Page 2 of 4For days at a time, von Weizsäcker would sit with the Dalai Lama tutoring him on quantum physics and its philosophical implications. His Holiness also had the good fortune to befriend the physicist David Bohm, who had spent a great deal of time with Krishnamurti. His Holiness carried on a decades-long conversation with Bohm that, in his words, "fueled my thinking about the ways Buddhist methods of inquiry may relate to those used in modern science." He also developed a close relationship with Sir Karl Popper, the most prominent philosopher of science. He learned from Popper’s teachings how the logic of science relied on abstraction, usually in mathematical form, and instrumentation (microscopes, telescopes, etc.). By contrast, the logic of Buddhism relied on natural language and examples drawn from unmediated personal experience.
Not all of the Dalai Lama’s interactions with science were so positive. In 1979, while Varela was wrestling with the crowd at Naropa, the Dalai Lama faced a hostile clutch of scientists at a conference in Russia, where one of them felt he was postulating the existence of a soul. If this dialogue was going to get off the ground, someone clearly had to draw up better terms of engagement.
For his part, Varela was determined not to repeat what had occurred at the Naropa meeting, so he set down some guidelines for any future meeting about Buddhism and science: participants must not only be knowledgeable, they must have something to contribute and be open to dialogue. It would be a few more years, but he would get the chance to organize the kind of meeting he envisioned, and the Dalai Lama would be the one to make the difference. In 1983, now back in Chile, Varela traveled to a conference on science and spirituality in Austria, where he ended up sitting next to the Dalai Lama, who peppered him with questions about the brain. They were kindred spirits - a meditator who had come to science and a scientist who had come to meditation. They vowed to talk again.
In 1985, Varela heard from his friend Joan Halifax of a plan hatched by businessman and Buddhist Adam Engle to hold a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and scientists about the shared ground between Buddhism and modern physics. Varela persuaded Engle that brain science would be a better place to start and they formed a partnership that led to the first Mind and Life meeting, "Dialogues between Buddhism and Cognitive Science," held in Dharamsala, India, in October 1987.
Varela was the scientific coordinator for the meeting, and he developed a template that called for a small, committed group of participants, each of whom would make a presentation on a different aspect of a topic area. Discussion would be facilitated by the coordinator and the Dalai Lama would be an active participant throughout. This has been the format, with minor variation, for all twelve of the Mind and Life dialogues that have been held to date.
Several years after the first Mind and Life meeting, Varela found himself tromping around the mountains and caves above Dharamsala. He was there in an effort sanctioned by the Dalai Lama to use sophisticated instruments to measure what was going on when yogis meditated. His partner in that effort, Richard Davidson, was - and is - a leading authority on the relationship between brain and emotion and a pioneer in developing and applying techniques for measuring brain activity. He holds several academic chairs in psychology and psychiatry and is the director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Richie Davidson, as he likes to be known, has long been interested in trying to demonstrate scientifically what meditation might do. In the early seventies, he was a Harvard colleague of Daniel Goleman, who would go on to become a champion of the principle of "emotional intelligence" and write a best-seller by that name. In their Harvard days, Davidson and Goleman co-authored a paper that argued that training attention through meditation would create "lasting and beneficial psychobiological changes." While a layperson can rely on anecdotes and personal reports to determine whether or not there are "beneficial changes," a scientist needs hard data.
Fortunately, as Davidson’s career progressed, so did the science on brain function. The Society of Neuroscience, only established in 1970, would go on to become the largest and fastest-growing society in all of experimental biology. By the late eighties, neuroscientists were taking very detailed pictures of brain activity, and by the late nineties they were taking videos. Because of such advances in brain-imaging technology, researchers could now gather hard data about the beneficial effects of meditation. Talking about such data was one of the primary focuses of the 2000 Mind and Life conference, coordinated by Goleman, with Davidson, Varela, Paul Ekman, another prominent emotion researcher, and others in attendance. The results of that meeting, and a follow-up session the next year at Davidson’s lab, are the subject of Goleman’s book, Destructive Emotions.
Researchers in Davidson’s lab have been able to chart brain activity in meditators in a way that has never been done before, primarily by using a functional MRI, which videotapes brain function (unlike the standard MRI, which only takes snapshots). They combine this information with data from an electroencephalograph (EEG), which measures electrical activity at the surface of the brain. While the EEG technician at your local hospital might attach several dozen sensors to a patient’s head, in Davidson’s lab they use up to 256. The raw EEG data is enhanced by software that triangulates from the sensors and reports on activity not only on the surface but deep within the brain. Davidson told me recently that his goal is to "establish through scientific research the validity of methods that have been developed in Buddhism for 2,500 years." Through objective verification of their benefits, Davidson believes, "these practices could gain wider acceptance both in the mainstream culture and the medical community."
Davidson’s team and his collaborators have done two types of studies, one with people first learning to meditate and another with extremely experienced and adept practitioners. In the first kind of study, they are trying to find out what benefits accrue for someone whose meditation is regular but of limited duration. Jon Kabat-Zinn has done extensive research into the health benefits of mindfulness meditation and has long been involved with Mind and Life, so Davidson collaborated with him on a recent study of workers in a high-tech company who took a two-month training program in meditation. It showed significant changes in brain activity, declines in anxiety, and beneficial changes in immune function.