Science and Spirit
Adapted with permission from Science & Spirit Magazine.  

Last November, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, met with an all-star panel of scientists in Palo Alto, California, to participate in a weekend event hosted by the Stanford University Neuroscience Institute. At the conference, entitled "Craving, Suffering, and Choice: Spiritual and Scientific Explorations of Human Experience" science and religion shared the stage. 

While one discipline uses methods developed in recent years to track activity in specific parts of the brain, and the other uses 2,500- year-old practices to develop introspective inquiry of the mind, both neuroscience and Buddhism address the same issue: suffering.

This shared purpose, according to Doctor William Mobley, director of the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford, is the reason he recently gathered experts in both fields, as well as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for a public discussion on the ground they share. “Both pursue knowledge about the brain and mind,” he said. “They just go about it differently. I think we have something to learn from each other.”

The Stanford conference explored scientific and Buddhist definitions of craving and suffering, along with a possible response to those conditions—the choice of altruism and compassion.

Craving, according to Buddhist thought and explained by Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, is “a kind of desire in which one falsely superimposes agreeable qualities upon an object, cognitively screens out its disagreeable qualities, and then desires the object as a true source of pleasure and well-being.” Things commonly craved are wealth, sensual objects, praise, and the esteem of others, he said.

“None of these objects are actual sources of genuine well-being, nor does the experience of such objects have an invariable correlation with the experience of pleasure of any kind,” Wallace explained. True well-being does not come from an outside stimulus, but from “a healthy and balanced mind,” he said. The challenge lies in cultivating desires that lead to genuine well-being for oneself and others while minimizing craving, which is based on a misconception of reality.

The neuroscientific definition of craving focuses on what happens in brain cells when there is a motivation to reach a goal, countered Doctor Howard Fields, the director of the Wheeler Center for the Neurobiology of Addiction at the University of California, San Francisco. “The goal could be something needed to maintain a state that is necessary for individual survival, including food, drink, warmth, or rest,” he said. But in addition to instinctive goals, individuals can develop motivation for actions that are unhealthy, such as overeating, drinking alcohol, or using tobacco or addictive drugs.

“Whatever the goal,” Fields said, “the neurobiological view is that cravings arise from chemical changes in the brain that lead to activity in neurons that are connected to the sense organs and muscles. The activity of specific groups of these neurons leads to the unhealthy actions and to the subjective experience of strong craving.”

In the Tibetan language, the Dalai Lama said, the translation for craving is “an afflicted state of desire.” Desire is not in itself wrong, he said, nor is it a form of affliction. “It can be a neutral state of mind—even a virtuous state,” he said. All participants agreed that a desire to alleviate suffering, for example, is a virtuous desire.

Both the scientists and the Buddhists also agreed that the type of craving that leads to an unhealthy life is a misapprehension of reality— desire taken to a destructive level. Buddhist practice holds that the correct view of reality comes through contemplation, while neuroscience focuses on localizing the brain activity associated with craving and then treating that specific brain function. It is not entirely as simple as meditation versus medication, but those are the respective constructs from which each group begins.

Mathieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and the Dalai Lama’s private secretary and French translator (and the son of French philosopher Jean-François Revel), explained that suffering has many causes—some of which we can control and some we cannot—and that, ultimately, unhappiness is the way in which we experience suffering.