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.
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