Holding Life Consciously: The Artistry of Bridging the Sciences and Humanities Through Focused Attention and Open Awareness
by Krista Tippett, host
Considering light as both particle and wave. (photo Wylie Conlon/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
I’m not sure I’d seen the words “physicist” and “contemplative” in the same sentence many times, much less found them together as descriptors of the same person, before I spoke with Arthur Zajonc on “Holding Life Consciously.” (His name reflects his father’s Polish origins, by the way, and rhymes with “science.”) As a professor of physics at Amherst College, his research interests have ranged from the theoretical foundations of quantum physics and the polarity of atoms to the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. He also has a long-time contemplative practice and is a leading figure among academics exploring the relevance of contemplative traditions for higher education. And even when he is discussing elemental questions of science, he is likely to invoke ideas of the 18th-century literary figure Goethe, or the 20th-century scientist/philosopher/educational innovator Rudolph Steiner.
Writing that, I realize how erudite and perhaps abstract it might sound. In fact, being in Arthur Zajonc’s presence is as calming and grounding as it is intellectually intriguing. He has acquired an amazing range of tools across an adventurous 40-year career that explores human knowledge and human being in all their wholeness. Yet his tools and ideas are remarkably accessible — “sensible,” in fact, a word he uses often. He paints a manageable picture of how human life itself — lived fully and held consciously — compels us to integrate qualities of thought and mind that our culture often holds apart. We ourselves and everything around us have an interior as well as an exterior — and we can explore both with due vigor. Life as well as science has both an experiential, intuitive context and an objective, factual basis — and surely we must take all of this seriously if what we are really after is truth that matters and knowledge that serves.
Arthur Zajonc finds a favorite example of this layered nature of reality in the elemental substance of light. As we’ve explored a number of times here at On Being, the scientific debate over whether light is a particle or a wave was resolved in the 20th century with the unexpected conclusion that it is both. I’ve always pointed to this as an intriguing example of how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true — a lesson straight from life that the answers we arrive at depend on the questions we are asking.
But Arthur Zajonc takes this debate and its implications to yet another level. Whether light is a particle or a wave, he points out, is still not the whole story of light; those of us who live in a world of light and darkness live in our experience of it, not in a perception of particles and waves. Goethe defined color, evocatively, as “the deeds and sufferings of light” and insisted that light and color have sensory and moral effect as well as physical properties. And surely it is not insignificant, and also worthy of investigation, that light is a primary spiritual metaphor across the centuries and across traditions.
Rudolf Steiner explored this idea, beginning from a scientific perspective, in the late 19th and early 20th century and has been a formative thinker for Arthur Zajonc. Here again, he is drawn to the integrated approach — and the experiential application of ideas — of Steiner, who founded the Anthroposophical Society in Switzerland, which continues to flourish across the world. Waldorf Schools are probably the best-known fruit of his philosophy. These schools intentionally cultivate the wholeness of the humanity of a child: intellectual, practical, ecological, musical, and spiritual.
Zajonc’s own life experience has been recently reshaped by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He has seen the progression of this illness in other members of his family, and so has some understanding of what is ahead. This is at one and the same time a source of grief and a continuation of the adventure Arthur Zajonc has long been on — to explore what holding life consciously means, now with a progressively debilitating condition. He tells me:
“There are two main types of meditation and both of them are part of my life, which one is a concentration and the other is what I call open awareness. It’s a very open presence.
In the concentration phase, tremors actually worsened.
You have a line of poetry or from scripture or an image and you bring your full undivided single-pointed attention to that content. But as we’re straining mentally to do that, the hand begins to tremor more. And then when you release the image and become very still and quiet and open yourself wide, the hand slowly calms to the point where indeed your whole body feels at ease and the tremor disappears. Interesting…
I can see that the mind and the body are so delicately attuned to one another that these practices affect the Parkinson’s state itself. … So here’s the question I pose to myself. Is it possible to be alive, active in the world, and yet have such calm, such kind of inner openness and presence that one can lead a life, at least in part, that is an expression of that quality of meditative quiescence that’s on the one hand quite alert and on the other hand, completely at ease, completely at rest. … And I’ll keep you posted as to whether that comes out all right or not.”
Q:how to find "bell sound meditation" ?
I’m assuming you heard our show with Arthur Zajonc in which we call out this wildly popular ten minutes of guided meditation. We posted Zajonc’s bell sound meditation right here on Tumblr. And, if you have the time and the inclination, please let us know what you thought about it; we’ve been fascinated by the experiences.
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Compassion Is a Skill to Be Developed Through Practice
by Krista Tippett, host
Matthieu Ricard looks on as Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche makes a point to children in Vancouver, Canada. (photo: Linda Lane/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
The title we’ve given this week’s show, “The ‘Happiest’ Man in the World,” is slightly tongue-in-cheek. It appeared in a British newspaper after the publication of scientific study results on Matthieu Ricard’s brain. He dismisses this label and has issued many good-natured disclaimers. We’ve revived it here, however, because of the lovely way in which Matthieu Ricard fills that phrase with a whole new range of savvy, satisfying meaning.
I certainly found myself identifying with Ricard’s descriptions, in his own writing, of his youthful, worldly-wise dismissal of “happiness” as a goal. I too was dismissive, well into adulthood, of the very word “happiness” and its overwhelming associations with the dream-come-true state that ends movies, for example, or the happiness as “having it all” American way.
But Matthieu Ricard puts words to what I’ve learned as I’ve grown older. He accomplishes that as much with his ideas as with his presence. He is a slightly incongruous yet wholly comfortable Frenchman swathed in the lavish gold and red of Tibetan monastic robes, with practical shoes beneath. He is at once sophisticated and mischievous, intellectual and childlike — something, that is, like his teacher the Dalai Lama. It was a privilege to experience them both at a series of gatherings in Vancouver, British Columbia, where they were in conversation with Nobel laureates, scientists, social activists, and educators. We converted a tenth-floor suite at the Shangri-La Hotel, aptly named and somewhat surreal, into a production suite for this interview, which you can view as well as hear on our site.
I am fascinated by the way in which science is interwoven with Matthieu Ricard’s life story as well as his current work with the Dalai Lama and his very definition of the spiritual quest. He is one of those so-called “Olympic meditators” — people who have meditated tens of thousands of hours and whose brains have been studied and yielded important new insights into something called neuroplasticity — the human brain’s capacity to alter across the life span. This is a fairly recent and fairly dramatic — and not uncontroversial — discovery that came about as a result of research involving the Mind and Life Institute — a fascinating dialogue with scientists from many disciplines that the Dalai Lama has been hosting for many years.
Matthieu Ricard actually began his life as a molecular biologist, working with a Nobel Prize-winning biologist at the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris. His decision to leave France for a Buddhist monastic path greatly perplexed his father, Jean-François Revel, a philosopher who was a pillar of French intellectual life. But as he describes in a literary dialogue with his father that was published as The Monk and the Philosopher, Tibetan Buddhism was less of a departure in his mind than in his father’s.
He had become drawn to the spiritual masters, who would later become his teachers and eventually his peers, leading lives of integrity. And there was a very personal, full-circle integrity in his love of the natural world that had manifest itself in part in biological research — and in his appreciation for Buddhist spirituality as a life shaped by what he describes as “contemplative science.” I am utterly fascinated by the echoes between science and spirituality that Matthieu Ricard has continued to pursue and that we discuss together in this show.
Will neuroscience one day be able to not merely describe the movement of neurons and brain chemistry but add its own vocabulary to the meaning and nature of human consciousness, as related to or distinct from the brain? And how can we not be fascinated by the evocative echoes between the way quantum physicists have come to describe energy and matter and the way Buddhist philosophy has always described the interconnectedness and impermanence of human experience and all of life? Our understanding of the intersection of mind, life, body, and however you want to define the human spirit continues to unfold and develop, and is one of the most intriguing frontiers of this century.
One Year in 40 Seconds (video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Something a bit more playful and quiet for this Friday: a time-lapse video of a grove of trees in Oslo, Norway showing the seasons change.
Learning to Pray: A Poem
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“The self doubt is crippling.” (photo: Meredith Farmer/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The Pushcart-nominated poet Yahia Lababidi wrote us this lovely note: “I’m a big admirer of your noble mandate and the fine work that you do. Kindly find two poems below from my new collection: Fever Dreams.”
Here’s the first of those two poems from the Egyptian writer, “Learning to Pray” — a lovely meditation on living life charitably and with intention:
Long susceptible to the pious heresies,
of mystics, martyrs and other fanatics
mad enough to confound themselves
with God, and declare it free of ego
Those spiritually reckless creatures
contemptuous of all rule books,
traffic signs and speeding tickets
in such a hurry were they to arrive
No social drinkers, these revelers
they drank to get drunk, alone
that they might stay that way
sobriety being the only sin…
But what of us without stamina
for such superhuman attention
or the patience to stand in line
inching towards the checkout
Might we forge our own language
(until we can speak in tongues)
by asking of our every action
does this, or that, please You?
Recalculating with No Road Ahead
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“Sometimes not even the GPS can really tell you where you are.”
This dear listener with a fine sense of humor submitted the photo above, along with the subsequent caption in response to our show “What We Nurture with” Sylvia Boorstein. During her conversation with Krista, the Jewish-Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist shares this analogy about “recalculating” one’s life like a GPS unit:
Dr. Boorstein: I’ve never said it in a public audience, but I just thought about it recently. I decided that — I’ll find out soon if this is a good analogy — but I was thinking about the GPS in my car. It never gets annoyed at me. If I make a mistake, it says, “Recalculating.” And then it tells me to make the soonest left turn and go back. I thought to myself, you know, I should write a book and call it “Recalculating” because I think that that’s what we’re doing all the time.
If something happens, it challenges us and the challenge is, OK, so do you want to get mad now? You could get mad, you could go home, you could make some phone calls, you could tell a few people you can’t believe what this person said or that person said. Indignation is tremendously seductive, you know, and to share with other people on the telephone and all that. So to not do it and to say, wait a minute, apropos of you said before, wise effort to say to yourself, wait a minute, this is not the right road. Literally, this is not the right road. There’s a fork in the road here. I could become indignant, I could flame up this flame of negativity or I could say, “Recalculating.” I’ll just go back here.
Ms. Tippett: So this is an example of technology instilling us with spiritual discipline — we find so much to criticize.
Dr. Boorstein: And no matter how many times I don’t make that turn, it will continue to say, “Recalculating.” The tone of voice will stay the same.
Ms. Tippett: That’s good. I think it’s a good analogy.
Q:For a few years, my son and I have been practicing yoga as a means of quieting our noisy minds. I personally have had limited success with this, and although many of the asanas are meditative, I have not actually tried formal meditation techniques. I am interested in exploring this further, and wonder if anyone can suggest a good reference for a beginner. I am especially interested in one which might be good for someone with Aspergers Syndrome. My son was diagnosed at a young age, and I am told that I have "shadow-like" symptoms, as well. We both have issues with maintaining focus and follow-through.
I’m uncertain of where to begin, but know that sharanam has an extensive list of meditations and talks that might be a good starting point. I’d also like to open this up to the broader community and ask what others might recommend. Any ideas for this questioner? Please share with your followers so we can get this reader some help.
~answered by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Transformation Is Compatible with the Heart of Science
by Krista Tippett, host
I still remember when I began to hear about Richard Davidson’s work. More to the point, I remember the warmth and excitement with which the immunologist Esther Sternberg first told me about him. He inspired in her a courage to align her insights from science and life. Later I would pick up the esteem and affection in which many wise people hold “Richie,” as they all call him — including Matthieu Ricard, the French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk, who brought the notion of happiness alive for me in a whole new way.
Richard Davidson has studied Matthieu Ricard’s brain. His body of work in brain imaging has helped shape the young field of neuroscience. And it shines a new light on elemental understandings of human character, mental and emotional health, and moral development across the life span.
As he tells it, he had a fascination with the mind — its mysterious power to define our very lives — from childhood on. And he was always scientifically oriented, interested in exploring the mind in terms of biology. But as a young scientist, he also became aware of the limits of the tools at hand. As I was preparing to interview him, I found an academic work he edited in 1980 on the “psychobiology of consciousness.” And it was striking to realize that even thirty years ago, EEG biofeedback was the best researchers could do in monitoring what was happening inside the brain. This was the world before the widespread use of MRI and other technologies that have unlocked frontiers.
In this same period, Richard Davidson also became interested in meditation. As a graduate student, he traveled to India and attended his first meditation retreat there in the 1970s. To this day he doesn’t call himself Buddhist, but he does have a daily contemplative practice. He experienced this as personally and spiritually gratifying, and the scientist in him was intrigued by this ancient discipline of observing one’s own mind, as it were, from the inside.
He was “in the closet” with this interest for a long time, as he tells it, because Western medicine cast a wary eye on anything that might be deemed spiritual and therefore unscientific. But, one day in 1992, he received a fax from the Dalai Lama inviting him to Dharamsala, India to probe the scientific causes of human happiness and compassion. Davidson eventually brought Tibetan Buddhist monks into the laboratory that he directs at the University of Wisconsin to see whether their meditation practices might alter the very physiology of the brain.
The answer, as it turned out, was yes. Some of the most dramatic observable findings are not yet explainable. For example, these monks have a much higher rate of gamma wave oscillations than has ever been captured before. It is not precisely known how such oscillations correlate to life, behavior, and consciousness. But high gamma wave oscillations do correlate generally with clarity of mental perception — to synthesize and sort among multiple inputs and to attend to granular aspects of experience. These results from Richard Davidson’s laboratory provided a new and solid piece of evidence that our brains are open to change across the lifespan. We don’t reach a stage in adolescence or young adulthood where our minds have finished forming. There is a far more fluid, lifelong interplay between emotions, behaviors, biology, and even genetics than was previously suspected. The name for this — “neuroplasticity” — masks the very hopeful and practical power it puts back in the realm of human choice.
Richard Davidson is now aspiring to understand this more deeply and channel it more broadly at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, which he founded in 2008. He knows that practicing meditation, and cultivating positive qualities like compassion and kindness, can actually rewire us physically. So might this, he is asking and testing, reveal new avenues of approach to conditions like ADHD, autism, even asthma? Might it show us elemental ways to equip children and adolescents to be more self-aware and compassionate in their interactions with others?
I’m also intrigued by how this work might challenge and enrich basic tenets of Western psychology. Richard Davidson tells of an early encounter with Buddhist practitioners seeking — and failing — to understand why Western psychology’s basic definition of the human emotional range is overwhelmingly focused on disorder. Is it really the best we can do, Davidson himself began to ask, to have a sophisticated understanding of anxiety and psychosis but only a primitive grasp of compassion?
I’m left wondering how this science might reframe and enrich things like therapy, child-rearing, education, and treatment of mental disorders in the years to come. I think it will be transformative. And as Richard Davidson says near the end of our conversation, the notion of transformation is compatible with the heart of science he has always known and revered. People like Richard Davidson recall us to this, and open a larger sense of what it might mean, to our common edification.
About the photo above: Psychology professor Richard Davidson, far right, demonstrates to Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, a PET scanner during a tour of the Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior in May 2001. (photo: Jeff Miller / © UW-Madison University Communications)
Danish Filmmaker Spends Year in Wisconsin Documenting Contemplative Neuroscience Research with Children and Vets in “Free the Mind”
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
For the past year, Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo has been trailing neuroscientist Richard Davidson at his lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Best known for studying the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks, Davidson’s research has shown that meditation can literally change the brain.
He’s the featured guest in our show titled “Investigating Healthy Minds.” While producing it, we were looking for sound that would illustrate some of his point and discovered Ambo’s yet-to-be released documentary, Free the Mind, contained a few audio clips that would help bring Dr. Davidson’s work to life.
In 2010, Ambo set out with her family from Denmark to document Davidson’s newest research with pre-school children and war veterans. We emailed her to learn more about her film, and her motivations for making it.
I met Richard Davidson for the first time in 2009 when he was in Massachusetts for a conference on mindfulness. I was there to look for a scientist who would be a good main character for my film, so I sat through four days of talks given by different experts in the field, and I immediately knew that Richie would make a great character when I saw him on stage. He is a very playful and curious scientist, and it’s easy to tell that he is very visionary.
What inspired you to make a film about him? How and why is Richard Davidson’s work personally meaningful to you?
The reason why I wanted to make a film on Richie’s work is that he is personally invested in his research. He is a meditator himself, which to me makes him interesting as a researcher on a very deep level.
Richie knows that meditation works for him, but he really wants to know how and why it works. He has his own bodily experience with meditation, which I believe gives him the tools to ask the relevant questions on a scientific level. To me it’s also crucial that Richie works with rigorous scientific methods and that he also publishes studies that show that meditation does not work for everyone. This makes him reliable and trustworthy to me.
Another good trait in Richie is that he is not afraid to ask some of the questions that may not be popular in meditation research like: How many of the people who take a mindfulness class actually stick to the training one year or 10 years later?
Do you have a meditation practice? If so, what kind of practice do you do? How has meditation shaped your own life (and brain)?
About six years ago I suddenly started to have panic attacks and it was very scary and disturbing. I went to my doctor and she wanted to medicate me, but I had a strong feeling that medication was not the right treatment for me. I felt that I had to find a way to work my way through this crisis with all my senses open, not closed.
By coincidence I heard about mindfulness meditation and I took an eight-week course in Copenhagen. It helped me a lot to just accept things as they were and not try to shove down all the uncomfortable emotions. But I also felt very strongly that something was physically changing in my brain as I practiced. I got very curious about what was actually happening to me on a scientific level, so I decided to look into this through my work as a filmmaker.
I still meditate every day. I practice different kinds of meditation -– lovingkindness, open awareness, body scan, and sound meditations. It’s funny because in my work as a documentary filmmaker I often struggle with accepting reality as it is; I can’t control what happens when I shoot and this is both the best and worst about working with reality. But the way I see it, meditation is very much about being in the present moment and experiencing it fully without wanting to change it -– and this is really helpful to remember in my job. In many ways my meditation practice helps me to stay open towards any changes that may occur during shooting and just go with whatever happens.
You traveled inside this emerging world of contemplative neuroscience during the filming process. How did your understanding of contemplative neuroscience deepen or change?
In the beginning of my research process, it was very important to me that the meditation form being studied was mindfulness, so I was a bit thrown off when I found out that one of the experiments that I was following for the film had changed into being about a specific breathing technique and yoga, which was not Buddhist based.
This was an experiment with vets who suffer from PTSD and they go through a seven-day workshop. I was worried that just sitting down breathing would be too subtle to make interesting cinematic scenes with the vets, but it turned out that the breathing activated all kinds of emotions that came out during the workshop. This made the study very suitable for the documentary film, and I realized that the contemplative practices all stand on a pretty similar ground so they produce some of the same effects too. It’s not so important whether it’s Buddhist or not.
Tell us a little bit about the filming process. How long did you document Richard Davidson and his research? What aspects of his research did you look at? What’s the story you’re trying to tell?
I went to Madison three times to prepare for the shooting and make sure that we were all on the same page and then I brought my husband and two kids for six weeks in the fall of 2010 where I did almost all of the scenes for the film. I was in India briefly with Richie to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama and then back again in Madison in the spring of 2011 to do the very last scenes for the film.
I had decided to make a film that would appeal to a wide audience because I think it’s important for everyone to know about these alternative ways to work with our health. I think that a lot of people get turned off if they feel that this film is too academic for them so I chose to make it a case-based story where we follow three characters that go through studies set in Richie’s lab.
Two of them are vets and one is a five-year-old child. What I really like about the studies that these two extremely different groups go through is that they are very similar; they all learn to concentrate and become more aware of themselves and their surroundings. So the story that I would like to tell is that essentially all human beings are alike even though we seem very different on the surface. We are all just trying to achieve happiness. The good news is that we can work intentionally towards that goal because our brains are plastic and we have the potential to change all through life.
What did you see on the ground while filming that made a lasting impression on you? Is there a particular story or experience that stands out?
I really like some of the more poetic moments in the film. One of the vets sits in his own thoughts halfway through the workshop and then he says, “I’ve just come to the realization that I haven’t really lived since I’ve been back. I’ve just been kind of here.” This guy has stopped making plans for his life, but at the end of the workshop he starts to talk about running a marathon!
Another moving moment is when a vet says that he used to be a kid who was smiling all the time for no reason and now he’s grown cynical and closed off and he never smiles. At the end of the workshop, he has a smile on his face during a meditation.
The little kid in the film, Will, also has a wonderful scene in the film when during class the kids are talking about how to make a plant grow. The other kids say “sun, soil, and water” but Will says “love” in a clear voice “because if you don’t love it, it won’t grow!” These are all little steps that the characters take on their journey that I feel incredibly privileged to be witnessing through my camera.
Free the Mind is slated for release in the spring of 2012.
Reminder of an On-Stage Exchange Thanks to Kungfutofu
- Ms. Tippett: So Sylvia, one thing following on that. Lovingkindness meditation is also towards one's self. You share a story in your writing about precisely that, but you share what you often say to yourself when you're in a moment of anxiety. OK. So I think this is just great advice. I'm going to hang onto this. "Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax, take a breath, let's pay attention to what is happening, then we'll figure out what to do." I think that's a fabulous sentence for one's self and for one's children.
- Dr. Boorstein: I'm so pleased that you found that. It's tremendously pleasing to me because I meet people in some significant numbers who tell me that they say to themselves in moments of distress. I say — they say, "I say to myself, 'Sweetheart, you're in pain. Relax, take a breath.'" I love that. A whole bunch of people out there saying to themselves, "Sweetheart."