Embracing Mind: The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality

Embracing Mind: The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality

by Brian Hodel

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What is Mind? For this ancient question we are still seeking answers. B. Alan Wallace and Brian Hodel propose a science of the mind based on the contemplative wisdom of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam.

The authors begin by exploring the history of science, showing how science tends to ignore the mind, even while


What is Mind? For this ancient question we are still seeking answers. B. Alan Wallace and Brian Hodel propose a science of the mind based on the contemplative wisdom of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam.

The authors begin by exploring the history of science, showing how science tends to ignore the mind, even while it is understood to be the very instrument through which we comprehend the world of nature. They then propose a contemplative science of mind based on the sophisticated techniques of meditation that have been practiced for thousands of years in the great spiritual traditions. The final section presents meditations that are of universal relevance—to scientists and people of all faiths—for revealing new dimensions of consciousness and human flourishing.

Embracing Mind moves us beyond the dogmatic debates between theists and atheists over Intelligent Design and Neo-Darwinism, and it returns us to the vital core of science and spirituality: deepening our experience of reality as a whole.

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Shambhala Publications, Inc.
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Shambhala Publications
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Read an Excerpt


How do we know things? How do we decide
that something is true? Since its appearance four hundred years ago,
science has tried to answer this question by focusing on the physical
elements of the universe. Many scientists now believe that physical
phenomena alone are real and that we know this is true through
objective scientific investigation. We are told that (1) the universe
is exclusively physical, (2) this is a proven fact, and (3) we learn
all of the important things about reality by virtue of science—period.

what was just described is a myth. It was never arrived at
scientifically. Rather, it resulted from a process that automatically
filtered out contradictory evidence. In certain areas of science,
physics in particular, this exclusively physical view of reality was
brought into question a century ago. Even so, the consequences of
considering nonmaterial phenomena as real are upsetting to many
scientists. Science, after all, distinguished itself from religion by
denying nonphysical explanations of phenomena, such as miracles and
demons. Therefore, even as scientific theories based on nonmaterial
hypotheses find application in technology we use daily, their
implications for our understanding of reality are generally ignored.
For example, photocells and computer chips were developed from
scientific theories that don’t jibe with a purely physical view of
reality. We use and accept them, but we don’t often explore their
scientific basis and its implications.

Part 1 of this
volume—“What’s Wrong with This Picture?”—is a detailed deconstruction
of this materialistic myth. Science was born in the largely Christian
world of Renaissance Europe; therefore, it is not surprising that even
as science negated many Christian beliefs, it was unavoidably wedded to
basic tenets of Christian theology. Over time, as it gained strength
and credibility, science itself took on aspects of a religious dogma.
Burdened with such entrenched beliefs yet beholden to its experimental
method—which sometimes produced evidence that contradicted its
materialistic outlook—science developed a split personality. Since the
turn of the twentieth century, when the new physics upset the apple
cart, this schizophrenia has hobbled science in its quest for a
thorough understanding of the nature and origins of the universe.

source of this problem from the very beginning was the scientific
attitude toward the mind. Since mental phenomena, such as
consciousness, thoughts, images, and emotions, were not physical, the
mind had to be either ignored or regarded as a property of matter.
Because nonmaterial phenomena were unacceptable, they couldn’t be
studied scientifically. By the same token, the mind could not “exist”
unless it was reduced to something purely physical, the “gray matter”
of the brain. That was the obvious solution. Nevertheless, by the early
twentieth century it was becoming clear to physicists that certain
properties of matter itself depend on the role of the observer—mind and
matter are not independent from each other. Furthermore, present-day
attempts by neuroscience to pin down the mind as purely physical are
riddled with problems. Could it be that both mind and matter are real,
part of nature, and intimately interconnected?

In part 2,
“Consciousness: Completing the Picture,” we discover that contemplative
spiritual traditions have long been studying this problem and have come
up with some refreshing hypotheses. By accepting the validity of
nonmaterial phenomena—the mind especially—they suggest we may arrive at
a complete and harmonious view of reality. Science has made a deep
exploration into the material nature of phenomena. Contemplatives have
studied the mind that observes phenomena and that does the
investigating. Conclusions drawn from both of these traditions point to
a middle ground, a universe of interdependence between mind and
matter. That suggests science and spirituality might work together in a
complementary fashion to arrive at a more embracing view.

do scientists, with their rigorous methodologies, have enough in common
with contemplatives for the two to collaborate successfully? We shall
see that in fact a number of spiritual traditions, particularly those
from Asia, do have rigorous standards of objectivity for exploring the
mind. Although this is not widely known in the West, meditation has
been developed over millennia into a precision instrument of
observation. The aims of this contemplative science may be
spiritual—release from psychological suffering, attaining
enlightenment, inner peace, and so forth—but the means of accomplishing
those ends require a clear understanding of all phenomena. Here a human
being is not seen as a stranger in an alien universe but as a full
participant, intimately interconnected with everything. His or her
achievement of inner freedom therefore requires a deep understanding of
the whole. This picture is further elaborated in part 3 with a
description of one such science of consciousness, from Indo-Tibetan
Buddhism. Here is a view that may illuminate even some of the most
exciting current theories from physics about the origins of the
universe. Where the informed scientific imagination can merely describe
such possibilities, meditators claim they directly experience the
creative forces at play in an ultimate reality accessible to highly
refined states of consciousness.

There is, and always has been, a
single underlying basis common to both science and spirituality. This
common ground—that which makes us human—is the mind. It is to human
minds that myriad phenomena appear, and it is the human mind that has
explored nature, beheld scientific discoveries, and formulated theories
to account for them. But just as spirituality often goes too far,
imbuing the mind, spirit, or soul with a mystery that clouds our
understanding, so has science also gone too far in stripping the mind
down to the bare chassis of the brain. This volume was written to help
balance our understanding of the mind, showing that it is indeed
wondrous, but that its extraordinary qualities can be understood
without sacrificing our intelligence.

Meet the Author

Brian Hodel is a freelance journalist and book editor. 

B. Alan Wallace has authored, translated, edited, and contributed to more than forty books on Tibetan Buddhism, science, and culture. With fourteen years as a Buddhist monk, he earned a BA in physics and the philosophy of science and then a PhD in religious studies. After teaching in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he founded the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies to explore the integration of scientific approaches and contemplative methods.

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