His Holiness the Dalai Lama Participates in Mind & Life Meeting in New York

October 21st 2012

New York City, NY, USA, 20 October 2012 - His Holiness the Dalai Lama was invited to participate in the twenty-fifth Mind and Life dialogue here in New York on the theme Contemplative Practice and Health: Laboratory Findings and Real World Challenges. The morning and afternoon sessions took place in the Caspary Auditorium of the Rockefeller University, a world-renowned center for research and graduate education in the biomedical and physical sciences.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is greeted by Anne Harrington on his arrival at Caspary Auditorium of the Rockefeller University in New York City on October 20, 2012. Photo/Sonam Zoksang
On arrival His Holiness greeted participants and old friends. Anne Harrington, moderator for the morning, opened the discussion. The question what effect disease has on a patient’s life leads us to look at the patient, his or her disease, suffering and his or her life as a whole, but in modern medicine, these elements are not connected. It is to be hoped this can be remedied.

She introduced Jimmie Holland who spoke about Distress as the Sixth Vital Sign: Bridging the Gap between the Clinic and the Laboratory. She explained that traditionally medicine has treated the disease rather than the patient, to the extent that the patient feels excluded from the treatment. Until recently, for example, the idea of cancer was so frightening that patients were not told when they were suffering from it. Patients were not encouraged to talk about their symptoms; their experience of their illness was thought to add little to the physicians more qualified diagnosis. To the vital signs by which a patient is evaluated: pulse, respiration, temperature and blood pressure, were added pain and distress. These can only be assessed by consulting the patient. Physicians cannot change the reality that patients are ill, but they can make it easier to deal with.

His Holiness remarked,

“It is quite clear that physical health and our mental state are connected. There is a physiological level at which there is pain. However, whether or not we can maintain a calm state of mind makes a difference to how we relate to our pain and to how well we recover. We need to find out what mechanism is at work here.”

David Spiegel, speaking about Hypnosis, Compassion and Health described his work with women suffering from breast cancer. He mentioned the inspiration he had drawn from a remark His Holiness made in 2005 about how our own experience of suffering is involuntary, whereas there is a voluntary element, a freedom, in our engagement with the suffering of others. He said many cancer patients feel they are no longer in control of their mental state. There is evidence that depression tends to be indicative of a poor outcome. Contrary to established practice, Dr Spiegel encourages patients not to suppress their emotions about their disease, but to express them openly as part of a strategy to reduce their pain. His Holiness was interested to know how reduction of pain works using hypnosis for example. And he wanted to know how it compared to using analgesics.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and fellow panelists during the morning session of the Mind and Life XXV conference at Caspary Auditorium of the Rockefeller University in New York City on October 20, 2012. Photo/Mind and Life Institute
Lis Nielsen spoke about Strategies for Promoting Lifelong Health and Well-being. The focus of her work is aging and she has observed that one factor for poor health outcomes amongst the elderly is loneliness. This has been successfully addressed by creating situations for older people to engage with others, such as finding them roles relating to children in local schools. Since finding a purpose, doing something for others has such positive results, she concludes that there is a need for a shift of mind-set with regard to older people’s day to day life.

His Holiness picked up on this, noting that he regularly advocates the personal benefits of working to help others. He also emphasizes that on a basic level, as human beings, we are the same mentally, physically and emotionally.

To Anne Harrington’s question, “What is a healthy way to engage with death when you are sick?” His Holiness replied,

“Death is a part of life. Where there is birth, there is death. We can deliberately focus on death so that when it comes we are prepared; otherwise we are likely to be taken by surprise. In my own daily practice I visualise the process of death, intermediate state and rebirth several times every day in preparation for my actual death; whether my preparation is successful or not, we’ll see.”

He said that in the course of aging or illness our strength may decline, but if we train in this way, at the moment of death the mind remains sharp and we can recognise the process of death as it takes place. Cultivating an awareness of death is important, but in the same context it is important to make our lives meaningful. Responding to a remark about the wisdom of old age, His Holiness said that wisdom is a difficult term, he prefers to talk about human intelligence and the facility it gives us to distinguish between our positive and negative emotions. Regarding attachment, he said there is an aspect that refers to feelings of closeness to others, which we can foster, but there is also a more biased sense of attachment related to how others respond to us.

Audience members listening to the presentations of the Mind and Life XXV conference at Caspary Auditorium of the Rockefeller University in New York City on October 20, 2012.
Photo/Sonam Zoksang

“Whoever it is, we need to think this person is another human being like me. On this basis we can wish for the well-being even of our enemies. Human nature enables us to show affection even to strangers.”

Lis Nielsen had raised the issue of self-regulation or self-control, and His Holiness explained that self-discipline is a matter of self-protection, a matter of acting in our own best interests. It would be a mistake to think that freedom means we don’t need discipline. Another question brought up the possibility of engaging with positive emotions asking how we should do it and how we should teach it. His Holiness said,

“This is a key factor. Cultivating compassion and a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood are as important today as they have been for thousands of years. The important thing is education; we need to incorporate these values into our system of education if we are to build a better society. Now we can teach about the importance of warm-heartedness on the basis of scientific findings. We have more material for our intelligence to use. Only by taking a secular approach will this have a universal appeal. We should experiment with introducing these ideas in schools for say five years and examining whether there is a positive effect. If there is we can extend it.”

He said that although Mind & Life is a relatively young institution, it is growing and extending its activities into Europe and Asia. It can make a significant contribution. Thus far the focus has been on research, now it needs to examine how to implement what is learned for the benefit of humanity. His Holiness met Mind & Life patrons and discussed some of these prospects over lunch.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama with Richard Davidson during the second session of the Mind and Life XXV conference at Caspary Auditorium of the Rockefeller University in New York City on October 20, 2012. Photo/Sonam Zoksang
Richard Davidson opened the afternoon session with thanks to His Holiness for his continuing involvement in these dialogues, which are always informative and inspiring. His presentation, Early Adversity, Brain Circuitry and the Emergence of Well-Being discussed how stress in early life impacts the brain and emotional development. But just as there is evidence that adversity modifies the brain, self-regulation in childhood also predicts successful life outcomes. The Kindness Curriculum, training children in developing positive relations with others has been shown to be effective. A chart clearly revealing this made His Holiness chuckle.

Clifford Saron reported on developments in the Shamatha Project in Bridging the Lab-Life Gap. Observing meditators in three month retreats suggests intensive meditative quiescence and focusing on compassionate regard for self and others can produce quantifiable positive results. Similarly, Bruce McEwen presenting the Importance of the Social Environment for Brain and Body Health reported that greater understanding of brain plasticity is giving hope for therapies that take into account brain-body interactions and the ability of the brain to change itself.

His Holiness referred to a distinction between mind and energy. Mind is the ability to know, whereas energy concerns movement. In terms of training, anger, for example, is linked to energy, so controlling energy can help control anger. He said it is traditionally said that it is difficult to switch immediately from an agitated state to a state of calm. There needs to be an intervening process, which can be effected by exercise, often a breathing exercise.

Rockefeller University's Caspary Auditorium, venue for the Mind and Life XXV conference in New York City on October 20, 2012. Photo/Mind and Life Institute
Clifford Saron noted a mention of faith. His Holiness said children listen to their parents’ good advice with trust. For some faith is trust, for some faith is aspiration, while for others it is admiration. Richie Davidson remarked that when children believe in the changeability of their own minds, their capacity for such change is significantly enhanced.

Moderator Alfred Kaszniak asked what participants from the contemplative traditions were learning from science. His Holiness replied that scientific findings are demonstrating the efficacy of meditation. Meditators can be reassured that they are not wasting their time! Matthieu Ricard reported that laboratory findings had prompted him to examine in meditation the difference between resonant empathy, focusing only on others’ suffering, and meditation on compassion which involves the wish that they be free from suffering, giving him a vivid experience of the difference between them.

In his concluding remarks His Holiness repeated how much he enjoys and values the Mind & Life meetings. He said that he sees them as having two aims. One is to extend our understanding of reality. Until recently modern science concerned itself more with the physical world, but now scientists like those participating at this meeting are showing more interest in our inner world. The second aim is to discover how findings from such investigations can contribute to creating a better world. We need a new approach to teaching moral ethics and the kind of scientific approach Mind & Life is pursuing is proving helpful in reinforcing human values in a contemporary secular context.

“It’s very good,” he said, “thank you.”

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