Science Meets Mind – Imagining a Revolution, with B. Alan Wallace

“Twenty self-contained, solar-powered cabins, each with its own functional kitchen and private organic garden, spread sparsely over a luscious green space,” B. Alan Wallace’s eyes light up like an excited child talking about a new toy. No, this is not some idyllic back-to-nature getaway, but Wallace’s vision of a contemporary observatory where Science meets Mind. And if right motivation and pure aspiration work their magic, this vision may well be realized soon—just like when, some 40 years back, Wallace wrote in his notebook “May I meet a wise old man” and ended up becoming one of the key Western students of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

B. Alan Wallace, Buddhist scholar, meditation teacher, lecturer, and author, is on a crusade to liberate the sciences from the constricted lens of reductionistic and materialistic thinking into an exploration of the world of consciousness on a deeper experiential and intersubjective level. “In the physical sciences, we have had two great revolutions—Galileo, and then Planck and Einstein. But the mind sciences have stagnated for the last century in terms of grappling with the nature of consciousness and the mind-body problem, like a wagon stuck in the mud. I am not against the sciences. The problem is that there is an uncritical acceptance on the part of many scientists that the whole of reality consists only of the physical, measurable in space and time, or matter and energy and their emergent properties. They simply discount the possibility that there could be anything outside this physical sphere. Applied to human consciousness or human existence, scientific materialism cannot fathom anything beyond the physical.”

Photo by Sarah Orbanic

Like the American psychologist William James, whom he cites frequently, Wallace challenges the mind-brain equation with passion, even impatience. “Materialists assert that the world out there corresponds only to what scientists can measure. All mental phenomena, our thoughts, emotions, imagination, are reduced to no more than brain waves or neuron activities. It is untenable to simply conclude from the mind-brain correlates that the mind is the brain and to reify everything that we experience as something physical or material. Where is the evidence? This is like a religious belief, with no strong reasoning or empirical evidence.”

On the contrary, Wallace sees much evidence to debunk the mind=brain myth, such as the well-publicized case of Pam Reynolds, who confounded the scientific community with her near-death experience accounts. But one need not go so far. “Take, for example, the yellow that I see in these flowers. Light falls on the object and is transmitted as light waves that hit the retina. This sends impulses to the brain, which processes these signals, and I have the perception of yellow flowers. But the yellow that I see exists neither in the electrical impulses nor in the physical object itself, namely the flowers, which consist of colorless atoms and molecules. What can be measured physically is starkly different in nature from the experience itself. Where is the yellow? Even if you split open a skull, all you see is gray matter. The yellow of the flowers is only in my experience.”

Having worked with highly realized yogis in the Himalayas and long-term meditators from many traditions, this devout student of the Dalai Lama is convinced that meditation provides a bridge between science and religion and offers invaluable insights into the nature of consciousness. However, he acknowledges that a scientific approach is necessary if the results of any findings are to be universally accepted. “In this modern world, for any discovery to have any credibility outside of your own group, you must bring in science. It is not just Buddhist truth or Christian truth. If it is true, it is true.”   

Alan Wallace sees collaboration between contemplatives and scientists as the way forward. “I am very happy to collaborate with scientists and not assume that we have all the answers. Science has much knowledge that Buddhism does not, such as in child psychology and the sophisticated study of the brain, which is very important. The Buddhist tradition is a very ancient tradition with an enormous amount of insight, and modern science is a younger discipline that has much more knowledge of the physical world but not of the nature of consciousness or the mind-body problem. So this is really the point of collaboration, with mutual respect and openness.”

In 2003, Wallace founded the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, pioneering research into the nature of the mind. For the last 12 years, the institute has engaged with scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and contemplatives through seminars, lectures, and long retreats to investigate the reality of consciousness. In 2007, Wallace initiated the Shamatha Project, the largest scientific study of the effects of intensive meditation practice on attention and emotional regulation and their neural correlates. “We had a good group of scientists open-minded enough to take on the challenge, not to debate philosophical issues or the nature of the mind but to take a much more pragmatic approach. For three months, we had 70 people in intensive residential retreats, and we had two state-of-the-art laboratories doing EEG scans, blood tests, questionnaires, etc. They produced a great number of measurements and an enormous amount of data.” Several scientific papers have been published based on these, and the work is ongoing. 

In the true spirit of Buddhist inquiry, Wallace invites all to experience firsthand the mind in its natural state. “Ehipassiko, come and see! You cannot understand the mind without going inside,” he says as he guides students on retreat to examine the awareness of thoughts, the space of awareness, and the awareness of awareness. Despite his deep Buddhist roots, he is quick to point out that this contemplative approach is not confined to Buddhism but is found in many other ancient teachings such as early Christianity, Hinduism, Daoism, and Sufism. By emphasizing non-sectarianism, Wallace sees a common ground for all faiths to understand and learn from each other, and perhaps to act as catalyst for a true renaissance of contemplative inquiry without dogmatism and superstition. 

Beyond the scientific and the religious, what are the practical implications of all this? “What I am rebelling against is ignorance and delusion, which are the roots of suffering in Buddhism. What I am really promoting is an unbiased approach to understanding the nature of the mind, of genuine happiness, and of the true causes of suffering. The symbiotic development of science and technology over the past 400 years has contributed enormously to hedonia, pleasure and happiness that are derived from external stimuli. We live in an age of insatiable consumerism. Imagine if all seven billion people in the world today try to satisfy their wants in this way, wanting more and more of everything. This hedonia and obsessive indulgence are draining the world’s resources and consuming the world itself, leading to wars, conflicts, crimes and violence, mental stress and depression. While it is important to meet our hedonic needs, we need to emphasize eudemonia, the happiness that does not rely on any external stimuli but arises out of a deep sense of inner well-being and calm. This inner peace can be achieved through the cultivation of the mind and the development of emotional balance with the qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity.”

At the start of a course on cultivating emotional balance, a tired-looking, gray-haired lady in her fifties who had been teaching in a rough neighborhood in Oakland for 30 years commented with dismay, “I am just counting the days until I can retire.” By the time the eight-week course had ended, however, her outlook and attitude toward life had somehow been transformed: “I want to continue to teach and to see that every year, I continue to making it as meaningful as possible,” she said enthusiastically. For Alan Wallace, this made all the difference and lent meaning to what he has dedicated his life to accomplish as he walks the bodhisattva path. 

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