One thing that distinguishes Francisco Varela from others in the field of cognitive science is that he is a student of Tibetan Buddhism and has brought the wisdom of that tradition to bear on his study of the human mind. Widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading cognitive scientists, Varela is director of research at the French National Research Council, and head of the Laboratory of Cognitive Psychophysiology at the Hospital of the Salpêtrière in Paris. Along with Humberto R. Maturana, Varela is co-creator of the “Santiago Theory” of cognition, and author of The Tree of Knowledge (New Science Library, 1987). Varela’s book The Embodied Mind (MIT Press, 1991), written with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, grew out of Naropa Institute’s Science Program, and is one of the most important works to date in exploring and contrasting the Buddhist and Western scientific models of mind and self. In the introductions to both The Embodied Mind and his latest book, Ethical Know-How (Stanford University Press, 1999), Varela gratefully acknowledges his teachers Chögyam Trungpa and Tulku Urgyen. Inquiring Mind spoke by phone with Varela at his home in Paris.
Inquiring Mind: The convergence of dharma and Western science seems to be entering an exciting new phase with the current revolution taking place in biology, and especially in your field, cognitive science. This exchange of understanding seems likely to have even more import than the well-explored interface between physics and dharma.
Francisco Varela: Absolutely. There was a glamour that came with the physics interface, because physics has long been considered the baseline science, talking about very fundamental things such as matter, atoms and gravity. But the understandings that come from physics don’t have much relevance or direct application to everyday human life and experience. To most people the concepts are just too abstract. The natural sciences and cognitive science, on the other hand, are about our bodies, our minds, our moment-to-moment experience. The teachings of dharma have very little to say about physics but a lot to say about mind and body.
IM: One of the most interesting, and somewhat shocking, conclusions currently emerging from cognitive research is scientists’ apparent inability to find a “self” or director in the brain who runs our personal drama.
FV: That is precisely what we were trying to articulate in our book The Embodied Mind. With few exceptions, cognitive scientists have come to understand the egolessness of self. What is surprising, however, is how little their scientific conclusion is taken personally, or really applied to the individual’s life. Buddhism does not focus on a general theory of the brain but points to the fact that it’s about you, about your life. Many cognitive scientists close the door of the lab after studying all day about the selflessness of the brain, and they go right back to their normal, self-absorbed life.
IM: Perhaps the crucial difference between scientists and meditators is in the direction of their respective gaze—the scientist looking outward and the meditator inward.
FV: Why not look in both directions?
IM: Right. And that leads to the question of how new scientific understandings can be useful to people engaged in meditation practice, or to people’s lives in general.
FV: What science can do, for instance, is to give the notion of selflessness a stamp of authority or validity. In some cases at least, this may motivate people to look at themselves more closely, with fresh eyes. Even then, there is still that mysterious leap people take when they decide to study the dharma, to come to a transformative understanding of themselves.
IM: Why do you think it is so hard for people to awaken to the true nature of things, even after being told of scientific research or after having a personal experience of no-self?
FV: My hypothesis is that evolution has shaped human beings to disregard the basic sources of our being. We were built to forget how we were put together. Being aware of that process would make us slightly hesitant towards ourselves and our behavior. It is like a centipede looking at itself walking; it might very well become all tangled up. So we are born with a bias to pay no attention to the original sources of the self and to simply operate in the world. That is why you can have an intellectual understanding of egolessness, or anatta, while the emotional root that weaves that understanding into your life remains absent. In some sense, a heightened degree of self-awareness is antievolutionary.
IM: Otherwise we’d be second-guessing ourselves at every moment: Who is deciding to buy a house or have a child?
FV: That’s right. Every decision would be suspect. So evolution has designed you so that you just want to hurry on with your solidified self. That is what the sense of being a separate organism is all about.
IM: I’m reminded of what Richard Dawkins says, that the brain is designed by evolution not to believe in Darwinism. [Laughter]
FV: Yes, and the brain is designed not to take dharma seriously. [Laughter]
IM: If we are to accept the idea that the brain is a self-organizing system that works without a director or “self,” then how are we to understand the idea of a meditator who develops mindfulness? How do you understand the sense that some independent agent exists that can alter the way the brain works, or change how consciousness sees itself?
FV: You put your finger on what is still to me a big gap in our understanding, which is that funny flip-over into being self-reflective. Mindfulness practice is based on a spontaneous human capacity that is normally occluded by our evolutionary drive to solidify. But my sense is that consciousness is not just consciousness of something. It also contains an element of pure presence or pure awareness, and this consciousness is always there. So in mindfulness practice, rather than constantly engaging with objects, one discovers that little entry point into the awareness that is always present. And then you practice, practice, practice, until this presence is more thoroughly deployed.
Actually, one way of talking about this distinction is by differentiating an awareness that goes to an object, and is therefore intentional, from an awareness that is not intentional because it is just there as bare awareness, as pure awareness. We might think of it as some kind of prereflective, preconscious awareness. You sort of bring it forth from the edges into the center. How that shift happens is where the interesting questions lie for me right now. I think we have a good grip on how consciousness of the world comes about, or at least very good glimpses of it; however, consciousness of itself is still pretty much an open question.
IM: Could you elaborate on the idea that this quality of pure awareness is actually preconscious?
FV: This understanding is just beginning to surface from various research sites. It seems that the quality of awareness, the quality of presence, might not be dependent on being fully self-reflective, or on being fully able to distinguish itself or describe itself. For example, children have a very clear presence that seems not to be self-reflective. It is just as present in adults but has subsequently become bound to their “selfness.” So the question of what it is in the brain or in the body/brain that might be the support for that pure presence is a big frontier for which the study of young children may be the key. The research is still very much in its beginning stages but is moving quite fast.
IM: So what you are investigating is the pure awareness that is preconscious, and therefore also prelinguistic.
FV: Prereflective, prelinguistic, prenoetic, preconscious—all of those “pre-” terms.
IM: Which might be what, in some sense, is being touched or rediscovered in a mindfulness practice?
FV: Right. You begin to find your way into that realm of pure awareness, first recognizing it, and then becoming at ease with it.
IM: Have you ever looked into the brain to examine how mindfulness might come about from within the process of cognition?
FV: That is one thing I’ve been studying over the last few years. To formulate it as a scientific question: How is it that all the different parts of the brain can come together to generate a moment of consciousness or a moment of mind that is coherent?
We have some interesting ideas about how that happens. Using a musical metaphor, we find that the oscillation patterns produced in different parts of the brain are actually converging with a kind of synchrony of resonance. It is like an orchestra coming together musically, but without a director. In neuroscience we measure electrical and magnetic activity in the brain, allowing us to pinpoint the moments of synchrony. In other words, the whole ensemble swims into a moment of consciousness, then disappears in a fraction of a second into the background, and then reappears again as another note. My belief is that pure awareness comes in at that moment of dissolution, and a sustained mindfulness to whatever is happening allows you to catch that fleeting moment.
The brain works by constantly coming up with these synchronies—with this harmony—so that you can have a coherent thought or action, with perception, memory, emotion and movement all of one piece. But if you stay stuck in that moment, it’s the only moment you’re going to have forever. It is death. So it has to unglue itself, to dissolve back into a background of uncoordinated fluctuations where nothing is structured but where a space is created for a new moment of consciousness to arise.
We have seen that in between those moments is a very active ungluing, a very active desynchrony, a very active uncoherence. There’s a really blank slate, or an open background, from which the next moment will arise. And that is a perfectly valid neuroscientific statement that can, as of the last couple of years, be confirmed with very good data.
IM: How can we avoid arriving at a kind of nihilistic or fatalistic sense when we begin to understand the workings of the brain? How do you avoid that?
FV: Let me ask you, Why would the problem come up?
IM: If we see clearly how the process is taking place without any self, and therefore see very little free will within the process, we could certainly be led to a kind of despair or futility.
FV: Well, one possible reaction is to say, Oh, my God, I don’t exist. But from a dharmic perspective you might say, What a relief! I don’t have to hold onto the illusion of self. One of the things you realize in meditation practice is that once you let go of the belief in self, there are no terrible consequences. You do not cease to function or even thrive. In fact, there is a kind of a peaceful presence untouched by any of the ideas you have about it. The problem does not exist once you can become at ease with the actual experience of no-self. If you realize the end results of giving up on the illusion of a solid self, then it is not as much a problem as it is a solution.
IM: Then, of course, we can get into an infinite regression about who or what is actually recognizing the pure awareness, or developing mindfulness?
FV: I am beginning to feel that precisely because there is an impossible infinite regress, at some point we might have to turn the picture around in the following sense. In the West we talk about how matter—body and brain—might be the necessary conditions for the emergence of the mind. That is the scientists’ assumption. However, there is another hypothesis, which is that consciousness itself is the basic stuff of the universe and that we are the emanation of that consciousness as opposed to the origin or the evolutionary source of it. Of course, to accept that we would have to give up the idea that everything is based on some material property.
But I also feel that we may come to a new way of thinking about this whole issue in a non-dual way, even though I still don’t have any idea how to articulate it. I think there will be a big shakeup in the scientific community over this dilemma that will come out of the research itself.
IM: The idea that the basic stuff of the universe is consciousness itself is found in Vajrayana Buddhism.
FV: Yes, but the Vajrayana point of view is as one-sided as that of science. The scientists are on one side saying that evolution is the source of consciousness while the other side is saying that consciousness is the source of evolution. If you want to investigate thoroughly, you cannot hold on tight to either position.
IM: In Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World, he reports asking the Dalai Lama what would happen if science proved wrong a principle tenet of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama answered that Tibetan Buddhism would have to change.
FV: How many scientists have you heard say the converse? Maybe meditation practice would convince the scientists that some of their principles have to change. On the other hand, the research into prereflective consciousness might make us conclude, rationally, from research itself, that this emanational point of view—that all things arise from consciousness—has some merit after all, as a good scientific explanation.
IM: Certainly stranger things have come to be accepted in the realm of physics.
FV: Yes, and the paradox for physicists as to whether light is actually a wave or a particle may turn out, in some sense, to be a model for the brain-consciousness dilemma.
IM: Turning to evolution for a moment, I think it’s useful to place ourselves in a biological or evolutionary perspective, which tells us that we are quite young as a species, and perhaps just getting to know these big brains and how to use them. When we realize that the Buddha, Lao-tzu and Socrates were alive only 2,500 years ago, a blink of an eye in biological time, then we have a sense that we are just now beginning to understand who we are and how we fit into the larger scheme of things.
FV: Yes, that is an important perspective. But I also take the cultural reality point of view. In our society, science is such a strong authority that when it speaks, we have the idea we are touching the ultimate truth. I’m a little skeptical of such a complete belief in science because I don’t consider it to be necessarily the final, or the only, means of understanding. Anyone who has practiced meditation is well aware of this fact.