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Mindful Science

By Perrin Cohen

As I was beginning insight meditation some years ago, my teacher Larry Rosenberg, originally trained as a scientist like myself, suggested that careful observation could provide a doorway to liberation and freedom from suffering. This suggestion sounded quite familiar. As a budding young behaviorist in the 1960's, I was taught, in talmudic fashion, that observation of behavior provides the doorway to scientific understanding.

In my field of psychobiology and experimental psychology research, a standard teaching technique was to have a laboratory assistant watch and comment as a student observed and described a human or animal's behavior. The student was simply to observe the subject's behavior and describe exactly what was there. The beginning student might watch a rat and say, "The animal is hungry. It wants some food. It presses the lever, and then it learns to expect it." After a reflective pause, the teacher would repeat the original instructions and ask the student if he directly observed "hunger," "wanting" and "expectation." Somewhat embarrassed, the student acknowledged that those features were not directly observed, but rather were inferred from the rat's behavior or from information given earlier. This continued as the student learned to develop concentration and to distinguish between behavior that was directly observed from thoughts about that observation.

The process was very similar to the way I learned to be attentive to my breath in my meditation class, where my teacher asked me to describe my breath in great detail-to describe exactly what I observed on the in-breath and out-breath at either the nostril or abdomen, the temperature of the breath, its texture. As in the experimental context, the teacher helped me to concentrate and refine observational skills to distinguish between observation of sensations associated with the breath and observations of thoughts such as "I'm getting good at observing my breath." My teacher encouraged me to develop the same precise attentiveness to other experiences such as fear, sadness, anger, and pain. I was invited to become increasingly attentive to what was going on in my body and mind.

My meditation practice seemed in many ways to be a natural extension of my training and experience as a scientist. By directing the careful observation I learned in scientific observation to myself, I discovered that it, in turn, has profoundly influenced my research and teaching. The most profound changes concern the way in which I have come to relate to the living organisms that I study. In daily scientific practice, I had previously assumed a sharp distinction between the observer, me, and the observed. The separation of observer and observed that is so fundamental to traditional scientific investigation does not exist in meditation practice. In mindfulness practice, different objects have equal status. It is possible to have choiceless awareness in which objects are allowed to simply come and go. This key aspect of the practice has been very helpful in my professional life as a scientist Perhaps I can illustrate this point Several years ago, I was trekking in the Himalayas and noticed a troop of monkeys playing and eating together on a hillside. I had never seen monkeys in their natural environment. Their color, shape, agility, vitality, intensity, and playfulness evoked in me feelings of awe and wonderment A guide noted my attentiveness and indicated that these were rhesus macaques, commonly used research monkeys. I felt an overwhelming sense of disbelief and sadness. I had never experienced a sense of vitality, wonderment, and joy in seeing laboratory rhesus monkeys. In the laboratory, it was just the opposite. The best cared-for laboratory rhesus monkeys and other animals seemed to have a sense of lifelessness and despair, a feeling that over the years has given me considerable uneasiness. In experiencing rhesus monkeys in this way, I no longer treated my uneasy feelings and thoughts as a disease to be avoided or eliminated but rather as a "dis-ease" to be acknowledged and respected in the context of my professional life.

After I returned home, I was involved in developing a research project on physiological stress in rats. As I was learning to do a minor surgical technique for implanting a catheter into a rat, I occasionally observed the situation from the perspective of choiceless awareness. I got a sense of what it was like for me to be in that surgery room. The distinction between myself and the observed periodically dissolved. I stayed with the whole situation as I experienced it and discovered that I was doing the work to enhance my career and professional reputation and the way that I thought and felt about myself. I was exploiting this rat largely for my own needs. Doing the research felt unwholesome. It was time to phase out my animal laboratory. I did not feel angry or frustrated with myself or others who continued with similar research. It was a personal concern and decision, one that I was to discover led to further wholesome feelings and choices. It subsequently has led me to new types of teaching and to suggesting a new ethic for scientists.

Over the years, I have discovered that my Buddhist meditation practice has had a dramatic impact on my research, scholarship and teaching. I have come to appreciate the value of my scientific background in developing a meditative perspective and, in turn, the value of understanding derived from a meditative perspective in my professional development as a scientist and teacher.

Perrin Cohen is Co-Director of the Northeastern University Center for the Advancement of Science Education, a Center concerned with ethical responsibility in science, and is a professor of psychology at the University.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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