Mind in the Balance?

Sunday September 13, 2009

Mind in the Balance

Over a decade ago now, whilst living up in Newcastle, I responded to an invitation to go along to Northumbria University where some post-graduate students were doing some work on meditation. From what I can remember, I had sit down on some cushions that were set up in a portacabin, and have a few electrodes glued to my head. Then I had to meditate for a short period, after which I simply had to sit quietly, the electrodes still glued in place. The research project, I think, was something to do with exploring not just the changes in brain-state brought on by meditation – something for which there is ample evidence – but also the extent to which these changes continue post-meditation. And whilst I would like to report that, half way through the experiment, one of the researchers turned to the other and cried out, “Good god, Perkins, it’s extraordinary! He’s off the scale!”, the reality was much more mundane. They simply took their readings, unglued me, gave me a cup of tea, and off I went. I never even found out what the results were.

Still, it was nice to have a small part to play in the growing field of research in the place where brain science meets Buddhist practices of meditation. I was reminded of my brief experience of life as a laboratory subject whilst reading B. Alan Wallace’s latest book, Mind in the Balance. Wallace – a former Buddhist monk and translator to the Dalai Lama, and founder of the Santa Barbara Institute of Consciousness Studies – is interested in the places where contemplative traditions and the sciences meet. This is certainly a fascinating area, and yet before even opening his new book on the subject, alarm bells were ringing. The blurb proclaims that the book explores the relationship between the sciences and both Buddhist and Christian contemplative traditions, and reveals, “the theoretical similarities underlying these disparate disciplines and their unified approach to making sense of the objective world”. Theoretical similarities? Unified approach? These are bold claims. So what, exactly, is going on here?

Wallace’s book is divided into two parts. The first – Meditation: Where it Started and How it Got Here – gives a decidedly selective view of the history of contemplative traditions, moving from ancient Greece to the desert fathers of Christianity to the India of the Buddha’s day, whilst at the same time launching an assault on what Wallace takes to be the harms of scientific materialism. The second part of the book – Meditation in Theory and Practice – then alternates between chapters on “practice” where Wallace sketches out a particular form of meditation, and “theory”, in which he reflects upon this practice.

It rapidly becomes clear that there is a vigorous dualism at work in Wallace’s work. On the one hand, there is the world of contemplation, of ethics, of spiritual truths, of meaning; and on the other hand there is the deterministic material world of genetics, instinct and emotion. And, the argument goes, whilst the sciences are very good at understanding the latter world, they are not at all advanced when it comes to the understanding of the former world. It is here that Wallace sees the need for light from contemplative traditions (in particular the contemplative tradition with which he is most familiar, that of Tibetan Buddhism) to balance out the picture. We need, in other words, a kind of “inner science” to balance the outer science with which we are familiar. Without such an inner science, our understanding not only of ourselves, but also of the universe as a whole, will be stunted; and, not only this, we risk closing ourselves off to the very spiritual realities that we are so much in need of. The stakes, it seems, could not be higher. At the very end of the book, Wallace writes that “We are now poised for the greatest renaissance the world has seen, for the first time integrating the ancient and modern insights of the East and West. The time is ripe for humanity to take the next step in our spiritual evolution so that we can successfully rise to the challenges of today’s world and flourish in the world to come” (199).

There are innumerable problems with all of this. The first problem is that of the very partial approach that Wallace has taken to contemplative traditions. He weaves together strands of ancient Pythagoreanism, Tibetan Buddhism, selected Christian writers, and certain aspects of Hinduism, to construct a a set of “truths” revealed by the “great wisdom traditions of human civilization, including religion, philosophy, and science.” In the story that Wallace is telling, as far as I can discern it, the following things are true: that all the great contemplatives, more or less, experience the same kind of thing; that consciousness is a “deep space” in need of exploration; that consciousness is somehow fundamental to the nature of the universe – if anything, more fundamental than the “mere” material world; that consciousness is essentially unbounded by birth and death, and therefore there is such a thing as rebirth; and that our collective human welfare and happiness are dependent upon these realisations. However, this account does not pay any attention to differing accounts of contemplation and of experience that undermine the story that Wallace is telling. I am not sure, for example, that the idea of contemplation as a form of exploration of some inner “deep space” is one that makes a great deal of sense when seen in the light of the Chan and Zen traditions. This is a serious problem, because if the argument rests, as it seems to, on the commonality of the findings of contemplative practitioners, then this commonality needs to be well established for Wallace’s argument to be taken seriously. Not only this, but also whilst there may be an awful lot of interest to be said about the place where science, philosophy and practices of contemplation meet, the characterisation of science, philosophy and religion as convergent wisdom traditions seems to be one that at the outset seriously skews inquiry we are engaged in. As the argument unfolds, it becomes clear that this is a view that requires not only a partial view of history and a restrictive perspective upon the traditions in question, but also a sprinkling of magic courtesy of quantum physics, if it is to work at all.

The claims that Wallace makes about the efficacy of meditation in terms of brain plasticity, mental well-being and so forth, are today relatively well-attested – although, somewhat parenthetically, it may be that there is insufficient research into the potential harms of meditation. Nevertheless, whilst it is one thing to say that meditators are in general calmer, that their frontal cortices are more frisky, that they have less violent startle-reflexes, or that they are kinder to animals and small children, it is another thing entirely to say that the accounts they give about the ultimate nature of the universe – filtered through a long and complex religious tradition – should be taken at face value – even if we found that those accounts converged substantially, which I’m not at all sure that they do. And the metaphysical views of which Wallace is trying to persuade us are so extravagant that I cannot help feeling that he needs to work rather harder.

Let us take the example of the “Rainbow Body”, discussed towards the end of the book. This is said to be the culmination of the Tibetan Dzogchen practice, in which one’s body “allegedly dissolves into shimmering, multicoloured light at death.” This is an impressive party-trick if you can pull it off, but even more impressively, it can be done without dying at all, in which case, “All the atoms of the body vanish into the absolute space of phenomena, but one still retains the appearance of a physical body, which can be seen and touched by others.” Pretty neat, but the obvious response is this: show us the evidence. When it comes to the latter version – in which I am still alive – then this seems incapable of being tested. If I told you that all the atoms of my body had indeed vanished into the absolute space of phenomena (whatever that is), whilst to all appearances looking just like me – a bloke sitting somewhere in the East Midlands of England, typing whilst the cat snoozes on a beanbag – then I cannot see any way that this could be tested. For all I know, that cat could have pulled off the same trick. And if I can still be seen and touched, in what sense can it be said that my atoms have vanished. What is the light bouncing off? What are you touching? As all of this is, as far as I can see, incapable of being tested, we can leave it to one side. The other claim – that the body, at death, could actually dissolve into a rainbow, is something for which we could find some degree of concrete evidence, but unfortunately Wallace does not provide anything like this. He tells us that there are lots of cases of eyewitness reports, but there are eyewitness reports of everything from Elvis living down the road, to alien abductions, to milk-drinking statues of Ganesh, to angels in the shopping mall. It is simply not good enough to say that the reason that we do not accept such stories is “the ideological hegemony of materialism.” We don’t accept them, generally speaking, because they are implausible, and because insufficient evidence has been advanced. As a Buddhist friend was fond of muttering, when she heard people telling stories about auspicious events such as this, “Auspicious? Suspicious, more like!”

I may, of course, be wrong. But I can’t help thinking that, when it comes to exploring the possibilities for rich dialogue between contemplative traditions and the sciences, Wallace is barking up the wrong tree. For me, I suspect that the really productive dialogue will not come from some kind of a revolution in the sciences, an overthrowing of materialism, and a discovery that the Tibetan stories were right all along, but instead it will come about from a revolution in the way that we see ourselves in the light of the sciences. For it seems to me that, when we come to exploring the knotty questions of consciousness, we are hamstrung already by a kind of mysticism: the mysticism of our idea of an enduring self, the mysticism of our belief in free will, and the curious philosophical mysticism that posits ineffable qualia. And if we are going to proceed at all in these discussions, I suspect that we will do so not by adding mysticism to mysticism, and by the spinning of new fictions, fantasies and dreams about a separate and self-subsistent spiritual realm, but rather by the realisation that those things that we take to be realities are themselves fictions, fantasies and dreams.

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#1 · Dave Bonta

13 September 2009

Thanks for continuing to confront the woo. I don’t imagine this author betrays any familiarity with the ethnographic literature about trancing and other altered states used in traditional healing practices around the world? Anthopology is probably one of those branches of science he would find irredeemable, because it might challenge the notion of some kind of evolution (meaning, of course, progress, not what biologists mean by the term) in human consciousness, culminating in Buddhism.

#2 · Frank Jude Boccio

14 September 2009

Thanks for this. I’ve read both “Choosing Reality” and “Hidden Dimensions” and found them both veering into some pretty unfounded assertions. His basic underlying “special theory of ontological relativity” (that’s what he calls it!) is the not so uncommon hypothesis that mental phenomena are conditioned by the brain but do not emerge from it. He says that the entire natural world of mind and matter, subjects and objects, arises from a unitary dimension of reality more fundamental than these dualities. And he believes shamatha practice can create a kind of telescope to examine the ‘space of the mind.’

His “Taboo of Subjectivity” says — as you allude to in your post — that science’s skepticism of subjective claims to ontological knowledge fails to acknowledge what he claims are the ‘commonalities’ found across contemplative traditions….

Are you familiar with his other books? From what I can gather from the two I’ve read and what you write about from this book, he seems to be mining the same field over and over again….

#3 · Paul Sunstone

19 September 2009

Your article was very helpful. I wonder what he feels is the point of his speculations? Does he believe that only those who get their metaphysics right can benefit from meditation, contribute to a better world, or find release from unnecessary suffering?

#4 · Alan Cook

19 September 2009

Glad to discover this review; I’m in the process of reading through Wallace’s works myself. He’s a prolific writer, cranking out a book or two a year in recent years, and he does “mine the same field over and over again.” Nonetheless, for those interested in these issues, it’s worthwhile sorting through some of the differences between the books.

None of Wallace’s books are written primarily for an academic audience, but some are more rigorously argued than others. He’s explicit in the preface to Mind in the Balance that it’s one of the nontechnical popularizations, so it’s probably not the best place to reconstruct the best case for his views.

A bit about his other works: After years as monk in the Tibetan tradition, Wallace returned to Amherst in the 1980s and earned a B.A. in physics. His undergraduate honors thesis was published as Choosing Reality. He then earned a PhD at Stanford in Religious Studies: his dissertation, a study and translation of Tsongkhapa, was published as Balancing the Mind (actually it’s been issued twice under two different titles; don’t remember the other one.) The Taboo of Subjectivity was also written while at Stanford. The preface to Embracing Mind contains an autobiography up to that point.

Of what I’ve read so far, The Taboo of Subjectivity is the best-argued book; it’s primarily concerned with the history and philosophy of Western science, and has little to say about Buddhism. That’s the place to go for his case against “scientific materialism.” Hidden Dimensions looks like a more recent formulation of his views in philosophy of science.

When he’s making the most sense, his view seems to fall into the pragmatic tradition of James, Dewey, and Whitehead. Unfortunately, he spends a lot more time going on about quantum physics than exploring those connections. He does discuss James fairly frequently, and pays lip service to Putnam’s “pragmatic realism,” but doesn’t mention Whitehead at all. He wouldn’t have to coin phrases like “special theory of ontological relativity” if he were more familiar with the work of others in the field, and he would be better at sorting out the relationships between epistemological and ontological issues.

As Will points out, his version of “the contemplative traditions” is heavily biased towards Tibetan Buddhism. At points he specifically praises Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, which is a source of a lot of fuzziness in these matter.

Conclusion: Wallace does have serious arguments to make. But the fact that you have to wade through a lot of junk in his books to find them is itself a serious criticism of him as a writer

#5 · Jeff Alexander

29 September 2009

Perceptive review! Here is my input on the subject.

“all the great contemplatives, more or less, experience the same kind of thing”

This is a fundamental assumption in Alan Wallace’s work. Is this a proven fact? If this isn’t so his system falls to pieces.
Years ago I had a life changing experience. I was spending a weekend at a Trappist monastery. A friend and I entered the church for the first time, We suddenly and simultaneously each had a marked spiritual experience. We stared at each other in shock and surprise. It was the presence of the Holy Spirit, fiery and enlivening. It lasted but a moment. What shocked me most was not the mere fact of experiencing “spirit” (I was used to that in my new age and eastern religious exposure) it was that it simply wasn’t the same spirit as I had encountered in those arenas. I had been taught the cardinal principle that God or Spirit or the Absolute in every religion, despite different approaches and words, was the same in essence and taste. I could no longer think that, based on my experience and what I was reading in the Bible. I was undone. Unless I reinterpreted and redefined the words of the Bible in the light of systems alien to the Bible – making it say things it doesn’t. – I could no longer blend Christ and Hinduism/Buddhism. I still had a way to go but eventually I left eastern and new age thought behind and became a Trinitarian/Nicene creed type as that understanding had the best fit to scripture and my own experience of the Three Persons of the Godhead.

I wrote the below parable as a reflection on this issue.

A Parable:
The coast of Namibia is the only place in Africa where elephants swim in the ocean. Two gnats went out to sea. One landed on an elephant; the other on a whale. Both returned to land and shared their experiences. While their respective accounts had differences both said something like this: “It was huge beyond belief, wet, gray, and above all, alive!” Many gnat theologians decided the two gnats had experienced the same thing, while others disagreed. The discussion continues.

#6 · Joseph Siemion

15 October 2009

Brillaint review, Will. The sloppy thinking and lack of clarity in recently published works (see Karen Armstrong’s “Case for God” for a stellar example) and the promulgation and resurrection of perenneal philosophy is driving me bonkers.

The parable in comment #5 is perfect. The Christians and Buddhists are not “landing” in the same place, though it makes us feel better to believe so. It’s more comforting to believe that there’s One Truth than to accept that, in fact, the spiritual/religious systems of the Earth a diametrically opposed.

I love your blog, keep up the great work!

#7 · Eric Scovel

5 November 2009

First off, great blog! I’m really enjoying a number of your posts.

Now, I am very dubious of the attempts to make meditation and spiritual experience scientifically quantifiable. Not only do I find it unnecessary and somewhat offensive to require scientific or medical “proof” to convince people to undertake spiritual practice, but I think it also contributes to a situation in which religious endeavour must in some way be sanctioned by the real dogma of our times, which I must agree is scientific materialism. I disagree with Wallace on the need to overthrow it, though, with his Dzogchen influenced mysticism. I think the better route to go would be to assert religion’s ethical responsibility concerning such increasingly reckless enterprises as technological advancement, which has the potential in many areas of research (genetics, nanotechnology, weapons engineering, communications) of spinning out of control and completely undermining the foundations of human civilization. [If it has not done so already, of course.]

Also, concerning the “absolute space of phenomena,” there are some foundational Dzogchen texts available in English that are fantastic treatises on what is better translated as the “basic space of phenomena” or the “basic space of the vajra heart essence.” In Longchen Rabjam’s The Precious Treasury of the Way of Abiding, the vajra heart essence that Wallace is referring to has four characteristics: ineffability, openness, spontaneous presence, and oneness. As the first characteristic is ineffability—the impossibility of conceptual understanding or expression—then this must preclude any sort of direct materialist or even philosophical systematization of such a state. I also think Wallace does a disservice to Dzogchen by dwelling too much on the metaphor of “deep space,” even though spaciousness and depth are common metaphors for which to orient (no pun intended) one’s Dzogchen practice.

There is no proof of the rainbow body phenomenon—especially the one that apparently doesn’t manifest materially—but why does it matter? As a metaphor for a practice that seeks to place the practitioner in an indescribable state beyond existence and non-existence, it can serve as a fantastical image to re-orient the mind. I don’t see it as having to be anything more than a tool (like all spiritual practices) to be used consciously as such to achieve the goal of direct experiential realization.

Overall, the need to bring such mysticism to science or to quantify religious experience with scientific proof is rooted in deep misconceptions about both fields and how they should relate to each other in a way that allows members of society to benefit from both realms. As of now, science and technology are almost totally unchecked by any ethics besides the corporate ethics of expanding profit margins, and I think ways to address this, either with religion or political consensus by other means, is the discussion that we should be having.

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