The Dalai Lama is a lot more playful than your average Harvard professor, which is one reason his appearance at a Harvard psychology conference on Friday was so entertaining. The Dalai Lama who at 73 has an agile, mischievous mind and an abiding interest in psychology accepted Harvard’s invitation because he wanted a lively debate about the latest science on mental health. He wanted to play. What he got was an audience of earnest academic worshippers. He played anyway.
The occasion was Harvard’s fourth annual conference on the massive changes that meditation and mindfulness techniques are bringing to everyday psychology. Whereas many psychologists in the postwar era tried to “correct” negative thinking by asking patients didactic questions , the latest wave of therapy is all about watching your negative thoughts flow through you instead of trying to fix them. Mindfulness means disentangling yourself from your thoughts, which is what monks like the Dalai Lama have been doing for centuries.
The Dalai Lama is just as interested in shrinks and academics as they are in him. In 2005, he met in Sweden with Dr. Aaron “Tim” Beck of the University of Pennsylvania, the inventor of cognitive therapy and, at 87, one of the most influential psychologists in the world. He’s also met several times with neuroscientists specializing in research on brain mechanisms associated with various kinds of meditation.
The latest such research shows that daily meditation can improve mental and physical health, but at Harvard the Dalai Lama wasn’t convinced by some of the comically deferential and facile extrapolations made from there. When one Harvard psychologist suggested that Western cultures defy the biological imperative to connect with others an make it more challenging to be compassionate, the Dalai Lama paused for 20 seconds before answering. “Firstly,” he said, “some people make a distinction between West and East. And there are some lifestyle differences … but in the mental area, I don’t think there are differences … At the mental level, I don’t think there’s any sort of demarcation between East and West.”
Other researchers also seemed to puzzle the Dalai Lama. Conference organizer Christopher Germer, author of the forthcoming book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself From Destructive Thoughts and Emotions, asked His Holiness whether he would “lead us in a brief meditation that the therapists in this room could practice at home to cultivate compassion for themselves as well as for their patients.” The Dalai Lama shot him a skeptical look that got everyone laughing. He was sweet about it, but meditation isn’t a “brief” trick.
The Dalai Lama seemed at every turn to want to soften the hard intellectual mood to have a flickering back-and-forth with the other panelists. He took his shoes off at one point and carefully folded his legs underneath him first the left, then the right. He loudly blew his nose into a tissue at one point, and he laughed a lot with those great sparkly eyes.
Finally, one of the panelists responded to his body language. Marsha Linehan, one of the world’s leading psychologists, invented Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a highly effective, widely replicated treatment for suicidal and self-harming patients that includes mindfulness. Before Linehan spoke, the Dalai Lama had asked a playful question: “What, exactly, is psychology” No other panelist answered him, but Linehan addressed the question as soon as she spoke. She called psychology “the science of behavior, including the behavior of the mind.”
And for the first time, the Dalai Lama seemed truly delighted, since here was something, and someone, to engage. “You mean psychology is not just the mind itself”
“No,” Linehan answered. “It is the study of the mind. You study it also, of course.”
Playful as always, he looked at Linehan approvingly and said, “Now, your answer, instead of solving the problem, creates more confusion … I feel I am still in kindergarten.” And with that, he laughed like a little kid, and finally, so did everyone else.
See TIME’s photos of the Dalai Lama at home
See TIME’s photos of a new Tibet