In 2012 and 2013 The Mind & Life Institute, with funding from the John Templeton Foundation, invited Contemplative Studies Fellowship grant applications that emphasize the role of the humanities or social sciences in deepening our understanding of contemplative practices in all their aspects. The term “contemplative practice” was meant in a broad sense, including a wide range of diverse phenomena such as prayer, meditation, fasting, prostration, yoga, and tai chi. All successful proposals engaged contemplative neuroscience and contemplative clinical science in some meaningful way. Such engagement may have included direct collaboration with scientists. In projects where scientists were not on the research team, the proposal identified how the project was relevant to the scientific study of contemplative practices. The strongest proposals focused on approaches that emerge from the humanities or social sciences and were be led by (or included) scholars trained in those areas. Applications that proposed purely scientific studies were not considered.

The MLCSF grant program had two complementary strands. Strand One was for projects that involved new kinds of scholarly reviews and critical analyses of scientific research on contemplative practices. The many possible projects under this rubric would include, for example, an in-depth study of the methodological and cultural assumptions that underlie clinical research on mindfulness. Strand Two projects fostered partnerships between scientists and scholars in the humanities or social sciences with the goal of developing new interdisciplinary methods and richer approaches. A project in this strand might combine, for example, an anthropological study of a particular contemplative practice with scientific research on that practice’s effects. The funding structure for the MLCSF followed the guidelines of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), where awards are based on rank so as to facilitate sabbatical leave for humanities-based scholars. Sabbatical leave, however, was only one way for funds to be used, and the selection committee also welcomed proposals that sought to use the funds in other ways to support the proposed research. The MLCSF program ran from 2012 through 2013.


MLCSF Advisory Board

John Dunne, Ph.D., Co-Chair Associate Professor, Dept. of Religion Emory University
Anne Harrington, Ph.D., Co-Chair Professor of the History of Science Harvard University
Evan Thompson, Ph.D., Co-Chair Professor of Philosophy University of Toronto
Christian Coseru, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Dept. of Philosophy College of Charleston
Jay L. Garfield, Ph.D. Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy Smith College
Alfred Kaszniak, Ph.D. Mind & Life Chief Academic Officer Head, Department of Psychology, University of Arizona; Professor, Psychology, Psychiatry, and Neurology, University of Arizona; Director, Neuropsychology, Emotion, and Memory Lab
Robert Sharf, Ph.D. Professor of Buddhist Studies, Dept. of East Asian Languages and Cultures University of California, Berkeley
Ann Taves, Ph.D. Holder of the Virgil Cordano OFM Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies Professor of Religious Studies University of California, Santa Barbara

MLCSF Recipients

Anthony Back (2013)

Professor, Division of Oncology, Department of Medicine
University of Washington, School of Medicine

Building a new theory of contemplative interactions for healthcare
Clinicians (physicians and nurses) who care for patients with serious illness face significant challenges, both intra-personal and inter-personal, that if unaddressed result in stress, burnout, and exacerbation of patient suffering. Recent developments in contemplative neuroscience and theories of compassion indicate that the time is ripe to build a better understanding of how contemplative practice could inform the clinical care provided by physicians and nurses. What is missing is a theory of “contemplative interactions” that links contemplative practice to mental qualities to medical interactions. In this proposal, we will build a theory of contemplative interactions in health care from lived experiences of an expert group of clinicians who have an established contemplative practice and work with life-threatening illness. The specific aims are to: (1) to collect qualitative data through participant observation and semi structured interviews that build a “thick description” of the lived experience of clinicians who work upstream of hospice and (2) analyze the data using the constant comparative method to develop a theory of contemplative interaction in the medical context of life-threatening illness. The ultimate goal of this inquiry and research is to understand how contemplative practice could be relevant to increasing the quality of medical care.

Monima Chadha (2013)

Senior Lecturer, Philosophy
Monash University, Australia

Introspective reliability: Synergizing Buddhist and contemporary viewpoints
First-person reports of phenomenological states are the starting point for phenomenology (including Buddhist phenomenology) and the scientific study of consciousness. The vipassana meditation technique, including the Open Monitoring meditation and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), both of which are secularized versions of vipassana, are reliant on the reliability of First-person reports of phenomenological states. Nonetheless, the veracity of first-person reports of phenomenological states has been subject to question from scientific as well as philosophical quarters since the turn of the twentieth century. The aim of this project is to show that Buddhist philosophy of consciousness can substantially contribute to the contemporary debate on the reliability of introspection. Another, equally important, aim is to leverage contemporary philosophy and neuroscience research to develop a scientifically better grounded Buddhist theory of consciousness. I believe that both scientific research and Buddhist philosophy stand to gain much from this interaction.

Dusana Dorjee (2013)

Lecturer and Research Lead, Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice, School of Psychology
Bangor University, Wales, United Kingdom

Collaborators: Khenchen Lama Rinpoche, Tibetan Yoga Centre; H.E. Jigme Lodro Rinpoche, Yeshede Buddhist Culture Institute

Meditation, concepts and de-reification: Investigation of possible links between contemplative and neurocognitive perspectives
This project is a theoretical and experimental pilot investigation of the impact of contemplative practices on concepts — the fundamental building blocks of cognition. The exploration focuses on intentionality of concepts as their property of representing entities whilst being detached from them. Terms such as ‘metacognitive insight’ (Teasdale et al., 2002), ‘re-perceiving’ (Shapiro et al., 2006) or ‘de-reification’ (Dunne, 2012) are used to describe the explicit awareness of the distinction between the actual objects concepts represent and concepts themselves. In clinical conditions, this understanding can lead to detachment from anxious or depressive thought patterns which can prevent further spiraling into mental illness. In the Buddhist context, de-reification is central to both intellectual understanding and experiential practices in traditions focusing on non-duality such as Dzogchen. The proposed research project falls into Stand two under laboratory-based projects and aims to: (1) Examine the notion of de-reification from the perspectives of theory and practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Dzogchen and explore possible links to self-report and neurocognitive assessments of de-reification. (2) Investigate the feasibility of experimental neurocognitive research into de-reification in a pilot study using self-report, behavioural and event-related brain potential markers of conceptual processing.

Franco Fabbro (2012)

Professor, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Department of Human Sciences
University of Udine, Italy

Collaborators: Salvatore M. Aglioti, Department of Psychology University of Rome La Sapienza, Italy Cosimo Urgesi, Department of Human Sciences, University of Udine, Italy Gabriele De Anna, Department of Legal Sciences, University of Udine, Italy

Philosophical and historical accounts for the neuroscientific investigation of human spirituality
Although human spirituality has long been considered impenetrable to empirical investigation, recent cognitive and affective neuroscience studies have started the neuroscientific exploration of the mental processes and the neural underpinnings underlying spiritual and religious experiences. The scientific investigation of such complex phenomena, however, cannot proceed in the absence of a deep philosophical conceptualization of human spirituality and of related phenomena, such as religiousness and mystic experiences. Furthermore, any neuroscientific investigation of spirituality should define clearly the relative field of knowledge, the possible impact of the results on other disciplines such us theology and philosophy of mind, and the limitations of the results’ implications. Such a challenging task cannot be afforded within a single field of expertise, but requires active collaboration in the context of the same research groups between scholars with common interests, but using different research methodology. The general aim of the present project is to establish a multidisciplinary group of scholars interested in human spirituality and contributing to a comprehensive definition of the concept, and to a scientifically grounded operationalization of the observable behaviors that are related to it. A multidisciplinary team of humanists and neuroscientists will be devoted to the development of new methodology for investigating how brain plasticity may shape the inherently human ability to transcend self body boundaries in relation to the natural and social world. This will allow us to boost the neuroscientific exploration of human spirituality and to clarify the philosophical implications of the results.

David Germano and Shauna Shapiro (2013)

(Germano) Professor, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
(Shapiro) Associate Professor, Counseling Psychology Department, Santa Clara University

The roles of constitutive contexts in contemplative practice
The purpose of this proposal is to integrate the perspectives of religious studies and clinical psychology/science to address the central question of the roles of contexts in contemplative practice. There is a gulf between humanists and scientists on the issue of context, and this is a central challenge to the field of Contemplative Sciences. Our proposal addresses this through a humanist and psychologist collaborating on a scholarly review and analysis of the research literature and contemplative traditions on contemplation and constitutive contexts. Our approach involves reviewing traditional contemplative traditions, associated humanistic research, and scientific studies on such traditions. We will be exploring this core question from an interdisciplinary context, creatively raising new questions, offering fruitful areas for future research, and suggesting practical methods by which humanists and scientists can better collaborate on contemplative studies in relationship to context.

Chikako Ozawa-de Silva (2013)

Associate Professor of Anthropology
Emory University

Subjective transformation and actual individual practice among at-risk populations engaged in cognitively-based compassion training
This project investigates the cultural context of contemplative practice in the West through an ethnographic study of Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT), a contemplative meditation practice derived from the Tibetan Buddhist lojong tradition. Addressing lacunae in current studies of secular meditation interventions, this study seeks to elucidate (1) how CBCT, which focuses on the cultivation of moral emotions in explicitly normative ways, intersects with the pre-existing spiritual, moral, and religious subjectivities of participants; (2) to what extent participants’ practice of CBCT adheres to CBCT practice as it is prescribed and taught to them, or deviates from it through individualization; (3) how at-risk populations engaging in CBCT, such as patients who have attempted suicide, employ CBCT to bolster subjective well-being and resilience. Understanding the internalization and individualization of secular practices like CBCT and how they are integrated (or not) into religious, moral and spiritual identities, beliefs and conceptual frameworks will be essential if CBCT and similar practices are to contribute to H.H. the Dalai Lama’s vision of implementing secular ethics in society and education and for a more comprehensive scientific understanding of CBCT and its potential benefits.

David McMahan (2012)

Professor of Religious Studies
Franklin & Marshall College

Meditation in Context
This is a study of the role that social and cultural context play in Buddhist meditation techniques, especially those that fall under the category of vipassana and related practices. It argues that such contexts inform not only practitioners’ explicit understandings of their practice of these techniques, but also their pretheoretical, tacit, implicit orientations, and even the experiences the practices generate. This is a historically and anthropologically informed philosophical project, but one that also draws upon field-based studies of meditation in particular communities. After discussing some of the basic issues involved in the study of Buddhist contemplative practices, I will discuss several examples of vipassana practices in different cultural, social, and historical contexts, addressing the ways such contexts have shaped the meanings and purposes of the practices. These practices have spanned well over two millennia and have occupied vastly different systems of meaning, from ancient India, where they emerged as techniques of transcending the phenomenal world toward a timeless, ineffable, transpersonal state, to modern North America, where they are taken up by professionals attempting to mitigate stress or to cultivate heightened awareness and compassion. This project traces certain paths that such techniques have taken into the modern world, where they have been reconfigured to take on new meanings and significance, addressing the anxieties, projects, and potentials unique to modernity.

Julie Poehlmann (2012)

Professor, Human Development & Family Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Fieldwork on Contemplative Practices with High Risk Preschoolers: Children’s Empathic, Compassionate, and Self-Regulatory Behaviors
The purpose of this pilot study is to examine the effects of a mindfulness intervention on emerging self-regulation and compassion/empathy among low-income preschoolers. The study will be conducted with children enrolled in Project GROW, an Americorps program at UW-Madison that pairs college students with low-income preschoolers over the course of a school year. Project GROW provides one-on-one mentoring and structured activities to improve school readiness and emergent literacy. This study will pilot a mindfulness intervention offered to half of the children in Project GROW. A control group will consist of children enrolled in Project GROW who do not receive the mindfulness intervention. The proposed exploratory study has 3 aims: (1) to conduct a pilot study with high risk (i.e., low income) preschoolers to determine effects of a mindfulness intervention on children’s empathy, compassion, and self-regulation, (2) to determine how a mindfulness curriculum can be implemented in a developmentally appropriate manner for high risk preschoolers, and (3) to assess how this field-based application enhances or raises new questions regarding laboratory-based findings regarding use of contemplative practices, especially pertaining to the development of empathic responding in children.

Harold Roth (2012)

Professor, Religious Studies and East Asian Studies Department of Religious Studies
Brown University

Collaborators: Catherine Kerr, Assistant Professor, Department of Family Medicine, Brown University, Director, Translational Neuroscience Research, Contemplative Studies Willoughby Britton, Assistant Professor (Research), Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Public Health Program, Brown University Medical School

Where’s the Breath? An Interdisciplinary Investigation of Breath Awareness Placement
This will be a Scientific Pilot Study of the significance of where practitioners place their attention when they are doing breath awareness meditation. We will concentrate on two distinctive forms of Buddhist meditation, mindfulness practice as drawn from normative Pali Canon texts that emphasize placing the attention on the nostrils and zazen texts from the East Asian Buddhist canon that emphasize placing the attention on the tanden (CH. dantian) or “Cinnabar Field” in the lower abdomen. It is our hypothesis that these different attentional placements activate distinct somatic and neurological circuits in the body and mind and lead to measurably different outcomes in attention and other objective and subjective measures. The research will be done with students volunteers who will take Prof. Harold Roth’s MedLab™ course in the second semester of the 2012-13 academic year, UNIV 0540, “An Introduction to Contemplative Studies,” a course that features a distinctive “Integrated Contemplative Pedagogy™” in which students combine traditional third-person study of meditation texts and ideas with critical first-person study of their practices. Dr. Catherine Kerr will conduct the scientific research for the study with the assistance of Dr. Willoughby Britton.

Cynda Hylton Rushton (2013)

Anne and George L. Bunting Professor of Clinical Ethics; Professor of Nursing and Pediatrics
Johns Hopkins University, Berman Institute of Bioethics, Schools of Nursing and Medicine

Addressing moral distress in clinical practice: A contemplative, neuroscience-based intervention
The experience of acute moral distress has become a pervasive and serious problem among health care clinicians. Clinical care, especially of patients with serious and life threatening illness, requires clinicians on the front lines to discern ethically justifiable courses of action in exceedingly complex circumstances, riddled with conflict and uncertainty. Although complex moral decision-making is an inescapable part of clinical practice, research confirms a significant increase in the sense of frustration and failure clinicians report in their attempts to fulfill moral obligations inherent in their professional roles and codes of ethics. The causes are many, including a rapidly expanding population of people who have chronic health conditions and are aging, the explosion of technology that pushes the boundaries of treatment, and the erosion of empathy and compassion in a relationally depleted health care system. Both the quality and safety of health care and the sustainability of the health care workforce demand that we attend to the crisis of moral distress in clinical care in ways that are realistic, practical, and effective.

Baljinder Sahdra (2012)

Lecturer in Psychology, School of Social Sciences and Psychology
University of Western Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Nonattachment and Intergroup Harmony
This project will investigate the effect of nonattachment on social inclusion operationalized as (1) enhanced self-reported valuing of racial/ethnic diversity; (2) reduced linguistic intergroup bias – a tendency to describe outgroup behaviors more negatively and concretely than ingroup behaviors; and (3) reduced ingroup favoritism at the expense of the outgroup while allocating rewards to ingroup and outgroup members. It will also examine empathy with outgroup members as a mediator of the effect of nonattachment on the three markers of social inclusion. The studies will focus on a wide range of groups from arbitrary minimal groups created in the lab to racial/ethnic groups existing in real life. The project will make a unique contribution to theory and research in contemplative science as it will allow translation of the practice of nonattachment, as understood and used by people in the real world, into ecologically sound laboratory protocols.

Don Seeman (2013)

Associate Professor, Department of Religion
Emory University

Collaborator: Michael Karlin, PhD Candidate, Emory University

Contemplative practice, Hasidic modernism and contemporary psychology
This proposal is for a multi-sited ethnographic study of the engagement between contemplative practice, modern psychology and global religious networks among Chabad Hasidim. Our research documents the promotion and adaptation of traditional contemplative practices and their transformation into secularized therapeutic forms through clinical psychology and professional life coaching. In addition, our research is framed by critical comparison with contemporary Buddhist Modernism (Garfield forthcoming; McMahan 2008, 2008b, 2004; Payne 2007; Quli 2008; Sharf 1995; Wilson 2008) and contemplative science (Ozawa-de Silva and Dodson-Lavelle 2011; Ozawa-de Silva, et. al 2012; Pace et al. 2010; Reddy et al. 2012; Wallace and Shapiro 2006). This is the first ethnographic study of its kind and also the only one that is informed by scholarly analysis of the Hasidic textual tradition alongside empirical ethnographic research. It will, moreover, be one of the first to present research in a non-Buddhist-derived religious tradition as a prism to investigate the relationship between science and contemplative practice. As such, we believe it will contribute not just to the opening of a new area of research in contemplative studies but also that it will lend a necessary comparative dimension to the already burgeoning literature on Buddhist-inspired contemplative science.

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