From September 26 to October 1, 2023, Deer Park Monastery hosted a retreat called The Buddha The Scientist, where we explored how scientific knowledge and Buddhist wisdom can be combined to create lasting solutions that impact the world.
After practicing mindfulness with more than 500 retreatants, eight scientists presented their views and discoveries in a moving and inspirational science symposium. Here is a summary of their talks. (For bios, see “The Science of Mindfulness.”)
Dr. Michelle Williams, from Harvard University, said that through research, knowledge, and mindful practice, we can identify pathways to improve the health of not just people, but animals, plants, minerals, and the world. She said the environmental crisis is a public health crisis. We need to write equitable policies that will individually and collectively promote planetary health as well as human health and incentivize people to change their actions. We need to change the way people eat, play, and build to minimize our global impact. Watch Dr. Williams’ talk here.
Dr. Solomon Diamond, from Lodestone Biomedical, discussed how by combining awareness, concentration, and insight with scientific investigation and analysis, we can cultivate understanding, solve problems, and re-create our world to provide transformation and healing. Data alone cannot achieve the same outcome. He suggested we can have a collective awakening one step and one breath at a time to ultimately solve global problems like climate change.
Dr. Vish Viswanath, from Harvard University, explained that technology is not inherently good or bad. It’s how we use technology that either builds community and sangha around the world or promotes suffering. If technology, such as social media or artificial intelligence, is used to build close connection, it will promote peace and happiness. If, on the other hand, it is used to displace real relationships, as video games often do, we will become depressed and anxious. A good use of technology is how people used Zoom during the peak of COVID-19 to maintain connection with their friends and family.
Dr. Eric Loucks, from Brown University, spoke on the role of mindfulness in sustainable behavior change and encouraged us to optimize behaviors–such as diet, sleep, and physical activity–to drive well-being. He discussed how mindfulness can help us change our habit energy and disrupt the link between craving and our behavior. For example, it can help us regulate and sustain our blood pressure by being present when we crave sugar or alcohol.
Dr. Juliet Hwang, from Kaiser Permanente, encouraged us to couple mindfulness with somatic, body-based practices as a path to healing and transformation. She taught us how to identify dysregulation in our bodies and come to understand and transform it, including trauma. She taught us somatic practices that we can use to regulate our own nervous systems, such as placing our hands over our collar bones in the shape of a butterfly, massaging our ears, and cupping our eyes and cheeks with our hands. She suggested that we always check in with our bodies to find out what they need now so that we can down regulate them. By having peace in ourselves, we can have peace in the world and collective awakening.
Dr. Diane Gilbert-Sullivan, from Dartmouth University, explained that knowledge alone isn’t enough; we need contemplation to effect meaningful change. We are the continuation of one another sharing knowledge and wisdom over time. We do not have to compete with one another, but we can collaborate and share. We do not need to wait for others to be kind but instead, we can show compassion and love to colleagues, friends, and family, and it will then reflect back to us. Just a smile has a huge impact and can provide a sense of belonging.
Dr. Ryan Niemiec, from the VIA Institute on Character, spoke about studies on innate human virtues that we all have, i.e., seeds we can water. He said that in three separate studies, researchers found that the trait of gentleness is most often associated with social intelligence, followed by kindness and humility. Another study revealed that hope, gratitude, and zest are the character traits that most often foster inner peace in participants. Other studies measured the effectiveness of tools in improving our relationship with nature. These tools included things like our senses, beauty, emotion, and anthropomorphization of elements of nature.
Dr. Lilian Cheung, from Harvard University, explained that together, the Buddha and science can provide insight that reduces discrimination, separation, fear, and despair. For example, she shared studies showing that there is an urgent need to improve dietary consumption in the United States but said that knowledge alone won’t facilitate change. She explained that healthy, sustainable change is possible through Plum Village’s fifth mindfulness training, Nourishment and Healing. “Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming…”
After the presentations, the scientists formed a panel for a Q&A session. The sangha shared their personal struggles and asked poignant questions such as “What’s being done with mindfulness and eating disorders?” and “What are we doing about the obesity bias that’s prevalent in our health care system?”
To view recordings from the retreat, see Playlist from the Buddha the Scientist Retreat or click the button below.
Hear what participants said:
“The lecture on somatic exercises was a new learning that made a strong felt impression. I was also moved by the brave sharing by Sangha members who asked difficult questions.”
“There were many [memorable moments], but hearing the scientists share their research and how changing our diets could save the planet was very inspiring.”
“My favorite element of Dr. Niemiec’s workshop was the part where we were paired with another person and shared our strengths. It’s unusual to talk about my strengths and especially without also talking about my weaknesses.”
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