Buddhism and Science
In terms of a philosophy of science and information theory that has parallels with the Buddha's teaching I have not found anything that it is more potentially valuable than the work of the late Gregory Bateson. I believe that his work can place spiritual truth in its proper place within our world view. A place in which religion and science can come together and enhance each other. Here are a number of quotes from 'Angels fear: towards an epistemology of the sacred', Bateson's final book which I hope speak for themselves:
In terms of the nature of consciousness:
“We subtract or repress our awareness that perception is active and repress our awareness that action is passive. This it is to be conscious.”
Or in terms of a wider definition of consciousness:
“Consciousness is the way subsystems are hooked into a larger whole.”
In terms of what we can really know:
Apart from Creatura (the world of information - including the entire biological and social realms in which information is embodied in material form and subject to laws of causality)
nothing can be known, apart from Pleroma (the material world) there is nothing there to know.
In terms of how we describe things:
Pleroma and Creatura should have different languages to avoid “the errors of fundamentalism, scientism and misplaced concreteness.” we have “developed our language to fit Pleroma and tend to distort.”
And in terms of the place of religion:
“Religion is the sacred, integrated fabric of mental processes that envelop our lives...without such metaphors for meditation, as correctives for the errors of human language and recent science, it seems that we have the capacity to be wrong in rather creative ways – so wrong that this world we cannot understand may become one in which we cannot live.”
Such metaphors include “the deliberate search for revelation in contradiction and direct attacks on purposiveness and the sense of time.”
“Of all metaphors the most central and salient is the self.”
“The conceptual separation of mind and matter is a by-product of an 'insufficient holism'- the old religious beliefs are wearing thin and we are groping for a new.”
Many of the Buddha's teachings could furthermore be considered 'tautological':
“A tautology is a series of propositions the links between which cannot be doubted. The truth of the propositions is not claimed.”
In dependent origination, for example, the link between birth and death as inevitably following one to the other is the central message. If we try to go deeper then we can begin to question the propositions but in my mind we then be missing the point.
Buddhism and psychiatry - Embodiment and psychopathology
Just as we can discover clear body awareness to be a source of sanity in the mind a distortion of our body image can be an indication or possible cause of psychopathology. I will preset a series of quotes from the psychiatrist Thomas Fuchs1 (in plain text) with comment from my understanding of the Buddhist point of view (in italics):
“it is mainly through our embodied interaction with the world that the brain matures and develops into a relational organ...it is only as part of embodied interactions that the patterns of brain activity can serve as carrier processes of conscious experience. In this way it is the living body that unites mind and brain.”
“the phenomenology of the lived body is able to overcome dualistic concepts of the mind as an inner realm of representations that mirror the outside world. Instead, by the mediation of the lived body the individual is in constant relationship to the world..”
In the teaching of dependent origination the Buddha similarly points at the fact that our states of mind are dependent on the body and its interaction with the world. There is a very strong emphasis in the teaching of mindfulness on the first foundation, the body. It is from here that we observe the process of mental causation and become able to transform the mind from its very root. To overcome dualistic concepts of the mind is to overcome a dualistic experience of the world and discover the happiness that comes from a unified, non-dual experience. Phenomenology is, perhaps, the branch of philosophy closest to the Buddha's teaching and most compatible with the practise of mindfulness.
..”the body has a double or ambiguous experiential status: both as a 'lived body' implicit in one's ongoing experience, and as an explicit, physical or objective body (image). An ongoing oscillation between these two bodily modes constitutes a fluid and hardly noticed foundation of all experiencing.”
Both experiences of the body can become disordered: in the 'lived body' schizophrenia is extreme disembodiment, depression extreme hyper-embodiment, anorexia an example of disordered body image and a more acute dissociation from bodily experience is found in post-traumatic and dissociative conditions - embodied concepts of mental illness should describe (phenomenologically) these disorders of being in the world and investigate the circular interactions of mind, brain, organism and the environment that maintain these.
Similarly in the practice of mindfulness of the body we can see how the perceived relationship between the mind and the body is the underlying cause of our states of mind with sanity lying in a light touch, not hyper-embodied nor disembodied. My understanding is that conversely sanity and further than this, spiritual development, is to form a clear body image and carry this into activity, then the body image maintains the health of the 'living body' experience and is a source of wisdom and compassion in the mind.
Perhaps we can conclude with a quote from the famous psychiatrist R.D.Laing pointing at how spirituality represents the ultimate sanity:
“True sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self competently adjusted to our alienated social reality: the emergence of the 'inner' archetypal mediators of divine power, and through this death a rebirth, and the eventual re-establishment of a new kind of ego functioning, the ego now being the servant of the divine, no longer its betrayer.2”
To me this is a very accurate and inspiring view of the potential of spiritual practice and yet how many of us could accept that the most powerful inner archetype in the mind is the simple, humble old body!
And what about the practice of body contemplation, what is really like, how does it feel?
The contemplation of the unattractiveness of the body in order to cool our desire is an unappealing practice to most people. Only if someone gets seriously hooked on the experience of mindfulness are they likely to want to find a way out of the desire that keeps pulling their minds into the future. Many will still be put off thinking that this contemplation is too negative. Yet this contemplation is not unpleasant or negative is practised correctly. Most of us will only need to see the minor defects in order to calm the mind. The result can be more love rather than less, albeit a love of a different, more stable, enduring character. The best description I have found of the result of this practice comes from 'One Way Street' by Walter Benjamin:
“A lover will not only cling to the 'defects' in the loved one, not only to a woman's quirks and failings; facial lines and liver spots, worn clothes and a wonky gait will bind him far more inexorably, far more endurably than any beauty. One learned that long ago. And why? If the theory is true that feeling does not lodge in the head, that we feel a window, a cloud or a tree not in our brain but in the place where we see them, when we look at our loved one we are like wise outside ourselves. But in this case painfully stretched and tugged. Our feelings churn and swerve like a flock of birds blinded in the woman's bright presence. And as birds seek shelter in the tree's leafy hiding places, feelings too take refuge in dark wrinkles, graceless movements and the secret blemish on the loved one's body, where they duck down, safe and sound. And no passer-by will guess that it is here, precisely here, in the short-coming, in the less than perfect, that the admirer's burst of love, swift as an arrow, hits home.”
Although this practice is common place in Buddhism to see the process explained like this as something beautiful and natural helps to inspire and raise the practice above the level of a mere technique. This then allows us to take our body contemplation deeper still, liberation can be found by replacing the real body with an image. The following quote from the Bible brings over the spiritual quality of such a practice:
Jesus said to them:
When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below
and when you make the male and the female into a single one,
so that the male will not be male and the female will not be female,
when you make eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand,
and a foot in the place of a foot, and an image in place of an image,
then you shall enter the Kingdom
The Gospel according to Thomas
Finding passages like this in the scripture of another spiritual tradition is also inspiring, pointing at the universality of this teaching and its applicability within different religious beliefs.
1 Fuchs,T and Schlimme, J.E. Embodiment and Psychopathology: a phenomenological perspective. Current opinions in psychiatry.2009.22:570-575
2 R.D.Laing - The Politics of experience