Dr. Antoine Lutz of the Waisman Lab for Brain-Imaging and Behavior, University of Wisonsin-Madison, presented research from his on-going study of novice and expert meditators.
Newcomers to the Dharma tend to resonate quite rapidly with it. This seeming natural identification of human nature with Buddhist psychology has perked interest among scholars, scientists and lay practitioners as to whether Western science and medicine can explain why Eastern philosophy “works”, and whether there are fruitful secular applications of aspects of Buddhism, without immersion in the entire Buddhist culture.
These were some of the broader questions addressed at a recent symposium hosted by Maitripa College, an accredited Buddhist university in Portland, Oregon. Held the weekend of December 4th and 5th, the symposium was entitled “Crossroads of the Future: Buddhism & Science.” It featured nine leading researchers and practitioners from universities across the US.
The opening session of the conference offered an overview of the history and future of the encounter between Buddhism and science. Attempts to bridge science and Buddhism began in the 19th century, however contemporary science is more interested in understanding how Buddhist practices may benefit individuals and society, versus trying to “prove” Buddhism through scientific rigor. Scientists focus instead on understanding the mind, what leads to human suffering, and what helps to relieve it. For example they recognize there is much to be learned about the long term impact of meditation on the mind, body, relief of suffering and enhancement of the human condition.
Broad areas of study include: transformation of the mind and neuroplasticity, the fact that experiences such as meditation can change the brain via the continuous production of neurons; the elimination of suffering, which looks at mechanisms of mind-brain-body functions; and first-person expertise involving the study of the neural counterpart of subjectivity.
Contributing to this discussion were Yangsi Rinpoche, Geshe, President of Maitripa College; James Blumenthal, PhD, Associate Professor of Buddhist Philosophy at Oregon State University and of Buddhist Studies at Maitripa; Antoine Lutz, PhD, Associate Scientist at the U. of Wisconsin-Madison; and John Dunne, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Religion at Emory University.
Dr. Helane Wahbeh, ND, professor of neurology at Oregon Health Sciences University, shared results from her work using mindfulness training with war veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Later in the program Dr. Lutz and Helane Wahbeh, ND, MCR, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Oregon Health & Science University, shared information about current research on the neuroscience of meditation while Yangsi Rinpoche offered insights into meditation’s “inner science”.
Lutz discussed rapidly developing areas in the practical application of Buddhist practices. These include a variety of mindfulness-based theoretical orientations. For example, mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is finding that contemplative techniques are reducing relapse into depression, given the 70% rate of relapse in controls once antidepressants are stopped.
According to Wahbeh, studies involving war veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder have produced encouraging indications that mindfulness training slows reactivity, decreases the secretion of cortisol, and helps regulate emotions and the autonomic nervous system. Related research findings indicate that meditation training can also increase attention span and reduce inflammation, suggesting an impact on health.
Further discussion revealed, however, that despite these promising research findings, when it comes to understanding brain function, the effects of meditation practices on the brain are inconclusive. When experienced meditators are studied, powerful differences emerge in the brain rhythms or oscillations for most subjects, yet some still show little difference from controls. One possible explanation is that some people are “pre-wired” to enjoy meditation and this may influence the outcome, as opposed to the effect of the meditation itself. If one does not have a desire to meditate versus meditating for some other reason, it is unlikely one will experience the joy and accumulating benefits of an established meditation practice.
In keeping with the Buddhist emphasis on practice, the symposium gave special attention to applications of current research in the real world.
Dan Rubin, PsyD, Visiting Professor of Psychology at Maitripa College and a practicing psychologist, joined Drs. Dunne and Lutz in a discussion of the science of Buddhist psychology and Dr. Mark Unno, PhD, Associate Professor in Religious Studies, U. of Oregon, addressed aspects of Buddhism and psychotherapy.
Within the realm of psychotherapy, Unno described how Buddhist practices promote balance in emotions, insight, and transformation in behavior and personality. Cultivation of a regular practice of mindfulness techniques can provide therapy clients with the calm and awareness to self-manage their lives without ongoing reliance on a therapist or medication.
Roeser suggests that ideally, contemplative practices should be introduced to people at a young age so they can benefit from them longer. Neuroplasticity of the brain and developmental windows throughout the lifespan offer ongoing opportunities for enhancing clear minds, emotional calm, compassionate hearts, a sense of interconnectedness and responsibility for others.
Key to educating youth in mindfulness is training teachers first so that children can learn through observation. Teachers participating in various studies report that mindfulness techniques help them cope better, leave the job at work, be less reactive, experience reduced burnout as well as decreased anxiety and depression. To date there are no results available on whether such teacher training also helps students so this is an area where more research is needed.
Steven Vannoy, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the U. of Washington and visiting faculty member at Maitripa College, spoke on his experience applying Buddhist techniques in prison settings. His work with incarcerated adults involved research on meditation-based enhancement of social health through anger reduction and expanded possibilities for love, per the Buddhist conceptualization of love as having more to do with awareness of how others may be made happy.
A thoroughly engaged audience at one of the sessions of the Buddhism & Science symposium at Maitripa College, Portland, Oregon. At right center is Dr. Steven Vannoy of the University of Washington, a symposium presenter.
The symposium raised interesting questions for both panelists and audience members.
One area for further discussion and clarity is whether the attempt to split out and secularize certain aspects of Buddhism actually makes sense, or whether when removed from their context, aspects of Buddhist practice may ultimately have questionable effectiveness. There are many meditation styles and practices, and meditation is not necessarily suitable for everyone. Separated from its tradition of service to others and the world, even meditation may lose its point and attractiveness, and without an intentional desire to practice, benefits may be slight or elusive. In extreme circumstances a person may even become psychotic in the hands of an inexperienced practitioner.
While Buddhism and science have some shared principles such as the ability to observe phenomena, make inferences, and engage a multi-life perspective—one through reincarnation, the other through gene hosts—attempts at the conflation of Buddhism and science present some problems. Buddhism cannot prove the existence of things through belief and scripture. Science can prove some things false, but it can't prove some things true, such as the trans-empirical continuation of consciousness. From the point of view of science, if it is unobservable, it doesn't exist.
At best then scientists and Buddhist practitioners can try to guard against the potential pitfalls within their fields, such as the temptation to withdraw entirely into the empirical world of science to the exclusion of other possibilities, or into fundamentalism by not examining what does exist in preference for settling on one inflexible “truth”. There is always the temptation of trying to prove Buddhism with science. The Dalai Lama affirms that Buddhist teachings should be updated when supported empirically.
Buddhism and science do have the shared goals of relieving suffering and enhancing our humanity, which surely provide the best focus for our future and that of our planet.
For more information about Maitripa College, please visit: www.maitripa.org.
Contributor: Alison Deane.
Photos: Marc Sakamoto.