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Lions Roar : September 2005
Chile, but not long after he returned home, the political tides turned, and he had to flee Colonel Augusto Pinochet’s military regime with only $100 in his pocket. Varela ended up back in the United States, and in 1974, at a point when he felt cast adrift, he encountered an old friend he had met while living in Boston, Jeremy Hayward, a physi- cist who was a student of Trungpa Rinpoche. Hayward arranged for Varela and Trungpa to meet, and when Varela let on that he was struggling to find what exactly to do, Trungpa Rinpoche offered to teach him how to “do nothing,” quite a feat for someone with a mind as active as Varela’s. He took to meditation with a vengeance. He saw it as the means for inquiring into his favorite subject, “mind in the universe.” While behaviorism had long since thrown out sub- jective investigation as so much twaddle, Varela was deter- mined, according to Eleanor Rosch, “to reinstate first-person experience as a source of scientific knowledge, and open sci- entific inquiry to methods such as meditation.” When Rosch met Varela in the late seventies at one of Trungpa’s programs, she had just started practicing Buddhism. She had made some pioneering discoveries in the emerging field of cognitive psychology and, like Varela, she saw meditation as the ultimate research tool, the one she had been looking for all her life. The Naropa meeting whetted their appetites, but it left them wanting something more— and better. 3 6 SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2005 naively that the things we were discovering about mind through Buddhism were so meaningful and right-on that our colleagues would immediately want to sit down and discuss how this deep understanding of the mind fit into the various sciences. Wonderful things would happen. Instead, they looked at the thick reader we compiled, largely from Buddhist sources, and said, ‘What is this?’ When Francisco and the rest of us gave talks, they would say, ‘Huh?’ When the meditation sessions on the schedule failed to immediately provide the ‘information’ that they needed to ‘understand’ what we’d been saying, they reacted, ‘We’re at a conference and you’re asking us to sit here and do nothing?’ When it came time to discuss, they simply revolted. Clearly, we hadn’t gone where they were.” The Buddhism-science dialogue was off to a difficult start. Francisco Varela, the conference’s leading light, was a walk- ing Buddhism-science dialogue. As an undergraduate student in biology in his native Chile in the early sixties, he had burst into the office of professor Humberto Maturana and blurted out that he wanted to study “the role of mind in the universe.” Maturana, always a free-thinker, replied, “My boy, you’ve come to the right place.” The professor became his mentor and allowed him to explore notions about mind and body incor- porating ideas from French phenomenology. Varela went on to Harvard and proved he had no fear of detail by earning his Ph.D. for a study of information processing in insect retinas. He was sure his career would take off in Salvador Allende’s new Eleanor Rosch and Francisco Varela at the first Mind and Life meeting in Dharamsala, India, 1978. Eleanor Rosch NEWCOMBGREENLEAFW.L.RATHJE