It was in 1983 when an American entrepreneur and Buddhist practitioner by the name of Adam Engle first learned that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was interested in collaboratively working with scientific researchers from the west to objectively study the affects introspective practices have on practitioners well-being and health. Subsequently, it was during the following year when the great spiritual leader eagerly accepted Engle’s offer to arrange a summit where the two sides would formally come together, and also when the late great Chilean neuroscientist Francisco Varela, who was deeply interested in scientifically studying Buddhism, offered his expertise and influence to the project.
While it would be easy to assume that the three men hailing from Tibet, Chile and the United States shared little in common, they’d all come to passionately believe that while Buddhism and science were methodologically different, both applications aimed to investigate the true nature of reality with hopes of improving the quality of life for humanity and the planet. Moreover, all three men desired to bridge the gap between the great eastern spiritual tradition and the empirical study of the west, and it was due to this shared aspiration that Engle, Varela and the Dalai Lama would work to facilitate a conversation between the two sides by organizing regular gatherings for discussion.
Although the trio wouldn’t formally establish the now distinguished Mind & Life Institute until 1991, the first official Mind & Life Dialogue took place in 1987. Since then, the organization has held 33 Mind & Life Dialogue summits, which individually focus on a theme related to the betterment of mankind, that’ve brought together some of the world’s greatest scientific and spiritual thinkers. Most recently, from March 12th-16th, the 2018 Mind and Life Dialogue, Mind & Life XXXIII, took place in the Dalai Lama’s home city of Dharamsala, India, and we’ve aimed to recap the event’s happenings and highlights here.
The 2018 Mind and Life Dialogue:
For the 2018 Mind and Life Dialogue, more than 200 esteemed academics, scientists, psychologists and educators convened at the Main Tibetan Temple in Dharamsala, India, with the goal of ‘reimagining human flourishing’ from the context of the Dalai Lama’s vision for the future. Over the five days of the event, the assembly took in a diverse collection of 16 presentations, most of which were given directly to His Holiness, on topics such as childhood development, social and emotional learning (SEL) and secular ethics. To commence this year’s gathering and set the stage for the week, Mind & Life Institute President Susan Bauer-Wu offered some opening remarks, during which she told the audience:
We are most privileged to meet here in this extraordinary setting to explore over the next five days how we can educate our children to be compassionate, caring citizens committed to the common good. If we are to truly reimagine human flourishing, it needs to begin with the youngest among us and the values and attitudes they hold towards each other and the roles as local and global citizens.”
Day One | Early Childhood Development and Social Emotional Learning:
On the first day of Mind & Life XXXIII, three prominent psychological figures gave presentations on topics related to early childhood development and social and emotional learning (SEL) with the first speaker being none other than the eminent psychologist Richard Davidson. During his talk, Davidson, who is the Director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Chief Scientific Advisor of the Mind & Life Institute, previewed the week ahead by offering introductory insights on human development, discussing the importance of children’s socio-emotional health and raising a number of fundamental questions needing to be addressed.
Davidson additionally painted a hopeful picture for the future by telling the audience how Thomas Insel, the former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), came to believe Buddhist meditative practices could be the solution to America’s mental health epidemic. Of Insel, who saw the NIMH make minimal progress even though they spent $20 billion dollars in the 13 years he led the organization, Davidson said:
He has come to the conclusion that the methods for mind training that are so important in the Buddhist tradition, that whole family of methods is going to be the solution, not surgery and not drugs because they haven’t impacted this despite spending twenty billion dollars.”
After Davidson’s presentation, and a short break for tea, the renowned developmental psychologist Michel Boivin took center stage to discuss the various factors that play a role in framing early childhood development. Citing the work he’s conducted and oversaw as the Director of the Research Unit on Children’s Psychosocial Maladjustment at Université Laval’s School of Psychology, Boivin told the audience how developmental trajectories are governed by a complex interplay of genes and environment.
Once Boivin completed his talk, it was then time for bestselling author and Harvard trained psychologist Daniel Goleman, who’s 2015 book A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World largely shaped the discussion of Mind & Life XXXIII, to finish the day one presentations by talking about the critical life skills that children acquire from SEL. Instead of getting into the details of Goleman’s thought-provoking talk, you can view the presentation in its entirety here:
Day Two | Social Emotional Learning and Education in the Classroom:
The second day of Mind & Life XXXIII picked up where the first one left off and featured three presentations aimed at bringing the application of social and emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom to life. With hopes of showing how the Dalai Lama’s vision for the future is already being manifested, renowned University of British Columbia (UBC) psychologist Kimberly Schonert-Reichl presented first and offered a broader overview of SEL in modern education today by sharing a variety of relevant statistics related to the topic.
Not only did Schonert-Reichl tell the audience that SEL programs are currently being implemented in 34 countries, but also that 25 million students in the United States alone are learning important socio-emotional skills. When discussing the effectiveness of one popular Canadian SEL program known as MindUP, which uniquely integrates components of neuroscience, positive psychology, mindfulness and SEL together, she said:
What we found is that children who received the MindUP program increase in their ability to attend and inhibit impulses and they also decrease in their stress.”
For the second presentation of the day, Sophie Langri and Tara Wilkie, co-founders of the Montreal based Institute of Social Emotional Education, discussed the work they’ve done teaching SEL through a practical framework called CS3: Core Skills in Three Domains. Based upon their experience implementing and researching the affects of the program, which aims to improve children’s emotional literacy in regard to themselves, others and their communities, the duo has found that when students are taught about their feelings and needs, they’re much better able to manage and regulate emotional disturbances.
After Langri and Willie’s presentation, it was then time for Jennifer Knox, an experienced SEL educator and member of the Social, Emotional and Ethical Learning (SEE) team at Emory University, to deliver the day’s final lecture. During her discourse, Knox talked about developing and teaching SEE’s curriculum which incorporates nonreligious ethical education into the equation. To further your understanding of how SEL programs positively impact students, we’ve included a short video clip from Knox’s speech below that shows students from Woodward Academy in College Park, Georgia, talking about emotions, the mind, self-compassion and significant experiences:
Day Three | Meta-Awareness and Attention Training in Education Research:
The conversation on day three of the 2018 Mind and Life Dialogue narrowed from the broader application of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) to the important socio-emotional capacities of attention, the ability to focus the mind on a particular sensory object or task, and meta-awareness, one’s ability to be aware of their own thoughts, feelings and internal states. In similar fashion to the first two days of the summit, there were three presentations on the third day, the first of which was given by University of Miami neuroscientist Amishi Jha. During her talk, Jha, who’s also the Director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the UMindfulness Initiative, shed light on her research examining the relationship between attention, mind-wandering and meta-awareness, and told the audience how Mindfulness Meditation can improve one’s metacognition.
The second presentation of the day was given by University of Colorado Boulder clinical psychologist Sona Dimidjian, who talked about her work teaching and studying the impact meditative practices have on depression. During her address, Dimidjian pointed to the promising results Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has shown at helping mothers and expecting mothers overcome depression and sustain a healthy mental state over the long-term. After her speech, His Holiness shared some thoughts about emotional hygiene and told the audience how important it is for us to care for our minds in the same ways we do our bodies. He said:
Training the mind should not be considered as a religious practice but as a practice of a healthy life.”
Due to the fact that the dialogue between western scientists and eastern spiritual teachers is slightly hindered by language barriers and different conceptual understandings of the mind, the day’s third speech, which was given by the Dalai Lama’s longtime English translator Thupten Jinpa, was dedicated to looking at the capacities of attention and meta-awareness from a Buddhist perspective. During his presentation, which can be seen in its entirety below, Jinpa called upon the writings of the great eight century Buddhist master Shantideva to show how the views contemplative researchers hold about mindfulness and meta-awareness differ from those found in classical Buddhist literature:
Day Four | Ethics and Compassion in Education Research:
On the fourth day of the 2018 Mind and Life Dialogue, the considered theme once again shifted as four presenters zoned in on the topics of ethics and the personal quality of compassion. To open the discussion, none other than His Holiness offered a wisdom filled presentation, which can be seen below, while making a compelling argument for why the whole of humanity should strive to move beyond self-centeredness and live from a place of understanding the interconnected nature of reality:
After the Dalai Lama’s discourse, it was then turn for Penn State University developmental and educational psychologist Robert Roeser to talk about the science of moral development in relation to secular ethics. During his address, Roeser shined light on how scientists approach investigating the development of virtuous qualities, outlined the evolutionary stages of moral development and told that audience how it’s possible for individuals to shift from self-absorbed tendencies towards prosocial behaviors by learning to see others as themselves. When discussing the transformational aim of moral development, Roeser said:
The young child is focusing on superficial aspects, different hair and different face, but what development is, is trying to get them to see at a deeper level how we’re similar and in some sense that’s the journey that we’re all on.”
The third presentation of the day was then given by French-born Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. During his address, the man who’s been described by some as ‘the world’s happiest’ explained the Buddhist view of compassion, ethics and wisdom while using scientific research and real world situations to brilliantly show why cultivating these traits is so important. As you’ll be able to see by watching Ricard’s presentation in its entirety below, the beloved monk’s talk was one of the true highlights of the 2018 Mind and Life Dialogue:
For the last presentation of the day, Sona Dimidjian, who also presented on day three, once again talked about the research she’s conducted as a psychologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. Where as she focused on mindfulness based health interventions in her first lecture, however, Dimidjian looked at the affects compassion training can have on individuals and communities. In one such study that offered training to educators, Dimidjian referenced what one teacher said of the experience:
These practices are essential for all educators, for all students, for all human beings… Making this available, even required, for all educators, could have great impact and in ways we may not yet imagine.”
Day Five | Evaluation and Implementation: Challenges and Opportunities for Human Flourishing:
The final day of the 2018 Mind and Life Dialogue was dedicated to examining the implementation and evaluation of learning in the classroom and featured two prominent guest speakers. Sonia Lupien, the Founder and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress, presented first and she shed light on research that shows how stress inhibits children’s abilities to learn. During her discourse, Lupien told the audience that even if young students, who are dealing with unfavorably high levels of stress, are taught social and emotional skills, their preoccupied minds will make it difficult for them to gain meaningful understanding. It’s for this reason that Lupien developed a program known as Destress for Success that aims to teach children how to handle their stressors. Of the program, she said:
Basically, we want to be very simple because we know they’re not learning so we want them to think about factors that they find stressful and we teach them the NUTS [an acronym used to outline the four characteristics of relative stress – Novelty, Unpredictable, Threat to ego, and Sense of low control], we show them how to recognize a stress response and what to do to decrease it.”
Once Lupien finished her talk, the final presentation of Mind & Life XXXIII was given by the renowned thoughts leader, in the fields of social and emotional learning (SEL) and mindfulness in education, Patricia Jennings. During her lecture, Jennings brought to life two promising projects that she’s helped develop and implement in schools across the United States. After discussing the success of the CARE for Teachers (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education) program that systematically aims to improve prosocial tendencies in students by equipping teachers with the necessary capacities to foster an enriching classroom environment, Jennings talked about the monumental Compassionate Schools Project currently taking place in Louisville, Kentucky. In the video below, you’ll have a chance to learn about this project, at the tail end of Jennings’ presentation, before listening in to an ensuing roundtable discussion and the closing remarks of the 2018 Mind and Life Dialogue: