Contemplative Practice - His Holiness the Dalai Lama Participates in the 26th Mind & Life Meeting at Drepung - Day 5

January 21st 2013

Drepung Lachi, Mundgod, Karnataka, India, 21 January 2013 - His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to the Mind & Life meeting today, his shoulders draped with a green shawl that he explained he had been given by people who had just met him seeking his support for the local polio vaccination campaign. He laughed to see that the day’s first presenter, Sona Dimidjian, was wearing almost exactly the same colour.

Moderator Diana Chapman Walsh reviewed what has been covered so far at these meetings and recalled yesterday’s deliberations: Christof wants to measure everything, the Frenchmen want to possess the space and Arthur, as ever, wants to build a bridge. After scientists have discussed how contemplative practice can affect the brain and body, we also need to know how they can affect how we live. She said that in the morning, Sona Dimidjian, Arthur Zajonc and Geshe Ngawang would each speak about contemplative practice in the world. In the afternoon, in the context of promoting human development, James Doty would speak about Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University; Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi would speak about Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, a secular programme and Aaron Stern, a musician, would speak about the Academy for the Love of Learning.


His Holiness the Dalai Lama greeting Sona Dimidjian before her presentation at the Mind and Life XXVI conference at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India, on January 21, 2013. Photo/Jeremy Russell/OHHDL
Sona Dimidjian works with patients struggling to cope with depression. She works at the University of Colorado, Boulder, with Behaviour Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy using mindfulness meditation. This provides an opportunity to deal with conditions that are otherwise difficult to treat. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is a useful collection of practices, with mindfulness in this context meaning paying attention in the present moment, nonjudgmentally. Depression affects many people. Clinically it is the presence of sadness in a protracted way and withdrawal from things that give meaning and relief. As Sona said to His Holiness,

“You have told us how important it is to have courage and confidence. Once patients say ‘I don’t want to be sad,’ we can help them regulate their sadness and become well again.”

She described using mindfulness of the breath, the body, hearing, thinking and experience of emotions. In addition, cognitive behavioural therapy is used to learn what are the warning signs of the onset of sadness and depression and to focus on the process of thought.

His Holiness asked if in clinical studies and practice patients’ background, their education, economic status, whether they are religious or not, is taken into account. And if so, are different treatments employed? He said the depression is something that intrigues him, especially when it affects lamas. He finds himself wondering, “How can that be?”
Sona reported the recent huge rise in publications about mindfulness. She feels that a scientific approach to psychology has introduced greater honesty. There is less inclination to fool oneself or others. At the same time the thought that this is of benefit to others is a sustaining motive.

Arthur Zajonc is interested in how contemplative practice can contribute to education. He feels that if it is introduced to students at undergraduate level it helps them learn about who they are and to leave university as better human beings. He quoted his favourite contemplative, Einstein as saying: ‘He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.’

Bearing in mind His Holiness’s encouragement to explore ways of introducing an appreciation of human values into contemporary education, Arthur suggests that contemplative practice can support and develop attention and emotional balance. It can become a mode of inquiry leading to insight. It leads to a transformation of the world around us and ourselves because it enables us to cultivate empathy, altruism and compassion.

He spoke of putting such training into effect from kindergarten right through the course of education. He showed photographs of small children engaged in attention training, learning to be quiet inside in order to listen to insects around them. Even these young children respond positively to mindfulness. He said,

“We have a great opportunity to treat the child in his or her own terms rather than as a small adult. We try to be compassionate in the way we see the child.”

Geshe Ngawang Samten began by explaining why the secular approach to ethics that His Holiness is proposing is such an excellent idea.


Geshe Ngawang Samten making his presentation at the Mind and Life XXVI conference at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India, on January 21, 2013. Photo/Jeremy Russell/OHHDL
“Many people are not aware of how the mind functions. They do not know that anger, for example, is unhealthy. They have many misconceptions about their mental states that can be cleared up when we have prepard the proposed map of the mind. This will place positive change within reach.”

He said that when secular ethics has been incorporated into the school curriculum we will surely begin to see results. Delhi University, where His Holiness spoke about this last week, is keen to do introduce a sense of ethics and human values without a religious flavour. This is an example of why the secular approach is appropriate. In the context of impermanence, which is an aspect of reality, and the view of interdependence or emptiness, Buddhism has developed various methods for training the mind.

At this point His Holiness interjected,

“I want to share my concern about secular ethics. Here we are, and except for the heat, we are quite comfortable, yet elsewhere in the world there is still starvation. Unless there is change we will face trouble. We pray for the welfare of other sentient beings, but they seem to be somewhere else. We need to focus on other human beings here and now. If we can actually become more compassionate that will spread and the whole world will improve. As it is, population and climate change are set to increase, creating sources of conflict. To some extent science has contributed to suffering as well as development. I feel that there is much in the Buddhist tradition that can be of help, but as a whole it will never have a universal application.

“In the education field what we need is a secular ethics. Unless we effect change there will be terrible trouble. We have to think about generations to come; like us they too will want to live a happy life.

“We need a committee to draw up a curriculum based on secular ethics that can be used in our secular education systems, training students from kindergarten up to university. This curriculum will first be based on a map of the mind. It won’t speak in terms of right and wrong. It will identify our negative emotions and point out their drawbacks. What we need is a pattern of mental hygiene to match the physical hygiene with which we protect our physical health.

“I’m pleased to hear about these various pilot projects. We are not doing this to celebrate or show off, but because we are facing a crisis that requires a long-term solution. Ultimately our problems start here at the heart. Our plan should be, if we can help others, to do so; and if we can’t, at least to avoid doing them harm.”
 

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