The Mind & Life community remembers Cathy Kerr

 

Consider the amazing life of Catherine Kerr, who began her career as an historian, was retrained as a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, and went on to present scientific research on neurophysiology to the Dalai Lama. For those who knew Cathy, this capacity for transformation through focused purpose was just one of her remarkable qualities. It was also the foundation of her pioneering research on the mind’s attention to the sense of touch and inner experience as a way to understand disease and improve human health.

In the days following Cathy’s death on Saturday, November 12, the Mind & Life Institute received an outpouring of affectionate memories of her strength and grace, along with moving stories of her personal importance in the lives of her colleagues and her role as a gifted and valued mentor to her students, and reminders of her monumental contributions to the field of contemplative sciences.

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A Call for More Compassionate, Equitable Education

 

What’s Equity Got to Do With It?

Recently I presented at a workshop for educators interested in the science of social and emotional learning (SEL) and prosocial education. After leading a half-day session on cultivating compassion, in which I also highlighted common blocks and obstacles — like stereotype, bias, prejudice and racism — to cultivating compassion, I asked the group somewhat rhetorically to consider what this material had to do with educational equity. The largely white, upper middle-class audience fell silent. Some looked confused; others seemed hesitant or reluctant to speak. Others seemed mildly irritated, perhaps by me, or by the topic itself.

I admit I was somewhat surprised. Hadn’t this group of educators — many of whom had traveled from across the country to attend this workshop — signed up for this program because they were interested in learning how better to foster more caring, more successful and more connected students and school communities? What made it difficult for the group to see or speak about the connection between compassion — or lack thereof — and equity?

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Can We Change Racial Bias?

Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Ferguson. Baltimore. Charleston. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. In the wake of so many recent tragedies involving racial discrimination, Americans are taking a hard look at this systemic and divisive issue in our culture, and asking what can be done to change it.

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Community and Conversations on Context in Contemplative Studies

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The Mind and Life Summer Research Institute at Garrison

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The Mind & Life Institute continues the tradition of hosting its signature program, the annual Mind and Life Summer Research Institute (MLSRI) at the Garrison Institute every year in mid-June. Over the course of a week, a community coalesces. In a rich and intimate retreat-like setting, together we dive deeply into a theme related to contemplative studies. With a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds, seasoned scholars, scientists, practitioners, and professionals involved in applied fields join those who are in formative stages of their training and careers. We share and listen, explore different paradigms, challenge our assumptions, and stretch our perspectives. We engage in contemplative practices firsthand: meditation, yoga, and T’ai Chi are woven into each day, and we engage in a full silent day of contemplative immersion midway through the program. Overlooking the Hudson River, the beautiful grounds and grand stone dwelling of the Garrison Institute provide the perfect setting to foster both conversation and quiet reflection. At the end of the week, we go forward with new ways of thinking and being, and with new connections and collaborations to inspire and transform our work in the academy and in the world.

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President’s Message: New Vision and Priorities

During my first few months as president of the Mind & Life Institute, I have spoken with many members of our community. I am inspired to see how you care about Mind and Life and want to be involved in our ongoing efforts to foster individual and societal flourishing through thoughtful interdisciplinary conversations, research, and real-world engagement that integrates the sciences, humanities, and contemplative wisdom traditions. I have keenly listened to you and have reflected on my earlier experiences as a member of the Mind and Life community, while also quietly touching on personal values that have guided me throughout my life. Through this process, my vision for this next chapter for Mind and Life has begun to crystallize.

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Mindfulness and Racial Bias: Resources For Deeper Understanding

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In early December 2015, Mind and Life was honored to host a live chat with MLI Fellow and Law Professor Rhonda Magee that explored the following theme:

Many who examine the growth of the field of contemplative practice see it as coming only from straight, middle-class whites and corporate America. How might we work to shift that perception and to broaden the reach of our work? What practices can assist us in deepening our understanding of these criticisms and lessen “mindful bypassing?”  

The hour-long chat included periods of meditation and a lively question and answer section. One question that was asked during the chat concerned insights about how to approach the topics of mindfulness in minority communities. From Rhonda’s response, which can be watched here:

“From my perspective, we are engaged in a kind of a deep effort to find ways of reaching everyone and to find ways of bringing these supportive practices to bear wherever they might be useful…and that work looks differently in different places.”

Rhonda suggested a number of resources such as this study, “Mindfulness equity and Western Buddhism: reaching people of low socioeconomic status and people of color” by Harrison Blum.

Additional resources by Rhonda include:

The Way of ColorInsight: Understanding Race and Law Effectively Through Mindfulness-Based ColorInsight Practices, to be published in Spring 2016 by the Georgetown Journal of Modern Critical Race Perspectives.

Teaching Mindfulness with Mindfulness of Diversity for a forthcoming book Resources for Teaching Mindfulness: A Cross-Cultural and International Handbook, eds. Don McCown and Diane Riebel.

How Mindfulness Can Defeat Racial Bias published by the Greater Good Science Center. 

 

 

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Developing Measures of Compassion, Empathy, Care, and Kindness

As contemplative approaches are being applied in educational settings with increasing frequency, early studies using self-report and academic outcomes suggest that these programs hold promise for the well-being of both teachers and students. However, the field currently lacks empirically rigorous measures to evaluate important real-world behavior and psychological change due to the cultivation of compassion, empathy, care, and kindness. For example, do teachers who are trained in compassion and care actually change their behavior when interacting with students? Similarly, do students who have been exposed to contemplative interventions begin to treat their peers with more kindness and compassion? Scientific research on these outcomes (beyond self-report) will be essential in understanding the broad and lasting impact of compassion-oriented educational programs.

In response to this need for innovative, mixed-methods, and pragmatic tools to measure these important human capacities, Mind and Life launched a new funding initiative in 2015. The Measures of Compassion, Empathy, Care, and Kindness award program had two main goals: 1) to promote the development of rigorous, novel, behavioral and interpersonal measurement tools to assess the dimensions of compassion, empathy, care, and kindness in K-12 educational settings, and 2) to establish a network of research sites interested in developing and cross-validating such novel measurement strategies.

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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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Mind–Body Interventions Affect Sleep and Oxytocin in Cancer Survivors

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