An in-depth look at a Mind & Life Think Tank on Abrahamic traditions.

To date, the traditions and techniques that have been most substantively researched in the field of contemplative science have largely derived from Buddhism and Buddhist-inspired movements. While there have been tremendous advances and developments due to this collaboration—indeed there would be no field without it—a natural consequence of this specific alliance is that insights from other traditions have not yet been fully investigated and integrated into the field. This Mind & Life Think Tank was therefore dedicated to exploring such potential contributions of the contemplative streams found within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (collectively called the “Abrahamic” traditions) toward the dual aims of alleviating suffering and promoting human flourishing in accord with the Mind & Life Institute’s primary mission.

The Think Tank took the form of a workshop occurring over two days in late April 2015 at Mind & Life’s former event house in Amherst, Massachusetts. It featured two representatives from each of these Abrahamic contemplative streams: one a scholar-practitioner, the other a scholarly minded teacher of meditative practices indigenous to the tradition. Participants (see list below) hailed from as far as Jerusalem and Scotland and as close as Providence, Rhode Island and Hadley, Massachusetts. In addition, our group included a neuroscientist, a scholar of religion, and several Mind & Life staff members. Due to this structure, we were able to explore our questions and thematic concerns with scholarly rigor and sophistication while also including the full richness of first-, second-, and third-person perspectives. The first day was devoted to exploring the practices and traditions themselves, while the second day was devoted to identifying potentially fruitful basic and applied research opportunities.

Although there were many intriguing and dynamic discussions, several threads stood out as particularly relevant and potentially significant to the field at large. At the outset, participants considered whether their traditions “should,” in the first place, make contributions in the ways that Buddhist and Buddhist-inspired movements have done thus far. Such a question arises particularly in light of recent debates between Buddhist traditionalists and Buddhist modernists over the thorny issues surrounding the adaptation and secularization of different beliefs and practices. Ultimately we reached a consensus that contemplative science, and clinical and cognitive sciences more broadly, could benefit greatly from the inclusion of practices and insights from the Abrahamic traditions—particularly those associated with psychological development and foundational (as opposed to “advanced”) practices.

However, the ideal of “responsible secularization” was also discussed as an important guiding principle, and it was suggested that it should at least include:

  • A sophisticated understanding of how such practices are used in their original religious contexts, which in many cases are as a foundation for later stages of development that aim to transcend or “eclipse” personal psychological domains and into modes of contemplative experience generally not investigated by mainstream science
  • A thorough exploration of the appropriateness of, and intentions behind, taking these practices out of their native contexts and placing them into new environments for potentially new or adapted purposes
  • Awareness and transparent representation of all potential “side effects” of such practices, both positive and negative (or distressing)—this ethical consideration being vital to the safe and successful widespread dissemination of meditative practices in our society

After setting the stage with these considerations, the group moved on to discuss practical avenues of research towards the alleviation of suffering. One noteworthy direction that quickly emerged was the possibility of adapting Abrahamic practices that are specifically oriented towards relational and affective development, which may address what are often seen as common “western” clinical ailments such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Contemporary psychology generally traces the root of these disorders to psychological wounding and trauma acquired during early childhood and adolescence. Many of these Abrahamic practices are meant to cultivate emotional and imagination-based capacities, making them uniquely suited to heal these kinds of maladies, as well as distinguishing them from many of the practices utilized in mindfulness-based interventions. They are also considered safe and relatively preliminary in several of the Jewish and Christian traditions that were discussed, and therefore may be especially suitable for beginners and inexperienced practitioners.

A related conversation thread throughout the meeting concerned the distinction between analytic (or conceptual) and apophatic (or “trans-conceptual”) practices, and the recognition that while both are vital modalities for contemplative development, the foundational conceptual approaches are often overlooked in favor of the more advanced trans-conceptual modalities. Indeed, the Dalai Lama has commented at several Mind & Life Dialogues that even within contemplative science at present, the potential of Buddhist-derived conceptual practices has yet to be fully explored and appreciated. In many Abrahamic traditions, these foundational practices are considered indispensable for development along traditional trajectories. Examining some of these trajectories could prove valuable for another under-explored area in the field: the use of these practices as “epistemic partners” in scientific inquiry and not merely as the objects of study.

At a few points in the meeting, the use and importance of narrative also emerged, both in terms of traditional contemplative instruction (parables and teaching stories in all three religions) as well as the presentation of contemplative scientific findings in the media, which sometimes employs overly simplified narratives—for example, the view that activity in certain brain systems (amygdala, default mode network, etc.) is detrimental and needs to be reduced. Another important finding was a surprising consensus among participants that the original goals of these practices in their respective traditions was not to annihilate the “self” or ego, but rather to further refine it until “porous” and transparent to a perceived sense of the divine in a stable and inter/intra-personally healthy manner. While acknowledging that during specific moments or periods of transformation the self may be experienced as “transcended” or “dissolved,” this was understood to be a transitory state, and the sense of self would indeed re-emerge, though in a significantly transformed capacity.

One final important topic of discussion was the future directions and funding priorities of contemplative science, and whether grant-making agencies might become more inclusive of Abrahamic traditions. Such a shift may help bring to light unexamined assumptions held by some portion of the meditation research community, such as the idea that Buddhism is itself a “mind science”—a belief that has recently been problematized and challenged by Buddhist scholars including Donald Lopez and David McMahan. Instead, a broader scope of investigation might facilitate a normative paradigm shift that would recognize how non-Buddhist contemplative traditions (Abrahamic and beyond) also possess valuable tools, techniques, and insights that could be fruitfully incorporated into the fields of contemplative and cognitive science.

As an unexpected bonus, just as everyone was ready to retire after the final evening’s discussion, an impromptu inter-faith dialogue unfolded into daring theological territory while being held skillfully by all participants in a space of mutual respect and sensitivity. This unintentional and in some ways unprecedented conversation likely would not have occurred without the intimate format that the workshop and the house provided.
Overall, the participants of the Think Tank felt it to have been a unique, engaging, and fruitful two days that will sow seeds of future research and inquiry. Portions of these discussions and resulting ideas are reflected in a forthcoming chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Meditation (2018), and the group hopes to gather again soon to continue the conversation. The participants wish to express their gratitude for Mind & Life’s support in making this meeting possible, and look forward to similar opportunities in the future.

Participants

Willoughby Britton, Brown University
David Cooper, Brown University
Andrew Dreitcer, Claremont School of Theology
Rabbi Eliezer Shore, Hebrew University
Wendy Farley, Emory University
Tasnim Hermila Fernandez, Sufi Order International
Nathan Fisher, University of California–Santa Barbara
Natalia Lapteva, Sufi Ruhaniat International
Chris Kaplan, Mind & Life Institute
Rabbi Doniel Katz, Neve Yerushalayim (now: The Elevation Project)
Neil-Douglas Klotz, Edinburgh Institute for Advanced Learning
Jared Lindahl, Brown University
Misbah Noorani, Brown University
Arthur Zajonc, Mind & Life Institute


Nathan Fisher received his BA in Religious Studies (Honors) from Vanderbilt University in 2011. He then joined the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Brown University where he managed the “Varieties of Contemplative Experience” study from 2012-2015. He received the Francisco J. Varela Research Award in 2012 and began a PhD program in Religious Studies and Cognitive Science at the University of California-Santa Barbara in the fall of 2015. His current research investigates Jewish and comparative mystical traditions as well as how science and religion are coming together in the emerging field of Contemplative Science.

Chris Kaplan received his Master’s degree in the Social Sciences from the University of Chicago in 2011, where he researched politically engaged Buddhism and the global justice movement. Since then, he has been involved in the field of Contemplative Studies in a number of capacities, including as a Visiting Researcher at Brown University, a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate with the Mind & Life Institute, and through a variety of other ongoing collaborations. He works at the intersection of contemplative practice, social justice, and holistic human development.

Photo credit: Jared Lindahl

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