Hello all, we're taking a brief semi-break from retreat, before we dive back in (and offline) for a good part of 2009. Wishing everyone the best.
People have been expressing interest in the project - so let me try to answer some of the questions that have been coming up.
HOW DO I LEARN ABOUT DHARMA & HOW TO MEDITATE?
I've listed a bunch of resources in the right hand column, scroll down a bit. Hope that helps!
HOW WILL THIS BENEFIT SOCIETY AT LARGE IF PEOPLE HAVE TO GO INTO FULL-TIME RETREAT? NOT MANY PEOPLE CAN DO THAT. DO YOU HAVE TO BE IN FULL TIME RETREAT TO BENEFIT?
No, you don't have to be in full time practice to benefit. Studies have shown benefits from as little as 20-30 minutes a day. What's happened with the green movement is a good parallel. On the one hand, there'd be no green movement if it weren't for the people who have devoted their lives to the cause -- climate scientists, green entrepreneurs and activists, etc. On the other, green is something we can all bring into our lives, even in small ways, and benefit from.
One of many exciting avenues for bringing these practices into the mainstream is the educational system. In this interview, Michael Posner, one of the world's leading neuroscientists, discusses the implications of meditation for education. His technospeak belies how profound these practices can be, if brought into the curriculum. In short:
For the first time in history -- and contrary to long-held beliefs -- science is now demonstrating that attention, joy, compassion, lovingkindness, and emotional regulation are trainable skills. Meditation is proving to be a very powerful tool in this training, and has been shown to actually reshape the brain in ways that boost these faculties.
A smattering of progressive schools are already bringing mindfulness training into the classroom.
Let me throw caution to the wind and make a few predictions:
Over time, studies will show that these practices dramatically improve students' test scores, classroom behavior, health, reported well-being, graduation rates (currently 55% in our public schools!!!). Studies have already shown that meditation improves disorders such as depression, ADHD and anorexia.
As these studies build, mindfulness training will spread through the school system, and eventually become standard to our national curriculum, on a secular basis. We'll see dramatic cultural shifts in the generations that rise up with these practices. Once upon a time, no one brushed their teeth, and tooth decay was thought to be part of life. In the same way, these practices will become standard daily practice for most -- and will be seen as an indispensable part of mental, emotional and spiritual hygiene.
- Posner comments that "we have found no ceiling for abilities such as attention, including among adults. The more training, even with normal people, the higher the results." This is quite a profound statement. A few years ago, we thought attention wasn't trainable. Now we're realizing there's no ceiling. As William James wrote, in 1890: "The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will ... An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence." Attention is the foundation of our potential as human beings, in many ways. Through these practices, we are going to see people bring the vividness and stability of their attention to levels never before thought possible (in the West, anyway). And with this new-found training, we are going to discover levels of well-being, mental sharpness, productivity, lovingkindness, compassion, patience, joy and so forth previously unknown (in the West, anyway).
- As more and more people accomplish Shamatha and higher jhanas, scientific studies in collaboration with these practitioners will radically alter current Western beliefs about the nature of reality, consciousness, life and death, and the meaning of our short lives on this planet.
In this brief semi-break from retreat, I've been catching up on the year's (wild!) news. Remarkable to see how aspects of this convergence between science and Buddhism have been cropping up in the media, from both sides of the political aisle. For example:
The NYT Op-Ed, "The Neural Buddhists"
This "Dan Rather Reports" special on neuroplasticity - excellent!
- David Brooks has been writing op-eds on attention and "mental fortitude" - like this one, about Tiger Woods.
- Nicholas Kirstof has written op-eds on unconscious racial bias, in relation to the election. The psychological tests he's describing, out of Harvard, were part of our study (try them online - here!). At some point, science will show that these practices reduce or even eliminate unconscious biases of all kinds (perhaps The Shamatha Project will even do so).
A year ago, when I spoke of living in a moment of punctuated evolution, the notion seemed a bit abstract. Now it seems all-too-real! As with climate change, the economic crisis seems to have brought the core themes of the Shamatha Project to public awareness, in some vivid ways. For example:
Interdependence is an obvious theme to come out of this global crisis (e.g. this Thomas Friedman op-ed). A core theme of Buddhism is the notion that the untrained mind misperceives reality, and is effectively blind to the deep interconnectedness of all phenomena. Dependent origination is a high meditative realization, by which masters come to experience phenomena, on a moment-by-moment basis, as the truly are -- empty of inherent, independent existence, and embedded in an infinite matrix of interdependence.
Fear, Greed, and Delusion - and how to uproot them. David Brooks wrote an interesting op-ed -- "The Behavioral Revolution" in which describes the meltdown as "not just a financial event, but also a cultural one. It’s a big, whopping reminder that the human mind is continually trying to perceive things that aren’t true." In the piece, he highlights the work of psychologists who have been studying this problem, including Daniel Kahneman. Kahnman happens to be one of the scientists at the forefront of the convergence between Western science and Buddhist practice. Brooks refers in the op-ed to the "tragic vision of humankind," based on the notion that humans perceive the world in ways that are deeply skewed. In other words, the root problem in the crisis isn't too much or too little government regulation, or too much or too little market freedom -- it's the fear, greed and delusion embedded in our animal nature. And that's not going to change. Or is it? This "tragic view" is tragic only if we believe there's no remedy. What if there were? That's the exciting promise of these contemplative practices, a promise that is increasingly being validated by science (as Brooks notes in "The Neural Buddhists").
WHO'S BEHIND THE PROJECT? WHEN IS THE SCIENCE COMING OUT?
In addition to Alan Wallace and Cliff Saron (the lead scientist), a world-class team of scientists is involved in the Shamatha Project. To name a few:
Paul Ekman (one of "The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century"; great Malcolm Gladwell article on him, here)
Richard Davidson (one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People)
Elizabeth Blackburn (a likely Nobel Prize candidate and also one of Time's 100 Most Influential People, per this article)
Richard Mangun, Director of the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis
- Matthieu Ricard, dubbed "the happiest man alive" based on studies of his brain, accomplished monk and scientist, gifted photographer, prolific author, translator for the Dalai Lama and entrepreneur behind numerous humanitarian projects.
This is a partial listing - the full roster is quite large. At least twenty studies are expected to come out related to the project, with the first few coming out in the next year or so.
That's all. Time to get back to the cushion.