Saturday, December 21, 2013

Zen and Neuroscience

Buddhist monk participating in a neuroscience experiment
In recent years, neuroscientists have made strides in understanding human brain function. These strides have implications about our behavior, where our identity (some would say 'soul') resides, and even the concept of free will. Of course I imagine one must take these theories with a grain of salt since the science is relatively young, and we may not understand emergent brain functions that go beyond what specific areas of the brain can do. Still, there is no question that neuroscience is demystifying our brains (and us), and demystification is usually another way of saying we're abandoning superstition.

One of my closest friends is what can only be described as a 'born-again atheist', and he posts articles to Facebook about science, debunked religious beliefs, longevity research, and neuroscience. He also sends me articles in a futile attempt to convince me that cats and dogs have no emotions but he is, of course, completely wrong about that, (jab jab, Paul!). Anyway, a while back I discussed one of his neuroscience posts that spoke to the physiological impact that sitting in zazen has on the brain (see post: Zazen and Brain Physiology).

He recently sent me an interview with a neurophilosopher(?) named Patricia Churchland in which she addresses the implications of neuroscience, what she terms neuroexistentialism (see New Scientist article You Are Your Brain). These implications tend to disconcert people. For example, they suggest our identity or self may be strictly tied to our brains. This would tend to discredit any belief that says who and what we are is an ethereal essence, which can continue after we die by floating off to heaven or being reincarnated into a new life. Despite the obvious controversial nature these views have for many people, I continue to be surprised how tightly they fit with Zen philosophy or, in some cases, how Zen philosophy seems to help me integrate them into my life in a positive manner.

The Afterlife
For example, while neuroscience may never be able to definitively prove or disprove the existence of an afterlife, the direction it takes us in is very disconcerting to afterlife proponents. In this question, Zen Buddhism counters by suggesting we should be focused on the moment. Not the past, not the future, not what might or might not happen after we die. As such, I found myself not especially upset that there may be no afterlife. Since I can't know what will happen when I die, expending mental thought fretting about it isn't sensible. Further, how do I know that when I'm however-old-I'll-be when I die that I'll want an afterlife? Again, worrying about this now and drawing myself away from the life I do in fact have just makes no sense. I have this equanimity as a result of the discipline I've learned while sitting in zazen.

Free Will
Another issue tackled by Churchland in the interview is that of free will. Does it exist? Her answer is very interesting from a Zen Buddhist perspective: "A better question is whether we have self-control...We need to be able to maintain a goal despite distractions. We need to suppress certain kinds of impulses." While this is a rather clinical description of the mindset one achieves through zazen, I can't find much fault with it. Through Zen, I have learned that the quantity and quality of my responses do much more to shape the reality I experience than the specific situations I face in a normal day. Many of us make ourselves unhappy by reacting to everything. In contrast, when I am disciplined enough to control and withhold response, I retain my equilibrium and focus. A natural by-product of this centered mind state is a sense of peace and, often, contentment. Again, this is core to Zen Buddhism.

Finally, there is Churchland's explanation of why she feels no need to be a 'cultural warrior' preaching the wisdom of the neuroexistentialist view: "People are, by and large, smart enough and reasonable enough that they come to a good decision eventually. But it takes time to think about it, to go back and forth. It's something that you have to marinate in for a while." This is absolutely the way Zen Buddhists learn. There is no proselytizing, and 'marinating' is a great way to describe what a Zen Buddhist is doing during zazen (and with their Zen studies, in general). We are experiencing the moment, finding the knowledge we have, and slowly learning how to bring that knowledge out of zazen and into everyday life.

I have repeatedly found that Zen Buddhism seems perfectly compatible with even the most challenging frontiers of science. In a way, it's as if Zen Buddhism helps me to embrace reality - even a potentially off-putting reality - and allows me to accept it in a way that is positive and healthy. Perhaps this is the true role of spirituality in relationship to science?

The Dalai Lama may have said it best during a talk where he was asked if the findings of cosmologists - which disprove certain Buddhist creation myths - will threaten Buddhism. In his opinion, the exact opposite is true. Science furthers our progression down the path.

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