At the world’s first International Symposia on Contemplative Studies held this April in Denver, it seemed as if the emerging field of meditation research had finally come of age. The gathering brought together research pioneers Jon Kabat-Zinn, Richie Davidson, John Teasdale and Marsha Linehan with groundbreaking contemplative teachers Sharon Salzberg, Roshi Joan Halifax, Matthieu Ricard and Brother David Stendl-Rast. In fact, as the nearly 750 participants convened for what could have been just one more hi-tech conference, the event felt not just historic but oddly unearthly, like a real-world version of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
A philosopher of science might explain that remarkable feel in light of the history behind the meeting. An unlikely array of individuals and teams — exploring dozens of converging paths around the nation and world, after decades of patient progress — suddenly find themselves assembled as one global community embodying a breakthrough field. A science journalist might explain the event’s uncanny feel by the fact that a once-obscure Buddhist contemplative practice called mindfulness, introduced in the late 1970s into pain management by Kabat-Zinn, has defied all the skeptics and all the odds by becoming one of the hottest topics in mainstream clinical research today.
But as a contemplative psychiatrist, I found the conference remarkable because what brought its participants together was less the cutting-edge science being discussed there than something far less tangible. Kabat-Zinn announced as much in his keynote address by confessing that what he really meant when he chose the word “mindfulness” for his popular stress-reduction program was “dharma,” the ancient Sanskrit term for spiritual teachings and contemplative experiences like Shakyamuni Buddha’s. Richie Davidson echoed this sentiment by sharing that his groundbreaking research was inspired not just by a lifelong interest in meditation but by a spiritual challenge from a renowned Buddhist leader. “What the world needs most in our global age,” the Dalai Lama told him, “is new brain science that clarifies the causal basis and beneficial effects of compassion.”
As an exploding body of clinical research confirms that mindfulness helps reduce stress and promote healing, learning and neuroplasticity, a parallel line of study on the related practice of loving-kindness has begun to converge with exciting new research on positive emotions and the brain.,,
As the conference unfolded, the shape of that convergence came clear. The new contemplative science is not just consolidating its broad foundation in mindfulness, but is also opening an emergent frontier of basic research and application: the deep, healing and transforming power of compassion.
What I found most surprising about the new compassion research is that for most of human history, this cutting-edge scientific frontier has been the province of religious professionals and lifelong contemplatives.
In panel after panel, researchers from a handful of labs around the world shared recent work involving cognitive-behavioral compassion training based on the Tibetan Buddhist practice called mind-training. The gist of the four studies I heard about is that such training enhances novices’ natural capacity to experience and respond to human suffering with proactive compassion, rather than with the sympathetic distress some call empathy, and others, emotional contagion.[1-4] The studies not only show a significant change in subjects’ reported experience but also show measurable changes in brain processing, suggesting a shift from simple mirroring of distress to deeper, positive emotional engagement and prosocial responsiveness.
These and other studies in the new frontier were the exclusive focus of another historic conference, The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures and Interventions, which took place in Telluride in July, featuring the renowned Tibetan scholar Thupten Jinpa.
In the last few months, some exciting new studies in this new breed of contemplative science have been published, introducing the budding field to the larger public for the first time.
What does this new frontier mean for our everyday lives? My strongest close encounter moment at the Denver conference came in a panel that brought together neuroscientist Tania Singer with lifelong advocates of compassion Sharon Salzberg and Brother David. Although the two contemplatives used contrasting language from the Buddhist and Christian traditions, they were both able to explain in human terms the shift Singer and her team found on fMRI scans of subjects’ brains.
Brother David used the metaphor of Michelangelo’s statue of David, who stands firmly on one leg and “plays” with the other. Our normal, stressful life in the world, he said, reflects a stance where we rely mainly on our disconnected identity and social role, and only play with fleeting glimpses of deeper attunement and connection to others. Instead, a proactive life of social engagement involves a stance where we rely mainly on a deep sense of caring interconnection, and flexibly play with the identities and social roles that seem to separate us from others.
What made this moment so profound for me had less to do with an otherworldly encounter than with an unexpected homecoming. As a science-minded teen in a progressive Catholic school, I recall asking my philosophy teacher why the infinite connectedness of people and things should be conceived as a personal God? At the time, I was bemused by the only answer he gave me: his caring smile. Thanks to meeting Robert Thurman and eventually the Dalai Lama at Amherst College, by the time I got to med school I’d learned enough to know my professors were dead wrong to warn compassion would cloud my objectivity and cause burnout. Yet after 30 years integrating contemplative psychiatry with Tibetan mind-training, it was listening to Tania and Brother David that the right and left sides of my brain clicked together, bringing me back to the visual koan of Father Eichner’s smile.
In mulling over what makes these new developments so historic, I kept recalling the words of T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Given our total interdependence, the close encounter I experienced in Denver was not just personal but part of a larger, communal encounter with the brief history of human civilization.
Some 10,000 years ago, as we began to master the primal forces of nature, our images of the divine began to take human form. Roughly 15 to 20 centuries ago, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Neo-Confucians aligned those images with the spirit of universal love and compassion. When modern science broke from religion in the Enlightenment, it also abandoned such positive images of humanity and the value of social emotions like compassion.
So now as the new contemplative science comes of age, and its practitioners form new fields and communities, modern science and civilization are having their own close encounter. Only that encounter is not with an alien life form and civilization from another planet, but with our forgotten empathic nature and with the ancient arts of compassion that helped us meet the dawn of civilization on Earth.
As with most homecomings, the close encounter now taking place is more than just a happy ending to a centuries old human odyssey. It is a confirmation and confluence indispensable to our global future. As the Dalai Lama reminds us, science and spirituality must come together if we are to forge a way forward that is both viable and sustainable.
The new contemplative science makes the mission of teaching universal compassion viable, because it shows all humans naturally have the brains for it. The old contemplative science of our spiritual traditions makes that mission sustainable, because it offers ways of training compassion that are not just time-tested, but ready made to suit the different mindsets of people in the diverse religious cultures that must join together to help forge a global civilization.
If religions are not forever to divide the world like colliding continental plates, we will need both the new contemplative science and the old arts of compassion to cool the molten core of our nature and harness it to the civilizing work of cultivating human-kindness and caring engagement with our whole planet.
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Desbordes, G et al, (2012). Effects of Mindful Attention and Compassion Meditation Training on Amygdala Response to Emotional Stimuli in an Ordinary, Non-Meditative State. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. http://bit.ly/RGyAja
Jazaieri, H et al, (2012). Enhancing Compassion: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Compassion Cultivation Training Program, Journal of Happiness. http://bit.ly/WCL77L
Klimecki, OM et al, (2012). Functional Neuroplasticity and Associated Changes in Positive Affect After Compassion Training. PloS one. http://bit.ly/TwUXSZ
Ozawa-de Silva, B et al, (2012). Compassion and Ethics: Scientific and Practical Approaches to the Cultivation of Compassion as a Foundation for Ethical Subjectivity and Well-Being. Journal of Healthcare, Science & the Humanities. http://bit.ly/WCD4be
H.H. the Dalai Lama, Human Compassion: www.youtube.com/watch?v=NF6uQ24V9GQ
Richard Davidson, Meng Wu Lecture: www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKKg3CDczpA
Thupten Jinpa, The Science of Compassion: