We are witnessing an unparalleled episode in the history of science: a serious, ongoing two-way conversation between scientists and contemplatives. From the scientific perspective, some of this encounter has been sobering. My own branch of science, psychology, had always assumed that its roots were to be found in Europe and America around the start of the twentieth century. That view turns out to be both culture-bound and historically shortsighted: Theories of the mind and its workings - that is, psychological systems - have been developed within most of the great world religions, all from Asia.
Back in 1970, travelling in India as a graduate student, I found myself studying Abhidharma, one of the more elegant examples of such an ancient psychology from Buddhism. I was stunned to discover that the basic questions of a science of mind had been explored for millennia, not just a mere century. Clinical psychology, my own field at the time, sought to help alleviate the varieties of emotional pain. But, to my surprise, I found that this millennia-old system articulated a set of methods not just for healing mental suffering, but also for expanding such positive human capacities as compassion and empathy. Yet I had never heard of this psychology anywhere in my own studies.
Today the vigorous dialogue between practitioners of this ancient inner science and modern scientists has blossomed into active collaboration. This working partnership has been catalyzed by the Dalai Lama and the Mind and Life Institute, which for several years has brought together Buddhists and scholars in discussions with modern scientists. What began as exploratory conversations has evolved into a joint research effort. As a result, experts in Buddhist mind science have been working with neuroscientists to design research that will document the neural impact of these varieties of mental training.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche has been one of the expert practitioners most actively involved in this alliance, working with Richard Davidson, the director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin. This research has yielded stunning results, which if replicated will alter forever certain basic scientific assumptions - for example, that systematic training in meditation, when sustained steadily over years, can enhance the human capacity for positive changes in brain activity to an extent undreamed of in modern cognitive neuroscience.
Perhaps the most staggering result to date came in a study of a handful of meditation adepts that included Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (as he describes in this book). During a meditation on compassion, neural activity in a key center in the brain’s system for happiness jumped by 700 to 800 percent! For ordinary subjects in the study, volunteers who had just begun to meditate, that same area increased its activity by a mere 10 to 15 percent. These meditation experts had put in levels of practice typical of Olympic athletes - between ten thousand and fifty-five thousand hours over the course of a lifetime - honing their meditative skills during years of retreat.
Yongey Mingyur is something of a prodigy here. As a young boy, he received profound meditation instructions from his father, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, one of the most renowned masters to have come out of Tibet, just before the Communist invasion. When he was only thirteen, Yongey Mingyur was inspired to begin a three-year-long meditation retreat. And when he had finished, he was made meditation master of the very next three-year retreat at that hermitage.
Yongey Mingyur is unusual, too, in his keen interest in modern science. He has been an ardent spectator at several of the Mind and Life meetings, and has seized every opportunity to meet one-on-one with scientists who could explain more about their specialties. Many of these conversations have revealed remarkable similarities between key points in Buddhism and modern scientific understanding - not just in psychology, but also with cosmological principles stemming from recent advances in quantum theory. The essence of those conversations is shared in this book.
But these more esoteric points are woven into a larger narrative, a more pragmatic introduction to the basic meditation practices Yongey Mingyur teaches so accessibly. This is, after all, a practical guide, a handbook for transforming life for the better. And that journey begins from wherever we happen to find ourselves, as we take the first step.