Fall 2012
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Bhikshuni Lozang Trinlae, at right, describes her work

Bhikshuni Lozang Trinlae, at right, describes her work on empirical studies of the effects of Vajrayana Buddhist practices. Photo: David Womack, Mind & Life Institute

Like a Finger Pointing at the Moon // A Student Perspective of the Inaugural International Symposia for Contemplative Studies

By Sarah Wilson, MA TCP '13, and Rex West, MA, TCP '12

How do we describe the ineffable? How do we make the non-dual tangible? How do we possibly quantify mindfulness? Over the weekend of April 26–29, 2012, more than seven hundred people attended the first International Symposia of Contemplative Studies (ISCS) in Denver to explore the manifestations of these and many other important questions. Contemplative teachers, mindfulness researchers, educators, clinicians, doctors, and students joined together to share their work and consciously explore the burgeoning intersection of the fields of neuroscience and mindfulness. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Naropa, stated that when the East meets the West, "sparks will fly." As the ancient traditions of mindfulness meditation converged with contemporary neuroscience research at the ISCS, sparks flew.

Keynote speakers at the conference included Jon Kabat-Zinn, Marsha Linehan (the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy), Richard Davidson (neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin), and Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan. Many Naropa faculty and staff attended and presented at the conference, and the university hosted a well-attended reception on Saturday evening.

As graduate students in counseling psychology at Naropa, we found the ISCS to be incredibly eye-opening and transformational. Attending lectures on a variety of subjects, from caregiver burnout to the effects of mindfulness on vagal tone to mindfulness for treatment-resistant depression, we found that our perspectives were blown open in terms of the vast amount of academic exploration that is occurring around the world on the benefits of mindfulness. Throughout graduate school, it has been easy for us to exist within the Naropa bubble, oblivious to the outside world and partially believing that the community of practitioners using mindfulness extends only a bit beyond the beautiful flatirons of Boulder. But the congregation of so many researchers and students of mindfulness demonstrated to us that this is in fact an emerging field, and the legitimacy of it directly relates to the presence it has in mainstream research literature.

In the relatively new and groundbreaking discipline of contemplative science, the issue of quantitatively measuring mindfulness has come to be known as the "hard question." Researchers and practitioners from around the world have been exploring this question with the blessing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has been bringing together neuroscientists and mindfulness practitioners to talk about their experiences measuring mindfulness since 1987 with the first Mind & Life dialogues in Dharamsala. The Dalai Lama himself believes that contemplative science is promising because it involves both the first person and third person phenomenological methods of examining experience.

These issues were addressed by dialogues at the ISCS. Master lectures explored questions such as: What is meditation? What are we referring to when we study the effects of meditation in a neuroscience laboratory? What is mindfulness? What is compassion? While we throw around the terms mindfulness, compassion, and meditation to refer to specific delineated entities, in fact the diversity of these practices is vast. Many of the presenters encouraged the conference attendees to use the term mindfulness in their research more often, and define it more clearly.

Given the focus on measurement, one could easily have become lost in the sea of statistics, MRI images, and a plethora of graphs. Luckily, in the majority of the sessions we attended the research was clearly translated for those of us without PhDs. While the conference clearly had a contemplative research focus, there were many sessions that explored more of the clinical applications of introducing mindfulness to specific populations in the therapeutic setting. Marsha Linehan discussed the spiritual journey she has been on in founding Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a mindfulness-based therapeutic intervention and skills training originally developed for suicidal clients with Borderline tendencies. One concurrent panel session explored bringing mindfulness to difficult populations, including those with substance abuse issues, the homeless, the incarcerated, and clients with trauma backgrounds. Another panel discussed the use of mindfulness with overweight clients in order to combat the growing obesity problem in the United States.

The weekend was a life-changing one, both in its eye-opening scope and the essential questions that it raised. Exploring the past, present, and future of contemplative research, we found it inspiring to be a part of such a large assembly of like-minded professionals, dedicated to using mindfulness in their respective fields. From a meditation practitioner's standpoint, it was remarkable to learn from dharma teachers like Roshi Joan Halifax, Matthieu Ricard, Sharon Salzberg, and Brother David Steindl-Rast. For us as Naropa students, it was powerful to witness such dedication to the legitimization of mindfulness, and it was inspiring to see the work that we are doing at Naropa being explored around the world.

The Mind and Life Institute was so overwhelmed by the response to this first International Symposia for Contemplative Studies that they are currently planning to continue it biyearly. For more information about the conference and to view lectures from the weekend, please visit www.contemplativeresearch.org.