When three blind men examine different parts of an elephant—one at the trunk, one grasping the leg, one exploring the tail—each comes up with a description of what they have touched. But due to their blindness they are unable to describe the whole elephant. If the elephant in the case of this book is the mind, then Alan Wallace’s Mind in the Balance proposes a way to describe the elephant in full. To do so, the author balances the perspectives of modern philosophers of mind, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists and physicists with those of Greek, Christian and Buddhist contemplatives throughout history. Such an integrated perspective will assist the ongoing East-West dialogue. By collaborating and sharing insights, scientists, philosophers and religious authorities of multiple traditions may move closer to realizing their quest for universal truths than they have yet been able to working separately.
Like the blind men, Wallace argues, certain Christian, scientific and philosophical thinkers have been limited by “their preferred sources of authority and methods of inquiry.” They have set up their own barriers to a more complete understanding of such issues as the structure of the human mind, the status of the human soul, karma, the origins of evil and suffering, the relationship between “internal” and “external” worlds, and the relative and ultimate benefits of contemplative practices.
Wallace refutes the common, though limited, understanding that the purpose of meditation is to bring about greater relaxation. Instead, he presents a “multicultural view of meditation as a means for improving one’s lifestyle; a way to achieve deep insights into the nature of the mind and consciousness, resulting in unprecedented states of well-being; and as the basis for genuine altruism and compassion.” Turning his analysis in the direction of science, Wallace criticizes the modern scientific movement for rejecting the use of firsthand introspective tools in the empirical study of the nature of mind and of consciousness.
The author uses the best of modern physics and empirical philosophy and the similarities between Christian and Buddhist contemplative practices as a platform for establishing common ground in contemplative terminology. In addition to meditative theory Wallace provides practical instructions that offer guidance to people who wish to practice the meditations discussed.
Anyone interested in understanding more about the mind and consciousness would enjoy reading this book. Those who begin practicing the contemplations offered can test for themselves whether these practices described bring about greater peace, ease and clarity. Those drawn toward and committed to exploring contemplative practices firsthand in an open, dedicated and more rigorous fashion will find here assistance on their journey toward fulfillment. Reading Mind in the Balance and practicing the meditations described, I was amazed at the simplicity and depth of the bright, calm, joyous clarity of breath meditation. Most beneficial for my active, engaged life as a mother, wife and physician were the meditations-in-action, a call to hold stillness in movement, and movement in stillness.