Monday, October 5, 2015

Memorial Sloan Kettering Conference on Insights into Meditation Research, 2015

On September 24-25, 2015 I attended a conference at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City on the topic of Advances in Meditation Research, 2015.

Here is the full agenda:

Most speakers were quite young (under age 50).  Purpose of the conference was to highlight new research (recently published or soon-to-be published).

There was no presence or attention paid to popular culture representations or promotions of meditation and contemplative practices – no Dan Harris or Arianna Huffington, etc.  No presence or attention to “popular” meditation or mindfulness teachers.  No presence or attention to religion or spirituality.


Both Thursday night and Friday, there were about 100 – 125 people in the audience.

The audience was young – most under 40 years of age. Some of these young people had brought their babies with them.  Some of them looked “hipster” in attire, etc.   A close 50-50 mix of men and women.

The audience was 99% (my impression) white/Caucasian.  I think no blacks and very few Asians or in the room.  I noticed only one man (with head covering and beard) who I would guess was presenting himself as a Sikh.

At Q&A sessions, when audience members identified themselves, they all identified themselves as either neuroscience researchers or as doctors and nurses doing clinical work in high-risk/stress situations (emergency rooms, cancer care, neonatal pediatric care, etc.).

I would guess that there were very few people in the audience who were representing a spiritual practice or religious tradition. I do not know if Memorial Sloan Kettering did not promote the conference to those communities. Or perhaps those spiritual / religious communities are not so concerned about the kinds of work being presented at this conference. I was, actually, surprised, not to find more of a “mix” of the religious / cultural communities and the neuroscience community.

Speakers: Neuroscience

Majority of the speakers are active research neuroscientists. There were a few clinical practice professionals (psychiatrists and social workers), but even the clinical professionals focused their presentations on research.

The presentation of research was mostly focused on therapeutic outcomes – 1) child development (normal and abnormal); 2) helping cancer patients; 3) helping patients with anxiety, depression, and addition (including post-traumatic stress disorder); 4) mitigating effects of brain and biological aging.

Speakers represented leading research institutions, hospitals, and universities. While all acknowledged the value of “complementary” and “integrative” approaches to medicine, all of these speakers were primarily oriented toward the Western, scientific tradition and practice.

None of the speakers represented anything like “alternative” or “New Age.” 

Presentations: Neuroscience

While I took notes (for myself) I am loath to share them – I don’t know anything about neuroscience, and I probably would mis-represent much of what was presented.

The conference did not offer the PPT presentations.  If I can get them later, I will forward them on to you.

I offer the following “lay-man’s” observations from the many neuroscience presentations:

·       There is firm, 100% consensus among these advanced, young and more experienced neuroscientists that contemplative practices directly affect both brain function and even brain structure.

·       These researchers just accept the “fact” that contemplative practices can enhance or impede other brain and body states.

·       (BUT There is no discussion, at all, about “Mind” (Buddhism)  or “Soul” (Christian) .  )

·       While our DNA/genes cannot be changed, these scientists are all very aware of the many aspects of “epigenetics” – how various experiences affect how genes are “expressed” (turned on or off) – and how experience (physical and/or experiential trauma) can build or inhibit certain brain activities leading to positive or negative outcomes.

·       Lots of focus on the concept of brain “plasticity” – the brain – even adult and older people – can change and sometimes repair.  And self-directed experiences (like meditation, yoga, exercise, tai chi, music, etc.) can facilitate positive brain changes.  These neuroscientists just accept this as “proven.” --- not always sure “how and why” but they have no doubt that it’s real and replicable and should be part of cancer therapy, PTSD therapy, etc.

·       These neuroscientists are totally confidant and accepting that “practices” (yoga, meditation, etc. etc) can change the size and connections/functionalities in the brain.  They have lots of research showing that it happens.  However, they are not at a point in which they can prescribe exactly what practice would benefit people in certain situations. Although they have confident recommendations advice to cancer patients, for example.

·       Interesting but frightening insight: the research from many studies seems to clearly show that trauma (as an infant, in utero) can affect brain function into adulthood  (through the epigenetics issue cited above). So that people born and raised in poverty and other traumatic settings are more likely to have potential problems in the future (because of the difficulties of their brains in self-regulation, proclivity to anxiety and/or depression, etc.).  And these are populations that might benefit most from the contemplative practices that can (to some extent) re-model / re-train the brain processes.

Speakers: Public Policy

One of the keynote speakers was Dr. Josephine P. Briggs, Director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, an agency of the National Institutes of Health (leading U.S. government research-funding and policy agency).

Speakers: Spiritual / Cultural Perspectives

Only two speakers represented any organization of field considered to be “spiritual”:

1) Thursday night opening lecture was by Bob Thurman (Professor Robert A. F. Thurman)   As many of you know, Bob Thurman holds the first endowed chair in Buddhist Studies in the West, the Jey Tsong Khapa Chair in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University.  Bob earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in Sanskrit Indian Studies. In the 1960s he decided to go to Asia to study: he was ordained a Buddhist monk, and studied directly with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (who because a friend and long-term associate).  In the 1980s he created Tibet House U.S in New York City with Richard Gere and Philip Glass.  Bob has an extraordinary and unparalleled career spanning acknowledged accomplishments in Indo-Tibetan scholarship, support for Tibetan political and social causes, support for Indo-Tibetan cultural institutions, and high-profile promoter of Buddhist topics and causes through his wide network of contacts among entertainment and cultural celebrities.

See notes, below, about Bob’s presentation.

2) One of Friday evening’s keynote speeches was by Joe Loizzo  (Joseph Loizzo, M.D., Ph.D.)   Founder and Director of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplate Science and clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry in Integrative Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College   Along with being an M.D. psychiatrist trained at New York University and Harvard, Joe earned his Ph.D. in Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University.  His research, clinical practice, and popular writing have been focused on the fusion of the contemplative sciences and healing arts of India and Tibet into Western medicine, psychotherapy and health education.

See notes, below, about Joe’s presentation.

Presentations: Bob Thurman and Joe Loizzo

Beyond neuroscience:

Bob Thurman’s Presentation

I like Bob very much.  I’ve heard him speak many times.  I’ve met him several times, including a few times with Minoru and Chika.  So, I’m predisposed to liking his work.

Bob focused his presentation using an image shown to the audience on a large screen of a Tibetan mandala which was supposed to be “medical / healing.”

He asked us to imagine that among all those bodhisattvas, etc. in the mandala, would be the doctors and nurses and researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering and others, etc.  This little gesture creates a link between the contemporary medical community and that “community” of bodhisattvas and sages, etc. in the traditional mandala.

Bob talked about “instrumentalizing the placebo effect” – in other words: he was totally OK and celebrates the possibility that the placebo effect (benefits of a patient from belief, prayer, etc.) could be “instrumentalized” (used and controlled) by Western medical practitioners.  He thinks that would be great – and would show the value of both points of view.

Bob says he has no problem with Western medicine vs. “religion.”  He says Buddhism is not a belief system.  You cannot believe yourself to salvation: You have to understand yourself to salvation.  Buddhism has always been a set of educational services (meditation, ethics, learning, wisdom-cultivation, etc.)  -- You will only free yourself of suffering if you understand yourself and your suffering (god won’t save you, your own understanding will save you).  So Bob welcomes all the most advanced, Western neuroscience and medicine – it’s not at all a threat to his understanding of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism.

Bob says, the Buddha put the path of realizing freedom from suffering as “three higher educations/training”  -- ethics, meditation, and wisdom (wisdom being defined as: “super knowing” – what is real in the world and in the mind – what is helpful to you and what is harmful to you?  -- which Bob felt is the topic of the Neuroscience conference)?

Joe Loizzo’s Presentation

Joe’s presentation centered on what I think is more of an anthropological or cultural history argument.  He argued that the traditional ancient Vedic and Chinese “map” of the body (the chakras of the Subtle Body and the circuits) were actually useful in the contemporary practice of healing and well-being.

He made an argument that the traditional “map” of chakras is meaningfully and usefully consistent with the “map” of the brain (as understood by Western, contemporary neuroscience).

I don’t know anything about either Chakras or brain science.  But Joe’s presentation was received politely, but with no approbation / enthusiasm.  His discussion did not seem to be in the spirit of “usefulness” that informed most of the program.