The Consciousness Frontier
The Mind & Life Institute recently held their International Symposium for Contemplative Studies (ISCS) in San Diego from November 10-13, 2016. The intention for these gatherings is to provide a venue where scientists, contemplative practitioners and scholars can bridge the divide between objective science and introspective practices to help promote behavioral change and human well-being.
Over the next several days of the symposium participants explored this interdisciplinary field where scientists and scholars collaborate with contemplative practitioners, philosophers and thought-leaders to share their latest research on mindfulness and other related practices. Stimulating conversations arise easily in this venue as people network with each other to encourage and foster the mission of the Mind & Life Institute which is to reduce suffering and enhance well being by integrating science with contemplative practice and wisdom traditions.
Organizers describe the intention for their event:
ISCS brings together scientists, scholars, artists and contemplatives to explore distinct though overlapping fields of research and scholarship using a multidisciplinary integrative approach to advance our understanding of the human mind. Together we examine how training the mind through contemplative practices may lead to insights that promote enhanced health and cognitive emotional functioning, increased social harmony and reduced suffering. ISCS encourages and shapes the cohesive interdisciplinary field of contemplative sciences to collaboratively explore the significant potential that lies within the human mind to create more just, tolerant and flourishing societies.
It seemed like a perfect synchronicity to hold this conference just after the recent election. Peaceful, loving spirits gathered together in harmony and awareness exploring the potential for a future to be possible.
Seeds of Change
The Mind & Life Institute was formed in 1987 as a collaboration between neuroscientist philosopher Francisco J. Verala, the Dalai Lama and lawyer Adam Engle. These humanitarians wished to explore the possibility that contemplative practice presents modern science with valid methods for studying human experience. Recognizing and applying these valuable resources advances scientific theories about consciousness, emotion and cognitive processes.
The Institute lists the Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual leader of Tibet, on its Board of Directors and neuroscientist Richie J. Davidson as well. Ritchie visited the Himalayas with a team of researchers at the turn of the new millenium to measure the effects of meditation on experienced monks. Eventually a few of the monks trusted him enough to visit his lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison for further state-of-the-art brain imaging data.
Davidson’s collaboration with the seasoned meditators led to brilliant discoveries into neuroplasticity and how the monks can reroute neural ruts just by thinking of compassion or mindfully breathing in a spacious awareness of the present moment. Davidson’s work is presented in the book, Train your Mind, Change your Brain by Sharon Begley.
French monk Mathieu Ricard was one of Davidson’s first monks to be studied with FMRI (functional magnetic resonant imaging) machines that show pictures of different areas firing in the brain in response to mental states of mind. Correlating the activated brain regions with subjective feelings shows that when one side of the brain is active we enjoy well-being and happiness versus activating the opposite side which correlates with depression.
I was introduced to Ritchie’s work in 2002 at a yoga workshop on yoga for depression. In 2005 I attended a Mind Life sponsored Dialogue between neuroscience and Buddhism at Stanford University. In 2007 I attended the American Academy of Religion’s conference in San Diego and first learned of the field of “contemplative studies” at universities like Rice.
At Stanford I learned of B. Alan Wallace and followed up by attending meditation retreats with him in Santa Barbara. He led me to Susan Kaiser who teaches mindfulness to kids and I brought my daughter to her workshop at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) in 2008. In 2012 Rinpoche Anam Thubten visited Bakersfield and his luminous nature inspired attending silent summer retreats with him in beautiful natural areas.
All of this effort to learn mindfulness really stems from Ritchie’s research on neuroplasticity and rerouting negative mental states through meditation. Negative thoughts can literally kill us as suicide sadly illustrates. “Why do you have to die because of one emotion?” asks Thich Nhat Hanh a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who advises us to center our attention at our “navel,” to stabilize ourselves during emotional storms.
A Communication Device
My introduction to the first day of the event started Thursday night where I listened to the yoga of sound with tabla and sitar players on the stage at the Harbor Sheraton Hotel’s Grand Ballroom following a lovely hosted wine and dinner reception underneath the pine trees on the Bay View lawn in view of the harbor. I had arrived too late for the opening ceremonies but just in time for the festive reception and musical interlude.
Ritchie Davidson and Mathieu Ricard kicked off the gathering in a keynote conversation where they discussed their perspectives on the collaboration between neuroscientists and contemplatives over their fifteen-year history together. Investigating the science of well-being from both philosophical and scientific paradigms allows researchers to examine the elements of well-being from Buddhist and scientific perspectives. Reinforced by these major traditions, the presenters recommend developing secular programs to cultivate well-being.
After the long drive from my home in central California and sated with the beautiful food (which included ample vegan fare to my happy surprise) and spirits while soaking up sound, I settled in to drive south to my friend’s house in Imperial Beach who was hosting me during the symposium.
Child of the Morning Rosy-Fingered Dawn
Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor’s yoga class in the ballroom was packed at 6am Friday morning. They were teaching an Ashtanga yoga class which is a type of yoga lineage emphasizing vinyasa’s or “sequences of postures linked to breath,” such as sun salutations.
After saluting the sun we did several different poses from standing to sitting while applying elements including focusing our gaze and working with breath to unify mind and body in an experiential awareness. It felt great to energize with yoga that morning and left me refreshed for the day ahead.
A broad range of scholars were at this conference including scientists, philosophers, educators, activists, practitioners, and business professionals. Mindfulness research, as it was demonstrated through an ubiquitous graph that showed up frequently in presentations, has exploded in popularity and is being applied across multiple venues.
Many young people attended and it was very refreshing to see such avid and brilliant scholars embracing academia with their heuristic and phenomenological – as well as distinctly quantitative and data-backed scientific – evidence to establish the veracity of down-regulating reactive habits patterns of the “default mode network” in our brain.
Friday’s keynote speaker was Zindel Segal, PhD, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto and a senior scientist at a research institute for Addiction and Mental Health. Dr Segal described applying mindfulness meditation to promote wellness to depressed patients in recovery and is the author of several books including The Mindful Way Through Depression.
Segal described his work with Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for treating depression and other mood disorders and noted the shift in public perception of mindfulness which was “risky” to mention in the field of mental health 13 years ago. Training people in mindful techniques encourages them to become their own therapist and is considered the maintenance version of cognitive therapy which is useful when mental afflictions are latent or quiescent.
Segal said small amounts of negative moods can trigger depressive views. This ruminative, cognitive approach elaborates sad moods into memory.
Citing a poem on insomnia by Billy Collins, Segal illustrated the phrases in the poem that serve as antidotes to a negative view. These elements include:
- Relationship or to recognize the familiarity of insomnia, “my oldest friend.”
- Tolerate exhaustion, “sack of exhaustion.”
- Curiosity which conveys a stance that’s different from reactivity, catastrophizing and judging.
Another protective technique in MBCT is called de-centering, as in dis-identifying from our thoughts to defuse our mood. Segal believes MBCT supports people by teaching them skills that help them recognize their automatic slip into negative thoughts and teaches them to rethink their thoughts as mental habits. Curiousity replaces identification which helps people think about their experiences from a different perspective.
Segal stated that a home practice in meditation is critical to learn decentering skills as training in mindfulness helps people calm their executive center and activate experiential centers. According to Segal’s research, not only will 8 weeks of meditating 40 minutes a day, 20 minutes morning and evening, lead to increased resilience in the present term, it also extends for up to 24 months of protective influence emerging from the 8 week sessions.
In summary, Segal emphasized the importance of the ability to de-center as a critical protective factor in mindfulness therapy. Learning mindfulness helps people be agents of their own change. They recognize their vulnerability and commit to a formal mindfulness practice to strengthen their capacity to decenter from their thoughts.
Irish Scientist Studies Robotics for Parkinsons
While interviewing attendees, I met Denise McGrath, an Irish researcher from University College Dublin who flew in from Ireland for the conference and was staying in a nearby Air BnB.
Denise studies the area of health and human movement mechanics and focuses her research on Parkinson’s disease. Her work includes analyzing people to assesses their propensity for falls or test them for Parkinson’s while also educating community groups about the disease.
Denise was a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard during the summer of 2015 where she studied at the robotics lab to research the possibility of developing a device that could be worn on the leg to mobilize the frozen limbs of a Parkinson’s patient.
Over the days of the conference, I kept running into Denise who became my friend and by the final day we were planning a research project together between our two universities. Networking with like minded scholars and scientists is a happy benefit of the symposium.
Calming the Fluctuations of the Mind
For this biennial symposium, scientists, researchers and scholars gathered together from a multicultural and inter-generational arena, across a myriad of academic disciplines and from several noteworthy universities. I sat next to a group of young people speaking French during lunch outside on the grass and sat next to a young man from Korea attending the University of Virginia at one of the keynote speeches.
I attended a lecture by a Swiss researcher and interviewed an immuologist named Mathias from Germany working at Scripps institute on a vaccine. I met Walter, a Silicone Valley based inventor of an app called “Inward” that encourages mindful moments of focus throughout your day.
I ventured to thank the panel of a group of scholars who were supposed to be presenting with their mentor Dr. Catherine Kerr who passed away that morning after a long fight with cancer. Beginning their panel with the sad notice of their mentor’s untimely passing they proceeded to share their papers knowing that Catherine would want them to do that.
Their panel was on embodied mindfulness and included a presentation on yoga. Another presenter shared his research on modern day floatation tanks to facilitate serenity and cultivate meditative quiescence. Neuroscientist Dav Clark from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine shared his research teaching Chi Gong to children 8-12 years old suffering from Attention deficit disorder.
I learned about operative conditioning and how to triangulate on behavioral change through breath awareness, loving kindness and open monitoring from psychiatrist Judson Brewer, MD, PhD who talked about the “neurobiological underpinnings of contemplative practices” during his presentation. This helps decrease the default mode network which is usually lost in internal narratives.
Brewer encouraged people to avoid the idea that it is “me” doing something and explore the effort of “no self” which is linked to deactivating the default mode network. He advises us to ponder the question Who is it here who gets full of self? He cautions that a sense of self is helpful to inform a time stamp necessary to function, but not if we get too caught up in self. We then get addicted to a me-society which perpetuates self-grasping.
Buddhist scholar John Dunne, PhD talked about investigating the phenomenology of mindfulness-related practices from a cognitive perspective in his lecture on the challenges and opportunities of this transdisciplinary study.
Describing the mechanics to doing this kind of work he said there needs to be something that brings together a community of researchers working on some problem. There must be a critical element they want to solve within a guild structure, which Dunne calls this long-term training apprenticeship and social integration.
A purpose of the long-term training, he suggests, is to locate researchers within the social identity of the “guild.” We’re in a kind of apprenticeship. What we’re learning are distinctive techniques and skills for the production of knowledge, including:
- recognizable rhetoric: “lingo”
- authority structures and epistomology to regulate individuals
- spatio-temporal places like conferences
- places where we display our products which are primarily printed publications
Within this transdisciplinary organization, Dunne believes an energetic conversation space arises whose components are the voices of disciplined persons bringing emergent developments from individual components together.
Exhorting us to look deeply Dunne ponders the question that drives the conversation. What are the varieties of mindfulness? The necessary parameters? The outcome of the conversation will be expressed in a formal way in a journal.
To make things happen Dunne advises us to start talking and listening perhaps in a “pidgin” language in order to discover or be given a really compelling problem and reliable context for frequent interaction. Conversations need to be facilitated which can be remote via zoom or video and he exhorts us to write something together as great practice. Academic institutions help by giving resources to facilitate remote conferences.
Dunne suggests the interdisplinary team should be composed of no less than three people, preferably more. The team composition includes the teacher of meditation, a scientist, a contemplative scholar looking at theoretical underpinnings, someone from art or literacy and the “reflexivant” to keep track of the cherished illusions and assumptions an individual displays.
Summing up, Dunne identifies the hubris of thinking that one person has the final account and they can do it alone as a significant challenge. Scholars can’t learn enough neuroscience. All the disciplines are rigorous. Do not assume we can do it all. Contemplative experience is critical.
Applying the Mindful Model
One researcher presented on teaching mindfulness to doctors and nurses in medical schools to help them address burnout in their education. Cultivating attention and awareness leads to empathy during the traumas they will face as they start their careers.
Over the course of the next couple of days I attended myriad lectures showing these charts of data captured from FMRI images of brains on meditation. A basic theme of all this is that mindfulness meditation is psychotherapy.
Many researchers presented during poster sessions on applying mindfulness skills to people with insomnia, to help suffers of rheumatoid arthritis, to help opiate addicted mothers, to help displaced military families, to help encourage emotional intelligence and so on.
Jeremy Hunter, PhD and associate Professor at Claremont Graduate University’s Peter Drucker School of Management talked about leadership and how captivating awareness in action was an important link in leadership development.
Hunter created a series of executive education courses to address the Drucker statement that one cannot manage others until they can manage themselves. The executive program he designed includes seven weeks of attention training and mastering emotional leadership skills including practice in self-management. Classes are action-oriented and results-focused.
Hunter identified four “rigors” people should develop as a result of participating in his classes:
- conceptual rigor: examine their belief systems, judgements and rationalizations
- perceptual rigor: see what’s going on in front of them through beginners mind – visit their house and see it for the first time
- somatic rigor: what’s happening in their body and how does that influence them
- emotional rigor: visit an art museum or botanical garden or take a walk to find aesthetic experience
Hunter said learning to create choices is an outcome of the training. Habits don’t give people choices. Investigating life as a series of choices arises from experiencing the present moment and deciding how that helps people make different choices right now. If one keeps making that choice it will lead to a different future.
Stating that the quality of attention is the foundation for quality of life, Hunter acknowledged that cultivating this quality is a healthy response to the rise of authoritarianism in society. He advises us to fight ignorance and create a society that works by giving people community where they can express their values, exercise their strengths and hone their skills.
Hunter acknowledged that the “output” in our Brave New Society is knowledge work which leads to anxiety as we fear we may be missing out on something important. Productivity stems from getting along in our teams so encourage each person to be nice to each other. He cites the need to study the polyvagal hierarchy to escape aggression and recognize our zone of resilience.
Hunter “bends the future” by transforming his perception. He advises executives to imagine a difficult client not as an adversary but as a friend by changing the story they usually tell themselves about the client due to their “default mode network” replaying a familiar narrative.
Instead, learn to manage our reactivity by practicing healing somatic practices such as yoga. They soften people and help them recognize the good and develop appreciation. Hunter says to always find something going well and then apply that to ourselves.
There is uncertainty ahead, Hunter concludes, as he urges people to create the world they want to live in. Training perception enables a person to see changing realities more clearly. This skill enables people to better manage themselves and makes them more qualified to manage others.
By the end of the day I had picked up some new words including, “interoception” which means attending to my internal states such as how my body is processing my present experience as I attend to my heartbeat or breath.
I learned about scaffolding which means you might practice mindfulness within an overall yoga practice offered by the kinesiology department at a university where you are earning a degree to fulfill your life and reach your goals.
Another term was dereification which is the same thing as decentering described above.
The Extended Mind Hypothesis
Philosopher Joy Laine of Macalister College Saint Paul in the UK presented about postural yoga and extended mind.
In the postural yoga tradition the emotional landscape of the individual can be managed through an intelligent practice involving a careful choice and sequencing of poses. According to Laine, one way of viewing such a practice is that of a mind reaching outside of itself in order to transform itself.
Citing the work of scholars on the extended mind hypothesis, Laine pointed out their development of the idea of extended mind in the form of extended cognition. Others advanced the notion that the human mind is fundamentally extended in nature. Specifically, the ways in which habitual actions allow us to use and change our environment is a way of shaping our mental lives.
As a yoga teacher who uses postural-based Iyengar yoga as her meditation, not to prepare her for meditation, Laine spoke from experience as she introduced the extended mind hypothesis currently motivating the work of social psychologists who show how we can effect changes in our emotional landscape on the basis of adopting specific body postures. Laine’s presentation argued that the paradigm of the extended mind is better equipped to theorize about the efficacy of postural yoga than a dualism of mind (brain) and body.
Laine began her talk by citing the ubiquity of neuroscience in the mindfulness revolution sweeping society. But she cautions that a juggler needs more than brain science to hone their skills. They need hand eye coordination. Systematic mental activity results in changes in the structure of your brain. Mind is different than the brain, Laine asserted. It is other than the brain. The cardinal assumption of neuroscience is that mental responses stem from brain activity.
With her background in analytic philosophy, Laine questions where mind stops and begin. Is it within the boundary of the body? Laine references “Ottos notebook.” Otto has Alzheimers and writes down everything to remind him where he wants to go and where it is. Citing the “parity principle,” Laine says that Otto’s notebook plays a cognitive role to function as part of his extended mind network.
To demonstrate how a postural based practice like Iyengar yoga serves as her meditation, Laine asked a volunteer to assume a yoga pose on the stage. Guiding the student into a standing lunge, Laine called our attention to how the posture embodies action in the world. Being effective comes from inner stability. The boundaries between body and mind are more fluid as we interact with the environment through a careful body landscape that is “minded.”
Laine reminds us that social psychologists cite the importance of posture in mental states while Iyengar emphasizes detail in the asana and practicing focuses the body and mind naturally to concentration and meditation. Body awareness and self-cognition invite an attitude of non-judgement and acceptance and lead naturally into a quiet mind which is the substrate of mindfulness.
Neuroscience and Embodied Cognition
The final keynote on Sunday was philosopher Evan Thompson, PhD, from the University of British Columbia who proposed that mindfulness include cultural practices and is not fully understood by only studying patterns of brain activity.
He decried the monetization of mindfulness and advocated a different type of mindfulness through altruistic practices. Frustrated with the internalist view of brain that extracts brain from the rest of the body he encourages a different approach which is:
Mindfulness is everywhere. In Silicone Valley mindfulness makes your career. But, as Thompson pointed out, a practice for increasing wholeness and concern for others is incompatible with greed and includes the modern fetishizing of yoga which fits with the global capitalist zeitgeist.
The neuroscience of meditation focuses attention on breath, mindful open awareness and loving kindness, Thompson notes, but cognition is the whole person and not just brain areas. Attention is a cognitive emotion. Meditation is posture with an object of attention such as breath.
Thompson cited the “Four E’s” approach of cognitive science:
- embodied – depends on body to be here
How we move ourselves, our perceptions and gestures, are integral components of thought in action. Thompson suggests scaffolding as a useful heuristic structure to build and support our practice by locating the nervous system inside of a body and within an environment. Extended cognition is coupled with the environment.
Dereification helps us view mental processes as mental processes. Thompson advises people to deconstruct and reconstruct their “self” by paying attention, which is constructive and helps them deconstruct by dismantling negative self-schema. Awareness illuminates itself into self-luminous awareness.
In light of this being my first ever contemplative studies symposium I leave feeling very inspired. As soon as I got home I looked up the Summer research institute they sponsor at the Garrison Institute in New York. Since I was drawn to Catherine Kerr’s talk and panel and found out the sad news of her demise I am inclined to dig into her research further. Studying leadership inspires me to learn more about Peter Drucker; and as a yoga teacher I will follow up on Evan Thompson’s book about embodied mindfulness.
I returned home to my university to participate in a scholarly writing class to teach us how to write proposals for grant funding institutions to fuel our research projects. And made friends with a researcher interested in collaborating with me on a project.
This was not my first introduction to Mind and Life Institute and will not be my last. I support their vision and mission and to this end write my story to share their valuable work with readers interested in learning how to train themselves in well being.