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Dalai Lama Draws Crowds to Compassion

HMS dean Jeffrey Flier (left) greets the Dalai Lama at the conference “Meditation and Psychotherapy.” Flier is wearing a kata, a scarf that one traditionally presents to the Dalai Lama for a blessing when meeting him.

On March 17, 1959, as Chinese soldiers were attacking his summer palace, the Dalai Lama, only 23 years old, slipped away in the night and began his famous trek out of Tibet. After crossing the wide Brahmaputra River, he and his entourage would make their way over the rugged Himalayan mountain terrain, often within earshot of Chinese sentries.

“We’re all walking in darkness, escaping. The sound of horses hooves was quite loud so there was real danger,” said the Dalai Lama, at a conference titled “Meditation and Psychotherapy” held on May 1 and 2. It was only later that the emotion of it hit him. “That period itself, not much anxiety or fear. After, rethinking the experience, there was more fear,” he said.

Such tricks of mind are familiar—even the young Dalai Lama experienced them. While they can be adaptive—for example, reviewing past dangers can help people deal with future threats—such thoughts can replay endlessly and destructively in people suffering from posttraumatic stress, anxiety, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and other psychiatric conditions.

Over the past few years, psychotherapists have been turning to Buddhist meditation and other practices in an effort to soothe their patients’ troubled minds. So intense is the interest, the conference, which was the fourth on meditation and psychotherapy to be sponsored by the Cambridge Health Alliance, was entirely sold out before the brochure was printed, said Ronald Siegel, assistant clinical professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at HMS, who with Judy Reiner Platt, HMS lecturer on psychiatry, and Christopher Germer, HMS clinical instructor in psychology in the Department of Psychiatry, organized the conference.

For two days, 1,200 people gathered in the Georgian room of the Park Plaza Hotel, a cavernous and balconied ballroom, to hear the Dalai Lama and other speakers describe the benefits of meditation, not just for patients but also for therapists. The conference opened with the Dalai Lama, sitting cross-legged in his gold and maroon robe, surrounded by four panel members, each of whom had prepared a question for the man many address as “Your Holiness.” He responded to each question, clarifying such Buddhist practices as meditation and compassion. Occasionally, he used Western science to support his points. “Science finds compassion is very good for peace of mind,” he said, referring to the work of Richard Davidson and Herbert Benson.

The Brighter Side

That so many practitioners are embracing the wisdom of the East represents a momentous migration of its own. For more than a century, psychotherapists have been taught to train their sights on negative thoughts and emotions, such as anxiety, guilt, shame, grief and anger. In striking contrast, Buddhism emphasizes positive attributes, and two in particular—wisdom and compassion, which are believed to be already within every person, waiting to be cultivated through practices such as meditation.

Many speakers emphasized the benefits of this turn to the East—and in later talks, Davidson, the William James and Vilas research professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, and Benson, Mind/Body associate professor of medicine at HMS, described specific changes in brain, body, and even gene expression that can be brought about by various Buddhist meditation practices.

But the questions put to the Dalai Lama made it clear that the journey is not without challenges. How can patients cultivate self-compassion when they are consumed with self-criticism and shame? Should they cultivate compassion for those who have abused them? How do you help those who remain preoccupied by revenge? were among the questions asked.

“I sometimes find meditation can bring up old traumas and demons in patients,” said Bessel Van der Kolk, professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. “The primitive parts of the brain may keep fighting an unseen enemy. You’ve seen torture—what do you think about it?” It was in response to this question that the Dalai Lama recounted his daring escape from Tibet. From his other comments, it appeared that the way out for such patients might be a dual route: cultivating wisdom—to see that such enemies are a figment of the mind; and compassion—for oneself and even one’s enemies.

Too Steep a Climb

Other questions suggested that such a path may be inaccessible to many patients. “I see people who hear voices that speak cruelly and who believe horrible things will happen to them,” said Elissa Ely, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts Mental Health Center. “I say to them, ‘Hold on, things will get better, your lives will improve.’ But that is not true. People have not gotten better. In fact, their symptoms have worsened. Is there something we can bring back to patients whose lives are so difficult, whose lives cannot change, whose lives we might not be able to endure?”

Even the Dalai Lama appeared to be stymied. “I think the precise answer to that question is, I don’t know,” he said, adding that individuals with religious faith or with good friends might be encouraged to interpret their plight in more positive terms.

A compelling suggestion was made later in a talk by Robert Jay Lifton, HMS lecturer in psychiatry, who reflected on how Nazi doctors may have felt something akin to compassion toward their own families even as they committed their atrocities on behalf of the Aryan race. “Compassion is not simply an individual capacity but requires a shared ethos. Compassion is best achieved when its components—empathy and sympathetic affinity—are extended to all humankind, to a species consciousness, a species self,” said Lifton.