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This book was different from what I was expecting, but still extremely valuable. Based on the subtitle, 'A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Powers of Meditation', and the cover shot featuring the Dalai Lama speaking, I was expecting the book to be a collection of talks given by the Dalai Lama on this subject, with the 'dialogue' being questions posed to him. In fact, it is almost the reverse - in 2005 a collection of scientists, psychologists, and clinical practitioners each presented their latest research on topics related to mindfulness, meditation, neuroscience, and how these intersect with mental and physical health, to the Dalai Lama at a conference sponsored by the Mind-Life Institute, and this book is an edited transcription of this conference. Although the Dalai Lama is asked questions and does participate in parts, most of the speaking is not done by him.
However, the information presented is fascinating, and done in bite-size chunks that lay readers can mostly understand ('lay' referring both to non-Buddhists and non-scientists.) I say 'mostly' because although I am very familiar with Buddhism, I am most definitely not a neuro-scientist (although I have read a lot of meditation related research), and the more technical brain discussions did get a bit over my head. However, in most cases the question and answer sessions brought things back down to a practical level that I could understand.
The conference sessions, and the book, are divided into 5 themed sections: Meditation-Based Clinical Interventions, Biological Substrates of Meditation, Meditation and Mental Health, Meditation and Physical Health, and Integration and Final Reflections. Each features 1-3 speakers presenting their research, followed by a panel discussion with questions and answers (in some cases including questions from the audience.) The panels are themselves a who's who of Western Buddhism, featuring names that will be familiar to many - Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, Alan Wallace, Jon Kabat-Zinn and more. For the first time a Christian representative, Father Thomas Keating, was included as well.
That being said, most of the discussion is secular in nature. The principal discussion is how MBSR (mindfulness-based-stress-reduction) and MBCT (mindfulness-based-cognitive-therapy), both based on Buddhist practices but developed in a secular context outside of them, impact the brain, and how they can be utilized to heal and to maximize human potential. The greater emphasis is placed on the former - on clinical applications to both mental and physical health ailments. Research presented addresses the proven and potential impact of MBSR and MBCT for managing the impact of stress, clinical depression, and chronic pain, as well as for changing negative thought and emotional patterns and developing positive ones.
In that sense, this really isn't a 'science of spirituality' kind of book, as it doesn't spend a lot of time looking at spiritual and mystic experience or beliefs per se (for that consider Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience). And although it is possible to extrapolate from the research presented here to develop practices for yourself, this also isn't a personal spirituality book (for a presentation of some of this info for that purpose, try another book by the Mind Life Institute Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves).
But if you are looking for a current (2005 being current in the science research world) and accessible overview of the science behind meditation and mindfulness, and how these may impact humanity on many levels, this is a great offering.