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Lions Roar : September 2005
WHILE DISCUSSING THE FUTURE of science during a 2003 conference at MIT, the Dalai Lama said investigating the mind would take most of the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries, and perhaps the twenty-third as well. Adam Engle was sitting nearby. He says he was at first sur- prised, but now sees what His Holiness meant. “Science knows so little,” Engle says, “about how to create and maintain a healthy mind.” Engle is chairman and cofounder of the organization that hosted the conference, the Mind and Life Institute. Outside of his Buddhist involvements, the Dalai Lama probably spends more time with Mind and Life than any other organization. He is a cofounder, attends its annual conference, and has even donated money. Mind and Life is a tiny operation based in Boulder, Colorado; it has three full-time and three part-time staff members. Yet it is doing major work in helping the scientific investigation of the mind unfold. For almost twenty years it’s been bringing scientists and Buddhists together, in the belief that everyone will benefit from their joint explorations. The Institute began simply as a place for scientists and con- templative people to meet and talk. That still happens: its thirteenth conference will take place this November in Washington, D.C. The topic this year is science and the clin- ical applications of meditation. But the Institute is putting more and more of its energy into helping scientists conduct research. At the 2000 conference, the Dalai Lama suggested more research was needed. The organi- zation is now helping create a new field of science focused on one question: how do you create and maintain a healthy mind? “People understand they have more and more goods, and better and better material surroundings,” Engle says, “and they’re still not happy. The realization is becoming more prevalent that the state of our minds is very, very important to the state of our happiness and our health.” Through its conferences and a summer program, the Institute connects with scientists interested in exploring the hidden work- ings of the mind. Research is ongoing at the University of California–San Francisco, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the University of California–Berkeley, and Harvard. Scientific interest is now creating interest in popular culture as well, as evi- denced by feature articles in National Geographic and Time. 4 8 SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2005 Even from this brief discussion, it is, I think, clear that the third-person method—which has served science so well in so many areas—is inadequate to the explanation of consciousness. What is required, if science is successfully to probe the nature of consciousness, is nothing short of a paradigm shift. That is, the third-person perspective, which can measure phenomena from the point of view of an independent observer, must be integrat- ed with a first-person perspective, which will allow the incorpo- ration of subjectivity and the qualities that characterize the experience of consciousness. I am suggesting the need for the method of our investigation to be appropriate to the object of inquiry. Given that one of the primary characteristics of con- sciousness is its subjective and experiential nature, any system- atic study of it must adopt a method that will give access to the dimensions of subjectivity and experience. A comprehensive scientific study of consciousness must therefore embrace both third-person and first-person meth- ods: it cannot ignore the phenomenological reality of subjec- tive experience but must observe all the rules of scientific rigor. So the critical question is this: Can we envision a sci- entific methodology for the study of consciousness whereby a robust first-person method, which does full justice to the phenomenology of experience, can be combined with the objectivist perspective of the study of the brain? Here I feel a close collaboration between modern science and the contemplative traditions, such as Buddhism, could prove beneficial. Buddhism has a long history of investigation into the nature of mind and its various aspects—this is effec- tively what Buddhist meditation and its critical analysis con- stitute. Unlike that of modern science, Buddhism’s approach has been primarily from first-person experience. The con- templative method, as developed by Buddhism, is an empiri- cal use of introspection, sustained by rigorous training in technique and robust testing of the reliability of experience. All meditatively valid subjective experiences must be verifi- able both through repetition by the same practitioner and through other individuals being able to attain the same state by the same practice. If they are thus verified, such states may be taken to be universal, at any rate for human beings. The Buddhist understanding of mind is primarily derived from empirical observations grounded in the phenomenology of experience, which includes the contemplative techniques of meditation. Working models of the mind and its various aspects and functions are generated on this basis; they are then subjected to sustained critical and philosophical analysis and empirical testing through both meditation and mindful obser- vation. If we want to observe how our perceptions work, we may train our mind in attention and learn to observe the rising Mind Matters D AV I D S W I C K talks to the chairman of the Mind and Life Institute