Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Buddhism strengthens science practices

I've been leading a weekly meditation circle at the Exploratorium for staff. A participant asked me some probing questions about what the practice means to me today, and I'll share my reflections here.

Most people convert to Buddhism (and probably most religions) during a difficult period of their life when they need spiritual guidance for survival. I was lucky in that my need for it had been constant, growing up with atheist parents removed from their community, and my life was looking up in 2012. I had just crawled out of poverty and isolation and was gaining agency.

At East Bay Meditation Center weekly sitting meditation comes with an hour of Buddhist teaching, where I learned that in native religious practice, sitting was like the finish on wood furniture; teachings on how to end all suffering are like the steps from selecting a tree to cutting and planing and carpentry. To try to improve our selves and lives through meditation alone is like going into the woods to make a chair, armed with only sandpaper and varnish.

Meditation tools and practice have helped me identify difficulties as they arise and have enabled me to slow down. In times of stress and run-away thinking I return my attention to body sensations and the present moment. The calming effect is nearly instantaneous. To move forward, discerning opportunities to act in the best possible way comes with studying the teachings and applying them in living the way a scientist applies knowledge to solve a mystery.

The metaphor ends there. A scientist who has never tried sitting meditation related to me his concentration while working on a problem to Tibetan meditation. Though we use the same word, concentration, I would argue that sitting versus working on a problem are opposites. In the latter, one escapes from the present moment to do a task while in the former, one immerses oneself in it to do nothing. There is no worse fear than the fear inside oneself; no worse desolation than that of being in one's own mind. To know and to befriend them is to win power over forces that, in moments of real difficulty, lead us to suffering and causing suffering.

At the same time the metaphor penetrates deeper (dualism is a wonderful core concept of many Asian philosophies). The Buddha's first teaching is to understand the existence of suffering and its causes. It is an act of perceiving reality for what it is -- the timeless goal of science. I have used meditation techniques of inquiry and friendly curiosity to strip away cultural norms that obscure truth. For example, in sitting we usually encounter physical discomfort; curiosity leads me to get to know my body minutely and without judgment, and to discern injury from temporary sensations that pass with time or with gentle after-sit movement. The cultural norm of aversion from certain sensations, automatically labeled discomfort, is unhelpful and prevents knowing the body.

I regularly see cultural norms obscure the way for science. Studies separate results from men and women without questioning how those categories are made: dominant sex hormone? how boys and girls are socialized? stereotype perception and feedback? Overconfident, privileged men jump to jargon-laden conclusions and exclusions. These are misuses of science.

Like the teachings of the Buddha, science is at once certain and humble; it is certain of the reliable nature of curiosity and investigation and humble to rely on the curiosity and investigation of every individual human being. New truth only becomes available when we relax our grip on the truth we already have. Now I advance with friendly curiosity and constant mindfulness of the need for humble investigation.

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