Buddhist Contributions to a Life-Enhancing Future

Buddhist Contributions to a Life-Enhancing Future

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While I believe all the great religious traditions of the world have major contributions to make in harnessing the scientific and spiritual imagination to create a life-enhancing future for our world, I shall focus especially on the potential contributions of Buddhism simply because that is my field of expertise. The areas in which I think there can be especially fruitful collaboration between Buddhism and science are the following: (1) devising practical techniques for dealing with destructive emotions and cultivating constructive emotions, such as empathy and compassion; (2) devising curricula for school systems to help prevent and treat attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders; (3) generally exploring the nature of mental health and the potentials for cultivating “exceptional” mental health; (4) exploring the interface between the ontological implications of quantum mechanics and Buddhist ontology, especially concerning the participatory nature of the universe; (5) exploring specific, rigorous methodologies for acquiring knowledge, especially concerning the nature of the mind, spirit, and consciousness, that complement those of science as we know it today.

1. Many of the problems that beset humanity today, whether at home, in the classroom, in the community, or internationally, stem from uncontrolled destructive emotions such as anger, resentment, and jealousy.  What is the nature of these emotions?  Are there any alternatives to either repressing them, which can lead to further emotional problems, or expressing them, which generally leads to discord with others?  We are faced with the challenge not only of understanding the origins, nature, and effects of such emotions, but finding ways to identify them as soon as they arise and coping with them in ways that are not destructive to either ourselves or others. Buddhist psychology has a great deal to offer in this regard, and, without drawing on the specifically religious elements of the Buddhist tradition, it could be used to devise forms of emotional education that could be taught in public school systems.  Children, regardless of their religious heritage or lack thereof, need to learn early on about the nature of constructive and destructive emotions and how to deal with them and learn from them.  While many methods may be devised, specifically suited to the needs and abilities of students of varying ages, the cultivation of mindfulness and a kind of meta-cognition of one’s own emotional states is bound to be crucial. Such techniques have already been introduced in the context of cultivating emotional intelligence and in stress reduction clinics.  The time may now be ripe to begin teaching basic mindfulness techniques and ways of understanding emotions in the educational system as well.

2. The prevalence of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) is growing among children, adolescents, and adults, especially in the technologically developed countries, at an alarming rate. These disorders drastically impair one’s learning abilities and one’s ability to engage effectively and meaningfully with modern life in general.  Parents, children, and school systems confronting this problem are growing more and more desperate, as they seek to treat the symptoms of this disorder without having first comprehended its underlying causes.  While behavioral therapy is used on occasion, this mode of intervention is labor-intensive, something that most school systems are not capable of accommodating.  Thus, the primary intervention in the case of ADHD is drug therapy, specifically the prescription of Ritalin.  This drug successfully “manages” the symptoms of ADHD, but with serious side-effects.  Perhaps the most serious of long-term effect from taking such medication is that children are encouraged to get in the habit of taking drugs to change the state of their minds, even though the medications themselves may not be not addictive. Buddhism is but one of many contemplative traditions of the world that has taken a great deal of interest in the nature, potentials, and disorders of attention.  Numerous techniques for developing what the American psychologist William James called “sustained voluntary attention” have been devised, and with some modifications it is highly feasible that some of these could be implemented to great advantage in public school systems, beginning in grade school and continuing on into higher education. James declared that “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will…An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” This challenge was largely ignored during the twentieth century.  Hopefully, this tragic oversight, which has resulted in misery for millions of people, can be addressed by bringing together the practical wisdom of modern psychology and the contemplative traditions of the world.

3. Very recently the new theme of “positive psychology” has begun to come into prominence in clinical psychology, and it emphasizes the possibility of not only treating mental disorders, but actively cultivating healthy states of mind. During the twentieth century, clinical psychology and psychiatry tended to focus almost exclusively on identifying, understanding, and treating a wide range of mental disorders; and much progress was made in this regard. But even a psychologically healthy person may be prone to excessive stress, tension, anxiety, frustration, and a myriad other mental problems. When the human body is healthy, we do not expect it to be in pain as long as it is not subjected to unpleasant stimuli; but the normal, healthy human mind is prone to a wide range of distress, even in the absence of external disturbing influences. While modern society has shown great ingenuity in understanding physical hygiene, healthy diets, and various forms of exercise designed to maximize one’s physical health, endurance, and well-being, little such ingenuity has been brought to bear on exploring the limits of mental health and well-being. But this oversight is already beginning to be addressed, and many of the religious traditions of the world may make significant contributions in this regard.  All religions, for example, value the cultivation of empathy, love, altruism, and compassion, and there are compelling grounds for believing that all these states are highly conducive to mental and physical health, as well as spiritual well-being. Although the separation of psychology from religion certainly had its advantages, the human mind and spirit are not neatly compartmentalized; so the wisdom of both science and religion should be united to explore the nature and potentials of mental health and its relation to physical health and spiritual maturation.

4. While the full ontological and epistemological implications of modern physics, quantum mechanics in particular, certainly cannot be foreseen at this point, it does seem clear that they challenge the mechanistic, materialistic metaphysical framework that has dominated scientific research during the past two centuries.  I would argue that it is the reductionistic axioms of scientific materialism, rather than the empirical facts of science itself, that have widened the breach between religion and science; and many prominent physicists and philosophers believe that modern physics is now revealing truths about the physical universe that may help bridge the rift between science and religion. Research in the foundations of quantum mechanics has called into question the very nature of matter as some independently existing stuff in the objective world. Physicist Steven Weinberg recently commented, “In the physicist’s recipe for the world, the list of ingredients no longer includes particles.  Matter thus loses its central role in physics.” And the late Richard Feynman wrote, “It is important to realize that in physics today we have no knowledge of what energy is,” and he added that the conservation of energy should be understood as a mathematical principle, not a description of a mechanism or anything concrete. For the materialist, matter has been attributed with an ontological burden comparable to that of God for the theist: it is the reputed source of everything in the universe, which finally consists of nothing other than this one primal substance.  But now the very existence of matter as an objective, independent substance is being called into question, and the independent existence of energy, which is convertible with mass, is equally open to question. There now seem to be scientific grounds for becoming at least agnostic with regard to belief in the ontological primacy of matter; and some may feel the scientific evidence compels them to disbelieve altogether in this independent, invisible stuff behind the veil of appearances. Materialism is becoming more and more antiquated as science progresses; and in its demise, enormous possibilities arise for re-envisioning the universe in ways that draw from the wisdom of both scientific and religious understanding.

5. As I have argued in my book The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness [Oxford, 2000], the metaphysical constraints of scientific materialism have long hindered the scientific study of subjective mental states and especially of the origins, nature, potentials, and destiny of human consciousness itself. While humanity has profited enormously from the scientific and technological exploration of objective realities, which exist independently of the human mind, the exclusion of first-person methodologies from scientific research has stifled research into the nature of consciousness and other subjective realities.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are faced with the odd situation that we know more about the origins of the universe twelve billion years ago, more about galactic clusters billions of light years distant in space, and more about the internal structure of the atom than we know about human consciousness. Yet without consciousness, there would be no science, no religion, and no knowledge of any kind.  The contemplative traditions of the world have for centuries devised a wide array of methods for exploring the nature and potentials of the human spirit.  Some of these methods are rigorous and lend themselves to scientific research.  By combining the third-person methods of objective science with the first-person methods of contemplative inquiry, humanity may gain fresh insights, or regain ancient insights, into the nature of human awareness. Religions around the world have emphasized the wonder-working powers of faith, and modern medicine is well familiar with the ubiquitous power of the “placebo effect,” which should better be known as the “consciousness effect.” Humanity is now primed to draw on the insights of both science and religion to explore, perhaps more deeply than ever before, the nature of consciousness and its potentials for healing and spiritual awakening.