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06 Sep 2023
Video Overview
Contemplative Sciences Center


The symposium promises to catalyze transdisciplinary research collaborations to advance a collective understanding of the underlying dynamics of contemplative practices. We are bringing together leading specialists for an exploration of these practices in light of contemporary philosophical inquiry and psychological research on effort and effortless, self-emergent experiences. Themes of effortlessness and self-emergence in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist contemplative practices will be addressed in four overlapping domains: (I.) Cognitive Effort and Control Practices, (II.) Nondual Practices, (III.) Dream and Illusion Practices. (IV.) Self-Emergent Visionary Practices. Each domain will involve a creative mix of Buddhist Studies scholars, scientists, philosophers, and teacher-practitioners with distinct bodies of expertise – textual, experiential, and empirical. 

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  • Michael Sheehy
    Welcome, everyone, hello, welcome to the University of Virginia. My name is Michael Sheehy. I'm a research professor and director of scholarship at the Contemplative Sciences Center. Along with Professor David Germano, we're happy to host you here for two days of dialogue and open experimentation as part of this Generative Contemplation Symposium. First, we'd like to show - first, we'd like to thank you for showing up. Many of you have traveled here from afar, including friends from Europe and Canada and across North America. Thank you for making the journey. Second, we'd like to thank our sponsors. This event would not have been possible without several gifts and grants. Funding the projects and contemplative studies is an ongoing need. And we deeply appreciate the sponsors who have shown their generous support. Most notably, would like to thank the Hemera Foundation for funding that made this possible. We'd like to thank Jeremy Lowry, the director of Contemplative Programming, for his sustained interest and support in our work. Thank you.
  • Secondly, we'd like to thank the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for a grant to support the symposium. And here at UVA, the Page-Barbour Workshops and Virginia Center for the Study of Religion both awarded significant funding support. The symposium is co-sponsored by the UVA Tibet Center. Next, we'd like to thank everyone on staff in the Contemplative Science Center who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make this event possible. Most notably, we'd like to acknowledge Vivian Feagins. Vivian, are you here? Thank you so much. Please, a round of applause for all your efforts coordinating the many logistics for this. Thanks to Mick Watson, our administrative director at CSC, for his efforts. Thanks to Ellen Daniels for promoting notes and communications at CSC. Thanks to Sidney Wanko, who's here, as well, an undergraduate research assistant who's worked for registration and putting the program booklet together, thanks to Adam Liddle, James MacNee, Aaron Burke our graduate research assistants who are helping and hosting this event.
  • The idea for this symposium emerged through a series of conversations in the wake of the global pandemic. David Germano and I had been working together in relative isolation to develop what we call the Generative Contemplation Initiative, an umbrella for a host of projects and its complementary framework and methods, which David will introduce. We felt it was imperative to engage a broader group of experts from around the world and hence convene this Generative Contemplation Symposium. We were already in conversation with Sonam Kachru, who was then faculty here at UVA and is now at Yale, Zach Irving in the Philosophy Department about their theories of norms of attention in Indian, Buddhist and contemporary philosophy of mind. We were deep in conversation and grant writing with Per Sederberg of the Psychology Department about the plausible neuroscience of Tibetan Buddhist practices of dark retreat and sensory deprivation practices. And we're simultaneously in conversation with John Donne at University of Wisconsin, Madison, about a variety of topics, most notably the recently launched Journal of Contemplative Studies, of which John is a founding
  • board member. We knew collectively that we wanted to move the needle forward on the study of contemplative practices. While the obsession with mindfulness catapulted meditation research forward and a cultural movement, in some ways it has also constrained the study of meditation. Most fundamentally, there is a consensus among the organizers that to take the study of contemplative practices seriously, we must acknowledge its profound diversity and study a wider scope of practices than have thus far received attention both within the sciences and the humanities. To conceptually frame dynamic tensions across a broad spectrum, and given our collective interest in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist practices, we structured the program to reflect a pervasive tension within classical Buddhist accounts of meditation, from practices that deliberately apply effort to those that are utterly effortless. Inducing self immersion experiences. This spectrum captures how contemplation is performed in ongoing dynamic shifts across the spectrum of intensities of effort, and has emerged as an important framework for interdisciplinary engagement about enhanced cognition. From this overwhelming, overarching architecture for the program, the confluences of these conversations led to the current format, which is designed to
  • optimize interdisciplinary dialogue. In so doing, we've asked our interlocutors to abide by three guiding principles of interlocution, which might guide in the kind of rules of the game sense. First, it's about contemplative practices. We seek to foreground the underlying dynamics, mechanisms and processes that constitute contemplative practices, keep this our shared focus and return to practices whenever we may stray. This explicitly validates the study of contemplation and the primacy of subjectivity at the heart of contemplation. If the constellation of participants are the stars in this universe, contemplative practices are its sun, the center of gravity for the dialogue. Two, its
  • multi perspectival. We seek to honor multivalent participatory ontology that appreciates there are different perspectives that derive from different disciplinary expertise, different life experiences, different orientations of all kinds. Difference matters. We recognize that this is an arena into which multiple of epistemologies are invited to participate. And at best, the art of interdisciplinary dialogue identifies differences, probes their pressure points of intersectionality and allows new knowledge to emerge. Three, it's not a dog and pony show. We've tried very hard to seek to keep it about the dialogue, a collective conversation, knowing that the group wisdom that the group expertise outweighs any individual's expertise. To operationalize this, participants will not give didactic presentations, as is the norm, but rather brief presentations meant to stimulate and spur dialogue. Each of the sessions has met as a group over zoom in advance to get familiar with each other's conversational styles
  • and topics. We conceive the symposium as a group dialogue with all of the invited participants, not simply the groups who have prepared each session. Hence each of the participants is invited to respond and chime in to the conversation in each session at any point, and we'll do our best to facilitate this by passing microphones. For 15 minutes at the conclusion of each session, so four sessions: one today, one the afternoon, same tomorrow, two sessions, we will open the dialogue to the participants in the audience and questions and answers, and we will have microphones passed around for that. From its inception, we felt that what we are doing here must be in person. We resisted even in the post pandemic world, the strongest impulse to make this an online conference. We push back against an incessant pull to broadcast this on Zoom for a wider online audience. And instead, we've insisted that what we are doing here must exclusively be shaped by the forces of personal presence, by the chemistry, the interpersonal alchemy that only takes shape in
  • person. What we hope to accomplish today and tomorrow is as much about learning from and influencing each other through our exchanges and building a community of Like-Minded collaborators as it is about the ideas that we share. The purpose of this symposium is to catalyze the generative contemplation initiative through an open conversation about contemplation. We do not see this as a product, but rather as an inflection to spark a broader suite of collaborative efforts on the horizon. Participants for each session were invited to constellate a particular set of disciplinary expertise for this dialogue. The formula for this constellation is made up Buddhist studies scholars, teacher practitioners of contemplation and neuroscientists involved in meditation research, and then, along with specialists in the arts and technology. To
  • acknowledge their presence and bring them into the room, so to speak, though they're already here with us, I'll name each of the participants and you'll find them in your program book. Zach Irving, Sonam Kachru, Chandra Sripada, Karin Meyers, Georges Dreyfus, John Dunne, Cat Prueitt, Antoine Lutz, Willa Blythe Baker, Bryce Huebner, myself, Jake Dalton, Andrew Helecek, Ken Paller, Melanie Boly, David Germano, Peter Sederberg, James Gentry, Anne Klein and David Glowacki. So with that, I'd like to hand it over to David Germano to talk to you about generative contemplation. So hi, everybody,
  • David Germano
    I'm going to just briefly outline kind of the context of what Michael alluded to, which is what we call the generative contemplation initiative, that this event is supposed to be a kind of marker, we hope, for the next 12 months or so we're going to start to be issuing products from this. I'm just going to give a very brief overview of it and keep us on schedule. So the idea behind the generative contemplation initiative is the idea being if we think about meditation or contemplation as a generative capacity, as the capacity to generate a variety of forms over time in response to specific sets of people, specific context and so forth, not in any kind of elaborate sense of the word generative, but literally to be able to generate the way that we think of language as a generative capacity. Namely, we acquire a fluency in a language. We learn a lexicon, we learn a grammar, we learn communicative context. And it allows us to generate appropriate forms of utterance in spoken and written discourse. So if we think of
  • meditation or contemplation in the same way as a generative capacity, rather than a fixed set of procedural instructions that correspond to this type of meditation or that type of meditation, this really corresponds more to what we see in historic record. When we look at any given practice, we find literally hundreds of different variations, and yet it can sometimes be difficult to specify what's the core or what's permissible and not permissible amidst all these variations we see in a particular practice. And that's just in the written record. When you look at the kind of ethnographic record or you join a particular community and see how one individual teacher might transmit the exact same practice in a variety of different ways to different people or in different contexts or over the life of his or her kind of art. So the idea would be then or what we're trying to do right now, we have a broader project, Michael and I, called the Encyclopedia of Contemplation is to look at the lexicon. So to look at each individual practice and ask the question, what are the building blocks of this practice at the most granular atomic level, the gestures, the moments, every little piece like stumble, like when you're reading through the practice instead of reading it through fluently, you stumble over every little piece and try to name it, try to articulate it. What is this piece that then reappears in other contexts? And then
  • secondly, a little bit more complicatedly is the grammars, if we pursue this linguistic analogy. And I should say that the the use of linguistic terminology is both an analogy and not an analogy. It's an analogy in the sense that we're not reducing contemplative practices to language or the study of language. But at the same time, it's not simply an analogy, because when you look, for example, at the Tibetan context, Tibetan language and the distinctive nature of Tibetan language influences the way that meditative practices are articulated. It influences the way that meditative practices are transmitted over times and discussed. It influences the way that meditative practices are theorized in the literature and so forth. And also, the Tibetans who are articulating these Tibetan practices are also the Tibetans who are speaking the Tibetan language and exploring similar kinds of issues about agency, about interrelationship, about distinctiveness, about the nature of effort and effortlessness and so forth. So, of course, these two are deeply intertwined with each other. So the grammars. What
  • are the permissible way that these building blocks of meditation can be put together or not put together and choreographed into a composite whole with a beginning, a middle and an end and many distinct rhythms? And number three, context. What are the different contexts, spatial, temporal, philosophical, etc. that then animate and give these meditations or these pieces that are put together in particular sequences according to explicit and implicit rules that give them meaning and make them whole, just in the same way that with language you might know very well the vocabulary and you might know very well the grammar, and yet you're missing the communicative contexts that are deeply embedded with that, with that culture and so forth. So with that in mind. The contemplative lexicon, this is, of course, a wholly inadequate look at what a lexicon might look like in terms of Tibetan context, but you have physical elements, things like what's the posture, what's the gaze, what's the movement, what's the breathing technique? You have verbal elements. I'm not going to read through every one
  • of these. Chanting, intonation, resolution, poetry, cognitive elements. You have a variety of objects that can be invoked which have standard associations and uses in these particular traditions. We have the senses. We have affective elements. We have material elements. We have contemplative gestures like evocation or dissolution or transformation or letting go. We have a variety of agents that are specific to each one. So, for example, in Tibetan Buddhist contemplation, you have deities, you have spirits, you have land in the kind of sense that we talk about in indigenous studies and indigenous cultures. Philosophical ideas, you have whole little micro modules in contemplation that anybody who's familiar with this specific tradition will immediately recognize. That's a module. And that module can be invoked in a larger meditation. And often it's invoked in a kind of shorthand. But anybody in part of the tradition would fill out that shorthand with a detailed set of activities.
  • Aesthetic elements, vows or commitments, goals and outcomes, signs and measures. So each practice or many practices in Tibetan tradition will articulate signs and measures. They'll say, here are the signs that tell you you're on track with this meditation. Here are the signs that tell you you're deviating off from the main course of this meditation. And these are the measures, the the full outcomes, the optimal measures that you should be trying to establish or reach in this practice. And then, of course, there are adjustments and enhancements. If this happens, adjust in this way or maybe you've done fine with this meditation, but you want to enhance the result. And here's an enhancement technique, obstacles, different kinds of experiences. Traditionally in Tibetan Buddhist meditation, they'll talk about three kinds of meditative experience: bliss, clarity and non-conceptuality. But in fact, it's far more than that. The literature talks about scores of experiences, and so understanding what are those experiences and when they're invoked, if you just understand the word but don't understand all the associations in the way that word is used, obviously you're not literate or you're not fluent in this tradition.
  • So fluency involves someone who's immersed within this culture, immersed within these communities, in these traditions, who can call upon these lexicons just the way that we can call upon lexicons in a language that we're fluent in. Number two, a bit more complicated is the kind of issue of contemplative grammars, the principles and forms by which these individual elements can be combined into meaningful wholes that constitute individual practices. So when you look at Tibetan Buddhist practices, it's very clear that there's a standard grammar at the very abstract sense. There's a before, a beginning, a middle, an end, and an after. So a before is like preparatory stuff you do. It might constitute of just finding the right place, gathering the material elements you need. It might involve also doing some divination practices that will inform the exact route you take through the meditation. For example, you look into a fire and you see the nature of the colors and shapes that appear, and that then tells you something about which pathway to follow from the different variables in the practice that follows.
  • That's the before. And then you have the beginning. The beginning is a very distinct part of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. And within that beginning, they name it, they call it the beginning or the preliminaries. Within that moment, within that series of moments, there are standard things that you invoke in there. You might generate motivation. You might make offerings to these female spirits called achiness, you might accrue merit, etc. So there's a whole variety of sub modules that Tibetans always know that's where they go. They go in the beginning part of the practice. And then the third part is the middle part of the practice, the the main part of the practice. And that practice is where you do the substantial activities, whatever they might be. And then finally, very clearly demarcated is the conclusion of the practice. And again, there's an acceptable set of modules and activities and processes that you can invoke in this context, things like dissolution, things like commitments to how you're going to take this meditation into your ordinary life, things like dedication to merit and so forth.
  • And finally, there are after session considerations. So the session is two through four, it's when you sit down and do an actual meditative session. The before is what you do before that session starts and the after is what happens after in the course of the day. So these are commitments for how can you carry those experiences into the day? How can you remember them? How can you then apply them to your life and so forth? So that's a very abstract sense of of the grammar. And that same structure can be used not just for one single meditative session where you sit down for five minutes or ten minutes and meditate, but also for entire five year, ten year, fifteen year, a lifetime arc of practices. So the same vocabulary will be used to say this set of practices is the beginning and you do this for a year or six months or whatever it might be. This set of practices is the main practice, although in fact it's many practices, and you do it over many years in many different meditative sessions. And finally, these practices are the concluding practices that bring you to a kind of culmination. So the same grammar that applies to one single ten, fifteen minute or whatever meditative session also applies to an arc of years of different meditative sessions combined together into a into an arc. And if we go more further into
  • this, which I'll be doing in my presentation on Friday with regards to the grammar of effort and meditative practices in Tibet, we can talk about very complicated things like syntax, the order of elements in the practice or connectors that link things together in different ways or qualities and facets of action like tense and aspect in linguistics, determiners, punctuation, stresses, intonation, rhythm, etc.. All these things, not a strictly one to one correspondence, but they help us, in my opinion, and Michael and my opinions to kind of think about how we might look at meditative practice in a more granular, detailed, interpretive kind of way. And an example, as I mentioned I'll be talking about tomorrow, is looking at the linguistic theme of transitivity, which means like "I hit the ball." Where I, the subject, transfer a certain energy to the recipient or the patient or the object, the ball. That's a transitive verb as opposed to "I fell down," which just involves me. So I'm going to look at that and use that as an example to think about what is the grammar of how effort and effortlessness are invoked in Tibetan Buddhist
  • practices. And so finally, just to wrap up communicative context, and these are the different contexts that we can look at in terms of thinking about what a practice really means. You can't simply look at the procedural instructions, but rather you have to look at all the implicit and explicit contexts that everybody in that community knows about. They know about certain philosophical underpinnings. They know about kind of the spatial realities or temporal realities. Should I do it on this day? How is it related to the Tibetan lunar calendar and so forth? What time of the day should I do it in? Or social and cultural and aesthetic kinds of aspects. These contexts are a matter of deep literacy and deep fluency by people in the tradition. But when we pull a practice out from a culture that we don't really understand and put it in our culture, we haven't pulled the practice out at all. We've pulled out a set of procedural instructions. The practice was left behind in Tibet or medieval Catholicism or wherever it was we took it from, because these contexts are just as constitutive of the practice as the procedural instructions. And so finally, that's the the the kind of past or present, in a sense, the idea of let's document these practices in this way and create this encyclopedia of contemplation. The
  • other part is we're working together with a colleague of mine, Aneel Chima, from the Contemplative Science Center, who hopefully will be here later, to think about making a design process that's uniquely specified for contemplative practices. And this takes that contemplative toolkit of those lexicons and those principles, and those contexts and so forth, that's the toolkit that we have to call upon, and we go through a classic design process of going wide and going narrow in order to think about how can we design contemplative practices for today, for specific stakeholders in specific context. For example, managing stress in a clinic or helping with kindergarten or first year first grade kids down regulate or whatever it might be. So take that context. Take that set of stakeholders and you begin by going wide. You empathize, you discover, you talk to your stakeholders, you watch them. You understand what they're trying to accomplish. You try to imagine the world in which they live and empathize with it and imagine the world that they want to live in with the help of this intervention or this practice. That's the kind of going wide. And then you go narrow. You try to define something based upon that together with your stakeholders, you try to create a meaningful problem statement, a point of view that brings those users together with their needs, together with the insight that the contemplative teachers and practitioners can bring. Then again,
  • you go wide, you iterate, you generate various kinds of ideas, possible practices, concepts and outcomes. And then you go narrow, you create a prototype. Here's a specific practice. Let's try it out. And you build rapidly and lightly so you can adjust to the feedback and the results and so forth. And finally, you test, you go wide again. You bring in different teachers and practitioners. You take the practice you've resolved on through the prototype process and explore what what actually works on the ground. So that's the idea behind the generative contemplative initiative, and with that, I'm going to turn it over to our first session.