The Monk Who Loves Science
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has enjoyed a life-long fascination with science as recounted in his science memoir, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. This interest in science has resulted in his reaching out to scientists over the past twenty-five years and his receptivity to their work. In 1987, the Mind and Life Institute was established to hold annual meetings with the Dalia Lama and Western scientists to discuss issues such as the mind, emotions, compassion, et cetera.
The precursor to the Mind and Life meetings was the Inner Science Conference. The first Inner Science Conference of 1984 was held at Amherst College and focused on Buddhist psychology as taught by the Dalai Lama. Western scientists and philosophers gave commentary on his talks and included: Robert Thurman, Richard Davidson, Frances Vaughan, Roger Walsh, David Bohm, Daniel Brown, Jack Engler, Seymour Boorstein, Kenneth Pelletier, Charles Tart, Bonnie Strickland, Renee Weber, Joseph Loizzo, Seymour Epstein, and G. Perry.
The Dalai Lama was the center of controversy in 2006 after he had been invited to give the keynote address at the annual “Neuroscience” meeting, a conference with 14,000 attendees. Some scientists protested that a religious figure should not be addressing this august scientific body. When interviewed and asked how he would feel if science made discoveries that contradicted his Buddhist beliefs, His Holiness promptly replied, “Change my beliefs.” What other religious leader could make that claim?
The Dalai Lama has also sent some of his monks into the laboratory of Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin to be studied. These monks have shown exceptional differences in their brains and prodigious capacities to concentrate and generate compassion. These preliminary brain-imaging studies sparked a new wave of interest in the brain effects of meditation. While monks with thirty years of meditation experience had remarkable brains, you don't need to meditate for thirty years to get some of the benefits of meditation. In fact, as few as eight weeks of practicing mindfulness can result in significant changes in your brain.
Emotions are critical to functioning in the world. According to researchers Mayer, Salovey, and Caruso, there are four features of “emotional intelligence”:
Perceiving emotions accurately in oneself and others
Using emotions to facilitate thinking
Understanding emotions, emotional language, and the signals conveyed by emotions
Managing emotions so as to attain specific goals
Emotional intelligence (EI) is the “ability to engage in sophisticated information processing about one's own and others' emotions and the ability to use this information as a guide to thinking and behavior. That is, individuals high in EI pay attention to, use, understand, and manage emotions, and these skills serve adaptive functions that potentially benefit themselves and others.” Emotional intelligence was popularized by Daniel Goleman's book by that name, and you will see below how EI can be directly affected by meditation in areas such as empathy and emotional regulation.