Speaker: Alan Wallace

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

In 1970 when he was just 20 years old, Alan Wallace said to the universe, “I need to meet a wise old man and I need it quickly!”  He was hitchhiking alone in Norway.  After several hours of waiting to catch a ride to Oslo, a little old man in a Volkswagon picked him up. As it turns out, the man was Buddhist monk to whom Wallace expressed his deep interest in Buddhism, leading the two to corresponded for years after that fateful meeting, which Wallace says was his wakeup call.  “There are coincidences and then there’s a point where coincidence is just stupid. This was one of the stupid times.”

That was the summer that prompted Alan Wallace, who for more than a decade was a Tibetan Buddhist monk ordained by H.H. the Dalai Lama, to leave his college studies. In 1971, he began his spiritual journey deep into Buddhism, first in Switzerland, and then in Dharamsala, India with the Dalai Lama (and many other teachers). For the initial four of his 14 years of study with and translation for some of his generation’s greatest lamas, Wallace immersed himself in Buddhist theory and practice in India, even while suffering bouts of hepatitis, typhoid, worms and various other physical ailments. But the tradeoff, he admits, was that it was “mentally and spiritually a feast.” What really pulled him toward this immersion was intuition (that this was the path for him), the combination of science and philosophy with religion, and especially the realization that, “Here is a path of ever deepening meaning, of ever deepening insight, understanding and knowledge, and they’re all bound into one – wisdom and skillful means, you could say.” And that is what really caught and compelled him, “what’s held me ever since,” he says.

Wallace returned to Switzerland in 1975 where he continued to practice, study and write about Buddhism while translating for his original teacher. By the end of 1979, feeling saturated with a great deal of unassimilated knowledge, he wrote to the Dalai Lama asking where he should go to “just meditate.” His Holiness invited him back to Dharamsala, offering to instruct his meditation. Wallace went back and spent the next four years in a series of meditative retreats. By 1984, he had been away from Western culture for most of his adult years, learning from Buddhism how to live a full, meaningful and truthful life. Considering that he'd spent his first twenty years in one cultural perspective, and the next fourteen in another, he thought perhaps it was now time to integrate the two.

This integration has been Wallace’s life’s work, not only for himself, but for countless others around the globe, from religious seekers to physicists and psychologists. At 68 years old, he is still bridging East and West for the betterment of all beings, and he won’t be stopping anytime soon.

In 1984, Wallace was accepted into Amherst College where he earned a BA summa cum laude in physics in just two and a half years, and learned Sanskrit studying with Robert Thurman. After graduating, he spent more time in meditation retreats, focusing on Shamatha meditation (both teaching and practicing). He notes that sometimes Shamatha's nine stages are less emphasized in teachings, and that some of the later stages are partly skipped over by practitioners. He says, however, that the Buddha’s great innovation was the union of Vipassna and Shamatha, which had never before been taught. “It’s that combination that has the powerful ability to eradicate mental afflictions from their root.” Wallace's teachings on Bodhicitta, Shamatha and Dzogchen are especially poignant to beginners and advanced practitioners alike.

By the 1990’s, at 40 years old Wallace had finished his education, spent a few years in retreat, then matriculated into the PhD program at Stanford, from where he received a doctorate in religious studies in 1995. It was at Stanford that he began his studies of dream yoga, the Tibetan practice of becoming aware while dreaming. (Though he had first received some of these teachings in 1978, his teacher then had told him, “You’re not ready yet.”) For the next seven years, he was his primary dream yoga teacher’s interpreter, giving him the opportunity to dive deeply into the practice, which he now teaches. In 2012, he published Dreaming Yourself Awake:  Lucid Dreaming and Tibetan Dream Yoga for Insight and Transformation.

In 2003, Wallace founded the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies (SBICS). Its mission is to understand the nature of human consciousness by merging the first person (subjective, qualitative) approach of contemplative practice with the third person (objective, quantitative) approach of science. His latest project through the SBICS is the creation of Centers for Contemplative Research in Italy, India, Mexico, Brazil and other countries as “a laboratory with optimal conditions for advanced meditators to collaborate with researchers in the mind sciences and physics to better understand the primary role of mind in nature.”

Of the centers, he says, “Critical times call for critical responses. This is a critical response. We need greater wisdom in this world where we have so much knowledge, so much information, so much power.” The centers will be environments where professional contemplatives can practice full-time in service to the science of understanding the mind and the nature of reality. “We propose that rigorous training of a new generation of contemplative scientists could bring scientific research into the nature and potentials of the mind to a new level, also for treating mental disease. … The aim of ARCS is no less than to fathom the nature of consciousness and the potentials of the human mind through the collaborative efforts of highly trained contemplatives and scientists.”

Wallace has aspired to this particular dream for ten years. He is a prominent and important voice in the emerging discussion between contemporary Buddhist thinkers and scientists who question the materialist presumptions of their 20th-century paradigms. Since 1987 he has been a frequent translator and contributor at the “Mind and Life” conferences at which the Dalai Lama and prominent scientists exchange views and he has written and translated more than 40 books, including Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice (2011), Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity (2009), and Hidden Dimensions: The Unification of Physics and Consciousness (2007).

Along with his scholarly work, B. Alan Wallace is regarded as one of the West’s preeminent meditation teachers and retreat guides known for his ability to present complex ideas with simple clarity. With his forty-six plus years steeped in Buddhist philosophy and meditation AND degrees in physics, the philosophy of science and in religious studies, Wallace is just the person to take humanity forward into this new frontier: bringing quantum physics (his favorite science because it challenges the absolutes of classical physics) and Eastern philosophy into meaningful engagement.

Join us in conversation with this gifted, warm-hearted scholar and teacher!

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