Kicking off the International Symposia for Contemplative Studies (ISCS)

The first-ever International Symposia of Contemplative Studies (ISCS) began in Denver, Colorado on a dark and stormy afternoon. No, really – it did. As Jon Kabat-Zinn rolled up his sleeves and sat down on a cushion to lead us into meditation prior to offering us his opening talk, the room filled with the sound of silence and rolling thunder. Considering that the room was full of individuals who had just flown in from all over the country (and abroad!) it was a great way to call for everyone’s presence and attention. Jon-Kabat Zinn is a name that likely conjures up a host of associations, especially for those in the contemplative research community. He is most well known as the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – a complementary medicine program that includes body scans, breath-focused meditation and a wide range of other exercises aimed at increasing self-awareness and decreasing stress in daily life.

I, myself, attended a 12-week MBSR course held at the National Institute of Health (NIH) taught by Dr. Rezvan Ameli and Tom Goddard in 2009 and greatly benefited from the experience. I respect and appreciate Jon Kabat-Zinn and very much enjoyed his insightful comments at the 2012 “Being Human” conference. Yet I’m not here to write to you about MBSR. Nor am I here to write about how much I respect Kabbat-Zinn. I’m here to share with you all – especially those of you not present at this symposium – what it’s like to be here. Reporting to you from the front lines, if you will – and if I’m honest with my readers I will say that I was sorely disappointed by this first talk.

Let me explain. First, my expectations: since it was the kick-off lecture, I expected that the talk would speak to the vision behind this gathering, the impetus behind this weekend, the hope for what these next three to four days will offer us. I expected that the talk would provide us with a framework. Please note also that this is the first time ever that this conference is happening. So not only was it the opening talk, it was the opening talk to an inaugural event. To be fair, Kabat-Zinn did attempt to call for recognition of how unique this gathering is – but it quickly slipped into a bit of nostalgia and maybe (though obviously sincere and heartfelt) effusive reflections on how far he and his colleagues have come.

The rest of the talk simply felt disjointed. He spoke about Albert Einstein’s vision of expanding circles of compassion (love that quote, by the way), about taking care of the earth as a reflection on how we take care of ourselves, and even a digression on Michael Pollan and mindful eating. Each of these points was in and of itself a great platform to launch into a larger point about the importance of contemplative research. I was hoping he would make a point about the nature of this work and its importance for our lives as human beings.

One point he did manage to spend more time on was the importance of clarifying our use of the term “mindfulness”. This word, he said, was created as a sort of “umbrella term” for the Buddhist equivalent of “dharma” – roughly defined as the set of teachings that serve as the very ground for cultivating greater self-awareness. “My nightmare,” Kabat-Zinn shared with us, “is that people think this is a concept that I’ve created.” Yet he was insistent that we consider “using the term more”. I’m hoping that what motivated this statement was his recognition that we ought to better define what “mindfulness” means.

I should wrap this up by saying this much: in hindsight I am actually grateful that this was the first talk because it taught me something about myself. In monitoring my own personal reactivity to this talk, it’s clear to me how invested I am in advancing the quality of research that is done on such an important practice. At least I know even more deeply now – just how much I care and just how invested I am in this.

As I once wrote in an email to my own dear Bay Area “Sangha“: Essentially, I recognize that the curiosity that draws me to the meditation cushion and the curiosity that draws me to research are one and the same. I am committed to investigating this reality with an open heart and mind (both on and off the cushion!) As Pascal shared during our retreat – the beauty of the dharma is that it is essentially very investigative in nature. “Come and see for yourself”, the Buddha said. Ehipaśyika. That is what I am trying to do from every possible perspective!

May the journey continue.

P.S. Comments are always welcome! Especially by others who *are* here and had different perspectives. Just click the “thought bubble” at the top right hand corner of this post 

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