Sunday September 13, 2009
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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