There is something almost surreal about watching a Buddhist monk in Tibetan robes address a conference room full of Manhattan elite about the principles of enlightenment and happiness. But it’s all in a day’s work for Matthieu Ricard, biochemist-turned-Buddhist-monk and author of two bestselling books: Happiness and Altruism. On the evening of October 20, at the Players Club near Gramercy Park, Ricard spoke to New York’s finest about mindfulness and meditation as part of an event hosted by The Path and General Assembly.
If you’re not familiar with these organizations, you definitely should be. They are part of a movement amongst forward-thinking professionals to make the world a better place through cultivating health, compassion, serenity and learning in their social networks and beyond. The Path teaches meditation techniques to urban professionals, and General Assembly offers immersive courses in the most relevant skills of the 21st century—from web development to user experience design.
If you, like many hardened New Yorkers of the older schools of thought, guffaw with cynicism at the mere mention of such New Age-y buzzwords as “mindfulness” and “meditation,” you might want to suspend your skepticism until at least the end of this article. The gathering at the Players Club on Tuesday night raised $25,000, all of which will go to support humanitarian efforts in Tibet, India and Nepal. It is enough money to rebuild an entire school that was devastated by the earthquake in Nepal.
Ricard’s lecture outlined advances in the interface between neuroscience, technology, and ancient Buddhist meditation. And the 300 or so smartly-dressed and beautiful New Yorkers in attendance were all buzzing with a shared insider joy about this science.
“We can’t put the Dalai Lama in an MRI machine. That would be disrespectful,” laughed Ricard. “But we are collecting scientific data that proves, beyond a doubt, that meditation has the power to reduce anxiety and raise antibodies to fight disease.” Many practitioners also insist that it helps them find clarity with life goals and major value decisions.
Ricard holds a PhD in molecular genetics, but these days he resides at the Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling monastery in Nepal where he acts as the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama. He gave one of the most popular TED talks in history, The Habits of Happiness, and he is a board member of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization devoted to furthering collaborative research between scientists and Buddhist scholars and practitioners.
“We can train our minds,” he told the roomful of attentive Wall Street brokers and philanthropists as he described the virtues of compassion, discipline, giving and forgiveness. “We can change the world.”
The event was sponsored by a technology startup called Muse, a new brain-sensing device that helps guide you through your meditation practice. This is a sleek headband that measures your brain activity and sends feedback about your meditation to your smartphone.
I was lucky enough to speak with Ariel Garten, CEO and co-designer of Muse, after Ricard’s lecture. Garten is a both neuroscientist and an entrepreneur, and she is is highly passionate about her product and mindful living.
“Muse is encouraging everyday people to try meditation,” she explained enthusiastically. “That’s what is amazing about it.”
Because the headband measures your brain activity while simultaneously soothing you with nature sounds, it has the ability to recognize when you reach a truly deep meditative state. It rewards you by adding peaceful bird chirps to the background noise.
But, Garten explained, the the bird chirps are actually a test. Because they signify a reward, or an accomplishment in your meditation practice, the chirps are sneakily trying to pull you out of your deep meditative state. The goal is to keep meditating while the musical sound of bird chirps slyly let you know that you are on the fast track to one day bending spoons with your mind and levitating like any Buddhist master.
“The bird chirps are my favorite part” Garten winked. “It’s a mind trick.”
As Matthieu the monk bid goodnight to his many New York admirers, there was tangible feeling of warmth, glow and optimism about the room. Maybe it’s all true. Maybe all this strange and beautiful digital-era splicing of science and spirituality is more than just New Age mumbo jumbo. Maybe technology combined with love can solve the world’s problems.
-by Rachel Veroff