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Dr. David Vago on Self Transcendence and Personal Growth
How to Experience Personal Growth and Awakening Through Meditation and Meta Awareness

David Vago (@dave_vago), Ph.D., is on a mission to alleviate suffering and improve well-being through investigating connections between the mind, brain, and body. In this episode of Passion Struck with John R. Miles, we discuss self-transcendence and how to experience personal growth and awakening through meditation and meta-awareness.

Dr. David Vago is a Research Associate Professor and Director of the Contemplative Neuroscience and Mind-Body Research Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at Vanderbilt University. He is part of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute and Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology, and Inflammation faculty. Dr. Vago maintains a research associate position in the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and is also Research Lead for the mental health and well-being platform, Roundglass, and a Mind and Life Institute Fellow. Over one million people have viewed Dr. Vago’s Ted Talk on self-transformation.

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Self-transcendence is not only having the distance between yourself and your thoughts, so you have awareness, but you’re then creating union with something greater than yourself.

Dr. David Vago

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What I Discuss With Dr. David Vago On Self Transcendence, Meditation and Personal Growth

  • We discuss how the study of meditation became David’s life’s work and pursuit in academia.
  • Why his goal is to put an end to human suffering and the importance of meta-awareness in that pursuit.
  • How Dr. David Vago’s work with the mind and life institute created the avenue for him to meet the Dali Lama.
  • The challenge the Dalai Lama gave Dr. Vago to make his mission.
  • The enormous value that meditation can have for our health and in creating a balanced life.
  • His study of the adaptive mind-brain-body interactions in humans.
  • He describes the work that contemplative science is undertaking to develop altruistic tendencies, including empathy and compassion, and selfless acts of love.
  • The role in understanding human flourishing and self-transcendence.
  • Have any questions, comments, or stories you’d like to share with us? Drop us a line at [email protected]m!
  • And much more…
123 | Self Transcendence: How to Experience Personal Growth and Awakening | Dr. David Vago | Passion Struck with John R. Miles
123 | Self Transcendence: How to Experience Personal Growth and Awakening | Dr. David Vago | Passion Struck with John R. Miles

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More About This Show On Self-Transcendence, Personal Growth and Meditation with Dr. David Vago

I asked Dr. Vago about the importance of meditation to our personal growth.

He points out, ” Meditation allows you to create a distance with your negatively oriented thoughts. And that distance, we sometimes refer to it as a psychological distance or as the centering practice. So you’re decentering away from your own thoughts. You’re holding the thought in front of you and realizing that those thoughts, I’m sick, I’m unwell, I am not good enough, are just thoughts. Because if you let it overwhelm you, it takes over your whole physiology becomes part of your identity, and you can’t escape it. Right. And this idea of transcending the self. William James once said, ‘we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.’ And that is what we’re talking about. It is not only having the distance between yourself and your thoughts, so you have awareness, and it’s sort of a safe place to be, but you’re then creating union with something greater than ourselves. And that’s where we’ll find not only optimizing our, our performance, but we’ll find a sense of purpose and meaning.”

The Challenge Given to Dr. David Vago by the Dalai Lama

During our interview, I questioned Dr. Vago on the challenge given to him by the Dalai Lama.

Dr. Vago describes their meeting “His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, ‘now, you and your generation have the responsibility to build a happy, peaceful world.’ It’s hard for me to say that, knowing that right now, Ukraine is being invaded, and people can die in the context of war. But millions of people want a peaceful world. They’re just lacking the knowledge of how to do so. There are just these structures embedded in our world and in our society to compete with each other. But so few individuals show interest in actually doing the work to change it. He was telling us month by month, year by year, we will gain awareness about these things: how to bring more conviction to others’ minds with evidence to convince people to change.”

How Self-Transcendence and Contemplative Science Impacts Your Self-Identity

We discuss how self-transcendence is the idea that there is something to transcend the self as if the self is something that is created through time. Over time, you have certain thoughts and emotions that construct your self-identity. It is a clinical model of self-reification, proper conditioning, and habit formation. It all leads to how we conceptualize our identity, our needs, wants, fears, expectations, attitudes, and values. It is how our whole worldview is constructed. And so what meditation does, is it allows you to create a distance with those thoughts to find your greatest peace.

Dr. Vago further explains, “contemplative science is really defined as the scholarly and scientific investigation of contemplative practice. This involves general techniques that focus attention in a sustained fashion intending to deepen states of concentration, tranquility, and insight. This allows us to broaden our field of awareness and develop altruistic tendencies, including empathy, compassion, and selfless acts of love. It can involve the study of intentional first-person phenomenology. It can be common, uncultivated, spontaneous experiences of absorption, all of which can be a self-transcendent experience, where you feel union with something greater than oneself and your own self. Where your self salience is diminished.”

Thanks, Dr. David Vago!

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*Roundglass: and Equanimity – MR Tom, DR Vago – The Virtues in Psychiatric Practice, 2021. This edited text describes the use of positive psychology and contemplative practices in the context of psychiatry.

* How meditation changes the brain: A neurophilosophical and pragmatic account. DR Vago – Routledge Handbook on the Philosophy of Meditation, 2022 This Handbook on the Philosophy of Meditation provides a comprehensive overview and analysis of the state of the field of the philosophy of meditation and engages primarily in the philosophical assessment of the merits of meditation practices.

* Yaden, D. B., J. Haidt, R. W. Hood, D. R. Vago, and A. B. Newberg (2017). “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience.” Review of General Psychology 21(2): 143-160. [Link]

* Vago, D. R. and D. A. Silbersweig (2012). “Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness.” Front Hum Neurosci 6: 296. [Link]

* Vago, D. R. and F. Zeidan (2016). “The brain on silent: mind wandering, mindful awareness, and states of mental tranquility.” Ann N Y Acad Sci 1373(1): 96-113. [Link]

* Davis, J. H. and D. R. Vago (2014). “Can enlightenment be traced to specific neural correlates, cognition, or behavior? No, and (a qualified) Yes.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. [Link]

Dr. David Vago quote "Flourishing is a model in which you have optimal human functioning. If you can cultivate this element of positive reframing and savoring, you can optimize a sense of goodness" from the passion struck podcast

* The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

* The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

* Transcend by Scott Barry Kauffman

Check out John’s episode on the science that promotes Curiosity. Catch up with Episode 114.

Are you showing yourself self-compassion? John discusses Self-Love in episode 104.

Is the Hustle Culture is Making You Miserable? John explores this in-depth in Episode 70.

Suppose you missed our interview with Susan Cain on her new book BittersweetDownload it here.

Catch the episode I did with Jeff Walker on the criticality of systems change. You can find the episode here.

About Today’s Guest Dr. David Vago

Dr. David Vago Passion Struck Podcast Cover

David Vago is a Research Associate Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University where he directs the Contemplative Neuroscience & Mind-Body Research Laboratory. He also maintains an appointment as a research associate in the Department of Psychiatry, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. Dr. Vago is the former research director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and is currently the Research Lead for the wholistic well-being company, RoundGlass. Dr. Vago is a Mind and life fellow, an advisory board member for many integrative health and wellness initiatives, and a founding member of the International Society for Contemplative Research (ISCR).

Dr. Vago has over 15 years of experience studying the basic neurobiological mechanisms supporting Mind-Body practices and the effects on mental health and well-being.

Through mixed methods of neuroimaging, predictive computational modeling, neuroendocrine biomarker identification, cognitive-behavioral, and first-person phenomenological analyses, Dr. Vago helps facilitate a multi-pronged research program in basic science, clinical trials, and intervention development, education, and innovation. He has been a recipient of several research grants from the NIH and small foundations and has published over 50 peer-reviewed journal articles, chapters, and scientific abstracts. His research has been covered by mainstream news outlets such as The Huffington Post, Boston Globe, Newsweek, Scientific American, and NPR, among others. As a thought leader in the field of integrative health and mindfulness research, Dr. Vago has given over 150 keynotes and invited lectures, oral presentations, and grand rounds.

A number of research initiatives that are ongoing include Mapping the Meditative Mind, in which the Dr. Vago has partnered with contemporary meditation teachers and scholars to investigate psychosocial and neurobiological mechanisms supporting states of meditation across the spectrum of formal meditative expertise. Another initiative aims to identify mechanisms of engagement, identify predictors for clinical outcomes, and optimize mindfulness-based treatment interventions.


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John R. Miles is a serial entrepreneur and the CEO and founder of Passion Struck. This full-service media company helps people live intentionally by creating best-in-class educational and entertainment content. John is also a prolific public speaker, venture capitalist, and author named to the ComputerWorld Top 100 IT Leaders.

John is the host of the PassionStruckPodcast. A show focused on exploring the mindset and philosophy of the world’s highest achievers to learn their lessons to living intentionally. Passion Struck aspires to speak to the humanity of people in a way that makes them want to live better, be better and impact.

Stay tuned for John’s latest project, his upcoming book, which will be published in summer 2022.

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