Thursday, November 05, 2015

Challenges and opportunities in the meeting between buddhism and science

I recently attended a conference on the challenges and opportunities that arise in the meeting between Buddhism and Science (see link here). The first keynote was by Alan Wallace. Alan has been involved in this dialogue for a long time because he trained as a Buddhist monk, but also got a PhD in Western academia. His talk was mainly about how mindfulness is frequently misrepresented as some kind of non-critical happy state, without any ethical dimension. To make his point, he started by talking about distinguishing two types of happiness: in hedonic pleasure we want to get something from the world (such as food, money, power), while in eudaimonic well-being we instead want to give something to the world. Only this second type of happiness leads to mental balance and wisdom. One way to achieve such authentic well-being is to follow a Buddhist path and to practise right mindfulness. This right mindfulness incorporates an ethical dimension (on both social and environmental levels), a mental well-being dimension and a spiritual or wisdom dimension.

Yet, in the current discourse, mindfulness is mostly focused on mental well-being and reducing stress, even though in the Buddhist discourse, 'right mindfulness' is so much more. A particularly rampant misunderstanding is that mindfulness is simply non-elaborative, present-centred awareness, without judgment. However, in the traditional sense mindfulness in fact does involve a strong ethical component and a clear judgment about what actions are wholesome and what actions are unwholesome. While I agree with Alan that it is important to not reduce mindfulness to too simple-minded present-centred awareness, I think the talk sometimes oversimplified the scientific discourse on mindfulness. Most of the studies do not claim to study the whole "right mindfulness" path, but merely as aspect of the practice that people do when they sit down on their cushion. Nevertheless, I think a challenge for us scientists is to communicate clearly when our research is about the whole path, and when we're simply talking about a specific way of paying attention that some people on their cushion are doing. Eventually those are of course intertwined, but to get somewhere with science we have to simplify.

Another interesting keynote came from Edel Maex, addressing the criticisms about how compassion and enlightenment are missing from MBSR. However, he started with his own story, and his discovery that the only way to become truly happy is to find the courage to look suffering directly into the face. He found that compassion is in fact the only sensible response to suffering. Instead of looking at suffering people with an attitude of "something is wrong with you", you can then switch to asking them what their pain is. So in that sense, compassion is crucial for finding both your own and other's happiness.

He then talked about some criticisms on mindfulness, namely that it has removed the traditional practices from their main goal, namely enlightenment, and that it lacks an ethical context. He drew our attention to the traditional definition of nibbana, which is extinction, the extinction of grasping and being stuck. Now mindfulness is all about letting go of such grasping and giving people a choice between being stuck and distracted, or alternatively to bring their attention to an object like the breath. He said that in fact Jon Kabat-Zinn hoped that an 8-week MBSR course would give people a small taste of enlightenment. Edel also mentioned that without compassion, no mindfulness is possible, which he defines as a kind, open attention. Cultivating this type of attention makes compassionate behavior much more natural. He ended with a very inspiring note about how this compassionate attention helps us first and foremost develop self-compassion, such that our compassion from others can flow naturally and with abundance.

After the keynotes, the afternoon was filled with a wide variety of workshops, of which I gave one. In my workshop I tried to also address the tension between buddhism and science in my own research on the effects of meditation on cognition. While the research is very helpful in that it forces us to think more deeply about what the practices are about, the research also forces us to simplify and reduce the things we are studying. We need to do that to be able to connect to the rest of the scientific literature, which is based on well-controlled lab tasks. Yet reading the scientific literature, especially the literature on attention, even I sometimes become uneasy when people reduce the practice of meditation to a simple concentration practice. In my own experience it is so much more, but that often does not fit into our scientific boxes. The crucial point is therefore to see science as just one model of the world, while someone's first-person experience is another. We shouldn't start to believe too strongly in either reality. While Buddhism and science can really enhance each other when they cultivate a sense of curiosity and deep discovery, they can also challenge each other when either of them beliefs they have a patent on the ultimate reality.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The paradox of self-promotion for a Buddhist academic

As I am approaching the moment of my tenure decision, I find myself in the position of having to produce lots of materials that state how awesome I am. To stand a chance for grants and promotion, I have to constantly assert myself and claim that I am one of the best people in my field. Being a Buddhist practitioner as well, that is sometimes a bit strange, because my Buddhist practice teaches me to be humble, and to try to worry more about others than about myself. It can sometimes create a bit of cognitive dissonance.

On the other hand, I think that actually what my Buddhist practice teaches me about not taking myself too seriously is very beneficial. It is very easy to start feeling very low among so many amazing colleague scientists (see for example this blog). The problem really starts when I am comparing myself to all these others and worrying whether I am good enough. When, on the other hand, instead of focusing on this comparison, I simply focus on my motivation, then there is no problem. I have learned in my practice that the "I" that seems such a solid core, and that hurts so bad when someone criticizes my paper or my grant, does not even exist. We waste so much time and energy trying to prove to others that we are good enough, whereas in reality this self is quite elusive.

I have found that instead of worrying whether I'm good enough (and whether I'm going to get this grant, or going to get tenure, or any such thing), I can just put one foot in front of the other and dedicate my efforts to the well-being of all sentient beings. If I need to promote myself to be effective in that endeavour then I can do so too, but never forget that it's all just a big cosmic joke. And at the end of the day, I just dedicate my efforts, so that in some way (that I do not understand) whatever I have done may be of benefit. When I actually do this, and stop worrying about being good enough, I notice how much less stressed I feel. So the paradox seems to be that although I have to engage in self-promotion as an academic to be able to be of benefit, at the same time I have to not take it seriously in order to maintain my mental health. If I could only remember that a bit more often...

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A meeting of Eastern and Western sciences of mind

Last fall I had the amazing opportunity to travel to India to participate in the Science for Monks programme. Science for monks is a project that has been established by the Library for Tibetan Works and Archives to teach monastic graduates (mostly geshes) about Western science. They have created this programme at the request of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Every year a group of monastic graduates from a wide range of monasteries all over India (this year even including some from Bhutan) travel to study together for a month and learn the basics of physics and neuroscience. The programme is mostly taught by faculty from the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco. However, towards the end of the programme, some scientists currently doing research are invited to share some of their latest findings. This is how I came in. I was requested to come to India to teach about my work on computational models of the mind and meditation. You can imagine I was pretty excited!

One morning in October I left for India. I went a few days early so I could travel to Varanasi and enjoy my chance to go to the East a bit more. In some sense, that may not have been an amazing idea, since it was just the holiday of Diwali, meaning that the city was packed. It was a bit of a culture shock, but also quite beautiful to be surrounded by so many devout people making their rounds between the temples. Probably a highlight was an early morning boatride on the Ganges, seeing the sun arise between the burning ghats, the cremation places. It is almost surreal.

Now what a difference was the arrival in Dharamsala, where the course was held, with crammed Varanasi! When we flew into Dharamsala, we were welcomed by a team from the organisation and brought to the monastery. The teaching programme took place in Sarah, a monastic study college somewhere to the south of Dharamsala. Every day was divided into four sessions with lectures from each of the lecturers in turn. We had all sent our slides beforehand, so they could be translated into Tibetan. Now how often does it happen that you get to present from Tibetan slides, and have a translator by your side who turns every phrase into Tibetan? What made this interesting is that it forced me to be much more precise about what I am saying!

In my lectures I talked about creating computer models of the mind, with which we basically simulate what we think the humans are doing in particular cognitive tasks. We test these models by giving them the same tasks as humans and then seeing whether those produce the behavior we see in humans. The idea is that if you can build a system, then you understand it. We talked about computational models of decision making that assume that decisions are driven by a noisy process that meanders over time as information accumulations, and that turns into a response when it crossed a decision threshold. To better understand it we acted out this model: some monks being the decision threshold, some a meandering piece of information. It was great fun! One of the amazing things of teaching these monastics is that they are quick to laugh and extremely engaged. No bored looks here!

Things got a bit more intense when I presented my computational model of meditation (or at least the beginnings thereof). While they understood my interest in studying meditation, they were worried that this ignored many important aspects of the practice. I agree, and this led to good discussions about how science consists of making models of reality, that are clearly only approximations. The important thing is not to start believing in them too seriously! Another interesting question they asked me is why I needed all these participants in my experiments. Since I am a meditator myself, why could I not just study myself? This led to some good discussions about the science of measurement and needing larger groups to be able to generalize to the whole population.

The monastics had pretty intense days, because apart from our lectures during the day, they did some ritual practices ("puja") in the evenings, as well as debate. Debate is its own story, and quite fascinating to watch. In a very stylized physical game, monks debate important philosophical issues to increase their understanding. Even when you do not speak Tibetan and cannot understand what they are talking about, it is still a fascinating thing to watch!

Apart from this being an amazing experience, what did it teach me? First, it showed me that Tibetan monks do not spend most of their time meditating, but rather, study place a prime role. I think it would be really interesting to do scientific studies on how these study programs help to transform people's minds. Another lesson was that the monastic don't make such a difference between science and ethics as we do in the West. They kept asking me about compassion and about how my work was going to alleviate the suffering of beings. I think it is really good to be reminded of that time and again. Maybe we should do a little more of that. And wouldn't it be awesome if we could introduce some of the debating or analytical meditation methods in our Western university classrooms?