Reimagining Human Flourishing

In March 2018, in Dharamsala, India, home of the Central Tibetan Administration, an international group of leading education researchers, scientists, and scholars gathered with classroom teachers to strategize with the Dalai Lama about humanity’s future.

In a five-day exchange entitled “Reimagining Human Flourishing,” they came together to consider a problem both practical and existential. In this era in which humankind faces challenges of global scale, from social inequality to political corruption to ecological devastation, how can we best prepare young people—not only in the academic skills and knowledge they need to succeed as workers in the global economy—but in the social-emotional, ethical, and practical skills they need to survive and flourish?

“If we are truly to reimagine human flourishing,” said Mind & Life Institute President Susan Bauer-Wu in her opening remarks, “it needs to begin with the youngest among us and the values and attitudes they hold toward each other, and their roles as local and global citizens… Students need to learn how to embrace differences, manage emotions, and work together, she argued. “The stakes couldn’t be higher.”

Mind & Life Institute President Susan Bauer-Wu: “True wisdom comes when we combine the acquisition of knowledge with the cultivation of qualities like kindness and compassion.”

Over five days, participants gathered around a coffee table in the Dalai Lama’s main temple, on a hilltop framed by the Himalaya. Surrounding them in crowded rows sat over 200 invited guests. An online audience of 2.5 million joined via livestream, many listening to simultaneous translations in Tibetan, Chinese, and Russian.

Each morning, the speakers introduced the Dalai Lama to different aspects of social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools—the programs and processes by which students develop the self-awareness, self-regulation, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success. Presentations explored the science of human development that underlies SEL, summarized the latest research on the effectiveness of SEL interventions, and showed examples of a new wave of cutting-edge SEL programs that include the training of attention and ethical dispositions like kindness and compassion.

Presenters solicited the Dalai Lama’s input and, at times, engaged in lively debate. In the afternoons, they discussed the morning’s topics among themselves and addressed open research questions. They then fielded questions from the audience, which included prominent representatives from organizations teaching SEL worldwide, leaders of the mindfulness movement, renowned teachers of Buddhism, and dozens of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns.

Roots of this Conversation in Previous Mind & Life Dialogues

This 33rd Mind & Life Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, co-sponsored by The Mind & Life Institute and The Dalai Lama Trust, continued a conversation about prosocial development and how it can be cultivated that has evolved since 1995 over five previous Mind & Life Dialogues (see resources). In addition, this was the second major meeting with the Dalai Lama specifically about education. The first, entitled “Educating World Citizens,” took place in 2009.

Like previous Mind & Life Dialogues with the Dalai Lama, this one brought scientists, scholars, and researchers into conversation with experts on Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice. This Dialogue added an additional dimension of bridge-building by inviting another sort of practitioner to the mix: classroom teachers. These educators wielded a different kind of authority, derived from their first-hand experiences of teaching SEL and witnessing its transformative results for students. In short videos, they showed how students had come to learn skills related to self-awareness, self-regulation, reflection, and pro-social behavior that are the foundations of a kind of education that the Dalai Lama calls “a real basis for hope.”

How the Content is Structured

The content that follows begins with an introduction to the Dalai Lama’s “Education of the Heart” (Chapter 1), followed by an overview of what is now a growing, worldwide SEL movement (Chapter 2). Presenters then explore the “crisis of emotion” among today’s young people (Chapter 3) as reflected in rising rates of anxiety and depression, with a particular focus on the United States. In Chapter 4, researchers examine the influence of genetic and environmental factors on child development, and how SEL interventions can help build resilience and pro-social behaviors. The focus then turns to examples of SEL tools and curricula (Chapter 5) inspired by the Dalai Lama’s “Education of the Heart,” along with approaches for helping students and teachers manage stress (Chapter 6) and nurture attention (Chapter 7). Finally, presenters make the case for why teaching secular ethics and compassion (Chapter 8 and Chapter 9) is so critical in today’s world. The Dialogue concludes with an Afterword that weaves together key conference themes and how they fit within the broader SEL movement.

Individual chapters highlight key takeaways derived from longer presentations and discussions. Each can be read as a standalone. Those wishing to go deeper can access links to the full-length video recordings of each session at the bottom of those chapters.

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