The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
Any of you who are longtime readers of this blog will know of my abiding interest in science, esp. science of mind and cosmology and physics. The big questions of who we are, what we are, what makes up the experience of consciousness, what makes up the physical universe in which we find ourselves, what are the engines that drive experience, what does it all mean, these are things that I love to wrestle with and I have spent many, many years doing my own self-directed reading and exploring of these topics. And I’ve posted a lot of my own thoughts about these issues here on this blog.
Also, as a student and practitioner of Buddhism I frequently post about my experiences and thoughts on Buddhism and what it is, what it means to me, and how the teachings talk about the nature of reality and the nature of mind and what it is to be conscious, living beings.
Which leads me to what happened to me yesterday.
One of the guys I know through my practice is a member of a center of our lineage in Santa Barbara. I met him on a retreat last year and we were at another retreat after that and we’ve struck up a friendship around that, and his deal is that he is a psychologist and a heavy-duty researcher in the field of perception, a retired professor at UCSB and big into both Buddhism and the scientific perspective of reality and how those two things intersect, if they do at all, and what each one says about the other, etc. So we met up a couple of weeks ago, he made the long drive up to my place from Santa Barbara and we hung out and shot the shit and talked big story about this Science/Buddhism connection and it was one of the most deeply pleasurable experiences of my life. He’s so freaking brilliant and so deeply knowledgeable that everything he said just blew my mind apart, and he has a very solid basis for his own opinions and understandings of the way the mind works, really hard-won, empirical understanding.
So, anyway, one of the things he does and has done for the past five years or so is to run a seminar on Science and Buddhism. He’s got these other cognitive scientists, physics professors, post-doc brilliant minds, and he’s got our teacher, Dawa, as the representative for the Buddhist perspective, and then Jack is both a scientist and practitioner, and he’s got another guy who is a retired psychiatrist and contemplative student, and Dawa himself is a scientist, a researcher studying secular applications of mindfulness training for children. Dr. Jonathan Schooler is a member, a guy who is doing amazing work on cognition and the nature of mind. Anyway, a room full of big giant minds and brilliant practitioners and a real Buddhist lama and they meet monthly and hash out the big questions.
So Jack asked me if I’d like to attend the seminar.
Like a kid in a candy store, this was a dream come true for me. I cannot believe my great good fortune! All those countless hours watching Nova and reading Dennett and Norretranders and Brian Greene and Sean Carroll and everything I’ve done for twenty years at least filling my mind with all these ideas from the greatest minds about what it is that we’re experiencing and what it all means, and now I had the chance to actually sit in a room with people like that, people who have devoted their own professional lives to this pursuit and are meeting just to shoot the shit about these questions that so intriuge and perplex me…I cannot express how much it meant to me.
So, yesterday was the seminar. I took off from work and went down to Santa Barbara. I got there early and met another practitioner friend from down there and we went for a nice long walk on the beach and talked all about the Dharma and practice and how that was going and it was wonderful and then Jack showed up and he escorted me to the campus and then I was there, sitting at a table with ten scientists and my Dharma teacher and we discussed a couple of topics generally, we talked about Jung’s paper, “The Difference Between Eastern and Western Thinking” that was published as the preface to the Tibetan book of the dead, the Walter Evans-Wentz edition from 1927, and we also discussed Dr. Schooler’s paper on his work on mind wandering, which included a section on the nature of time, the concept of a block-universe model proposed from a deterministic, newtonian-based perspective and how that model seems to be inconsistent with our experience of time as a dynamic force, etc.
Jack had given us the papers a week before so everyone had made themselves familiar with them and we just went around discussing everyone’s thoughts on them and very quickly, immediately, really, we were engaged in a very wide ranging scientific and philosophical free-for-all.
I often write of my love for seeing intelligent, skillful people doing difficult things well, mostly in the context of watching really good murder cops or really good SWAT cops do their thing, and this was the same kind of thing. Just really, really brilliant motherfuckers bringing their A game and doing battle.
I feel so profoundly priveleged to have been able to participate, it really was like getting to fly a 747 or the Space Shuttle or do brain surgery, it was the coolest fucking thing I could imagine getting to do!
So, thank you, Jack! I owe you big time.
And I was kind of astounded to find that I was able to hold my own in the group. I actually said some stuff, both from the scientific perspective and the Buddhist perspective, some things that made sense and maybe even contributed a little bit to the discussion. Everyone was very warm and welcoming and I think they also enjoyed having some weird cop show up who was interested in how they see the world and who could articulate his point of view with sufficient clarity that they understood where I was coming from. It was really a super fun time. And I get to go back next month!
What yesterday felt like to me is, and this is going to sound very corny and new-agey but I don’t give a shit, it felt like a manifestation of my deepest desire, my own deepest desire coming into the world by virtue of what? I don’t know. Some kind of connection, I believe, between practice and the nature of mind.
Practice has changed my neural framework. New neural connections have been established and strengthened and that is manifesting in a changed perceptual experience of my lived world. My mind is different, so my world has changed to reflect that new reality. I mean, since the mind itself generates my perception of reality, right, I don’t get to get access, direct and unmediated access to “reality”, I don’t get that, I get what my brain presents to me after taking in all the sensory inputs, I get the brain’s representation of what it thinks is “out there.” So it totally makes sense, real and absolute sense, that because practice changes my brain my brain must change its representational model of reality.
And that’s what I’m experiencing now, a brave new world. A world in which I go on retreats and delve deeply into meditation and prayer. A world in which mediation and prayer anchor each day of my life, a world in which I have teachers who guide me on the path, and a world in which I sit around a table with many great minds and turn the power of those minds to the deepest of questions.
I’m living a life that I dreamed up to make me happy and fulfilled.