zen brain

In February I participated in Zen Brain at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe.  The program’s been going on for several years now, bringing together neuroscientists, philosophers and Buddhist teachers to think out loud together in the intersection of neuroscience and contemplative spiritual practice.  The focus this time was Consciousness: Waking, Sleeping, Dreaming, Dying and what we know of them.  As it turns out, a lot is known about waking, some about sleeping and dreaming and almost nothing about dying.  4 presenters offered perspectives with roshi Joan Halifax, abbot of Upaya, holding up a zen lens for discussion and inquiry.  


Neuroscience focuses on the contents of consciousness, those densely interconnected brain structures and processes that integrate cognition with feeling and memory to form our subjective experience.  Al Kaszniak (Univ. of Arizona) said that identifying functional brain structures and the actions arising from them largely has come from retrieval information after cognitive injury, that is, what ceases function when discrete regions are damaged.  What’s foreground (conscious) and in the background (unconscious) of our awareness is always shifting; this requires our brains to process and prioritize information in complex ways, delivering it to behavior and keeping us from being bombarded with overwhelm.  Given the stimuli of the 21st century, we’re pushing these systems hard!  Central to Buddhist thought are the ways in which the myriad forms of consciousness become identified with Self, that is, who we are (vs. what we’re experiencing).


Evan Thompson (Univ. of Toronto) called sleep a hypnogogic state of consciousness, where our associative mind drops away. Coordinated neural patterns break down with few or no internal boundaries remaining.  Dreaming shows a presence of mental activity with localized attention remaining in effect, mostly not encoded in memory. For some people dreams become cognitively available through lucid dreaming and dream yoga practices.  Science looks at the contents of consciousness while Buddhism views consciousness as independent from brain function; it has no physical materiality and is more luminous than matter. This is the focus of meditative practice.  Insights from neuroscience are expanding and deepening definitions of consciousness and mind, distinct from brain function but arising from it.  


Richard Davidson (Univ. of Wisconsin) offered some of the most intriguing ideas through his work as an affective neuroscientist. He’s wired long term Tibetan Buddhist monks (with a minimum of 10,000 hours meditation practice!) to brain scanners to observe how practitioners’ brains are different from those from the rest of us.  His work looks at the neural correlates of contemplative practice.  He sees 2 major differences, one being a differing anticipation of pain.  Practitioners experience sensations of pain as much as others but their anticipation of it is absent; when its there they feel it but not until then.  The other finding is the monks’ lack of mental ‘stickiness’, that ruminating reactive negative thinking that can follow an unpleasant or painful event.  In both cases, suffering is reduced. Davidson spoke of how little we know of the consciousness of death.  What we do know comes from reports of near-death experience, from those who who have came back from that brink.  Clinical death is measured by the cessation of heart rate yet brain scans have shown subtle and continuing EEG activity in the hours after death as well as variations of body decomposition and skin tone amongst some Tibetan practitioners.


The health implications of all this stand out and are increasingly recognized in our society.  The American Heart Association now recommends meditation to promote health.  Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes are available and utilized throughout the US.  Stephen Batchelor, a secular Buddhist scholar marveled at the fact that Buddhist meditation is now a covered service under British National Health!


Batchelor sees the Buddha’s message as a response to the suffering of life, a healing that is ongoing.  We’re all works in progress.  As such, it matters less if there is a Self (or mind) independent of our brain but how our lives can flourish, be fully lived.  Our intelligence is enhanced by the full cultivation of consciousness, by knowing our own greed, hatred and delusion in everyday life. Consciousness is what happens when we as sense endowed creatures encounter the unfolding conditions of our world.  In another reframe, Batchelor talked of rebirth as a metaphor for starting over, a wonderfully open hearted position.  The point of spiritual practice – and life in general – is not repeating the same actions, it is learning from experience.


Zen Brain comes from a perspective of intersecting worlds of neuroscience and spiritual practice.  What I heard were repeated metaphors of that hyper-connectivity of brain, mind, science as lived experience.  By extension, the lessons of neuroscience are unfolding in our time, helping to redefine our minds, our world.


An engaging, user friendly, stimulating 3 days.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of it.

 originally published at psychedinsanfrancisco.blogspot.com on March 6, 2013