SAN FRANCISCO – Dr Lewis Thomas once compared the scientific community to a tidepool. Science progresses when a naturalist explores the entire pool, perimeter, depths, and nooks and crannies, and discerns particular groupings and connections amongst the various lifeforms – the organisms, in this analogy, standing for scientists and also their research papers. Such spirit of advance was the nature of MINDFULNESS & COMPASSION : The Art & Science of Contemplative Practice. As quietly as the fog rolling in, and as potent as the sun burning through the haze, this conference, held at San Francisco State University (SFSU) June 3 – 7, hosted a healthy diversity of points of view and modes of expression, all in one place, at one time. [Full disclosure: I was a presenter therein.]
Many hands too numerous to spotlight went in to making the occasion. Props are certainly due, however, to the two whose brain child it was, Dr. Ron Purser College of Business and Dr. Adam Burke College of Health and Social Science. Adam is director of the university’s Institute for Holistic Health Studies, and brought to bear his deep training in health, the whole, the holy. An ordained zen priest, Ron’s scholarship focuses on how Buddhist philosophy can inform organizational theory and practice; a year ago, with scholar David Loy, he struck a nerve with the publication of Beyond McMindfulness .
For five days, the variety of viewpoints and modes of expression interwove as a coherent extended jam session emerged, composed of neuroscientists and religious studies scholars, historians and monastics, therapists and health care workers (plus poets) – from North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia, about 260 in all — listening and talking, face-to-face. Moreover, there was also a healthy, dynamic dialectic throughout, sparked by critical and self-critical findings and views, not always on the menu at such gatherings.
The conference began with a sharp juxtaposition of culture and science, as poet Jane Hirshfield read her Zen-inflected work, followed by Dr Joseph Briggs, the director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the leading Federal research agency for same. It wasn’t a facile pairing. Jane Hirshfield’s poetry is often informed by her keen following of the latest developments in science. Dr Briggs confessed to having a contemplative practice of jogging. This evening kick-off was followed by a reception for presenters and attendees, marked by a convivial spirit of dialogue remained a key note throughout the conference.
Following a morning meditation led by Patricia Mushim Ikeda, East Bay Meditation Center, Day One begin with Willoughby Britton, Brown University, presenting The Promises and Perils of Mixing Buddhism and Western Psychiatry. A year ago, an Atlantic feature article The Dark Knight of the Soul, generated a storm of controversy – some of it, of course, media latching onto stories of danger and fear, without going fully into depth and contexts. But she is asking questions genuinely worth asking. Is mindfulness appropriate for dealing with deep trauma? What modes of “mindfulness” therapies might be counterproductive? And so on. Contemplating her findings, we were reminded of a parallel, case of earlier Westerners experiencing spiritual emergency upon being taught yoga postures (asanas) plus some breathing techniques (pranayama), without the wise ethical components of yoga (yamas and niyamas), tthus unequipped to deal with arising of core energy (kundalini). Her presentation was aptly capped by Geoffrey Samuel, University of Sydney, who placed “mindfulness” within a fuller contextual range of meditative practices, Buddhist and Asian.
They were followed by a panel with Jake Davis, Brown University; Henk Barendregt, Radboud University; David Brazier, Instituto Terapia Zen Internacional; Shaila Catherine, Insight Meditation South Bay; Fabio Giommi, NOUS – School of Psychotherapy; and Mushim. Mushim also left on the commons table a recent document recently prepared by Bhikkhu Bodhi, limning four distinct yet overlapping modes of applied mindfulness, worthy of a wider audience. A version can be found online at the end of Maia Duerr’s interview with him, Toward a Socially Responsible Mindfulness.
About 60 papers on current research and practice were then presented concurrently, with another 60 on Friday. Next, Eijun Linda Cutts, Abbess of the San Francisco Zen Center; Erika Rosenburg, UC Davis, and Eve Ekman, UC San Francisco presented their perspectives on compassion. We were particularly moved by Eijun’s invocation of compassion through a striking, apt, rich koan, and her own case study of it.
The evening concluded with a keynote by Venerable Ajahn Amaro, Abbot of the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, England. His opening line was arguably the hit opening line of the conference. After being introduced, and his topic – mindfulness and ethics – standing at the podium in his saffron robes, and shaven head, he smiled and said, “I’m biased.” Ajahn likened his monastic function as “rules keeper” to the helpful maps on campus. While it’s good to experience the Power of Now, it’s helpful to have directions for getting around. Speaking of the need to put a fence around our reptile brain, and its inclinations to do harm — he quoted his teacher Ajahn Chah, who likened the mind’s tendency to self-justification to a criminal who rationalizes his misbehavior by thinking he can hire a good lawyer who will solve everything.
The next day, following a morning meditation led by Dario Girolami, founder of Centro Zen L’Arco of Rome; and breakfast. David Vago, mapped the neurology (E.G, substrates) involved in such modalities of mindfulness phenomenal clarity, concentration, and tranquility. In so doing, he clarified what is a “resting” mind and distinguished between over eight identifiable brain networks engaged in task-negative states, including the default mode network, sensory networks, and a fronto-parietal network – and much, much more. Then another brilliant, younger scholar David McMahan, Franklin & Marshall College, placed mindfulness in ancient and modern contexts from a historical perspective. Those who haven’t yet discovered his work have a special treat in store: his Making of Buddhist Modernism, (Oxford: 2008) provides a historically nuanced account of the development of Buddhism in the West that’s tonic and. He’s also a fine example newer generations of academicians (“Buddhologists”) who, themselves, have a Buddhist practice, and so are speaking from within the dance.
Following Saturday morning meditation led by Ajahn Passano, Abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery, California – Clifford Saron, UC Davis, presented Minding Mindfulness: Findings, Models, & Issues in the Scientific Investigation of Contemplative Practice Dr Saron began his presentation with two fundamental research questions . 1) What do people do when they meditate? He answered, “We have really no idea, and the question is likely not scientifically tractable in any near term way.” And 2) What do people do differently because they have meditated, to which he replies, “This is scientifically tractable and comprises assessment of trait changes, but requires longitudinal studies, follow-up, and use of nuanced measures.”
Robert Thurman, Columbia University, presented next. His talk was entitled Ethical, Psychological, and Intellectual Development: Context of Mindfulness. He was a rare treat for those who’ve never heard him speak, and for those who have, as he demonstrated a truly free association of ideas, sometimes jumping whole horizons mid-sentence. In his inimitable way, he not only opened everyone’s minds, but planted some very wise and useful seeds, such as discerning four different kinds of compassion :
- sentimental compassion, which is combined with mis-knowledge ( an affective exhausting kind of conceptual empathy )
- compassion combined with wisdom of experience ( perceives persons )
- compassion combined with wisdom of personal selflessness ( perceives things )
- compassion combined with wisdom of objective selflessness ( knows by merging ; prajnaparamita )Q
Quoting Prof Thurman out of context may be like trying to get a glass of water off a torrential waterfall. You can’t. To get a better glimpse, you might spend 20 minutes with a recent talk of his on enlarging the circle of compassion.</A> These morning talks were followed by poetry by Wendell Berry, Czeslaw Milosz, Derek Walcott, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others, presented by Yours Truly.
After lunch, French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard offered the closing keynote address, Altruism: The Power Of Compassion To Change Yourself & the World, also the title of his recent, unprecedented, vital, and masterful magnum opus. He prefaced his presentation by pointing out the need of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to add and emphasize “caring” as a modulator for mindfulness — as, earlier this spring, he made clear in his article Caring Mindfulness, making a sound case for going beyond an ethically neutral “mindfulness.” Of his slides, the ones from his homeland of Nepal were particularly rivetting, as was his selfless commitment to alleviating suffering there, particularly following its recent devastating natural disaster.
A third panel discussion included Jack Petranker, Mangalam Research Center; Stephen Ezeji-Okoye, VA Palo Alto Health Care System; Ajahn Amaro; Ayya Santussika, Karuna Buddhist Vihara; and Linda Heuman, Brown University. On Sunday, participants were invite to a post-conference tour of Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County. There, they attended a Dharma talk and discussion, visited the farmers market, partook in an organic vegetarian lunch, toured the organic garden and farm, hiked in the hills, and walked to the Pacific Ocean.
Other attendees continued in conference mode, over in Berkeley, at the Mangalam Research Center of Buddhist Languages, for three probative panels on Buddhism and Modernity. Organized by the Center’s Executive Director Jack Petranker, the topics were: “Buddhist philosophy and the perennial concerns of Western philosophy,” “The role for the transcendent dimensions of Buddhist practice and teachings in a disenchanted world,” and “How insights from the fields of science studies / history of science / continental thought might shed new light on the dialogue between Buddhism and science.” Videos of these presentations are now streaming – a microcosm and outgrowth of the larger conference. Four of the panelists, Yours Truly included, then went around the corner to Dharma College to a public panel, attended by 90 people as part of the first Bay Area Book Festival.
During Buddhism & Modernity, Cliff Saron quietly announced that, while we’d been together, a breakthrough finding had been announced to the Tide Pool: the presence of the immune system within the brain (of such microscopic scale that, until now, no one had noticed before). Eureka! Tidepool watchers, take heed! New constellations await mapping in the night sky within the human lived world, which will take compassionate, mindful collaboration across disciplines.
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It’s been 30 years since “mindfulness” has been secularized from its Buddhist origins, where the meditative component is traditionally integral to a circle (The Eightfold Path) that includes wisdom and ethics. There’s been much discussion of late as to what’s gained and what’s lost through a denatured spiritual practice. This conference responded to many of those questions, and posed new ones. Moreover, it raised the bar for such discourse and dialogue, as we witness and take part in a transformation that changes our heart-minds and the world, as one.
Gary Gach is author of Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism (3rd edition; Nautilus Book Award), editor of What Book !? — Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop (American Book Award), and co-translator of three books by Ko Un. His website is here . He hosts Mindfulness Fellowship weekly in San Francisco.