The Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC) at the University of Virginia (UVA) hosted its first Generative Contemplation Symposium in Charlottesville, Virginia from April 20-21, 2023.
This gathering convened religious studies scholars, philosophers, cognitive neuroscientists, artists, and Buddhist practitioners to present their research, reflections, and theories on contemplative practices, and discuss the effects of contemplation on human experience and possibilities for novel engagement with contemplation.
The symposium was held in the Special Collections Library Auditorium and featured four thematic sessions, two sessions each day over two days, with a diverse set of scholars, scientists, and practitioners. Sessions were open to the public and designed to invite questions and discussions between the invited speakers and members of the audience that included UVA faculty and students, specialists from other universities, and members of the broader Charlottesville community, many of which identified as contemplative practitioners.
As Michael Sheehy discussed in his opening remarks on the first day, the principles that guided the program design were to focus on contemplative practices, ensure that it included multiple disciplinary perspectives, and not make it a “dog and pony show.” This resulted in a format in which participants gave short presentations on material relevant to their sessions theme, which served as a platform for roundtable discussions between the participants. Philosophers were talking to neuroscientists who were talking to Buddhist practitioners, all to unravel the dimensions of a variety of contemplative practices and emergent experiences. The symposium also catalyzed the Generative Contemplation Initiative, a suite of projects that explore research and applications of contemplation. To set the stage, as part of his opening remarks, David Germano outlined the methods and framework of generative contemplation as conceived by the initiative.
Session I of the symposium centered on cognitive effort and control in contemplative practices. Philosopher Zac Irving from UVA reflected on the Buddhist thinker Sthiramati’s question, “Why is concentration so hard?” and offered a new model to help understand the role of effort in meditation. Buddhist Studies scholar-practitioner Karin Meyers from the Mangalam Research Center discussed traditional Buddhist perspectives on the role of the five hindrances to meditative concentration to help answer this question. Sonam Kachru from Yale University provided an alternative Buddhist interpretation of cognitive effort in which the workability of mind necessary for meditative concentration is available when the cognitive, motivational, and affective kleshas (afflictions) are removed. Finally, Chandra Sripada from the University of Michigan offered a computational cognitive science approach to these topics, which focused on the problem of agency, decision making, and executive control as the ‘rejiggering’ of agency’s basic constituents. These discussants were joined in conversation throughout the session by renowned Buddhist Studies scholar Georges Dreyfus.
The afternoon Session II discussion shifted to reflections on contemplative practices of nondual awareness. Cat Prueitt of the University of British Columbia offered a historical approach to contemplation from famed tantric writer and aesthetician Abhinavagupta that found the subject-object divide dissolving in aesthetic experience. Philosopher Bryce Huebner from Georgetown University added to this with both aesthetic and environmental perspectives on nondual experiences, which located humans in larger ecological webs and intense sonic atmospheres that allowed for a decentering of subjective experience. Willa Blythe Baker, founder of Natural Dharma Fellowship, reflected on the writings by the Tibetan Buddhist scholars Longchenpa and Jigmé Lingpa on nondual experience, in which she found that set intentions and environmental settings were influential factors. John Dunne from the University of Wisconsin-Madison brought the Indian Buddhist thinker Dharmakirti into conversation to look back at our own experience and present a model of nondual reflexive awareness. Finally, neuroscientist Antoine Lutz of the University of Lyon in France shared results from studies around pain which indicated that perception is an active process where sensory data is mediated by prior beliefs and affective dimensions, and that nondual experiences may be understood as a deconstruction of these processes.
Session III on the second day began with a look at dreams and illusions as contemplative practices. Ken Paller from Northwestern University discussed neuroscientific studies on dreaming, scientific training methods for lucid dreaming, and the possibility of two-way communication while dreaming. Contemplative teacher Andrew Holecek from Edge of Mind led participants in contemplative practices that investigated their perceptual experience, playing with the illusory nature of perception in and out of waking dreams. Jake Dalton from the University of California-Berkeley moved the discussion to dream yoga and illusory body practices within Tibetan Buddhism to locate how these practices were performed historically in Tibet. Michael Sheehy at UVA further detailed historical dream yoga within a set of Tibetan Buddhist contemplative practices that involves recognizing, conjuring, and transforming dreams. Finally, Melanie Boly from the University of Wisconsin-Madison presented how neural signatures of pure presence are activated during lucid dream practices, and the significance of this for understanding “contentless” awareness.
The final Session IV of the symposium turned to self-emergent visionary practices. David Germano at UVA opened this discussion by highlighting the transitions in the Tibetan Buddhist practices of the Great Perfection between self-emergent experiences and effortful practices that lead to them. Also from UVA, Per Sederberg shifted the discussion to neurological constraints to such self-emergent experiences and the role that memory plays in this process. Anne Klein of Rice University returned to Tibetan Buddhist understandings of effortlessness as being unbound, un-thinged, and un-tinkered with, sharing translations evocative of this approach. James Gentry from Stanford University continued the thinking with Tibetan ideas of effortlessness, though in terms of material culture and how worn objects are theorized and presented in Buddhist discourse to contribute to breakthrough epiphanies. Finally, artist-technologist Dave Glowacki from the CiTIUS Intelligent Technologies Research Centre in Spain offered new ways that virtual reality technology can create visual spaces and interactions to allow for the emergence of contemplative experiences.
The symposium’s program featured several special events for participants and guests, including a public screening of the new documentary film Tukdam: Between Worlds at the Violet Crown cinema on the downtown mall in Charlottesville where the filmmaker, Donagh Coleman, hosted a Q&A session about the film. David Germano, Executive Director of the CSC, led a tour of the Contemplative Commons building that is under construction at UVA. On Saturday, invited participants engaged in a private day-long series of conversations to explore key points of interest developed throughout the symposium, and collectively imagine possible future collaborations. Participants talked in breakout groups about topics that included contemplation and transformative technologies, embodied experience, contemplative innovations, nondual awareness, and contemplative epistemologies.
Throughout all the sessions and events, participants continually turned towards each other, engaged in novel conversations, and bridged disparate gaps between Buddhist Studies, philosophy, contemplative practice, cognitive science, art, and technology. These conversations were the invaluable core of the symposium. Those in attendance were able to take-up the ideas presented by individual contributors and process them through these multiple lenses and technical languages to chart new approaches to ways that we understand contemplative practices and the human experiences these practices induce. Participants and audience members alike left the symposium with fresh insights, connections, questions, and excitement to continue these conversations and collaborations.
Post by Adam Liddle, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia and Research Assistant at the Journal of Contemplative Studies.