The Mind & Life Institute: Celebrating 35 Years
Insights Journey into the heart of contemplative science
Journey into the heart of contemplative science

Looking Ahead Reflections on the field of contemplative science and directions for the future. By Susan Bauer-Wu

Illustration by Sirin Thada

Overlapping circular patterns symbolize the interconnectedness of all life and the multidisciplinary perspectives that come together through the field of contemplative science.

We invite readers to explore your own interpretation.

Artist: Sirin Thada

As we strive to navigate an uncertain future, could it be that the root causes of some of our most intractable challenges lie in the human mind? And could solutions be found there, too? Such an audacious proposition lies at the heart of the Insights project, with its evolving collection of essays from leading scholars, scientists, and contemplatives.

For 35 years, the Mind & Life Institute has convened pioneering thinkers—and doers—to explore fundamental questions at the intersection of science and contemplative wisdom. The founders of Mind & Life held true to a vision that the insights that resulted could inform our understanding of the human mind, and the development of new approaches for the benefit of humanity and the planet we call home.

From the pages of this website, an inspiring picture emerges of what is possible through this bridging of disciplines, hearts, and minds—for example, mindfulness-based approaches for treating addiction and depression, tackling the root causes of racial bias, improving student and teacher well-being, and rethinking our approach to climate change. As Thupten Jinpa writes so eloquently, the dialogues between Buddhism and science “laid fertile soil for the birth, blossoming, and spreading of today’s offerings in the domains of mindfulness, compassion, and emotion regulation,” which now benefit so many across the world.

If there’s one overarching message that echoes throughout these essays, it’s the undeniable reality of our interconnection. As Mind & Life co-founder His Holiness the Dalai Lama likes to remind each of us, “The reality is, [every] individual human being’s life depends on the community. In today’s world, the entire seven billion human beings are one human community. So now the time has come, we have to think in terms of all humanity.”

The Dalai Lama elaborates on the need to nurture compassion, altruism, and an appreciation of our common humanity at the 2019 Mind & Life Conversation on Compassion, Interconnection, and Transformation.

So where do we go from here? The interdisciplinary field of contemplative science has taken root and is growing, and with it the possibility of bringing this work into the world to achieve far greater impact in the critical years ahead. We asked each of the Insights essayists to elaborate on where the field needs to go next to meet the challenges of our time. Below are six key takeaways from our inaugural collection of essays:

1. We need to shift our concept of self toward a more interconnected worldview.

Tackling the challenges of today—from mounting polarization to melting polar ice caps—demands that we reconsider our very notion of ‘self’ in favor of a worldview rooted in our fundamental interconnection. In their far-reaching conversation, Buddhist scholar Anne Klein and neuroscientist Anil Seth elaborate on the mistaken notion that the self exists separately from the world around us. Instead, they share perspectives on how the self is constructed, constantly evolving, and interdependent. Once we realize this, they posit, it becomes easier to relate to other perspectives, while recognizing the context-dependent nature of our own experience.

Tackling the challenges of today—from mounting polarization to melting polar ice caps—demands that we reconsider our very notion of ‘self’ in favor of a worldview rooted in our fundamental interconnection.

The theme of interdependence carries through philosopher Evan Thompson’s essay, where he describes the human mind as inherently relational. “While we try to pin it down as a thing (the brain) or a place (inside the head), the mind is continually bringing forth significance through embodied action in the world,” he writes. Understanding the patterns that connect life and mind—and people to each other and the living world—is critical to addressing complex phenomena such as climate change, he adds.

Indeed, climate change is rooted in the story of separation that serves as the dominant paradigm of our time, asserts sustainability researcher Christine Wamsler. Changing the way that we relate to ourselves, to others, and the environment is critical to achieving a sustainable future, she writes, adding that mindfulness and compassion practices can help nurture a sense of our fundamental interconnection. Her sentiments are echoed by neuroscientist Wendy Hasenkamp, who offers a hopeful vision rooted in the transformative potential of our brains and minds. Contemplative practices, including lovingkindness, compassion, and relational practices, she writes, can help us upend our presumed separateness.

Meditation teacher Willa Blythe Baker offers another practical step forward: embodiment. Disembodiment, or being “up in the head,” threatens our physical and emotional health,” she writes. By listening to, and coming down into the body, we can access a felt wisdom and sense our innate connection to the Earth and all that inhabit it.

2. The science of mindfulness needs to prioritize efforts to engage and serve marginalized communities.

Insights authors describe their pioneering journeys to investigate whether and how mindfulness can alleviate suffering and promote well-being; yet we still have a long way to go to ensure the benefits of mindfulness extend equally and fairly to all. Law professor and meditation teacher Rhonda Magee calls for a “revolution in the science of mindfulness” aimed at broadening “the inclusion of traditionally marginalized voices and perspectives in the teaching and study of such practices.” Implicit in her call to action is diversifying the ranks of mindfulness teachers and researchers.

…we still have a long way to go to ensure the benefits of mindfulness extend equally and fairly to all.

Similarly, clinical psychologist Sona Dimidjian, who has researched the use of mindfulness practices to treat depression—especially within disadvantaged communities—advocates for participatory approaches whereby community members are actively engaged in the design, implementation, and evaluation of such studies. Only then will such research truly reflect the needs, values, and aspirations of those being served.

And if we’re to realize the promise of the Dalai Lama’s call for an education of the heart, education researcher Rob Roeser writes that we need to think more expansively about how to reach students representing different races, ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds. He calls for more diverse voices and perspectives in the design, implementation, and evaluation of contemplative education programs to develop interventions that are culturally responsive and inclusive.

3. More emphasis is needed on nurturing a relational mindset for meditation rooted in community.

We live in a complex web of interconnected relationships. Despite this, in Western culture, the mindfulness movement has largely focused on promoting individual practice as a pathway to personal well-being. In his essay, psychologist and meditation teacher Paul Condon explores the limitations of this individualistic orientation, along with the benefits of nurturing a relational mindset. Paul speaks of Buddhist ritual and meditative practices as a doorway to connect with a vast “community of compassion,” as represented in close loved ones, spiritual ancestors and teachers, even moments of care and connection with strangers encountered in our everyday lives. A relational mindset also seeks to connect mindfulness practitioners to the natural world of which they’re a part. In the face of growing racial and political divides—and increasing loneliness and mental health challenges among young people—it is more important than ever to nurture the bonds of community and compassion that unite us. Community practice and cultivating a socially-engaged orientation are important ways of doing so.

4. We need to expand the study of diverse contemplative traditions, with special emphasis on Indigenous voices, if we’re to address the underlying roots of the climate crisis.

To date, the field of contemplative science has focused largely on the study of Buddhist-inspired traditions and practices from a predominantly Western point of view. While tremendous strides have been made—understanding and applying these practices in health care settings, schools, and workplace environments—more attention must be placed on the study of practices from diverse cultures and traditions.

…more attention must be placed on the study of practices from diverse cultures and traditions.

In an impassioned essay, Indigenous scholar Yuria Celidwen describes the downstream effects of relying on Western interpretations of practices originating in the East. In short, this has resulted in a greater emphasis on the individual, along with personal well-being, with benefits accruing disproportionately to White, privileged audiences. While this is starting to shift in response to calls for greater equity, diversity, and inclusion, much work is left to be done to uplift, and invest in, the study of practices representing diverse cultures and neglected traditions. Yuria makes the case for integrating Indigenous and Western science, particularly in response to the existential crisis of climate change. “An Indigenous approach,” she writes, “is not solely focused on individual experience but on relationships belonging to an ecosystem.” If we’re to address the underlying causes of the climate crisis, namely our disconnection from each other and nature, Indigenous wisdom has much to teach us about our fundamental interdependence and responsibility as stewards of our earthly home.

Indigenous leader and environmental strategist Dekila Chungyalpa agrees. In calling out the prevailing paradigm of white male supremacy and the devastation wrought by colonialism and unbridled capitalism, Dekila invokes the power of Mother Wisdom to call us back to the principles of interdependence and compassion.

5. Contemplative science has an important role to play in leveraging the power of technology to foster well-being, while informing dialogue and debate around the use and impact of existing and emerging technologies.

Several Insights authors speak to the promise of technology to make proven interventions far more widely available. Richie Davidson, a pioneer in contemplative neuroscience, describes an app designed to train people in the four pillars of well-being (Awareness, Connection, Insight, and Purpose). Discussions are now underway on how to scale its use across an entire city. Neuroscientist Jud Brewer also shares positive results from an app-based mindfulness training for cigarette smokers to reduce cravings. And Sona Dimidjian describes a study using a digital mindfulness-based intervention to help individuals struggling with depression. Based on positive results, the program is now being adapted for use by perinatal women. Each of these examples speak to the promise of digital technologies to relieve suffering and foster greater well-being; that said, questions remain concerning the depth, dosage, commercial implications, and sustainability of such interventions, with more research and testing needed.

Just as existing and emerging technologies expand opportunities for positive impact, we need to be vigilant of their potential for harm. The field of contemplative science can and must play a role in studying the impact of technology on the human mind and relationships—and to use that knowledge to inform wider conversations related to ethics and flourishing. In her essay on strengthening attention, Amishi Jha points to the danger posed in today’s world by “the forces of digital distraction, the attention economy, [and] the prevalence of false narratives and misinformation campaigns.” Contemplative science must continue its work, she adds, to provide “compelling, actionable answers on how to best protect and strengthen attention to fuel our collective judgment, character, and will.”

6. More time, effort, and resources need to be invested in delivering evidence-based solutions at scale.

With increasing evidence now pointing to the efficacy of contemplative approaches, especially in addressing mental health and educational needs, we need to do a better job of ensuring the fruits of such approaches reach those who could benefit most. In addition to using digital technologies, the question is, how?

Essayists make clear we need to do a better job of applying contemplative approaches to ease suffering, and influence large-scale systems. Roshi Joan Halifax, a pioneer in end-of-life care, shares the potential for an enactive view of compassion to bring greater depth to our response to suffering. And in her essay on the science of compassion, Jennifer Mascaro speaks to the importance of implementation science for identifying barriers to scaling an approach within a given system, along with the interpersonal, systemic, and cultural factors that can facilitate the adoption of a new practice. The question of if, when, and how to scale proven interventions is one that needs to be prioritized as we look to the future.

As a global community, we’re up against some very big challenges; yet reading through these essays offers a healthy dose of optimism. Minds can change. Minds do change. That’s a critical step toward changing our behaviors and actions. We have the knowledge and understanding to foster greater well-being, nurture more caring and compassionate communities, and engage our hearts and minds proactively in combating climate change. Through these kinds of transformation, we can strive to achieve positive change in our outer world. Each of us is a precious piece of a larger interconnected whole.