September 22, 2012

TED: Technology, Education, Dalai Lama?

A dialogue where the wisdom of the East meets the science of the West.

 “And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not. An education, which should improve this faculty, would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”

~ William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890.

The Dalai Lama has referred to himself as a simple monk on many occasions.

But did you know he has also said that if this was not his chosen path he would have liked to be an engineer?

In his earlier days, while still living at the Potala Palace in Lhasa, had there been a breakdown with a watch, car and even a film projector at one point, chances are he fixed it. And really enjoyed doing so.

Since becoming the world’s most famous refugee, he has befriended many scientists, including the late renowned philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper, physicist Carl von Weizsäcker and the late David Bohm.

Participating in conferences on spirituality and science on a regular basis also resulted in him meeting Dr Fansico Varela and Adam Engle in 1983.  Their friendship led to the creation of an in-depth dialogue between Buddhism and science which is now known as the Mind and Life institute.

“With the ever growing impact of science on our lives religion and spirituality have a greater role to play reminding us of our humanity. There is no contradiction between the two. Each gives us valuable insights into the other. Both science and the teachings of the Buddha tell us the fundamental unity of all things.”

 ~ The Dalai Lama

What happens at these conferences is quite unique due to the fact that until recently science never focused on consciousness itself.

Every other year Mind and Life seminars take place wherein receptive scientists, who usually have had some exposure to contemplative traditions like Buddhism, meet with the Dalai Lama. The purpose of these seminars is so Buddhism and science can enrich one another.

 “Can a scientific study of the mind leave out what is ever-present for humans: their own experience?”

~ Francisco J Varela

Scientists now realise that in studying the brain and behaviour, the human experience must be included and they, in this instance, are exploring this aspect under the guidance of the Dalai Lama.

“Buddhism stands as an outstanding source of observations concerning human mind and experience; accumulated over centuries with great theoretical rigor and what is even more significant, with very precise exercises and practices for individual exploration. This treasure-trove of knowledge is an uncanny complement to science. Where the material refinement of science is unmatched in empirical studies, the experiential level is still immature and naive compared to the long-standing Buddhist tradition of studying the mind.”

~ Francisco J Varela

As a regular practitioner of Buddhist meditation with a degree in Analytical Science, I watch these seminars with the same enthusiasm as I inhale my favorite bar of organic chocolate with.

Yes I am a closet nerd!

To give you a taste of this groundbreaking work, I would like to tell you about the most recent one I am devouring. It took place in India on November 21, 2010 and is called Mind and Life XXII.

With my science background, watching the presentation on the experimental findings at the beginning of this footage was not too much of an uphill struggle. A few reruns here and there.

But not all of you will find the strength of will to sit through that particularly left brain part in order to pull out the pearls of wisdom, so I will attempt do that for you.

From a previous dialogue with the Dalai Lama, the scientists were guided onto a new path.

Instead of focusing on the negative affects on the mind of anxiety and depression, His Holiness encouraged them to examine where loving compassion and kindness get us. Love it!

In one experiment to bring about the generation of compassion, they played distressing sounds such as women crying while the subjects were in meditation.

By examining the long-term practitioners versus novice meditators, they were able to establish that a part of the brain responsible for interaction with visceral organs was activated during meditation in the former only. For the novice meditators there was no activation of this center whatsoever at any stage.

Playing around with the possibility of experiencing pain caused by heat, unearthed another finding: that long-term practicioners encountering potential pain experience no loss of peace of mind.

The novice meditators were however, as they say here in Ireland, all over the shop throughout the process.

But the one thing that grabbed my attention was their finding that meditation halts the aging process of the mind. They examined the mindfulness and attention levels of 70-year-old Vietnamese monks and compared them with those of 20 year olds and found them to be equal in ability.

In the words of the Dalai Lama himself on these particular findings, “Good message”.

Based on that study, I have a question for the Mind and Life Institute if they are watching.  How many, if any, serious long-term practitioners get Alzheimer’s disease? I just wanted to put that one out there. Or maybe one of you reading today knows the answer already?

Having such masters in both science and Buddhism openly explore each others’ worlds makes for a spontaneous conversation.

Jumping from the French monk Matthieu Ricard explaining the path to enlightenment in a language neuroscientists can understand to His Holiness explaining how Indian yogis can suck milk up through their sexual organs makes it an unusual watch.

Yet true to Tibetan Buddhist form, before it all got out of our human feasibility, they brought it back to a few basic facts.

This research is being done to help people like you and me. Teaching us to adopt simple methods to take care of our minds, develop them, exercise them, heal them. And to assist us in knowing that by doing so, the scope of the benefits go way beyond what we can even begin to imagine.




Editor: Lara C.

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