HH the Dalai Lama’s challenge to a western scientist

When love meets pain it becomes compassion

When love meets happiness it becomes joy

Joy is an expression of awakened liberated heart

– Jack Kornfield

In 1992 at a conference at his residence in Dharamshala, India, HH the Dalai Lama proposed a challenge to Richard Davidson, a Neuroscientist at UW–Madison whose work focuses on methods to promote human flourishing and well-being. The challenge was: “You use the tools of modern science to study anxiety, depression and fear. Why not use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?” Dr Davidson, a closet long-term meditator, confessed that was the day he came out.

1992 was also the year that I managed the long anticipated escape from my homeland, India, when I got a permanent visa to live in Hong Kong. With no help from relatives, as I didn’t know anyone who lived outside India, this was no small accomplishment for someone who lived a very sheltered life, barely out of college, who had spoken English for the first time just over a year ago.

Even though I grew up in the culture where the great traditions of yoga and meditation originated and thrived, I was a sceptic. Perhaps mainly to do with the fact that everything in India is immersed in rituals. My natural questioning of the norms, combined with a Christian upbringing heightened my aversion to look behind the meaning of the rituals.

Now having rediscovered this ancient wisdom after leaving India and living in the West, I am thrilled that science is backing it up. Dr Richardson suggests that well-being is a skill and the science is now behind this fact and a kinder, wiser, more compassionate world is possible. According to Dr Davidson, there are 4 major developments in modern science that helped change our attitude toward meditation, as opposed to 20 years ago. Today I am focusing on number one: Neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change in response to experience and training. Most of the time the brain is changing unwittingly. Dr Davidson invites us to take responsibility to intentionally cultivate ways to promote well-being and healthy habits of mind. We can take advantage of neuroplasticity and intentionally shape our brains for the good.

Some of the obvious qualities you see in spiritual masters is that they are joyful and compassionate. How do they get there? Apparently by intentionally training the mind.

This year seems to be the year for me to think about this subject. The year started off with a New Year’s eve retreat “Awakening compassion” and I am also signed up to attend a mindful self-compassion training.

My intention is to start a year long practice of metta, or lovingkindness, towards 12 difficult persons (someone whom I consider “annoying”), one each month. I will bring this person to mind daily and send well-wishes towards them:

May you be safe and protected, free from internal demons and external threats.

May you experience moments of peace and happiness.

May you live your life with ease.

May you be healthy and strong – and if that is not possible, may you accept your limitations with grace.

As we progress through the year, I will keep you posted as to how I am getting on and might even encourage you to join me in this challenge.

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