A scientist and a monk compare notes on meditation, therapy, and their effects on the brain.
Can training the mind make us more attentive, altruistic, and serene? Can we learn to manage our disturbing emotions in an optimal way? What are the transformations that occur in the brain when we practice meditation? In a new book titled Beyond the Self, two friends—Matthieu Ricard, who left a career as a molecular biologist to become a Buddhist monk in Nepal, and Wolf Singer, a distinguished neuroscientist—engage in an unusually well-matched conversation about meditation and the brain. Below is a condensed and edited excerpt.
Matthieu Ricard: Although one ﬁnds in the Buddhist literature many treatises on “traditional sciences”—medicine, cosmology, botanic, logic, and so on—Tibetan Buddhism has not endeavored to the same extent as Western civilizations to expand its knowledge of the world through the natural sciences. Rather it has pursued an exhaustive investigation of the mind for 2,500 years and has accumulated, in an empirical way, a wealth of experiential ﬁndings over the centuries. A great number of people have dedicated their whole lives to this contemplative science.
Modern Western psychology began with William James just over a century ago. I can’t help remembering the remark made by Stephen Kosslyn, then chair of the psychology department at Harvard, at the Mind and Life meeting on “Investigating the Mind,” which took place at MIT in 2003. He started his presentation by saying, “I want to begin with a declaration of humility in the face of the sheer amount of data that the contemplatives are bringing to modern psychology.”
It does not sufﬁce to ponder how the human psyche works and elaborate complex theories about it, as, for instance, Freud did. Such intellectual constructs cannot replace two millennia of direct investigation of the workings of mind through penetrating introspection conducted with trained minds that have become both stable and clear.
Wolf Singer: Can you be more speciﬁc with this rather bold claim? Why should what nature gave us be fundamentally negative, requiring special mental practice for its elimination, and why should this approach be superior to conventional education or, if conﬂicts arise, to psychotherapy in its various forms, including psychoanalysis?
Ricard: What nature gave us is by no means entirely negative; it is just a baseline. Few people would honestly argue that there is nothing worth improving about the way they live and the way they experience the world. Some people regard their own particular weaknesses and conﬂicting emotions as a valuable and distinct part of their “personality,” as something that contributes to the fullness of their lives. They believe that this is what makes them unique and argue that they should accept themselves as they are. But isn’t this an easy way to giving up on the idea of improving the quality of their lives, which would cost only some reasoning and effort?
Modern conventional education does not focus on transforming the mind and cultivating basic human qualities such as lovingkindness and mindfulness. As we will see later, Buddhist contemplative science has many things in common with cognitive therapies, in particular with those using mindfulness as a foundation for remedying mental imbalance. As for psychoanalysis, it seems to encourage rumination and explore endlessly the details and intricacies of the clouds of mental confusion and self-centeredness that mask the most fundamental aspect of mind: luminous awareness.
Singer: So rumination would be the opposite of what you do during meditation?
Ricard: Totally opposite. It is also well known that constant rumination is one of the main symptoms of depression. What we need is to gain freedom from the mental chain reactions that rumination endlessly perpetuates. One should learn to let thoughts arise and be freed to go as soon as they arise, instead of letting them invade one’s mind. In the freshness of the present moment, the past is gone, the future is not yet born, and if one remains in pure mindfulness and freedom, potentially disturbing thoughts arise and go without leaving a trace.
Singer: What you have to learn then is to adopt a much more subtle approach to your internal emotional theater, to learn to identify with much higher resolution the various connotations of your feelings.
Ricard: That’s right. In the beginning, it is difﬁcult to do it as soon as an emotion arises, but if you become increasingly familiar with such an approach, it becomes quite natural. Whenever anger is just showing its face, we recognize it right away and deal with it before it becomes too strong.
Singer: It is not unlike a scientiﬁc endeavor except that the analytical effort is directed toward the inner rather than the outer world. Science also attempts to understand reality by increasing the resolving power of instruments, training the mind to grasp complex relations, and decomposing systems into ever-smaller components.
Ricard: It is said in the Buddhist teachings that there is no task so difﬁcult that it cannot be broken down into a series of small, easy tasks.
Singer: Your object of inquiry appears to be the mental apparatus and your analytical tool, introspection. This is an interesting self-referential approach that differs from the Western science of mind because it emphasizes the ﬁrst-person perspective and collapses, in a sense, the instrument of investigation with its object. The Western approach, while using the ﬁrst-person perspective for the deﬁnition of mental phenomena, clearly favors the third-person perspective for its investigation.
I am curious to ﬁnd out whether the results of analytical introspection match those obtained by cognitive neuroscience. Both approaches obviously try to develop a differentiated and realistic view of cognitive processes.