An Interview with Alan Wallace
Center Voice: The Newsletter of the Center for Sacred Sciences
Vol. 17, No. 1 (Winter-Spring 2004)
Alan Wallace has been a practitioner and scholar of Buddhism since 1970, including fourteen years as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. He has translated numerous Tibetan Buddhist texts, interpreted for many Tibetan Lamas, including the Dalai Lama, and taught Buddhist philosophy and meditation worldwide. Alan also has an undergraduate degree in physics and the philosophy of science from Amherst College and a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford University. Among the many books he has edited, translated, and authored, three have particular relevance to the subject of science and religion: Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1989), The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), and Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003). For more information about Alan Wallace, please visit his home page at http://www.alanwallace.org/. This article is copyright © 2003 by B. Alan Wallace, and published here with his kind permission.
TOM McFARLANE: Some of our readers may not know you very well, so first, to help them become familiar with who you are, perhaps you could share a little about what your background is, where you’re currently at, and what you’re up to.
ALAN WALLACE: My primary endeavor these days is establishing the Santa Barbara Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness in which I’m drawing together methodologies, insights, and theories from the cognitive sciences, from various contemplative traditions of the world, and from multiple philosophies East and West to try to understand the nature of consciousness, its origins, and its potentials. So there’s the epistemic investigation of the origins, nature, functions, and potentials of consciousness, but also there’s a pragmatic aspect to this, and that is to try to draw out the full potential of consciousness, for example, enhancing attention skills, cultivating emotional balance, and the like. The pragmatic approach focuses primarily on the cultivation of exceptional states of mental health and the realization of the full potentials of consciousness. So this endeavor has both a research aspect as well as a very pragmatic aspect. So that’s a very large-scale endeavor I’m engaging in now.
In addition to that, I’m doing a lot of lecturing internationally and leading meditation retreats. In September 2003 I participated in a conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, one of the sequence of Mind and Life Conferences that began in 1987. This one, entitled Investigating the Mind was at MIT, co-sponsored by the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and I was co-chairing the panel on attention. Broadly speaking, this conference was looking at the mind from modern scientific and Buddhist perspectives, and seeing what kind of a bridgework or inter-relationship there could be between these two great traditions. That’s it in a nutshell.
TOM: Great. So could you tell us a little about your life’s history? How did your interests in religion and science unfold?
ALAN: I was raised in a very Christian family. There was a great deal of religious activity on both my mother’s and my father’s sides. So taking religion—specifically in this case Christianity—very seriously was deeply ingrained in me from childhood. At the same time, from my early teens I had a natural predisposition to pursue a career in science, and I had encouragement from my parents to do so. So I grew up with a sense that there were these two great traditions: religion and science. But I found with increasing dismay as I grew through my teens that there was very little communication between science and religion. And what communication there was tended to be antagonistic. Not collaborative. Not with a sense of mutual learning. So I felt that I’d been raised with two largely incompatible world views: a Christian worldview and a scientific worldview. And after spending two years at the University of California at San Diego in the late ‘60s hoping to find some type of integration of my interest in science with my interest in religion, I basically gave up on Western civilization in this regard. Nobody seemed even to notice or take this problem seriously. Yet I felt these interests must be integrated if I didn’t want to be fragmented internally, and therefore I decided to step outside my own civilization and see if somebody else had a more integral approach to understanding human existence and our relationship with the environment around us.
TOM: This lead you to India?
ALAN: It did. By way of Germany. I spent my junior year abroad in Germany at the University of Göttingen. While traveling around Europe the summer before matriculating at the University, I picked up a book on Tibetan Buddhism and it tremendously inspired me and intrigued me. It was a rigorous investigation into the nature of Awareness. It was the first book I’d ever encountered that really seemed to draw all of these elements together: the profoundly religious, contemplative, and philosophical, but also the rational and empirical, like the approach of science entailing careful observation and so forth. That was really what I was looking for. So that was sufficient inspiration for me to drop all of my other classes at the University of Göttingen and just study Tibetan language with the hunch that this would turn out to be a mother lode, a vein of gold that I could trace to its source.
During that year in Germany, I continued to read voraciously about the contemplative traditions of the world and finally came to the same conclusion as Aldous Huxley, that in the great diversity of the world religions, their faiths, their creeds, their belief systems, there is a profound convergence at the deepest level of mystical experience. I thought if that was the case, then these great mystics from the East and the West must be converging on the most important reality that human beings can realize. Then the only question was, what path do I want to follow?
After spending a year in Germany, reading as much as I could on Tibet, its culture and its religion, its contemplative tradition, I felt this was really worth investigating. So, in 1971 I gave away or sold all of my possessions that I couldn’t carry on my back, I bought a one-way ticket to India, and I went immediately to Dharamsala, which was then and is now a refugee community of Tibetans, and also where the Dalai Lama lives. There, I immersed myself in studying the Tibetan language, Buddhist contemplative practices, Buddhist philosophy, and traditional Tibetan medicine. I spent all of the ‘70s in total immersion in Tibetan civilization, especially its religion and most particularly its meditative and philosophical tradition, about four years in India and then the next five years after that in two Tibetan monasteries in Switzerland. Then I followed that by four years of going from one solitary contemplative retreat to another. So that was stepping outside of any civilization and just devoting myself to meditation. By that time I had taken a leave of absence from Western civilization for 14 years.
TOM: Eventually you were lead back to the U.S. to study science. How did that happen?
ALAN: I looked at myself reflectively and saw that well, after all, I am a Westerner. I still am an American, whether I like that or not. It is my native culture. In my pursuit of integration, I found that, while I had found in Tibetan Buddhism a very integral approach to the study of human nature, of consciousness, of reality as a whole, in the process I had even more deeply fragmented myself in a way. Because where previously I had been split between science and religion, now I had split East and West. I was obviously not a Tibetan, yet I had estranged myself from my own native civilization.
So at that point, I thought, now let’s see if I can integrate myself in terms of East and West, and not just in terms of science and religion. And I thought to do that, I’d go back to the paradigm of Western science, the one science that the other ones seek to emulate in many respects, and that is physics, with its basis in mathematics. So in 1984 I matriculated at Amherst College, brushing up on my mathematics, calculus, multivariable calculus, and studied physics from the ground up, from classical mechanics and electromagnetism up through quantum mechanics and relativity theory. But my real interest there was not simply to study physics as physics, but to study the paradigm of Western science, and at the same time to get as much understanding as I could of the history and the philosophical context out of which Western science grew and in which it has flourished. My senior honors thesis drew on these themes, and was later developed into my book Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind.
This period at Amherst was the beginning of an integration between the 14 years that I’d spent in the East with Tibetans and my early education and upbringing in the West. Ever since, I’ve really been engaged in an ongoing pursuit of thorough integration, so that, with one whole body, mind, spirit, and heart altogether, I can draw from the well of Tibetan Buddhism, and from the well of Western civilization. Later I studied cognitive science, and philosophy of mind. My doctoral work at Stanford in religious studies was very interdisciplinary. To be able to have all of these in one container, all of these in communication with each other, all enhancing and complementing each other—that’s what I’ve sought since returning to Western civilization in 1984. Now, after close to 20 years, I do feel that to a high degree I have achieved that type of inner coherence and integration. So I feel very much at home in the Tibetan context, very much at home in that of Western science and Western philosophy, and of course that of religious studies. This is all of a piece now. It’s entirely integrated. There’s much more to learn, much more to know by means of an experiential inquiry. But I feel now that I do have a platform that is balanced and integrated, and that’s something I was looking for.
TOM: Excellent! Before we discuss the integration of science and religion a little more, I’d like to ask you about the use of the words science and religion. They mean a lot of different things to so many different people and are used in so many different ways. I’m wondering what you would put forth as the most beneficial way of defining or conceiving of science, and the same for religion.
ALAN: Let’s begin with science. Off the top of my head, with no pretense of being authoritative, let me simply tell you what comes to mind when I think of science. First of all, I have great respect and appreciation for science itself. It’s not at all a tradition with which I feel I’m in combat or in any kind of adversarial relationship. Basically, I view science as a mode of inquiry, entailing very rigorous, precise observations and experimentation, with which often there is a preceding working hypothesis, some type of a theoretical formulation that gives rise to questions that can be put to the test of experience, or as Karl Popper said in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, hypotheses that, at least in principle, can be repudiated by experiment. And of course, something that often goes with scientific inquiry is quantitative measurement, quantitative analysis, and quantitative theorizing, in terms of producing formulas representing the laws of nature, and so forth. So science is a mode of inquiry, and of course it is also the ensuing body of scientific knowledge. And that’s how I regard science.
Now when it comes to religion, I think it’s important to recognize that religion, like science, is really a Western term. It comes principally from the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. So when we look outside our civilization, to the Indian tradition, or to the Chinese tradition, then we are looking through a certain template for religion which fits very well with our Abrahamic religions—specifically with Judaism, Christianity and Islam—but does not fit so well with any of the religious or spiritual traditions of Asia. So then one ends up in something of a quandary. But if one wants to speak as broadly as possible, not of religion as it’s often conceived of in the West, but of religion as a more universal or a global term, then I would say that religion entails a set of theories, modes of inquiry, and modes of practice that are oriented to coming in contact with, understanding, or a least having faith in the deepest nature of reality, living in accordance with that reality, and by so doing, coming to some form of salvation, of liberation, spiritual awakening or enlightenment. I think one must speak in these very broad terms when one is trying to speak of religion as a global phenomenon.
TOM: How do you think that misconceptions about science and about religion may contribute to the so-called conflict between science and religion?
ALAN: I think the so-called conflict between science and religion largely has to do with dogma versus dogma. And science should not be a dogma at all. If science slips into a dogmatic role, it ceases to be genuine science. But unfortunately it often does. Scientists and proponents of science, such as teachers, professors, researchers, and journalists often move seamlessly from what is genuinely science to what is really much more of a system of beliefs. What I’m referring to here specifically is scientific materialism, which is also called materialism, scientific naturalism, scientific reductionism, or materialistic reductionism. All of these terms often basically refer to the same system of beliefs. For example, one belief that has never been proven scientifically, but which is accepted almost universally among a vast majority of scientists, is the closure principle. The closure principle says that within the physical universe there are no causal agents that are not themselves physical. In other words, nothing impinges upon the physical universe that is not itself composed of elementary particles or has energy or mass. There are no other influences in the physical world. Well, no one has come anywhere near demonstrating that this is true. It’s hard to conceive how anyone could ever demonstrate or come up with an experiment that could possibly repudiate it, to quote again Karl Popper’s axiom that scientific theories are those than can be, in principle, repudiated by empirical evidence.
Now this simple statement, the closure principle, which is to say the physical universe is causally closed, precludes the possibility that, for example, God, as a non-physical being, has ever done anything in the world. So any being such as God, if such a being exists, is a passive agent hopelessly standing outside the universe and not able to have any influence on it whatsoever. This sets scientific materialism in radical antagonism or incompatibility with all the theistic traditions of the world. That’s just one feature. In my book The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness I tried to sift out the core articles of faith of scientific materialism, none of which have ever been scientifically demonstrated, all of which are accepted very widely among scientists, especially in biology and the cognitive sciences. So if one conflates scientific inquiry and scientific knowledge with this dogmatic system of metaphysical belief, then this sets up a profound incompatibility between science and all the religious faiths of the world.
Now this unnecessary source of incompatibility comes from the religious side as well. And that happens when a religion identifies itself exclusively with a set of beliefs and ritual practices, so that, for example, salvation or redemption becomes simply a matter of unquestioning belief that cannot possibly be tested empirically. Or, if there’s any empirical evidence that contradicts one’s belief, it doesn’t count because the source of one’s belief is considered to be divine in nature and therefore beyond human comprehension. Well, for such believers it just doesn’t matter what evidence science comes up with because they have adhered to a belief system that is based upon an authority, upon a particular book, that they have deemed infallible. Well, there’s simply no way for there to be meaningful dialogue between science and a belief system that views whatever a scientist says as irrelevant. So when religion, whether it’s Christianity or any other religion, adheres dogmatically to its beliefs, then any kind of meaningful dialogue with science is bound to break down.
But that is not a completely true picture of any of the religions of the world. If one looks into the contemplative practices of any of the great world religions, one finds there is a mode of inquiry there that is both rational and experiential. And if one goes back to empirical and rational inquiry within a religious framework, I think one now opens up the possibility of meaningful dialogue and even collaboration with the scientific community. One finds these contemplative modes of inquiry in all the religions. In Islam it’s Sufism, in the Jewish tradition, the Kabbalah, in Christianity, it’s the Christian mystical tradition. The Eastern Orthodox tradition has been quite strong for many centuries. And, as this is certainly true for the Abrahamic traditions, it may be even all the more true for traditions that do not fit so easily into the Western category of religion: Buddhism, for example, the multiple schools of Hinduism, Taoism, and other Eastern traditions which grew out of civilizations that did not define science or religion as we have. These traditions, I think, especially lend themselves to very meaningful theoretical dialogue and empirical collaborative research with science into such things as the nature of mind, the nature of consciousness, the nature of attention, and the capacities of consciousness. Together with William James and other great thinkers of the West, as well as contemporary people like the Dalai Lama, I feel there is an enormous potential for collaboration and discovery by drawing on the wealth of methodologies and insights from the contemplative traditions of the world, such as those of Buddhism, as well as on the tremendous integrity, the depth and sophistication, the excellent skepticism, and critical attitude of the natural sciences. With the integration of these, we may open up whole areas of research and insight into human nature, the nature of the mind, and our relationship with the environment that would not come simply out of the trajectory of Western science as it’s following on its own course without any such interface, and would not come out of the Buddhist or any other contemplative tradition on its own without integration or collaboration with Western science.
TOM: What are some of the specific ways that you think this integration of contemplative traditions and science might come about? How might they contribute to each other?
ALAN: A good place to start when addressing such a question is William James because he was such a deep, multifaceted thinker. In addition to his background in biology and medicine, he was one of the primary psychologists of this country, one of the great philosophers of this country, and also wrote probably the greatest American classic on religious experience, The Varieties of Religious Experience. And this is all one person. He was quite monumental. And when he envisioned the scientific study of the mind, he envisioned a three-pronged approach. One of those was studying the brain and the neural correlates of a wide range of mental processes. Following this approach, Western scientists, neuroscientists, have made tremendous progress, especially in the last twenty to thirty years. So there’s one approach. The second approach is studying behavioral correlates of mental activity. Following this approach, behaviorists, from the time of John Watson and B.F. Skinner to current modern cognitive psychology, have also made wonderful strides in understanding the behavioral correlates of the mind. This has yielded indirectly a great deal of insight in areas such as developmental psychology, shedding light on the mind and how it operates. But William James said there needs to be a three-pronged approach, and the third prong he called introspection, inward looking. And he said, among these three prongs, introspection should always be first and foremost. It should be our primary mode of inquiry into the mind because it provides our only means of direct access to mental phenomena, such as the emotions, attention, memories, mental imagery, imagination, desires, hopes, fears, pain, suffering, joy, and so forth. The two other approaches, neuroscience and behavioral sciences, including cognitive psychology, all study only physical correlates of mental phenomena. It’s only with introspection that we actually look at the mental phenomena themselves.
The approach of introspection, however, has been beaten up a lot in the West because, in my impression, during its thirty-year trial from about 1880 until about 1910, psychologists simply didn’t do it very well. They didn’t know how to train the faculty of introspective investigation, how to refine the attention, so that introspection could be done in a rigorous and reliable way that wasn’t heavily colored by the assumptions, desires and expectations of those running the experiment. So when the poor quality of their introspective research was unmasked by people like John Watson, the introspective approach was discarded—baby with the bath water—and it has been hard to revitalize it ever since.
Within the Western scientific tradition tremendous strides have been made only in terms of third-person observation, which is indirect observation of the mind by way of neural and behavioral correlates. A rough analogy from the 16th century might help illustrate the problem with studying just the correlates. In the 16th Century Galileo refined the telescope and then applied it to the careful observation of celestial phenomena. Only because he had such an instrument for making very careful observations of celestial phenomena was he able to discover that there were moons around Jupiter, that there were craters on the Moon, that there were spots on the Sun. The only way you can make such unexpected discoveries is by directly investigating phenomena with a reliable and refined instrument of observation. And it was from these precise observations and experiments using the tools of technology that the modern science of astronomy and kinematics developed. Now, before Galileo there was a long history of folk astronomy that was not so much concerned with the precise observations of the movements of the planets and stars, but had a great deal of interest in correlates between celestial phenomena and terrestrial phenomena, the correlates between human behavior and the positions of the planets, sun, moon, and stars. I think you know what discipline I’m referring to: astrology. Galileo and those who followed him devised the appropriate technology for careful observations of celestial phenomena. Until that point all we really had was astrology and folk astronomy. Similarly, modern psychology has not come up with the appropriate modes of observation for directly studying mental phenomena. They have not developed anything comparable to a telescope for astronomy or a microscope for cell biology. The contemplative traditions of the world have. These traditions, especially those of the East, have devised means for enhancing attention skills in terms of stability, vividness, to make profound, careful observations of a wide range of mental phenomena, to explore the very nature of consciousness by studying consciousness itself.
Within William James’ brilliant strategy, this three-pronged approach, Western science has made tremendous progress and should be congratulated for its great progress in terms of the two third-person approaches, the study of neural and behavioral correlates of the mind. But it has made no progress at all when it comes to the first-person approach. And this is quite astonishing. The Buddhist tradition, on the other hand, has made no progress in terms of the brain correlates of mental processes. Neither has any other contemplative tradition in the world. So Buddhism and the other contemplative traditions have a great deal to learn from Western science about the neural and behavioral correlates of mental processes. And Western science has the potential to learn a great deal from Buddhism and other contemplative traditions in terms of first-person observation and experimentation, and then reporting on the mental phenomena themselves.
TOM: It sounds like these first-person methods of observation could be something that the contemplative traditions have to contribute in terms of a broader scientific method. In other words, we could perhaps conceive of a future science that is not limited to the building, constructing, refinement of scientific instruments that are external to us, but that our conception of science could be extended to include the cultivation of internal instruments of observation as well.
ALAN: Exactly so. This is just the conundrum that Wilhelm Wundt and the other founders of Western psychology were faced with. These pioneers of Western psychology were working three hundred years after Galileo and other physicists defined science and scientific methodology based upon objective observation. Science developed consensus-based, third-person observations of things standing outside, things in the physical world that could be inspected by multiple viewers. So the psychologists had an enormous challenge: how to take the scientific method, which was heavily oriented toward the objective physical phenomena, and direct it toward subjective mental phenomena. They tried introspection, but frankly they just didn’t know how to do it. They did it primitively, they did it poorly, and so that approach fell into disgrace and was lost. It was largely replaced by behaviorism and has been discarded to this day. So we come to this same conundrum: we’re trying to study mental phenomena, but science as it stands right now does not have any rigorous and reliable observational instruments for directly investigating mental phenomena, that is, from the first-person perspective. One response to that is to throw out introspection altogether. My response is to elevate it to try to enhance the sophistication and rigor of first-person methodologies to complement the sophistication of third-person methodologies. And so, indeed, if scientists can be open-minded and flexible in their understanding of the parameters of science, and include the possibility of there being rigorous, although not quantitative, observations and experimentations with the mind from the first-person perspective, then we may redefine the cognitive sciences and psychology, and in so doing we may redefine or at least broaden the parameters of science as a whole.
TOM: It would seem that this broadening of science would also have to require a transformation in the notion of what it means to be a practitioner of such a science. For example, training in the contemplative traditions requires practitioners to practice morality and cultivate virtues, but this isn’t often emphasized in the training of a physical scientist. It would seem that a broadening of science to include the cultivation of introspection would demand much more from the scientist himself or herself than it does in the common notion today.
ALAN: This is certainly true. When it comes to contemplative traditions, ethics is not an arbitrary add-on. Ethics is not a luxury item in the quest for truth. One reason for this stems from the fact that the instrument you’re using to investigate mental phenomena is your own awareness, and crucial to such rigorous investigation is the enhancement of attention. Now, from a Buddhist perspective, the untrained mind is normally in a dysfunctional state, oscillating compulsively between excitation and laxity, between agitation and dullness. This is not a mind that can reliably make observations of its own internal phenomena or reliably make observations outside. Scientists can get away with their own attention being considerably scattered only because they rely on physical instruments of observation. When they set a telescope, they can take photographs with the telescope, and so forth regardless of the wandering of their own attention. But when it comes to contemplative inquiry, you do not have any mediating observational instrument outside of your mind to gather data. And because your attention, your mind, is embedded in your life, if your life is lead in an unwholesome way, with a lot of anger, rage, pomposity, envy, craving, anxiety, and so forth, this mind cannot settle down. It cannot be balanced. Such an unethical life is incompatible with the profound and durable balancing of the attention. So training the mind, especially training the attention, and also simultaneously balancing the emotions, and cultivating mindfulness, cannot proceed without a strong basis in ethics. Upon the basis of training the mind, then, and only then, can one make a profound, rigorous and reliable investigation of the mind firsthand, and make discoveries that not only yield great knowledge, but actually yield profound and even irreversible transformation and freedom from negativity in one’s own mind. And so the contemplative scientist, if I can use that term, must live a highly ethical life, cannot live a malicious life, an arrogant life, a self-centered life. It is incompatible with this whole mode of inquiry.
As long as the research is mediated by physical instruments of observation, as long as it’s following the trajectory of Galileo, your ethics, your personal virtues are irrelevant to a large extent. If we should take Ockham’s razor to the physical sciences, you could shave off virtually all of ethics and still have it operate efficiently. Altruism and compassion, a sense of global responsibility, of humanitarianism—you can shave all of that off. The only element of ethics necessary to have physical science and the Western paradigm progress is honesty: don’t fudge your data. Of course, there are certainly many very ethical scientists. But it’s not because they’re compelled to be by their scientific discipline. They are ethical because they are basically good people, or maybe they are religious. But I think that many scientists are eager to bring a greater sense of ethical responsibility into their own mode of inquiry, and to the way science is used. So I think there’s a great deal of receptivity there, and contemplative traditions may provide a bridge to that, or open up an avenue of inquiry, that possibly could make scientific inquiry as a whole a more ethical endeavor. I think that’s going to be to everybody’s advantage.
TOM: More broadly, in our society as a whole, would you say that the impact of scientific materialism and the conception of science as purely objective has contributed to a kind of moral degradation?
ALAN: I think it has. First, I think the very ideal of pure objectivity in science is simply a myth. As Thomas Kuhn has compellingly demonstrated in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, scientific inquiry has always been influenced by subjective factors: aesthetic factors, socio-economic factors, religious factors. It has never been purely objective. And so, that is a myth.
The ideal of objectivity, that somehow scientific inquiry should have nothing to do with subjectivity or human values, has disenfranchised human beings as living subjects from the real physical world. And I think one specific way that has happened is when scientists say, without question, that the mind is simply what the brain does, that consciousness is simply a byproduct of the brain. By bringing in these assumptions as if they were scientific fact, what they are telling us is that all of our activities, all of our thoughts, our choices, all of our lives are dominated absolutely by the brain and its interactions with the body and the physical environment. What they are saying in effect is: we are biological robots, we are preprogrammed by our genes, by our brain chemistry, by our physical interaction with the environment. I think we are getting that message also from the popular media, and we’re getting it from the education system where there is, I think, gross irresponsibility in conflating the metaphysical axioms of scientific materialism with genuine scientific inquiry. Now, if we are really biological robots, then there is no such thing as moral responsibility. So scientific materialism has given us the message—sometimes explicitly and sometimes quietly in the background—that we are not morally responsible for our behavior because, after all, we are merely physical organisms. This is a terrible message.
A second point is that there is a message given to the population at large that if anything goes wrong with your mind, then the source of the problem is the brain because, after all, the mind is what the brain does. So if you can’t sleep, you can’t settle down, you can’t focus, you’re too active, you’re too drowsy, you’re not happy, you’re too excited—you name it—if you have any type of perturbation of the mind, the first response that we’re getting from a lot of the medical profession, and the scientific tradition as a whole is, what drug do you need to take? Do you need to get gene therapy? How can you fix your brain chemistry? And the message here is that whatever is wrong with the mind is caused by something wrong with the brain, and so the way to fix it is to get appropriate surgery or medication. I think that message is dehumanizing, and of course it is largely commercially driven. The great majority of the pharmaceutical drugs of the mind heal nothing. At best, they only manage symptoms. And that means you’re going to be dependent on that drug, whether it’s Prozac for depression or Ritalin for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. This is all a direct derivative of the scientific materialistic view of human nature and the mind: that the mind is simply what the brain does.
TOM: So just as the conflation of science with the view of scientific materialism leads to these problems in our culture, and has real effects in terms of the suffering of individuals, would you hope that an integration of science and contemplative sciences, or to put it another way, a broadening of the notion of science to include the cultivation of modes of attention and so forth, that this would have beneficial effects for society as a whole? And what might those be?
ALAN: Certainly this hope is the fundamental aspiration behind the establishment of the Santa Barbara Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness. One way the contemplative traditions can be of benefit in this regard is to help us recognize that there are things that we can do as individuals to address the various forms of suffering we experience. We can train the mind. We can develop new habits. We can gain experiential insights that transform. We can modify our behavior. We can modify the way we speak. We can modify our attitude and ways of thinking. We can cultivate emotions we haven’t had in the past. In so doing, we can transform the mind in a way that is empowering and ennobling to the human individual. The contemplative traditions thus can engage in a complementary fashion with science to investigate questions such as: to what extent and in what ways can the mind and brain transform and change as a result of experience and as a result of training? Over the last ten years especially, cognitive science has been finding that the brain, the mind, is to a high degree plastic, capable of change through experience, and this is opening the door to tremendously meaningful cooperation with the contemplative traditions and other traditions that provide ways to transform the mind from within, rather than relying on materialistic resources of external, physical intervention.
TOM: I wonder if you’d care to elaborate on your specific plans for collaborative research between the contemplatives and the physical scientists.
ALAN: Among the myriad of potential areas of collaborative research, dialogue, and so forth between the contemplative and scientific traditions of the world, I think the study of attention is a prime area. Many contemplative traditions of the world such as Buddhism have already recognized the tremendous importance of refining the attention for their own contemplative ventures. At the same time, the cognitive sciences have already recognized the tremendous importance of attention, and there are also marvelous studies from the neural sciences, from cognitive psychology, psychiatry and so forth. Studying attention is an area where there’s an enormous degree of interest and expertise on both sides of the fence. And this is one of the major reasons I’m so drawn to this.
So, to give this a name, I’m calling this proposed collaborative research the Shamatha Project. Shamatha is a specific genre of practice within the Buddhist tradition for enhancing attention skills. It means meditative quiescence, where the perturbations of excitation and laxity are calmed, where the mind is stable, vivid, and relaxed. That’s shamatha. I envision a one-year residential training program in a facility very conducive to this type of sophisticated, delicate research. It will be quiet. Food will be provided. Each participant will have his or her own room. And these individuals through the course of one year will engage in attentional training techniques, meditative practices for enhancing the attention, balancing attention, cultivating shamatha from eight to ten hours a day. This is going to be a full-time job. Although the training techniques will be drawn from the Buddhist tradition, people do not necessarily have to be Buddhist to participate in this training because it’s not theory-laden. One does not have to believe in reincarnation, or karma, or Buddhahood, or be a Buddhist to engage in this. And this is another advantage of this particular type of training. But their lifestyle has to be ethical and very simple throughout the course of this training. Because we are trying to hone or tune a tool here. And that means you want a very quiet laboratory, so to speak. At present I’m envisioning the first three months to be the pilot study with something like two dozen people. And the remaining nine months could be for perhaps half that number. So that would be the contemplative side of the project.
On the scientific side, the role of the neuroscientists would be using functional MRI—a very sophisticated brain scan—to find out which parts of the brain are activated when people enter into these states of refined attention, and how they transform over time as a result of the training. Every two weeks or so we’ll have some type of EEG studies done, looking at the electrical activity of the brain using state-of-the-art EEG research methodology. In addition to these brain correlates measured by the neuroscientists, the cognitive psychologists will be studying behavioral correlates using sophisticated ways of measuring attentional and emotional balance. We may also in this collaborative endeavor come up with new experimental procedures or strategies for testing those particular modes of attention that are developed in Buddhist meditative training. So this is going to be collaborative all the way through; that is, we will not simply take pre-existing methodologies but actually hand-tailor them so that they are specifically adapted to being able to rigorously and accurately measure what happens in this type of training. There will be explicitly a study of attention and the plasticity of attention, and the neural correlates of such plasticity. It will be also, though, a study of emotional balance because, according to the Buddhist tradition, this type of attentional training should also have great benefit in terms of balancing the emotions, in terms of attenuating or decreasing the sense of craving, anxiety, anger, and other types of emotional imbalances. Participants should develop or unveil a greater and greater sense of well-being, of emotional balance, a sense of flourishing, and equanimity. There should be a greater clarity, a brightness of the mind. Overall this should greatly enhance the mental health and balance of the participants in this program. So, we may very well have a psychiatrist involved in the studies, because the implications for mental health are also very great. So I’m seeing this as a deeply collaborative research project that will draw from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, psychiatry, and the wealth of contemplative expertise, explicitly from the Buddhist tradition, but we may also enhance it from other traditions that also have made contributions in understanding how to enhance the attention.
TOM: And as you look to the future, let’s say, several decades from now, what’s your greatest aspiration or hope for the development of this kind of collaboration? Where might it lead?
ALAN: I’m now happy to take on the role of a visionary. How could this possibly develop? I can imagine contemplative research facilities where there are neuroscientists, philosophers, psychologists who themselves come for several months of contemplative training, or, after getting their Ph.D. in some natural science heading for a two-year post doc in contemplative training so they can enhance their own first-person skills to complement the third-person skills they’ve already developed as neuroscientists, as cognitive psychologists, as psychiatrists, to gain a much deeper understanding of the mind from a first-person perspective. I can imagine that type of collaboration.
From the side of the contemplative, I envision people who devote their lives to becoming contemplative professionals, devoting years to rigorous, sustained professional training, eight to fourteen hours a day, just as medical doctors, medical researchers and other types of scientists think nothing of spending twelve hours in a hospital or lab when they’re doing the core of their research. Well, contemplatives have been doing this for centuries. Let there be professional contemplatives in the West that are matching the degree of sophistication of Western scientists, in some ways surpassing it, in terms of their utter dedication to their research and to their field of inquiry. In addition, I can envision professional contemplatives studying the natural sciences and perhaps getting degrees in psychology, the neurosciences, and medicine.
So, we don’t just have a contemplative lineup on one side and the scientists and medical doctors lined up on the other. There’s a lot of shared expertise. We’re in a collaborative venture where we are deeply integrating first-person and third-person methodologies to the enhancement of everyone. It will enrich the contemplative traditions. Enrich the scientific tradition. And I envision a comparable degree of open-mindedness, of a critical attitude, of rigorous, intelligent skepticism on both sides of the fence, free from dogmatism. Let the scientists abandon the dogmatism of scientific materialism. And likewise let the contemplatives not conflate religious dogma with empirical inquiry.
And finally to round this off, such a facility would then also train experts, just like in medicine where people become experts in brain surgery or heart surgery. Well, let there be specialists in contemplative inquiry as well. Experts on attention who spend fifteen or twenty years primarily honing in on attention. Others could be experts on cultivation of the heart. We can have expert lucid dreamers. We can have experts in all sorts of specialized fields of contemplative inquiry. And then these experts could collaborate with natural scientists all over the world. For example, there could be research in the Sorbonne in Paris on mental imagery where the scientist would like to know what happens to the brain when a person holds a mental image vividly in mind continuously for an hour, and then be able to do a rotation or manipulation of this mental image, changing its color or shape, rotating it on its axis and so forth. To do that research, they need trained subjects who can hold an image for an hour, vividly, stably. So they could contact the Santa Barbara Institute and say, “Who do you have? We’d like to bring such a person over for six months.” They’d be a full collaborator in the research, not just guinea pigs. They’d help design the experiment or enhance the protocol to produce the best possible research. And then when the scientific papers come out, they are co-written by the contemplatives as well as the neuroscientists, or whomever the other party might be. So there is enormous potential there.
A final point here is that, according to certain claims coming from multiple contemplative traditions of the world, when consciousness is refined through the development of profound states of meditative concentration, it has an enormous capacity for things like extrasensory perception and various types of paranormal abilities. As someone with a fair amount of scientific background, I would never ask any scientist to accept such claims simply because some Tibetan lama, Taoist priest, or Indian swami says so. But there are many such claims and these claims are made by intelligent, well educated people in the East and the West, in various contemplative traditions. These claims about the potentials of consciousness when it is refined in such ways, however, have hardly ever been put to the scientific test. We’ve never had a contemplative laboratory where these could be studied over a period of several decades. After all, there are scientific studies that go that long. Especially in medicine, for example. They go on for thirty years and then they collect the data and publish their paper. We should have a research project that is collaborative with natural scientists and contemplatives that goes on with the same subjects over a period of several decades. Then, it may turn out that there are potentials of consciousness that the contemplative traditions have been unveiling for centuries, for millennia, about which modern scientific tradition under the domination of scientific materialism knows nothing.
So I’d like to think that, just as we encountered the first axial era in the 6th century before the common era, when there was this extraordinary synchronicity in China, in India, in the Jewish tradition, and in the Greek tradition, bringing about extraordinary cultural revolutions in multiple places over roughly the same period all over the globe, we may now be entering into a second axial era, as we see the great traditions of the East and the West coming into contact with an attitude of mutual respect, mutual appreciation, and an eagerness to seek out the nature of reality with an open mind. We may be on the verge of a tremendous transition here. Not only could it unveil marvelous discoveries that will be of tremendous interest, great fascination, but it may also bring pragmatic benefits that may yield dividends for humanity as a whole. With the collaboration of the contemplative and the scientific, we may be moving towards a scientific revolution that will dwarf anything since Galileo.