ASU professor to take part in free event with the Dalai Lama

Life can feel hopeless and challenging at times, and it can be easy to be overwhelmed. Young adults in particular are experiencing a difficult time worldwide from the pandemic, political polarization and conflict. According to a recent report, over 13% of young adults in the United States have reported experiencing at least one major depressive episode in the last year.

Associate Professor Michelle “Lani” Shiota from the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University is hoping to change the conversation to a message of hope. She is participating in the event “Embracing Hope, Courage and Compassion in Times of Crisis featuring His Holiness, the Dalai Lama,” hosted by the Mind & Life Institute on Dec. 7 at 8:30 p.m. MST.  (Registration is free.) 

Shiota is a social psychologist who leads the Shiota Psychophysiology Laboratory for Affective Testing (SPLAT Lab). Her research is on emotions, with an emphasis on positive emotions, emotion processing in close relationships and the implications of emotion for health and well-being. 

The Dalai Lama has been recognized as a Nobel laureate for his concern for global environmental problems and promoting nonviolent, interreligious understanding and compassion.

The Mind & Life Institute is a collaborative group that brings science and wisdom together to better understand the mind and create positive change in the world. The group was founded in 1987 by the Dalai Lama; Francisco Varela, a scientist; and Adam Engle, a lawyer and businessman. They seek to relieve suffering through intention and action.

“Mind & Life is a collaboration between His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and a leading group of academic researchers, particularly in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy,” Shiota said. “The goal is to try to understand how Buddhist philosophy and the scientific study of the mind can learn from each other, work together and identify areas of overlap to mutually inform each other.” 

In addition to Shiota, professors John Dunne from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Elissa Epel from the University of California, San Francisco will be discussants, along with Thupten Jinpa, who is a translator for the Dalai Lama.

“We will share what psychological science is saying about the mind and about well-being, invite His Holiness, the Dalai Lama to comment on these findings and related questions from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective, and get the ideas out there to the public,” Shiota said.

The Dalai Lama’s teachings influenced the teachings and practice of Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield, as well as the research of psychologists Paul Ekman and Richard Davidson, who are recognized as pioneers in the study of emotions and the brain.

“There is for some people a mistaken notion about Buddhism and Buddhists, which is that they aren’t pro-science. In particular His Holiness, the Dalai Lama is quite pro-science and has had a substantial influence on the scientific research around mindfulness and emotions,” Shiota said.

Instead of a lecture, this event is designed to be an interactive conversation, with researchers and practitioners acknowledging and addressing the fact that we are living through a really hard time right now — worldwide, there is the pandemic, climate change, intensifying intergroup conflict and accelerating political polarization.

The conversation hopes to touch on the emotional toll and distress facing those who may feel hopeless or powerless in the face of these adversities.

“Many people, young adults in particular, feel that these problems are so great, so much bigger than me, that they seem intractable,” Shiota said. “'What can I possibly do?' So that is eliciting this discussion.”

She hopes that the conversation can inform how we can act as a community and help people to manage stressors collectively.

“The purpose of this conversation is to have a dialogue that acknowledges how difficult things are right now, but also integrates evidence from science and wisdom from the Buddhist perspective and practice,” Shiota said. “'How do I get through this time in a healthy way with my well-being intact, and maybe even make a difference for the future?'”

Western society often talks about resilience, or the process of bouncing back from hardship, as the mechanism that we can focus on improving. Shiota suggests that this primary focus on the individual is characteristic of Western culture. The Buddhist conceptualization also encourages focusing on how society functions collectively in a constructive way.

“I’m very interested in this question of general well-being, and I’m very excited to be participating this year. What appeals to me is that I am a scientist, but I am also a human being and I genuinely want the answers to the questions that we are asking,” Shiota said. “The Dalai Lama is a profoundly wise person who comes from a perspective that is very different from my own, but which I respect enormously.”

The event is open to any and all who would like to attend. Registration is free at this link: mindandlife.org/event/embracing-hope-courage-and-compassion.

Shiota is optimistic about the value of engaging in the conversation.

“I hope that someone attending this event would feel a little lighter, a little more inspired and a little more empowered to think through what they can do as part of a community in collaboration with other people.”

Robert Ewing
rjewing1@asu.edu