Monday, September 19, 2016

Dalai Lama: Body, Mind, Science at University of Strasbourg

Strasbourg, France, 16 September 2016 - The sky was overcast this morning as His Holiness the Dalai Lama drove across the city to the University of Strasbourg to take part in a dialogue with the scientific community, at the interface of modern science, engagement, and meditation. He was welcomed to the University by Theologist Michel Deneken, who just yesterday was promoted to become the University’s new President, Dean of the Medical School, Jean Sibilia and Rheumatologist Jean-Gérard Bloch. They escorted him directly to the small auditorium where an audience of just over 140 staff members were gathered, although another 1300 students and staff were watching elsewhere in the building via a live webcast.

Michel Deneken opened proceedings by asking how His Holiness preferred to be addressed, noting that he had recently told an interviewer that he would be happy to be called ‘brother’. His Holiness said he’d love that. Deneken introduced the University as one of the great Universities of Europe established on both sides of the Rhine, being Catholic and Protestant, French and German, and with a reputation for openness. He concluded by telling His Holiness how delighted he was by his presence.

The first session, Neurosciences, set out to examine the regulation of attention and emotions by mindfulness meditation, and was moderated by Michel de Mathelin. Wolf Singer a distinguished neuroscientist interested in the relation between the material and spiritual asked how meditation acts on the mental substrate and how insight influences the brain. His Holiness responded by looking back 3-4000 years in India to the emergence of the practice of shamatha meditation in which the mind is focussed on a single object. Subsequently, vipashyana or special insight meditation emerged which was more investigative. Through concentration and analysis these practices became the basis for coming to understand the workings of the mind.

He mentioned the sensory consciousnesses that are very much related to the brain and mental consciousness.

“Ordinary mental consciousness is quite coarse,” he explained, “but during sleep, when the senses are shut down, consciousness is a little subtler. When there is no dreaming it’s subtler still and when we faint even subtler. My friend Richie Davidson is now investigating the subtlest consciousness that manifests at the time of death. There are cases, and there have been maybe 40 since 1959, when the heart has stopped, the brain has died, but the body remains fresh. My own tutor remained in this state for 13 days after clinical death.”

Antoine Lutz spoke about work he and Gaël Chételat have been doing to investigate the impact of mindfulness meditation among several strategies for tackling ageing and Alzheimer’s disease in particular. He mentioned its successful role in relieving depression which is a problem associated with ageing.

In the second session, Clinical Aspects, Jean-Gérard Bloch and Gilles Bertschy, with Cornelius Weiller moderating, spoke further about the impact of mindfulness meditation on depression and pain. Depression is a public health issue that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is 30% effective in dealing with. MBCT seems to help when there are difficult issues to cope with.

Bloch asked His Holiness whether language was needed to meditate, prompting His Holiness to speak briefly about the difference between conceptual and non-conceptual thought. He confirmed, however, that simply on the basis of conveying meditation instructions language was required. He also remarked that this is an area in which the Tibetan language is the most accurate medium of communication.

Bloch also asked His Holiness if there is a difference between pain and suffering and he told him that pain is related to physical experience, whereas suffering has more of a mental character. Regarding meditation, His Holiness clarified:

“I’ve already distinguished between concentrative and analytical meditation. The difference lies in how the mind engages with the object. From a traditional point of view the four mindfulnesses are understood as follows. Mindfulness of the body relates to understanding the nature of suffering; mindfulness of feelings relates to understanding the origin of suffering; mindfulness of the mind relates to cessation; while mindfulness of the way things are corresponds to understanding the path.”

After a break for lunch, in a third session, Tania Singer and Ven Matthieu Ricard discussed empathy and compassion, with Michel Deneken moderating. On the one hand Tania Singer’s research is examining the impact steady training in meditation on empathy and compassion has on the brain, but on the other is also seeking to find training and practice to offset the empathy burn out frequently encountered in the medical and other caring professions. She defines empathy as feeling or identifying with others’ pain, whereas compassion is feeling for their suffering—and doing something about it.

His Holiness distinguished between a basic biological sense of compassion that tends to be biased and partisan and a genuine compassion based on reasoning such as the argument that others want to live a happy life and don’t want suffering, just as I do. Ricard pointed out the degree of courage involved in cultivating great compassion. He also observed that co-operation is far more effective than competition.

The fourth and final session, Consciousness, was moderated by B Alan Wallace. He introduced Steven Laureys a neurologist who studies coma and Michel Bitbol a polymath who functions as a philosopher. Laureys, who had brought a brain with him to illustrate what he had to say, declared that he wants to know, “What happens when matter becomes mind?” His Holiness remarked, “I really doubt that it does.” And Laureys retorted, “Can you be conscious without your brain?” He made his approach clearer when asserting that the scientific proof of life after death involves organ donation.

Speaking in Tibetan, which Alan Wallace translated, His Holiness said:

“It’s difficult to explain consciousness if you only take a materialist approach. What we can do is to employ shamatha or concentration focussed on our own consciousness. This reveals its clarity of awareness and knowing.”

He explained that there are further stages of investigation related to employing techniques from the tantras. He observed that Hindu and Buddhist tantras overlap and share features in common. What distinguishes them is the Buddhist view of emptiness of intrinsic existence.

Laureys stated: “Consciousness exists. I try to understand it.” He repeated his question asking whether His Holiness thought there was consciousness without a brain. As time ran out Michel Bitbol spoke about how Edmund Husserl whose work on phenomenology influenced foremost 20th century philosophers like Sartre and Heidegger.  The later Francisco Varela, old friend of His Holiness and founder member of Mind & Life found inspiration in what Husserl had to say about ‘consciousness in the first person.’

Winding up a stimulating day of discussion, Michel Deneken thanked His Holiness for coming and contributing to the conversation. His Holiness replied, “I came because you invited me.” Tomorrow, elsewhere in Strasbourg, he will begin to teach Nagarjuna’s ‘Commentary on Bodhichitta.’

original link with photos

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