Between-States: Conversations About Bardo and Life

In Tibetan Buddhism, “bardo” is a between-state. The passage from death to rebirth is a bardo, as well as the journey from birth to death. The conversations in “Between-States” explore bardo concepts like acceptance, interconnectedness, and impermanence in relation to children and parents, marriage and friendship, and work and creativity, illuminating the possibilities for discovering new ways of seeing and finding lasting happiness as we travel through life.

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Physicist and author Alan Lightman’s latest book, The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science (2023), opens with the story of his encounter with two ospreys when he was on the deck of his house in Maine. The birds flew straight toward him, swerving away at the last moment. “For about half a second we made eye contact,” Lightman writes. “Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land.” The moment gave him “a feeling of being part of something much larger than myself.” Thought-provoking and moving, The Transcendent Brain explores the transcendent experiences we have in life, looking at the interplay between spirituality and science.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1948, Lightman has taught since 1989 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is Professor of the Practice of the Humanities. His novels include the international bestseller Einstein’s Dreams (1992) and The Diagnosis (2000), which was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Among his nonfiction works are The Accidental Universe (2014), Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (2018), and Probable Impossibilities (2021). His work appears in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Times, and the Atlantic, and he has hosted a PBS miniseries, Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science (2023). In 2004, Lightman started Harpswell, a foundation dedicated to helping young women in Southeast Asia develop leadership skills.

An appreciator of Buddhism, Lightman spoke with me by Zoom from the meditation room in his home near Boston. In our wide-ranging conversation, we talked about embracing spiritual experiences, exploring creativity, and residing in the realm between the known and the unknown.

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The bardo teachings are about how we find meaning in a world where everything ends, including we ourselves. You say in The Transcendent Brain that “our inescapable death may be the single most powerful fact of our brief existence in this strange cosmos where we find ourselves.” How does impermanence orient the way you look at the world? I used to think that only things that had permanence had meaning, and I wondered whether I would ever be able to create something that had permanence. But around ten years ago, when I wrote Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, I began to believe that given the fact that nothing is permanent—even the stars burn out—meaning can be found only in the moment. And you have to appreciate life moment by moment because that’s all there is. You have to be consciously aware of your existence at each moment, and aware of the things around you, of the sounds and sights. 

But I also have a thought that maybe our search for meaning is futile. Maybe it’s an illusion. There are a lot of nonhuman animals at a pretty high level of intelligence, like crows and dolphins, that probably are not searching for meaning. I don’t think the search for meaning had any direct survival benefit in our evolutionary history, but I think that it is a natural by-product of human intelligence. Maybe, though, we don’t need meaning in order to live a successful and happy life. Maybe we can just do what brings us pleasure and that’s enough. 

What, for you, are the elements of happiness? Happiness is not one monolithic thing. There’s short-term happiness and long-term happiness. Short-term happiness for me is something that gives me immediate pleasure, like being with one of my daughters, or seeing someone smile, or having a good meal or a hot bath before bedtime. I don’t know whether to call these things happiness or pleasure, but they’re certainly at least pleasurable. In the longer term, happiness for me is feeling like I’ve lived a worthwhile life and that I’ve made other people happy, and that I’ve created something that has changed the world for the better. 

You say that you’re a spiritual materialist: you believe the world is made up of material atoms, but you also recognize that human beings have spiritual experiences, a phenomenon you seek to understand as a scientist. What understanding have you come to? Well, first of all, I don’t think it’s necessary to understand spiritual experiences scientifically. We can have spiritual experiences and just enjoy them for what they are. I don’t think they need to be analyzed with the methods of science—and maybe can’t be anyway. But the reason I’ve tried to understand them as a scientist is that I want to show there’s no contradiction between a scientific worldview and the acknowledgment of spiritual experiences. Some people—perhaps many—think that the two are incompatible, that if you’re a scientist or you have a scientific worldview, that’s at odds with feeling connected to the rest of the cosmos and all the other experiences associated with spirituality. 

As a materialist, I do think that spiritual experiences are ultimately rooted in the material neurons of the brain. Although we have yet to understand how it is that amazing spiritual experiences arise from those neurons, we can still believe the experiences are ultimately rooted in the material brain—that is, that there is no nonmaterial supernatural essence in the body, in the mind. But I believe you can have a scientific worldview, and you can also acknowledge and embrace feelings of connection to the cosmos, appreciate beauty, feel a bond with other people and with nature, and have other experiences we associate with spirituality.

How do you think creativity, which can be a kind of spiritual experience, arises from the material brain? I don’t think anybody understands creativity. But all of us have had creative experiences and been in the “zone,” and it’s a magnificent experience. It’s one of the most beautiful experiences that we can have when we’re in a creative space in which we lose all track of our ego. We lose track of our body, we lose track of time. We lose track of where we are, and we’re just in this magical state of being that’s like consciousness itself. It’s very hard to know exactly how that arises from the material brain, but I do believe it does. It’s just that I can’t connect the dots from the material neurons to the higher mental activities like creativity.

You’ve explained creativity as an emergent phenomenon, where the workings of a complex system can’t be understood by its components. Right. In nature, there are emergent phenomena, phenomena arising from complex systems of many parts for which we understand the workings of each individual part but cannot predict the qualitative behavior of the entire system. For example, the patterns of snowflakes. I think the human brain is the most amazing example of emergent phenomena we know of. Many, many phenomena of the brain cannot be understood on the basis of its individual parts. The individual units, of course, we call neurons. We can know everything about individual neurons and not understand how it is that a collection of neurons produces qualitatively new phenomena, such as creativity.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is what’s known as a terma, or treasure teaching. According to legend, it was hidden in caves and trees, the sky and the mindstream, to be discovered in the future. One way of looking at this is that wisdom is concealed somewhere inside us, and if we have the right perspective, we can access it. Do you feel like you’re accessing different parts of your brain in your work as a physicist or as a writer? I think I do. One element of it seems to be having a prepared mind. You don’t invent things out of whole cloth when you’re creating. You’ve done your homework. You’ve thought about things. You’ve developed certain skills. And all of that is lurking in your brain somewhere. It’s like how the great chess players study the chess moves of all the grand masters, all the games that have been played in the past. Then, when they’re playing a new game against a very strong opponent and the chess board has a certain configuration, they remember having seen a board in a similar configuration in a match played by a grand master, maybe ten years in the past, and they access that. It feels like that when I’m doing science or creative writing, like I’m accessing something that was hidden. 

We can know everything about individual neurons and not understand how it is that a collection of neurons produces qualitatively new phenomena, such as creativity.

Also, the subconscious mind is largely unknown, in the sense that the human mind is always thinking about things but often it’s at the subconscious level. Sometimes, you’re trying to think of a word, and you can’t think of it and you pound your head. Then, suddenly, it comes to you because your unconscious mind has been working all that time. Brain scientists have studied this, and they call it the default mode, when there’s actually a lot of electrical activity in the brain but at an unconscious level. That’s the unknown in your unconscious brain that you have to figure out how to tap into. 

So in a way, it’s the known, hidden somewhere inside you, versus the truly unknown. Yes, when something is nowhere in your brain. 

In The Transcendent Brain, you quote Einstein: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” You say that you think Einstein was referring to a “magical realm between the known and the unknown. A place that provokes us and stimulates our creativity and fills us with amazement.” Do you feel you inhabit the realm between the known and the unknown? I’m always trying new things. I love to challenge myself. People have said, “Why don’t you write a sequel to Einstein’s Dreams?” And I say, “Well, I wouldn’t be interested in doing that. I want to learn new things.” And something that’s new is by definition unknown. So I do feel like I’m living between the known and the unknown. There’s a certain tension there, a slightly unsettled feeling, because you’re surrendering yourself to things you don’t know and trying to be open to those things. Whether you’re a painter or a musician, a writer or a scientist, that’s where creativity lies: between the known and the unknown.

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