First appeared in Feed, June 23, 1999

Anyone studying the mind will soon stumble across a fundamental tension
between first-person and third-person accounts of cognition. On the one
hand, you have three pounds of gray matter flowering on top of a
post-simian spine — meat that can be mapped, poked, drugged, and
registered. On the other hand, you have your own internal flow of
impressions, thoughts, sensations, and memories, a stream of consciousness
that includes thoughts like “the stream of consciousness is an illusion.”
How can we integrate these two worlds? And is it even a good idea?

Celebrated neuro-thinkers like Daniel Dennett and Paul and Patricia
Churchland are reluctant to give the “inside” of awareness or experience
much explanatory weight, insisting that objective accounts of consciousness
are far superior if you want to understand how the mind actually works.
Such thinkers argue that subjectivity may have an undeniable intuitive
appeal, but our own experience is an unreliable source of information, a morass
of illusions and myths that cloud the quest to describe reality.

Yet in his 1991 book The Embodied Mind, co-written with Evan
Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, the celebrated neuroscientist Francisco Varela
insists that experience is an irreducible component of the study of the
mind. “To deny the truth of our own experience in the scientific study of
ourselves is not only unsatisfactory; it is to render the scientific study
of ourselves without a subject matter.” Varela and crew argue that while
cognitive science continues to dig into the material foundations of
cognition, researchers should balance their resulting models against the
“disciplined, transformative analysis” of experience itself — an analysis
provided by, in their case, Buddhist meditation and philosophy. A serious
student of Chogyam Trunpa, as well as the organizer of a number of formal
dialogues between the Dalai Lama and Western scientists, Varela believes
that Buddhism provides a sort of finely-tuned introspective tool that has
been neglected in the West.

The appearance of the dharma in a work of cognitive science should not be
altogether surprising. For over a century, Buddhism has been interpreted by
many Westerners as a “scientific” religion, though a lot of deities and
popular rituals must be swept under the carpet to make this image stick —
to say nothing of the doctrine of rebirth. But the core intuition makes
sense. With no belief in a Creator God or an eternal soul, the Buddha and
his early followers used meditation as a kind of psychological microscope,
investigating and deconstructing our deeply habitual sense that the
first-person “I” truly exists. An early Buddhist work known as the
Abhidharma, which reached its final form in 400 CE, chops up the
comfortable shapes of ordinary consciousness into a mind-numbing catalog of
mental and sensory factors that only a third-person cognitive philosopher
could love.

For their part, the old yogi-scholars would probably get a kick out of the
recent Zen and the Brain, a massive, 800-page tome written by the
neurologist James Austin. With extraordinary intelligence and breadth of
spirit, Austin explores the interaction between neurophysiology and the
experiential core of Zen practice. A bench researcher rather than a
cognitive theorist, Austin avoids the abstractions of brain-based
philosophy and gets down to nitty-gritty detail. Summarizing an enormous
amount of material on current brain science, and especially on the study of
altered states of consciousness and meditation, Zen and the Brain
stands on solid ground. Austin’s basic theory is that the occasional
moments of insight known in Zen as kensho or satori
essentially “re-boot” the brain, allowing stale and habitual structures of
mind — especially those centered on “I, Me, Mine” — to dissolve and
reform along suppler, more responsive, and more compassionate lines. To
these ends, Austin offers a number of explicit, testable hypotheses, though
he admits that studying advanced practitioners can be tough. “It might be
very difficult to enter into authentic practice surrounded by all those
wires, tubes, and electrodes,” says Austin, who is now retired from the
University of Colorado. “Then again, for a strong adept, it shouldn’t matter.”

Along with serving up more information on the brain than most brains can
possibly assimilate, Austin weaves in thoughts and experiences drawn from
his own quarter century of devoted Zen practice. “We in the West come to
religion from a Judeo Christian perspective, which generally means a lot of
thoughts, doctrines and assumptions,” says Austin from his home in Moscow,
Idaho. “The Zen approach is a little bit more like learning how to ride a
bicycle, as opposed to, say, taking a coarse of astrophysics. It means
getting your bottom on a cushion, learning to trust your body and to let
go.” But Austin also goes against the usual grain of Zen texts by providing
explicit and methodical descriptions of his own visions and mind-blowing
awakenings. At once dispassionate and glittering with spirit, these
discussions make Zen and the Brain a spiritual autobiography for the
21st century. As Austin himself says, “We will all be neurobiologists to
some degree in the next millennium.”

When he lectures on Zen and the brain, Austin sometimes shows slides of
early statues of the Buddha. Commonly, the heads of many of these statues
feature a strange protuberance, often identified as a top-knot, but which
Austin sees as sign of increased brain power. “I read it as a
metaphor for an expansion of faculties,” he says. “But these new capacities
are no more magical than the fact that the brains of Homo sapiens are
larger, more convoluted and efficient than the brains of Neanderthals.
Biological brain evolution is a fact, and I hope that in another 200,000
years there will be a Homo sapiens sapiens.”

Despite the enormous accomplishment of Zen and the Brain, Austin
regrets that he didn’t start his Buddhist practice earlier in his career.
Christopher deCharms, a cognitive neuroscientist currently working at the
Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California,
San Francisco, was perhaps more fortunate. Having studied Asian philosophy
in college, deCharms visited a Tibetan monastery in India just before
entering graduate school in neuroscience. Two years into his Ph.D., he got
a grant from the National Science Foundation to go to Dharamsala and study
Tibetan theories of mind, a highly unorthodox move for a budding member of
the brain elite. “To a person, I don’t think anyone in my department was
positive about my going, and some were very negative,” says deCharms, who
also practices Sri Lankan-style vipassana meditation. “It was almost over a
couple of dead bodies.”

Once in Dharamsala, deCharms realized that both he and the lamas brought
something valuable to the table. “I could tell them about electron
micrographs of individual neural pathways and connections that were made
within the brain. By the same token, they have this very rich and highly
elaborated catalog of the various internal things that you can find through
personal meditation.” It’s this kind of mutual illumination that convinced
deCharms that such dialogues are useful, for scientists and Buddhists
alike. “It’s very intellectually stimulating to test the vision of mind you
are proposing, not just against extremely similar counter-proposals, but
against a whole other way of thinking. It fosters whole new kinds of
questions, questions that you might not have realized even were questions

DeCharm’s questions — and some answers — led to a book, Two Views of
A collection of interviews and rather arcane discussions
concerning the science and philosophy of perception, the book goes out of
its way to avoid the superficiality that poisons many cross-fertilizations
of science and Eastern thought. “It’s very easy to look at the language of
science and the language in some Eastern traditions and say, ‘Boy, these
sound the same.’ That sells both traditions short. The meditative tradition
is speaking about something that has been directly realized in the
contemplative state of a yogi of some sort. That’s just plain very
different than something that somebody has measured on an oscilloscope in a

DeCharm’s Tibetan research, coming so early in his training, transformed
his attitude as a scientist, broadening his perspective on topics his
colleagues continue to see through much narrower lenses. At the same time,
he endured enough mockery not to bother pushing his colleagues to read his
book, which was published through a Buddhist press. DeCharms
chalks up some of their resistance to ingrained skepticism, and
occasionally to the greater sin of arrogant ignorance. “But I think the
main resistance is simply parochialism. People are very caught up in being
specialists these days. If you come to them and say, ‘Hey, I have this
interesting book comparing neuroscience with Tibetan Buddhism,’ they’re
going to say, ‘Yeah, well there’s a two-foot high pile of articles I have
to read on substance P receptors in the spinal cord.'”

There are good reasons for these folks to keep poring through their
technical journals. According to Bill Press, a Zen practitioner who is
pursuing a postdoc in the psychology department at Stanford, “Our knowledge
base in neuroscience is not at the point where we are actually able to say
many intelligent things.” Though Press studies visual processing in the
human cortex, one of the most researched areas of cognition, he remains
quite humble about scientific achievements to date. “Our understanding of
the brain is so rudimentary that we are barely able to describe how signals
are transformed from the retina to the very first stages of the visual
cortex, let alone describe what’s happening during an enlightenment

As a practitioner, Press also questions whether science can make much
difference on the sitting cushion. “As an intellectual puzzle, it’s kind of
a cool question, how the brain relates to meditation. But I think that when
you are doing this kind of practice, it’s easy to distract
yourself by trying to figure everything out. In the dharma, they use the
image of the finger pointing at the moon. If you want to look at the moon,
you look at the moon. You don’t stare at the finger.”

Other long-time dharmaheads have a different take. Wes Nisker, the editor
of the Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind and a well-known teacher of
vipassana meditation, recently published a popular book called Buddha’s
which integrates Darwinian and neuroscientific notions into
meditation practice. “What the Buddha was really interested in was not so
much cosmic consciousness but biological consciousness,” says Nisker from
his Berkeley home. “He said, go in and see how your perception happens, see
how your reactive mind is functioning. What the biological sciences are
doing is giving great support to that practice of self-awareness and
liberation. The basic truths that come out of neuroscience and biology are
accessible in our own experience.”

One of Nisker’s strongest points is that an evolutionary perspective can
help pry our attention away from our personal conditioning and shift it
towards our conditioning as a species. “We’ve become obsessed with
psychologizing in our culture. But a lot more of who we are and how we
behave depends on the structure of our brain and nervous system than on how
we were toilet trained.” When Nisker teaches weekend retreats, he often
rolls out neuroscience lore for precisely this reason, and he’s found the
tactic particularly helpful with beginners who are unmoved by the
traditional Buddhist rap. “It helps people depersonalize what’s going on in
their minds. Those thoughts aren’t really theirs, its just the way the mind
is constructed. The mind is constructed to worry and to make sure the
organism survives.”

Ultimately, the kind of mindfulness practice that Nisker teaches can lead
folks to personally realize one of the core insights of Buddhism: that the
we think we are, the self we coddle and trumpet and worry about, doesn’t
essentially exist. On this point, the vast majority of neuroscientists
would agree, arguing that the solitary “I” is really a society of mind, or
an emergent property, or an illusion fostered by some narrator module
lodged in the left hemisphere. Nisker even jokingly suggests that
neuroscientists set up little brain-imaging booths that would
allow people to personally see the pictures of their own noodles at work.
“Then we could believe it. There’s nobody home.”

In her recent book The Meme Machine, the British psychologist Susan
Blackmore argues that the self is simply a complex of memes, those
competitive mind viruses first described by Richard Dawkins. But at the end
of her book, Blackmore suggests that we might learn to live fully and
freely without the burden of a singular and illusory self anxiously holding
the reigns — a suggestion rooted partly in the author’s own Zen practice.
For his part, Nisker argues that Buddhism takes a step beyond science by
working towards the radical transformation of our largely reactive minds.
“You don’t even have to call it spiritual. It’s like this: this is what we
inherit, this is the given. But here are these practices, this ancient
method of examining and seeing clearly your human conditioning. When you
see it clearly, you can actually increase consciousness of the whole
process, and thereby find more freedom in it. That’s not only hopeful for
our personal liberation, but maybe for the species as well. Maybe we’re
learning how to take evolution into our own hands.”