Mind in the Balance

Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity

B. Alan Wallace
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 264
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/wall14730
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  • Book Info
    Mind in the Balance
    Book Description:

    By establishing a dialogue in which the meditative practices of Buddhism and Christianity speak to the theories of modern philosophy and science, B. Alan Wallace reveals the theoretical similarities underlying these disparate disciplines and their unified approach to making sense of the objective world.

    Wallace begins by exploring the relationship between Christian and Buddhist meditative practices. He outlines a sequence of meditations the reader can undertake, showing that, though Buddhism and Christianity differ in their belief systems, their methods of cognitive inquiry provide similar insight into the nature and origins of consciousness.

    From this convergence Wallace then connects the approaches of contemporary cognitive science, quantum mechanics, and the philosophy of the mind. He links Buddhist and Christian views to the provocative philosophical theories of Hilary Putnam, Charles Taylor, and Bas van Fraassen, and he seamlessly incorporates the work of such physicists as Anton Zeilinger, John Wheeler, and Stephen Hawking. Combining a concrete analysis of conceptions of consciousness with a guide to cultivating mindfulness and profound contemplative practice, Wallace takes the scientific and intellectual mapping of the mind in exciting new directions.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51970-0
    Subjects: Religion, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. PART I: MEDITATION:: WHERE IT STARTED AND HOW IT GOT HERE
    • [PART 1 Introduction]
      (pp. 1-2)

      Meditation is one of humanity’s best-kept secrets. If beings from another galaxy were to study us closely—reading our history books, watching our movies, scouring the Internet—they would get only the most superficial understanding of it. They would conclude the same thing most of us believe about meditation: it is a relaxation technique good for relieving stress and as a secondary therapy for certain illnesses. And—oh yes—certain religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and a few others) use it as part of worship. And that’s all there is to it!

      What’s been hidden is meditation’s role as a precision tool...

    • 1 WHO AM I?
      (pp. 3-6)

      In the ancient story of the blind men and the elephant,¹ a king gathered a group of men who were born blind and told them to examine an elephant and then describe what they found. One of them felt its head, while others individually touched its tusks, trunk, feet, and back. Depending on the part of the elephant they had touched, one by one, these blind men described it as being like a pot, a ploughshare, a rope, a pillar, and a wall. When they heard each other’s different accounts, they immediately began debating and quarreling about who was right,...

    • 2 THE ORIGINS OF CONTEMPLATION
      (pp. 7-14)

      Throughout this book I shall refer to theories and practices of contemplation stemming primarily from ancient Greek philosophy, Christianity, and Buddhism. As we shall see, although each of these traditions has unique qualities, they have important similarities. The English word “contemplation” derives from the Latin contemplatio, which corresponds to the Greek theoria. Both terms refer to a total devotion to revealing, clarifying, and making manifest the nature of reality. Nowadays, “contemplation” usually means thinking about something. But the original meanings of “contemplation” and “theory” had to do with a direct perception of reality, not by the five physical senses or...

    • 3 THE SCIENTIFIC EXTERNALIZATION OF MEDITATION
      (pp. 15-26)

      Although contemplation lies at the root of Western religions, philosophy, and science, it plays hardly any role in science today. This is not the result of a gradual decline, as in Christianity, but rather can be traced back to the origins of modern science in the seventeenth century. At that time, the supernatural world—consisting of God and other spiritual entities such as the devil and angels, heaven and hell—was to be accepted on the basis of the authority of the Bible. Theologians were in charge of understanding this domain of reality, and their views were accepted on faith....

    • 4 SCIENTIFIC STUDIES OF MEDITATION
      (pp. 27-36)

      Are our mental states and behavior entirely determined by such physical influences as brain activity and genes, or can we improve our sense of well-being through our own efforts, including meditation? This is a fundamental question that underlies all scientific studies of meditation. Recall that William James fell into deep, suicidal depression partly in response to the belief—which was prevalent in the mid-nineteenth century—that humans are mere puppets jerked around by biochemical processes in our bodies. He pulled himself out of the rut by recognizing that the scientific evidence supporting that reductionistic hypothesis was not conclusive. Research over...

  5. PART II: MEDITATION IN THEORY AND PRACTICE
    • 5 PRACTICE: ATTENDING TO THE BREATH OF LIFE
      (pp. 39-40)

      Find a quiet room where you can sit alone without being disturbed. Soften the lighting and find a comfortable place to sit for twenty-five minutes—on a chair or, if you’re comfortable, sitting cross-legged on a cushion. You can also lie on your back on your bed, for instance, with your head resting on a pillow, your legs straight, your arms out to the sides, palms up, and your eyes either shut or partly open. Whatever your position, see that your back is straight and that you feel physically at ease.

      Now focus your attention on your body, experiencing the...

    • 6 THEORY: COMING TO OUR SENSES
      (pp. 41-46)

      One of the most persistent of all delusions is the conviction that the source of our dissatisfaction lies outside ourselves. No matter who we are, we think the world is in such miserable shape because of the behavior of people who aren’t like us. Political liberals are certain that conservatives are to blame for the world’s problems, while the conservatives are just as convinced that they are part of the solution. Political activists blame the politically apathetic for not taking responsibility for their government’s policies, while the general public blames their government for their misfortunes and regards their financial contributions...

    • 7 PRACTICE: THE UNION OF STILLNESS AND MOTION
      (pp. 47-52)

      Rest your body in a comfortable posture, whether sitting in a chair, sitting cross-legged, or lying on your back. Begin by “settling your body in its natural state,”¹ so that it is imbued with three qualities. The first quality is a physical sense of relaxation, ease, and comfort, which should persist throughout this entire twenty-five-minute session. The meditative practice itself is challenging enough, so it’s important that you don’t put yourself through any undue physical discomfort. Second, let your body be as still as possible, avoiding any unnecessary movement, such as fidgeting and scratching. Move only if your legs or...

    • 8 THEORY: KNOWING AND HEALING THE MIND
      (pp. 53-70)

      According to the biblical account, suffering began with the original sin of Adam and Eve, and all subsequent generations of the human race have been blemished as if by a defective spiritual gene. The presence of evil in the world can therefore not be traced back to God, for even though he opened up the possibility of its occurrence by granting his creatures free will, he is not responsible for what we have freely chosen to do. The Bible states that God selected the people of Israel to be in a special relationship with him, but he still allowed them...

    • 9 PRACTICE: BEHOLD THE LIGHT OF CONSCIOUSNESS
      (pp. 71-74)

      Settle your body in a comfortable position, sitting on a chair, sitting cross-legged, or lying down. Be still and vigilant, and take three slow, deep breaths, experiencing the sensations of the breath throughout your body. Then settle your respiration in its natural rhythm, letting your body determine whether your breathing is deep or shallow, slow or fast, regular or irregular. Now rest your mind in open, choiceless awareness, letting your attention roam to any of your six senses (the five physical senses and the mind) without trying to control it in any way. If a sound catches your attention, let...

    • 10 THEORY: EXPLORING THE NATURE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
      (pp. 75-86)

      Directing awareness inward to illuminate itself is a practice that has been used for centuries in various contemplative traditions in the East and the West. Within Christianity, it can be traced back to the Desert Fathers meditating in Egypt during the early centuries of the Christian church. Hesychios the Priest (seventh century), for example, a priest and monk who lived in a monastery on Mount Sinai, commented on this form of meditation in his treatise On Watchfulness and Holiness. A central theme of this meditation manual is attentiveness, which he defined as “the heart’s stillness, unbroken by any thought.”¹ “When...

    • 11 PRACTICE: PROBING THE NATURE OF THE OBSERVER
      (pp. 87-88)

      Settle your body in its natural state, either sitting or lying down, and then, while mindfully attending to the tactile sensations throughout your body, let your respiration settle in its natural rhythm. Breathe effortlessly, as if you were deeply asleep, without intentionally trying to modify your respiration in any way.

      With your eyes at least partly open, rest your gaze vacantly in the space in front of you. During the in-breath, draw your awareness in upon itself, illuminating its own nature. During the out-breath, release your awareness, letting go of all thoughts and objects of the mind. As you invert...

    • 12 THEORY: THE GROUND STATE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
      (pp. 89-96)

      According to the earliest accounts of the Buddha’s teachings recorded in the Pali language, he said that by focusing awareness upon its own nature, one eventually apprehends the “sign of the mind.” The term “sign” in this context refers to the distinguishing characteristics by which one recognizes or remembers something, in this case, the nature of the mind, or consciousness itself.¹ These are the qualities of sheer luminosity and cognizance. In order to identify the defining features of consciousness, not just its neural or behavioral correlates, we must treat it like any other natural phenomenon and observe it directly, with...

    • 13 PRACTICE: OSCILLATING AWARENESS
      (pp. 97-98)

      Settle your body in its natural state, imbued with the qualities of relaxation, stillness, and vigilance. Then, while mindfully attending to the sensations throughout your body, let your breathing settle in its natural rhythm, breathing as effortlessly as if you were fast asleep.

      With your eyes at least partly open and your gaze resting vacantly in the space in front of you, alternate between drawing your attention inward upon yourself as the observer and releasing your awareness into space, not focusing on any object. Follow that by alternating between releasing your awareness and focusing inwardly on that which is controlling...

    • 14 THEORY: CONSCIOUSNESS WITHOUT BEGINNING OR END
      (pp. 99-118)

      In the modern world, the fate of individual consciousness at death is widely considered to be a matter of religious faith or metaphysical belief. Alternatively, materialists consider the question already answered beyond reasonable doubt: death must entail the termination of individual existence and consciousness. But since scientists—many of whom embrace materialistic views—have not yet identified the necessary and sufficient causes of consciousness, they are equally ignorant of the fate of consciousness at death. Although they are expressing a belief based on inconclusive evidence, many hold to that belief with all the unquestioning tenacity of the most hardcore religious...

    • 15 PRACTICE: RESTING IN THE STILLNESS OF AWARENESS
      (pp. 119-120)

      Settle your body in its natural state and your breathing in its natural rhythm, and then with your gaze resting vacantly in the space in front of you, steadily focus your attention up into the space above you, without desire and without bringing any object to mind. Relax again. Then steadily, unwaveringly direct your awareness into the space on your right, then on your left, and then downward. In this way, begin to explore the space of awareness, noting whether it has any center or periphery.

      At times, let your awareness come to rest in the center of your chest...

    • 16 THEORY: WORLDS OF SKEPTICISM
      (pp. 121-136)

      The Buddhist hypothesis of a life force that carries over from one physical embodiment to the next is reminiscent of the discredited scientific proposal that living beings are endowed with a life force known as the élan vital. Despite the popularity of this view in the nineteenth century, no one was ever able to objectively detect such a life force, and in 1938 the Russian biologist Aleksandr Oparin proposed an alternative theory that life originates from nonlife, implying a smooth continuum from inorganic to organic matter. Scientific acceptance of this hypothesis gained great momentum in 1953 when the American biologist...

    • 17 PRACTICE: THE EMPTINESS OF MIND
      (pp. 137-138)

      Rest your body, speech, and mind in their natural state, as in the preceding sessions; then steadily rest your awareness unwaveringly, clearly, without any conceptual elaborations, in the space in front of you. When your awareness settles and your mind becomes calm, examine that which has become stable. Gently release your awareness and relax, then once again observe your consciousness in the present moment. Ask yourself: what is the nature of that mind? Let your mind steadily observe itself. Is this mind something that is luminous and still, or when seeking to observe it, do you find nothing?

      Closely inspect...

    • 18 THEORY: THE PARTICIPATORY WORLDS OF BUDDHISM
      (pp. 139-150)

      At the time of the Buddha, Indian philosophers advocated a wide range of views about the nature of reality. Some claimed that the universe was controlled by supernatural power, either an omnipotent supreme being or a multitude of gods. Some regarded human beings as independent agents who experienced the results of their actions. Some advocated predetermination, declaring that fate, or karma, ruled all things, so humans were deluded to think their choices really made a difference. Others completely rejected any kind of causality, declaring that everything occurred due to mere chance. Despite their differences, proponents of all these views agreed...

    • 19 PRACTICE: THE EMPTINESS OF MATTER
      (pp. 151-152)

      Rest your body, speech, and mind in their natural state, then place your awareness in repose—unwaveringly, clearly, without any conceptual elaborations, without having anything on which to meditate—in the space in front of you.

      Now direct your attention to an object in the physical world, such as your own body. Examine the appearances you designate as “body.” Directly, with as little conceptual overlay as possible, observe the visual appearances of the body and the tactile sensations inside and on the surface of your body. Is any of these individual appearances actually your body? Or are they simply appearances,...

    • 20 THEORY: THE PARTICIPATORY WORLDS OF PHILOSOPHY AND SCIENCE
      (pp. 153-166)

      By the early half of the eighteenth century, the many triumphs of classical physics, as formulated by Newton, gave most scientists and philosophers in the West confidence that science was now penetrating to the very nature of the physical world as it exists in itself, independently of all modes of observation and thought. The initial quest of Galileo and other pioneers of the scientific revolution to view the universe from a God’s-eye perspective seemed to be paying off. Physicists believed they were now fathoming the nature of the objective world as God himself created it. This philosophical view is known...

    • 21 PRACTICE: RESTING IN TIMELESS CONSCIOUSNESS
      (pp. 167-168)

      As always, begin your meditation session by settling your body, speech, and mind in their natural states. Once you have gained some experiential insight into the empty nature of objects appearing to your mind, of your mind itself, and of the duality between objective appearances and your subjective awareness, simply rest your awareness without grasping onto any object or subject. This phase of practice is sometimes called “nonmeditation,” for you are not meditating on anything. Simply place your awareness in the space in front of you and maintain unwavering mindfulness without taking anything as your meditative object.

      In this practice...

    • 22 THEORY: THE LUMINOUS SPACE OF PRISTINE AWARENESS
      (pp. 169-186)

      Especially since the rise of the Protestant movement, the Christian Church has tended to characterize human beings as wretched sinners bearing such a corrupt nature that we can gain salvation only due to the undeserved grace of God. While advocates of this dismal view of human nature can certainly find biblical sources for their beliefs, it is important to take into account other scriptural passages that present a more uplifting perspective. The Book of Genesis, for instance, declares, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them,”...

    • 23 PRACTICE: MEDITATION IN ACTION
      (pp. 187-188)

      Between meditation sessions, without grasping, view all appearances as being clear and empty, like apparitions or the appearances of a dream. This will help to break down the barriers between your meditative experience and the way you view the world between sessions. In this way, all appearances of thoughts and of the sensory world may arise as aids to meditation. Whatever thoughts arise, direct your full attention to them, and you will find that they will vanish without a trace, like wisps of fog vanishing in the warmth of sunlight. Know that these thoughts have no intrinsic reality of their...

    • 24 THEORY: THE UNIVERSE AS A WHOLE
      (pp. 189-196)

      The scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which began with great breakthroughs in the fields of astronomy and physics, was pioneered by Christians, such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, who believed the universe was created several thousand years ago and would soon end with the Second Coming of Jesus. The universe as they conceived of it, based on a literal reading of the Bible, was created in its present form prior to the creation of humanity. Belief in this account led generations of scientists over the past four centuries to adopt a philosophical stance of metaphysical realism. In...

    • 25 WHAT SHALL WE BECOME?
      (pp. 197-200)

      This book began with the question, who am I? to which we now turn once again. Insofar as we lead our lives mindlessly, simply reacting to situations without discerning mindfulness, we can indeed be likened to robots responding to stimuli based upon our neurochemical and genetic programs. Insofar as we follow our baser instincts, we can be regarded simply as animals, leading our lives under the influence of our genes, instincts, and emotions, with all our actions oriented toward survival, procreation, and the pursuit of mundane pleasures. In the grand scheme of things, human existence seems infinitesimally insignificant as we...

  6. NOTES
    (pp. 201-220)
  7. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 221-232)
  8. INDEX
    (pp. 233-244)