Clifford Saron: Embracing the Mystery

Mind & Life would not exist without the contributions of many dedicated individuals who graciously contribute their time and expertise in service of its mission. Last Fall, at the 2018 International Symposium for Contemplative Research, Mind & Life presented Clifford Saron, Ph.D. with its inaugural Service Award. Said Mind & Life President Susan Bauer Wu, “From 1990 to this very moment, Cliff has worked in continuous service to Mind & Life. His heart, mind, wisdom, and brilliance are woven throughout the fabric of our work.” Below is a tribute to Dr. Saron and his nearly three decades of service to Mind & Life.

Sometimes an event transforms your life in ways you could never imagine. Such was the case in October 1990 when Cliff Saron was asked by Richie Davidson, his research partner at the time, to present their work at the 3rd Mind & Life Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. “My life changed,” recalls Saron of his unexpected sojourn in Dharamsala, India. “It was like all of my interests came into a single basket.”

While exploring the Dialogue’s theme of “Emotions and Health”—alongside the likes of Daniel Goleman, Francisco Varela, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Sharon Salzberg—Saron describes the lasting impact of being in dialogue with the Dalai Lama and this community. At the event, he and Varela, along with Alan Wallace, began to envision a research project to study the exceptional mental abilities of Tibetan monks through a neuroscientific lens—pioneering what would evolve into an expansive field of inquiry.

During speaking engagements, he frequently calls attention back to two photographs of that early research taken in Dharamsala in 1992. In them, a researcher dons an electrode cap while the Dalai Lama, scientists, and scholars look on with rapt attention. When the researchers held a similar demo at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics the monks began laughing, he recalls, at the notion that they would put a cap on the head since everyone knew the mind is here, the monks said pointing to the heart, hinting at the complex territory that lay ahead.

A crowd gathers at the 1992 Mind & Life Dialogue 4 to observe an EEG recording, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Adam Engle, Francisco Varela, Alan Wallace, Jerome (Pete) Engle, Barry Hershey, Thupten Jinpa, Roshi Joan Halifax, Alex Berzin, Charles Taylor, Thubten Chodron, Renukah Singh, and others. Greg Simpson is wearing the electrode cap. Credit Cliff Saron.

Monks at the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics in McLeod Ganj, India in 1992 observing an EEG recording. Francisco Varela is wearing the electrode cap. Richie Davidson stands at the far right. The monks are laughing because the head appears to them an odd place to measure the mind, which is traditionally located at the heart. Credit Cliff Saron.

Over the next three decades, Saron, now a Research Scientist at the University of California Davis Center for Mind and Brain and the UC Davis Health MIND Institute, would become a mainstay within the Mind & Life community, helping to inform, shape, and support the organization’s work. The benefits of the relationship flowed both ways, with Saron crediting Mind & Life with playing an essential role in his formation and the values he holds most dear.

Inspired by his father, Saron has been interested in the nature of consciousness and awareness since early childhood. He says, “Mind & Life has been for me a singular place where my deepest impulses for inquiry and connection have been met with remarkable comrades in open arms, along with enduring questions and inspiring aspirations for healing this world of ours.”

Among his many contributions, Saron has served as presenter at five Mind & Life Dialogues, Master Lecturer at two International Symposia for Contemplative Research, and faculty member at five Summer Research Institutes. In less visible, yet equally valuable ways, his wisdom and insight have influenced the organization’s programming and grantmaking through voluntary roles on advisory committees, and as a grant reviewer. As if that weren’t enough, Saron, a self-confessed ‘gear head,’ has applied his skills as video producer and audio engineer at numerous MLI convenings.

“Mind & Life has been for me a singular place where my deepest
impulses for inquiry and connection have been met
with remarkable comrades in open arms.”

Building on his earlier research with the Tibetan monks, Saron now directs The Shamatha Project, originally conceived with Alan Wallace, the most comprehensive longitudinal study initiated to investigate the effects of long-term intensive meditation on physiological and psychological processes related to attention, emotion regulation, and health.

Reflecting on Mind & Life’s work today, Saron is pleased to see its expanding global reach and embrace of “multiple ways of knowing.” In 2016, he co-chaired the planning committee for the Botswana Dialogue. As was the case with his visit to Dharamsala 26 years earlier, he called the experience of “drinking at the well of the remarkably rich African philosophy of Ubuntu” deeply life changing. He says that he is driven to look beyond his field of cognitive neuroscience for “the possibilities of connecting across large scales of difference to experience our common humanity.”

While acknowledging the many contributions of contemplative science, Saron warns against the tendency to oversell the actual state of the science in order to legitimate contemplative practices. Such practices may be deeply meaningful or even transformative for some individuals, while simultaneously lacking strong (or any) empirical support at a group or population level. On one hand, the science of mindfulness has fueled widespread adoption; on the other, mindfulness is now big business. Commercialization in the form of some consumer apps and various marketing ploys often trivializes the practice—and the complexity inherent in deep healing. By oversimplifying the process, “there’s often a diminution of wonder, of mystery, of the importance of paying attention to and learning from your own experience and insight.”

Saron wholeheartedly endorses Francisco Varela’s idea that the lived craft of doing science can be a contemplative path in itself, and is best conducted with “delight in the mystery.” As such, Saron expresses gratitude to the people and ideas he has been exposed to through Mind & Life on a deeply personal journey he calls a “compassionate casserole of becoming.”

The Mind & Life Service Award is a token of appreciation for Dr. Saron’s immeasurable contributions to the founding and growth of Mind & Life. He has led the way by embracing the mystery within contemplative research.

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