Kasley Killam is a B.Sc. (Honors) Psychology student from Canada. She worked as a research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center and is now the student representative for the Canadian Positive Psychology Association.
Articles by Kasley are here.
From April 26th to the 29th, the Mind and Life Institute hosted the International Symposia for Contemplative Studies. The conference attracted 700 people from many countries to the Hyatt Regency in Denver, Colorado. Attendees included researchers, psychiatrists, Buddhist monks and nuns, and students. With hundreds more on a waiting list, the magnitude of the event demonstrated the fervor emerging in the scientific community around contemplative practices.
A “Confluence of Epistemologies”
The first keynote speaker was Jon Kabat-Zinn. While sitting in meditation posture on stage, he guided the audience members and many others streaming live from their homes through a brief but profound meditation. Then he noted that the conference represented the union of dharma and science. Remarking on the surge of research on mindfulness in recent years, he emphasized the necessity of grounding mindfulness work in experiential data.
An Early Start
The conference began each morning at 7am with yoga taught by Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor, followed by a group meditation guided by various spiritual teachers, including Brother David Steindl-Rast, Barry Kerzin, and Sharon Salzberg.
On Friday, the keynote speaker was Diana Chapman Walsh, former president of Wellesley College. She conveyed the benefits that contemplative practices had brought to her presidency, such as fueling mindful leadership, inspiring creativity, and building resilience through setbacks. Furthermore, she called for “scientific vigor and rigor” in the field and for a new generation of leaders who act with equanimity, compassion, and love.On Saturday, keynote speaker Marsha Linehan opened the day. She discussed her journey of developing Dialectical Behavior Therapy and emphasized the value for both clients and their therapists of practicing mindfulness during the intervention process. Her metaphor of healing as “coming home when homesick” was especially resonant.
That evening, Evan Thompson, Wolf Singer, and Matthieu Ricard offered respectively philosophical, neurological, and Buddhist perspectives on the nature of consciousness. Thompson pointed out that we talk about consciousness without being able to remove ourselves from it; nothing is non-experiential. Singer stated, “All that we can perceive, imagine, and deduce depends on the function of our brain.” Ricard upheld that consciousness, akin to material objects, is void of intrinsic existence. This multifaceted debate revealed a seeming incompatibility of the viewpoints for understanding consciousness.
Each morning, attendees chose to join one of three concurrent master lectures, which brimmed with erudite content and incited lively conversations.On Friday, Cliff Saron and Michel Bitbol linked neuroscience and humanities; Brian Stock and Hal Roth talked about education and humanities; and Sona Dimidjian and Roshi Joan Halifax discussed clinical science and contemplative practice.
On Saturday, Tania Singer, Brother David Steindl-Rast, and Sharon Salzberg tied together neuroscience and contemplative practice; Kathleen McCartney, Jerry Murphy, and Carolyn Jacobs covered education; and John Teasedale and John Dunne discoursed on clinical science and humanities.
On Sunday, Amishi Jha and Arthur Zajonc discussed the intersection of neuroscience and education; Mark Greenberg and Barbara Fredrickson talked about education and positive psychology; and Lorenzo Cohen, Richard Freeman, and Stephen Phillips deliberated on yoga as contemplative practice.
The afternoons featured concurrent panel discussions and platform presentations by researchers from around the world. Following each session, audience members asked questions and engaged with the researchers.The options were numerous (37 in total) and of such calibre that many people faced indecision nearing, as Jon Kabat-Zinn remarked, a kind of “existential crisis.” Presenters covered a thorough range of topics; here is an overview:
- The benefits of mindfulness meditation, empathy, and compassion for pain, anxiety disorders, depression, substance use disorders, smoking cessation, and stress regulation
- Various programs that foster mindfulness, compassion, insight, and awareness in populations of all ages, including among clinicians, armed forces, and children
- Ethical issues and methodological considerations
- Neurological underpinnings
- Contemplative studies in partnership with other disciplines
The three poster sessions indicated how much contemplative science has propelled research in recent years. With 122 posters in total, attendees got a sense of the many unique investigations and applications of contemplative practices.
Richard Davidson and Congressman Tim Ryan spoke at the end of the conference.
Davidson talked about the past and present statuses of contemplative studies, and he projected how the field may expand in upcoming years. First, he portrayed his initial publications on contemplative practices as black sheep in the scientific literature. Then, Davidson highlighted recent pioneering findings and identified neglected areas of research, such as epigenetic studies, interventions for children, and translational work for mainstream literature. Finally, he emphasized that contemplative science is at an exciting point, while advising that the field has a long road ahead.
Ryan, who recently authored A Mindful Nation, offered an uplifting perspective on the role that contemplative practices can play in education and government, nationally and even globally. For example, he proposed building a mindful society rooted in science, just as railroads and other infrastructure have been instituted, with establishments like regional wellness centers. His speech ended the conference on a very positive note.
Message for Positive Psychology
I asked Barbara Fredrickson her thoughts on the role of contemplative studies in positive psychology. She noted that, although they represent different communities, both aim for the same goals of self-change and betterment. She also recommended more crosstalk between the two fields, especially to incorporate the high quality of contemplative science research into positive psychology discourse.
Furthermore, while mindfulness was mentioned by almost every speaker, many other positive psychology themes emerged throughout the conference. For instance:
- Gratitude was a theme of Brother David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Salzberg’s meditations. In particular, Brother David suggested that we consider everything as a gift, both what we offer and receive, and Salzberg led us to reflect on all the people who have influenced our lives and contributed to our attending the conference.
- Leadership strengths were discussed by Diana Chapman Walsh.
- Compassion and Empathy were themes of Roshi Joan Halifax’s master lecture. Notably, she quoted His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who said, “Compassion is not a luxury; it is a necessity for human beings to survive.”
- Wisdom showed up in Marsha Linehan’s keynote address. For example, she described “a well within each of us that opens to the ocean” of universal wisdom.
Although the attendees buzzed with enthusiasm and dedication, the tone of many commentaries was also cautionary. Supporting the endorsement of contemplative practices with empirical evidence is essential for the advancement of the field.
Overall, the conference was rich with insight and inspiration. Diana Chapman Walsh said, “I expect to be a whole lot smarter by Sunday afternoon,” and I think everyone left feeling intellectually stimulated, if not a whole lot smarter.
Particularly striking was the sheer number of people who were passionate about integrating contemplative studies into their work and personal lives. I was also struck by the observation that the attendees largely came from countries other than the United States.
But perhaps my strongest impression of the conference was that everyone I passed made eye contact and smiled. I wonder, are contemplative practitioners natural positive psychologists?
The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation edited by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson:
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0. To be released in February 2013 by Hudson Street Press
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). The Healing Power of Mindfulness. 2-hour lecture given to Dartmouth.
Varela, F., Thompson, E. & Rosch, E. (1992). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press.
All pictures except the picture of Jon Kabat-Zinn were taken by the author and are used with permission. The picture of Jon Kabat-Zinn is from the All Things Healing web site.