“If we can cultivate compassion, that’s the very best thing we can do both for
ourselves and for others.”
In this episode of the Numinus podcast, Dr. Joe welcomes Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk, writer, translator, humanitarian, and photographer.
Matthieu was born in France in 1946, to French philosopher Jean-François Revel and artist Yahne Le Toumelin. He trained as a scientist and got a Ph.D. in molecular genetics in 1972, but moved to Nepal to become a Buddhist monk, rather than pursue an academic career. He has been in Nepal ever since.
Matthieu’s unusual journey and training give him a truly unique perspective on the intersection between contemplative traditions and contemporary science. He shares these insights in his long-standing involvement with the Mind and Life Institute, translation of ancient Buddhist texts, public speaking, and writing best-selling books, including Happiness, the Art of Meditation, and In Search of Wisdom. He is also the Dalai Lama’s French interpreter and close friend. In 2000, after exhibiting never-before-seen brain activation while meditating in a brain scanner, he was playfully nicknamed “the happiest man in the world.”
Matthieu is also highly active as a humanitarian, supporting animal rights and creating Karuna-Shechen, an organization dedicated to “developing and managing programs in primary health care, education, and social services for the under-served populations of India, Nepal, and Tibet.” All of the proceeds of Matthieu’s books, photographs, and events are donated to Karuna Canada, the Canadian chapter of which is based in Montreal.
Matthieu is actually going to be in Montreal this month (Saturday, April 13th), for an event put on by Karuna-Shechen, called Meeting of the Minds: Taking Care of Life. On the panel sits people from all walks of life: Steven Laureys, a neurologist, Maria João Pires, a world renowned pianist, Alexandre Jollien, a philosopher, and a worker who spent 15 years in animal slaughterhouses. Matthieu hopes the event will be “a two fold fulfillment of aspirations of oneself and that of others.”
All proceeds of the event will go to Karuna Shechen projects in Asia.
I’d like to apologize for the quality of the audio for this episode. Unfortunately, this interview came together at the very last minute, and Matthieu’s internet was not working correctly. However, below you’ll find a full transcript of the interview.
In this conversation, Dr. Joe and Matthieu spoke about:
- Matthieu’s thoughts on the explosion of the popularity of mindfulness
- The fundamental research he is involved with in regards to meditation
- His concerns about modern society and the environment and climate change
- What he calls happiness
- How altruism and love can save yourself and the world
Caring Mindfulness Versus Instrumental Mindfulness
“He said that opposite to the mindfulness revolution, maybe we’re heading to a
compassion revolution. I think this would be great.”
I’ve been practicing meditation for about 20 years. And I’ve been really blown away by the explosion of mindfulness meditation in Western culture.
You have a much more rich and deep relationship with this practice, so I’m curious to hear what it is like from your perspective to see how meditation has really moved into the mainstream in Western culture?
Well first of all, I think it’s important to put meditation in context.
In Sanskrit, Bhavana, means to cultivate something. And in Tibetan, Gom means to become familiar with something. So you can cultivate focused attention, compassion, benevolence, and inner balance. And you can become familiar with thought process, with the fundamental nature of mind behind the stream of thought.
The Buddhist part is about getting rid of the causes of suffering. And the causes of suffering, some are obvious like hatred and craving and so forth. Some are less obvious like the distortion of reality, for which wisdom is the only remedy. Familiarization is also a familiarization with the correct understanding of reality.
So you see, it’s much more vast than what people usually call meditation. And even vaster than the technical definition of mindfulness.
I suppose there are quite a few definitions of mindfulness but, basically, it’s to pay attention undestructably to the present moment in a non judgmental way and notice whatever happens without losing that mindfulness. We call that attentive presence.
In Buddhism, it is not quite non-judgmental because it’s connected with an evaluation of whether what you notice in the present moment is wholesome or unwholesome, not in a moralistic way, rather whether it brings suffering or freedom from suffering.
So the other aspect of being mindful is what could be the antidote to let’s say hatred and then putting that antidote into action in a proper way. Even that has to be put into the vaster scope of the very rich array of methods to achieve freedom from suffering, which is extremely vast from a philosophical, an analytical, and a practical point of view.
When my dear friend, Jon Kabat-Zinn realized that there was a lot of suffering, especially in the medical world, from patients, from caregivers, he wondered how to use some of techniques he had learned, mostly in Burma and other places, how to use Buddhist practices in a way that could be acceptable 30 years ago in a medical setting. Which was not very open to the idea of bringing in some weird exotic practices.
So the idea of stress being one of the main factors of this suffering and how mindfulness would be able to reduce stress was genius.
And recently, I witnessed Jon reviewing 30 years of studies of the impact of mindfulness on healthcare, and in other fields of life. It was truly moving and amazing.
So this being said, it never pretended to be the essence of Buddhism. I think Jon also clearly says that it is inspired by Buddhism. But it’s not an integral Buddhist practice.
The only problem is with those who say that it is the essence of Buddhism. It’s much too simplistic obviously.
Also, one issue might be when you come out of the medical world and go into the corporate world, you worry that it might be used in an instrumental way to make people more efficient and productive, while remaining less stressed. I don’t think this has materialized as a genuine cause of concern.
Nevertheless, when Jon and his team and later on many others brought mindfulness into the medical context, they were of course there with a compassionate attitude to reduce suffering.
So to make sure that mindfulness is not disembodied from compassion or what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls heartfulness, I believe instead of having two things, mindfulness and heartfulness, we should just think of caring mindfulness. Then you cannot go astray with mindfulness becoming a sort of cold tool to just become more attentive for whatever instrumental purpose, devoid of ethics and compassion.
So meditation is vaster than that, and Buddhism is vaster than meditation.
But there’s nothing wrong with this mindfulness revolution. It has done tremendous good throughout the world.
I think since compassion is such an important thing, my humble suggestion would be to always speak of caring mindfulness.
What do you think the risk is of using mindfulness instrumentally?
A friend of mine, Sebastien Henry, interviewed a hundred CEOs who decided to incorporate mindfulness at their workplace. It was very interesting because at first they hesitated because they thought maybe mindfulness would make people less motivated, more soft, and then it’s a waste of time.
But what they found is actually something quite different. They found that there were two main advantages, which was not just to make people more efficient. That’s not what happened.
The two advantages were having better judgment because they saw things in a bigger sort of way, with a different perspective. And then the second thing was the improving of human relationships in the enterprise.
So those two things are, of course, much welcome. So far—of course, I’m not a specialist, since I don’t work in the corporate world—I haven’t heard much of anyone saying, ‘look at this company. They just used mindfulness to make them less stressed, while working them like crazy.’
I think since compassion is such an important thing, my humble suggestion would be to always speak of caring mindfulness. Then, at least, you always put compassion and loving kindness at the forefront. And many studies right now put more and more emphasis on the benefits of practicing compassion and loving kindness.
I remember Thupten Jinpa, the chairmain of the Mind and Life Institute, and I were in Singapore presenting the work of Mind and Life, and he said that opposite to the mindfulness revolution, maybe we’re heading to a compassion revolution. I think this would be great.
The Science of Mind Training
“A pilot study done on long term meditators showed that it seems that long term
meditators have a structurally and metabolically younger brain.”
So I wanted to talk about the science of mindfulness because of course that’s one of the reasons why mindfulness has grown so much in the West. And you’ve been a really important figure in advancing the science.
I’m curious how do you think science in general is doing. How much progress is it making in understanding the Buddhist wisdom around well being and the reduction of suffering?
I’ve also participated in a lot of studies as collaborator, co-author, guinea pig, everything.
I’m not practicing mindfulness in the technical way it is done in MBSR.
We decided that initially with Francisco Varela, then Richard Davidson, and Antoine Lutz, and later with Tania Singer and Steven Laureys to simplify things because there are so many kinds of meditation. When you think of meditation, you think of mind training.
So you can train your mind in so many ways. It’s like physical training. What are you doing? Football? Or volleyball? Or chess? It’s different.
So we decided that there are 3 types of traditional meditation that could be useful to society and usable in a secular context. One was of course focused attention. This would be the closest to mindfulness. The other one was compassion or altruistic love. And the third one is what we call open presence. Which is roughly defined as a very open vast, vivid state, which is somehow deeper than mindfulness because it’s also resting in the deepest nature of mind.
So those 3 are being extensively studied. They have different signatures in the brain. There’s no doubt that they do change the brain functionally and structurally. So that’s one of the many studies I’ve been involved with those labs.
They are mostly about fundamental research. While mindfulness has been studied a lot in a clinical context to see what sort of good effect it could have on health, which they have. A lot, a lot of studies I think Jon Kabat-Zinn showed 20 years ago that there were 4 or 5 publications every year, and I think now it’s 400. So I’ve been involved in fundamental research on meditation.
And recently, I’ve been involved in a vast development study on aging and whether meditation will slow down the aging process, which a pilot study done on long term meditators showed that definitely it seems long meditators have a structurally and metabolically younger brain.
Sometimes 10 to 15 years younger than the average.
“It’s something that replenishes your strength and courage, while empathetic resonance with suffering will overburden you and overwhelm you, as the suffering of others is repeated.”
I’ve also been involved in a study on the different levels of consciousness of vividness and clarity with Steven Laureys and also with Tania Singer. We did quite a few—I think—groundbreaking studies to distinguish empathy from compassion. And they show that when people speak of compassion fatigue, that’s not the right term. We should speak of empathy fatigue, or some kind of emotional exhaustion that leads to burn out.
But compassion is the opposite. It’s more like an antidote to burnout. And it’s something that replenishes your strength and courage, while empathetic resonance with suffering will overburden you and overwhelm you, as the suffering of others is repeated.
So all of these have been fascinating collaborations. To show also that meditators are not just a guinea pig, but a co-conceiver of the protocols. So they asked me to co-find a paper, although I’m not involved in crunching the data, because we sort of established the protocol together. So they thought it was important to acknowledge that the meditators have an active role in the research.