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Neuropsychology meets Dzogchen: A review of the current science of meditation from a Buddhist perspective [review of the book Mind, Brain and the Path to Happiness: A Guide to Buddhist Mind Training and the Neuroscience of Meditation, by D. Dorjee]

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  • Mind & Life Institute

Abstract

Reviews the book, Mind, Brain and the Path to Happiness: A Guide to Buddhist Mind Training and the Neuroscience of Meditation by Dusana Dorjee (see record 2013-36842-000). This ambitious book is, in its own words, “a contemporary account of traditional Buddhist mind training and the pursuit of well-being and happiness in the context of the latest research in psychology and the neuroscience of meditation” (book jacket). Targeted at health professionals, educators, and researchers, this book expertly guides the reader through these two distinct spheres of knowledge, namely modern scientific research on meditation (but also, more generally, research on happiness, attention, emotions, and consciousness) and Buddhist theory and practice. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved)
Neuropsychology meets Dzogchen: A review of the current science of meditation from a
Buddhist perspective
A Review of
Mind, Brain and the Path to Happiness: A Guide to Buddhist Mind Training and the Neuroscience
of Meditation
by Dusana Dorjee
New York, NY: Routledge, 2014. 154 pp. ISBN 978-0-415-62614-9 (paperback). $35.95,
paperback
Reviewed by Gaëlle Desbordes and Willa B. Miller
Citation:
Desbordes, G. and Miller, W. B. (2014). Neuropsychology meets Dzogchen: A review of the
current science of meditation from a Buddhist perspective [review of the book Mind, Brain and the
Path to Happiness: A Guide to Buddhist Mind Training and the Neuroscience of Meditation, by D.
Dorjee]. PsycCRITIQUES, 59(42). doi:10.1037/a0038042
Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in meditation. Meditation-based forms of therapy
are making their way into clinical and private practices, with documented benefits (Keng, Smoski,
& Robins, 2011). Reflecting this growing interest, new books abound on different types of
meditation practices and their potential benefits for various kinds of ailments, such as physical
pain, addictions, or relationship difficulties. Many of these popular books include a neuroscientific
spin, for good measure, but few display rigorous presentations of the scientific dataor of the
meditation practices themselves.
Dusana Dorjee’s book Mind, Brain and the Path to Happiness has much more to offer. This
ambitious book is, in its own words, “a contemporary account of traditional Buddhist mind
training and the pursuit of well-being and happiness in the context of the latest research in
psychology and the neuroscience of meditation” (book jacket). Targeted at health professionals,
educators, and researchers, this book expertly guides the reader through these two distinct spheres
of knowledge, namely modern scientific research on meditation (but also, more generally, research
on happiness, attention, emotions, and consciousness) and Buddhist theory and practice.
Dorjee proposes to look "beyond the current secular applications of meditation-based practices
where they mostly serve as ways to reduce stress and to cope with or prevent illness," arguing that
the Buddhist practices from which these secular applications were inspired have much broader
potential “for unlocking our ability to cultivate sustainable happiness, for our personal growth, and
[for our] development across the life span” (p. ix). In recent years, others have also proposed that
deeper exchanges between Buddhism and modern psychology could enhance psychologists’ use
of meditation for therapeutic purposes (e.g., Dale Miller, 2014; Kang & Whittingham, 2010).
Dorjee is certainly well suited for her task. She is a trained clinical psychologist and cognitive
neuroscientist currently conducting research on meditation. She is also a long-term practitioner
and teacher of Dzogchen, a form of Buddhism traditionally practiced in Tibet and other Himalayan
areasand increasingly in the Western world as well.
The book is articulated around the proposal of a “pyramid of mind training” toward happiness and
well-being. This pyramid comprises four levels: intention, attention, emotional balance, and
exploration of deeper levels of consciousness. Each level is devoted its own chapter in which
relevant findings from neuroscience and psychology are introduced, followed by some Buddhist
perspectives.
Dorjee is evidently at ease with the material from both modern psychology and Buddhist
psychology and invites the reader into her dual worldview, offering many wonderfully insightful
reflections. For example, she highlights the connection between refined levels of attention and
increased well-being, a connection “largely unknown to Western psychology and neuroscience”
(p. 50). She also emphasizes an important point for Western practitioners, “that the goal-oriented
approach based on sheer discipline does not work for meditation training, including training in
attention, and we need to start with relaxation” (p. 57). When discussing the meditative cultivation
of compassiona type of practice that some fear may worsen one’s own suffering and lead to
compassion burnoutshe explains that, “somewhat paradoxically, the willingness to connect with
suffering and see its causes with clarity leads to a deeper experience of well-being and happiness”
(p. 87), as recognized in the recent psychological literature on compassion (Gilbert, 2009).
However, one major caveat with this book lies in its strong bias toward one particular branch of
Buddhism, namely the Dzogchen tradition. Indeed, in Dorjee’s own words, this book “aims to
provide from a practitioner’s perspective an outline of the whole path of the mind’s development
through the Buddhist mind training in Dzogchen” (p. 3). To support this bias, Dorjee argues that
"the focus on a particular school of Buddhism . . . allows for more substantial discussions about the
progression of mind training and gradual changes in the mind and brain" (p. 3). Perhaps so, and
Dorjee’s outline of progression, borrowed from authentic Dzogchen sources, may speak to
Dzogchen practitioners. However, it may not be directly applicable to other meditation
practitioners.
Indeed, Buddhist scholars have argued that meditative modelssuch as stages of meditation
trainingand even meditative experiences themselves are culturally mediated (Gyatso, 1999).
These models were developed through centuries of meditative practicebut they also reflect
centuries of sectarian competition, inter-textual communications, hermeneutical conversations,
and other factors. In short, any particular meditative model does not necessarily reflect a
stand-alone experiential window into the mind, divorced from its roots of formation in a particular
time and place. Dorjee does not address the sociohistorical roots of the Dzogchen tradition. She
seems to take for granted that the Dzogchen theoretical framework is universally applicable. For
instance, in the chapter on consciousness, the reader is introduced to the Dzogchen distinction of
three layers of consciousness further subdivided into eight types (pp. 94-100). Although some of
these types of consciousness are also recognized by other schools, others are controversial even
within the Buddhist tradition. Yet Dorjee presents this framework as an incontrovertible discovery
made by previous meditation masters, “based on the investigation of the mind using introspection
grounded in enhanced skills of mindfulness and metacognition” (p. 94)giving it a flair of
objectivity that perhaps deserves deeper examination.
To be fair, not all sections of the book are tainted by this Dzogchen bias. The two central levels of
Dorjee’s pyramid of mind-training, “attention” and “emotional balance,” are relevant to
meditation practices in general. The two corresponding chapters provide a broad, sophisticated
exposition of the scientific and Buddhist (not just Dzogchen) perspectives. Dorjee expertly tours
the reader through a brief history of modern psychology, from Maslow, Frankl, and Scherer to the
latest research on meditation and its relationship to attention and emotions. These two chapters
alone make this book well worth the time and effort to read it.
However, the pyramid’s first and last levels, namely “intention” and “deeper levels of
consciousness, are more problematic. It is no coincidence that these aspects of Buddhist practice
have been left aside in secular meditation programs given how controversial they are, even across
different branches of Buddhismas Dorjee duly notes. Yet, for all her well-articulated calls for a
better contextualization of meditation practices in the scientific research on meditation, Dorjee’s
own conceptualization of Dzogchen often slips. For instance, Dorjee argues that “Dzogchen is
particularly amenable to bridging Buddhist teachings with Western psychology, cognitive science
and neuroscience . . . because of its explicit focus on mind training and exploration of the mind” (p.
30)implying that this focus is somewhat specific or unique to Dzogchen (as opposed to other
Buddhist schools), which is not necessarily the case. Dorjee also writes that “within the system of
Tibetan Buddhism, Dzogchen is classified as the highest of the teachings” (pp. 2930). What she
fails to mention is that Dzogchen is also traditionally described as the least accessible of the
teachings, applicable to only a small subset of aspiring practitioners. In any case, both claims (that
Dzogchen is the “highest” and “least accessible”) have existed for various sociocultural reasons
beyond the scope of this review and perhaps should not be taken at face valueespecially since
different Buddhist schools (such as Madhyamaka-Prasangika and Mahamudra) have made similar
claims.
These contextualization issues are not mere scholastic disputes. Proper contextualization is
essential for the successful implementation of meditation training in clinical and educational
settingsa purported goal of this book. In these settings, meditation practices need to be
recontextualized, and largely secularized, to be made accessible to the general public, which holds
a variety of religious and philosophical views. When Dorjee asserts that “the Dzogchen tradition is
particularly well positioned for…placing secular mindfulness-based practices on the continuum of
traditional approaches to meditation” (p. 121), we find her arguments unconvincing. It is not that
the lack of universal applicability of the Dzogchen map of progression somehow indicates a
weakness of this particular framework compared to others. Rather, the problem stems from a
confusion (inherent to the traditional Buddhist sources) between “descriptive” and “prescriptive”
maps of mental states.
In other words, traditional accounts of the different stages on the path are meant as a prescriptive
roadmap for the practitioner following a particular school, but not necessarily as a universal
description of the path to happiness (or to enlightenment) that would apply for practitioners
outside this school. Tellingly, the present Dalai Lama has urged for the delineation of different
aspects of Buddhismscientific, philosophical, and religious or spiritualarguing that only its
scientific, and perhaps philosophical, aspects should be considered universal, whereas the
religious and spiritual aspects should be only for Buddhists (Dalai Lama, 2010). The difficulty, of
course, lies in disentangling these different aspects, as they have been traditionally intertwined.
Despite her intention to bring the Dzogchen perspective into conversation with neuroscience,
Dorjee seems ambivalent about the merit of secularizing its meditation practices. She laments the
fact that “secular approaches to mindfulness, as useful as they are in bringing the benefits of
certain meditation practices to broad audiences, do not contain teachings and practices covering
the whole Buddhist path to liberation” (p. 39). But this omission may have more advantages than
hindrances. After all, secular meditation practices have been shown to benefit non-Buddhist
participants who are willing to learn how to meditate but perhaps not to become Buddhists. Dorjee
seems to imply that the inclusion of a context of “the Buddhist path of liberation” will necessarily
bring participants into a deeper place of benefit and fulfillment. We are not convinced that this is
true for everyone, given that the Buddhist path requires accepting certain models of mind and
transcendence that may challenge the beliefs of religious or agnostic others.
This book even boldly discusses a concept purposefully left aside in secular applications of
meditation: that of the ultimate goal of Buddhist practices, namely enlightenment. Dorjee proposes
to think of enlightenment as “an exceptional state of well-being arising from a complete balance of
virtuous motivation, attention, wholesome emotions and experiential understanding of the nature
of mind” (p. 106). This definition is unfortunately too vague to be useful to scientists and
clinicians: What does it mean to balance these four factors? Dorjee then briefly summarizes the
traditional presentation of enlightenment according to Dzogchenagain, without contextualizing
it with respect to other Buddhist schools or even relating it to her proposed four “balanced” factors
of enlightenment.
Dorjee’s eagerness to bring “intention” and “deeper levels of consciousness” into the mainstream
applications of meditation openly departs from previous exchanges between Buddhism and
modern neuropsychological science, which have tended to focus on less controversial topics
(Jinpa, 2010). In our view, Dorjee’s call for broadening and deepening these exchanges is, by
itself, laudableeven though we take issue with her Dzogchen-centric proposal. Other authors
have shown a more balanced approach (e.g., Dale Miller, 2014; Kang & Whittingham, 2010).
In conclusion, Mind, Brain and the Path to Happiness exemplifies the current tension between
secularization and tradition when Buddhist-inspired meditation practices are imported into modern
societies. Although the secularization movement has perhaps been overly careful in staying away
from Buddhist concepts, in our opinion this book swings the pendulum too far in the other
direction. The willingness to bring a specific meditative perspective into conversation with
neuroscience is fascinating and broaches a model for future studies, but to stray from statements of
contextualization makes Dorjee’s points less convincing.
However, in spite of this shortcoming, we applaud Dorjee for a well-articulated and courageous
contribution. As the field of meditation research continues to mature and grow, books like this one
are important stepping stones. They also highlight the importance for scientists in this field to
educate themselves in the contemplative traditions underlying the practices that they seek to
investigate, and for expert meditators and contemplative scholars to acquire solid training in the
scientific approach in order to provide meaningful contributions to this endeavor (Desbordes &
Negi, 2013). Dorjee sets an inspiring example. We hope that this new generation of scientific and
contemplative investigators will work together toward future collaborative scientific studies of the
mind.
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Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
The Dalai Lama's reflections on the realistic approach to Buddhism: Talks to former Dharamsala residents from the West Part two: The meeting point of the East and the Retrieved from http
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Dalai Lama (2010, November 2-3). The Dalai Lama's reflections on the realistic approach to Buddhism: Talks to former Dharamsala residents from the West. Part two: The meeting point of the East and the West. (S. Jones & M. Richards, Trans., L. Roberts & A. Berzin, Eds.). Retrieved from http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/approaching_buddhism/world_today/refle ctions_realistic_approach/transcript2.html
The Dalai Lama's reflections on the realistic approach to Buddhism: Talks to former Dharamsala residents from the West. Part two: The meeting point of the East and the
  • Dalai Lama
Dalai Lama (2010, November 2-3). The Dalai Lama's reflections on the realistic approach to Buddhism: Talks to former Dharamsala residents from the West. Part two: The meeting point of the East and the West. (S. Jones & M. Richards, Trans., L. Roberts & A. Berzin, Eds.). Retrieved from http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/approaching_buddhism/world_today/refle ctions_realistic_approach/transcript2.html
A new era for mind studies: training investigators in both scientific and contemplative methods of inquiry
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  • L T Negi
Desbordes, G., & Negi, L. T. (2013). A new era for mind studies: training investigators in both scientific and contemplative methods of inquiry. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 741. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00741