Institute Our Philosophy

Neuroscientists experience mindfulness

It was my pleasure to co-organise Plum Village’s first Neuroscience retreat in ten years. Two hundred and fifty therapists, scientists and practitioners came together for a week of devoted mindfulness practice, complemented by talks that explored Buddhist approaches to psychology and presentations by pioneers in therapeutic practices. Art / Earth / Tech deepened its ties with Plum Village through participating in this event, which generated a huge amount of excitement, joy and mindfulness. Luminaries such as Neurofeedback pioneer Sebern Fisher, Californian Surgeon General Nadine Burke HarrisPeter Levine, the founder of the Somatic Experiencing came and presented while the influential psychiatrist Dr Dan Siegel joined us via videolink. It was made all the more exciting because on the same trip, Art / Earth / Tech advanced negotiations for a building outside of Plum Village, which will be a new coliving hub. All around, there was a feeling that this could be the start of something larger.

Famous names and exciting possibilities aside, perhaps the place to start is the ‘energy’ of the retreat. My co-organisers, Br. Phap Linh, who helped start the Wakeup! movement and Elli Weisbaum, a researcher at the University of Toronto and I, were quickly rewarded. After a few days together doing mindful walking, sitting meditation, mindful eating and mindful working, a feeling descended over the retreatants that was extremely special. We shared our experiences, joys and suffering together in small groups called ‘families.’ As the strangers in our group became truly familial, people opened up and the retreatants started, more and more, to feel like one larger being. Many people, including the monastics, remarked on the specialness of the atmosphere even for Plum Village, and it lingered in Upper Hamlet after the visitors had gone home.

Given that it was a science retreat it is natural to ask, “where did this special feeling come from?” Certainly this had to do with devotion to the practice, perhaps a feeling of significance around two currents — contemporary science with therapy and mindfulness practice — joining together. Perhaps being around so many therapists and monastics who bring a feeling of spaciousness when looking at personal suffering also played a role. But also, we should not forget that the Plum Village Sangha (community) as a whole is like one great mindfulness artist which had these special materials in its hands for this particular week.

There is always something that we have a hard time explaining the results that artists obtain. A cook can show us a recipe and explain how she achieves tastes, but this doesn’t mean we can achieve quite the same results. Even if we understand the nuances of preparation on an intellectual level, the results that a great chef obtains are still impressive on an experiential level. We say things like, “I just can’t get my leek and potato soup to taste like that.” Likewise, the beauty of Plum Village, which reflects the sensibilities of its inhabitants, the nuances of the talks, the monks’ ability to read of the collective state of retreatants, all made for an experience that was beyond what is typically achieved in mindfulness practice. Great chefs don’t primarily understand their work at an intellectual level, either. Plum Village monks are great mindfulness chefs, they see each person and each situation and the variation and they adjust. Though science has shown that mindfulness practice is beneficial, participants left with a different notion of how much of a difference from their usual experience is possible.

Skillful adjustment to variation is exactly what science has a hard time describing fully because it is concerned with finding general rules. This isn’t just a shortcoming, but a fact of life. Science may be able to say useful things about why mindfulness works and how helpful it is, but the deepest understanding of why mindfulness is worth studying requires being around a rich, living community of practice.

That brings us to one of the great reasons for the retreat: to challenge science with the question of what it can do to help society enquire into the Buddhist Dharma (teachings.) The kind of understanding that traditional practice seeks to build is largely implicit, a matter of having a non-analytical feel for the truth or non-conceptual understanding of ‘the mind’ or ‘reality’. Our intellectual understanding of the Dharma is traditionally considered merely ‘a raft’ to cross to this ‘other shore’ On this other shore we do not get attached to ideas. How can science, which is all about concepts, fully engage with a tradition that involves learning to dwell outside of concepts, whilst not forgetting them but not being addicted to them either?

This question was discussed and in the long run will reoccur in future events. However, this retreat felt like it was a beginning. New friends met and old friendships deepened. The Sangha opened up to science and found much of value, and scientists likewise found much to value in the practice. Getting involved in the practice is the easiest way for a person to get at least some small sense of what Buddhists might mean when they talk about life on the other shore. Eventually, more experiments to test some of Buddhism’s claims, such as ‘attachment to ideas causes suffering’, will be conducted. However, the incentive for scientists to run these, and the intuition to design effective experiments, will come from direct experience. So getting scientists to go deeply into the practice is the first step.

At the same time, Monastics were eager to learn from science and find common ground. Often in Plum Village we say that the Buddha talked about reincarnation because that was the culture of the time. The Buddha was speaking people’s language in ancient India. The language of the contemporary west is science and so, at the very least, it is useful for monks to speak it. But science can offer more than that; an understanding of trauma, which was a focus of the retreat.

Trauma is an experience that a great number of people around the world are affected by. It can present a great barrier to mindfulness and affect the well-being of people for a lifetime. The brains of traumatised and non-traumatised people look completely different. Additionally, traumatic experiences often resurface on retreat, bursting into the greater mental free space that concentrated mindfulness practice creates. This can be very challenging and it is useful to anticipate these cases; something science can help with. Some people even think that the ‘Western mind’ holds onto trauma a different way than do many other cultures. This hasn’t been proven, but if true, this knowledge can help mindfulness teachers adjust to the cultural context of the contemporary industrialised or ‘Westernised’ world.

Both Neurofeedback and Somatic Experiencing have similarities with ancient methods and also differences. Somatic Experiencing involves attention to the body allowing traumatic experiences that are expressed in tensions and feelings to come to the fore. Though, as with meditation, it is hard to say precisely how this works. The effect is to transform suffering. The difference is that a trained therapist can guide attention and help the traumatised person to remain in a state of relative calm, shepherding them towards healing.

Neurofeedback allows practitioners to be directly notified when they have adjusted their brain waves. To do it, we work with subjective experiences, using our attention to generate a certain feeling. However, Neurofeedback allows the therapist to see the brainwaves, external markers of the inner life, and to use knowledge of the brain to guide a person towards a more healthy brain and mind, giving them feedback as they consciously adjust their mind and brain. Monks at Plum Village have even begun to study Neurofeedback after seeing its positive effects.

However, even back in ancient India, the greatest of teachers Siddhartha Gautama (aka the Buddha) told his followers that some people were beyond his ability to help them. Though we might not like to hear this, we have to accept certain people have a very hard time listening enough to the basics of Mindfulness to even get started. Nowadays methods like Neurofeedback and Somatic Experiencing are being created that can help with a greater number of people who have a hard time calming themselves or listening, often due to the lingering effects of traumatic experiences. With these advances, and even psychiatric drugs, more people than ever before can, “take care of their suffering”, as Thich Nhat Hanh often says.

Part of the retreat’s special feeling was an awareness that deeper collaboration between science and the Buddhist tradition is necessary; not just to create an understanding of the mind, but to transform society. At this point in history, we need a radical shift towards well-being, a new commitment to making our moment to moment experience of life the ultimate measuring stick by which we can judge whether our societies are moving in the right direction.

In fact, although exact details are still to be determined, discussions are underway for more than one follow-up retreat in the next 18 months. This will deepen A / E / T’s ties with Plum Village. Where this collaboration goes is hard to say, but the possibilities are enlivening.