(Updated June 3, 2020)

The Mind & Life Institute is seeking applications for the Mind & Life Francisco J. Varela Grants for Contemplative Research (Varela Grants). The Varela Grants are an integral component of Mind & Life’s support of contemplative sciences—a growing field that aims to investigate contemplative practices through research in diverse disciplines ranging from basic and clinical sciences to social sciences and the humanities. Beginning in 2004 and named for one of Mind & Life’s co-founders, neuroscientist Francisco J. Varela (1946–2001), these grants of up to $20,000 are awarded annually to developing scientists and scholars who have recently attended the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute.

Francisco J. Varela believed that contemplative training offers us novel methods for investigating human experience. He also believed that the embodied, phenomenological perspective can best provide insight into the nature of the human mind. In his vision, contemplative training not only provides a new domain for scientific study, but more importantly can help advance scientific theories and models of consciousness, emotion, cognition, and self. For example, empirical examinations of contemplative techniques can be applied to emotion regulation, attention, memory, spontaneous thought, automatic/implicit processing, and associated neural plasticity; such research can greatly contribute to our understanding of these processes and their development. Furthermore, while contemplative practices are being used increasingly in mainstream real-world settings, much remains to be learned regarding the physiological, behavioral, and subjective correlates of these practices, the relationship between the elements of contemplative interventions and desired outcomes, and differences in outcomes across populations and contexts. In all of these areas, contributions from the humanities and social sciences are invaluable in providing contextual grounding for the study of these practices.

The Varela Grants fund rigorous examinations of contemplative techniques with the ultimate goal that findings derived from such investigations will provide greater insight into contemplative practices and their application for reducing human suffering and promoting flourishing. Mind & Life views the Varela Grants as an essential feature of its overall strategy of building an interdisciplinary understanding of the mind and human behavior. These grants are a key vehicle for increasing the number of exemplary scientists, scholars, and clinicians involved in contemplative research. Strong proposals will meet the highest standards of rigor in the applicant’s field of expertise. Furthermore, preference will be given to interdisciplinary studies that incorporate first-person contemplative methods (e.g., introspective investigation and reports on subjective experience) into traditional cognitive, behavioral, physiological, clinical, or socio-cultural research. This grants program also encourages the active collaboration of researchers with contemplative scholars/practitioners in all phases of investigation.

Proposals must demonstrate relevance to the mission of the Mind & Life Institute. We have a particular interest in supporting projects that examine the role of contemplative practices in fostering interconnection, and/or addressing issues of disconnection either at the societal level (e.g., othering) or at the individual level (e.g., loneliness, depression, addiction, trauma). In this context, “contemplative” practices are defined in a broad sense—including various forms of meditation, embodied or movement-based practices, introspection and awareness of mind-body states, reflective writing, contemplative prayer, etc.

This year, we especially encourage contemplative science proposals that demonstrate relevance to the current Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, a proposed study may focus on a specific population and how it is being affected by Covid-19. We also welcome methodological adaptations, such as for example conducting contemplative interventions and/or assessments online instead of in person, to allow for physical distancing.

Grant Information

Grants of up to $20,000 (USD) are awarded annually through a competitive application and selection process. Proposed research should be completed within a 2-year period, and annual progress reports are required for grantees to remain in good standing.

Applications are reviewed by an external committee of experienced contemplative researchers, and selected based on the following criteria:

  • Significance and Impact: project addresses an important issue related to mechanisms, cultivation, or assessment of contemplative practices, and has potential to lead to advancement of contemplative research;
  • Innovation: project offers something new or challenges existing paradigms, either conceptually or methodologically, or both;
  • Methodological Approach/Design: design, methods, and analyses are adequately developed, rigorous, well-integrated, and appropriate to the aims of the project;
  • Investigator(s): principal investigator(s) appropriately trained and capable of coordinating and managing the proposed research, with high likelihood of success and future contribution to the field, appropriate research team with complementary expertise;
  • Research Environment: sufficient access to resources to carry out the research questions, project will be supported and advanced by institutional research community.
Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP)

Published in Science in 2015, the TOP guidelines outline best practices in scholarly research to promote transparency and openness. Mind & Life is committed to supporting these goals for the projects we fund. The guidelines here represent the policies of the Mind & Life Institute for the various topics listed. Please read these policies carefully and consider how you will integrate them into your proposed work. All Mind & Life Institute grantees are expected to follow these guidelines in their funded research projects.

Research Values and Ethics

Mind & Life is committed to building a rigorous community of interdisciplinary contemplatives, scholars and scientists that integrates diverse perspectives and experiences. Historically, contemplative research has been dominated by a select and largely racially and ethnically homogenous group of scientists, scholars, and practitioners from a handful of academic institutions. This homogeneity reinforces societal imbalances and biases, and diminishes the field’s capacity to adequately understand the human mind and investigate the mechanisms and impact of contemplative practices.

The Varela Grants program is a natural extension of Mind & Life’s mission to alleviate suffering and promote human flourishing, and reflects our commitment to leading the way in integrating rigorous investigation while also addressing larger societal issues. In line with our desire to expand the scope of our collective inquiry and begin to address existing imbalances, we encourage applicants to:

  • practice sampling transparency by clearly describing participant demographics (including but not limited to age, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and education level);
  • consider demographics of research staff, those delivering interventions, as well as participant populations;
  • design ethical research protocols that take into account accessibility, cultural norms, and values of all involved;
  • investigate research questions relevant to understudied populations;
  • consider the limits of generalization to other populations, and interpret any conclusions within the specific context of the study.

To be eligible for a Varela Grant, the applicant must have attended the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute within the last five years. For 2019 applications, one must have attended a Summer Research Institute in Garrison, NY in 2015 or later, or the 2018 International Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan. (European Summer Research Institute attendees are not eligible, but may apply for the European Varela Grant offered by Mind & Life Europe.) This program is intended as a career development grant, and is open to graduate students and post-doctoral fellows currently affiliated with a research institution, and junior faculty through their fifth year of university appointment. (For example, an applicant must not have entered her sixth year of a faculty appointment by the application deadline.) This also includes scholars with up to five cumulative years of experience as an independent investigator, research scientist, or similar. Please contact us with any questions about your eligibility.

Applicants may not be actively funded through any Mind & Life research grant. Current Mind & Life grantees must submit a final report and budget reconciliation for existing grants before applying for a new grant. This policy applies both within and across Mind & Life research grant programs (Think Tanks do not apply). Note that we do not allow two separate proposals for the same program in a given cycle from the same applicant, or from different applicants for two aspects of the same project.

Application Information

Varela Grant funds may not be used for PI (or Co-PI) salary/indirect costs or institutional administrative fees. Exceptions to salary restrictions may be made for projects within the humanities (contact us for consideration). Please see the Grants FAQ for answers to common application questions.

To apply, please submit the following information through the online application portal (see below for link). The portal includes forms to collect the information below — PLEASE create your online application and review the forms well before the deadline to ensure a smooth process. Note that the research proposal should be submitted as a separate PDF document. Applications missing any required materials or containing materials outside of page limits may not be reviewed. 

  1. Eligibility
    Confirm the Principal Investigator (and Co-PI, if applicable) meet eligibility requirements listed above.
  2. Applicant Information
    Basic demographic and contact information for the Principal Investigator (applicant). *NOTE: The SurkeyMonkey Apply account used to submit this application must be under the name of the Principal Investigator.
  3. Research Proposal (to be uploaded as a separate PDF)
    FORMATTING: 11-point max font size, smaller is allowed for figure legends and references; single spaced; 1-inch margins top, bottom, left, and right
    PAGE LIMITS: 4 pages max, including all of the following information within 4-page limit:

    • Title
    • Background and Significance (~25-30% of proposal length)
      Please provide a succinct review of the background literature and/or previous research that led to the formulation of the current research question and the proposed project
    • Aims and Objectives (~10-15% of proposal length)
      Please provide a clear and succinct statement of the project’s scientific or research goal.
    • Methods and Design (~40-50% of proposal length)
      Please clearly and succinctly describe the methodology to be employed, including: participants; study design; methods/techniques; procedures; outcomes; and analysis
    • Figures and Tables (optional)
      Please embed any relevant figures and/or tables into your PDF as needed.
    • Hypothesis or Thesis (~5% of proposal length)
      If applicable, please provide a clear and succinct statement of hypotheses to be tested in reference to the aims & objectives and the methods employed. Projects based on a broader thesis without specific hypotheses (e.g., humanities or social sciences projects) should state the relevant thesis. Finally, exploratory or descriptive projects, or those with a goal of developing methodology, may not lend themselves to specific hypotheses or theses; in this case, please briefly explain.
    • References (citation style is author’s discretion)
  4. Project Information, including:
    • Lab and Mentor information
    • Co-PI information (if applicable)
      Co-PIs share project development and management with the Principal Investigator, and are named on the grant. No more than two total PIs (i.e., one PI and one co-PI) are allowed.
    • IRB approval status
    • Title of Research Project
    • Lay Abstract (summary of project in language understandable by a general audience; 200 words max)
    • Project Timeline & Expected Product (manuscript(s), monograph, presentation, etc.)
    • Brief statements (150 words max for each) on:
      • Relevance to Varela Grants program goals
      • Potential impact related to contemplative research and/or real-world applications
      • Innovation
      • Principal Investigator capabilities (track record for established investigators; potential and training for new investigators)
      • Research Environment
    • TOP Guidelines information
      • Confirmation of understanding
      • Statement on data sharing
      • Statement on preregistration
  1. Research Team (optional)
  2. CVs/Biosketches (5 pages max per item)
    Abbreviated CVs or NIH-style biosketches for you and up to two other key personnel. (Sample biosketch here, blank template here)
  3. Itemized Budget
    Grant funds may only be used for direct research costs; they may not be used for salary support, indirect costs, or travel to conferences. See the Grants FAQ for more information.
  4. Letters of Recommendation (letters from 2 recommenders are required; DUE by application deadline)
    Letters should speak to the ability of the applicant to perform the proposed research, and the potential of the applicant to contribute to the field of contemplative science. Name and contact email will be collected, and the recommenders will be notified and can upload their letters individually.
  1. Additional materials such as a cover letter, letters of support, or appendices (optional)

Grantees are publicly announced every December. Please email VarelaGrants@mindandlife.org with specific questions.