International Conference on Science, Spirituality and Education by Annie Dibble

 International Conference on Science, Spirituality and Education.  Gangtok, Sikkim December 20th – 23rd 2010

 In December 2010, while the western hemisphere was engulfed in the worst snowstorms and lowest temperatures in living memory, Gangtok was enjoying relatively balmy daytime weather and for four days, at the invitation of the Sikkim Government, the  Dalai Lama and a number of eminent meditation teachers, scientists, educators, politicians, sociologists, philosophers gathered for the first International Conference on Science, Spirituality and Education.

It was hosted by the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology and the initiative was conceived in response to a growing concern for the future prospects of a younger generation of Sikkimese  – many of whom are finding themselves aimless and disaffected as the country brings itself into line with the rest of the 21st century.

A team whose advisors included both the Venerable Ringu Tulku and H.E. Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche invited Western and Asian experts in the field  to share expertise with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and debate on the problems that young people are facing as Sikkim is rapidly propelled into commercial prosperity.

For many years His Holiness has dialogued with western scientists, psychologists and meditators, under the name ‘Mind and Life’, examining the parallels between ancient Buddhist understandings of mind and the more recent scientific findings made since scanners and electrodes for monitoring and measuring brain function became available to researchers.  The first conference took place in 1987, a relatively small event in Dharamsala and  findings were  published in an edition called ‘Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind’ [1].

One of the most notable pioneering contributors to those conversations was Francisco Varela, brilliant biologist, neurophysicist and philosopher from Chile who, with encouragement from the Dalai lama,  along with  self confessed ‘meditation junkie’ B Alan Wallace, and Professor Richard Davidson steered the dialogues towards research into the affects of long term meditation, revealing scientific evidence of  a natural human predisposition to ‘brain plasticity’,  hence the possibility that meditation techniques can literally ‘change the mind’.  These dialogues have come to be known as the ‘Mind and Life Dialogues’.

Very sadly, Varela is no longer with us; he died of cancer in 2001 at the age of 55.   However it was at this time that specific collaborative laboratory research began into the power of meditation for the cultivation of loving kindness, emotional balance, compassion and confidence, showing very positive responses from subjects.    More recently, the research and topics for discussion have focussed on applications for various specific contexts, one being where young people are displaying unsafe behaviours and are prone to low self esteem, depression and self harm.

Much work has been carried out showing that when mindfulness is introduced to the daily schedule of people who suffer depression, there is marked improvement to the subject’s quality of life.  In Ireland where I live, suicide attempts are growing, particularly amongst young males, and some independent and very affective ‘Stillness in the Classroom’ and ‘Warriorship’ programmes [2] are being run for schoolgoers who find the journey to maturity and social integration too challenging.  School teachers are also being trained to teach mindfulness and the youngsters on the programme  respond by saying they feel valued and heard for the first time – which has encouraged the continuation and spread of the trainings.

The Conference in Gangtok was also for teachers, youth workers, politicians and policy makers.  If the conference is seen to be a success in Sikkim it is hoped that other similar initiatives will follow in other places.  As Sikkim’s prosperity grows, the usual suspects move in: soft drugs are widely available, alcoholism is rising and, according to sources, the country is not escaping what has become endemic across developed countries – it has the highest rate of suicides of all India in the 15 – 29 age group, although this has not been effectively recognised by the Sikkimese Government. Surprisingly the majority of individuals who succumb to attempted and actualised suicide are gainfully employed,  with none of the outward indications such as homelessness or unemployment that would often pre-empt such an extreme act.

In speaking to local people who are engaging with the problem on the ground, it is the changes in society as money comes in, children moving away and  the resulting breakdown of intergenerational support systems  that have until now been the bedrock of the society there.   Sikkim now begins to face the western dilemma of nuclear and single parent families, without (as yet) the wider supporting social infrastructures in place that help to bridge the gap.

The following is the first  installment of a review of the conference. It’s not a full account, but a personal reflection on what I was able to make sense of as I listened to the many speakers over the four days.  Some of the papers were very academic, using language and sharing specialist knowledge that was not immediately available to laypersons such as myself, and so others who attended may well have heard quite different things, according to their predisposition.  I have attempted here to give a flavour of what seemed to me to hold the essence of the aim of the conference – that of initiating a fresh impetus into the way in which young people not only of  Sikkim, but worldwide, can be given  a sense of hope and purpose.

In a world that is changing so quickly and with such violence,  a whole revision of thinking must imbue the education system that respects and protects the mental health of our young people.

The conference sought to cover the various issues as speakers presented the results of their research and the Chief Minister in his welcoming address said he hoped it would  ‘raise the happiness index for all individuals in the state and benefit all sentient beings including the underprivileged sections of society’.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama opened the conference and addressed, face-on, the problems and dilemmas of Sikkim – many of which he said were rooted in a complex political administration as much as  a spiritual poverty, and he presented three main points  to consider :    Modern science is very highly developed, and has great knowledge of the outer world, yet leaves a lot to be discovered in the area of how to develop the inner sciences of Mind.  Buddhism can contribute much to that knowledge.   He told us that he meditates 4 – 5 hours per day, but even so can see that prayer alone does not bring peace.   He said that the Buddha’s blessing is there, but must work through the hand of the chief minister (of Sikkim) .  He spoke of the dark side of science, the destruction that can be caused when motivation is not compassion but greed, so moral ethics are needed as well as an openness to secularism and a common ethics which has basis in all world religions.   He emphasised the importance of moral ethics unconnected to religion as the basis for a sane society.[3] This secular theme ran throughout the whole conference.

Each session focussed on a different topic : Understanding Brain, Understanding Mind, Brain Plasticity, Ethics in the Education System, Art and Science of Meditation,  Social and Emotional Learning   (SEL).  Each presenter had a respondent who either challenged or complemented the presentation and there was a question and answer period following each session.

The initial session laid down a context for the conference and Prof. Richard Davidson  and B Alan Wallace, co-founders of the Mind and Life Institute were keynote speakers.    Wallace opened with a statement from His Holiness,  ‘ The very motion of  life is towards happiness – we are all seeking something better in life’.  He made the point that the two national ideals –  of happiness and gross national product, are not necessarily  at odds.    Mundane happiness is what we get from the world  ie,  status and material wealth,  originating in the ‘hunter gatherer’ era where a full belly and family safety were overriding objectives of an external nature, whereas the evolution into the culture of ‘cultivator’ brought with it the principle of drawing from to give back, it was a mutual project of interaction with the land that primarily required altruistic thinking.  Our world now is one of almost 7 billion people and something else is now required, as the earth’s resources  are insufficient if we are all to achieve an equitable life.  The three  essential components of the Buddhist model for establishing balance are:  ethics, (conduct) mental balance (meditation)  and wisdom – our spiritual flourishing, which cannot happen without  ethics and meditation.   Samadhi  cultivates our inner resources and is not competitive:  no one has less as a result of someone else having more, and wisdom is cultivated through the practice of samadhi.  So psychological wellbeing is not contingent upon external flourishing, but is qualified by inner wellbeing.  He spoke of the five major fields of learning established in the Nalanda tradition: language, knowledge, inner science, medicine and the creative arts.  Wallace impressed upon us that this framework must be restored, and that we should establish contemplative research centres, laboratories for straight, open minded  first person research on the nature of mind.  He  asked the question, ‘What keeps science vibrant and dynamic?’  Saying that it is the stories and myths alongside the empirical research that will fill out the field of education.  In his view the future directions  must include studies of  (i)  the relationships between ethical behaviour and mental health, (ii) the relationship between mental balance and contemplative living checking out the potential of consciousness and (iii) Eastern and Western models of mental health and well being.

Davidson spoke about neuroplasticity and the constant shaping of  a child’s brain according to its environment, that social and learning skills in general continue to develop well into adolescence – which is also a time of risk and opportunity, the most healthy period in life – when immune systems are highest, and overall strength and speed, resistance to cold and hunger are strongest.  However overall morbidity rates increase by 200 – 300% during adolescence, when poor behavioural choices are prevalent between the ages of 15 and 24, and there is growing discrepancy between onset of puberty and maturation of the developing brain.   For instance the average mean age of puberty onset is now 13 yrs, a drop from age  16 in the last 100 years, while brain maturation is not changing (at age 24) so that both genders have the dilemma of adolescence for a longer period than ever before in history – an extending period fraught with emotional instability, at the same time as the physical body is at the peak of development and at its most powerful.   He quoted Antoine Lutz et al[4] whose studies showed the effects of meditation on two groups of children who experience ADHD , the control group did not respond as well as the meditators to  tests  on concentration after a three month period of regular sitting practice.    The most promising research has been done with a group of teenagers who practiced lojong[5] regularly –  measuring of the pre frontal cortex was done before and after a two week period, which showed enhanced compassionate behaviour .  Davidson maintains that as the brain is built to change, education can lay down the seeds for training in compassionate action.

A Tibetan Medical perspective was given by Dr Lobsang Tenzin (Central University of Tibetan Studies) who supported Davidson’s research and explained that his also includes the understanding that while the physical body is facilitated by  genetic material received from our parents,  our consciousness comes from a previous life, the cause of conception of a foetus having been automated by negative emotions. According to the classic Buddhist texts the network of channels – the complex nexus of the nervous system – forms prior to our birth time, and that brain power begins at the fifth week following conception.     Dr Kotwal, medical advisor to the 16th Karmapa, and now visiting professor at Bejing University, touched on the core issue of what we are educating for.  He said that ‘education must encompass moral and ethical responsibility to humanity at large, that 21st century citizens will need unprecedented levels of mutual moral concern, creativity, intercultural cooperation and skill in effectively addressing the challenges’ (facing us).  He reminded us of the importance of relaxation. In his primary field of gastroenterology Dr Kotwal has done groundbreaking work in the scientific validation of meditation as an aid to relaxation. He also spoke of the work  of Herbert Benson[6] and his team, who found in research done during the early 1970s that the brain retains the footprints of thought and action,  so that  neurons can be re directed at any age.   Thus brain plasticity lasts a lifetime, and the implications of that for society are enormous.

Professor Madanmohon of the Jawaharlal  Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research and an expert in Ayurveda and Yoga Therapy spoke on the moral-spiritual perspective of brain function, saying that the deeper you go into neuroscience the more you realise there is to know. He spoke of  the effects of meditation on the prefrontal cortex, which is  the seat of the higher  consciousness,  where the emotions are transformed.  Bhakti, or serenity, he said, will show itself in the face of a person who meditates.

The respondents to these speakers included Dr Geoffrey Samuel of Cardiff University who done much anthropological fieldwork with Tibetans living in India, and is Director of the ‘Body Health and Religion Research Group’[7].   Samuels spoke of Sowa Rigpa as the source of valuable knowledge  of the human condition,  asking both that the education process be fully addressed and that the resources be broadened to include great thinkers such as  Francisco Varela whose views on constructed reality are invaluable.

Lopen Karma Phuntso of  Bhutan and Cambridge University  asked that the Traditional world view be revised, he asked how the traditional and modern worlds can relate, and what is the place of  tradition in science, and where is secular (moral)  ethics?

Minak Tulku of  Ri khud, the leading Sakya Monastery in Bhutan  challenged us to look at what kind of happiness we are looking for in our education, and to keep in mind the distinction between brain and mind and the importance of both.  He appeared weary of the previous presentations that focussed on measurements of success. He said  he felt an inherent ethical problem to the discussions of measurement of meditation, because the practice is not the experience. He wondered about the benefit of measuring,  particularly if the methods are invasive, it may disturb the meditation and besides measurements are not the phenomena and  measuring  certainly won’t benefit others.   Compassion he believes, will not be measured in mundane terms, but, he said  he  also does not have the answer.

Next session : Understanding Mind


[1] Shambhala Publications /  2001

[2] Run by ‘The Sanctuary’  Stanhope Street, Dublin   www.sanctuary.ie

[3] see …..http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANS7Nc2B2ec for the full talk

[4] Journal of Neuroscience 21 October 2009.  29(42):13418-13427

[5] An established meditation practice of ‘exchanging’ oneself emotionally and in ideation with a series of increasingly distant and more ‘difficult’ subjects, in order to understand better the motivation behind their actions in order to gradually develop an openness within leading to compassion for all beings. It is a way of ‘putting oneself into the shoes of another’ in order to gain empathic insight and de-solidify obstacles to understanding our fellow human beings.

[6] The Relaxation Response:  Herbert Benson & Miriam Z Klipper.   pub.  Harper Torch 1976 (available on Amazon Books)

[7] www.bodyhealthreligion.org

About the Author

Annie Dibble is currently co-ordinator for Bodhicharya Ireland, and a Tara Rokpa Therapist. In another life she recently retired from teaching 3rd level art and design and is now working to create supportive links between weavers in India, Nepal and Dublin.

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