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Lions Roar : March 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2012 87 him the most was the Dalai Lama’s open- mindedness and willingness to update his own views based on what scientists might discover about the brain. “Compare that with other spiritual traditions,” says Keltner. “You just don’t see that.” Keltner studies the vagus nerve—a part of the nervous system that seems to play an important role in kindness and compassion—and the evolution- ary benefit of kindness contagion in populations. He views the Dalai Lama and other expert contemplatives as compassion savants, and his exchange with the Dalai Lama got him thinking about how to relate their expertise to what he was studying in the lab. “The meeting raised some interest- ing research questions,” says Keltner. “For example, what happens to the vagus nerve when you have people who can hold the experience of awe or com- passion for three hours at a time?” Following the overwhelming response to the 2003 public dialogue, Engle and Davidson decided to organize the Summer Research Institute, where young scholars could meet with other scientists and jumpstart their careers. They real- ized the field needed younger research- ers who could go beyond small pilot studies and work on longitudinal inves- tigations over time, research they hoped would eventually interest big science organizations and funders like the National Institutes of Health. To prime the pump, they cre- ated the Varela grants, funded by the Hershey Family Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation, which provides seed money for scholars who want to further the study of contem- plative science and incorporate first and third person methods of inquiry into their research. Since its inception in 2004, the grant program has stimu- lated more than sixty articles in peer- reviewed journals, with many more forthcoming. The Varela grants, which range from $10,000 to $15,000, have catalyzed more than $12 million in addi- tional funding from federal and private sources to further the work of contempla- tive science. WILLOUGHBY BRITTON is one of the young scholars nurtured by Mind and Life, one of those who will carry the sci- ence of contemplation into the future. An assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University, Britton has attended every MLI Summer Institute since its inception. She has received two Varela grants herself—to study how school-based mindfulness programs help students, and how Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy improves the functioning of peo- ple suffering from depression—and has mentored two students in her lab who have now received a Varela grant of their own. “Before I found Mind and Life I was divided,” says Britton. “I spent one year in India studying Buddhism, and the next year at NIH studying glutamatergic brain receptors.” At the time, she found that nei- ther side—Buddhists or scientists—seemed to have much respect for each other. Now she found a sense of wholeness through her work with Mind and Life, where scientists are encouraged to investigate the mind not just through brain scans or books, but from their own first person perspective. Britton believes that if scientists were a little more aware of their own minds— their desires, biases, and distorted per- ceptions—it would improve scientific inquiry, and she feels this view is gaining acceptance in establishment institutions like the National Institutes of Health, from which she recently received five years of funding to study Buddhist texts. “They are beginning to appreciate the level of interdisciplinary expertise that is needed to do good meditation research,” she says. As young scholars like Britton are undertaking research in contemplative science, new research centers at major universities have also emerged. For exam- ple, the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA offers courses and fosters research on mindfulness across the lifes- pan. Emory University’s Collaborative for Contemplative Studies brings together Mind and Life continued from page 61