Neuroscientists are researching centuries-old Buddhist mindfulness techniques and their effects on the brain
Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.
This line from Herman Hesse’s 1922 novel Siddhartha came unbidden to me during a recent weeklong visit to Drepung Monastery in southern India. His Holiness the Dalai Lama had invited the U.S.-based Mind and Life Institute to familiarize the Tibetan Buddhist monastic community living in exile in India with modern science. About a dozen of us—physicists, psychologists, brain scientists and clinicians, leavened by a French philosopher—introduced quantum mechanics, neuroscience, consciousness and various clinical aspects of meditative practices to a few thousand Buddhist monks and nuns. As we lectured, we were quizzed, probed and gently made fun of by His Holiness, who sat beside us. We learned as much from him and his inner circle—such as from his translator, Tibetan Jinpa Thupten, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Cambridge, and from the French monk Matthieu Ricard, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the Pasteur Institute in Paris—as they and their brethren from us.
What passed between these representatives of two distinct intellectual modes of thinking about the world were facts, data—knowledge. That is, knowledge about the more than two-millennia-old Eastern tradition of investigating the mind from the inside, from an interior, subjective point of view, and the much more recent insights provided by empirical Western ways to probe the brain and its behavior using a third-person, reductionist framework. What the former brings to the table are scores of meditation techniques to develop mindfulness, concentration, insight, serenity, wisdom and, it is hoped, in the end, enlightenment. These revolve around a daily practice of quiet yet alert sitting and letting the mind settle before embarking on a specific program, such as “focused attention” or the objectless practice of generating a state of “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion.” After years of daily contemplative exercise—nothing comes easily in meditation—practitioners can achieve considerable control over their mind. (MORE)