Science and Buddhism

Buddhist monks of Tibet10
I was able to get away with my family last week despite the madness of COVID and Omicron. I tried to stay off my phone other than to take photos of my little granddaughter.

Back home this week, I was cleaning out some files and came across an article I had clipped out of an issue of Wired magazine years ago about a study that showed that some Tibetan Buddhist practices have been “proven valid” now that the world of science finally had some technology that could “test” them. I’m sure Tibetans were thrilled.

In one experiment, subjects were asked to watch a video of two teams passing a ball. One team wore white shirts, the other team wore black, and the subjects were asked simply to focus on how many times players in white shirts passed the ball to each other. The little trick of the experiment was that there was also a man in a gorilla suit who walked on screen, waved at the audience, and walked off again. The subjects didn’t notice him.

I remember seeing a video of this at an education conference in 2000 (see video below). Buddhism was never mentioned. What’s the connection? The point of the experiment was to show that humans see what they are looking for, not what’s there. That is selective attention. It is also a very old Buddhist teaching.

In the article, they talk with some participants at a Science and the Mind conference in Australia where participants explored areas of connected interest between Tibetan Buddhism and modern science.

For example, a scientist using magnetic pulses tried to access the creativity of the non-conscious mind and altered states of consciousness. Tibetan meditation seems to do the same thing.

I love science but this is something scientists have been trying to do for a long time – prove, disprove or replicate ancient practices.

I wrote earlier about a technique for pain control called Thong Len that scientists can’t prove but that they admit seems to work. What science is unable to prove gets little attention.

Drug-based treatments for depression have not developed as far as we might hope and some scientists think Tibetans may provide a path to the solution.

“If you go to Dharamsala (in India, home of the Tibetan government in exile), you go up through the fog in midwinter and you come out in the bright sunshine, it’s like going to heaven. What strikes you immediately is the happy, smiling faces of the Tibetans, who don’t have much, have been terribly deprived, and yet they are happy. Well, why are they happy? “They work at it! They don’t take their Prozac in the left hand and pop the pill. Monks have been studied by Richard Davidson, they are very positive, they’ve got no material possessions, it’s a grind, it’s cold, they don’t have much food. But they are happy. They work at it.”

The Dalai Lama embraces science and has said that Buddhists can abandon scripture that has been reliably disproved by science. The Dalai Lama has even opened a school of science at his monastery in India saying that “…the Buddhist tradition [is] to try to see reality. Science has a different method of investigation. One relies on mathematics; Buddhists work mainly through meditation. So different approaches and different methods, but both science and Buddhism are trying to see reality.”


Nature-Deficit Disorder

Impressionistic field
Impressionistic field, Princeton, NJ via Flickr-Ronk

The term “Attention-Deficit Disorder” (ADD, ADHD) has only been around since 1980 when it was introduced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Of course, people have had the symptoms for a whole lot longer. A condition that appears to be similar to ADHD was described by Hippocrates around 400 BC.

But the term Nature-Deficit Disorder is not only newer than ADHD but a lot less familiar to people. As with ADHD in its early years, some people will question if it’s a “real” disorder. I was teaching middle school in the 1980s and students diagnosed as being ADHD became the topic on many days and discussions among teachers, counselors, parents and doctors often got pretty heated.

Nature deficit disorder refers to a hypothesis by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. His argument is that because people, especially children, are spending less time outdoors, it is resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems.

As a disorder, it is not recognized in any of the medical manuals for mental disorders, such as the ICD or the DSM. Louv is not a doctor. He is a writer and child advocate.  But I agree with his general premise that people, and especially the younger generations, are more out of touch with the natural world than earlier generations. Of course, that may have been true for every generation since the industrial age began, but it seems to have accelerated as we entered the information age.

Louv claims that one cause for this phenomenon is parental fears about letting kids explore the natural world (especially on their own, as I certainly did as a kid) which has given them restricted access to natural areas. Unsupervised play has decreased over the years and parentally-sanctioned and supervised play is more the norm.

Add to this the lure of the screens – TV, film, and video on phones, tablets, computers and the less-viewed big screen of the family room.

In Last Child in the Woods, he expresses his fears that our children are increasingly disconnected from the natural world.

I agree, though I don’t go as far as the author who then links children’s disconnect from nature directly to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, stress, depression and anxiety disorders and childhood obesity.  Still, I can see with my own sons that exposing kids to nature can be a kind of therapy for a busy world.

We tried as parents to get our kids hiking, swimming, camping and wandering both local woods and national and state parks. I encouraged unstructured creative play. The boys were a bit out of it because we severely limited their exposure to video games and discouraged mindless television viewing from one channel to another.

Both of us were public school teachers then and we chose not to work summers so that we could have 10 weeks with the kids. No summer teen tours or sleepaway camps. We did the town pool and summer sports and Cub and Boy Scouts and a 4-H equestrian club which were all more structured, but there were lots of days spent playing at the parks and in the woods and building things in the backyard and basement.

We lived in suburbia, but I tried to connect the boys to nature by teaching them animal tracking and catch-and-release fishing, planting flowers and vegetables, learning about the stars and constellations, the Moon and planets, and knowing the names of plants and trees. They learned about other cultures and nature, like American Indian beliefs and Buddhism.

The Tracker had a big impact on how I viewed nature and what I wanted to teach my children about it.

I read books on kids and nature and books by people like Jon Young and Tom Brown not only to help me teach the boys, but to help me reconnect with the natural world that I loved so much as a kid.

I spent a good part of my childhood playing Huck Finn as best I could in a suburban town, but I can’t say that the generations that came of age in the 50s or 60s were steeped in the natural world. Kids of the 1950s were more in touch than kids of 2000, as kids of the 1900s were more in touch than those of the 1950s and so on.

Most of my sons’ friends were not doing these things with their families. They went away to camp, visited Disneyworld and took vacations to far off places. There came a time when my boys realized it wasn’t adding anything to their cool quotient to talk about our summer activities.

The book is already a decade old and Louv cites a study that reported that eight-year-olds could identify Pokémon characters far more easily than they could name “otter, beetle, and oak tree.” I’m sure if you update the references, the results would be the same today.

Did it work for my sons? One of my sons was diagnosed as being ADD and, though he compensated well on his own, it stressed him out. While one of them today (in their late twenties) is into camping, fishing, hiking, boating and hunting, the other is a city person who prefers a nice beach resort. I wouldn’t say that the exposure to the natural world is any guarantee of an unstressed, focused, healthy child, teen and adult. Still, nature can teach kids science in a fun way and those activities nurture their creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. I also was very much in favor of my kids seeing themselves as future stewards of the environment.

I know that there are some good reasons for the lack of unstructured outdoor play that some of us grew up doing not being the norm these days. There are plenty of fears (both founded & unfounded) of predators in nature and even more so of the human kind.

We have more limited access to public lands (because of development or fear of lawsuits, insurance costs and to prevent vandalism) than when I was growing up.

As a parent, I didn’t have to deal with smartphones and broadband. My boys grew up with an Apple IIe computer with no hard drive and big floppy disks and a 1200 baud telephone line modem. The number of attractive indoor activities has increased many times.

It saddens me to go to the local park that I visited with my sons and see that there are no longer things like the monkey bars in the designer playground. It is safer but less interesting. Even the dirt is gone, replaced by a rubberized something. There’s a wooded area and small creek just at the edge of the park, but even if kids are drawn to it, most parents pull them back.

Last Child in the Woods is worth a read for parents and teachers if you are looking for an action plan for personal change. The book’s subtitle is “Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” but I think a good number of my fellow adults need saving too. Most of don’t need to be given a listing of the problems in the world, but it would be good to take from the book some ways to, if not cure, then ameliorate them.


The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age

Sharing Nature with Children

Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature

The Tracker

Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children

The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder

Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence

Awakening Soul

Is there a global shift in consciousness? I read some writers who believe it to be true, but I don’t really see it around me.  Some people say there is a spiritual evolution occurring. Certainly, people globally are going through rapid changes in their natural and man-made environments and that has to cause personal changes.  But it doesn’t mean that there will be an expansion of consciousness.

So, when I read an article about the traits of an awakening soul I am interested and skeptical.  Even the most hardened of us probably would like to be considered an empath with an awakening soul.

An article I was reading by Christina Sarich’s gives 21 traits. She writes a blog, Yoga for the New World and her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing The Body And Mind Through The Art Of Yoga.

If you’re interested, read the full article, but here’s my bulleted version of the list. How do you rate on the awakening soul traits?

  1. For you, being in public places is sometimes overwhelming.
  2. You know things intuitively, perhaps even your dreams are becoming precognitive
  3. You find watching television or most of mainstream media distasteful.
  4. You can sense lies.
  5. You may be able to sense illness in others.
  6. You root for the underdog, those without voices, those who have been beaten down by the matrix,
  7. If you don’t learn how to set proper boundaries, you can get tired easily from taking on other people’s emotions.
  8. Unfortunately, sensitives or empaths often turn to drug abuse or alcohol to block some of their emotions and to ‘protect’ themselves from feeling the pain of others.
  9. And yet, you are a healer and may practice acupuncture, reiki, Qi-Gong, yoga, massage, midwivery, etc.
  10. You see the possibilities before others do.
  11. You are creative.
  12. You require more solitude than the average person.
  13. You might get bored easily, but are really good at entertaining yourself.
  14. You have a difficult time doing things you don’t want to do or don’t really enjoy.
  15. You are obsessed with bringing the truth to light.
  16. You lose track of time.
  17. You hate routine.
  18. You often disagree with authority.
  19. You are kind, but not to those egotistical or rude or people who are insensitive to other people’s feelings or points of view.
  20. You are sensitive to the energy of foods. You may be vegan or vegetarian for that reason.
  21. Your emotions are visible and it’s hard to pretend to be happy.

These traits of an awakening soul center on awareness. Does this describe you? Does it describe those in the world around you?

30 Seconds to Awareness

Awareness is a quality of being awake and present to the moment.  I know that sounds like some  Zen or New Age practice, but any great athlete knows that awareness powers high level performance.

How do we tap into awareness in our everyday life? Surely, this is not something you can do in 30 seconds. People give their lives to practicing mindfulness, awareness, being in the moment.

Last month, I reconnected with a friend that had once attended the same meditation group that I joined. We practiced. We meditated.

It worked. Sometimes. I let the practice fall away.  My awareness drifted in and out, but I lacked the time and the discipline to keep it going.

Over coffee (artificial awareness), my friend told me that he still tries to practice awareness, but he does in very short burst all day long.

Once we can identify and understand what this quality of awareness is, we have the key to self-mastery in virtually every area of our lives.

He said that the technique he was taught a few years ago has been a way for him to instantly bring himself into awareness and it also helps him to relax. He said it won’t work after one or two tries, but by practicing this technique regularly, it became woven into his days.

He said that he feels more in control because he knows if he needs it, he can access a state of relaxed awareness.

What is his technique?  He knows I like to walk. Try it while walking.  Try it working at your desk, or working in the garden, drinking coffee at a cafe table, or folding your laundry.

While you are engaged in any of these activities, stop suddenly.

Freeze. For the next 30 seconds force yourself into the present. Check your breath. Take one deep breath and exhale. Run a quick check of the way your body feels from the top of your head to your toes. Close your eyes. Listen.

Don’t allow yourself to think about the past or the future for those 30 seconds.

Then, start moving ahead again.

He said the hardest part was doing it in 30 seconds. That takes practice. At first, it will take longer. A minute or more. But practice will cut that down. Don’t put a stopwatch to it though. It will happen with practice.

I have tried multiple times each day since he told me about the technique to use it.  I have been traveling and working this past week, so there were plenty of opportunities and plenty of times I needed to pull myself into the present. Not into the moment exactly. Into 30 moments.

When I met up with my friend again a few weeks later, he wanted to know if it worked. I admitted that it seemed to help. It hasn’t changed my life, I joked.

He said that I can use all the training I went through over the years – Zen, meditation, playing sports, writing, yoga, tai chi etc. “Remember how we learned to tense up each muscle from head to toe in order to learn how it felt to relax each muscle? Go back to that if you need it.”

From Lao Tzu and Buddha, you learn that most of us sleepwalk through our day. We are not present. We can’t recall what we did for those 16 hours we were supposedly awake. That state makes it easier to become irritated, angry, sad and depressed.

Can you pull yourself into the present during the day in short burst and make a difference?  The experiment continues. Give it a try. Report back.

A Summer Supermoon of Release

“Boy and Moon” by Edward Hopper

According to, this month’s full moon, which rises on June 23 (Sunday), will be the closest and largest Full Moon of the year – a supermoon. A supermoon is a new moon or full moon which occurs with the moon at or near (within 90% of) its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit.  They are not very rare. There are 4-6 supermoons a year with 3 in a row this year (May 25, June 23, July 22) but this June full moon is the most “super”.

I wonder how the early Native Americans explained the supermoons. They often called this full moon the Green Corn Moon because it was the time of the first signs of the “corn in tassel.” It meant the start of preparations for the upcoming festivals in the growing season.

American colonists were more likely to refer to it as a Strawberry Moon or Rose Moon.  Their ancestors in Britain may have known it as the Mead or Honey Full Moon. Those names go back to medieval times and are also associated with Druids and pagans. Beehives would be full of honey from the heavy pollen of spring. That brought them mead (honey wine) that is believed to have been discovered by Irish monks during medieval times.  Mead has a reputation for enhancing virility and fertility and acting as an aphrodisiac and so found its way into Irish wedding ceremonies. Some etymologists say the term “honeymoon” came from the Irish tradition of newlyweds drinking honey wine every day for one lunar month after their weddings.

In North America, late June is usually the first crop of strawberries and the first rose blooms.

Many cultures have celebrated the full moon with ceremonies. Though not very common today, neo-pagans, Wiccans and other  groups still mark the event.

img-candlesYou don’t have to be a member of any of those groups to have your own Full Moon release ritual which is said to center you and allow you to release something you hold inside that is doing you harm.

You use a “sacred space” of your choosing outdoors. People might use sage smudging to purify the space. They would bring some personal power totems – objects of special significance to them. You sit under the Full Moon on the ground and try to allow yourself to feel a connection to it. You can think of it as a centering ritual or meditation.

After all, the Moon is the mover of the living waters of the Earth and within our own bodies. Feel the earth under your feet and allow it to absorb any tension in your body. Feel the pull toward the Moon.

You don’t need to be alone, but talking is discouraged. Place before you a large water-filled bowl.  You want to have a small votive type of candle that you can float on the water. Each person “writes” what they want to release on a candle. The writing is more symbolic than literal. It doesn’t matter if the thing written can be seen, as long as it is actually written by the person.

Light the candle and try to feel the transfer of what you’re releasing into the candle and into the water.

Does that sound too New Age for you? Again, just think of the exercise of this quiet concentration and becoming aware of where you are and acknowledging the Moon in all its beauty far above you. You might be surprised to feel relieved after the ritual.

Things Undone

It is really getting to me how many things I have undone. It doesn’t help that I am big on making To Do lists. I need those lists to keep track of things, but they also act as reminders of what I have not gotten done.

And lots of things never make it to the lists. The books waiting unread and the stack of books with bookmarkers in them that are partially read. Magazines unread. I even started to tear out articles that I wanted to read so that I could recycle the rest and have less confronting me. Now, I have a wire basket full of torn out articles.

monkeyMy mind is always wandering. The abbot at a Zen monastery that I used to attend told me that I have “monkey mind” – a mind that is like a monkey hopping about from limb to limb in the jungle.

Usually, we can blame a lack of concentration on being too busy, feeling stressed out or being overtired. But lately I have been less busy, not very stressed and better rested and it hasn’t helped the attention or the To Do lists.

I’ve tried things. Yeah, medication. That was a bust.  I tried meditation and mindfulness and ways to increase my awareness of the world around me. I really do try to pay attention whether I’m typing something for a blog post or on one of many rambles through the woods.

I was a kid in a time when there was no such diagnosis as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). You were just a kid in school who was talked too much and didn’t pay attention. Later, the term “hyper(active)” come into use, but it was often diagnosed as a kid who ate too much sugar.

Symptoms? Impatience, distractibility, forgetfulness, impulsiveness, and having trouble finishing tasks.

Sounds like you? Go rate yourself on the World Health Organization’s Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale. If you get a high score, you go go to a doctor and get some meds. You can try cognitive behavioral therapy. You might find that focused attention meditation helps.

It’s easy for me to hide my deficit of attention. Actually, a lot of friends and co-workers have said “I don’t know how you get so much done.”  So, why do I feel so much is undone?

There are plenty of self-help pages to tell you why we can’t focus and how to boost your brainpower and ways to keep your mind sharp and even the right kind of breakfasts that jump-start your brain so that you can handle a brain-power workout.

I know that I’m supposed to shoot for at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity three to five times a week. My walking doesn’t cut it because I am so distracted by passing sights and sounds that my speed is inconsistent.

I see these phrases like how to “reboot” your brain, as if it was a laptop and all you needed to do was hit the power button. You need to “rewire” your brain. Focus, organization, time-management and follow-through. Life as business practice.

A diagnosis of ADHD is a nice thing to blame instead of blaming your own inadequacies that make it impossible to get organized, to stick to a job, to keep an appointment, to concentrate. But it doesn’t make things get better.

I actually have found blogging and setting myself deadlines to write here and on a few other blogs to be a great focusing exercise. But this post is done. Time to click “submit.” Then I can focus on my breath and jump from limb to limb like the good little monkey I have always been.