For a Week, D.C. Focuses on Meditation

By Caryle Murphy, Washington Post, November 6, 2005

Washington DC, USA -- Susan Green is a lawyer who specializes in resolving disputes through mediation rather than in court. The District resident also meditates four evenings a week, and she is convinced that the spiritual practice has improved her conflict resolution skills.

<< At a group meditation last week at River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, participants were informed about Meditate DC, a week-long series of events on meditation. (Photos By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

On Saturday, Green's message will reach a wider audience. At a workshop that she organized, a panel of legal experts will discuss how meditation can help lawyers and mediators by boosting their "mindfulness" -- the inner capacity of being fully aware of the present moment.

At a group meditation last week at River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, participants were informed about Meditate DC, a week-long series of events on meditation. (Photos By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post) 
Mindfulness meditation "can really make us more effective lawyers," Green said. "When you're able to . . . gain some distance from your own emotions about what is going on in the room around you . . . then you can deal more skillfully with opposing parties and with clients in a mediation room."

The lawyers' workshop is part of Meditate DC, a week-long, high-profile exploration of Eastern meditation's benefits that is being staged in Washington to coincide with a 10-day visit to the city by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist leader from Chinese-occupied Tibet.

The scope of Meditate DC and the related events on the Dalai Lama's schedule illustrate how widely accepted meditation has become in the United States. At a three-day conference this week at DAR Constitution Hall, doctors, scientists and monks will join him in discussing meditation's role in the prevention and treatment of disease. Free meditation training sessions will be offered at workplaces ranging from the World Bank to the Humane Society.

Sponsors of individual events include such institutions as Washington National Cathedral, Georgetown University Hospital and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The one-week celebration, which begins today, also has the blessing of the D.C. Council, which passed a resolution urging "all District residents to learn the practice of meditation."

The attention and praise from the political and medical establishments are in sharp contrast to meditation's image in this country in the 1960s, when its chief advocates were leaders of the hippie and psychedelic drug movements, or as recently as the 1980s, when it was associated mostly with converts to Eastern religions. The ancient Buddhist spiritual practice is now a habit among millions of Americans of almost every faith who say it has helped them achieve physical relaxation, emotional balance and spiritual growth.

Still, claims of a proven scientific link between meditation and mental health have drawn skepticism from many scientists. Some are dubious of the research findings that will be touted at the conference, being held Tuesday through Thursday. And a speech that the Dalai Lama is scheduled to deliver Saturday at the Society for Neuroscience's annual convention, on the topic of how meditation affects brain activity, has generated controversy.

Although his appearance at the convention is part of a new program featuring speakers from fields outside neuroscience, some members of the society have criticized the decision to invite a religious figure.

"I think science and religion should be kept separate," said Rory McQuiston, an assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Virginia Commonwealth University, adding that he was worried that giving the Dalai Lama such a platform would create "a slippery slope."

Some of the criticism is politically motivated, the Dalai Lama's supporters contend. "The strongest comments are from the Chinese scientists," said Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, which is co-hosting the Dalai Lama's visit. "This is not at all surprising. . . . Chinese protests against high-profile visits of the Dalai Lama are routine wherever he travels."

On Nov. 13, he will give a public talk at MCI Center on "global peace through compassion."

Winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama has long been interested in science and in demonstrating through research that meditation can cause the brain to generate feelings of compassion. In 1987, he and R. Adam Engle, a Colorado-based lawyer and entrepreneur, co-founded the Mind and Life Institute, which has regularly sponsored discussions between scientists and meditators aimed at finding "a way for Buddhism and science to be in dialogue, share findings and collaborate," Engle said.

Buddhism is uniquely well suited to this dialogue, Engle added, because "while it is a path of liberation, [it] is not based on a theology or belief. It does not postulate a supreme being."

At the conference at Constitution Hall, which is co-sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute, Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins, scientists will explain the results of clinical trials and research studies suggesting that meditation not only relieves stress but may also produce long-term changes in the workings of the brain. The meditation experts at the conference, based on what their tradition teaches about the mind-brain-body connection, will help identify new lines of research.

About 2,000 people have bought tickets to the event, which is open to the public and, Engle said, will be conducted "at a level that non-scientists can understand."

Georgetown President John J. DeGioia will introduce the Dalai Lama at the conference's opening. The university is co-hosting the event "because it goes to the heart of what Georgetown is about, which is to explore the intersection of science and religion," said Aviad Haramati, professor of physiology at Georgetown Medical School.

Applying scientific methods to the study of religious practices, he added, "isn't something people need to fear. Quite the contrary."

Panelists will include neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, who reported on his study of meditating Tibetan monks a year ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Davidson, who conducted his experiment in collaboration with the Dalai Lama, found that during meditation, the monks' brains produced unusually high rates of gamma waves in the left prefrontal cortex, an area just behind the forehead that is associated with happiness and positive thoughts and emotions. Even before they started meditating, the monks had considerably more gamma-wave activity than a control group, he said.

He said the findings showed that the monks' mental practice "is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance."

The experiment drew intense interest from scientists, although many remain skeptical.

"From a scientific viewpoint, all that the Davidson article suggests is that individuals trained in meditation have altered brain wave patterns during meditation when compared to normal individuals. However, that is not striking, since any act of training alters activity in the brain," Sridhar Raghavachari, assistant professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical School, wrote in an e-mail. He compared it to the change in brain activity that occurs when someone learns to ride a bicycle or play the piano.

The workshops and talks to be held as part of Meditate DC were organized by local meditation activists, such as the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, after they became aware of the Dalai Lama's planned trip to Washington.

One of the events is a presentation Friday night at Washington National Cathedral titled "Meditation on the Move From Monastery to Lab to Main Street." Among the speakers will be the Rev. Thomas Keating, a Catholic priest who is a prominent teacher of "centering prayer," a type of contemplation in which a person quietly repeats a word such as "amen" or "Jesus" as a method of becoming more receptive to God's presence.

Tomorrow afternoon, Bethesda psychotherapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach will give a free public presentation at the Library of Congress.

A full schedule of events is available at .

Washington is a particularly stressful city in need of meditation, said District resident Hugh Byrne, an immigration consultant and meditation trainer involved in the week's activities.

"You have the federal government here. You have the September 2001 attacks," Byrne said. "There is a lot of pressure to achieve, to produce, to succeed. . . . Having a way of coming back to ourselves, coming back to the present . . . can be a beneficial approach."