that period of silence this morning, it was like Hoover dam giving way: within 15 seconds, there were 100 enthusiastic conversations going full bore).

Dinner conversation in the dining hall.

Before the cone of silence descends again tonight, there will poster sessions downstairs in the auditorium, where younger researchers get to display and discuss their own research.

—Mark Cherrington, Mind and Life event coordination and communications