Tuesday, October 30, 2018


"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy"--Hamlet, Act I, Sc. 5

I have just finished reading with great interest a new book that arrived unsolicited in my mail box the other day. The title appealed to me immediately: Mind Beyond Brain--as did the subtitle, "Buddhism, Science, and the Paranormal." As I wrote the other day in a prior entry in The Buddha Diaries, I have long been interested in the distinction between mind and brain. In the past, in the attempt to find an
appropriate metaphor, I have compared the brain to the engine that drives the car through a landscape, whereas mind is not only to the entire car--including, of course, the engine--but also everything in front and behind, out to each side, above and below--all the way out to infinity. Edited, and with bookend essays by the neuroscientist David E. Presti, this book comprises essays on near death experiences, reports of past life memories (particularly by very young children), "mediums, apparitions and deathbed experiences," out-of-body experiences, paranormal phenomena, and survival after physical death, all by distinguished researchers associated with Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia.

The book's purpose is essentially a modest one: to raise enough significant questions, with enough significant evidence, to elevate this field of study to greater academic and scientific respectability. In this I think it is persuasive. The plain fact of the matter is that we humans do not understand everything, and it is appalling arrogance on our part to assume that we do--or that there is only one way to go about it. The hegemony of science and the scientific method in the past few centuries has certainly led to a greater understanding of who we are as a species, homo sapiens, and our extraordinary potential. It has nourished the brain and has led to the many diverse and astonishing accomplishments of that powerful organ. Yet it has failed, notably, to address with any seriousness and conviction, certain aspects of the greatest of all human resources: mind itself, and the mystery of a powerful consciousness that far transcends our still restricted--and likely still flawed-- field of knowledge and control.

Psychology and the social sciences aside, science has chosen to minimize or ignore a great part of human experience that can seem to threaten its authority. Near death experiences, to take but one example, have been documented in numerous instances by a variety of cultures throughout the world, with a startling commonality of detail; and yet remain virtually ignored by science. It is easier to dismiss with ridicule the possible existence of ghosts or extrasensory perception or telepathy than to develop new methodologies and explore new avenues of research that might expand our understanding of them. The reigning rules of scientific methodology require that the experience of such phenomena be shrugged off as merely anecdotal, unworthy of research--or, sadly, of the funds that would support it. And, when it comes to death and the survival beyond death of consciousness in some form, science prefers the path of scorn and categorical denial.

Buddhism, this book argues, offers us the prospect of a science of the mind; the practice of meditation opens doors to consciousness unimpaired by the kind of drugs that have been used with limited success in the West. It's no accident that one of the most passionate proponents of a mutually respectful partnership between science and religion is the Dalai Lama--a man brought up and steeped in the traditions and rituals of an ancient faith whose central practice is a rigorous exploration of the inner reaches of the mind. Mind Beyond Brain culminates in an eloquent plea not only for different, more open-minded approaches to research, but also for outreach to potential research participants--including, especially, meditators of proven skill--who might have been hitherto discouraged from stepping forward to take an active role in this neglected field of study.

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