I was recently having this conversation with Martine Bachelor, a Buddhist teacher and a few of my colleagues, Judson Brewer and Willoughby Britton. I thought it would be helpful to open it up to the public. I look forward to hearing your comments.
There is certainly confusion amongst many Buddhist translations and psychological translations. Vedana is typically translated as affective feeling tone, but this is confusing in a psychological or cognitive neuroscientific context. Some of our colleagues have vaguely emphasized the association with valence (positive, negative, or neutral).
This issue came up once in a conference in Dharamsala with HH Dalai Lama in the context of asking “what is emotion?” and Bob Thurman had the following to say: Vedana translated as “feelings” confuses sensations of pleasure and pain with mental or emotional reactions to those sensations – so vedana should therefore be translated as “sensation” rather than “feeling”. Pain does not lead to Hatred necessarily – there is a conceptual piece that follows sensation that likely falls under another category. Vedana when put next to Rupa skandha is seen more as a physical process. Feelings like moodiness or anger or sadness are much more vague mental reactions.
Using a physiological and cognitive POV, there is clear evidence that valence (positive, negative or neutral) determination may occur before their is conscious awareness and with associated attentional biases (towards or away from such stimuli) – so at the sensory-perceptual level or early level of attentional processing. Detection, labeling, and/or interpretation of that valence and the associated emotion clearly happens later (in time) in the cognitive processing stream. So no matter how you end up describing vedana, my suggestion would be to be sure to emphasize such distinctions.
This is very interesting.Thank you for the video clip. I am not totally sure about Bob’s suggested definition. Vedana comes upon contact, so feeling tone is quite good, with the emphasis on tone or tonality. I would use feeling sensation for something a little more elaborate emotionally. What is interesting about vedana is that the same contact with a different person lead to a different vedana, i.e art, music or food. Moreover in a different state the same contact will give rise to a different vedana to the same person. So there is something constructed already in terms of culture or affinity for example, or conditional in terms of circumstances. Also it can be quite subtle sometimes and then tonality is quite suitable there. What do you think?Warmly,
thanks so much for engaging in this dialogue….if you don’t mind, I’d like to share your comments with the contemplative community. I feel it could benefit from more heads than two. 🙂
My difficulty is primarily a semantic one. The word “tone” doesn’t translate well into psychological or cognitive terms in which we typically talk about emotion, sensation/perception, or valence. I think we are likely to agree that contact with a sense object will lead to different vedana across individuals due to culture, inherent bias, conditioning, or otherwise. The often underlooked nature of emotional expression (e.g., anger) lies within the initial contact with the sensory object of that anger (e.g., favorite wine spoils). Upon first taste that the wine has spoiled, there is a non-conscious assessment of taste that either leads to an immediate emotional reaction or cognitive interpretation and further reactivity. In this example, there is a particular temporal framework to describe contact with sense object through non-conscious processing and then a more elaborate expression of emotion. The question I still have is whether Vedana resides in the initial contact with spoiled wine, the knee-jerk reaction of anger, or the cognitive elaboration of anger??
Yes, please do share.
It is a good question.
I am very interested in vedanas because I think that they influenced a lot of what we do but it takes time for us to notice where it comes from because we have already elaborated and move somewhere else with it.
In my humble opinion vedana refers to the initial contact. We come into contact with something, this creates for example an unpleasant feeling tone, which we then have to give meaning to and then we further elaborate and stick it to something else. I would say that we start with a feeling tone, then it can become a feeling sensation that is where basic anger (survival mechanism, automatic judgement, etc) might come in and then it can turn into a disturbing emotion. This is a way I would parse it but I am not an academic only a meditator so that I am not sure how the vocabulary could work in an academic context.
Two points to consider. You have a nice experience > pleasant vedana, then something small abruptly make this change > unpleasant vedana but you do not notice it, it is just a funny feeling. Then an hour later you find yourself saying something nasty to someone totally foreign to the previous vedanas. If you investigate you realise that it is the first vedana moving quickly into the 2nd which then lead you to something you think/feel is right when it is wrong.
I have seen this again and again how vedanas seep sideways and create suffering if you are not more aware of them. I think that vedanas are crucial in terms of being ethical or not but that often there are not that much conscious content but a lot of automatism.
I am also keen on neutral feeling tones and not everyone agree on these. Maybe we should skype, it could be fun.
The wine example: it starts with a taste > different from expected> could stay there and feel and explore the strangeness of the state: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. What does it feel like? 3rd nama is key: perception/meaning> the wine tastes funny > the wine is spoiled> this is terrible that the wine is spoiled > it was such an expensive bottle > I/someone made a mistake (again) > I/s/he is terrible > I am always terrible…..
Do you work with the framework of the nama factors?
Here, BCBS resident scholar Mu Soeng overviews the concept of vedana and offers a brief summary of each speaker’s presentation at the symposium. Part two will be a new article from Bhikkhu Analayo on the issue of the third kind of vedana (the neutral or neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant).
Admittedly, there is a difficulty in translation. He states, “When translated as “feeling” or “feeling tone” its understanding in, and application to, meditative process takes on a certain hermeneutic trajectory. When translated as “sensation” an alternate or a parallel understanding and application emerges that could be considered phenomenological.”
Great speakers were present from both Buddhist and Neuroscientific perspectives, including: John Peacock, Akincano Weber, Anne Klein, Robert Buswell, and Martine Batchelor. The other group representing neuroscientists who are also Buddhist practitioners consisted of Sara Lazar, Judson Brewer, Paul Grossman, and Anurag Gupta.
You may all look forward to reading the transcripts of the full presentations as they become available. Unfortunately, I have yet to read a satisfying account clarifying the types of processing contributing to “initial sensory contact” with an object using both pre-conditioned forms of attention, sensory-motor, and memory processing as well as something relatively novel with fewer biases to distort the initial processing pre-conscious and at moment of perception before evaluation.
The full papers from the conference will be published in the Spring 2018 issue of Contemporary Buddhism (Vol 19:1).
Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama, is the leader of the exiled Tibetan government in India. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Photographed during his visit in Cologno Monzese MI, Italy, on december 8th, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Mind and Life XXIV: Latest Findings in Contemplative Science
B/C we represent how the younger generation of scientists arewilling to examine some of the more difficult and even taboo aspects of deep contemplative transformation – topics the first generation of more cautious researchers were never explicit about. Friend and journalist, Jeff Warren refers to us as “The Pragmatic Dharma wing of neuroscience”. He further explains, “They are actively researching, among other things, the neural correlates of noself / Enlightenment, the Progress of Insight, the often very difficult Dark Night dissolution process some meditators go through, and much more besides. They have ambition and they plan to ask the Dalai Lama tough questions.”
Jeff comments further: “This is not another meditation and the brain story – it’s about the new age of contemplative transparency that may finally be upon us, and the radical prospect of science taking enlightenment – that multifaceted jewel – seriously. Orthodox psychology could be forced to get a whole lot deeper. What’s fascinating as well is these folks are all products of the Dalai Lama’s long-term scheme to fill all institutions of higher learning with neuroscientists who are also practitioners. Hundreds and hundreds of Phds at the Mind and Life Summer Institute every summer – a cross-diciplinary incubator. [LINK] And now they are all getting jobs at top-flight Ivy league school and determining the research agenda. They’re not looking at how meditation alleviates stress – they’re looking at how it disables the sense of a separate self. This has never before been on neuroscience’s radar and will shock the system when people realize what they are up to.”
Nine years ago, I did not have Harvard Medical School letterhead, nor did I have a website dedicated to conducting contemplative neuroscience research. Nine years ago, I was a graduate student in cognitive and neural sciences in the department of psychology, University of Utah investigating the neural substrates for learning and memory using behavioral pharmacology and electrophysiology. I had a meditation practice since my first Goenka-Vipassana retreat in 1996, and practiced yoga, and tai chi, but with no expectation that I could ever fuse my interests, my practice, and my science. My graduate advisor had always referred to my interests in Buddhism as “that Zen stuff” and complained that I almost had more Buddhist books on my book shelf than neuroscience books. In 2004, I followed the dialogues with HHDL at MIT with great interest, and in 2005 was elated to realize that rigorous science was being conducted on meditation and other contemplative practice. This was my first experience of the Summer Research Institute (SRI) as a research fellow. What amazed me was that rigorous science was already being conducted on meditation and contemplative practice. Scientists and scholars like Richie Davidson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, David Meyer, Al Kaszniak, Cliff Saron, John Dunne, Alan Wallace, Evan Thompson, Joan Halifax, Sharon Salzberg, Matthieu Ricard, and others became role models, mentors, and teachers…instantly. The group at SRI really felt like a niche i could fit into, a community, a sangha. As I completed my PhD in cognitive and neural sciences, I took the leap and decided to dedicate my research interests towards investigating contemplative practices while expanding my methodological arsenal in functional neuroimaging using high density EEG, MEG, and fMRI. Fortunately, I was able to take on a part-time post-doctoral position with Yoshio Nakamura who had just received a large NIH grant to investigate mind-body interactions. With partial support from Yoshi, I applied for a Varela award to investigate the effects of mindfulness on attention and emotional processing associated with pain and anticipation of pain in fibromyalgia patients. After another 2 years of attending SRI as an awardee presenting my research findings, I was hired as the Senior Research Coordinator for MLI. As the research coordinator between 2007-2010, I provided scientific and organizational support to the Program and Research subcommittee of the MLI Board; the various program planning committees for specific programs and to the MLI staff; with regard to determining research priorities and coordinating and facilitating the various research initiatives conducted by MLI. I was directly involved in creating policy and developing guidelines and procedures for MLSRI and the Francisco J. Varela Research Award program. I spent the majority of my time being a liason for the community providing research support and monitoring the progress of research studies and publications. I supported the preparation of grant applications to Foundations (i.e., John Templeton Foundation) to support MLI research programs and also establishing and maintaining liaison with sponsoring agencies and organizations. I have also played the role of faculty member at the SRI, presenting each year an overview of the functional neuroanatomy implicated in mindfulness and other contemplative practices. Today, my enthusiasm and commitment towards the mission of Mind & Life has not changed. Rather, it has solidified. I just steer the boat with my intention and altruistic motivations, and it continues to move steadily on the path of least resistance – the path of contemplative neuroscience. I now continue to support the MLI as a research fellow (see link [LINK]) as I begin to build my own program of research at Harvard Medical School and Brigham & Women’s Hospital.
The Varela award program initiated by the MLI has been the primary catalyst for seeding the field with young scientists investigating contemplative practice. This meeting with HHDL is intended to showcase 6 young scientists (Varela awardees) that best represent the program to dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The meeting has been named, Mind and Life XIV: Latest Findings in Contemplative Neuroscience. It is significant for the reason that it is the first time that junior level investigators are given the opportunity to present research findings to His Holiness. This is sooooo cool, b/c it is the young investigators that are now immersed in this paradigm shift for science. All aspects of basic and clinical science, and society are being infused with mindfulness. Mindfulness represents more than how it is defined. It represents the paradigm shift towards re-investigating the mind from the 1st person perspective. It is the new introspection. It is the key to the door of consciousness for all scientists to explore and the public to embrace for mental health.
What does it mean to you personally to be invited to meet with the Dalai Lama?
There is such great joy and gratitude that fills my heart when I think about this opportunity. It is the greatest honor and I feel incredibly grateful and humbled everyday that I think about this meeting and my role in it. His Holiness is THE source for this emerging field of contemplative science. It is His Holiness that continues to motivate the field to investigate the mind and benefits of contemplative practice for reducing suffering in the world. His Holiness and MLI are the reason I am on the path that I am on now….investigating the mechanisms of contemplative practice and benefits such practices may have for those suffering with mental illness. It is a privilege to meet the Dalai Lama, but it is an entirely greater honor to be able to present one’s scientific research to him and dialogue about the mind. He often says that he is only a simple monk and yet he represents a 2500 year old epistemology of the mind. Well, I am only a junior level faculty member just starting my career in academia representing a 9 year old emerging science. This meeting deeply affects the direction and impact of my research through the profound nature of such an honor.
What are your hopes for the meeting?
I hope that we are able to have a fruitful dialogue that is free of much scientific ego, and full of enriching insight into the direction of all of our research. This is the first time that young investigators will have a chance to dialogue with His Holiness, a rare gem to get a sense of direction and inspiration for the new generation of researchers poised to carry the field forward with integrity and scientific rigor. I look forward to finding thought-provoking questions from His Holiness and the group.
Does being a meditation practitioner affect your research? If so, how?
The simple answer for me is that being a meditation practitioner is rather easy, but being a meditation practitioner and a meditation researcher adds complexity. I would further characterize the dual role as interdependent upon each other and involving a greater range of responsibility towards oneself and society at large. The added complexity is not necessarily complicated, it refers to the ever-expanding set of relationships that a researcher is cultivating between oneself and society. As a practitioner, one spends a lot of time cultivating a relationship with one’s own mind; this relationship has helped me personally by providing insight and motivation into how best to move forward in the newly emerging field of contemplative science and how the contemplative sciences may integrate with the rigors of the scientific method. The benefits on mental health, the body, and the brain may appear clear to most meditation and other contemplative practitioners, but it is my role as a cognitive neuroscientist to demonstrate tractable benefits from an objective, scientific perspective, while continuing to honor the interdependent and secular nature of compassion, joy, and equanimity throughout everyday experience.
I woke up this morning thinking that there will not be many days like this in my life. I will be giving a talk to His Holiness The Dalai Lama on Tuesday afternoon along with 5 of my contemplative science colleagues and friends. One of the best parts of doing research in this field is that most of my colleagues are truly friends. Most of the researchers have their own contemplative practice which is probably one major reason the field is so successful. We support each other in our accolades and achievements. The competitive nature of science is miniature compared to the amount of joy and compassion that I feel safe to say, the majority of contemplative science researchers embody.
I feel that it is safe to say that the 6 of us represent 100s like ourselves all inspired by The Dalai Lama in our career and personal life….so I really speak at this conference from the heart and the mind on behalf of all young scientists in an emerging field of investigation that is putting the mind back into biomedicine.
So….What was His Holiness’s feedback?
The six of us were meant to best represent the Francisco J. Varela grant award program, the primary catalyst for seeding the field with young scientists investigating contemplative practice. Each of us brought something unique to the table from all across the globe. The room was filled with board members and guests surrounding us like proud parents and transmitting their wisdom. His Holiness was most attentive and present with each one of us as we took turns presenting our most relevant research in the short amount of time we had his attention. Although short-lived, it was a most humbling honor. One by one, we filled our 20 minutes completely, summarizing our findings in only a few slides and such short time. The presentations all went very well and the feedback from His Holiness was invaluable. To each of us, he provided some sense of recognition and appeared to place high importance on the work we all are doing. I kept thinking that if His Holiness thought my models of Mindfulness are “quite good”, I should be able to provide my reviewers with that reference! All kidding aside, he ended our time together with a lasting set of strongly emphasized remarks that none of us will be able to dismiss. With a firm finger he pointed to each one of us and led the charge like a football coach may before the big game. He said that each one of us is responsible for reducing suffering in this world. We must continue doing the rigorous research for the benefit of the world. I guess we know what we’ll be doing for the next 35 years! Truly inspiring.
Brigham & Women’s Hospital reported on this event here. [Link] and here [Link] and through Twitter [Link]
Here is the link to the video for this dialogue: [Link] and Here: [Link]
His Holiness gave an interview with Piers Morgan for CNN a few hrs before our talks