Mindful Change: Reflections On Meditation, Science, and TEDxNashville
By:  Jeremy Snow

Mar 14, 2017
His Holiness (the Dali Lama) pointed his finger at us and said, “You are all responsible for reducing suffering in this world. I’ll be watching…” -- David Vago recounting his presentation at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.

 

TEDxNashville 2017 is here. Today, at 6pm, I, along with thousands of Nashvillians and visitors from around the country will watch, listen, and be inspired by an esteemed lineup of thinkers and doers pushing the boundaries of human experience and understanding. It is a time for us to question what we thought we knew or even profoundly believed about the world. At times, the consciousness raising of innovation can be stressful as it bends our presuppositions to its will, but sometimes we are inspired to change our lives and thereby change the world.

But how does this happen? Is it speaker pedigree? The TEDx atmosphere? Alcohol in the lobby?

Dr. David Vago, Research Director of the Osher Center of Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt University, reflects on this as he talks to the Blog Team at TEDxNashville.

“As anyone seeking inspiration, TED provides that platform to discover the ideas and memes worth sharing. The best TED Talks I’ve watched have captured the audience with a narrative that we can all relate to. A few of my favorites include Malcolm Gladwell’s talk on Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce – weaving a story of complex science and statistics into common, everyday experiences that we take for granted. Who would have guessed so much science and thought went into creating the perfect tomato sauce? That’s really the best science – when it can directly translate to something practical or actually help humanity in a tangible way…. Or John Searle’s fascinating depiction of consciousness as biological in nature – making a case for studying it just like any other biological phenomena. I also loved hearing Temple Grandin’s story of her experience with autism – breaking the all the barriers and misconceptions related to what its like to be Autistic and also high functioning.”

On Saturday, Dr. Vago will deliver his own Talk to the audience of TEDxNashville. He will be discussing the exchange between the observable world and the hidden one of our conscious and unconscious mind.

“I feel humbled to have been nominated and chosen to be a speaker and to represent the Vanderbilt and greater Nashville community,” says Dr. Vago. “I do hope to be a source of inspiration for those seeking to better understand the neuroscience behind meditation, how mindfulness can be thought of as a systematic form of mental training, and how both non-conscious and conscious aspects of our self can be transformed from distorted maladaptive mental habits towards states of flourishing. Our minds are wired to benefit from not only exercising our attentional skills, but by becoming fully aware of our rich, inner, human core – our beliefs, values, thoughts, and feelings.”

So as you are enjoying TEDxNashville, try focusing inward. Explore your thoughts and feelings as you respond to what you hear and see on stage. In so doing, you just may enhance your own transformative power. At least, that’s one possibility. We will no doubt learn a lot from Dr. Vago, and without giving too much away about his upcoming talk, enjoy some of his thoughts on science, meditation, and the research that connects the two.

“I go back to my first Vipassana silent meditation retreat in 1996,” says Dr. Vago. “I was a junior in college and was blown away by the transformative potential of formal sitting meditation. I was always interested in Buddhist perspectives of mind and took religion classes during my undergraduate years. I studied brain and cognitive sciences as my major but the study of religion was a nice parallel to the neuroscience. Buddhism doesn’t even claim to be a religion but rather a science of mind. Nevertheless, I never thought it would be a topic in science or method for investigating the mind. In fact I went to graduate school for basic neuroscience looking at models of learning and memory. I was focusing on behavioral pharmacology and what kind of neurochemicals in the brain affect how we encode, consolidate, and retrieve information using animal models.

“I have been meditating since 1996 but I never considered that I could incorporate my practice into my science. Then in 2004, I saw a dialogue at MIT between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and great scientists and scholars who led me to discover there was a niche to study the mind in this way. The Mind and Life Institute also had this fellowship as I was just finishing my Ph.D. It was the right time and right place. I received a grant called the Francisco J. Varela Research Award and it was the flagship program of the Mind and Life Institute. It was one the most critical factors in the development of the contemplative neuroscience field. Without that grant program, many scientists would never have started with this research.”

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“After I received that grant, the Mind and Life Institute was looking for a senior scientist. I successfully applied for it and stayed with them for four years as the senior scientist and research coordinator. It put me in contact with amazing people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Richard Davidson. I felt like that was my niche. It was a causal chain of events that became a calling for me. I did have an opportunity to present my research to the Dalai Lama at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN as part of Mind and Life XXV and he thought my models were “quite good”. There were six of us presenting and representing the Varela awardees. His Holiness pointed his finger at us and said, “You are all responsible for reducing suffering in this world. I’ll be watching…” To hear that from the Dalai Lama was meaningful and I took it to heart and with a deeper commitment to how these practices can be self-transformative. The field of contemplative science and mindfulness research are now approaching a level of precision on both a theoretical and mechanistic account and how it functions. We need to understand how these practices function and how can they best serve certain populations – this is basically my research program for the next 30 years.”

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