If you haven’t heard of the Nalanda Institute For Contemplative Science, you’re not alone. This remarkable organization has been operating under the radar for several years, quietly building an esteemed and multidisciplinary faculty (think big names like Robert Thurman and Sharon Salzberg, as well as NYC distinguishables such as the founder Joe Loizzo and assistant director Miles Neales). This spring, the Institute is launching two new programs to complement their already innovative curriculum. One of things that makes the Nalanda Institute unique is their synthesis of modern and ancient tools. Drawing from Buddhist philosophy, modern psychology and contemporary neuroscience, the curriculum guides students to a profound understanding of human psychology and spirituality using both ancient Tibetan meditation techniques, as well as cutting edge scientific research. From one time meditation events for novices, to professional programs for therapists, to a Four Year Course in Sustainable Happiness, the Nalanda Institute is now branching out to address two of the biggest challenges of the modern era: the predominance of ADD medication in children and mindfulness in business.
YogaCity NYC’s Megan Mook sat down with the founder of the Nalanda Institute Joe Loizzo, M.D., Ph.D, and found out why he developed this distinctive project, and how it’s been steadily evolving over the past five years. In the interview, Dr. Loizzo, who is also the author of Sustainable Happiness: The Mind Science of Well Being, Altruism, and Inspiration, explains how the University's ancient approach to education is particularly suited to the modern spiritual aspirant.
Megan Mook: Where did the idea first come from?
Dr. Joe Loizzo: It was the convergence of two streams. When I came back to the East Coast to go to graduate school with Bob Thurman, I needed a job, and I got one in the Columbia Psychiatry Department, where I started a center for meditation and healing at Columbia Presbyterian. It was the first center of its kind in a major psychiatry department and also the first to include the Tibetan perspective. Meanwhile, in my dissertation for the religious department, I was studying about the University of Nalanda, reading about how it worked, and what it would be like to be a student there back in the fifth century A.D. Eventually I found that the medical school and the university itself didn’t provide the setting that I wanted to create for study. The psychiatry department was uncomfortable with my teaching the philosophies that went with the meditation, and much less the ethics. Meanwhile in the religion department, I could teach Buddhist philosophy and ethics, but I couldn’t teach meditation, because that would be religious. The idea for the Nalanda Institute was the coming together of the two sides of my career.
MM: Can you tell me about the evolution you are undergoing?
JL: Until now, our major program had been our Four Year Program which is really contemplative living for everybody. We recently added a contemplative program for psychotherapists. That’s an intensive two-year program which just opened last fall. It filled right away and is incorporating unusual things because in the second year we introduce Tibetan tools of meditation for therapists. I think we’re the only program in the country that does this. And now we’re developing two other programs that are also special focused, targeted programs. Basically, we’re entering a phase where we’re branching out from teaching not only contemplative living for everyone, to focusing on three special populations, one being therapists, one being families—we’re exploring alternatives to ADD for kids and their families, and the other being business and mindfulness. These are hot topics right now which we’ve been working into over the last few years.
MM: Explain the “gradual approach” that you teach at Nalanda?
JL: It’s this idea of integrating many approaches in a single, developmental teaching curriculum that tries to expose everybody to everything, like a liberal arts curriculum, starting from what’s considered to be the most basic and moving on. Tibetan Buddhism committed itself to this gradual approach. So that’s my approach too. Even today—when this approach is 10 or 12 centuries old— I think that this tradition is still going to be a very powerful teaching tool because we’re mainly teaching laypeople, we’re mainly teaching people who have very limited religious, meditative and philosophical education, people that are sort of—from a Buddhist point of view—illiterate in that regard. And here’s a tradition, a way of teaching that serves as an everything-you-need-to-know about contemplative living, but had nobody-to-ask kind of thing. And that’s kind of how we teach it—it’s like a liberal arts curriculum for contemplative learning.
MM: If I were to take your Four Year Course in Sustainable Happiness, would the Nalanda Institute guarantee my happiness?
JL: (laughter) Well, we would certainly guarantee that if you learned well and practiced consistently over time, that you would be on a trajectory toward more and more lasting happiness. At a certain point, it just becomes hard to deny that there’s wisdom to these ancient approaches. It’s science—it’s like physics. It just works.
The Institute will kick off the new programs at their Annual Benefit, Friday, May 2, honoring the first graduating class of the Four Year Course in Sustainable Happiness. Neuroscientist and author Dr. Dan Siegel will lead two seminars on Saturday, May 3, Mindful Families: to Meditate or Medicate, and Mindful Businesses: Inspiring Resilience, Unleashing Innovation. For more information about the course offerings, the Annual Benefit and the flagship seminars with Dr. Dan Seigel.