What is happening with our brains, our minds, our bodies, when we pray, meditate, or engage in other contemplative practices? How is compassion related to such practices? Andy Dreitcer recently presented a “Christian perspective” on these questions to a gathering of world-renowned Buddhist contemplatives, neuroscientists, philosophers, and psychologists who met to explore neuroscientific understandings of contemplative experience.
Over the past twenty years neuroscientific advances (brain scans of various types, fMRI’s, EEG’s, neurotransmitter analysis, etc.) have made it possible to directly examine the activities of the brain (e.g., blood flow, chemo-electrical activity) that may be physical indicators of “mental processes” such as memory, compassion, attention, emotions, mindfulness, intention, and altruism. These advances have allowed scientists to begin to study what is happening in the brain during certain forms of meditative prayer practices.
Scientists have been particularly interested in studying meditation practices from the Buddhist traditions. Why? Even more than other contemplative traditions, Buddhism has strongly emphasized noticing, examining, naming, and cultivating control over the workings of the mental processes. This has led to an explosion of neuroscientific studies of how Buddhist practices cultivate mindfulness and compassion.
Caught up in the excitement of discovery, these scientific studies have tended to ignore the traditional understandings of the terms that Buddhists have used to describe the mental processes connected to their contemplative practices. But now certain scientists are realizing that their research would benefit from a deeper exploration of these terms. With this in mind, a conference was organized by the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Held July 7-10, in Telluride, CO, at the request of the Dalai Lama, the gathering – called “Exploring the Language of Mental Life” – drew together thirteen contemplatives, neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers. The event was sponsored by the Fetzer Institute and the Telluride Institute. The aim of the conference was (1) to come to a clearer understanding of key terms for the mental processes described by Buddhist contemplatives and (2) to compare those Buddhist terms to the way mental processes are understood by neuroscientists, philosophers who are examining the nature of “mind,” and psychologists/therapists. (See the full description, schedule, and participant list here.)
In addition to engaging in free-form brainstorming sessions around the nature and understandings of mental processes, the participants offered brief (five-to-eight-minute) presentations from the perspectives of their own areas of interest and expertise.
As the only representative of the Christian tradition present, Andy was asked to give the “Christian contemplative perspective” on compassion, empathy, and altruism. He focused on particular elements common to the many Christian contemplative traditions:
- The purpose of the Christian contemplative life is the formation of relational, engaged compassion, becoming the image of God, love, in the world.
- Engaged compassion reflects Jesus’ invitation to love God, love one’s neighbor, love oneself, and love one’s enemy.
- Engaged compassion consists of a deeply felt sense of empathy that becomes wise, transformative, loving action in the world .
- Engaged compassion is cultivated by active, ‘effortful’ practices of meditation and passive, ‘receptive’ practices of contemplation. These practices take a variety of forms (including, for example, apophatic, kataphatic, affective-centered, service-centered, and creativity-focused processes), depending on historical and cultural context.
This conference was particularly interesting to the Triptykos staff because it informs our thinking about a project that we have begun with Michael Spezio, psychology professor at Scripps College. The project, “Compassion and Christian Contemplative Practice: Toward Interdisciplinary Research Involving Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience” is being funded through a $50,000 grant from the Fetzer Institute. During this first phase of a larger study, a group of neuroscientists, theologians, philosophers, and contemplatives will explore in depth the “interior movements” of three Christian contemplative practices: lectio divina, Centering Prayer, and the Compassion Practice. A deeper understanding of the experience of these practices will, we hope, allow for a second research phase: a neuroscientific study of how the practices help form lives of engaged compassion.