[Paleopsych] CHE: In the Lab With the Dalai Lama

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In the Lab With the Dalai Lama
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.12.16


    Even the Dalai Lama's harshest critics at the Society for
    Neuroscience meeting last month, in Washington, would have
    to concede this much: Choosing the exiled Tibetan Buddhist
    leader to inaugurate the professional association's series
    on neuroscience and society certainly got people talking.
    Who would have thought that an announced lecture on "The
    Neuroscience of Meditation" would set off a protest petition
    gathering about 1,000 signatures, a counterpetition of
    support boasting nearly as many names, substantial coverage
    in The New York Times and on National Public Radio, as well
    as ample chatter in the blogosphere? In a culture that likes
    its battles between science and religion to be loud,
    colorful, and Christian -- another nasty squabble, say,
    between evolutionists and creationists -- this controversy
    seemed unlikely to gain much traction. Yet as the dispute
    built momentum in the months leading up to the event, it
    soon became clear that the prospect of the red-robed Dalai
    Lama's urging the study of an ancient spiritual practice
    upon white-coated lab scientists would provide a newsworthy
    angle on the usual wrangling.

    Playing upon tensions far less noticed than those that have
    plagued relations between science and conservative
    Christianity, the latest dust-up reveals the spirit wars
    that divide the knowledge class itself. How purely secular
    and naturalistic do the members of that class imagine
    themselves to be, and how committed are they to keeping
    religion at bay in their conference gatherings, university
    laboratories, civic institutions, newsrooms, and think
    tanks? In turn, is "spirituality" a back door through which
    religion gets to enter the conversation, now dressed in the
    suitably neutralized garb of meditation as a universalistic
    practice of inward peace and outreaching compassion? Or does
    religion, even when soft-peddled in the cosmopolitan
    language of spirituality and the contemplative mind,
    inevitably remain an embarrassment to those elites who stake
    their authority on secular rationality? The dispute roiling
    the neuroscience society over the past six months has
    brought such questions front and center.

    Inviting the Dalai Lama to speak at the meeting created two
    major border disputes. The first, of modest consequence to
    religion-and-science debates, was the conflict over the
    "political agenda" of the exiled Tibetan leader. In an
    international professional association that includes many
    Chinese scientists, some members were offended at the
    implied endorsement that the event gave to the Dalai Lama's
    larger cause of freedom for Tibetans. The second dispute,
    more insistently debated, was over religion's showing up --
    so visibly, to boot -- at an annual meeting of
    neuroscientists. The almost visceral response by critics was
    to declare a total separation of religion and science, to
    wave the flag for the late-19th-century warfare between the
    two domains. "A science conference is not [an] appropriate
    venue for a religion-based presentation," a professor of
    anesthesia from the University of California at San
    Francisco remarked on the petition. "Who's next, the pope?"
    That sign-off question pointed to a second part of the
    strict separationist logic: Even if the Dalai Lama seemed
    pretty irenic as religious leaders go, he nonetheless
    represented a slippery slope into a mire of superstition and
    authoritarianism. (How else, some critics asked, were they
    to interpret his known affinities with reincarnation and
    monasticism?) "Today, the Dalai Lama; Tomorrow,
    Creationists?" wrote a professor of medicine at the
    University of Toronto, capturing perhaps the most
    commonplace anxiety given voice among the critics. Keep the
    society free of all religious discussion, or else the
    esteemed body might slide into the hell of a Kansas
    school-board meeting.

    More interesting than the purists' boundary monitoring is
    the way the Dalai Lama and his defenders imagine through
    meditation an emerging meeting point for science and
    religion in contemporary culture. The headline study that
    served as the immediate source of intrigue surrounding his
    recent lecture was an article published last year in the
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and produced
    by researchers at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging
    and Behavior, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
    That group, led by the psychology professor Richard J.
    Davidson, has been studying long-term Tibetan Buddhist
    practitioners of meditation, comparing their brain-wave
    patterns with those of a control group. Davidson himself has
    been working in the science-religion borderlands for more
    than two decades and has been a leading collaborator with
    the Mind and Life Institute, in Boulder, Colo., one of the
    principal organizations encouraging the
    neuroscience-meditation dialogue.

    Shifting the focus of research from altered states of
    consciousness or momentary experiences of ecstasy, which so
    often concerned inquirers in the 1960s and 1970s, the
    Davidson group has been looking for evidence that sustained
    meditation causes actual neural changes in everyday patterns
    of cognition and emotion. In other words, they want to know
    if the brain function of long-term contemplatives is made
    demonstrably different through years of "mental training."
    And not just different, but better: That is, does the
    well-developed meditative mind sustain higher levels of
    compassion and calmness than the run-of-the-mill American
    noggin? Well, after testing eight long-time Tibetan Buddhist
    practitioners and 10 "healthy student volunteers," the
    researchers discovered that the 10,000 to 50,000 hours that
    the various monks had devoted to "mental training" appeared
    to make a real neurological difference. As the study's title
    put it, "Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude
    gamma synchrony during mental practice." Davidson and
    company, careful not to overreach in their conclusions, did
    suggest that practices of meditation, and the accompanying
    compassionate affect, were "flexible skills that can be
    trained." Did that mean contemplative practice could be
    abstracted from its religious context and then applied as a
    kind of public pedagogy? Were hopeful supporters wrong to
    read this as a tantalizing suggestion that meditation might
    prove beneficial not only for the mental health of Americans
    but also for the very fabric of society? Where, after all,
    couldn't we benefit from a little more "pure compassion,"
    altruism, lovingkindness, and "calm abiding"?

    As novel as it may sound to monitor the brain waves of
    Tibetan Buddhist monks in university laboratories or on
    Himalayan hillsides (Davidson has done both), it is
    certainly not the first time that American psychologists
    have sought to re-engage the spiritual through the
    healthy-mindedness of meditation. At Wisconsin, Davidson
    occupies a research professorship named for Harvard's
    William James, the pioneering psychologist, psychical
    researcher, and philosopher of religion, and it is in the
    tradition of James that the current turn to the
    contemplative mind is best understood. Counter to the
    popular image of Americans as endlessly enterprising,
    agitated, and restless -- all busy Marthas, no reflective
    Marys -- James discerned a deep mystical cast to the
    American psyche and pursued that strain with uncommon
    intellectual devotion. Yet when it came to "methodical
    meditation," James saw little of it left among American
    Christians and turned instead to homegrown practitioners of
    various mind-over-matter cures. He particularly accented
    those "New Thought" metaphysicians who were pushing forward
    a dialogue with far-flung emissaries of yoga and Buddhist
    meditation in the wake of the World's Parliament of
    Religions, held in Chicago in 1893.

    Among James's favored practitioners of these newly
    improvised regimens of meditation was Ralph Waldo Trine, a
    Boston-based reformer with a knack for inspirational
    writing. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902),
    James used Trine's blockbuster In Tune With the Infinite
    (1897) as an epitome of the emergent practices of
    concentration, mental repose, and healthy-mindedness then
    percolating in New England and elsewhere across the country.
    Though an unabashed popularizer, Trine was not a
    lightweight. With an educational pedigree that ran from Knox
    College to the University of Wisconsin to the Johns Hopkins
    University, he moved easily in Harvard's wider metaphysical
    circles and energetically engaged various progressive
    causes. In much the same way that current studies promote
    the clinical applications of meditation, Trine emphasized
    the healthful benefits that accrued from cultivating a calm
    yet expectant mind. He had no scanners or electrodes, but he
    had the same hopes about improving the mental and physical
    health of Americans through elaborating a universal practice
    of meditation, one that transcended the particulars of any
    one religious tradition and represented a kind of
    cosmopolitan composite of all faiths. And while Trine did
    not have the Dalai Lama at hand, he did have extended
    contact with a well-traveled Sinhalese Buddhist monk,
    Anagarika Dharmapala, with whom he compared notes and
    devotional habits at a summer colony in Maine as he was
    putting together his own system of meditation for Americans.
    Like other inquirers then and now, Trine was all too ready
    to look to Asia for a practical antidote to American

    The real payoff for Trine, as it is for Davidson and his
    colleagues, was not established simply through a calculus of
    productivity or cheerfulness: Would encouraging meditation
    or other visualization techniques make people more alert and
    proficient at the office or on the playing field? Would it
    make them feel happier and less disgruntled? Trine, like
    James and now Davidson, was finally more interested in
    saintliness and compassion than in helping stressed-out
    brain workers relax and concentrate. It is hard not to hear
    a hint of Davidson's pursuit of altruism in Trine's "spirit
    of infinite love," the moral imperative to "care for the
    weak and defenseless." And it is hard not to see that the
    world of William James and Ralph Waldo Trine is alive and
    well as American investigators wire up Tibetan Buddhist
    hermits in a search for the powers of the concentrated mind,
    the mental disciplines of harmony, compassion, and peace
    that might make the world a marginally kinder, less selfish
    place. That optimism about human nature -- that the mind has
    deep reservoirs of potential for empathy and altruism -- had
    a lot more backing among liberals and progressives in 1900
    than it does today. Still, the considerable hopes now
    invested in meditation suggest that the old romantic
    aspirations, spiritual and otherwise, continue to flourish,
    especially among members of the mind-preoccupied knowledge

    P erhaps the most important dimension of the Dalai Lama's
    turn to the laboratory is the notion that the
    religion-science wound will be salved through recasting
    religion as spirituality. The Nobel laureate's latest book
    explicitly suggests as much in its title, The Universe in a
    Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. In
    doing so, he expressly appeals to all those Americans who
    fear fundamentalist incarnations of religion and who instead
    cast themselves as intellectually curious and spiritually
    seeking. Religion, on this model, is not a domain of
    authority competing with science but an inward terrain of
    personal experience and individual probing. Spirituality,
    the Dalai Lama writes, "is a human journey into our internal
    resources." Representing "the union of wisdom and
    compassion," it shares with science a progressive hope for
    "the betterment of humanity." In those terms, religion as
    spirituality becomes the handmaiden of science itself,
    joining it in an open quest for knowledge, empirical and
    pragmatic, unconstrained by ancient creeds, cosmologies, or
    churches. In such exhortations the Dalai Lama shows a fine,
    intuitive feel for much of American intellectual and
    religious life, but he is hardly telling today's Emersonian
    inquirers something about the universe that they do not
    already affirm.

    A practice of meditation made palatable to scientists,
    secularists, and seekers would no doubt look pallid to all
    those monks, hermits, and saints who have taken it to be an
    arduous and ascetic discipline. Still, the American pursuit
    of "spirituality," reaching a crescendo in the past two
    decades, has been all too easy to dismiss as paltry and
    unsubstantial, labeled as foreign and threatening to
    more-orthodox versions of a Christian America. In this
    often-charged religious environment, the Dalai Lama has
    astutely laid hold of the science-spirituality nexus as a
    cultural foothold. As he has discovered in this latest
    brouhaha, that move has hardly lifted him above the wider
    debates, whether about materialism or intelligent design,
    but it has allowed him to connect with America's more
    cosmopolitan and progressive religious impulses. When
    William James was asked directly in 1904, "What do you mean
    by 'spirituality'?," he replied: "Susceptibility to ideals,
    but with a certain freedom to indulge in imagination about
    them." In mingling with neuroscientists who have warmed to
    his talk of spirituality, the Dalai Lama may well have found
    his own avatars of William James.

    Leigh E. Schmidt is a professor of religion at Princeton
    University and author of Restless Souls: The Making of
    American Spirituality (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

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