Mudra as “First Person” Science

WAITING FOR THE DALAI LAMA: Mudra as “First-Person” Science
Mind and Life Conference, Washington DC
6 pm, Nov. 9, 2005

The Dalai Lama is late after lunching with President Bush and Condi Rice. Thus, an unexpected gap has appeared in today’s agenda of the Investigating the Mind conference here in a Washington DC conference hall owned the Daughters of the American Revolution. For most of the 1200 participants here, His Holiness’s tardiness due to his visit to the White House became an unexpected networking opportunity. Hundreds of scientists and meditators streamed out of their seats in the main seating area and into the hallways, some wearing maroon robes. As they exchanged business cards, I found a plug for my computer. Sitting on the floor with open laptop, I’m writing you a report. Call it a “Mudra Blog.”

Everyone has an agenda at Washington conferences. This one is no exception. I’ll admit to my own: The secret purpose that brought me here is to crack the code on how to communicate Mudra to larger audiences.
I have three comments to make:

1) Pondering Francisco’s Gesture
Being here causes me to remember my friend, the late Francisco Varela. Though he died four years ago from cancer, his spirit is very much here. I knew Francisco well in the 1970s where we both did Mudra together in Berkeley. Even back then, I knew his inspiration was to bring the dharma to science. In the early 80s he made his first gesture that brought the world of science and meditation together. He gathered together a few of his scientific/dharmic friends to conduct the first dialogue on meditation and science in the Dalai Lama’s living room at in dharmasala. A Harvard PhD scientist and a student of Trungpa Rinpoche, his dialogues became the catalyst that stimulated today’s gathering here in DC. Certainly it is a major step words the mainstreaming of Western Buddhism. Remarkably, his efforts are also changing science itself. While there was already a lot of talk about quantum physics and its parallels in Buddhism, Francisco went further than any scientist in challenging modern science’s claim that it was the arbiter of so-called “objective” reality. He brashly argued that modern science was untrue because its methods incorporated the subjective experience of the observer into its research designs.

What does all this have to do with Mudra? Well, Francisco’s action are what the Mudra principle of gesture refers to. He leaned into science. He brought science to the dharma and dharma to science. He overcame hesitation and collaborated fully, creating a community of colleagues whose influence grew as the dialogues evolved from theory to practical application. He enjoyed what he was doing and never got sidetracked by petty quarrels as the movement he spawned became embraced by dozens of academic medical schools and research institutes. At the same time, Francisco was always sensuous. He always enjoyed the process of transforming the world around him.

2) Mudra as “First Person Science”
The second point has to do with one of Francisco’s pet ideas, “first person science,” which you hear a lot at this conference. Francisco spent his last decade in a research institute in Paris and, making his ideas fashionable there, and draw upon Merleau-Ponty’s notions about “phenomenology” to coin the term neurophenomonology. The term refers to the dynamic activity in which self and other interact to produce the subjective experience of mind.
I was so interested in this idea that I looked up Francisco’s articles about First Person Science on the internet at my hotel. Yesterday, to my delight, I ended up chatting with Francisco’s junior partner, a very cute French chap named Antoin. I asked him, “What are you guys doing in Paris to actually express this idea of ‘first person science?’” He told me, “Francisco died before he was able to help us develop methods for this mind investigation which he told us was from the vajrayana tradition of Buddhism.”

Then I got it: Mudra is first person science. Put in scientific terms, Mudra expresses the “plasticity” of mind. That is, it shows that mind can take many forms as a result of one’s total gesture. A first-person researcher using Mudra can see for himself what it means to see, to touch, to hear, to experience body, to experience mind in its specific aspects.

I invited Anton to a private Mudra session, pointing out some exercises tomorrow. Hmm I wonder if I get invited to Paris to explore the idea further. Ooo-la-la.

3) The Physiology of Mudra
The third idea came from one of the points made by a scientist who spoke yesterday at the conference. It was in the form of an on-stage discussion with His Holiness, who nodded in his avuncular way as the scientist made each point. The scientist explained that the optimal state of brain function is not achieved through what Westerners call “relaxation.” This insight made me think about the intensification/relaxation exercises in Mudra, in which the practitioner is never allowed to flop on the floor. Mudra teaches us how to be fully tensed without being locked into unhealthy stress and it teaches us to let go without flopping. It seems that the scientists are finding physical evidence, expressed in brain imaging, that shows Mudra postures may be healthier than we ever imagined.

Ooops. Here comes the Dalai Lama. The security men have asked me to unhook my computer and get the hell out of the way. Till later, my friends.
Craig Smith