Dalai Lama talks meditation with Stanford scientists

By and
Oct. 18, 2010, 2:30 a.m.

It turns out that even after 60 years of meditating and practicing compassion, the Dalai Lama still has much spiritual learning to do.

Dalai Lama talks meditation with Stanford scientists
The Dalai Lama spoke Friday at the Scienftific Explorations of Compassion and Altruism conference. (MICHAEL ROONEY/The Stanford Daily)

“Even now, I cannot say my spiritual experience is something very high,” he said, laughing. “It is a little above zero. So it takes a lot of years.”

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, admitted as much to approximately 1,500 eager listeners in Memorial Auditorium on Friday. He said he started meditating when he was about 15 years old. He gradually began more “serious practice and study” when he was in his late 20s and 30s, and began reaching “deeper levels” in his 50s and 60s.

The head of state and the spiritual leader of Tibet, now 75, engaged Stanford professors at a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) conference, which aimed to tease out the neurobiological underpinnings of compassion and altruism. Professors had 10 minutes each to present their emerging findings from experimental research in psychology, neurosciences and the emerging field of neuro-economics.

Brian Knutson, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, kicked off the day with a review of his work using fMRI to identify brain pathways involved in the exercise of compassion.

“We’re at the very beginning of this research, but there’s good evidence that compassion can be elicited in the laboratory,” Knutson said. “We need to further investigate.”

What emerged from the daylong conference was a general consensus on the benefits of compassion, but a lack of clear understanding of how to objectively measure it using the scientific method. All researchers professed going forward that much more research was needed in the field of compassion.

“We’ve got to have a standardized set of measures to show the benefits of compassion training,” said James Doty, professor of neurosurgery and director of CCARE.

Psychiatrist and bioengineer Karl Deisseroth, who helped pioneer the new field of optogenetics, explained his work studying the neural basis of social compassion in the mammalian brain.

“The goal is to slowly start to piece together how mammals value social behavior and this is ultimately, we think, linked to compassion,” Deisseroth said.

The goal of his research, he explained, was to determine whether compassion is an emotion that can be generalized and cultivated. He described an experiment in which he activated specific brain cells of mice using pulses of light to make them more social.

“We turned on neutral reward circuitry to promote nurturing and pro-social behavior in mice,” he said. “It is yet to be seen whether this is can be replicated in other species.”

While the researchers were unclear on the quantifiable benefits of compassion and how to generate it, the Dalai Lama was clear: meditation makes a person happier and calmer.

“There is one thing I can state definitely, with confidence: the mind can change through training, through awareness,” he said. “That’s for sure.”

Consequently, the Dalai Lama was more interested in how to inhibit anger.

“Anger is really of no use,” he said. “It creates all the problems. So here we need investigation. Can you remove anger through electricity in the brain?”

William Harbaugh, a neuroeconomist at the University of Oregon, continued the debate by describing the brain’s reward mechanism when people donate money to charity.

“Research shows that people do get a neural reward form charitable giving,” he said. “This activation tends to be higher when people make the choice voluntarily.”

The Dalai Lama was quick to agree and noted that being compassionate toward others was beneficial to the individual.

“There is a misunderstanding that showing compassion and love for others means sacrificing yourself,” he said. “This is not the case. By helping others, you are helping yourself.”

Throughout the day, the Dalai Lama was easily able to merge the concepts of science and religion while discussing altruism. He championed the importance of science to contemporary life, but he also warned that the benefit of science was dependent on the human designer.

“The development of science and technology of course has benefit, but it also brought unthinkable suffering,” he said, outlining the development of the atomic bomb and World War II. “Science and technology alone is not a guarantee for happiness on this planet. Science is created and used by human beings. If the user is full of hatred, then these technologies become destructive.”

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