Understanding the modern world

Science at the crossroads: Potential for transformation

"One area where Buddhist contemplative tradition may have important contribution to make is the practical techniques it has developed for training in compassion." - The 14th Dalai Lama
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Buddhism has long argued for the tremendous potential for transformation that exists naturally in the human mind. To this end, the tradition has developed a wide range of contemplative techniques, or meditation practices, aimed specifically at two principal objectives—the cultivation of a compassionate heart and the cultivation of deep insights into the nature of reality, which are referred to as the union of compassion and wisdom. At the heart of these meditation practices lie two key techniques, the refinement of attention and its sustained application on the one hand, and the regulation and transformation of emotions on the other.

In both of these cases, I feel, there might be great potential for collaborative research between the Buddhist contemplative tradition and neuroscience. For example, modern neuroscience has developed a rich understanding of the brain mechanisms that are associated with both attention and emotion. Buddhist contemplative tradition, given its long history of interest in the practice of mental training, offers on the other hand practical techniques for refining attention and regulating and transforming emotion. The meeting of modern neuroscience and Buddhist contemplative discipline, therefore, could lead to the possibility of studying the impact of intentional mental activity on the brain circuits that have been identified as critical for specific mental processes. In the least such an interdisciplinary encounter could help raise critical questions in many key areas.

For example, do individuals have a fixed capacity to regulate their emotions and attention or, as Buddhist tradition argues, their capacity for regulating these processes are greatly amenable to change suggesting a similar degree of amenability of the behavioural and brain systems associated with these functions? One area where Buddhist contemplative tradition may have an important contribution to make is the practical techniques it has developed for training in compassion. With regard to mental training both in attention and emotional regulation it also becomes crucial to raise the question of whether any specific techniques have time-sensitivity in terms of their effectiveness so that new methods can be tailored to suit the needs of age, health, and other variable factors.

A note of caution is called for, however. It is inevitable that when two radically different investigative traditions like Buddhism and neuroscience are brought together in an interdisciplinary dialogue, this will involve problems that are normally attendant to exchanges across boundaries of cultures and disciplines. For example, when we speak of the “science of meditation,” we need to be sensitive to exactly what is meant by such a statement. On the part of scientists, I feel, it is important to be sensitive to the different connotations of an important term such as meditation in their traditional context.

For example, in its traditional context, the term for meditation is bhavana (in Sanskrit) or gom (in Tibetan). The Sanskrit term connotes the idea of cultivation, such as cultivating a particular habit or a way of being, while the Tibetan term gom has the connotation of cultivating familiarity. So, briefly stated, meditation in the traditional Buddhist context refers to a deliberate mental activity that involves cultivating familiarity, be it with a chosen object, a fact, a theme, habit, an outlook, or a way of being. Broadly speaking, there are two categories of meditation practice—one focusing on stilling the mind and the other on the cognitive processes of understanding. The two are referred to as (i) stabilising meditation and (ii) discursive meditation.

In both cases, meditation can take many different forms. For example, it may take the form of taking something as an object of one’s cognition, such as meditating on one’s transient nature. Or it may take the form of cultivating a specific mental state, such as compassion by developing a heartfelt, altruistic yearning to alleviate others’ suffering. Or, it could take the form of imagination, exploring the human potential for generating mental imagery, which may be used in various ways to cultivate mental well-being. So it is critical to be aware of what specific forms of meditation one might be investigating when engaged in collaborative research so that complexity of meditative practices being studied is matched by the sophistication of the scientific research.

Another area where a critical perspective is required on the part of the scientists is the ability to distinguish between the empirical aspects of Buddhist thought and contemplative practice on the one hand and the philosophical and metaphysical assumptions associated with these meditative practices. In other words, just as we must distinguish within the scientific approach between theoretical suppositions, empirical observations based on experiments, and subsequent interpretations, in the same manner it is critical to distinguish theoretical suppositions, experientially verifiable features of mental states, and subsequent philosophical interpretations in Buddhism. This way, both parties in the dialogue can find the common ground of empirical observable facts of the human mind, while not falling into the temptation of reducing the framework of one discipline into that of the other. Although the philosophical presuppositions and the subsequent conceptual interpretations may differ between these two investigative traditions, insofar as empirical facts are concerned, facts must remain facts, no matter how one may choose to describe them.

Whatever the truth about the final nature of consciousness—whether or not it is ultimately reducible to physical processes—I believe there can be a shared understanding of the experiential facts of the various aspects of our perceptions, thoughts and emotions. With these precautionary considerations, I believe, close cooperation between these two investigative traditions can truly contribute toward expanding the human understanding of the complex world of inner subjective experience that we call the mind. Already the benefits of such collaborations are beginning to be demonstrated. According to preliminary reports, the effects of mental training, such as simple mindfulness practice on a regular basis or the deliberate cultivation of compassion as developed in Buddhism, in bringing about observable changes in the human brain correlated to positive mental states can be measured.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso is the spiritual leader of Tibet. Since taking asylum in India in 1959, His Holiness has become a global advocator of peace, compassion and happiness. He is the first Nobel Laureate to be recognised for his concern for global environmental problems.

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