January 29 , 2007
Religions and the Human Spirit
BY Elaine Justice
The Emory Collaborative for Contemplative Studies has a quiet-sounding name, but among its bold aims is nothing less than turning around one of the top health problems of the 21st century: depression.
Faculty in the health sciences and humanities are working toward dual goals: Not only do they want to broaden and deepen knowledge of contemplative practices of the world’s religious traditions; they are studying how implementing these practices can help improve people’s health and emotional well-being.
“What people actually do in engaging in religious practices is important,” said John Dunne, assistant professor of religion, one of the initiative co-directors and a specialist in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. “In the case of traditions such as Buddhism, religious practices are literally transformative; they change your brain.”
Those changes are intensely interesting to Chuck Raison, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Behavioral Immunology Clinic in the School of Medicine. Eighteen months ago, Raison began collaborating with Lobsang Negi, senior lecturer in religion, and Daniel Adame, associate professor of health, physical education and dance. They are researching whether training groups of Emory freshmen in socially-based meditative techniques can reduce symptoms of depression.
Studying depression in the young is vital, said Raison, since “depression once started can be lifelong” and can have a negative impact on a variety of later developing illnesses.
Negi, who also chairs the Emory-Tibet Partnership, was able to distill a large number of Buddhist meditative techniques and to present and teach these techniques to the students in a secular context.
“This is the wild, wild West,” said Raison of the study. “To my knowledge, this is the first time anyone has tested these types of compassion meditation techniques for health benefits. We’re capitalizing on the incredible knowledge people have about these techniques here at Emory.”
“Emory is definitely in the vanguard of contemplative study,” said Negi. “For a long time it was hard to give serious attention to the workings of the mind. But now science has made tremendous advances with tools such as MRI and other machines so that scientists are much better equipped to handle issues of the mind and meditation, which 10 to 15 years ago would not be possible. Emory is one of the leaders in this field.”
Emory is taking that leadership position one step further in creating a new Encyclopedia of Contemplative Studies, spearheaded by Dunne. The encyclopedia is receiving a total of $155,000 in strategic planning funding over the next four years, in addition to grants from the Hershey Foundation and others.
The encyclopedia will be published as an educational Web site and will draw material from a database that will be updated continuously with the latest findings.
“What the encyclopedia will do for the first time is allow us to understand prayer and meditation in a very deep and rich way not only in terms of one tradition, but across traditions,” Dunne said.
“One role of the encyclopedia will be to help scientists identify the active ingredients in contemplative practice,” said Dunne. “The National Institutes of Health is starting to fund these studies; they want to know the differences in these practices, how and why they work the way they do. Amazingly enough, this has never been done.” Until now.