An Interview with Francisco Varela
A version of this interview appeared in Shamballah Sun, 1994
Since the days of the Theosophical quest for a modernist spirituality, many Westerners have found Buddhism strangely compatible with the experimental, impersonal, and critical outlook of modern science. Driven to integrate the wisdom of the East with the scientific picture of “ultimate things” (principally, quantum physics), readers continue to gobble up works like The Dancing Wu-Li Masters and Mysticism and the New Physics. But while metaphysical pop science highlights many intriguing connections and asks some hard questions about the relationship of mind and cosmos, it also frequently degenerates into speculative mind-candy. The concrete practice of both Buddhism and science stays in the background, while the critical differences between the two “paradigms” becomes blurred.
Recognizing the potential dangers of such cross-fertilization, the distinguished cognitive scientist Francisco Varela has spent much of the last fifteen years constructing what he calls “gentle bridges” between Buddhism and science. Early in his career, Varela worked with fellow Chilean Humberto Maturana on the theory of “autopoesis,” which described organisms not as isolated entities in a fixed and given external world, but as creatively self-perpetuating cognitive systems which continually enact their world through “structural coupling” with the environment. Much of Varela’s experimental work has involved vision, showing that what we see is more an active function of our nervous system than a passive representation of the outside world.
Cognitive scientists increasingly characterize consciousness as an emergent property produced through the interaction of numerous small and interconnected mental and perceptual sub-systems. Along with replacing the notion of a central organizing principle (a “self”) with a “society of mind,” some have also begun questioning the theory that a fundamental symbolic language “runs” the mind like a computer program. In his fascinating and eminently readable The Embodied Mind (MIT Press, co-authored with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch), Varela points out clear parallels between such ideas and traditional Buddhist epistemology and psychology. Criticizing the dominant models of cognitive science for ignoring our moment-to-moment experience of consciousness, Varela also suggests that the Buddhist mindfulness tradition presents a rigorous and practical methodology for introducing such considerations into mind science.
Varela has also been instrumental in setting up a number of Mind and Life conferences with the Dalai Lama. A small portion of these intensive weeklong private conversation between His Holiness and a handful of selected scientists has already seen print as Gentle Bridges (Shamballah), and more books are on the way. Today Varela is Director of Research at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique and Professor of Cognitive Science and Epistemology at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. We met on a grey day in his modest office overlooking the Seine. Calm and collected, Varela sat beside a computer whose screen-saver pulsed with postmodern mandalas concocted by his friend Brian Eno.
DAVIS: What point in your scientific career did you encounter Buddhism?
VARELA: I started out my scientific career as an undergrad in Chile, my country of origin. Then I got a scholarship for my doctorate in Harvard, which I finished in 1970. At that time I decided to go back to Chile because I was very excited about the socialist experiment that was going on there and was very much a part of my outlook on the world. So I did. I got a junior position on the faculty of sciences. With the coup d’etat I had to drop out and escape. So I wound up back in the states in 1974 as an assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I was in the middle of a crisis and I was looking for help and I ran into Trungpa, literally. He was in Boulder and I was in Boulder. I didn’t go to Boulder looking for him or Buddhism. And that was beginning of this 25 year love affair with practice.
DAVIS: Did you have to flee Chile?
VARELA: I was an active militant socialist. I wasn’t a big-time politician so I wasn’t on their top list, but I was expelled. I didn’t have a job and there were harassments, the police came a few times looking for me. It was bad. I had to leave.
DAVIS: What was it about Trungpa that struck you?
VARELA: Two things. I asked him, “My whole life is in shambles here, what should I do?” And the answer he gave me was such an intelligent answer. “If you don’t know what to do, don’t. Learn non-doing. Let your ignorance speak to you.” Nobody had ever said that to me. And when I asked how do I do that, he said he’d teach me. So he gave me meditation instruction in basic shamatha sitting practice on the spot.
And the second thing one cannot convey except by experience, which is that the man had this enormous presence. He was humorous and alive and tremendously present and stable at the same time. It made me feel inside, I want that. And eventually I asked him that, How do I get to be like that, like an awake mountain? And he said Practice. It’s up to you. It’s not my particularly gift of genius, it’s practice. So do it.
That kind of intelligence, of non-bullshit, of cutting through all of the trappings of cultural stuff and ideology and going to the heart of the experience, was so illuminating. It’s still one of the most intelligent things that ever happened in my life.
DAVIS: Reading The Embodied Mind and Gentle Bridges, you discuss a number of analytic ways to approach the dialogue or synthesis between science and Buddhism. But Trungpa was hardly the most systematic or analytic Buddhist teacher.
VARELA: You’re absolutely right. I didn’t get interested in the philosophical and pragmatic tradition of Buddhism until four or five years later. What I fell in love with was practice, this radical non-doing. Learning how to just be there, and all the enormous complexity of that, and realizing that I’d never really known what it is to inhabit my own body and my own experience. So for many years, it wasn’t an intellectual thing. My science was just a way of making a living. I had no interest in making it spiritual. And then of course then you start to see these two sides of your life talk to each other.
DAVIS: Looking at your work in retrospect, I can see the stirrings of that dialogue from the beginning, from your work with Maturana. It emerges out of things that were going to start overlapping anyway. There must have been point where you started to say, not only do I want to connect my practice to my life’s work, but that’s something resonating there that’s very profound.
VARELA: That happened in 1979, five years after I met Trungpa, when the Naropa Institute got interested in science projects. I had a friend there, the mathematician Newcomb Greenleaf, who said to me, You are about the only active scientist in this community, why don’t we just try and stage a science program at Naropa? One thing led to another and then we had this famously infamous meeting on Comparative Approaches to Cognition in 1979, where we tried to very naively bring together different styles of BuddhismZen, Tibetan, Vipassanaand to invite some cognitive scientists of the best caliber, and a few philosophers. And it was such a disaster it was fantastic. There was just no way. To me that was the greatest learning experience about this whole thing. It’s not just about sitting down at a table, because the mind-sets are just too far apart, the common ground of experience is not the same. You have to go more slowly, and be extremely careful with every step you take. And that led me to write what was to become The Embodied Mind eleven years later. I knew that the traps are there. I’ve seen that many times since, in this public Buddhism and Science meetings, where nothing happens. People talk to each other and talk past each other, but there is no common ground where one tradition actually gets effected and mutually transformed by the other.
DAVIS: I know it is dangerous for a nonscientist to make these speculative leaps between science and Buddhism, but there is a passage in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind where Shunryo Suzuki seems to express something very similar to the idea you and Maturana developedbefore you encountered Buddhismabout the nervous system as a closed system.
VARELA: It’s important that people don’t think that we are saying that the nervous system is closed, but rather that the nervous system has closure. It’s not the same thing. Closure is away of looking at the interactions in a different way from the standard model of inputting information. Closure means that you actually shape what counts as information in the coupling you have with the world. Information is brought forth by the actual activity of an organism or a cognitive system embedded in the world. Some people think that means a solipsistic or autistic world. But the contrast is not between a closed system and an open system but rather an input-driven system and a system that is actively shaping the world. That’s the real tension.
DAVIS: Here’s the passage from the section “Mind Waves”: “Nothing comes from outside your mind. Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and experiences from outside, but that is not a true understanding of our mind. The true understanding is that the mind includes everything; when you think something comes from outside it means only that something appears in your mind. Nothing outside yourself can cause any trouble. You yourself make the waves in your mind.”
VARELA: That’s exactly right. From the point of view of the practitioner, that’s very natural. It’s so transparent. And yet when you shift that into science, that’s the first moment of contradiction. Dominant cognitive science is telling me something else: it’s telling me that in fact the world is coming at you and you’re sort of computing it. I had sort of a pre-adaptation to Buddhism, because I had already concluded that that notion of information was kind of shaky. So that led to this idea of finding in this dialogue with Buddhism a style of doing cognitive and brain sciences. That’s a message that’s very hard for some people to grok. Buddhism has a privileged position of dialogue with the various schools of cognitive science because it doesn’t make the assumption that we are these computers of information for a given external world.
DAVIS: There is something to be gained from going to scholastic Buddhism, to digging into the Abhidharma and engaging these very intelligent and rigorous descriptions of cognition. At the same time, you want to get across a certain process, a way of doing science rather than just another theory that’s going to help us shape current theories.
VARELA: To me that really gets to the core of the problem. What’s happening today in the brain and cognitive sciences, as you can see from this explosion of books on consciousness, is that finally people are realizing that they need to address that issue of consciousness. Typically it is addressed with all the heavy hangovers of the more materialistic, physicalistic and behavioristic tradition. Roger Penrose’s famous book on consciousness [The Emperor’s New Mind] is in fact nothing new. Its another attempt to rephrase the materialistic view of life. The notion of working with lived experience as a fundamental central element is not in there. And it’s not in there because most Westerners have never taken the time to really understand what it means to explore what their lived experience is in a pragmatic, systematic, disciplined way. Everybody thinks they know about it, when in fact that whole tradition of Buddhism and other contemplative traditions show us that it’s not as simple as that. There are many traps and many veils and many ways of building up mental representations of what should be as opposed to what is.
The problem for me is to introduce into science the notion that human experience is, speaking philosophically, an ontologically irreducible fact. Let’s say I have a fantastic neuronal theory of how it is that I see you. That’s great, it’s fabulous, I love it. But it doesn’t change the fact that my experience of seeing you is what it is. The fact that it is “explained” doesn’t do a bit of good to understand what that experience qua experience is. The reductionists, the Churchlands the Francis Cricks, are convinced of the most funny thing, which is that once I explain how I see, than it changes my seeing. This is pure magic. It is as if learning about chemistry would change the way I enjoy an asparagus. It’s totally bizarre.
The only real way to do a science of mind is to accept the hard and solid fact that the realm of experience is ontologically irreducible. It is what it is. The realm of explanation is also irreducibleit is what it is. I cannot do away with explanations. The whole point here is to make these two things not just coexist as two separate drawers in the huge chest of drawers of the universe, but to actually effect each other. On the one hand, the disciplined, systematic analysis of the field of experience puts constraints on the kinds of explanations that are accepted as valuable. Explanations that do not allow me to [link up] with my experience are ipso facto discarded. They are bad explanations, because they leave a big chunk of the world out. Bad science.
On the other hand, if the explanation is not able to illuminate my experience, to give me further insight, than it’s actually a very dogmatic approach to what experience is. The future of the mind sciences is one in which we enter into a reshaping of both how it is that we have insights about our own experience and how our own experience shapes the kinds of mechanistic, scientific explanations we have of the mind. Anything else is simply throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
DAVIS: Are you still a materialist?
VARELA: Yes. I’m a materialist in the sense that I absolutely and completely believe that understanding the world in causal terms is a great heritage of human kind. It is useful activity, which science today fully embodies. I want to have explanations around in causal terms. I’m interested in how the brain works, how the body works, what the relationship is between cognitive activity and what we call the physical world, and on and on. I’m not a materialist in the sense that I believe that that approach exhausts the ontology of the world. If we were to leave out experience, it would be like cutting out one eye. In that sense I am not a materialist, but not because I want to be a dualist. I’m just a very hard-headed, very respectful observer of what’s in front of me, and what’s in front of me is both material causal explanations and my experience. Both!
DAVIS: There are ideas in Buddhism that a scientific explanation of would launch one into pretty nebulous realms of speculation. How do you deal yourself with the points of tension that are very difficult to bridge?
VARELA: The second branch of this activity of building gentle bridges between science and Buddhism is my contact with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, whom I met in 1983. We had a fantastic time. He was so interested in science and I was very interested in being able to discuss these things with somebody of his caliber. The Mind and Life conferences have been tremendously enriching because we can actually explore in detail with this truly open-minded and intelligent person precisely the problem that you raise: how much can we actually really have this delightful, almost promiscuous dialogue between Buddhism and science?
The reason we can is because Buddhism is intrinsically interested in causality. As His Holiness says, causal explanations are great, we love them. And where it begins to break down is at a very natural point, which is where the literal experience is not shared any more. As long as we’re talking about perception, emotions, language, memorythere can be a fantastic dialogue. But when the experience itself begins to break down, than rapidly you have this wide divergence. And what we’re talking about is what in Tibetan Buddhism are the more subtle states of mindnon-conceptual yet conscious or awake mind. It is notoriously subtle as a Buddhist practitioner to experience thatit is the heart of the most advanced traditions of Buddhism. We’re talking about a realm of experience that is only available honestly to a tiny, tiny fraction of humanity. How could it be a common ground? So when His Holiness says, in our teachings on mind we have these different teachings on subtle consciousness, that’s when you see the scientists part company. They say, that explanation is dualistic, when of course the Buddhists are saying it’s not dualistic at all. You’re not positing some disincarnate spirit, it’s just these levels or regions of subtle ontology that you have to experience.
That’s also valid for me. Like every practitioner, I’m aware of those teachings, and I’m a fanatic lover of particularly Mahamudra Dzogchen. I do my best to continue to grasp it and inhabit it personally. But it is a very long process. I find myself short of actual real ground on which to continue to build bridges, at which point I say let’s leave the question open. I’m a little better than many of my colleagues who would say, bullshit. I say, well, I don’t know. I have enough experience to know that it is not just triviality, or some kind of cultural trap, yet I don’t have a solid permanent on-going experience of nonconceptual mind to be able to speak from or for. So I leave the question open, and that’s where the tension is, a tension that is partly intellectual and partly as a practitioner. And I find it as a very joyful tension. It is not a conflictual one. The mood is Wow, we’re really tapping into stuff that requires lifelong learning. So go slow, and don’t fool yourself with what you don’t know.
DAVIS: What is your current practice?
VARELA: I’ve been from the very beginning a Mahamudra Dzogchen practitioner. The more I grow up in Buddhism, the more I appreciate just the core simplicity of resting your mind and appreciating the presence of nonconceptual mind in every moment of experience. This is the message of every great tradition of Buddhism. Now, this is easier said than done.
DAVIS: When you introduce the fundamental circularity of experience into cognitive science, you open up science to the inescapable vertiginousness of our consciousness in and of the world. The parts of cognitive science that you seem to find less satisfying are not interested in acknowledging or speaking from that vertiginousness. The practice of Buddhism opens up an ability to be in that slippery state without losing your mind or becoming nihilistic.
VARELA: That’s the problem with not having a systematic tool to explore your field of experience. If you go into this vertiginous state without any disciplined form in which it can be explored, it can be traumatic.Meditation practice is this radical form which leads to the discovery of the essential richness of sunyata, of the emptiness quality of experience, which is not to be feared but enjoyed, even basked in. That’s part of the joyfulness part of Buddhist tradition. Without that, its very natural and spontaneous to pull away from it and and become entrenched in some kind of mentalistic representation, which is what happens to most people who sweep the street, who sell shares on Wall Street, and who do neural science. Same thing. We’re all ordinary schmucks at that level.
DAVIS: There must have been a change at the way your scientific peers have dealt with your introduction of Buddhist methodology into your work.
VARELA: I must say to my surprise, the scientists that read that book had far more sympathetic reactions than negative ones. The negative reactions have come more from philosophers! Scientists have mostly been very tickled by it.
However now it seems to me that we were still trying too much to build a foundation for the disciplines involved in sitting practice, and bringing in all the background Buddhism. People are responding very well to the idea of regaining experience. They’re responding less well to making a very unique identification with the Buddhist mind tradition. We’re now writing another book which attempts to address exactly the same issue but from a completely non-religious or non-philosophical perspective. The fact is that there are other practices that could be made to play. I am convinced and you might be convinced that sitting practice is fantastic, but who are we to say that that is the only one that is going to help us? My hope is that in the years to come we’ll have a set of 4, 5 or 6 “experiential pragmatics” and they’re going to illuminate each other. The real richness of this mindfulness practice of Buddhism will shine or not shine. And that we be up to us, the Westerners. That is to me one of the real challenges of Western Buddhism, to be able to speak to that issue in a very nonsectarian, very dignified manner without constantly making reference to the past.