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International Symposia for Contemplative Studies

written by Kasley Killam 7 May 2012

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.

Hyatt Regency in Denver

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.

Keynote Speeches

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.

Marsha Linehan Keynote

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.

Master Lectures

Each morning, attendees chose to join one of three concurrent master lectures, which brimmed with erudite content and incited lively conversations.

Mark Greenberg and Barbara Fredrickson’s master lecture

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.

Panel Presentations

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.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

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

Poster Sessions

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.

Closing Address

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?

Further Reading

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.

Ryan, T. (2012). A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. Hay House.

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.

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Lisa Sansom 7 May 2012 - 12:03 pm

Congratulations on a wonderful article Kasley – and thank you for drawing the lines between Positive Psychology and Contemplative Studies. I had no idea there was even such a formal discipline in this area! It looks and sounds like a wonderful conference!

Kasley Killam 7 May 2012 - 6:31 pm

Thank you Lisa, I am glad you enjoyed it!

Louis Alloro 8 May 2012 - 12:18 pm

Thank you for this article, Kasley. It is important for the fields to come together. Contemplative practices have a lot to teach us about building the muscle we generally call positivity. It’s in part the work we’re doing at the Center for Consciousness & Transformation. http://cct.gmu.edu — building partnerships with those who are down for the same union of the minds!


Kasley Killam 8 May 2012 - 3:18 pm

Thank you for your comment, and especially thank you for the link! I am very interested in the Center’s work and will look into it more.

oz 9 May 2012 - 2:29 pm

Louis – the muscle mediation develops is called self regulation. Positivity is a by product.

Kevin Simmons 9 May 2012 - 6:43 pm

I have been embedding mindful practices into my Geography classes to help them understand Eastern philosophy and the diffusion of religion. Not only have my students taken an interest in the whole unit, it is also more of a joy to be around them (which is unusual at the end of the school year).

Daniel Siegel, a mover in Interpersonal Neurobiology, has some great ideas and opinions on mindfulness practices from a developmental perspective. I highly recommend his book “Mindsight” for all interested in mindfulness or contemplation (especially you, Oz).

Oz 10 May 2012 - 1:56 am

Kevin – sorry I’m a hardcore rational thinker. Interested in meditation as it impacts on my wellbeing. Not really interested in the spiritual guff which just adds noise.

Kevin Simmons 10 May 2012 - 8:53 pm

Oz – Daniel Siegel has a bit of a spiritual leaning, but he’s a clinician at heart and stresses the need for either scientific validation or clinical results (preferably both). While I was listening to some of his talks, I was reminded of many of your comments about mindfulness and well-being. He’s worth a look, but no offense taken if you don’t; I just had a hunch he would interest you.

A google search will give you a ted talk.

Kasley – Can you share some of the conclusions the speakers reached or advice they offered for schools and education?

Kasley Killam 10 May 2012 - 11:47 pm

Hi Kevin,

Thanks for the question. I did not attend the talks that focused on education in particular, so unfortunately I cannot relay their specific messages. However, a few things come to mind.

First, the conference website is offering free web-streaming (http://contemplativeresearch.org/) , so perhaps you would be interested in watching some of the talks on education:

Master lectures
– Brian Stock on Western Contemplative Tradition in Higher Education, and Hal Roth on Developing Contemplative Studies in Higher Education: The Brown Model
– Kathleen McCartney, Jerry Murphy, and Carolyn Jacobs on Contemplative Practices in Education Leadership

Panel Presentations
– Promoting Empathy, Awareness, and Compassion with Parents, Teachers and Youth (Mark Greenberg, Douglas Coatsworth, Tamar Mendelson and Patricia Jennings)
– Before Thought: The Cultivation of Insight in the Naropa University Classroom (Judith Simmer-Brown, Gaylon Ferguson, Mark Miller and Richard Brown)
– Renewal in Higher Education: Integrating the Contemplative Dimension (Diana Chapman Walsh, Daniel Barbezat and Carolyn Jacobs)
– Mindfulness-Based Programs for Children and Youth (Trish Broderick, Tish Jennings, Kim Schonert-Reichl and Brian Galla; David Vago, Sara Lazar, Britta Holzel and Andrea Grabovac)
– Contemplative Self-Inquiry, Brain Science, and Mindfulness in Graduate Education: Multidisciplinary, Evidence-Informed Applications to Personal and Professional Development (Susan Gere, Jared Kass, Nancy W. Waring and Lisa B. Fiore)
– Mindfulness Training for Teachers, Parents and Students (Robert Roeser, Rita Benn and Kimberly Schonert-Reichl)

Otherwise, I attended a panel presentation by researchers at Emory University; they conducted Cognitively-Based Compassion Training among elementary school children (see ‘Educating the Heart and Mind’ here: http://tibet.emory.edu/research/research.html) with successful preliminary results. As well, during his keynote, Tim Ryan suggested teaching kids how to pay attention (i.e. mindfulness) rather than telling them to pay attention.

More generally, my impression was that people supported the integration of contemplative practices — such as mindfulness, compassion, or empathy training — into the education system, because of potential benefits (e.g. increased concentration, decreased stress, and overall well-being).

I wish I could give you a more concrete take-home message for the education sector, but I was more drawn to other topics at the conference. Hopefully the above can point you toward some more information!


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