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Reflections on the Mindfulness and Compassion Conference

June 8, 2015
Neuroscience and Meditation

Neuroscience and Meditation

Last week San Francisco State University hosted Mindfulness and Compassion: The Art and Science of Contemplative Practice, a conference largely organized by the Consciousness, Mindfulness, Compassion International Association, which is who’s who of Buddhist teachers and other contemplatives. I attended on Wednesday, Thursday, and half of Friday, leaving before the evening keynote presentation to return to Southern California for a wedding. The conference continued until the end of the day on Saturday, with an optional excursion to nearby Green Gulch Farm on Sunday. These are some brief thoughts on what I experienced:

Words, words, words, so many words and so much to absorb. Nevertheless, some themes emerged.

  1. First, there is concern for the popular image as “mindfulness as panacea” and growing recognition that it may not be appropriate for all or lead only to beneficial outcomes.
  2. Second, Buddhists in particular are concerned by the “off label use” (as one scientist dubbed it) of mindfulness in the absence of the other parts of the path, namely ethics and wisdom, and there is some apparent tension with scientists and secular (or non-Buddhist) psychologists over this.
  3. Third, likewise there was tension between the notion that we are using mindfulness merely to help people cope in a dysfunctional world, making stress a ‘personal problem,’ while avoiding a discussion of ethics that might actually demand change in the systems that cause the dysfunction.
  4. Fourth, related to this, mindfulness is only the tip of the iceberg for Buddhist meditation; the Satipatthana Sutta and many other scriptures from which Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBIs) are derived contain much more material that may be underutilized.
  5. Fifth, there is ongoing concern for the growing practice of meditation by laypeople, particularly when done ‘out of context’ of sangha and teacher, as is often the case in the west, and the neglect of other meaningful Buddhist practices still popular among laypeople in Asia.
  6. Sixth, there is a growing interest in compassion as both a human virtue and a therapeutic intervention, such as through the training programs developed at Stanford and UCSF.
  7. Finally, the scientific study of contemplative practice via neuroscience continues to blossom.

Each one of these points could expand into a full length post on the topic. For now, I will leave them as they are. I’m sure had I stayed through Saturday, there would have been many more. For now, this is my reaction.

I am glad to hear serious discussion of the limitations of mindfulness meditation as it is currently practiced and a broadening of the scope of the discussion to include other kinds of meditation. It spurred insight into some of my own ambivalence towards breath meditation while also renewing my interest in other forms, particularly contemplation designed to deepen compassion, goodwill, equanimity, and insight.

I believe we need to have a serious discussion about ethics and the role of Buddhists/Buddhism in society. We cannot simply let our practices be adapted for ‘stress relief’ without also doing work to alleviate the sources of stress caused by systemic injustice and cultural maladjustment.

The science is fascinating, but it is still in very early stages. Better understanding must wait until the science is more solid, which, despite the seemingly quick pace of discoveries, is several years away, maybe decades. While this happens, we (contemplative practitioners and scholars of religion) must remain in deep dialogue with the scientists, lest their work goes astray, as some of what I saw clearly had.

This was an important conference highlighting important work. I was grateful to attend and present. I hope I might be a small part of this dialogue as it continues.


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