Geeks Tweaking Buddhism to Reduce Our Suffering

Last weekend my wife and I remotely attended, via streaming video, a number of talks at the Buddhist Geeks conference.  Who are the Buddhist geeks?  A small but growing group of people, headed by Vincent Horn, that takes a very serious interest in Buddhism and meditation traditions, combined with high technological sophistication, the “geek” part, and whose members have no hesitancy in experimenting with using the best of modern knowledge to make Buddhism, especially the meditation part, work for ordinary people.  By “work,” I mean developing perspectives and meditation methods so that ordinary people can benefit from meditation, as part of a relatively ordinary life, rather than having to dedicate themselves to being monks or nuns, completely devoted to and wholeheartedly believing in some traditional brand of Buddhism.  An excellent illustration of that kind of effort, which I have mentioned in other posts, has been Shinzen Young’s work to reformulate concepts from various  meditative traditions so they work more effectively with ordinary people — people like me, who had otherwise thought he simply didn’t have the talent to do whatever it took to be a “meditator.”

Buddhist geeks logo As well as this conference, which will be repeated in subsequent years, Vincent Horn has produced a large number of podcast interviews with various teachers of meditation.  This and other activities of the Buddhist Geeks can be accessed at their website.  Streaming videos of this last weekend’s conference the previous year’s conference will also be available on the website for a while, as well as many podcasts.

In this essay I want to talk about a realization that has tremendously pleased me, a realization from seeing some of the presentations at the conference.

Back in 1972, I published what may have been the most important conceptual contribution to science and general knowledge I’ve ever made, a proposal to apply basic scientific method in various altered states of consciousness:

Tart, C. (1972). States of consciousness and state-specific sciences.  Science, 176, 1203-1210

By method I mean the basic process by which we learn more through science, rather than the particular findings of science (technically called the corpus of science, the body) at any time, which are always subject to modification change as we continue investigating.  Most of the famous errors of science, such as the proof from the standard theory of aerodynamics that bumblebees can’t fly, they don’t have enough wing area for their weight, come from mistaking current scientific knowledge, that corpus, with the method.  What seems possible or impossible given current knowledge may change drastically as new observations and knowledge/theories to explain them comes along.

I didn’t realize it in 1972, but this publication, along with my Altered States of Consciousness book (1969), probably were main contributors to my international reputation as a creative scientist.  I had submitted this article to Science simply because it was a general science publication and what I had to say was, to my mind, of interest to anyone doing science.  Only later did I realize having a feature article in Science was one of the most prestigious things a scientist could accomplish.  Anyway, the article drew an enormous response of about 100 letters-to-the-editor.  Since most scientific articles draw zero such responses, this was quite amazing.  They only published 4, plus my rejoinder, but sent them all to me, and I found them very interesting.  I could easily split the letters into two categories, (1) those who knew that ordinary consciousness is the only state in which we are sane and rational, so the idea of doing science in altered states was total nonsense, Science should not have published the article, and (2) those who said the article made perfect sense, let’s get started!  Many of the letters in the first category were from prominent scientists whose names I recognized, or full professors, senior people.  This was the old guard, objecting to change.  The let’s do it letters were, judging from position titles, young scientists.  Perhaps now that a lot of those young scientists have aged to become the establishment, fields of science are more likely to become more open to things like meditation and altered states experience.

Even the old establishment scientists had no objection to my characterization of what the essence of scientific method was, and some of you might find that formulation useful in some of your “pitches” to promote research.  Hopefully the article will be available online in the Articles Library at within a few days.  I argued that, in essence, science was a four step, cyclical, repeating process.  First, observe what you’re interested in, and try to figure out methods to observe it more and more carefully and accurately.  Second, come up with theories that make sense of what you’ve observed.  Third, since we can rationalize anything, keep using the logic of your theory to make predictions about things you have not observed yet, and go out and test those predictions.  If they work, great, keep expanding your observations and theory.  If they don’t work, the theory needs revision or rejection, no matter how “logical,” “sensible,” or “obvious,” it is.  Fourth, all of these steps are shared openly and honestly with peers, so they can check and expand your observations, check and expand your theories, check and expand your predictions.

It’s important to note that observation is always, always primary.  A theory that  doesn’t fit with actual observations, no matter how quote “logical” it is must be modified or rejected.

I was also very careful to phrase the whole description of essential science in a way that observations of internal experiences were just as much data as observations of external phenomena, so there was no a priori commitment to a total physicalism.  Many people, including working scientists, mistakenly think that scientific method is only applicable to physical phenomena.  That’s scientism, not science.

I also raised the issue in that article of whether the meditative traditions were state-specific sciences or state-specific technologies.  The difference is this.  In principle, a scientist will and can closely observe and question anything and everything.  A technician, on the other hand, is given a set of beliefs, a set of theories about what’s true and proper, and works within that framework to actualize or improve various things, but does not test the basic assumptions or logic of the framework.  (You’ll recognize a parallel here with Kuhn’s work on scientific paradigms.)(Parenthetically, my own 1970s systems approach to states of consciousness turns out to be very parallel to Kuhn’s idea of paradigms.)

Okay, human life is often miserable, there’s far too much suffering, somebody comes up with some “meditative” ways that reduce suffering.  Wow!  Wonderful!  The more of that the better!  Being the thinkers we human beings are, some conceptual framework will be put around the method and its results to make it seem logical, sensible.  In the best cases, as in an active meditative tradition, the conceptual framework does not get in the way of doing the meditative practice which leads to less suffering.  In the very best cases, the conceptual framework even helps people focus their attention properly.  In the worst cases, the conceptual framework becomes a religion that one is required to believe in, actual meditative practice declines, and you have a religion instead of a spiritual practice system.  Having a conceptual system may reduce suffering to some extent too, of course, although probably not with the power of an actual practice, and some conceptual systems can make our suffering worse.

Somewhere in the “evolution” of spiritual experiences into organized religions is where meditative traditions tend to become technologies instead of the beginnings of sciences.  It’s so wonderful to have something you can do and a conceptual system that reduces your suffering and pleases your intellect, who wants to rock the boat?  Indeed, we call such people heretics.  Further, people who could teach others how to meditate effectively were historically relatively rare, often geographically isolated from one another, or culturally and linguistically isolated from one another.  That vital step that is one of the essences of scientific method, a full and open sharing of both observations and theories and methods, and a willingness to question even fundamental assumptions, it is usually not there.

Now, the wonderful sign of transition, the Buddhist Geeks conference.  What a wonderful manifestation of meditation teachers coming from different traditions beginning to share their observations, theories and methods with each other.  How wonderful that the introduction of physiological measuring techniques can both elaborate some ideas and experiences and raise questions about them.  Western psychology has a lot to contribute here also.  As Shinzen Young said in his talk, we have a long way to go, but I think the science, or perhaps several sciences, of inner exploration is starting to take off!  The hope I had so many years ago that science and spirituality could start to refine and potentiate each other, for greater happiness for humanity, is being fulfilled!

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