Alternative paths to self-awareness, or, could the Buddha have been a brain scientist?

February 1, 2012

I was thinking about how I sometimes see science and social science as being other languages through which to understand the universe and to get to the same understandings as people receive through art and spiritual explorations and other activities.  I see a subset of us trying to use technology and biology to understand our mental processes in some way, and my question this morning is whether such pursuits can lead to self-awareness.

My first inclination is that using external means and objective descriptions of what’s going on in our brains won’t let us arrive at internal development of ourselves, that it will remain unconnected from our tending of our own activities and attitudes, but it occurs to me that I don’t actually know that it can’t lead to the same understandings of the universe.  Maybe it’s a language some people can actually use to do that and can use more readily than languages that require, for example, direct faith that forces greater than ourselves exist in the universe.  Maybe it’s a language not just for skeptics but for people who are connected to their inner lives in a different way from people who come to their understandings through greater and greater self-awareness through a process supported by a low-tech discipline like prayer and meditation.

I guess my own skepticism about whether the high-tech approach to self-awareness is a helpful idea is rooted in concern about its costs, costs to other people and to the environment, before the people using it arrive at their enlightenment.  On the other hand, maybe once we are this far down this path, we need to finish the journey, and maybe it really is the only way some people can arrive at their understandings.

I know that whenever I feel myself being close-minded, I take a step back and examine whether the limitation resides with me and not with the person in whom I wish to see it.


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