Mirror of Zen Blog

Huberman on Meditation (But Be Careful!)

This is an excellent fact-packed talk on the neuroscience of meditation by the Brain Bodhisattva himself, Dr. Andrew Huberman. It’s not necessary for meditation practitioners to learn all of this stuff, in the same way that you don’t need to learn how an engine works in order to drive a car. I couldn’t even change the oil in a car, but I can drive a car (maybe even skilfully), and I enjoy it, too.

One point: Huberman is a scientist (an amazing and passionate one), and therefore materialist: He’s grounded in chemicals and wiring, their causes and effects. He is driven by processes and results. And the overall “take” I have on his entire grasp of meditation’s power (“how meditation can best serve our goals,” he says at one point) is one that is, from beginning to end, process-oriented, shamelessly teleological. He sees meditation as a tool that leads to results. He several times offers different types of meditation practices depending on the results that the meditator wishes to achieve with them. “Do you want to do meditation to calm down, or to be alert at the end of your meditation session?” You are given options for optimised goals. No master I have ever practiced with in Asia or the States — or read, or heard — ever speaks of these “goals”. And yet that is what the modern age seeks to “gain” from the technology. Modern society and a competitive economy wish to squeeze “benefits” and “gains” out of this ancient technology, and to make it into just another tool for adding further advancement or value or “ability” to your life. And who can argue against that, absolutely? Everyone wants or needs a little “something” for furthering personal/professional optimization. But that is still dualistic, and not the ateleological (no-goal, no-gain) work of Zen, or of Vipassana, or any other classical meditation tradition or practice. As the beautiful Heart Sutra reminds us: “No attainment, with nothing to attain.” This is the true point of meditation, the very experience of it when we work its best, its deepest, its most enduring aspect. Such complete, transcendent insight into the true nature of reality as that single line from the Heart Sutra is something absolutely anathema to any scientist worth her or his salts.

As a scientist, as a professor of science, Dr. Huberman cannot/will not speak to issues of spiritual transcendence, realization, or ethical direction for what you do with the awesome power of meditation. Obviously, such claims or possibilities would not be within his professorial purview. He cannot/will not touch that realm of the intangible unmeasurable non-quantifiable ”spiritual”, and I respect him for that. We both operate in different magisteria. (In the same way that I will not — even after all the great scientific goodies I got from this talk — ever speak to you authoritatively, even casually about the materialist truths of neuroscience, though I can come off, wrongly, to have some “knowledge”.) The domains of science and spirituality CAN and DO overlap, but their complete overlap with regard to the truth of meditative states and experiences might be something that only a few people can speak to. Sam Harris is one who can certainly speak to it, because he has done brain research (PhD in neuroscience, and deep familiarity with current studies and research) and he has also done some really deep work on the living presence of wordless, conceptless, ineffable Now. Matthieu Ricard can also speak to this. Anil Seth can speak to this, as can the historian Yuval Noah Harari. Roshi Joan Halifax can certainly speak to this. There might be others that I don’t know about.

So, if you are interested in having a look under the hood of meditation, be my guest. But it would only be to satisfy a basic raw curiosity, instead of any true meditation instruction, that you should approach this. I remember taking a seven-hour walking tour of the BMW headquarters assembly line in Munich city center. It was fascinating to see how the whirring robots assemble things — mesmerizing, even awe-inspiring! And it is not just for this essay to say that that visit was an almost spiritual experience for me: I have expressed the spiritual dimension of the visit to the BMW plant to my students a number of times. But the experience, as transcendent an industrial experience as one can ever have — highly recommended if you are in Munich! — it did nothing for my driving skills. Those skills and intuitions about ”car” and its functionality or Being are mastered only on the road.

Then why did I listen to this talk? Well, my dear blessed mother’s scientific background fostered in me a lifelong fascination for science, though definitely not a skill, since I needed her Teacher’s Edition of our high school chemistry textbooks to — ahem! — get a passing grade when it was a required course in high school, since my literature-drunk mind could not absorb the raw numbers nor carry out the computations about valences, etc. (Just don’t tell anyone at St. Joseph’s High School, 145 Plainfield Road, Metuchen, New Jersey, Attention: Dean of Student Affairs that I used the answer-sheet in the back of my mom’s teacher’s-edition textbooks to get the right grade in that class, in the year 1985-86, with Mr. Farook. It would have been unrequitable shame for one of her children to fail in that subject. Yet the fascination about most things science remains to this day.

One substantial quibble I would have with this talk (among just a few) is when Professor Huberman offers any sort of recommendations for the “technique“ of meditation. Although he does speak a wee bit about open-eyes meditation, his default recommendations emphasize eyes-closed meditation. He emphasises this because of the quickly calming effect of cutting off the habitual reliance on using up to 40% of the brain’s power through the eyes, and therefore the instant feeling of relaxation that occurs when we close our eyes and go inward towards the breath. According to his readings and research, closing the eyes leads to a more interoceptive (the sensation of things from the skin “inward”) experience. The beauty of Zen is that, with eyes open, the interoceptive and the exteroceptive (sensation of the outer world) dissolve. Inside and outside completely become One. The barrier never exists in the first place, but is merely a sensation-habit of thinking (inner world/outer world) which then causes all sorts of nasty false dualities and their children, that do not even exist in the first place. This false construction of inner/outer leads to the perception that there is an “I” inside which is different or at least separate from everything that “is” “outside”. This is an utterly false distinction, and one with no validity in the true ground of the nature of reality. But don’t believe me, if you haven’t meditated: just look into the research of Anil Seth. His well-known and widely-viewed TED Talk, entitled “Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality” (https://www.ted.com/talks/anil_seth_your_brain_hallucinates_your_conscious_reality?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare) might be a good source, especially if you don’t have the time or patience to plow through his excellent recent bestseller, Being You.

In short, you will have a much, much richer meditation experience if you meditate with eyes resting in a natural, half-open state (what I call “George Clooney eyes”).

There could be much more to say about this talk, because I worry that many people might mix Huberman’s extraordinary (and very, very noble) aims and expressions as some sort of “instruction” in the transcendent wisdom of what the Buddha (and many others) bequeathed to us, before the materialistic optimizations afforded us by fMRI imaging. I am just typing off these quick reflections at night before sleeping, so there is no chance to do a point-by-point deep-dive on things. And anyway, it is not necessary. I also don’t want to get lost in the weeds of more thinking, or bring others into the weeds for the sake of anything. I just felt compelled to leave this commentary as a simple cautionary, even a refinement, as seen through the eyes of a somewhat experienced meditator.

In sum, though the talk is titled ”How and Why to Meditate”, suffice it to say that his “how” is not very clear, based — as it is — on points such as I raised above. The “why” is based on a firmly materialistic “gaining idea”-view of doing this for some cool and helpful gains that might relax the needlessly-busied mind or produce better productivity in the workplace or the arts. He actually offers a sort of menu of different meditation techniques based on the things or qualities one wishes to obtain for relieving a problem like stress or writer’s block. The “why” would also, by my lights, not be clear: again, he emphasises doing this for the truly stunning and rejuvenating gains. (My Teacher would have thundered against that last one: the “why” of meditation, for Zen Master Seung Sahn, was absolutely determinative of everything else that could possibly come from meditation.) In fact, he would have likely appreciated that such a talk by such an eminent scientist might add to better understanding of some of the inner workings of what we do. But the lack of any sort of ethical grounding — what he called “your direction” — in Dr. Huberman’s theses would probably lead my Teacher to worry about the misuse of such powerful mind-technologies.

Definitely check out this talk if your curiosity about science leads you to wonder what goes on “under the hood“, in the two-pound jelly mass of the brain, the trillion-fold firings and activations that may be manipulated to “shift” our very perception of the nature of reality itself. But don’t let your newfound understanding of carburettors make you think you are Lewis Hamilton or Mario Andretti, OK? As Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote, “Reading is thinking with someone else’s head instead of one’s own.” The same holds true for such otherwise excellent instructional videos as this.


Postscript: one of the great takeaways from this talk has been encountering the landmark 2010 study which showed that the “wandering mind“ of our brain’s “default mode network” generally tends to unhappiness, whether that mind-wandering happens in a “good“ (or pleasant) situation, or in a “bad” (unpleasant) situation, whether sitting in a beach chair by the sea or at your desk during work-hours. The research paper is titled “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind”, and is very helpful for shining light on this natural tendency for our thinking-mind to trend “unhappy” when it is not babysat with pleasant exterior stimuli or engaged with the mindful work of soft attention to the breath, and beyond that, the turning of the question within — to don’t-know. The paper can be found here: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/A_Wandering_Mind_Is_an_Unhappy_Mind.pdf

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