Pain Relief without Opioids?

Two Varela Grantees find converging results about mindfulness and pain

The latest statistics about America’s opioid epidemic are staggering. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate an average of 125 deaths from opioid overdoses per day in the United States—that means each month, we’re seeing a tragedy more deadly than September 11th. Between July 2016 and September 2017, hospitalizations from opioid overdoses jumped 30 percent nationwide (70 percent in the Midwest). Data strongly suggest that the rapid rise in opioid addiction, overdose, and death in the last 20 years is largely driven by the increase in prescription of synthetic opioids for pain. As the crisis worsens, pain management options are desperately needed that don’t involve opioids. Read More

Meditation and Science: Ten Essays Worth Reading

Meditation, Buddhism, and Science
Edited by David L. McMahan and Erik Braun
Oxford University Press, 2017
272 pages; $24.95

Scientific research on meditation, and as a consequence the popular discourse on contemplative research, has to-date largely focused on the individual. As a consequence, we find few studies that seriously consider the contexts of environments, social relations, and cultures in which meditation is practiced as well as the worldviews, ethics, and metaphysics that shape an interior contemplative life.

Largely in response to this inadequacy, the new book, “Meditation, Buddhism, and Science,” calls for a critical look at the science of Buddhist-informed meditation by situating contemplative research in context. The collection of essays is an outcome of a Contemplative Studies Fellowship from the Mind & Life Institute that brought together scholars in the humanities to think critically about how the convergence of Buddhism and science can advance with a deeper understanding of context. As the editors’ remark in their introduction, the essays share a “concern that the scientific study of Buddhist and Buddhist-derived meditative practices has been too narrowly construed and often neglects essential social, cultural, and historical contexts.”

“While the book does not present a single vision or unified voice around the current state of the field, each essay stands on its own to give a glimpse into the horizon of the Buddhism and science interface.”

The ten essays in the volume are distinguished by the diversity of perspectives presented and the accessibility of the material. Erik Braun, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and one of this book’s editors, examines the cultural adaptation of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in his essay, “Mindful but Not Religious,” making the point that Kabat-Zinn’s usage of language intentionally describes mindfulness to create an enchantment that feels scientific and secular while retaining its Buddhist touch. In her essay, “Mind the Gap,” the anthropologist Joanna Cook from the University College London reflects on observations from her fieldwork at a two-year Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) therapist-training program in the United Kingdom, underscoring how popular conceptions of science inform understandings of meditation. Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, publishes thoughts from his keynote address at Mind & Life’s 2016 International Symposium for Contemplative Studies where he calls for a move away from brain-centric reports on meditation studies and toward a science that would give attention to the cultural practices that shape cognitive skills in meditation. Echoing the call to move away from a brain-centered science of meditation, William Waldron, professor of religion at Middlebury College, raises philosophical questions in his essay, “Reflections on Indian Buddhist Thought and the Scientific Study of Meditation.” Other essays in the book address topics that include how meditation works differently in different cultural contexts, pop notions of happiness, non-self and spirits in Thai Buddhist mindfulness, mindful sex, and why it matters that mindfulness is Buddhist.

The editors and authors of this book deserve praise for pioneering new territory. Though it is by no means expected that any single book would address all the issues in the contemporary science of meditation, as a whole, the essays in this book offer a fantastic response to a wide range of these issues. Most critically are the emphasis on brain-centered effects of meditation, the lack of serious consideration given to the impact of culture on practice, consumer forces that drive pop mindfulness, the scarce integration of humanistic scholarship with science, and issues of cross-cultural adaptation of meditation.

A hope for the future is that scientists, humanists, and contemplatives will one day collaborate on such a volume, if not co-author essays. While the book does not present a single vision or unified voice around the current state of the field, each essay stands on its own to give a glimpse into the horizon of the Buddhism and science interface. And while there is no in-depth appraisal of any single meditation practice or tradition, the multiple perspectives represented in the volume serve as stepping stones to guide and move this dialogue forward.


See the full review of “Meditation, Buddhism, and Science” to be published in the Fall 2018 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly.”

Sharon Salzberg: Love is a Verb

Paying attention, asserts famed meditation teacher, best-selling author, and Mind & Life Fellow Sharon Salzberg, isn’t a skill one is simply born with. Like flexibility and physical stamina, it’s developed over time: a muscle to strengthen; a practice to nurture; a series of neural pathways to establish and expand.

But it takes very real work to move away from our very human tendencies to disconnect, assume, and judge. Salzberg shared these and other reflections on presence and connection before a capacity crowd of more than 200 listeners sitting elbow-to-elbow at a Virginia Festival of the Book event. Mind & Life President Susan Bauer-Wu interviewed the visiting author for more than an hour about meditation, love, cultural discord, and the benefits of mindfulness in the context of Salzberg’s latest book, “Real Love: The Art of Mindful ConnectionRead More

To Change the World, Start with How We Educate Children

Since early adolescence, I have carried a deep conviction that we all have the capacity to grow in ways that far exceed our imagination. At 22, when most of my friends had accepted high paying jobs after college, I opted for a backpack and spiritual growth, traveling from my home in Sun Valley, Idaho to Dharamsala, India. The town buzzed with the energy of the Dalai Lama’s teaching on the Bodhisattva Way of Life, a classic Buddhist treatise on realizing perfect awakening for the sake of all beings. I was touched deeply by his kind and benevolent presence. Read More

Preventing Racial Bias in the Classroom: What One Researcher Hopes to Learn

Racial bias exists in many domains of our society, including the classroom where teachers’ hidden biases can lead to diminished expectations for students of color. Doris Chang, Ph.D. is Director of Clinical Training and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York City. She leads a research team that recently received a Mind & Life PEACE Grant to develop and pilot a Mindfulness-Based Critical Consciousness Training (MBCC-T) for teachers. The ten-week program will combine training in mindfulness and culturally-responsive pedagogy with the ultimate goal of enhancing teachers’ intercultural effectiveness. Below she shares her motivation for the project, and what she hopes to achieve.


Read More

How Do We Know What’s True?

In May 2016 the Wall Street Journal published an interactive online tool called “Blue Feed, Red Feed” that allowed one to see the dueling social media feeds of liberal and conservative users during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. This side-by-side comparison revealed not just the wildly different ways that two groups can interpret phenomena, but how one group could view its interpretation to be indisputable and feel justified in disparaging another group for its “alternative facts.” The issues at stake here are crucial. Are there ways for us to become more open-minded to others’ positions, to expand our capacity to productively engage with people beyond our in-group? And just how do we determine what is true?

The Western scientific method gives us a systematic way to examine problems and find solutions whose validity can be tested. We can form a hypothesis and develop an experiment to test whether it is correct. We can conduct the experiment, look at what we find, and adjust our hypothesis to accommodate what we’ve learned. Then we can try it again. There are many instruments to help us do this work, like fMRI machines to tell us what’s going on in our brains when we perform certain mental tasks, or DNA tests to determine biological kinship. Read More

A Golden String: Mind & Life 2018

 “I’m imagining a golden string that is connecting
Everything but especially, beings where love has been.
I’ve imagined it again and again so often,
it isn’t even imagining, it is making it happen.”

-Devon Sproule

At the Mind & Life Institute, we greet 2018 ever more committed to our mission and its relevance to healing an increasingly polarized world. In 2017, we advanced several exciting new programs and initiatives against the backdrop of increasing turmoil and intolerance, including the tragedy that befell our home community of Charlottesville, Virginia. Recent events have reinforced our strategic imperative to be more inclusive, to expand our work beyond North America and Europe, and to support more research and conversations related to compassion and ethics. I am continually reminded of the potent power of connection to inspire us as individuals and organizations to be awake and to respond thoughtfully. Read More

Tania Singer’s Exploration into How Meditation Training Transforms the Brain, the Individual, and Society at Large

During her recent visit to the Mind & Life offices in Charlottesville, social neuroscientist Dr. Tania Singer spoke as much about the heart as the brain.

Singer is the director of the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. She is on the board of directors of the Mind & Life Institute and, in 2015, published “Caring Economics: Conversations on Altruism and Compassion, Between Scientists, Economists, and the Dalai Lama”.

Singer was invited to share the latest insights from the ReSource Project, an impressive, large-scale longitudinal study on which she’s the principal investigator. The goal of this research is to assess the effects of mental training on subjective wellbeing, health, brain plasticity, cognitive and affective functioning, the autonomic nervous system, and behavior. Read More

A Conversation with Jim Austin and Susan Bauer-Wu

It was accident and curiosity that led Dr. James H. Austin to a moment of awakening one day in 1974, in the form of a red Japanese maple leaf. He was in Japan, meditating in a centuries-old Zen temple, when he entered into a not-quite-sleeping, not-quite-waking state.

Jim was relatively new to meditation, having begun only a few months before quite by accident. A distinguished neuroscientist specializing in pediatrics who held several academic appointments, Jim was in Japan for a sabbatical at the Kyoto University Medical School. On the flight over, he read a book given to him by a friend, “Zen in the Art of Archery”. Curious, he had sought out an English-speaking Zen teacher and began an intellectual inquiry and a personal meditation practice. Read More

Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives at Mind & Life

Historically, the Mind & Life community has been dominated by a select and largely racially and ethnically homogenous group of scientists, scholars, and practitioners from a handful of academic institutions. This homogeneity reinforces societal imbalances and biases, running counter to Mind & Life’s mission to alleviate suffering and to promote human flourishing. Furthermore, it diminishes the field’s capacity to adequately understand the human mind and investigate the mechanisms and impact of contemplative practices. Read More