Raised in Brooklyn—his father was in the real estate business—Richie, as friends call him, is still married to his college sweetheart, Susan, a perinatologist and director of the perinatal program at St. Mary's Hospital and Dean Medical Center in Madison. They were born nine days and a few blocks apart; both graduated high school at 16 (she from Erasmus, he from Midwood), and both have graduate degrees in psychology from nearby universities: his from Harvard, hers from the University of Massachusetts. "You couldn't have arranged a better match," he says.
When they arrived in Cambridge in the early 1970s, every swami guru and his mother was selling his wares and giving lectures, says the Davidsons' old friend Jon Kabat-Zinn, who had recently completed his own PhD, in molecular biology at MIT: "You could get an alternate education just by going to all the talks." The first spiritual leader to touch Davidson was Richard Alpert, the Harvard professor who'd been fired for his liberal deployment of LSD among his students and was reborn, phoenixlike, as Ram Dass. Through him, Davidson learned "that there was a way to work on yourself to transform your way of being, to make you happier and more compassionate." And that way was meditation.
Another big influence was fellow student Daniel Goleman, who went on to become a psychologist and the author of Emotional Intelligence, among other books. In 1973 he had already traveled to India, developed a contemplative practice, and published papers about it. At that time, Goleman remembers, "there was a strong sense of the new, a sense of something that had not been realized or executed before, and that it had some sort of importance for the culture."
Two visuals that distill the period for Davidson are the memory of Goleman's bright red VW van, its dashboard decorated with photographs of lamas and yogis—as enticing and otherworldly as Ken Kesey's psychedelic school bus—and a 1974 snapshot of him and Goleman wearing Harvard T-shirts and sarongs in Sri Lanka, where Goleman was then living, and where Susan and Richie visited before embarking on their first meditation retreat in India.
"My professors were firmly convinced I was going off the deep end," Davidson says. "But I knew I was going to come back. I was committed to a scientific career. Still, I needed to taste more intensive meditation in that setting." And it was the hardest work he's ever done—16-hour days, two weeks of them, in utter silence. "Anyone who says meditation is relaxation doesn't know what they're talking about. It's like trying to change the course of a river."
When he returned from India, he finished his PhD and started to craft a research career around emotions, at the time the backwater of psychology. It was extraordinarily difficult. "The measuring devices were too crude," he says. "You couldn't see, as we can now, what was happening in the brain." And neuroscience barely existed.