Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A think tank that studies goodness gets $50K from the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama has put his money where his heart is.

Doing an end-run around stem cells and gene-splicing, His Holiness has donated $50,000 in research money to a Wisconsin neuroscientist to study – kindness and compassion.

The feel-good largesse goes to the University of Wisconsin’s Richard Davidson, who runs a different kind of think tank – The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at Madison.

Back in the primeval 1970s, Davidson, then a Harvard doctoral student, made the mistake of telling advisers he wanted to study the power of meditation.

“They patted me on the knee and said, 'Richie, this is not a good way to start a scientific career,' " Davidson wryly recalled in an interview with New York Times reporter Dirk Johnson.

Despite that bumpy start, Davidson has been researching whether meditation promotes compassion and kindness.

Currently, he’s teaching meditation techniques to Madison fifth-graders. They’re taught to concentrate on loving thoughts toward family, strangers, and even enemies.

Once the kids reach Middle School, the researchers compare the regular meditators’ behavior with a control group. Davidson, a 58-year-old Brooklyn native, says he focuses on the Middle School years for testing, because that time period is often a crossroads of character development.

Davidson embarked on his mission after a 1992 meeting with the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, where the Buddhist spiritual leader encouraged Davidson to use sophisticated tools to research spiritual traits.

"It's about changing habits of the heart," Davidson concluded.

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