December 03, 2005

Build a bridge

Don Salmon, September 8, 2001
In recent years, many have attempted to build a bridge between Indian and modern (i.e. "Western"7) psychology. Like others who are sympathetic to both the Indian tradition and modern science, I was delighted when Herbert Benson, for example, presented meditation as an empirically verifiable "relaxation response". When University of Chicago psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi likened the experimentally validated experience of "flow" to mystical states of consciousness attained by yogis throughout the ages, I took this to be a great step forward in bridging the gap between Indian and scientific psychology. I rejoiced at Stephen LaBerge's determination in looking for empirical evidence of lucid dreams, in spite of persistent and abject denial amongst mainstream dream researchers of the possibility of conscious dreaming. When he developed a technique using a combination of physiological evidence and self-report to prove the presence of self-awareness in the dream state, I believed a new interest in and acceptance of non-ordinary states of consciousness was just around the corner.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman writes, "Psychoanalytic thought... has charted aspects of what would be called 'karma' in the East in far greater detail and complexity than any Eastern school of psychology".27 Among other things, Indian psychology is said to have no equivalent of the Freudian unconscious, to be deficient in the understanding of the development of the ego, lacking in understanding of interpersonal relationships, and without a sophisticated awareness of social and cultural structures of consciousness. Charles Tart observes, "We [in the West] have studied some aspects of samsara (illusion, maya) in far more detail than the Eastern traditions that originated the concept of samsara."28
Alan Wallace and Greg Simpson, a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and a neuropsychologist respectively, have regularly brought EEG equipment to Tibetan Buddhist communities in Northern India to measure the brain waves of highly accomplished contemplatives. They are careful in their reports to describe their findings solely in terms of correlation, avoiding the assertion that contemplative experience is caused by certain conditions of the brain. Dr. Newberg, the neurologist, is another example of a sympathetic, non-reductionist researcher.
The dream researcher Stephen LaBerge represents an interesting case midway between sympathetic and reductionist stances. He doesn't state with assurance, as Alan Wallace does, that consciousness survives the death of the physical body. He remains agnostic, in contrast to this note of striking assurance from J. Allan Hobson: "The brain-mind question and the problem of consciousness are already solved... What we call 'subjectivity' is.. an emergent property that inevitably arises in any sufficiently complex sensory system composed of sensory neurons... We are ourselves, nothing more, nothing less, and nothing but the integrated neuronal activity representing our sensations of the world and our bodies - including our emotions and all the other modalities that make up our conscious and unconscious minds... How can we any longer doubt that our brains... are ourselves?"33
One such pioneer is Greg Kramer, a long-time teacher of Buddhist meditation who, in collaboration with Terri O'Fallon, has developed a meditative practice he calls "Insight Dialogue". In its simplest terms, the practice involves meditating while engaged in interpersonal interaction; in other words, speaking while meditating.

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