Photo credit Adam Engle

Francisco Varela saw Mind & Life as a dream-board, a place where radical ideas about the nature of mind and reality could be not only unfolded, but also challenged,” recalls Mind & Life Founding Steward Roshi Joan Halifax, reflecting on the origins of the Mind & Life Institute.

A philosopher and scientist, Francisco co-founded Mind & Life 35 years ago with Tibetan Buddhist leader Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, and lawyer and entrepreneur Adam Engle. In celebration, Mind & Life is marking this anniversary year by sharing reflections of Mind & Life’s early years from five individuals who played pivotal roles in our organization’s history: Adam Engle, Zen Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Halifax, psychologist and author Dan Goleman; neuroscientist Richie Davidson; and founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Jon Kabat-Zinn.

While Francisco Varela passed away in 2001, his vision continues to serve as a North Star—including through the Mind & Life Francisco J. Varela Research Grants. Beyond the voices and stories shared below, so many people helped shape Mind & Life on the path of better understanding the human mind. It is with deep gratitude to everyone who has joined us on this journey that we share these reflections.

From Founding Steward Roshi Joan Halifax:

In the early 1980s Roshi Joan and Francisco were both Fellows at the Lindisfarne Association, a foundation that promoted the integration of spirituality and academic study. She remembers a 1981 science and humanities meeting where, in the spirit of Lindisfarne, she and Francisco “entered into this incredible conversation around the dharma in relation to science,” that would evolve over time in ways the two could not have imagined. 

In 1983, Roshi Joan had the opportunity to meet with the Dalai Lama at the University of California Santa Barbara. Encouraged by Francisco, she proposed to the Dalai Lama that he engage in an interdisciplinary conversation with contemplatives, philosophers, and neuroscientists. She recalls “His Holiness was so positive about the idea. You could see he was really lit up about this notion of bringing people in the brain sciences together with him.” 

From Co-founder Adam Engle:

In 1983, Adam heard from his local Tibetan Buddhist community that the Dalai Lama was interested in meeting with scientists to discuss the intersections of Buddhism and with their fields. Adam recalls thinking, “Wow, that’s really interesting. If he really wants to do that, that’s something that I could do. I’m an entrepreneur. I know how to put things together.”

In 1984, he proposed the idea at a chance encounter with the Dalai Lama’s brother, who then received approval from the Dalai Lama for Adam to move forward. Not long after, Francisco called Adam to ask if the rumor he had heard of this meeting were true, and if the focus of the meeting could be biology and contemplative science. Following more planning with Francisco and Roshi Joan, and some delays, Adam arranged for a seven-day meeting in October 1987 in Dharamsala, India. “It gives me goosebumps to think of it,” Adam says, recalling receiving the official confirmation letter. “It was amazing.”

Adam and Francisco worked on putting together an agenda and inviting people to come. He remembers calling up law school classmate Barry Hershey. Everyone “thought I was nuts, but Barry didn’t.” Adam reflected that he has always considered Barry “the fourth partner in the development of Mind & Life.”

From Founding Steward and Chief Scientific Advisor Richard Davidson:

Richie met Francisco in 1981, working together on a project to measure the duration of a perceptual moment. The two formed a deep bond; Richie remembers Francisco sharing his personal meditation practice once while they were in Dharamsala: “It shook me in a very deep, positive way because he was expressing, in this deep embodied way, the reality that one can’t pursue this kind of scientific work without also being a really deep, dedicated practitioner. They were the two wings that were absolutely critical to keep the system in balance.”

Over his decades with Mind & Life, Richie sees the importance of bringing together different perspectives or wings as a way to be honest and thorough in exploring a topic: “At the core of Mind & Life DNA is honesty. To really be honest about the limitations, the questions that we have, and imbuing this work with rigor.”

From Founding Steward Dan Goleman:

Dan heard about the 1987 Dialogue in Dharamsala and then attended the second Dialogue, held in 1989 in California. He already knew Adam and Roshi Joan, and was friends with Richie and Jon. During that 1989 meeting, it was publicly announced that the Dalai Lama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Dan remembers reporters clamoring to interview the Dalai Lama, who wouldn’t postpone the Dialogue to hold a press conference. “He was really ego-less in all of these situations,” says Dan. “I saw that his priorities were such that the Mind & Life sessions were higher than winning the Nobel Peace Prize for him.”

Reflecting on many years at Mind & Life Dialogues with the Dalai Lama, Dan shares: “I think maybe it’s his compassion—there’s something about the aura of His Holiness that settles people. And there’s something else that goes on [at the Dialogues], which is a meeting of minds… scientists themselves start to think about maybe an ethical dimension or a compassionate dimension to their own work that they’d never regarded before.”

From Founding Steward Jon Kabat-Zinn:

Jon left his MBSR clinic to present at the third Dialogue, held in Dharamsala in 1990 and organized by Dan. Jon recalls that the night before his presentation, he couldn’t sleep because he was worried that the Dalai Lama wouldn’t approve of sharing the Dharma in the mainstream form of MBSR. The next day, the Dalai Lama responded in approval of Jon’s work: “There are four billion people on the planet, one billion Buddhists. But all four billion are suffering. What are we going to do, keep [contemplative wisdom] to ourselves?”

Jon recounts the rigor, the deep listening, and the focused attention that the Dalai Lama brings to the Dialogues: “I’d never seen anybody pay attention the way His Holiness paid attention in those meetings… his attention was basically unwavering. Then he’d always ask the most penetrative and most interesting question right off the bat.”

Looking Ahead

With ongoing guidance from our Founders and Founding Stewards, Mind & Life has grown from these first Dialogues to play a pivotal role in catalyzing the field of contemplative science and bringing mindfulness to the public. Richie calls Mind & Life as the professional organization that “feels closest to home” and Jon recounts the founding as a “love affair.” It is Francisco’s “dream-board”—a dream to pursue for 35 years and beyond.   

Interested in hearing more?

  • Listen to Roshi Joan Halifax speak about our origins and her work on our podcast 
  • Learn more about Adam Engle’s role with Mind & Life in a video recording or on our blog
  • Watch an archival clip of Richie Davidson speaking with the Dalai Lama at our 2000 Dialogue 
  • See a video excerpt of Jon Kabat-Zinn retelling the story of presenting MBSR to the Dalai Lama

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