The Geopolitics of the Other

Written in collaboration with the Garrison Institute

How do we emotionally and socially construct our notions of difference and “the other?” Are there core truths about otherness that transcend geographic or racial boundaries? In June, more than 130 scientists, scholars, students, and activists from 19 countries gathered at Mind & Life’s 15th Summer Research Institute (SRI), each held at the Garrison Institute. This year’s theme, “Engaging Cultural Difference and Human Diversity,” provided the opportunity for a deep dive into these and other questions at the heart of today’s growing divides.

The weeklong convening culminated in an engaging and heartful plenary session: “The Geopolitics of the Other.” Three panelists, each of whom had migrated to the U.S. from the Global South, engaged the audience in an exploration of race, ethnicity, and identity as profoundly influenced by geography, history, religion, and culture. Acknowledging the bitter legacy of colonialism and oppression across the globe, the discussion surfaced practical strategies for individual action and collective healing.

 “The label ‘people of color’ became my label.”

—Nilanjana Dasgupta

“The first time I became aware of race was when I came to the U.S.,” said panelist Nilanjana Dasgupta, Ph.D., who moved to the U.S. from India at 18 to study biology and stayed to pursue a career in neuroscience. “The label ‘people of color’ became my label,” she said. In India, her skin color was irrelevant, but as she traveled to different parts of the world, the sense of being “the other” manifested in challenging ways, especially as a person from a colonized country.

“You can’t avoid the issue of context,” affirmed panelist Michael Onyebuchi Eze, Ph.D., whose upbringing in Nigeria was profoundly shaped by the nation’s colonial past. Later, while studying at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., Eze was tagged as a cleaning person because of his race. “Sometimes the racism is unconscious,” said Eze, who has lived in more than a dozen countries. “We have to keep talking about it and can’t get involved in a conspiracy of silence.”

Panel member Marisela Gomez, Ph.D. also shared how her sense of identity as a Creole from Belize was impacted when she moved to the U.S. as a teen to be with her family. In her country, people were a mixture of many ethnicities: Spanish, indigenous, Mexican, pan-African, Scottish, English. In the U.S., she struggled with her racialized identity. “Racism is violent here, it hurts, and leaves an imprint,” said Gomez, now a mindfulness practitioner, author, and community activist in East Baltimore.

Panelists questioned whether they could retain a sense of cultural and individual identity in the face of racial inequities and discrimination. Gomez effectively stopped being Creole, Dasgupta stopped being Bengali, and Eze was no longer Nigerian. Globally, color has meaning. The lighter you are, the better you are. This point was driven home by Eze. “My African culture can’t avoid colonialism. What is white is better,” he said. The context is not just geographic but religious, sociological, and political. History shifts how people see things.

So, what is the way forward in advancing social justice and fundamental freedoms? Panelists and audience members had much to say.

From the perspective of academia, we need to do a better job of bridging theory and practice, urged Dasgupta. This is why she attends the Mind & Life SRI, where changemakers can connect directly with researchers. New research and practice partnerships are needed, she added, that focus on localized solutions to big problems. Once proof of concept is achieved, it becomes a matter of adapting what we know works to other contexts.

Lobsang, a Buddhist monk, spoke up on the role of contemplative practice. “Being mindful of history is important so you don’t repeat the same mistakes,” he said. Also critical is the Buddhist philosophy of oneness. “There’s always an in-group and an out-group in society,” he pointed out. “One way to reduce that gap is to maintain a sense of sameness.”

“Our difference is a gift to each other. Every time I meet someone different than me, they recreate me. They’re a kind of divinity to me.”

—Michael Onyebuchi Eze

Citing ancient African wisdom, Eze distinguished between honoring sameness and embracing difference. “Our difference is a gift to each other,” he said. “Every time I meet someone different than me, they recreate me. They’re a kind of divinity to me.”

Equally important is creating safe spaces that nurture dialogue and deepen understanding of complex issues related to oppression and injustice. Convenings such as the SRI were held up as unique spaces where people from diverse backgrounds can deepen their knowledge and develop skills to drive change no matter what their area of expertise.

Poignant and humbling was Eze’s encouragement that we each remain committed to justice and equity in the midst of constant cultural shifts. “We think of revolution as an event that ends and it’s time to move on,” he said, citing hopes of a post-racial society emerging in the U.S. in the years of the Obama presidency. “But the context is always shifting,” he concluded. “The revolution is timeless.”

Given this reality, panelists emphasized the need for personal accountability and maintaining a regular practice of contemplation. For Gomez, change flows through combining contemplation with action. To nurture clarity, social justice advocates need to take time for self-care, contemplation, and joy,” she said. “It’s not just Buddhist practice,” she noted. “It’s any practice that cultivates the moments where we can take care of the difficulties. We then take that practice of love, intention, and oneness out into the world.”

1,000 Years of Sacred Wisdom Preserved in One Very Special Book

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, with a draft copy of “Murals of Tibet,” Boston, 2014. Photo: Mina Magda © TASCHEN

In 1972, American photographer and writer Thomas Laird traveled overland from Europe into India on a mission to document works of art designed to transform human consciousness. Now, nearly 50 years later, his mission has been achieved in a single, monumental book: “Murals of Tibet.”

The SUMO-sized publication by TASCHEN presents—for the first time—130 of the rarest and most precious murals of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. “Murals of Tibet” is as much a definitive guide to the art of the Himalayas as it as a masterpiece in itself. In honor of this landmark in the preservation of Tibetan culture, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama personally signed and blessed all 998 copies of the Collector’s Edition.

Arranged to reflect a route of spiritual pilgrimage, the book transports readers across space and time to murals that are located in the farthest reaches of the Tibetan plateau, and span more than 1,000 years in history. It took Laird over a decade, and five treks across the Himalayas, to capture the murals, many of which are made fully visible for the first time in the book.

“These murals are often invisible when you go to Tibet,” says Laird. “If you have a mural that’s 10 x 30 feet, and there are pillars in front of it, you can’t see the whole thing from any one place; the image that you come out with is only in your mind.”

“Murals of Tibet” brings these images out of the mind and onto the page in their full, unobstructed glory. This unprecedented technical and artistic achievement only recently became possible thanks to a cutting-edge, multi-image capture and render method that Laird developed. Such a technique has allowed Laird to create what are neither photographs nor facsimiles, but the world’s first, complete renderings of Tibetan wall murals in life-size resolution. Using this photographic ‘stitch system,’ Laird was able to piece together hundreds of images to recreate the large-scale murals—and preserve for posterity many works now housed within crumbling structures.

Although the bulk of the work that would become “Murals of Tibet” did not begin until 2008, Laird’s relationship with the art dates back to the early 70s when he was living as a photo-journalist among the Sherpa people in the Kathmandu Valley. Despite initial technical failures to document the murals, Laird said he developed an obsession with the project after witnessing the emotional wisdom in the approach of the artists he encountered.

“It was seeing their behavior—the mindful attempt to not allow greed, anger, ignorance, lust, and pride to dominate the body, speech, and mind—that made me realize that the murals are intended to educate us about emotional wisdom,” he says. “That’s what gave me the passion to solve the technical problem.”

The theme of emotional wisdom is one that runs deep in the Tibetan artistic tradition. The murals have historically served as a keystone in the transmission of Buddhist narratives and techniques for educating the heart. The works have the power to generate what the Tibetans call “liberation through seeing.”

Tibetan Yoga, detail from the Path of Dzogchen (18th century). Lukhang, 3rd floor, north wall, 136 × 472 cm (54 × 186 inches) © Thomas Laird, 2018/ TASCHEN, “Murals of Tibet”

The murals reproduced from the Dalai Lama’s private chapel in the Lukhang, for instance, contain nearly 200 scenes illustrating highly-advanced meditation techniques and the experiences that they engender. In many cases, these murals are the only visual depictions of such techniques and serve as an invaluable source of instruction and motivation for spiritual practitioners.

The practices and wisdom communicated by the murals are relevant not only to Buddhists but anyone interested in the education of the heart. Asked about his hopes for “Murals of Tibet” and the wisdom it contains, Laird reflects, “It’s too important to let the mission be trapped by any one religion. The murals are part of Tibetan heritage, but they are also part of a bigger work. They contribute to the worldwide chorus of songs being sung about educating the heart.”

While the decades-long journey of creating “Murals of Tibet” may be over, its story is only just beginning. Countless narratives within the murals have yet to be fully explored; others may have yet to be discovered. The book will remain an invaluable source of insight for future generations, whether it’s scholars seeking to unpack the murals’ meaning, Tibetan painters and copyists looking for artistic inspiration, or practitioners searching for spiritual wisdom.

For now, the book can be seen on display at various museums and libraries worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as well as in any of TASCHEN’s 14 stores.

If you would like to purchase “Murals of Tibet”, please use the links below. Your purchase of this book is another way of supporting our work. Ten percent of proceeds benefit the Mind & Life Institute.

SUMO edition: $12,000 USD / 10,000EUR / 9,500GBP

The SUMO-sized Collector’s Edition is limited to 998 copies, each signed by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, with a bookstand designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect and humanitarian pioneer Shigeru Ban.

Purchase SUMO edition »

Art Editon A: $30,000 USD / 25,000EUR / 22,500GBP (only 40 available)
Purchase Art edition A »

Art Editon B: $30,000 USD / 25,000EUR / 22,500GBP (only 40 available)
Purchase Art edition B »

For those interested in learning more about the book, more information—as well videos and podcasts about the making of the book—can be found on TASCHEN’s website.

Engaging in a Socially Unjust World with Love, Compassion, and Resolve

“It requires something more than personal experience to gain a philosophy or point of view from any specific event. It is the quality of our response to the event and our capacity to enter into the lives of others that help us to make their lives and experiences our own.”
—Emma Goldman

The relationship between contemplative practice, scholarship, cultural difference, and human diversity became clear to me the first time I stepped barefoot into a meditation center to find I was the only person of color aside from the monks in their saffron robes. As a first generation Mexican-American woman growing up in Texas, the power imbalances I encountered within North American contemplative communities prompted me to step away from practicing and facilitating in community. The ‘othering’ people of color in the U.S. often experience on a daily basis now drives my research at Brown University into the intersection of contemplative science with race/ethnicity, class, and society. Read More

2018 SRI Reflections: “I judge less. I understand more.”

Nourished. Connected. Validated. Protected. Challenged. Humbled. Grateful. These were just a few of the words used by participants at Mind & Life’s 2018 Summer Research Institute (SRI) to describe their experience.

In keeping with the event’s theme, “Engaging Cultural Difference and Human Diversity,” Mind & Life’s 15th annual SRI was the most diverse ever, bringing together over 130 scientists, scholars, students, and activists from 19 countries across 6 continents. More than three quarters of attendees were women; half represented racial minorities. With generous support from the Hershey Foundation and other donors, 45 attendees received scholarships. Read More

Six Positive Steps Toward Educational Renewal

In today’s increasingly divided world, education offers one of the most potent tools we have for preparing an emerging generation of young people to become bridge-builders and global citizens committed to the common good. With more than a quarter of the world’s population under the age of 15, the stakes couldn’t be higher—or the opportunities greater. Read More

Why It’s Time: “Engaging Cultural Difference and Human Diversity”

Uncomfortable, even risky questions lie at the heart of the Mind & Life Institute’s 15th annual Summer Research Institute (SRI), which begins June 2. Given the human capacity for empathy and intrinsic interdependence with others, what is it that drives us apart?

“If we’re all so good at connectivity and inclusivity, then why are we so awful to each other?” asks Carol Worthman, Ph.D., an anthropology professor at Emory University, and co-chair, with Middlebury College professor William Waldron, Ph.D. of the event’s planning committee. “What creates division? Alienation? And if recognizing both connection and difference is intrinsic to being human, how can we grow more wise, and really seek to ameliorate human suffering?”

If the considerations for this year’s week-long gathering at the Garrison Institute in upstate New York feel immense, they also come in an era in which division and disharmony has never felt more monolithic.

Building on last year’s theme of connectivity, SRI planners say this year’s theme is not only timely, but critically relevant. Addressing the 130 attendees will be diverse faculty and moderators—experts in everything from law to psychiatry, anthropology to social psychology, Taoism to cognitive neuroscience. Over six days, they will take deep dives into topics ranging from the biology of othering to multicultural issues in the mindfulness movement, with myriad opportunities in between to consider, discuss, and connect across scientific and cultural chasms.

Over and above the multidisciplinary take on the theme, the event stands out through its carefully choreographed design. Lectures and breakouts will be complemented by contemplative practices—including meditation, yoga, and qigong—along with experiential workshops.

“We didn’t want people to simply be presented to,” says Eboni Bugg, Mind & Life’s Senior Manager for Diversity, Inclusion, and Global Outreach and a member of the event’s planning committee. “We believe that a program focused on how difference is constructed and enacted, the concept of ‘othering,’ would be incomplete if only examined through an academic lens or silent contemplative practice. Our goal,” she adds, “is to provide an opportunity for attendees to have intellectual, interpersonal, as well as embodied experiences to investigate these concepts.”

While some may arrive at this gathering heavy-hearted after years of observing cruel wars, the tragedy of mass migrations, intense cultural discord, and ugly political upheaval revealing deeply-rooted prejudices, the gathering aims to provide a sense of ‘where to from here’ clarity, along with the promise of uplift, too. It all, say organizers, begins through connection.

“We’re moving beyond simply criticizing and condemning people for being prejudiced,” says Waldron, “and bringing to bear the findings of those who rigorously study prejudice and conflict, particularly in the social sciences, not just to understand why it happens but to suggest, based on our understandings, what some useful, practical remedies might be.”

Another chance for Mind & Life, says Worthman, to initiate difficult but worthy conversations to inform much-needed change.

“The new can be scary,” she says, “but I hope that these practitioners, having looked at some things in new ways—and that includes ideas, as well as scientific, interpersonal, and internal techniques—will use what they learn to support and enrich and inspire the work they do going forward. Attendees will have a new set of people, things to read, folks to follow, and personal relationships, networks, and ways of fitting into the world that they didn’t have before.”

Bugg agrees. “My hope is that collaboration will arise, and we’ll think differently about how we conduct research,” she says. “If we’re successful, people will take away new tools and awareness that will impact their own journey and efforts to dismantle racism and oppression.”

Event planners emphasize that the means of inquiry needs to be as diverse and complex as the subject—something that Mind & Life Institute’s 2018 SRI promises to deliver.

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