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Buddhism The Zen Brain: Connecting Meditation And Neuroscience


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Zen Brain: Exploring The Connection Between Neuroscience And Meditation


This past August, more than 50 people gathered in the Circle of the Way temple at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to explore the connection between neuroscience and meditation. This is the fourth year we have done so.

Why? This is a Zen center that is inspired by the example set by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who nearly 30 years ago began a dialogue with Dr. Francisco Varela and myself that was to eventually become embodied in the Mind & Life Institute, an organization that supports and sustains dialogue and rigorous scientific inquiry into meditative states.

Over the years His Holiness has enjoyed relationships with many scientists, including Varela, Sir Karl Popper, and David Bohm. His Holiness said:

With the ever growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play reminding us of our humanity. There is no contradiction between the two. Each gives us valuable insights into the other. Both science and the teachings of the Buddha tell us of the fundamental unity of all things.

Upaya Zen Center continues this deep inquiry into science and Buddhism through the vehicle of the Zen Brain retreats, as well as other programs. Those who are enrolled in Upaya's Contemplative End-of-Life Care training (for medical professionals) and the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program develop a thorough grounding in the latest findings on neuroscience and meditation as they go about their work in the world.

In the Zen Brain retreats, prominent scientists and Zen practitioners explore Buddhist, neuro-scientific and clinical science perspectives on topics like altruism, compassion and consciousness. Lectures and discussions with participants are embedded within zazen (meditation) practice throughout each day.

The most recent Zen Brain program this August explored trauma, stress, loss and the human potential for resilience and happiness. The faculty, drawn from the most accomplished clinicians and researchers studying this topic, featured Al Kaszniak, Ph.D., George Chrousos, M.D., George A. Bonanno, Ph.D. and Philippe Goldin, Ph.D. I also had the privilege of participating with these scientists as a contemplative and someone who has worked in this field for many years.

The main coordinator of this unusual program at Upaya is Dr. Kaszniak, the director of the Neuropsychology, Emotion and Memory Lab at the University of Arizona, where he studies Alzheimer's disease and other age-related neurological disorders, as well as emotion response and regulation in long-term Zen and mindfulness meditators. His most recent publication is a chapter on the use of meditation to reduce stress and improve well-being among caregivers of persons with dementia to be included in the book Enhancing Cognitive Fitness in Adults: A Guide to the Use and Development of Community-Based Programs (P.E. Hartman-Stein and A. LaRue, eds.).

Dr. Chrousos is renowned as one of the world's pre-eminent pediatric physicians and endocrinologists. He also serves as the UNESCO chair in adolescent care. His expertise in stress in large part can be linked to his work in endocrinology. Dr. Chrousos' presentation during Zen Brain on "Stress: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" explored the effects of stress on the individual.

Dr. Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, has been hailed as a pioneering researcher in bereavement and trauma. In work funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, Dr. Bonanno has examined how adults and children respond to and cope with extremely aversive events, such as the death of a loved one, war, sexual abuse, and terrorist attack. More recently, he has focused on defining psychological resilience in adults exposed to extreme adversity and on the factors that might inform resilient outcomes.

Dr. Goldin is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University. His clinical research focuses on the effect of mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy on neural substrates of emotional reactivity, emotion regulation, and attention regulation. He also explores the effect of child-parent mindfulness meditation training on anxiety, compassion, and quality of family interactions.

Buddhism is a path to liberation from suffering, and among the most pervasive universal triggers of suffering are trauma, stress and loss, including bereavement. Fundamental to Buddhist teaching is the recognition that freedom from suffering can be found through realizing that the fundamental nature of our mental experience is ever-changing, interdependent and without any fixed, unchanging self at its core.

In these unusual programs, participants explore constructs like "affective stickiness," a phrase coined by Dr. Richard Davidson, Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is the phenomenon by which we interpret an experience as negative and then become so strongly identified with it that it becomes a fixed part of "us." The particular kind of misinterpreation of self-identification can prevent us from accessing our full range of consciousness and often limits our capacity to make choices regarding a situation.

This phenomenon recalls the astute observation that Albert Einstein made in 1950:

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us 'universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

What would it mean for us to truly understand that this thing we call "self" is a fiction, not only from a philosophical perspective but from a scientific one? What kind of impact could that realization have on the way we structure our economy, our health care system, our government, and even our relationships with each other, with those "different" from us, and with the Earth?


What a marvelous possibility for us to explore at this time in our planet's history.


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