Wednesday 11 February 2015

Science in Plum Village

It must be 30 years ago, maybe longer, that we heard the first distant tinkle from The Miracle of Mindfulness a kind of manual on meditation by a Vietnamese peacenik called Thich Nhat Hanh hereinafter TNH. Whatever sense I could abstract from the book - a little - I was far too busy to take the time to put any of those ideas into practice. Several of you will now be asserting that, if you can't find time to meditate, then you really need to find some time to meditate.  Anyway, that book made a difference to our lives as a family and when The Boy grew up there was a certain amount of to-fro as family members threatened to stake each other for a visit to TNH's head office Plum Village in the South of France. Eventually, The Boy won and sent his mother for week of walking and working meditation at Le Village des Pruniers in the Dordogne.

A year later Plum Village hosted a Retreat for Workers in the Neurosciences and, as I had now run out of excuses for not going, we booked to go together with our sub-teenage daughters.The back-story was that, at the end of 2005, the Dalai Lama had been invited to address the [American] Society of Neuroscience at their Annual Conference.  Why?  Because some scientists were curious about the claims of Buddhist mediation that no-thought could affect the autonomic nervous system which for most of us is absolutely beyond conscious control. Teaching Human Physiology at The Institute, I've come to realise just how much the nervous and endocrine systems work in harness together - sveral neurotransmitters are hormones for example. Not all scientists of course: many were incensed that credit could be given to any other Way of Knowing than science.  Which doesn't really sound like the open-minded skepticism about which science flatters itself.  Then again, many of those angry enough to sign the petition against inviting old Lhamo Dondrub had names like Wu, Gu and Chang . . . hmmmmm? no bias there. And no bias among Western dogoodniks who go all black and white about China and Tibet.

There was an element of bandwagon about the Plum Village neuroscience gig the following Summer. I wrote before about the tension in respecting both the scientific and spiritual ways of seeing, rather than retreating like Achilles to sulk in our respective tents.

Being There was interesting: a little unsettling, a little relaxing. It made me think and also >!big break-though!< not think so much. We had to get up at 0530hrs to go and sit zazen in a big hall, which was, and is, a really great way to start the day. We were assigned to a multinational "Family" of other attendees at the Retreat, each family being tasked for a particular tranche of working meditation - our "Green Tea" family was required to ensure that 1,000 people had adequate access to tea, infusions and hot water.  You could not wish for a nicer group of people to hang out with for a week. The week was not, of course, without its WTF? moments, like when, during a guided meditation, we were all invited to relax the pancreas.

The key event happened in the middle of the week, when we were all sufficiently softened up by a couple of days of walking-, working- and tea-making meditation.  It was announced that the [genuine] workers in neurosciences among the attendees were invited to an evening symposium to share their scientific experience with the monastics in advance of a plenary session with TNH and the full Sangha/congregation. I wasn't a worker in the neurosciences but I was a scientist and, with some diffidence, I asked the organisers if my contribution was wanted - it was.  But communication was imperfect and a number of other scientists were told that they could wait until the Big Event . . . on the other hand a flood of woo-wah people, who would be a long way from science in my book, attended the earlier Cabinet Meeting. Out of about 1,000 people on the retreat, only 90 made the cut and I constructed a Venn Diagram of the delegates [R].  With that sort of a range, a consensus was never going to emerge within the lifetime of the youngest person there. Accordingly, an inclusive (homeopathic diluting?) compromise was thrashed out: seven themes were agreed (Neuro*, healing/medicine, quantumphysics/computers, ethics, TheArts, community, psychotherapy) and people self-assigned to each group. The task for these committees was to inform the full Sangha about X-and-mindfulness. To achieve this, each theme agreed to spend the following afternoon in (mindful) debate to generate a 8 minute oral Report. I was at the time engaged in immunological research at one of Dublin's great teaching hospitals, so I joined healing-and-mindfulness group. I was the only scientist there unless you include a radiographer and a trainee physiotherapist.  The hospital administrator was pushy and ill-informed, the iridologist lacked insight, the chiropractor seemed to know what she was talking about, and the two students from Bilbao were charming and bit naive.

The following afternoon, we found a shady spot under a plum tree and talked and talked until the administrator, who had taken on the mantle of being in charge, was telling us we had reached a consensus. Then fifteen minutes before tea-time, one of our number shook herself out of a trance and said that what was on the table no way represented her thoughts on the matter.  Immediately three other people including one of the Spanish students withdrew their agreement and we'd run out of time. In a rush, the administrator was 'parked' and the rest of us rapidly agreed that, bending the rules, we would submit our report as a two-hander because it was clear that we couldn't find one coherent statement let alone agree on who would present it to everybody else.  Two penguins from opposite ends of our absence-of-consensus were accordingly pushed off the ice-floe into the chill water of representational responsibility.

And that, friends, is how a chiropractor from Wisconsin  and I got to address 1000 people on Mindfulness in Medicine in the Summer of 2006.

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