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Celebrating the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Mind and Life Institute

By Matthieu Ricard on January 18, 2013

The Mind and Life Institute held its 25th meeting last November in New York City. The meeting also corresponded to its 25 years of activities since Chilean-born neuroscientist and thinker Francisco Varela and American lawyer Adam Engle founded it. Over the years, the Mind and Life Institute has organized remarkable meetings between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and some of the leading scientists of the world. During the meetings they engaged in two- to five-day long dialogues on major issues pertaining to modern science and Buddhist science. Topics have included the nature of reality and consciousness and training of mind through contemplative practices.

Not only did these discussions led to fascinating insights, but also created an extremely fertile collaboration between scientists and contemplatives engaging in actual scientific research furthering our knowledge and making a very positive contribution to society.

An ever increasing number of research projects were, and are still, being launched in many laboratories throughout the world including that of the late Francisco Varela in France; of Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz in Madison, Wisconsin; of Paul Ekman and Robert Levenson in San Francisco in Berkeley; of Cliff Saron at U.C. Davies; of Jonathan Cohen and Brent Field in Princeton; of Amishi Jha in Pennsylvania, and of Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, to name but a few. 

The smaller core Mind and Life meetings took place in India at His Holiness the Dalai Lama's residence. Numerous important public meeting were also held including: a significant meeting at MIT in Boston on Investigating the Mind, in 2003, attended by a 1000 scientists including a few Nobel laureates; a meeting in Zurich dedicated to Altruism in Modern Economic Systems; and one in Delhi that brought together major contemplative traditions of India.

Contemporary luminaries have been an integral part of the Mind and Life Institute for many years: Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence; Jon Kabat-Zin, who first launched the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program 30 years ago that is now taught in hundreds of hospitals in the world and has led to more research clinical studies than any other program; Joan Halifax, who started the Being with Dying Program and Upaya, and many other important thinkers.

I was fortunate to be involved in Mind and Life since the 2000, when the groundbreaking meeting on ‟Dealing with Destructive Emotions” was held at His Holiness the Dalai Lama residence in Dharamsala, India. Since then, as a meditative subject, I spent dozen of hours in MRI scanners, at the labs of Richie Davidson, Antoine Lutz, Brent Field, and Tania Singer, and became a close friend and humble collaborator with many of the eminent scientists who participated in Mind and Life events, such as Paul Ekman, Wolf Singer, and Daniel Batson.

One of the greatest achievements of Mind and Life has been its yearly Summer Institute. For the last seven years it has attracted over a hundred young scientists from all over the world, senior researchers and Buddhist philosophers and practitioners who, over a week, explore a specific topic, in a format that combines scientific presentations, informal discussions, and periods of meditation practice culminating in a day of silence.

Mind and Life has also organized networks that are working in the fields of education and, more recently, studying craving and the opposite, flourishing.

In April 2012, the first International Symposium on Contemplative Research was held in Denver attended by 700 specialists. The next one will be held in Berlin in October 2013 and will be dedicated to exploring individual and social transformation.

The Dalai Lama often describes Buddhism as being, above all, a science of the mind.  One of the great tragedies of our time is that we significantly underestimate our capacity for change. But the collaborative research catalyzed by the Mind and Life Institute has shown that it is indeed possible to transform ourselves for the betterment of our own lives and for society, by cultivating wholesome states of mind, thought after thought, day after day, year after year.

Adam Engle retired this year, after guiding the Institute for 25 years on its journey to becoming a respected worldwide organization that brings together the highest standards of modern science and contemplative practice. Arthur Zajonc is the current president and a Mind and Life Europe has been established in Zurich. I look forward to many more public events, meetings with His Holiness, and retreats with scientists and students over the coming years.