Several of the world’s big thinkers convened Wednesday on a living room-like stage at Madison’s Overture Center to talk global climate change, the nature of happiness and other weighty topics, all in the presence of a keenly interested Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
The daylong event, called “Change Your Mind, Change the World,” brought together experts in neuroscience, health care, psychology, economics and the environment. A core theme was that many seemingly intractable global problems could be eased with a better understanding of the profound effect that emotional well-being has on one’s physical health.
“There’s no more important conversation going on on this planet than the conversation that has been going on at this conference,” said Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, who moderated the afternoon panel discussion.
It was the second day of public appearances for the Dalai Lama, who arrived Monday in Madison for a four-day visit, his ninth since 1979. Tuesday, he gave a public teaching on Buddhism for 2 hours and 42 minutes before 3,500 people at Alliant Energy Center, then later addressed state legislators.
Wednesday’s sold-out event was sponsored by the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the Global Health Institute, both UW-Madison entities that are doing groundbreaking work on issues the Dalai Lama cares deeply about, including mindfulness and environmental sustainability.
The event was divided into a morning session and an afternoon session, both in Overture Hall, which seats 2,200. Tickets for each session cost $10 to $200. Some people attended both.
It was a more conversational format than Tuesday’s public teaching, leading to more levity. Each expert spoke for about 15 minutes on the latest research or developments in his or her field, then sought reaction from His Holiness. He often infused his comments with humor, usually intentionally but not always.
After Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, related a study that found the average American doesn’t focus on what he or she is doing 47 percent of the time because of a wandering mind, the Dalai Lama — who meditates four to five hours a day — asked through his translator, “Can you explain what mind-wandering is?”
The crowd broke into laughter and applause.
“The audience, I think, is laughing because the concept, to you, I think, is foreign,” Davidson said. “Your mind is so steady.”
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Once the definition was explained to the Dalai Lama, he assured the crowd he suffers from that, too. As a child, his mind sometimes wandered when he tried to memorize long passages, he said.
“Now they call that attention-deficit disorder,” responded Huffington, to more laughter, “and they put children on Ritalin.”
The participants sat on soft gray chairs in a semi-circle over a large Oriental rug, with the Dalai Lama in the middle on a violet chair. Throughout both sessions, he wore a baseball cap with the event’s logo on it.
The morning session focused on “global health and sustainable well-being.” The most enthusiastic audience response followed remarks by Dr. Don Berwick, a former Obama administration official and one of the nation’s leading authorities on health care quality, and Richard Layard, an emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics and a member of the House of Lords.
Both made strong pitches for greater investment in the treatment of mental illness, saying there’s a huge demand for psychological treatment, yet our current system rations it. Ninety percent of people with diabetes receive treatment, compared with only one-third of those with mental illnesses, Layard said.
Ilona Kickbusch, director of the Global Health Programme at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, told the Dalai Lama she wore a pink scarf so that his red robe wouldn’t be the only splash of color on stage. She spoke of efforts to broaden the global definition of health to include emotional and spiritual well-being.
The Dalai Lama spent considerable time pressing for an international curriculum on “secular ethics.” He stressed that in his country, India, the word “secular” has no anti-religion connotation.
The afternoon session focused on “science, happiness and well-being.” At its conclusion, Huffington asked the Dalai Lama whether he saw any “tipping point” ahead that would suggest the world’s population can solve its problems.
“Within this century, if we make constant effort with clear vision ... I think possibility there,” he said.
On Thursday, the Dalai Lama is scheduled to speak to nearly 200 Tibetan college students from the Midwest at Deer Park Buddhist Center, then leave Madison in the afternoon.