On Faith

For a Week, D.C. Focuses on Meditation

At a group meditation last week at River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, participants were informed about Meditate DC, a week-long series of events on meditation.
At a group meditation last week at River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, participants were informed about Meditate DC, a week-long series of events on meditation. (Photos By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 6, 2005

Susan Green is a lawyer who specializes in resolving disputes through mediation rather than in court. The District resident also meditates four evenings a week, and she is convinced that the spiritual practice has improved her conflict resolution skills.

On Saturday, Green's message will reach a wider audience. At a workshop that she organized, a panel of legal experts will discuss how meditation can help lawyers and mediators by boosting their "mindfulness" -- the inner capacity of being fully aware of the present moment.

Mindfulness meditation "can really make us more effective lawyers," Green said. "When you're able to . . . gain some distance from your own emotions about what is going on in the room around you . . . then you can deal more skillfully with opposing parties and with clients in a mediation room."

The lawyers' workshop is part of Meditate DC, a week-long, high-profile exploration of Eastern meditation's benefits that is being staged in Washington to coincide with a 10-day visit to the city by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist leader from Chinese-occupied Tibet.

The scope of Meditate DC and the related events on the Dalai Lama's schedule illustrate how widely accepted meditation has become in the United States. At a three-day conference this week at DAR Constitution Hall, doctors, scientists and monks will join him in discussing meditation's role in the prevention and treatment of disease. Free meditation training sessions will be offered at workplaces ranging from the World Bank to the Humane Society.

Sponsors of individual events include such institutions as Washington National Cathedral, Georgetown University Hospital and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The one-week celebration, which begins today, also has the blessing of the D.C. Council, which passed a resolution urging "all District residents to learn the practice of meditation."

The attention and praise from the political and medical establishments are in sharp contrast to meditation's image in this country in the 1960s, when its chief advocates were leaders of the hippie and psychedelic drug movements, or as recently as the 1980s, when it was associated mostly with converts to Eastern religions. The ancient Buddhist spiritual practice is now a habit among millions of Americans of almost every faith who say it has helped them achieve physical relaxation, emotional balance and spiritual growth.

Still, claims of a proven scientific link between meditation and mental health have drawn skepticism from many scientists. Some are dubious of the research findings that will be touted at the conference, being held Tuesday through Thursday. And a speech that the Dalai Lama is scheduled to deliver Saturday at the Society for Neuroscience's annual convention, on the topic of how meditation affects brain activity, has generated controversy.

Although his appearance at the convention is part of a new program featuring speakers from fields outside neuroscience, some members of the society have criticized the decision to invite a religious figure.

"I think science and religion should be kept separate," said Rory McQuiston, an assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Virginia Commonwealth University, adding that he was worried that giving the Dalai Lama such a platform would create "a slippery slope."

Some of the criticism is politically motivated, the Dalai Lama's supporters contend. "The strongest comments are from the Chinese scientists," said Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, which is co-hosting the Dalai Lama's visit. "This is not at all surprising. . . . Chinese protests against high-profile visits of the Dalai Lama are routine wherever he travels."

On Nov. 13, he will give a public talk at MCI Center on "global peace through compassion."

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