he starting point for this symposium is to consider the findings of neuroscience on brain laterality. The purpose is firstly to reflect on the implications of this research for sustained practices of prayer and meditation in a secular age as well as for the absence of such practices. The second point of reflection will involve an examination of what conclusions reached as the result of the first exercise may mean for rethinking monastic life and ascetical practices more broadly. The gathering of scholars and scientists will also focus on the means by which the latter, in particular practices associated with the deepest decentering or displacement of self, might be introduced to young people who are at once suspicious of and searching for a wider narrative that draws them beyond the circle of personal relationships. Attentiveness, as understood in the Christian contemplative tradition and from Buddhist epistemological and philosophy of mind perspectives, will be considered in relation to the modern scientific understanding of the structure and function of the human brain.
Among the questions participants intend to explore are:
How much can the best fMRI studies tell us about the neuro-physiological effects of long-term meditation?
To what extent can neuro-physiological findings on ‘lateral’ functioning reveal anything about the ‘soul’ (if it exists and whatever it means)?
What is one to make of the notion of right brain primacy from the point of view of Indian Buddhist theories of knowledge and ideas about the mind-brain relationship?
If contemporary Western society attended in a systematic way to what has been speculated about the importance of the right brain in terms of its facility for ‘seeing’ things in context, understanding implicit meanings, metaphor, and body language, grasping intrinsic and aesthetic worth, and considering several options at once, what would be the moral and spiritual effects?
Can embodied attention foster virtue in terms of providing positive social support for others and resisting negative forces? If ‘attention’ has a sustained character for humans under the conditions of musical response, ritual, and prayer, what does this mean for the personal assimilation of doctrine, especially doctrines which—under modern ‘secular’ conditions of philosophical assessment—appear paradoxical or even self-contradictory?
Why is the practice of silence both so countercultural and yet so potentially transformative of culture in the modern West?
Does the early monastic understanding of the plasticity of the passions under conditions of sustained prayer support or complicate new ideas about brain laterality?
What place might they have in the Rule of Benedict, which has little to say on ‘individual’ development or even on individual prayer, and what does the Rule have to say to contemporary ‘secular’ culture in light of contemporary understanding of the functions of the two hemispheres of the brain?
Eleven symposiasts come together to reflect on these and other questions at Villa Palazzola, a 13th-century Cistercian abbey set in a woodland high up on the eastern shore of Lake Albano in Rocca di Papa, a small town in the Lazio region south of Rome.