Science, meditation, emotion, creativity

December 6, 2020

This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Creative Dharma, a newsletter

Not long after the notion of a contemporary, secular approach to the dharma had announced itself, the project risked breaking in two as two divergent tendencies seemed to be developing among its sympathisers. Described as ‘interpretive’ and ‘scientistic’, that the scientistic form of secular Buddhism didn’t come out of nowhere is clear. After all, a widely held view persists that the dharma embraces scientific investigation and so it needs to be understood as an adjunct of empirical science.

This view, I would suggest, leaves little room for creativity or the imagination in our endeavours to interpret and express our human experience. We need to address this issue, particularly as we’re trying to imagine how the dharma can become part of our lives in such a way that it helps us respond to the issues we’re facing today as living beings on this planet: climate emergency, social inequality and exclusion, species extinction (including our own), and much more.

a still from the documentary ‘A joyful mind’

Conversations between monks and scientists may be interesting but how, I wonder, do we encourage greater dialogue between the dharma and creative artists, writers, poets, musicians? Creativity is an essential component of my dharma practice; I’d suggest that a regular, creative meditation practice makes a practitioner more of an artist than a scientist.

In a New Scientist interview, the novelist and secular humanist Philip Pullman speaks about how his stories delve into difficult questions about our existence. It’s well worth reading. He often doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the interviewer, and those moments of disagreement are intellectually provocative and highly enjoyable.

Pullman believes that fiction can fill the gaps left by science. While science was a source of inspiration and metaphor for his trilogy of novels, His dark materials, consciousness presented him with an intriguing problem: ‘Finding the bit of the brain that lights up when you’re hungry or frightened isn’t the same as being hungry or frightened.’

Asked whether he believes science may be incapable of talking about a huge range of human experience, without hesitation Pullman responds:

We’ve got there already. You read it in Shelley, and Keats, and Shakespeare. You hear it in Debussy and Stravinsky. Poets such as Blake are saying something that is as true as E = mc2. It’s highly joyful, encouraging and healthy.

Referring to ‘Galileo’s error’ – the insistence that all things are measurable – Pullman states that mathematics can’t deal with qualities, with experiences, ‘How do you explain nostalgia?’ he asked the interviewer. That Galileo took the mind out of matter may have been good for the science of matter, but for Pullman it was not so good for the science of the mind.

According to Pullman, many of the matters that science is either sceptical or dubious about, or excludes altogether, are experiences that are well expressed in literature or music, poetry or the visual arts. He argues, though, that science is a field in which the imagination can be triumphant:

If someone works hard at it every day, the ideas are more likely to come to them, they’ll be more likely to see connections between things. You’ve got to have a bit of a gift for seeing resemblances between things.

As for religion, he tells the New Scientist journo:

I’m extremely interested in religion. Always have been. I don’t believe in a god, but the questions that religion poses, and tries to answer, are the important questions about human life. Where do we come from? Is there a purpose in our living? How can we be good? Do we have to be good? What happens if we’re evil? A story will help us make sense of anything but a story is a story. You don’t have to believe everything in a story and it’s satisfying.

Referring to the poet William Blake’s ‘I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s’, Pullman states that:

We have a system, most of us, but it’s a rag bag of different things. Memories, superstitions, inclinations, things we’ve worked out for ourselves, things we’ve bought wholesale from the nearest church. A thing that helps us to live in a meaningful way.

As creative dharma practitioners, where might we go with Pullman’s suggestions?

Stephen Batchelor suggests that a dharma practitioner who commits to practising the fourfold task ‘enters the stream’ and, in time, becomes independent of others in their practice – autonomous – while still enjoying the benefit of spiritual community. This practitioner can think for themself; they are free to imagine creative ways of doing things. This is empowering; it values creativity, and enables us to engage positively with the imagination in both our meditation practice and our creative lives.

The four bases for creativity can be found in the early teachings, according to Batchelor, they are: aspiration (in terms of desire or longing); perseverance or effort (which needs stamina); tapping into our deepest intuitions; and experimentation (in which we try out different approaches). We abandon many as not fit for purpose, while some actually work very well. Often we find the right solution by trial and error. Could this be the foundation of a scientific approach to creativity?

Whatever the answer to this provocative question, let’s leave the last word to Philip Pullman. At the end of his New Scientist interview he says: ‘I love talking about science because I know so little about it.’ What a great ending!

Philip Pullman’s New Scientist interview can be found here:

and it’s also on YouTube in full:



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One Reply to “Science, meditation, emotion, creativity”

Interesting point re: so-called Theravadan stream entry. As a recovering Mahasi style “yogi” who did hard time in the Mahasi center in Rangoon in the 1980s, it was beaten into my skull that the entire reason we were there meditating with U Pandita Sayadaw — was to attain the First Path, stream entry. After I left the Mahasi fold some years later and read more suttas, I found the Buddha spoke about two distinct kinds of stream entry: 1) the classical one Buddhaghpasa talked about in the Visuddhimagga– the backbone of the Mahasi system, and 2) a more relaxed kind of stream entry which is very simiar to the description Batchelor offers. The Buddha often said (as for as we can tell, anyway) that there are 2 kinds of aspirants: those with and those without “confirmed confidence” (aveccappasāda), often saying that a practitioner with confirmed confidence becomes “independent in the Dhamma”, at which point he/she/they have “attained” stream entry. Thanks for this well-written article, Ramsey.

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