If you are at all interested in the rapidly growing field of neuroscience, psychology and contemplative practice, the UCLA symposium on Neuroscience and Buddhism is well worth listening to. There is a talk on how contemplative practice can aid creativity. A talk on compassion is also very interesting. The speaker discusses how we tend to, on encountering somebody, engage either the ‘fear’ parts of our brain or the ‘empathy’ parts of our brain. She talks of how various ‘metta’ – compassion – exercises can strengthen our tendency to engage more with the empathy parts of our neural circuitry. Another speaker talks of how his studies of the Mahapattanasati sutta - the main text on meditation, particularly for Theravada Buddhism – have illuminated his studies in ways to reduce anxiety by broadening as well as strengthening our natural facility for concentration.
Also worth checking out is a series of podcasts on ‘The New Psychology of Depression’ available at Oxford University’s podcast website. A wealth of resources is also available at the MCBT’s Website. Mark Williams discusses the growing problem of depression which, according to the World Health Organization is, in terms of years of life lost, the most costly health problem in the world. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has been developed by Prof. Williams and others from ancient vipassana and sati exercises. As well as training people to be more mindful – more aware of the present moment – MBCT has been developed to encourage people with a history of depression to be aware of painful thought-patterns and how and when they occur and develop. It is particularly interesting, not to say encouraging, to see how this invaluable practice has been taken out of its religious context. Prof. Williams is, privately, a Christian. Though I might have been skeptical of how effective these practices might be when removed from their systems of thought and belief, the 70% non-relapse of depression in patients has proven MBCT to be a highly effective approach, often more effective in some cases than existing medication. This is an exciting new resource for both those with a history of depression and, in my opinion, all those who could benefit from contemplative practice but are put off by anything put in a religious context.