By BARRY BOYCE, Senior Writer for the Shambhala Sun.
woman I know, Judi, was pursuing her doctorate in pharmacology in the
seventies. Since a doctorate in the hard sciences is not for the faint
of heart, it was a very stressful time for her. Her thesis adviser,
Dave, suggested she try meditation. She thought it was probably a
passing fancy for Dave. Not one for fads and easy fixes, she demurred.
He left her a brochure for the local meditation group anyway.
a few weeks, begrudgingly, she looked at it. Curious, she trundled down
to the meditation center. She took some classes and did some sitting,
and before long she discovered meditation was worthwhile. She took it up
I met Judi, she was a postdoctoral fellow doing neuroscience research
at the National Institutes of Health on brain processes that regulate
blood pressure. At one point, she wrote her Buddhist teacher a letter
inquiring whether he thought she should leave science and find a new
career because some of her research involved killing animals. In reply,
he encouraged her to continue to pursue her work as a scientist but to
try to find a way to not kill so many animals.
I married Judi, I married a fellow meditator and a fledgling Buddhist.
But I soon realized I’d also married a scientist. Science isn’t a day
job. It’s a frame of mind you carry with you all the time. It’s quite
possibly a way of being. Science journals share space on our coffee
table with meditation magazines. Dinner-table conversations have often
required me to go to the dictionary to refresh my memory on
phosphorylation or metabolite or teratogenicity.
main feature of the scientific mindset, I discovered, is searching.
While authority or tradition may give you hints, it’s evidence that
makes all the difference. When I visited the Center for Investigating
Healthy Minds (CIHM) in Madison, Wisconsin, and spent time with Richie
Davidson and his family of researchers, I felt very much at home. The
people I met demonstrated the habits and virtues I associate with
one thing, they test assertions more than posit answers. If I tried to
wrap something up in a neat package, the response was often “my research
doesn’t show that” or “we can’t say that yet.” This commitment to
evidence is not only admirable, it’s very helpful. Modern public
institutions like hospitals, schools, and government agencies require
secular evidence using scientific methods to verify the effectiveness of
treatments and training programs. If a mindfulness program is to be
instituted in a hospital or school, simply stating “the Buddha says it
works” won’t suffice.
also learn how something works through an inquiry process, which is why
the center has “investigating” in its title. What passes for learning
and knowledge in day-to-day affairs is often a matter of accepting what
someone else has told us rather than asking fresh questions. The Buddha
himself was a fresh-question-asker, a scientist. He wanted to get to the
bottom of suffering, so he kept investigating. This spirit is still
alive in the Zen principle of not-knowing, which causes one to keep
looking. At Davidson’s center they keep looking. They ask, “Are we so
sure what the human mind is capable of? How far can it go if we train
scientists have a sense of wonder, the feeling you may have had in the
best kind of science class, where you marveled at red giants and black
holes or what sulfuric acid can do or how single-celled organisms
behave. For the researchers at CIHM, it may be a feeling of wonder in
observing how the brain changes when a very experienced meditator
arouses compassion or marveling at the startling transformation of a
veteran with post-traumatic stress who has followed a regimen of yogic
this issue, we mark the meeting of science and contemplative
traditions. It’s come a long way over the last forty years, as the
timeline starting on page 58 shows. And, as Jill Suttie’s survey of the
Mind & Life Institute’s pioneering work makes clear, it’s also not
one-sided. It’s a dialogue. Traditional scientific evidence is heavily
rooted in thirdperson external observation. That’s what “objective”
evidence has always meant. But meditators, particularly scientists who
meditate, also believe that first-person evidence is valid—especially
the kind we hear from those whose training has made them adept at
observing nuances of mind.
counts as scientific evidence where mind is concerned? Is the mind of a
great meditator a research instrument whose results are as valid as a
printout from an MRI? This is up for discussion. I know we’ll be talking
about it in my house.