Tuesday, November 29, 2016

One trick for slowing down: study Tibetan monks in India

I previously blogged about my study of monastic debate in Tibetan monks in India. Last July I returned for another research visit. It was very exciting to get to go back to these wonderful, cheery individuals. While the purpose of our first visit was just to try things out and come up with a model of what the monastic debate that these monks do might be, this time it was a matter of getting down to business and actually collecting data.



I spent the first few days of this trip in Bangalore, networking with scientific colleagues. One of the places I visited was NIMHANS, a premier mental health institution and research facility. What was very notable was that unlike in institutions in the West, here the care was not just taking into account the patient, but also his/her family. This meant that the complex had big parks and gardens where whole families could just hang out with the patient. Moreover, conventional scientific approaches to mental health were sisterly placed next to ayurvedic approaches. Similar to in the West, there was substantial interest in meditation interventions, and scientists with labs studying the basic science of, for example, decision making, often also have a research program on meditation. It was really interesting to see how things that we in the West tend to think of as separate are here were much more integrated.

Once my American colleagues arrived, we drove to Bylakuppe, the Tibetan settlement where Sera Jey monastery is. We stayed in the very quiet guest house, which has a lovely garden with tea stall. Unlike our previous visit, nothing was going on at this time, and the place looked deserted. The only thing that was busy was...us! I had made an ambitious schedule for running behavioral studies, EEG studies, and discussions. Due to some poor preparation, I was still finishing programming tasks on a tablet (it's really cool that OpenSesame allows you to program tasks that just run on a tablet!). Consequently, I was totally absorbed in my laptop, instead of hanging out with the monks. And actually, for doing research in India... this is the most crucial thing! Research in India does not primarily proceed by making a tight schedule and squeezing in as much as possible, but rather by hanging out and being in touch with what happens. Only then can you see what is really happening, and can the monks feel comfortable to approach you and share their wisdom and ideas. So, once we realized this, we actually consciously slowed down.

In the West, we are used to just showing an undergrad into a cubicle with a testing computer, letting them do the task, pay them, and get them out again. With the monks, we actually first leisurely introduced ourselves, explained why we thought their method of debating was interesting, then started with an experiment, showing how the experiment worked slowly, and afterwards had a nice chat about science, monk life, consciousness, world peace, and more. We learnt a lot, and I think the monks did so too. One important lesson was that what we find simple in using a computer may not be as simple for a monk who rarely uses one. Tasks that we administered on a tablet seemed much easier than tasks administered on a laptop. And the younger monks seemed to find the computer tasks much easier than the older monks. Something to think about in our next studies...

On the last day we were once again reminded of slowing down. While we were walking to a place to have lunch, one of the dogs that was following us around got hit by a car, ran off howling to the side of the road and died. One of those moments that brings the reality of life and death quite up close. Somehow it really touched our hearts very deeply as we watched but could not do anything. A precious reminder that life is much too short to squander it being busy doing lots of things without being present to what is.
(also posted on http://radicallyhappy.org/blog/2016/11/28/one-trick-for-slowing-down-study-tibetan-monks-in-india)
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