Episode 122: The Evolution of the Mind and Life Dialogues
This week, Adam Engle, the business mastermind behind the Mind and Life Institute, joins us to discuss both the evolution of the project as well as its larger impact. The first Mind and Life Dialogue was held in Dharamsala, India in 1987 with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Since then, Adam says, it has done more than any other organization to help "legitimatize the scientific study of meditation."
Listen in to hear more about how they've gone about creating an active collaboration between scientists and contemplatives, and what kind of fruit that collaboration has borne.
Ryan: Hello Buddhist Geeks listeners. We're back again with another interview, and we have
a special guest in the studio today. And, of course, here with me is Vincent Horn.
Vince: Hello. Yes, we're here today in the studio with Adam Engle. He helped co-found the Mind and Life Dialogues, which is now the Mind and Life Institute, actually, the year I was born, 1983.
And he co-founded it along with the Dalai Lama and Francisco Varela. And, if you don't know about the Mind and Life Institute, it's an institute that's dedicated to the intersection between the neurosciences, on the one hand, and on the Buddhist contemplative path on the other. And, maybe we could just start there, Adam, and you could say a little bit about what the core mission and purpose of Mind and Life is.
Adam: Yeah. Well, it's actually migrated a little bit from what you just said. Our founding premise, Francisco and the Dalai Lama and I, observed that science is the dominant paradigm for understanding the nature of reality in modern society, and providing a knowledge base for improving human lives. And Buddhism, while it is a path of liberation, is not based on faith or theology, but is based on also understanding the nature of reality and then using that to provide a knowledge base for improving lives. So we thought that if we could find a way that science and Buddhism could actually be in dialogue, share their findings and collaborate, there were two very, very powerful systems of knowing that used different instrumentalities, but that humanity could benefit if they were in collaboration. Science, of course, proves itself through the scientific method and technology and objective verification. Buddhism, and the other world's living contemplative traditions, use the human nervous system, the human mind, refined by meditation, as the instrument of investigation. But they're both very, very empirical in a sense. And there really wasn't any way for them to share their findings to collaborate.
So the thought was, "Well, how do you do that?" And we thought, if we could just get a few people together in a room… And so, in 1987… I started working on it in 1983, but it was 1987 by the time we actually got the first meeting going. And it was hosted by the Dalai Lama in his audience room, in his home, in Dharamsala. It was seven days on Buddhism and the neurosciences, cognitive sciences. And it was amazing. And it was a start. And in the beginning it was just, like, a lark, “Let's see if we can do this.” And, then afterwards I asked the Dalai Lama, “Do you want to do it again?” And he said, “Yes.” And we did another one, and another one, and another one, another one.
And then in about 1997, 1998, we'd done seven of them and they were very, very private. We would produce books after each one. There were various topics by that point in time: Healing Emotions, Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying, Compassion, Physics. But I was wondering… I mean, the Dalai Lama was very much engaged and I started thinking, I wonder if we're maximizing the societal benefit from these interactions. You know, I'd hate to do this for another ten or fifteen years and then have someone come along and say, “You know, you really blew the opportunity.”
So I asked Francisco and several other people who had become advisers to the mission, by that point in time: Thupten Jinpa, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Danny Goldman, Richard Davidson, Anne Harrington. We got together in Boston, in Cambridge, and I asked that question, “Are we maximizing the opportunity to serve humanity?” And the consensus was, “Well, if you want to have any lasting impact, certainly in the world of science, you can have all the meetings in the world and you can publish all the books in the world, but the only thing that's really going to matter is rigorous studies, the results of which are published in reputable peer-review journals.” And I'm a businessman. My background is law and finance. So, I'm just, I'm an entrepreneur. You know, I put things together and so I just said, “Well, okay, let's do it. Let's do it. What do we have to do?” And so, we started developing a strategy for how to do it. And that strategy has grown to the point that we're now, if not the, a leader in this field of collaborative research. And we're not just doing neuroscience, but it’s also clinical science. Actually, let me give you a little bit more detail if I can.
Adam: You know, what I realized early on was that in order to have any real lasting impact in the world of science it wasn't going to be done by one study, or two studies, or five studies. It had to be a lot of studies over a long period of time; that's how science proves itself. So, what do you need to do to create these new fields of scientific research on meditation and mental training? Well, you need scientists who want to do the work, and then you've got to link them to funding, reliable funding. What that really means is that you need young scientists, people who are just starting their careers who basically say, “We are going to make our career in this area.” Because you can get a few of the top scientists like Richie Davidson, who have made their careers and want to get involved and have time and spare money and that kind of stuff, but its going to be a handful.
The people who are in the middle, who are building their careers, they've already got their reputations going and they've got their financing sources, you know their funding sources, they just can't kind of like make a right turn in the middle of their career, like anyone else, so you've got to get them young. And then you have to find a way to link them with NIH funding, reliable streams of NIH funding. Well it turns out that NIH doesn't really do, what we call in the business world, green field financing, really… A little bit but not very much. You have to develop pilot research that shows that there's promise in the area and once they see pilot data then people can apply for future grants. And there's actually data by which those grant applications can be reviewed and grants can be given. The NIH is a public trust, they just can't give out money without a review process and stuff like that.
So the question then became, how do you design that system, or catalyze the growing of those fields? And we didn't even have names for the fields at that point in time. And so over the years, since 2002 until today we have named the fields: Contemplative Neuroscience, Contemplative Clinical Science. Neuroscience is the effect of contemplative training on the brain; clinical science, the effect of contemplative training on behavior and the prevention and treatment of disease. And now we are looking into Contemplative Education. How do you bring the benefits of contemplative practice to children earlier in their lives? Because if this stuff is good, then its got to be really good to start it earlier, and to find ways to, what they call in education, developmentally sequence it so that you start early in life, like learning a language or learning math. Well how do you start it and then how do you advance it up to the adult phase? So we're calling that contemplative education and we're looking at different ways to talk about what we're doing so that we can make it more understandable. And the latest iteration of all of this is to provide a scientific understanding of how to cultivate and develop a mind of compassion and resilience.
And our overall strategy right now is composed of the following elements: we've got the meetings with the Dalai Lama and we've done eighteen and we've got the nineteenth coming up in Washington D.C., it’s a public meeting on education, in October of this year. And those are different configurations. There are the private meetings we have in his home in Dharamsala, we just finished the eleventh of that. We've got large public meetings which we are going to be staging in Washington D.C. and that will be the third large meeting that we've got of that. And then we've got smaller meetings that we've done on invitation. Last year we were at the Mayo clinic and gave a small meeting and helped them do a meeting there, we were at Emory University in 2007.
Vince: And are these generally meetings between the Dalai Lama and scientists?
Adam: Yeah. The Dalai Lama, other contemplatives, and scientists. The other thing that we do is we hold now an annual week-long residential program, primarily for graduate students and post-docs and junior faculty.
Vince: The young ones. [laughter]
Adam: Yeah. And we’re growing the fields of these young scientists. In early June, in 3 weeks, we’re going to have our sixth meeting. And then in conjunction with that, we also give research grants to the graduate students and the post-docs. Small research grants. But they use that, they take it back to their laboratories, and they leverage that money with the overhead that’s in place, and there’s a huge multiplier effect. And then that gets them their first pilot study. And then we build up the pilot research, and then a lot of those people are now getting NIH grants to continue the research.
And then we started in 2006 a project to try and answer the question, “How do you bring the benefits of contemplative practice to children?” And so we started the Mind and Life Education Research Network, that is just ending its first phase. And we’ve been meeting, over the last three years, neuroscientists, clinical scientists, contemplatives, contemplative scholars, educators, prevention researchers, to figure out, how do we move that field forward? What does that look like? How do you bring that to children, how do you actually do that? And what we can offer, because there’s a lot of effort that’s going on. And our meeting in Washington this year, is the culmination of the first phase of that, the three year phase. It’s kind of like we’re going to showcase what we’ve come up with, to date. And then try and catalyze a lot more research activity in the area.
So over the last six years, since we launched this in 2003, the number of neuroscientists and contemplative scientists that were reputable, that were really involved in this work, were literally just a handful. And now there are hundreds. As a result of the work of the Mind & Life Institute a center has been established at the Stanford Medical School for the study of compassion and altruism. Richard Davidson, at the University of Wisconsin, has just established a new center for the study of the healthy mind. The Dalai Lama just launched a center at MIT for ethics and transformational values. And all of that, if you trace it back, was spawned by the activity of the Mind and Life Institute. So we see ourselves as a catalyst, a catalytic organization. We're always looking on how to leverage our meager resources, our human resources, and our financial resources, and we're just thrilled at the effect, the trim tab effect that we've been able to create. And so now what we're doing is we're totally reevaluating what we do in the world, in light of our success, to figure out where do we need to go next, in order to stimulate activity. Total success for us is being totally co-opted and adopted by the mainstream scientific establishment, and then it's like, “Okay, well, we can go on and do something else.”
But the Dalai Lama's very, very involved. Next year, we're going to be launching a public meeting in Zurich, and it's going to be in the field of Neuroeconomics; in other words, how can we promote altruism and compassion in business and economic decisions, and decision making? So, it's a tremendously exciting time for us, and I've been involved in thinking through the next phases.
Vince: I was kind of wondering, as you were talking about these dialogues, what it would be like to be, not a participant necessarily... well, maybe a participant and a viewer; what's it like actually in the dialogue? What kind of conversations are happening, and how does that then lead to the kind of projects that you're talking about?
Adam: Well, you know, they're all topical, depending on the topics, and we try and do topics that are fruitful for future research. One of the reasons that we have done much more in the cognitive sciences and physics. And we've done a couple in physics, but we've done many, many more, is because… and this started with Francisco. When I first approached the Dalai Lama, based on a rumor that I heard, that he was interested in meeting with scientists, and I got authorization to go forward and put on the first meeting, I thought we'd do it in physics. And I went and I spoke with Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, and started going down that road, because that's all I knew.
And then Francisco heard about my efforts, on the Buddhist grapevine, and he was living in Paris at the time, and he called me up. And he said, “I understand you're trying to put together a meeting, a science with the Dalai Lama”. And I said, “Yeah”, and he said, “What are you planning on doing?”. I told him. “Adam,” he said, “don't do it in physics. Physics is a dead science.” He said, “Do it in biology, do it in cognitive science.” I never even heard the words cognitive science at the time; I probably heard them, but I wasn't sure what it was. But, here was a card-carrying neuroscientist who was interested, and so we kept on talking. And what Francisco pointed out was that in the world of physics, the dialogue can be very, very robust, but very limited to a philosophical dialogue. Because Buddhists don't have any conception of how to deal with splitting atoms, or super-colliders, or anything related to experimental physics. However, in the cognitive sciences, they can actually work very, very closely with scientists to design the protocols, and that's really been the success of what we've been able to pioneer.
When Richard Davidson, and also Francisco, wanted to begin to do research on meditation, the way that they did it was they invited Matthieu Ricard into the laboratory. They basically told him what they could measure, and then asked him what he thought they should measure. And so Matthieu was very, very involved in designing the protocols, trialing the protocol, recruiting the cohort that actually went into the laboratory, helping to interpret the results, and he was actually author on some of the original papers.
Vince: Because he was a trained scientist at one point, and then turned Tibetan Monk, right?
Adam: Right. Without that collaboration, that was something that Francisco understood from the very beginning; that it wouldn't work for scientists to try and bring the contemplatives into the lab as guinea pigs. Because they didn't really know what to look for. It had to work as a true partnership, as a true collaboration, and I think that's one of the things that Mind and Life has been able to pioneer successfully and to start transmitting through places like the Summer Institute and our dialogues and things like that.
So, getting back to the dialogues, first is the topic and there's a lot of preparation that goes into holding one of these dialogues. Like next week we've got all of the participants, except for the Dalai Lama, and one or two others, that are going to be on stage in D.C., coming to Boulder for two days so that we can start working together to co-create this dialogue. It's not something, like a normal science meeting where people kind of get on a plane and start reviewing their talk and just get there and just do their standard talk. A lot of what we have to do in the preparation is to train them out of their standard way of presenting.
So, again, it varies by topic and by presenter. But, fundamentally what we're trying to do is use the Mind and Life meetings to go into new territory that we're trying to open up for collaborative research. So, after we adopted the research paradigm, we started with destructive emotions and then neural plasticity, attention and memory, education, neuroscience, clinical science, and things like that. And, so those, the purpose of those dialogues is to noodle around with the Dalai Lama, how we would think about doing collaborative research in this area. And the experience is absolutely extraordinary. I mean, our meetings in Dharamsala go for five days now. And he's physically in the room for five hours a day, you know, two and a half house in the morning and two and a half hours in the afternoon, and you know there's one hundred people in the room. I'm thinking the last time, including him and the translators, there were twelve people in the dialogue and a number of observers. The most extraordinary thing is just being in dialogue with the Dalai Lama and he's incredibly present, incredibly knowledgeable, you know there are translation issues that we've honed down. He understands English very, very well, speaks less well, but we work with the dialogue partners to teach them how to talk in English in a way that he can understand it so that we can minimize the amount of translation.
Ryan: I'm curious, since from the time when you started this to now, what the reactions have been from both the scientific community and the Buddhist community, too. I mean, I agree that the focus is really on the scientific community because it's so predominant in Western culture, but I'm just curious, haven't there been challenges and have more scientists become more and more open?
Adam: You know, the reception has just been absolutely extraordinary and astounding. When I decided, and it was a big personal struggle for me to give up my day job and to give it a go for Mind and Life, I actually had to adopt the understanding that I would never see any positive results during my lifetime. The idea of trying to build a field around the scientific study of… legitimatizing the scientific study of meditation back in 2002, was kind of far-fetched and laughable. I mean, there had been scientific studies of meditation, but within mainstream science, it was really laughable. Even Richie Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn and Danny Goleman tried to do some scientific research in the early 70s, and it just couldn't be done really. From the science side, one of the things, the most critical thing that changed was the invention of brain imaging technologies that totally blew away the pre-existing understanding of how the brain operated, and launched the new field of neural plasticity.
Prior to this brain imaging technology, neuroscientists thought that what happened in the brain--it was a very, very static organ. You're basically born with these billions of neurons and the only thing that happened during your life was you pruned them, you lost them. And that, for instance, if you were born blind, the area of your brain that was responsible for your visual, the visual cortex, basically went dark, you know, it was inoperable. Well, once they got brain imaging technology, they realized that, that was totally false. That the brain was quite malleable and quite plastic, and that the synapses were changing all the time and that essentially your thoughts and emotions were actually re-patterning your brain 24/7, whether you knew it or not.
So, when we went to MIT in 2003 we thought about what kind of a meeting, science meeting, could we hold in a public setting, with no data. Because that's kind of unheard of in science. And so we chose three topics that were under active investigation by neuroscience: attention and cognitive control, emotions, and mental imagery. And we created sessions around each one, exploring in a public setting, the efficacy of what it would look like to have contemplatives in the laboratory helping to research these areas. Would that be a benefit for the neuroscience community?
And the proposition that we were offering is that if you are trying to investigate the mind, wouldn't it be a good idea to have the Olympian athletes of mental training on your research team? And the response was overwhelmingly positive. I mean it was really, really… you ask about what it was like to be in that room, it was interesting to watch that dynamic. We've got DVDs of all of this. And it's like the scientists came in quite skeptical. I mean, we were able to get world-class scientists to show up because it was the Dalai Lama and we had put together a real good agenda. But it was kind of like well… and over the course you could almost see them thinking, “We can work with these guys. These are really reasonable people.” And then getting an experience from the Dalai Lama and Matthieu Ricard and other contemplatives that were in the room saying, “These guys are onto something. I don't know what they've got but I want to learn more about what that is.”
So that was like the launch. And then right after that we launched the Summer Research Institute. And the Varela Awards. There's a couple of data points aside from the sheer numbers. I mean we've got graphs that show the number of articles that had been written mentioning meditation or mindfulness, and stuff like that. And starting with 2004, is like a hockey stick. The same thing with dollars from NIH. And we’re not the only ones out there that are doing this. The Center for Mindfulness, that was started by Jon Kabat-Zinn thirty years ago, has also been doing research. It's been building but it's been going very, very slow. It's a collaborative effort and Jon Kabat-Zinn is on our Board, our Vice Chair. So, we're doing this altogether.
But, as I said before the number of scientists that are involved have gone into the hundreds, the thousands maybe. There are these new research centers that have sprung up. A couple of years ago, I went and I visited Richie Davidson in Madison. We get together a couple of times a year, and I was waiting in his office for him to finish a meeting and he walked in and he said “I just came from a meeting of the psychology department. We had all the psychology faculty there, welcoming the new graduate students. And I’ve got a couple of graduate students who are here to study meditation. They mentioned the reason that they've come is they want to study meditation. And everyone applauded. Three years ago that would have been impossible. They wouldn't have been able to say it.” So, there has been legitimacy in the whole field. So, that's on the science side.
On the Buddhist side there has been a warm and reinforcing reception. And I go now to the Buddhist side and everyone realizes the impact that this is having, and are incredibly supportive. What we have now realized is one of our growth challenges is that since our model is a true collaboration, between the scientists and the contemplatives and the contemplative scholars, it's not just contemplative practitioners but contemplative scholars, is that there are now so many more scientists who are interested in collaborative research on meditation and mental training then there are contemplatives and contemplative scholars that are available to be partners. That we got to start thinking about how we can generate interest among the contemplative scholarship field, the contemplative field, the humanities in general, the social sciences, to create a real working relationship there. So that's another one of our growth challenges.
We’ve also got to think about how to continue this past the Dalai Lama. Because when Francisco died, I went to his home and said, “Do you still want to continue this?” And he looked at me and he said, “What we're doing is much too valuable to depend on any one life, whether it be Franciso's or yours or mine.” He said, “I want you to build this so that it outlasts us.” And so, that's what I'm engaged in right now, is, “How do we create transition for me, transition for the organization, transition for the founding board, transition for His Holiness to the next generation.” So it's a really exciting time and much, much different challenges than we started with. And so, I'm just blown away by it. I mean, I just opened up an email yesterday with an eight-page brochure that has been developed by Stanford University Development Department looking for financing for the new center at Stanford. When I first heard about it, my knee-jerk reaction was fear. “Oh my god, how are we going to compete with Stanford?” And that lasted about five seconds before I realized, “Wow, what an incredible success.” I mean, Stanford University is raising money to finance the scientific study of compassion. Wow!