Generative Contemplation Symposium: The Art and Science of Effortless and Self-Emergence Contemplative Practices



Generative Contemplation Symposium: The Art and Science of Effortless and Self-Emergence Contemplative Practices


Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library Auditorium at the University of Virginia

Thursday, April 20 & Friday, April 21, 2023


Learn more about the film, "TUKDAM: Between Worlds," which was screened as part of the event on April 20 at the Violet Crown Cinema.

Across the multi-millennial discourse on contemplative practices within Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, there is a pervasive tension that persists between practices that apply effort and those that are effortless. Recently this has emerged as an important framework for interdisciplinary engagement about enhanced cognitive performance. While presented as a binary in classical accounts—as if effort is a fixed and static quantity that is present or absent—it is better understood as a descriptive framework for a spectrum of contemplative dynamics that unfold during meditative experiences, and which can be intentionally enacted, or fostered, by different contemplative techniques. These practices are performed in ongoing and dynamic shifts across a spectrum of intensities of effort.  

The symposium promises to catalyze transdisciplinary research collaborations to advance a collective understanding of the underlying dynamics of contemplative practices. We are bringing together leading specialists for an exploration of these practices in light of contemporary philosophical inquiry and psychological research on effort and effortless, self-emergent experiences. Themes of effortlessness and self-emergence in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist contemplative practices will be addressed in four overlapping domains: (I.) Cognitive Effort and Control Practices, (II.) Nondual Practices(III.) Dream and Illusion Practices(IV.) Self-Emergent Visionary Practices. Each domain will involve a creative mix of Buddhist Studies scholars, scientists, philosophers, and teacher-practitioners with distinct bodies of expertise – textual, experiential, and empirical. 

THURSDAY, April 20 
9:00-9:30am - Opening Remarks 
9:30am-12:30pmSession I: Cognitive Effort and Control Practices
12:30-1:30pm - LUNCH  
1:30-4:30pm - Session II: Nondual Practices  
7:00-10:00pm - "TUKDAM: Between Worlds" documentary film screening at the Violet Crown cinema. 
FRIDAY, April 21 
9:00-9:30am - Opening Remarks 
9:30am-12:30pm - Session III: Dream and Illusion Practices 
12:30-1:30 pm - LUNCH  
1:30-4:30pm - Session IV: Self-Emergent Visionary Practices

*The schedule is subject to change.  
Session I: Cognitive Effort and Control Practices: To illustrate how meditation involves effortful cognition, this domain concerns characterizations of mindfulness-based meditation in terms of present-centered attention or memory. Interlocutors discuss relevant theories in Buddhist texts, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind with special attention to the extent to which these theories distinguish mindfulness from (a) pleasurable absorption, and (b) cognitive control, both of which involve enhanced attention and memory. Considering contemporary models of the expected value of control in the sciences and philosophy, the domain will discuss the primary achievement in meditation being meta-control: gaining control over typically sub-personal elements of the control process.  
Session II: Nondual Awareness Practices: Styles of nondual meditation deeply informed meditative traditions in Tibet, particularly Mahāmudrā and Dzokchen. For these traditions, awareness of the nature of consciousness is key to understanding the nature of reality, but the subject-object structure – known in Western philosophy as “intentionality” – obscures the true nature of consciousness. This domain addresses crucial questions that concern (a) mechanisms that underlie the techniques for achieving such states and the how effortlessness is alleged to play therein; (b) the very notion of remaining “conscious” without intentional structures, and the relationship between nondual awareness and minimal state of consciousness; and (c) the problem of knowing – how can nondual states tell us anything, if they are not “about” objects? and the key role of reflexive awareness (Skt., svasaṃvitti).  
Session IIIDream and Illusion Practices: Practices of dreaming, and related methods for inducing perceptual and cognitive illusions, are key modes to epistemic inquiry and soteriological praxis in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist practices and literature. Buddhist practices of dream yoga – or alternatively, “sleeping meditation” – consist of well-formed practical methods to learn how to dream, train in the oneiric life, and recognize illusory qualities of waking experience. Recent neuroscience research has made headway identifying the neural correlates of dreaming states, and most recently, shown the ability for dreamers to communicate while dreaming, extending the horizons of empirical dream research. Discussing the discrete procedures of Tibetan dream yoga practices, as well as theoretical frameworks of lucid dreaming, this domain explores the science and philosophy of dreaming in the context of these contemplative practices.  
Session IVSelf-Emergent Visionary Practices: Tibetan “Great Perfection” (Dzokchen) practices involve the deliberate elicitation of effortless self-emergent visionary experiences through gazing at the sun, a cloudless sky, or complete darkness while applying specific postures, gazes, attentional modalities, focus, breathwork, and at times visualizations to stimulate and influence dynamic and autonomous visions of buddhas. Visions are endogenously generated, meaning that they are amalgamations of past experiences and the architecture of the brain. Thus, self-emergent visions could be interpreted as externalized manifestations of the self, further contributing to the expanding representation of selfhood. The practice has implications for understanding conscious experience as constructed through perceptual predictions interacting with sensory data, suggesting that much of the world we experience is from inside rather than outside.  
Registration for the two-day symposium includes a ticket for the film screening of “TUKDAM: Between Worlds” for each registered attendee. Screening will be held a the Violet Crown theater in downtown Charlottesville.
Session I: Cognitive Effort and Control Practices
1. Zac Irving (Philosophy), University of Virginia 
2. Sonam Kachru (Buddhist Studies), Yale University 
3. Chandra Sripada (Psychiatry), University of Michigan 
4. Karin Meyers (Practitioner), Mangalam Research Center
5. Georges Dreyfus (Buddhist Studies), Williams College
Session II: Nondual Awareness Practices 
1. John Dunne (Buddhist Studies), University of Wisconsin-Madison 
2. Cat Prueitt (Buddhist Studies), University of British Columbia 
3. Antoine Lutz (Neuroscience), University of Lyon, France 
4. Willa Blythe Baker (Practitioner), Natural Dharma Fellowship
5. Bryce Huebner (Philosophy), Georgetown University 
Session IIIDream and Illusion Practices
1. Michael Sheehy (Buddhist Studies), University of Virginia 
2. Jake Dalton (Buddhist Studies), University of California-Berkeley 
3. Andrew Holocek (Practitioner), Edge of Mind 
4. Ken Paller (Neuroscience), Northwestern University 
5. Melanie Boly (Neuroscience), University of Wisconsin-Madison. 
Session IV: Self-Emergent Visionary Practices 
1. David Germano (Buddhist Studies), University of Virginia  
2. Per Sederberg (Neuroscience), University of Virginia 
3. James Gentry (Buddhist Studies), Stanford University 
4. Anne Klein (Practitioner), Rice University 
5. Dave Glowacki (Technology), CiTIUS Intelligent Technologies Research Centre, Spain
This is an in-person public event at the University of Virginia. The symposium is designed to foster dialogue with an international community of scholars, scientists, and practitioners as part of the Generative Contemplation Initiative hosted by the Contemplative Sciences Center. Given this in-person focus, the symposium will not be on Zoom or otherwise broadcasted. Sessions will be recorded and disseminated at a date yet to be determined. Online registration to attend the event will open in February.
The Generative Contemplation Symposium is hosted by the Contemplative Sciences Center and co-sponsored by the UVA Tibet Center. Funding support is provided by the Hemera Foundation, Frederick P. Lenz Foundation, Page-Barbour Workshops at UVA, and Virginia Center for the Study of Religion.
For further information, contact Michael Sheehy at