Richard Davidson, Daniel Goleman and Jon Kabat-Zinn are old friends whose work has frequently intersected over the years. Each of them has been a central figure in the meeting of Western science and the teachings of Buddhism, and together they have introduced millions of people in mainstream society to the liberating potential of meditation practice. Collectively, their books have sold over six million copies in at least thirty languages, and they have written over 1,000 articles, many as research papers in peer-reviewed journals. Davidson, named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2006, has pioneered research using fMRIs on the brains of meditators, opening the world of academia to the power of meditation to change the brain. Goleman, longtime science writer for the New York Times and author of bestselling books on emotional and social intelligence, has changed the way society thinks about personal and interpersonal competence, bringing the perennial wisdom on awareness and compassion into the domains of education and the workplace. A trailblazer in the field of integrative medicine, Kabat-Zinn created Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction as a way to share the healing and liberating power of meditation with those suffering from both physical and mental illness, establishing programs which have revolutionized hospitals, schools, corporations, sports teams and prisons.
The three enthusiastically accepted our invitation to talk together about the remarkable intertwining of their lives, their work and their practice. On July 3, 2008, Inquiring Mind coeditors Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker and I participated with them in this conversation.
Inquiring Mind: Since it’s Inquiring Mind’s twenty-fifth anniversary year, we’d like to invite you down Memory Lane to twenty-five years ago, or even further back to when you first met. We’re curious about the time when each of you were playing crucial roles in the formative stages in the fields of mindfulness and medicine, emotional and social intelligence, and research on meditation and the brain.
Daniel Goleman: Richie and I met in the fall of 1972 in a psychophysiology class at Harvard. I had just come back from a year and a half in India on a traveling fellowship. That’s where I first learned vipassana, on a retreat with S. N. Goenka—and where all the trouble began! [Laughter]
IM: Did you have an idea, Dan, when you returned, that you wanted to share what you learned with our culture?
DG: Remember, I’d gone to India from Harvard. That’s a very interesting juxtaposition, because a lot of the “greats” in my field were at Harvard—B. F. Skinner and Erik Erikson, to name two. I’d seen them in the elevator and gotten a hit of their actual being. Then I went to India and met people like Neem Karoli Baba and Khunu Rinpoche, and I got a hit of their quality of being. It was like a quantum leap! I thought, There’s something going on here in Asian cultures around a contemplative practice that we don’t know about, and that has huge significance for our study of psychology and also for our perception of human possibility. I felt I had some kind of personal responsibility or mission to share that information.
I was very interested in seeing if we could assess scientifically what was so special about the yogis and swamis I had met. Was there something different about their brains? When I met Richie, he shared the same interest already, so the two of us became real close buddies and co-conspirators in this exploration, which was not an orthodox thing to do.
Around the same time, I was renting a room in the house of David McClelland, my main professor, where there was a weekly meditation. One night Jon Kabat-Zinn, who had been studying Zen, came by. I would say that for the ten years between 1973 and 1983, the three of us had to be very underground about this interest that we shared. That was certainly the case for me. At that time in general in the scientific community, this kind of work was regarded as pretty flaky, and possibly career-ending or detouring.
IM: Let’s consider this issue of “aboveground/underground” over the last three decades in terms of your professional work and your Dharma practice. When did you each come “out of the closet”?
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Actually, there was no closet in my case. I was just following my heart in terms of where I wanted my scientific training and my life to take me.
I came across Buddhist meditation in 1966 when Philip Kapleau came to MIT to speak. It felt to me that meditation was an incredibly important area for scientific and intellectual inquiry. It was also an important area for experiential inquiry, which tended to raise the hackles of the scientific community in those days because “first-person” experience was seen as so subjective compared to “third-person” experience.
In my case, even while I was a graduate student in molecular biology, I was meditating on what my job, with a capital J, might be on the planet. Years later, on a vipassana retreat in early 1979, I had a flash as to how meditation training could effectively be introduced into the mainstream of medicine—using vocabulary completely independent of culture or religious orientation—an approach that might be adequate to the widespread suffering we see in the world; and that this would be worthy and meaningful work to engage in.
Parenthetically, I first met Dan and Richie in 1973 when I was teaching at Brandeis and they were graduate students at Harvard. I was looking for a psychophysiology lab that would be interested in studying the claims of a swami I had met. Together, we arranged a protocol for testing this yogi in the lab. The results weren’t so impressive, but our lifelong friendship was cemented then.
In any event, I started the Stress Reduction Clinic in the fall of 1979. By 1983, when Inquiring Mind began, what later came to be called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction was in its fourth year, and the first paper on outcomes in people with chronic pain conditions had been published. Now mindfulness-based intervention has itself become a worldwide field in medicine, healthcare and beyond, and the people who are engaging in it form a remarkable sangha.
IM: Richie, you didn’t focus on meditation research when you began your academic career. Wasn’t it more of an underground interest? Were you waiting until you got established professionally?
Richard Davidson: Most definitely. My first meditation retreat was in 1974 at the urging of Danny, who told me I should go on a vipassana retreat with Goenka-ji in India. During part of that summer of 1974, Danny and I were living together in Sri Lanka and writing about meditation. That was after my second year of graduate school. Then I did do, with Danny, a little bit of research on meditation, and we had several publications, in the late 1970s and 1980s.
I met Jon for the first time around 1973. Around the same time, he introduced me to Larry Rosenberg, who was my first yoga instructor and taught me on the living room floor in my small Cambridge apartment. As Jon mentioned, he, Danny and I actually were involved in one of the first U.S. research projects on meditation and yoga with Swami Rama around 1975. This work was conducted in David Shapiro’s lab at Massachusetts Mental Health Center.
But it was very clear to me that this was not the path to pursue if I wanted to have an academic career. That was the case for, I think, two reasons. One, as Dan articulated earlier, is because of the social and political climate of the day, the lack of receptivity to this area, and the view that it was just flaky. And two, the methods that we had available in those days were pretty crude; because of that, experiences that I was having as a practitioner were really not being adequately captured by the research we were doing. The methods for measuring brain activity were brain electrical measures that were very coarse. Brain imaging had not yet been developed. And even more importantly, there was little conceptual foundation for this work; neuroplasticity was an unknown concept at that time.
So I then embarked upon a purely mainstream career in work on the emotional brain and helped to nourish the field that we now call affective neuroscience, which is the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion.
It was really not until 1992, when I first met the Dalai Lama one-on-one, that this work came above-ground for me. At that meeting I made a commitment to myself and to His Holiness that “now is the time to come out of the closet” with my interest in this area, to begin to talk publicly about it, and to begin to actively do research in it.
IM: Did His Holiness explicitly ask that of you?
RD: He explicitly asked that research in this area be started. He was especially interested in having research on compassion to be conducted. That, for me, was an absolutely pivotal meeting that transformed the course of my career. Since then, I really have come out of the closet and am now devoting more time by far to this area (which we’ve been calling contemplative neuroscience) than to any other area in which I’ve worked.
IM: Have the two been incompatible at times—the contemplative and the scientific?
RD: Not at all. I would say that they have been absolutely synergistic. I feel that both science and the Dharma are seeking to understand the truth. Both have an empirical side that is fundamental, and both, I think, underscore the value of rigorous honesty. So, for me, pursuing science and pursuing the Dharma have been absolutely two sides of the same coin.
IM: Turning to you, Dan: in your work on emotional intelligence and social intelligence you seem to be communicating the Dharma. Is that the intention?
DG: My life and career are informed by the Dharma, and writing Emotional Intelligence was, no doubt, one expression of the way Dharma has shaped my worldview. But I think something else is going on. That book is really about perennial issues in people’s emotional lives—self-awareness, managing one’s distressing emotions, recognizing and responding to feelings in other people. These are universal human experiences—they are not simply Buddhadharma.
Interestingly, after that book came out, not only did Buddhists think it was a very Buddhist book, but the Vatican asked me to write an article for a turn-of-the-millennium publication. And many Muslims have said, Oh, what a wonderful, spiritual book. So I think it speaks to something very universal about our understanding of what we have to face in life and the best way to do it. And it just happens to fit the Dharma beautifully.
But let me get back to the question as to whether this work has been aboveground or underground. What has been the role of Dharma in my public face over the course of my career? I left academia and went into journalism. I’d started to work for the New York Times by about 1983. People at the Times, from the very beginning, knew I was interested in this stuff. Occasionally, some Times person would sidle up to me and ask me a question in order to make a “connection” with meditation, as if it were a kind of new drug.
But meditation was always irrelevant, in some way, to my main job at the paper, which was covering science news. I think I wrote about my own personal meditation experience maybe two or three times in the Times, but I wrote eight or nine hundred articles there altogether.
IM: As in Richie’s case, the credibility, authority and respect that you gained through your professional work were crucial to your ability to transmit understandings ordinarily categorized as Buddhadharma into worlds that might ordinarily be closed to those teachings.
DG: I think that there are two kinds of credibility. One is perceived credibility. The fact that I’m a Ph.D. with a Harvard background and a New York Times science writer may give me a certain “heft” in perceived credibility. But there is also a kind of basic ethics in science writing; you need to, as Richie suggested, look for the truth, or the best approximation of it. So as a science writer, I always look for the best data when I write about anything, including these things.
IM: Several years ago Inquiring Mind interviewed Matthieu Ricard, and he told a similar story to the one Dan told earlier. Ricard had been inspired to become a monk himself and to pursue the Dharma after having met Buddhist monks who manifested a quality of being that was on a totally different order than that of the great intellectuals he had known through his family. That fourth messenger knocked on his door.
RD: I would say the same for myself. When I first sat down in that psychophysiology class Dan mentioned, I had never met him or seen a picture of him before. But I just turned to the person sitting next to me and I said, “You’re Dan Goleman!” I had known of Dan before I came to Harvard; he had published what I thought was the coolest paper on psychology I had ever read up until that time. In fact, he was one of my attractions to Harvard. Even though I knew Dan was a graduate student and not on the faculty, I knew he was there.
That evening, Dan drove me home. When I got into his VW Microbus, I saw all these amazing pictures of yogis plastered from floor to ceiling. I just knew that here was a quality of a path that touched me. It just blossomed from there.
IM: So Dan was a kind of fourth messenger for you! [Laughter]
DG: This makes me think of what happened when I first met Ram Dass. It was up at his father’s farm in New Hampshire, and I was brought there by serendipity. I had met an American woman who was coming back from Nepal and bringing a message for Ram Dass. She stopped at my apartment in Cambridge over winter break during my first year in graduate school and asked if I wanted to go up and see this guy. I’d never heard of him, but I said, “Sure!”
Ram Dass was sitting in a room plastered with posters of Indian gods—which seemed like the most exotic thing, as I’d never seen them before. He was in white, he had this long white hair and beard, and he didn’t say a thing. I had never actually been in the presence of someone who just didn’t say anything. It was a little shock. I think it was his quality of being that interested me.
JKZ: In contrast to Danny, I didn’t have the privilege of being knocked off my feet by a level of presence or embodiment that really struck me. It was more a combination of philosophical factors and of meeting people who had made the Dharma their life path.
In 1966 I went to a lecture at MIT that Philip Kapleau gave on the Three Pillars of Zen, in which he told the story of his own experience as a journalist at the Nuremberg war trials, then sitting for six months in a freezing-cold monastery in Japan and discovering that his ulcers and other health and emotional problems had somehow disappeared. I was incredibly moved that a human being could take such an unusual path—so interior-oriented—in contrast to what we were being taught at MIT. I immediately saw how it had repercussions in terms of bringing together the biology of the body with the biology and interiority of the mind, and how it could influence being in the world.
What I hear Danny and Richie saying is that, ultimately, it really does come down to being. It comes down to how you embody whatever it is that you have come to understand or see through the discipline and the art form of contemplative practice. As I see it, self-awareness and realization are a lifetime’s work. There are inevitable ups and downs, and it is very important not to idealize or romanticize that quality of being in others, no matter how august or powerful they may be.
All of this was somehow driven home to me when I was twenty-two years old. So I have not been following this path as a kind of romantic way to get anywhere else, but more as a sense of the possibilities of deeply understanding what it means to be human in my own life and in my relationships.
IM: It’s wonderful to listen to the three of you talk about what brought you to the path of Dharma. It seems as if in different ways—whether in the process of writing or research or setting up worldwide programs and centers—you are trying to reach the most people with the best medicine, without making it “Buddhist,” without rituals or devotion or iconography. But are you taking out some of what you may love about the Dharma and the wisdom traditions?
JKZ: After my presentation at the 2005 Mind and Life Conference on the science and clinical applications of meditation, I asked the Dalai Lama a number of questions along the lines of what you just asked. My first question to him was, “Your Holiness, do you think there is any fundamental difference between Buddha-dharma and universal Dharma?” And he said no. For me, that was an important question to ask, and it was very affirming to hear his response, especially in front of 3,000 people. While I do consider myself to be an ardent student of Buddhist meditation, and have great love and respect for the various streams within it, I do not see myself or think of myself as a Buddhist. I see myself more as a human being.
At the same time, I am very interested in the Buddhist understanding that truly is universal—that doesn’t have to do with Buddhism per se or, for that matter, any “ism.” That’s why Muslims, Christians, Jews, anybody can relate so strongly to Danny’s book. Because what he touches is indeed universal. It runs through our bones, our genes and our bloodstream.
DG: I’m really taken by His Holiness’s distinction between the secular aspects of practice and the spiritual aspects, and sometimes it is talked about in Vajrayana Buddhism as “relative” and “ultimate” levels. Particularly for me as a journalist, I’m writing for audiences that are not insiders. And from my point of view, what reaches most people is what benefits most people. So in my writing I tend to focus on whatever aspects of Dharma are, as Jonny suggested, part of the universal experience or have universal application.
IM: Richie, when you explain your scientific findings to other scientists or to the general public, do you leave out the Buddhism or some of what you love about Buddhadharma?
RD: Well, you know, I feel like my path is quite similar in many ways to the perspectives articulated by Jonny and Dan.
These days, I give a lot of talks to both scientific as well as lay audiences. When I talk to scientific audiences, I am able to use the scientific data to present the case for human possibility and for the prospects of human transformation that are understandable to mainstream science. And I think that because of this scientific evidence, there has really been a dramatic change in the permeability of mainstream biomedicine to these ideas. That means permeability to the Dharma, although we don’t call it the Dharma in those contexts. I have these very “high-level” scientists asking me where they can learn to meditate after I give these talks. So it’s really been a very dramatic shift.
Then I get to talk to lay audiences that ordinarily wouldn’t show up for a meditation or Dharma teacher. But they’re interested in the brain and in neuroplasticity, and that’s what draws them. So I present the work in a framework that is really understandable in terms of “mental skills” that can be trained, and the science really provides the conceptual understanding for this. We can reach a larger swath of humanity in this way. I think that this is one of the reasons why His Holiness is so interested in science.
IM: It sounds like in some way science becomes the fourth messenger. It brings people to some of the same wisdom that the Buddha taught. And now you are all working together along with the Dalai Lama in the Mind and Life Institute, where Dharma and science coincide.
DG: I’m delighted to find the three of us united once again on the same mission. In a sense, we haven’t skipped a beat. We’ve all gone off and done things which, when put together, have a really intriguing synergism. Jonny has cultivated and spread adaptations of contemplative methods with immense clinical benefit; Richie has deepened the scientific understanding and affirmation of these; and I’ve been able to write about all of this for the general public, helping spread the word.
JKZ: I just want to add that I was struck, as I was listening to Danny and Richie, that ultimately scientists are not just scientists. We’re also human beings, and like everybody else we have emotions, we have difficulties in our families, we have rude awakenings that we never would have dreamed could happen. And so it’s not surprising that if we can find the right vocabulary and the right framework in which to articulate these Dharma understandings and their relationship to biology and neuroscience, then we are going to reach many people at a heart level.
RD: For me it feels so natural and is such a joy to be working closely with Jon and Danny, to be working with those I so deeply love. In some important sense, the three of us are back to where we started, though the conditions are different now and the possibilities seem more hopeful. It is an amazing journey that I feel deep gratitude to be a part of, especially because so much of it is with these two wonderful friends.