"If you had wandered by accident into the enormous foyer of Denver’s Hyatt Regency Centennial Ballroom on the afternoon of April 26, you might have been forgiven for thinking there was going to be a concert by a major rock and roll band that night. Hundreds of people crowded the large space, with many camped by the doors to the ballroom hours before the event was to start, and the excited chatter of conversation, the many happy hugs, and the palpable electricity in the air only added to the sense of imminent rock royalty. You might have been surprised, then, to discover the actual event was the International Symposia for Contemplative Studies, a professional gathering of neuroscientists, social scientists, and contemplative scholars there to share their research.
The Symposia, which was organized by the Mind & Life Institute on behalf of 25 cosponsoring organizations and which took place in Denver April 26-29, was indeed a landmark event, the first of its kind. And while there were no rock stars in attendance, there was at least one celebrity: U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan.
The Ohio representative was at the event because he has just published a book titled A Mindful Nation, which looks at how contemplative practices can address a host of pressing national issues. In his remarks during his closing keynote address, he said that the idea for the book came to him as he was attending a mediation retreat led by Mind and Life board member Jon Kabat-Zinn: “I went up to Jon afterward and said, ‘This needs to be in our schools, in our healthcare system, in the military for our returning veterans.’” “This gets to the heart of the issues in the United States of America,” he told the Denver audience. “If we really want transformational change in our country, not just more money for this or more money for that, not just this new program or that new program, but fundamental change that could reform education, reform healthcare, and all the things we talk about, then this is going to be it.”
Ryan’s comments were notable for several reasons: of course, just having a congressional representative address a scientific conference is significant in any circumstances, but having a congressman attend an event on contemplative research to talk about his own book on mindfulness indicates just how far this field has come.
No one was in a better position to appreciate that idea than Mind and Life board member and renowned neuroscientist Richard Davidson, who gave the other closing keynote speech. Davidson, who in 2006 was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, has been involved in contemplative research since the early 1970s. In his talk, he provided a retrospective on the path this work has taken. He described how, as a graduate student at Harvard in 1972, the idea of meditation as a scientific research subject was so unheard of that the only place he could publish his work was in journals like the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
With that perspective, it’s hard to fully appreciate what he must have felt looking out from the stage on the Hyatt’s vast ballroom filled with more than 700 researchers and contemplative scholars who were there presenting rigorous and enormously varied studies. “It’s just an extraordinary event for us to be here together,” he said. “This meeting is, in so many ways, the realization of a dream; I haven’t been to a professional meeting in more than a decade where I really wanted to be at every single thing. It’s a testament to the vibrancy of where we are now.”
The audience was impressive not only for its size, but also for its diversity. When one of the keynote speakers asked how many people in the audience were from outside the United States, a third of the audience raised their hands. And a significant number of younger researchers were present (a testament to the effectiveness of Mind and Life’s Summer Research Institute, which many of them said they had attended). Just as important, the scientists represented a very wide range of disciplines. Psychologists, educators, neuroscientists, contemplative scholars, medical specialists, and many others presented their work.
The research itself was equally wide-ranging, studying the benefits of meditation for everything from post-partum depression to PTSD, compassion training for medical specialists involved in caring for the dying, defining and measuring compassion, work on the uses of mindfulness training in the military, and the substantial benefits of using contemplative practice in education settings from kindergarten to graduate school.
In addition to 137 research paper presentations, there were 122 poster presentations, 27 master lectures, and 6 keynote speeches. But as impressive as the statistics are, they cannot convey that unflagging sense of rock-concert excitement that pervaded the whole event. The lunch periods and breaks between simultaneous research-paper presentations were packed with people enthusiastically sharing ideas, sparking inspiration, and renewing old acquaintances. The only reason they could be broken up for the next session was because they didn’t want to miss a minute of the presentations. (At a post-conference town-hall-style evaluation session, the only substantial concern voiced by researchers was the happy problem of having too much excellent content and the challenge of taking it all in—along with a desire for even broader content at the next Symposia.)
And at the end of each day, that excitement spilled out onto the streets of Denver, where you could see groups of scientists all through the downtown area, walking together to dinner, still excitedly exchanging ideas and triggering new areas of research to be explored.
The Symposia’s keynote lectures served as a thematic anchor for the research presentations, discussing the larger ideas and principles that frame the work. (To see video of all of the master lectures and keynote addresses, go to the conference website: www.contemplativeresearch.org.) Among the speakers were author and founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society Jon Kabat-Zinn, who opened the conference by leading the attendees in a mindfulness exercise and a discussion of the meaning and importance of mindfulness; former Wellesley College president (and new Mind and Life board member) Diana Chapman Walsh, who gave examples from her professional life of how mindfulness affects leadership in any setting; and Marsha Linehan, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, who discussed using contemplative practices to treat people with the most severe psychological disorders, especially those who are suicidal.
Saturday night’s keynote was especially powerful, featuring renowned neuroscientist Wolf Singer, philosopher Evan Thompson, and prominent Buddhist monk, author, and cellular geneticist Matthieu Ricard. Together, they explored an aspect of what scientists call “the hard question”: the nature of consciousness and its relation to the brain. Their three very different perspectives made for an invigorating debate and resulted in an appropriately open-ended conclusion.
“The International Symposium was a landmark meeting for Mind and Life,” said Mind and Life president Arthur Zajonc. “Beyond the superb science and contemplative scholarship, the conference brought together our whole community in a way that celebrated each person and their work. The conference demonstrated the power of the vision of Mind and Life to animate the imagination of scientists, contemplatives, and scholars alike in a common enterprise. The energy and excitement was palpable, and at its conclusion, many expressed to me their gratitude for the gathering and their impatience for the next.”