Monday, June 19, 2006

mind and life summer research institute

I Just returned from the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute 2006. It was an amazing gathering of Buddhists and scientists and combinations of the two, on the beautiful grounds of the Garrison Institute in Garrison, NY. It is quite unique in that it is a combination of a scientific meeting and a retreat. The retreat began by watching a beautiful documentary about the life of Francisco Varela, who basically started this dialogue between Buddhism and science (the film is called What is Life?). He must have been a very noble being, a rare combination of a brilliant scientist and a beautiful practitioner. At this retreat, we started and ended every day with a solid meditation practice and optional yoga (taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn!). After breakfast we broke the noble silence that was in effect every evening after the meditation practice, and started to discuss theoretical frameworks for the study of contemplative practice, new exciting data, research proposals and difficult issues in this type of research. It was really exciting to be among so many bright and interesting people, and to develop ideas for studies together. at some point I even ended up in a multi-lab lab meeting where we developed a new paradigm that all the labs present were interested in using. A really very friendly and collaborative atmosphere. Yet it was also so incredibly silent - to just simply find the silence within that is always there.

We ended with a complete day of meditation, where we simply looked at our own minds, as if in a laboratory, a laboratory of introspection. This is really what the new discipline of contemplative neuroscience would be like: not only studying meditation or any contemplative practice from the outside, but also very much from the inside, acquiring the experience itself. In here we can very much develop the tools of neurophenomenology, as proposed by Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson. We not only talked about introducing experience or the first person perspective in neuroscience and the study of consciousness, but about lots of other things as well, leading from attention and mind-wandering (discussed by Jonathan Schooler, who developed tools to measure mind-wandering) to emotion regulation and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction as treatment for diseases like fibromalgyia or depression. Moreover, we even learnt about Christian forms of contemplation: (centering prayer and taxonomies of meditation that are starting to be developed. And finally, this summer institute was an amazing network, or mandala that has been developed of scientists who start collaborations all over - what an amazing coming together of circumstances!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

a taste of mindfulness and compassion

Last week I went to a retreat in Boston (led by one of Sogyal Rinpoche's senior students, Andrew Warr), where we focused on meditation and lojong (mind training in loving kindness and compassion), which was really quite inspiring. It's amazing how being in a quiet environment and listening to the teachings can dramatically bring you back to yourself. It was also very inspiring to see the teachings being presented by someone who clearly had done a lot of practice. In my experience, this gives people often a very profound element of lightness in their being, tranquility and yet very down-to-earth and flexible.

We studied and practiced some of the bodhicitta teachings. I thought one of the most inspiring exercises was a very simple one: putting yourself in the shoes of another person, seeing other people as a another you who also simply want happiness (this was in the context of developing the equanimity aspect of the Four Immeasurables (love, compassion, joy, equanimity)). If we could only practise this in our daily lives, the world would look so much different.
Last week I also saw the movie windhorse, an incredibly inspiring yet very sad movie about the intertwined lives of a nun, an alcoholic and a singer in Tibet (the singer is a Tibetan girl who sings Chinese songs in a discotheque), in occupied Tibet. It's a story about the Tibetan people who want to be free to practise their religion, and the ruthless suppression of that by the Chinese government. I think the most horrible part of such movies is to know that these things are now happening, in Tibet, but also in Iraq, Afghanistan... The windhorse (lungta) is the powerful symbol of being free, when your mind is in harmony with its nature.
Speaking of that, a new, and supposedly quite good, movie has come out, an inconvenient truth, which I hope I will have time to watch in the coming days.