Landscape Before Dying (Heaven & Earth #2), 2001, acrylic on canvas, 14 x 14 inches © Mamie Holst, Courtesy of Feature, Inc., New York.
Landscape Before Dying (Heaven & Earth #2), 2001, acrylic on canvas, 14 x 14 inches © Mamie Holst, Courtesy of Feature, Inc., New York.

SOMETIME IN THE 1980S while residing at a meditation center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I heard of Tibetan yogis being tested with rectal thermometers for increased body temperature, a side effect of the meditation called tumo, the inner heat that burns up subtle obscurations. The yogis, apparently, were uncomfortable with the experiment; someone told me one of them had died not long after returning to India and that the pool of tumo practitioners willing to participate in Western research had dried up for several years as a result. These were merely rumors, yet they revealed the beliefs and prejudices of both sides, as rumors tend to do, making the Westerners sound crude and ruthless, the yogis ignorant and superstitious.

What does it matter, anyway, if a yogi can raise his body temperature a few degrees? His goal is an inner experience. To spend time proving that meditation can alter the body seemed backward, even grotesque to me. Like those Houdini-like Hindu yogis who can be buried alive, consciously regulate their blood flow, lift a brick with their penis—so what? They all eventually die. What about inner freedom, can that be measured? It did not seem that being able to stop your heart from pumping, temporarily, was the same as stopping it from aching.

Meanwhile, I was aware that a dialogue—like a moving speck on the horizon, trailed by a plume of dust—was taking place between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and various prominent scientists. People I knew periodically packed up and went off to Dharamsala to participate. I was envious of their taking part in unscripted conversations revealing His Holiness’s depth of mind.

I’m not sure when I realized that the moving speck was a convoy—the Mind and Life Institute, a collaboration between His Holiness and members of the scientific community that began with a small meeting in 1987 and has since expanded to include conferences, research, publications, and education programs. The conversation had moved from His Holiness’s living room into the public sphere, spawning forums that filled large halls and research that got the kind of coverage public relations people dream about. Despite my skepticism, I felt vindicated and joyful—meditation finally seen as a legitimate pursuit! Even the Wall Street Journal was keeping up with our doings.

Slowly I began to discard my prejudices about an endeavor that was, after all, respected by trained, intelligent people in both the science and meditation communities. Mind and Life scientists were scanning meditators’ brains, discovering how the brain can change as a result of directed attention, and altering long-held theories. The enthusiasm was huge and so was the controversy.

Intrigued, I decided to attend the 13th Mind and Life dialogue, “The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation,” held in November at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Along with a friend, I spent four hundred dollars for a mediocre seat, more than I’d spent for a ticket to a recent Rolling Stones concert. “Isn’t that as it should be?” someone said when I complained. Then we signed up for the convention hotel, whose special rate seemed to have been doubled by the management instead of reduced. But we wanted to see everybody drifting through the marble lobby and be part of the larger, unrecorded conversation. There was a grand piano playing by itself in the middle of the reflecting pool, an apt image for what we would soon be learning. “Look where we are!” one of my teachers marveled. “Remember where we started?”

BEFORE I SAY HOW MY MENTAL WIG got restyled, I must mention how, like a slow and drenching rain, notions about the brain have come to saturate daily life. Ads on the sides of city buses tout pep drinks, good for your brain. Ads on television show a fried egg in a pan, your brain on drugs. Everyone and their friend seems to be taking Prozac, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Celexa, or Adderall. Who hasn’t participated, even if silently, in the discomfited nationwide discussion of what it means that one’s “self” can change via a pill? Brain imaging, too, is clearly a thrilling scientific frontier, filled with technical difficulties and controversies dumbed down for television. EEG, CAT, PET, and MRI images flood popular culture, Rorschach tests for ideas of what is real, desirable, good, and bad. Poor Terri Schiavo’s brain scan was used as the main reference point for the ultimate moral decision. Onstage at the Daughters of the American Revolution Hall, eminent gurus (mostly men) and scientists (mostly men again) were offering a kind of multilateral tutorial, with His Holiness at its focus, the rest of us sitting in on the lesson. A half-dozen people sat onstage, including the Dalai Lama’s translator Thubten Jinpa. Each presenter spoke for about a half hour, supported by material on a laptop that was projected on large screens for the audience; afterward there was a brief dialogue with His Holiness and the others.

We learned there is no juicy walnut in the center of your head where the little captain sits; instead there’s a kind of hairnet of electric charges—“self-generated, synchronous oscillations.” One researcher found that depression’s interlocking patterns of thinking and emotion correspond to areas in the brain; another, that intentionally diverting attention from obsessive thoughts can help to break those patterns up, literally moving energy to different places. No one in that audience will ever forget how rats often reduce their stress hormones—by biting another rat—thus defending themselves from the damaging influence of cortisol. Fortunately, as the next neuroscientist made sure to emphasize, human brains are anatomically different from those of rats, giving us more built-in options. To reduce stress, we can choose kindness; we can even train ourselves to incline more frequently toward kindness. If we do, we may well change our brains—most anything you learn physically changes the brain, a fairly recent discovery in neuroscience, known as neuroplasticity, toward whose detailed articulation Mind and Life researchers have made major contributions.

But it’s not just the brain; the whole body is the relevant system. Heart damage can ensue from as simple a challenge as being asked to count backward from one hundred by sevens. We saw in astonishing detail how interactions of the brain and immune system are being mapped. Meditation seems to help immunity—a little.

His Holiness cautioned the scientists that it was hard to pinpoint anything for sure, and that there are limits to what can be done to heal the body. Fully liberated beings, arhats, are free of suffering but still die. He and the other spiritual teachers suggested that a connection with ultimate reality is the best definition of perfect human health. There could be states of well-being that are far superior to the “normality” medicine currently aspires to, but to reach these requires ethics, and compassion, and the pragmatic labor of meditation.

 

Landscape Before Dying (Toward Exiting #2), 2001, acrylic on canvas, 15 x 15 inches. © Mamie Holst, Courtesy of Feature, Inc., New York.
Landscape Before Dying (Toward Exiting #2), 2001, acrylic on canvas, 15 x 15 inches. © Mamie Holst, Courtesy of Feature, Inc., New York.

Occasionally the dialogue on stage floundered, ideas got conflated, certain people took up too much time, or hissed politely or even spouted bunkum, equating hunter-gatherer social organization with a simplistic grasping response to the world, a categorization anthropologists dropped long ago. Anyone who’s meditated for more than half an hour knows it’s not all fun and games; and, having known times when my practice felt horrible, with obsessions floating up like oil slicks from a sunken ship, I wished for more acknowledgment of its difficult unfoldings–perhaps a topic for future study. I’d have been interested, too, in hearing more about some of the thorny issues faced by the researchers. And His Holiness had a cold. He often gave only brief replies before signaling for the next presenter. (Maybe he was preoccupied by an impending lunch with “W” and Condoleezza, I thought.) I found it touching, even inspiring, to think of His Holiness’s humanness, which he so often claims, and the toll his schedule takes on him. Later, I heard that for those sitting close to him on stage, the depth of his listening was palpable even when he wasn’t saying much. Some of the scientists seemed overawed and nervous, asking for comments on applied research. Eventually, the Westerners discussed among themselves how better to engage His Holiness’s areas of expertise, like the difference between conventional perception and true cognition of reality. By the second afternoon of the conference, with the political luncheon concluded, the dialogue perked up.

And there we all were, inhabiting a respectful and trusting convergence, comparing notes with one another as we groped at the elephant of reality from various sides. A seat neighbor showed me a graph representing a neuron paying attention, three times as active as a distracted neuron. I knew it was only a picture, but it corresponded with a feeling I get on nearly every retreat, that my mind is bursting with energy, and I told her so. Some generalized interactivity was emerging, more nuanced and profound than I’d imagined. Going to the women’s room, I was pleased to understand that these urgent signals were coming from deep in my brain stem, overriding other attentional priorities like a desire to hear the end of a speaker’s presentation. Walking outside, I felt agreeably boundariless, half convinced that all the European tourists snapping photos of the White House were fellow participants in Mind and Life. Most salient, though, was a poignant desire to follow the Buddha’s teachings as best I could—and I know I wasn’t alone in that impulse. After hearing so much language about reproducible results, I began to recall Buddhism’s traditional assertion that if you do your homework, actually walk the walk, you will eventually reach the goal of a freed mind.

WHY DOES THE MIND GO ASTRAY, why does it not see the world correctly? Why does it persist in addiction, delusion, hate? The Buddha said, Don’t ask why, just straighten it out. Science, on the other hand, offers an intellectual bone to chew on here, postulating that survival instincts don’t quite know when to turn themselves off. Emotions that may exist to get us out of the way of speeding water buffaloes, or into bed with each other to perpetuate the species, don’t always calm down when they should—but meditation helps. Again and again we heard how meditation protects the mind and body from damage.

From Dr. Ralph Snyderman, the former Chancellor of Health Affairs at Duke University, we learned that medicine has essentially understood the principles involved in curing illnesses with drugs. Nowadays, the greatest preventable mortality arises from lack of care for oneself and others: murder, suicide, drug addiction, obesity, and many cancers. This is why some in the medical establishment have turned to Buddhism, Snyderman told us. “Technology is not enough. What can we learn from two thousand years of contemplation?” After having been asked once too often why I didn’t equate meditation retreats with navel-gazing or even worse, being dead, it was gratifying to hear another eminent scientist apply the words “major intellectual discipline” to what I’d been a part of.

Yet as much as His Holiness spoke of a special element in Buddhism—its idea of nonself—it seemed to me that this turf is not reserved. Science is nontheistic. And if, as a culture, we’re still fixated on how a damaged brain produces a diminished self until some pill regrooves your neural pathways–is it not a short step to think of all possible selves and experiences as a kind of interactive physiochemical waking dream, a symphony of body, brain, and world? A dynamic, nonlinear view of reality is emerging among scientists. Some still assume consciousness does not exist, and criticize anyone who values subjectivity. (Um, why else would the doctor ask you how you feel?) Others are hoping to catch what makes us conscious. Though this seems as contradictory as trying to see oneself by standing behind a mirror, I’m still cheering the effort. Who knows what they’ll find out?

Maybe human beings can never fully understand what’s going on, as German neuroscientist Wolf Singer said on the final, heady day of summations. Our brains may not be capable of encompassing what the cosmos is doing, yet they’re complex enough to wonder and take stabs. Whether or not consciousness is an emergent property of matter, as current theory would have it, or whether a more subtle model will eventually emerge, for now awareness remains ephemeral, not provable by any method other than the Zen master’s swatting you with a stick. Did you feel that? To some extent the duality seems illusory to me. We can be fairly sure that attention, present awareness, knowing, consciousness—whatever you want to call it—is not only part of what is true, but also brings us closer to it. The Great Wall of galaxies is continuous with the unification of the body’s electrical charges in meditation, is continuous with a meditator focusing on breath, is continuous with what is found there, even if that impact can only ever be expressed as—just itself. Well, that’s where I’ll put my money, or rather my attention.

Still, as a meditator I can’t be such a snob as to say there are no concepts guiding my practice. Buddhism itself is only a finger pointing at the moon, but I might have ignored the moon forever were it not for my teachers. And I still need repeated indications.

After Mind and Life, I’ve wondered whether we are starting a new school of Buddhism. His Holiness often runs through the permutations of the Svatantrikas’ view, the Vaibhasikas’ view, and so on through the foundational schools of Buddhism, checking their ideas against the laws of nature as currently understood by science. He often says that where science contradicts Buddhism, Buddhism must change. (I’m so proud of that.) Maybe it has already changed and one day we’ll end up being called the Scientikas, or the Quantikas.

Enormous questions remain, tantalizing and intriguing, as awesome as the galaxies overhead. And it is salutary to come to their edge and not to find oneself alone there.

 

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