In addition to the First Mindfulness conference in Europe that I blogged about a little while ago, this year hosted another first: the European Symposium for Contemplative Studies organized by Mind & Life in Europe. This symposium took place in Berlin and its theme was the role of contemplative practice in relieving suffering for individuals and society.
The symposium started off in the evening with a keynote by Tania Singer about her research on compassion. One of the important points she made was the difference between compassion and empathy. While compassion is very much action-oriented and also rewarding, empathy is very distressing. In the brain, it even activates the pain network. While in compassion you focus on the other, and what you can do for them, in empathy you feel the other’s pain, but since it is very much focused on your feelings of that pain, it actually is very exhausting. To know more about this, including a lot of science, you can check out the compassion ebook.
Every one of the following days started off with some yoga and meditation. I always very much enjoy having that in a scientific conference, for it brings the communication to a different level. The participants are no longer just communicating with just words, but go beyond the verbal level. There were some interesting lectures by Wolf Singer, who has been one of my heroes since I started neuroscience. He talked about how neuroscience is inconsistent with the idea that we have a single localized self, and this is a point that Buddhism makes too. I never thought about it that way! Matthieu Ricard then took it even one step further by asking “how do we even know we have a brain?”. Interesting contemplation! But we did not stay there very long, and very quickly the discussion moved into questions about ethics, with Matthieu Ricard making the point that we need to focus on the goodness in our society more, so that it can flourish.
Also very special were the contributions by Mark Williams, one of the developers of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). He showed how MBCT tends to work even better for depression than an active control group, and is now recommended by the health services in the UK as the preferred treatment for depression. Interestingly, MBCT does not work when the teachers do not practice themselves. In that regard, he shared his personal story of finding mindfulness, and finding authenticity, which moved us all to think about our own authenticity and commitment to practice.