The Contemplative Path: How Do We Learn?

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In my own experience with meditation, I’ve often wondered about the difference between reading a thoughtful analysis or set of instructions, listening to an inspiring teacher, and sitting on the cushion to practice. These varied activities represent different ways of integrating information into our minds and bodies—in short, different ways of learning.

Is one mode more effective than another? In the domain of contemplative science, this question becomes important as meditation interventions are being developed in a host of applied settings. As people learn about meditation conceptually, is that enough to change habits and behavior, or is practice required?

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The Contemplative Development Mapping Project: A new model for interdisciplinary investigation

This past winter, it was my honor and pleasure to participate in a Mind and Life Research Workshop convened by the Contemplative Development Mapping Project (CDMP). The CDMP is a group of scholars, scientists, and practitioners who are personally and professionally committed to enriching our understanding of contemplative practices and experiences. This interdisciplinary “think tank” is comprised of researchers from a range of disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, psychiatry, psychology, neuroscience and religious studies. By integrating first-person, second-person, and third-person methodologies as a means of investigating the nature and trajectory of contemplative development, the group aims to draw upon the unique academic approaches of each of its members to produce high-quality interdisciplinary scholarship and research.

 Since 2011, the CDMP has gathered annually, combining academic presentations and discussions with an innovative, self-directed retreat format. These hybrid conference/retreats provide a unique, informal opportunity for discussing works-in-progress, innovative and experimental ideas, and projects that align with questions born out of contemplative practice.

From December 30, 2014–January 4, 2015, the CDMP gathered at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies for their 4th conference/retreat, supported in part by Mind and Life Research Workshop funding. The experience was highly beneficial—generating useful insights for the individual participants, and also shedding light on a new path for the field by deeply integrating practice, scholarship, and discussion to arrive at more holistic insights about the nature of contemplative practice.

Participants (listed below) investigated the theme of Buddhist modernism and its impact on the contemplative practices and experiences of contemporary Buddhists. This event was designed and hosted by Dr. Willoughby Britton and Dr. Jared Lindahl, co-directors of the Varieties of Contemplative Experience research project at Brown University, and board members of CDMP. Below, they summarize the workshop and next steps for this initiative.

                                                                                                –Wendy Hasenkamp
Senior Scientific Officer, Mind and Life


While contemplative science research has explored the myriad ways that contemplative practices may enhance human flourishing, very little is known about individual differences and under what conditions contemplative practices produce less than ideal, or even harmful effects. In order to maximize the potential of contemplative practices to enhance human flourishing and alleviate human suffering, a comprehensive map of all outcomes—both positive and negative—is needed.

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MLSRI 2015: Week in Review

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Since 2004, one of the cornerstones of Mind and Life’s programming has been the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute (MLSRI), which was designed to support the growing field of contemplative studies. This unique event is a week-long conference that incorporates academic presentations, informal breakout groups, poster sessions, and periods of meditation, yoga, and tai chi each day, as well as a one-day silent retreat. The hybrid academic/retreat format offers opportunities for deep dialogue across disciplines, as well as inquiry through meditative practices, underscoring the challenges of honoring and learning from first-person experience. One of the broad goals of contemplative studies is to create an integrated way of knowing by combining standard third-person methodologies from the sciences and humanities with first-person modes of introspection that have been developed by diverse contemplative and philosophical traditions. The MLSRI has been instrumental in supporting this community through shared knowledge, fostering relationships among participants, and also through our Varela Awards program, which funds contemplative research projects that often emerge from collaborations formed at the event.

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MLI Community Collaborates on New Interoception Paper

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Pages from Pages from Farb_Frontiers_Interoception_2015 (2)Two years ago, a group of interdisciplinary scholars gathered from around the world at the Mind & Life Institute for a self-organized, MLI-funded research workshop. They spent several days deeply exploring the topic of interoception—the sense of signals originating within the body. The topic of interoception is becoming increasingly important in cognitive science, as it becomes ever clearer that the mind and body are inseparable systems. At the end of the meeting, the group (including MLI Fellows Cathy KerrNorm Farb, and Anne Klein, as well as Varela Awardees Jennifer Daubenmier and Tim Gard) agreed to write a white paper placing interoception in the context of contemplative practice. This comprehensive paper has just been published in Frontiers in Psychology and promises to be highly influential as contemplative studies progresses. We are thrilled to have been able to support this effort!

Announcing the 2015 Mind and Life Fellows

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Mind_and_Life_FellowsThe Mind and Life Fellows are a group of distinguished scientists, scholars, artists, and contemplative practitioners who have contributed significantly to our mission. The Fellows form an important community to whom we turn for advice, service, and recommendations about crucial aspects of MLI’s work and programs.

Mind and Life also regularly features the work of Fellows through our Facebook page, Twitter account (#MLIfellows, #MLIfellow), newsletter, and on our website and blog. Stay connected with us to see their great work throughout the year.

We are delighted to welcome 23 new Mind and Life Fellows in 2015. (To see the full list of MLI Fellows, please visit our Fellows Program page.)

2015 Mind and Life Fellows

Daniel Barbezat, PhD
Amherst College

Jim Coan, PhD
University of Virginia

Bill George, MBA
Harvard Business School

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MLSRI 2015: Fear and Trust in Self and Society

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Pages from 2015 SRI Brochure 5.21.15We are in the midst 12th Annual Mind and Life Summer Research Institute (MLSRI), which began on Saturday, June 13. A week-long conference, it incorporates academic presentations, informal breakout groups, poster sessions, and periods of meditation, yoga, and tai chi each day, as well as a one-day silent retreat. This unique format offers opportunities for deep dialogue across disciplines, as well as inquiry through meditative practices, underscoring the challenges of honoring and learning from first-person experience.

MLSRI 2015 will be devoted to the theme of Fear and Trust in Self and Society. Presentations and discussions will draw on research in both the sciences and the humanities, including neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, religion, and contemplative studies. We plan to explore the biological and experiential aspects of fear, its influence on our cognition and emotion, and its expression in both healthy states and clinical disorders. Critically, we’ll also be examining the role of trust and interpersonal connection as a counterpoint to fear, so we’re very interested in conversations about the protective functions of secure attachment and compassion. Finally, we will ask how contemplative practices might be used to help us work with fear and cultivate social bonds.

For those not attending this year, stay tuned to our Facebook and Twitter pages as we cover the event. Interested in applying for next year? The application period will occur in early 2016, and be announced later this year—in the meantime, sign up for our newsletter and stay connected to us through our social media accounts to receive the latest updates.

Mind–Body Interventions Affect Sleep and Oxytocin in Cancer Survivors

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Surviving a cancer diagnosis and the treatment that follows requires overcoming significant emotional and physical hurdles. Even after a patient is cancer-free, he or she often continues to struggle with depression and anxiety from fear of cancer recurrence, and many also suffer from sleep disturbances. These ongoing challenges negatively impact well-being and quality of life, hindering a patient’s ability to fully flourish. Might contemplative practices help cancer survivors deal better with their mental and physical challenges to remain cancer free? In a recent study published in Integrative Cancer Therapies, Varela awardee David Lipschitz, MLI Fellow Yoshio Nakamura and colleagues at the University of Utah investigated the effects of two mind-body interventions on a number of physiological and psychological health outcomes in cancer survivors. This study used a strong experimental design, comparing three similar interventions to which participants were randomly assigned: mind-body bridging, mindfulness meditation, and a sleep education group as an active control. Below, David Lipschitz summarizes his Varela research project and its findings.

— Wendy Hasenkamp, Senior Scientific Officer

 

Mind–Body Interventions Affect Sleep and Oxytocin in Cancer Survivors

by David L. Lipschitz, PhD

OxitocinaCPK3DOxytocin is a hormone produced in an area of the brain known as the hypothalamus, whose release activates a variety of brain regions resulting in many different functions, including birth (labor), breast feeding (lactation), maternal behavior, parental care, social bonding, affiliation (such as couples being together), and well-being. In recent studies in humans, oxytocin has been shown to be associated with increases in prosocial behaviors such as trust, altruism, generosity, cooperation and empathy. These various functions suggest that oxytocin may promote health by reducing stress and increasing calm/relaxed states, resulting in improved quality of life and well-being.

Given oxytocin’s stress-reducing and calming properties, and its capacity to increase well-being, its action may be relevant to those fighting cancer. We conducted a study to look at the effects of two mind-body therapies on changes in salivary oxytocin levels in a cancer survivor population with self-reported sleep disturbance. Investigating oxytocin in cancer survivors could be important, given cancer survivors’ high levels of distress, depression, and anxiety, as well as poor sleep, possibly due to the effects of cancer treatment and worries about cancer recurrence. In our study, we hypothesized that the mind-body therapies would increase oxytocin levels, which would be associated with improvements in sleep, increases in quality of life and well-being, and reduced stress. Read More

A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World

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A Force for GoodDaniel Goleman, a former science journalist for the New York Times, is the author of many books, including the international bestseller Emotional Intelligence. He has known the Dalai Lama for decades, mainly through an on-going service of science meetings organized by the Mind & Life Institute.

In A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World, Goleman outlines a singular vision for transforming the world in practical and positive ways.

The book will be available June 23rd and can ordered here.

Q: How is A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision unique among his many books?

A: The Dalai Lama, as he turns 80, summarizes his message to the world at large. He’s been offering this vision in bits and pieces for years; several hours of interviews let me pull this vision together for the first time. This is not a Buddhist book, but rather based on his decades of dialogues with scientists – most of those organized by the Mind & Life Institute. He draws on those encounters time and again in arguing for this vision of a better world.

 

Q: Dan, you describe this new book as more than simply a manifesto for how to be a force for good. In fact, you call Force for Good the book behind the Movement. What do you mean by that?

A: Force for Good shares the Dalai Lama’s call to action – he urges us each to act now, in whatever ways we can, to move the world in a positive direction. This manifesto, though, goes beyond our individual efforts to envision a collective force for good—a movement—that far outweighs the forces of negativity at play in the world. The Dalai Lama’s theory of change puts less stock in governments and policies than in the united power of the collective, all of us, each contributing in our own way.

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With our Most Sincere Gratitude to Arthur Zajonc, In His Transition from the Mind & Life Presidency

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As of June 1, 2015, Professor Arthur Zajonc will be stepping down from the presidency of the Mind & Life Institute, a transition he has been planning since the fall of 2014. Professor Zajonc is an emeritus professor of physics at Amherst College and the author of numerous books including Catching the Light. He has also been a key figure in contemplative education, serving as the Executive Director of Contemplative Mind in Society as well as authoring Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love and The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal (with Parker Palmer).

The Mind & Life Institute has been most fortunate to have the visionary leadership of Professor Zajonc at a critical phase of its history. Under Arthur’s presidency, Mind and Life expanded its traditional role as a global convener of contemplative studies and science dialogues. In addition to the on-going dialogues, the Summer Research Institute, and the Varela Awards, the Institute has been able to offer, through the 1440 Grants, pilot research awards specifically to study the effects of contemplative practices in the world. Our International Symposium of Contemplative Studies (ISCS) has reached a new height, the last one attracting more than 1700 participants, representing a wide range of disciplines from neuroscience, philosophy and psychology to education, contemplative scholarship, and diverse therapeutic traditions. One significant area of development has been the area of translational research, involving adaptations and study of contemplative-practice-based interventions in contemporary settings of health, education, and workplace – especially through Call to Care (education initiative) and Academy for Contemplative and Ethical Leadership (ACEL), a summer leadership program.

The Mind and Life board has appointed an able interim Acting President, Professor Carolyn Jacobs, who is a member of the board, an emeritus professor of Social Work and was Dean of the School of Social Work at Smith College for many years. Recently retired, Carolyn has graciously accepted the position as the acting president until such time as our formal search process yields a new president. With Professor Jacobs’ able interim leadership, assisted by an executive committee of the board, all core activities of Mind and Life will proceed as planned.

We, the Mind and Life board and community, are deeply grateful to Arthur for his wise leadership and service to the Mind & Life Institute.

Thupten Jinpa, PhD
Mind & Life Institute, Board Chair

The MLI Community in Conversation with the Karmapa

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Mind and Life Board Members Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman and Fellow Sona Dimidjian participated in a conversation on well-being with the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa. The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds hosted this event.