My research, writing, meditation practice and teaching focus on two main topics.
Dzogchen and Existential Awareness
Since I started practicing meditation I have been drawn to teachings in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Dzogchen. These teachings focus on realising the nature of mind, or pristine awareness (rigpa), as the always present foundation of all our experience. It is often said in Dzogchen teachings that it is impossible to describe the experience of pristine awareness because it is non-conceptual, hence any descriptions of this state are incomplete. But as pointer, in pristine awareness one experiences all at once a sense of calm, contentment, connection, compassion towards all beings and non-conceptual understanding of how self and reality arise. Abiding in pristine awareness breaks down the constructed dualities of subject and object (I and other). Similarly, pristine awareness goes beyond the duality of meditation vs non-meditation, every moment of our experience is an opportunity to abide in pristine awareness which is always there. However, to be able to recognise the nature of mind and stabilise this realisation, we first need to settle our mind with practices cultivating mindfulness, the four immeasurables, and develop the right motivation for Dzogchen meditation practice (bodhicitta), as well as connect with the lineage of Dzogchen teachings and teachers.
Linking my Dzogchen meditation practice with my scientific interests, I have proposed the new term ‘modes of existential awareness‘ (MEAs) to describe experiential (felt) sense of self and reality, with pristine awareness being the most refined mode of existential awareness. There are many other less refined modes of existential awareness ranging from immersion in our thoughts and feelings (with little awareness), through more settled states of calm and healthy distancing from our thoughts cultivated through mindfulness, to deep meditative states of tranquility and sometimes bliss, and finally abiding in pristine awareness. The key aim of meditation training is to facilitate shifts in the modes of existential awareness towards more refined states. I believe these shifts are central to our mental wellbeing. I have postulated that we have a natural drive towards seeking out refined modes of existential awareness with the ultimate goal of realising the nature of our mind. I have termed this drive ‘the existential instinct‘ or ‘The Who am I Instinct?.
Wellbeing, Contemplative Practice and Societal Crises
Our understanding of how wellbeing develops across the lifespan, and how we can effectively foster it, is minimal in comparison to our understanding of reasoning, reading, writing or math skills development. One essential aspect of wellbeing development supported by research over the last two decades shows that there is a set of skills which determine our wellbeing and, importantly, these skills can be trained. A number of studies supporting the trainability of wellbeing skills focused on contemplative practices cultivating mindfulness, compassion, sense of purpose and meaning in life, awe and self-transcendence. Research from my lab particularly aims to contribute to better understanding of changes in neural plasticity (changes in brain function and structure linked to learning new skills) resulting from such contemplative practices taught in schools to children and adolescents.
In this context I have recently proposed two key wellbeing capacities, the self-regulatory capacity and the self-world capacity, as the determinants of wellbeing across the lifespan. I believe that fostering these capacities needs to be part of solutions to the current societal crises, including the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, political polarisation and challenges associated with information technologies. As explained in my recent work, latest research shows that better self-regulation, greater sense of purpose and increases in contemplative practice had protective effects on mental wellbeing during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Similarly, research shows how deficiencies in self-regulation and the lack of a sense of connection contribute to our difficulties in addressing the climate change crisis intertwined with political polarisation. This is all exacerbated by distractability (associated with diminished self-regulation) encouraged by information technologies and attention economy. I believe that we need to invest in enhancing the self-regulatory and self-world capacities of people across sectors of our society to address the root of the challenges manifesting in the current societal crises. Contemplative practice training is one of the effective ways to foster these capacities.