His Holiness Discusses Meditation, Compassion With Emory Scientists

[Tuesday, 19 October 2010, 1:33 p.m.]

based on http://www.tibet.net

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and panelists during the conference “Mapping Current Research and Charting
Future Directions” held at Emory University on 18 October 2010/Photo by Kay Hinton/Emory

Atlanta: During the third of his visit to Emory University on 18 October, His Holiness the Dalai Lama deliberated with scientists and educators on the state of current research on empathy and compassion, the scientific study of meditation practices for cultivating compassion, and the implementation of such meditation programmes in various clinical and educational settings.

The conference, under the theme of “Mapping Current Research and Charting Future Directions” included panelists from Emory University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Stanford University, the three universities that are conducting on-going scientific research on compassion meditation.The morning session’s panelists were Dr Frans B M de Waal, C H Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University; Dr Richard Davidson, Director, Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, Director, Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Dr Barbara L Fredrickson, Kenan Distinguished Professor, Director, Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Dr Philippe Goldin, Research Scientist, Department of
Psychology at Stanford University; and The Venerable Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk, photographer, and author Dr Daniel Goleman, Psychologist, author and science journalist, acted as the moderator.

The panelists presented some of their findings. Dr de Waal spoke on “the Evolution of Empathy and Compassion in Humans and Other Primates.” He talked about the presence of empathy among animals like apes and elephants through visual display of activities by these animals. He felt that the entire communication system of nonhuman primates seems emotionally mediated.

Dr Davidson spoke on “Neuroscientific Studies of Compassion Meditation: Challenges and Opportunities.” He presented findings from both long-term practitioners and novices on whether short-term practice can make a difference on cultivating compassion.  He said that remarkable changes can be seen.

Dr Barbara L Fredrickson spoke on how loving kindness meditation can increase positive emotions and build additional cognitive and social resources. She said meditation on loving kindness increases our Vagal Tone, the nerve that connects the brain to the heart and by increasing the level of resting Vagal Tone, we are better able to regulate our emotions, attention, and behavior.

Dr Philippe Goldin spoke on “Psychological Effects of Compassion- Cultivation Training” and presented a research on a study that examined the effect of an eight-session  Compassion Cultivation Training that has been developed in Stanford University on modifying emotional awareness distinct forms of emotion regulation, empathy and compassionate intention in healthy adults.  He also spoke about data that show individuals who habitually suppress emotion were less aware of their own and others’ emotional state, less empathic, and less willing to offer their own time for the benefit of others.

In his interventions during the presentations, His Holiness wondered whether comparative studies have been done on the issue of cultivating compassion to someone negative and doing the same with one’s relatives.  In response to a question on how he perceived the issue of suppression of emotion, His Holiness said that suppression here must be understood as part of the mechanism that people use to project an image that they want others to see.

In the afternoon, His Holiness first made brief remarks at a luncheon for supporters of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. Thereafter, he participated in the afternoon session of the conference.

The panelists included the following. The Venerable Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk, photographer, and author; Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, Senior Lecturer, Department of Religion, Emory University; Dr Charles Raison, Clinical Director, Mind-Body Program, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine; and  Dr Brendan Ozawa-de Silva, Doctoral Student and Researcher, Emory University. Dr John Dunne, Associate Professor, Department of Religion, Emory University, moderated the session.

Venerable Matthieu Ricard spoke on the topic “Can Altruism and Compassion Be Cultivated?” He talked about the importance of training of the mind for bringing our potential for empathy, altruistic love, and compassion to their optimal capacity.

Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi spoke on “Essential Elements of Cognitive-Based Compassion Training.”  He explained that the Cognitive Based Compassion Training (CBCT) was a secular meditation protocol that he had developed at Emory University.  The protocol, he said, was based on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Lojong (Mind Training)
but rendered in a secular form. He said CBCT employs both focused and analytical meditation techniques to transform the practitioner’s perspective on events and people.  He mentioned a pilot study of CBCT for trauma victims in Kosovo among some of the ongoing projects.

Dr Charles Raison gave a “Report from the Front Lines: An Update on Health-Relevant Effects of Compassion meditation from Ongoing Studies at Emory University.” He presented findings from ongoing studies that showed that compassion training was doing rather something unique on how people behave.   Dr Raison also mentioned a psychological stress test that he had conducted among Tibetan students at the Tibetan Children’s Village, which showed that students who had come out of Tibet had higher stress level than
those who were born in India.

Dr Brendan Ozawa-de Silva spoke on “Educating the Heart and Mind: Teaching Cognitive-Based Compassion Training for Children.” He spoke of his experience of undertaking studies among teenage girls under foster care as well as among young children in the Atlanta area.  He mentioned how there have been effective results after the training sessions.

In his remarks, His Holiness mentioned that today’s presentations were clear scientific proof of the positive effect of compassion on the wholesome development of the individual and for the society as a whole.  His Holiness said over the years he had been wishing for some concrete plans that could enable the implementation of
compassion training and termed the presentation of such plans during this conference as wonderful.  He concluded by saying that this is the dawning of a new day in the incorporation of training in inner values in the education system.

His Holiness’ programmes in Emory University have been positive received by the students and faculty alike. Emory University had provided 1,500 free tickets to students to participate in the different programmes.

“I kind of correlate him with Martin Luther King,” Stephanie Davis, a program administrator in Emory’s religion department, is quoted as telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one of the local newspapers.  “I realise that he’s all about love and compassion and peace,” Davis added.

Dr Gary Hauk, vice-president and deputy to the president at Emory, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that ticket sales have underwritten the cost of His Holiness’ visit adding that His Holiness receives no stipend.  Emory University will direct funds equivalent to what would have been his fee to support the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, according to Dr Hauk.

The newspaper also quoted the impact felt by another student. It said, “For Christian Harnett, 19, a pre-med student at Oglethorpe University visiting Monday’s conference, the Dalai Lama’s personal example was as powerful as any of the scientific findings presented concerning compassion and altruism in the primate brain.

“The fact that he remains so optimistic and compassionate toward the Chinese and people that may hate him — he represents a turn-the-other-cheek philosophy,” said Hartnett, “that many people need as a role model right now.”

(Report filed by Bhuchung K Tsering)