Attending a conference outside one’s own professional field is always a humbling experience, but never more so than one expounding on the finer points of an ancient religion whose ultimate goal is the cessation of views. Such was my experience last weekend at the Buddhist Meditative Praxis: traditional teachings & modern application conference at Hong Kong University’s Centre of Buddhist Studies. In my opinion, the conference divided into three distinct groups: those who meditate, those who study those who meditate, and those who study what those who meditate study. The room was filled with monks, scientists and scholars.
Knowing next to nothing about Buddhism, my interest fell squarely in the middle camp, neuroscience, which turned out to be a bit of a pariah at this conference. Buddhists and scholars expressed the opinion that measuring the meditating brain was entirely missing the point, but it was the reason I wanted to attend. The presence on the speaker line-up of two of my favorite thinkers in the mindfulness space, Mark Williams and Rick Hanson, was the initial draw of the conference for me. Oxford Professor Mark Williams was instrumental in developing Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and getting the British government to recognize it as an NHS-approved treatment for depression and suicide prevention. Rick Hanson of the Wellspring Institute in California moderated an impressive on-line series “Compassion and the Brain” I watched last year and has recently published a new book, so I was eager to hear them both speak again. Beyond these two I did not recognize any of the speakers on the roster.
My learning curve on the first day was beyond steep. Kicking off with “On the curriculum in the monastic universities in the 10th century,” a talk given by a European scholar of Buddhism, all I understood was that existent bad luck causes the black cat to cross our path, not the other way around. That one was comprehensible compared to the next paper on the canonical anapauassatisutta and the sources of the 16 stages in four tetrads, or something of the sort. I think he concluded that whether the first breath is a long one in, or a short one out, is indeterminable, but don’t quote me on that. From the next distinguished speaker, I simply wrote “No freakin’ idea what he’s talking about” in my notebook. Though his English was fluent, he might as well have been speaking his native German for all I understood of this paper on The Case of the Four Applications of Mindfulness in Vajrayana. Likewise, when Professor Yao read his paper on whether or not meditative objects exist and I read along, I could only grasp that the existence of blue is debatable, and I’m not even sure about that. The ontological status of meditative objects had me reflecting on the ontological status of my presence in the same room with these people. This was not going well for me. I jest with all due respect and recognition that my ignorance is the problem here, not the presentations.
Just as I was about to throw in the towel and hit the latest coffee shop in Sai Ying Pun, a scientist hit the stage. Phew. Now this was language I could begin to wrap my brain around (never thought I’d say that!). She described careful studies comparing the differing effects of Focused Attention Meditation versus Loving Kindness Meditation and their associations with changes in the attention regions of the brain and cognitive empathy in the dorsal affective system respectively. See… plain and simple.
Dr. Mark Williams described depression, the high likelihood of relapse and the successful use of MBCT to treat it. Depression is a highly recurrent illness that starts early in life and affects an alarming number of people. Roughly 20% of the population is at risk of suffering depression at some point in life, and the most common age of onset is between 13-15 years old. This is an epidemic that needs attention, and MBCT is one of the most promising treatments available. Dr. Williams’ research has shown that MBCT, which combines ancient Buddhist praxis with psycho-education about depression, is as effective as antidepressants in treating traumatic cases of depression.
Dr. Rick Hanson’s presentation was philosophical and much more rooted in the Buddhist tradition, as he bridges the two realms as a practitioner and a scientist. He teaches us to “Use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better.” Of most interest in his speech to me was a discussion of the negativity bias that has been trained into humans. Because sticks are more consequential than carrots, we learned evolutionarily to avoid sticks more fervently than to remember carrots. Therefore, we imprint negative experiences and forget positive ones. So, taking time to reflect on positive experiences to ensure that they, too, get transferred to long-term memory is important. This was not the deepest message of his talk, but it was the one that resonated most with me.
Two hands on my bag, I was ready to make a quick exit to get home to my family before dinner, but then Venerable Sik Hin Hung took the stage. Dressed in a grey robe with wire spectacles and a shaved head, the venerable was engaging, informative and thought-provoking in his presentation that brought it all together for me. His theory was that many mindfulness programs have shown positive results in cognitive improvement, but that they have secularized teachings of Buddhism in order to make them palatable to wider audiences. In so doing, he theorized, they have removed the essence of the teachings and lost something. He and his colleagues set out to carefully design a study to determine if Sense Of Coherence (SOC) — comprehensibility, manageability and meaningfulness — a measure of well-being developed by Aaron Antonovsky, could be positively impacted by the study of meditation AND the tenants of Buddhism. Working with teenage students about to take a rigorous standardized test, his study demonstrated that, in fact, those who studied Buddhism along with meditation techniques and then went on to pass the Buddhism exam showed positively better SOT than both those who did just mediation and those who did no meditation or Buddhist teaching. This presentation was the biggest teaching point of the conference for me. Welcoming the new, the measurable, the scientific, but cautioning that mindfulness uncoupled from the original tenants of Buddhism might have unintended consequences.
Buddha said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick at least we didn’t die; so, let us be thankful.” Reflecting on the conference, I am thankful for the opportunity to witness the coming together of earnest faith, thought, reflection and hard work in a search for greater understanding by some and a reminder by others that understanding might not be the point.