Saturday, November 12, 2016

Conferences | "Beyond the Hype: Buddhism and Neuroscience in a New Key", Columbia University, NYC

"Erkenne Dich selbst" Γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know yourself)
Yesterday the Deutsches Haus of Columbia University hosted the conference Beyond the Hype: “Buddhism and Neuroscience” in a New Key.  The conference explored the current discourse on the relationship between Eastern traditions and Western approaches concerning mind sciences and spirituality.  

The dialogue between neuroscience and Eastern spiritual practices has burgeoned since the 1987 founding of the "Mind and Life Institute"  whose mission "is to alleviate suffering and promote flourishing by integrating science with contemplative practice and wisdom traditions". The Mind and Life Institute was initiated from the encounters of the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso with the biologist, philosopher and neuroscientist Francisco Varela, and the lawyer and entrepreneur Adam Engle. The programs of the Institute revolved on finding complementarity between the scientific understanding the nature of reality and contemplative practices. Since then there have been a multitude of studies based on neuroscientific techniques, such as electroencephalography (EEG) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), measuring the brain activity during meditation and validating the neural correlate of a spiritual practices. 

The conference program included scholars from philosophy, social science as well as neuroscientists: 
Linda Heuman, Visiting Scholar at Brown University, Department of Religious Studies: “The Importance of Keeping Differences in Sight in Buddhism’s Dialogue with Neuroscience, Mindfulness, and Modernity”Michel Bitbol, Director of Research at CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris: “Overcoming biases in the dialogue between Neuroscience and Buddhism”Bernard Faure, Kao Professor of Japanese Religions, Columbia University: “Should Buddhism Be Naturalized? A View from the Margins”William S. Waldron, Professor of Religion and Chair of Department of Religion, Middlebury College: “Reflections on Indian Buddhist Thought and the Scientific Study of Meditation. Or: Why Scientists should Talk More with their Monks”David L. McMahan, Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies, Franklin and Marshall College: “Implicit Anthropologies and Epistemologies of Mindfulness”Georges Dreyfus, Jackson Professor of Religion, Williams College: “An Experience in Meditation and Phenomenology”Willoughby B. Britton, Assistant Professor (Research), Brown University Medical School, and Jared R. Lindahl, Visiting Assistant Professor of Humanities (Research), Brown University: “Meditation-Related Difficulties: A Mixed-Methods Study of Buddhist Practitioners and a Clinical Population”Ronald E. Purser, Professor of Management, San Francisco State University, and David Lewis, Researcher at The Center for Trauma and Contemplative Practice: “Contemplative Neuroscience’s “Truthiness” Problem”Marion Dapsance, Postdoctoral Fellow, Columbia University: “What It Means to be a ‘Scientific Monk’
I found most compelling Michel Bitbol's presentation; the French philosopher clearly illustrated the relationship between scientific theories and spiritual practices from the fundamental phenomenological perspective, which, by its own epistemological nature, should be emphasized in the study of consciousness. Bitbol also introduced the relevance of ' autopoiesis' (self creation) which was the prior focus of Varela's research. The relationship of the biological nature of consciousness and cognition with the of phenomenology first-person experience ontology is also of major concern when studying the neurobiological nature of transformation happening in meditation.

Although the conference presented a wide range of perspectives I felt that it was lacking the presence of actual meditation practitioners and of introduction to the practices which are the very core of the topics. Varela's theories on the embodiment of cognition and the presence of the body should have also been part of the discussion. My view is perhaps biased —as researcher using the body as a method of exploration and movement as a vehicle of awareness and knowledge production. However, the presence of the body is crucial in any meditative practice, where posture, sensorial perception and proprioception are implied. After all, the body is the channel of the mind.

Logo of the Mind and Life Institute