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Alan Wallace: Contemplative Science: Fathoming the Human Mind and the Nature of Consciousness

Nuggets From Alan Wallace's Call

Last Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting an Awakin Call with Alan Wallace. A call with a record number of RSVPs and truly vibrant engagement from our listeners.

After dropping out from university in 1971 and immersing himself for 14 years in Buddhist studies with some of his generation’s greatest lamas, Alan Wallace became a Tibetan Buddhist monk, ordained by H.H. the Dalai Lama, for whom he also served as translator. He began then to integrate the Western perspectives of his first 20 years with his 14 years of Buddhist studies. He graduated summa cum laude in physics from Amherst College and then got a PhD in Religious Studies from Stanford. He is a prominent and important voice in the discussion between Buddhist thinkers and scientists who question the materialist presumptions of 20th-century paradigms. He has written and translated more than 40 books and founded the Centers for Contemplative Research as a laboratory "for advanced meditators to collaborate with researchers in the mind sciences and physics to better understand the primary role of mind in nature.”

Beautifully moderated by Richard Whittaker of works & conversations, and enriched by a stream of questions from live listeners, the conversation was a quiet joy from start to finish.

The audio recording of the call is available here (and includes a bonus segment at the end where Alan generously answers a few additional questions). We will be posting the transcript soon on this same page. Should you wish to participate in the crowd-sourced volunteer transcription efforts, you can pick a segment and get to started here. In the meantime for those interested in staying in touch with Alan's work, you can check out his website as well as that of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.

And now, a few sundry snatches from Saturday's conversation:

  • I was raised in a truly wonderful family. The family tree was filled with missionaries and theologians. Morality and virtue was very central. At age 13 I had a wonderful science teacher. Inspired by her I wanted to really know and love the natural world and pursue a career in science.
  • During the ten minutes I hitchhiked with him I learned that he was a Buddhist monk, he learned I was interested in Buddhism. After ten minutes we weren't finished so he said "Would you like an ice-cream?" I was looking for some core guidance and he gave me just what I needed. About twenty years ago -- he came and visited my wife and I in Half Moon Bay. It was a longterm friendship and a very seminal meeting.
  • In science I found a lot of truth but not meaning. I had a yearning to live a life that was true and in accordance with reality and meaningful
  • It's often said in Christianity: God is Love. So as far as we bring into the world love for the world as a whole is that not following traditional Christianity, is that not God's spirit working through us?
  • It [the inital four years of training in India] was the best of times and the worst of times.Things like diet and hygiene were very poor. I got hepatitis three times, three different types of parasite. The third time I got hepatitis I was really at death's door. And that was very helpful in the sense that it really brought very vividly to mind how extremely precious this life is and what potential we have for purifying our hearts and souls, and yet this life, it's like a flickering candle in the wind. The Dalai Lama's physician literally saved my life -- or rather postponed my death. They [the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan masters] opened their doors and hearts and offered me guidance. It was a bounty and it was just utterly glorious. It was my heart's desire come true, and physically, just really, really awful.
  • I was ordained in 1973 as a novice and received full ordination from the Dalai Lama a few years later. I am not a monk today but in terms of lifestyle there is not really much difference. My wife is my closest spiritual friend. I meditate about 9 hours a day. Had I been a monk there would not have been a great deal of difference. I felt like a fish out of water as a monk in America and felt it would be more meaningful to be a layperson while equally devoting my life to my spiritual path.
  • There is something utterly unique about Sanskrit. Shabdavidhya is one of the 5 vidhyas -- the science of sound There is something about Sanskrit grammar and intonation that is very deep. It is rooted in the reality of sound. Classical Indian culture were the first to formulate mantras -- sometimes just syllables -- these are vibrations -- that do have an impact on the nervous system or the prana system. And the nervous system is very closely related to the mind.
  • Galileo himself was trained as a monk, Newton was a theologian, and Kepler too. They were moved by a very profound religious impulse to know the Creator by way of his creation. But with the rise of scientific materialism first person experience has been marginalized. Now the role of consciousness is coming back in by way of quantum mechanics, and it's suggesting that the role of the observer is utterly fundamental.
  • "I think therefore I am, " said Descartes. I think there is something deeper than "I think". My very firm conclusion is that the most indubitable knowledge I have is the knowledge of being aware, of being conscious. When we come back to the un-elaborated unadorned experience of being aware, this is something that cannot be doubted. And it is present universally -- in Hinduism Taoism, early Christian mysticism, Kabbalah, the Sufi tradition of Islam.
  • I am persuaded utterly that the deepest realizations are found not in science but in the contemplative traditions that do not dismiss that dimension of reality that is not quantifiable.
  • Buddhists never say I don't exist. There is a challenging of our notion of existing as an ego, and the controlling self as an autonomous entity. Looking for that inside and outside the body matrix is unfindable. Just as the 'it' in 'It's raining,' is undefinable. We exist in interdependence. As I care for myself it is only realistic to care for all those around me with whom I exist in interdependence.
  • A phrase oft repeated by the Buddha 'Ehipasiyka' -- Come and see. Come and see for yourself what is true.
  • Indian civilization going back thousands of years has developed a technology of the soul with a primary focus and aspiration to explore experientially from a first person perspective of radical empiricism the question, 'Can you pierce through the human psyche all the way to the very ground of reality?'
  • When all is said and done every corroboration is all inter-subjective collaboration. There is no third person who doesn't have a first person perspective. It's high time now to bring the subject back into the universe where it's always been.
  • You can be a scientist without fundamentally shifting your whole orientation and way of life. It's something that you do independent of your way of life. Philosophical inquiry and scientific inquiry can be done unconnected to any framework of ethics. But if you are devoting your life to contemplative inquiry the nature of mind and reality and approaching this from the inside out there must be a fundamental shift in one's way of life, it must be rooted in ethics non-violence and benevolence.
  • If one really wants to 'go professional' then you need a laboratory an observatory especially when we're just setting out on the path. Hermitages, monasteries, meditation cells have served this purpose and they are often in nature, in quiet, serene places, often in the desert. In Tibet it's high desert. Coming to a place with utter simplicity so at least for awhile you set aside the secondary concerns to develop a mode of awareness that is beyond the personal and learn how to sustain that.
Gratitude to the many invisible hands and hearts behind this effort, as well as to all those who held space as listeners, and sent in such thoughtful feedback afterwards. Our efforts are enriched and supported by your perspectives and ideas.


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