Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency 10 am



In a few hours, I’ll be glad I got here so early. Right now, I’m glad I brought a couple books:

Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, M.D. and An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. Research for another project.

Spiritual Evolution

Harvard Medical School professor George E. Vaillant was the speaker at yesterday’s UC Irvine Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum meeting. Vaillant is Director of Research for the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.  His research has involved charting adult development and the recovery process in schizophrenia, heroin addiction, alcoholism, and personality disorders. He is the Director of the Study of Adult Development at the Harvard University Health Service, which has prospectively charted the lives of 824 men and women for over 60 years. Vaillant has been at the helm for 30 of those years.
Vaillant titled his lecture Positive Emotions, saying that spirituality is another name for positive emotions and psychiatry doesn’t talk about positive emotions, religion does. The lecture wasn’t as thorough as I would have liked, but the book sounds intriguing.
Here are my notes:

1. Introduction

  • Negative emotions are about me and now, while positive emotions are future and other focused.
  • [Positive?] emotions are the unwelcome guest at the academic table. This truth is so dramatic that the leading text of psychiatry includes 1-600 lines about:
    but only
5 lines about hope
1 line about joy
0 lines about love
0 lines about compassion
0 lines about forgiveness
Vaillant had to delve into hymns, psalms and prayers to find such words. He says religion, for all its defects, allows us to pull positive emotions up into consciousness.
  • The average Fortune 500 company lasts 40 years; most family fortunes are gone after 3 generations; most nations after 300 years. The world’s great religions are all committed to compassion and unselfish love. All have lasted 1400 years or more.
  •  45 year olds-to-75 year olds with strong community involvement become less religious, more invested in grandchildren, etc. Same group experiencing bad life events that are not self-inflicted (eg. philandering, alcoholism), increase religious involvement.
  • Brain continues to myelinate until age 60. Parts that myelinate in adult life connect passions to fore brain and social judgment. Thus, 70 year olds have less trouble with depression, impulse control and anti-social behavior than people half their age. The heart and brain grow in simultaneous awareness.
  • Compare a golden retriever to a clergyman. Put both in a trunk. Drive around in the desert for an hour. Ask yourself: Which one will be happy to see you when you open the trunk? Maybe it’s not only humans that God constructed in his own image.


2. Mental Health Scales

The Four Fs (me focused) [did he mean 3 Fs and an L?]
PANAS (Positive/Negative Affect Schedule, positive emotions):
  • Induce positive emotions, scores go up; induce negative emotions, scores go down.
Positive Psychology (introduced 1999):
Good Cheer
  • No place for passion or joy on scale.
  • Freud thought awe was an infantile emotion.
  •  1943 Antoine de Saint-Exupery: It is only with the heart one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
  • Don’t believe everything you think.
  • 1943 Autism recognized as a relational rather than cognitive ailment. Attachment is different from cognition.  


Vaillant’s Scale (unique):

3. Case for Spiritual Evolution

Murder rate in 1300 50 times what it is today. In the 19th century, US spent more on defense than health care. Now inverted. In 1900, both the World Health Organization and Boeing 747 were equally unlikely dreams. Nobel Peace Prize and Olympics instituted.


  • Real Darwinian success evident in unselfish love.
  • Religion may kill many, but so do automobiles.
  • Religion is just as dangerous as new-fangled tranquilizers.
4.  Q&A


  • Hippocratic Oath can be summed up as: Don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t want them to do unto you.
  • Love and service are vital to healing.
  • Found nothing in medical library about joy. One of the most powerful ways to produce joy is for a lost person to be found (peek-a-boo, sick person recovers, etc.). Not love affairs; affairs all about me.
  • AA meetings: more consistent hugs than anywhere else. Hugs heal, invite expression of “poor me’s.”
  • Psychiatrists: overpaid, overworked. [and yet, we’re grateful for the good ones]
  • 10 years hard data proves AA works better than psychotherapy for treating alcoholism.

A Father’s Admonition

Help on the Way

Here is the impromptu message that Jeff gave at Gabriel’s memorial service in New Jersey. It’s only 12 minutes long, and it’s full of wisdom …


If you’d like to respond to the invitation at the end of Jeff’s message, email him at

And here, for your blessing, is his sister Sudie singing I Can Only Imagine with unexpected joy …


[Special thanks to Holland Davis for preparing these recordings for upload, and for your continued friendship. To Mercy Me, if I’m violating copyright law by posting Sudie’s version of your song, well, please send me a bill.]



Depression: Out of the Shadows on PBS

I wish I’d seen this documentary months ago … then I might not have missed or misread the warning signs for suicidal depression that Gabe was exhibiting. These symptoms are used to diagnose adolescent depression, but could just as well have described my 23 year old:

  • Depressed mood or irritability (being extra-sensitive)
  • Decreased interest or pleasure in all or most activities
  • Weight change (up or down) or appetite disturbance (increase or decrease)
  • Insomnia (not able to sleep) or hypersomnia (sleeping too much)
  • Difficulty with psychomotor tasks (doing things very slowly)
  • Fatigue (tiredness) or lack of energy
  • Feeling worthless
  • Difficulty with concentrating, thinking or making decisions


Other warning signs include:

  • Sudden behavior changes
  • Anger, agitation or irritability
  • Risk-taking
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Withdrawal from social groups
  • Huge changes in dress and appearance
  • Constant boredom
  • Extreme sensitivity to being rejected or failing at something
  • Frequent complaints of physical symptoms (for example, stomachaches, headaches, sore throat) without a clear physical cause
  • Missing lots of school
  • Trying to run away from home
  • Having a hard time paying attention and concentrating


From the PBS depression fact sheet for adolescents and college age students:

“One out of four young adults will experience a depressive episode by age 24. Depression is caused by a variety of factors, including genetics, environment and adverse life stressors. Teens that have chronic illnesses or have experienced trauma are at greater risk of developing depression. …

When your teen goes away to college they are exposed to many stressors that can lead them to develop depression or other mental illnesses. Moving away from friends and family, taking care of yourself for the first time (money, laundry, etc.), having to make new friends, and being academically challenged can be overwhelming. It’s harder to know how your teen is doing when they are away but you should know that surveys have shown that about 50% of college students report feeling so depressed that they have trouble functioning. Many colleges have established good mental health awareness programs and services to aid students. It’s a good idea to know ahead of time how these issues are handled.”

You can plug in your zipcode here to find out when Depression: Out of the Shadows airs on your local PBS station. I only caught part of it last night, but learned so much in that brief introduction that I’ll be watching and recording the entire show on station KCET tomorrow evening at 7pm.

The Depression: Out of the Shadows website includes plenty of informative resources and links. If you suspect that you or someone you love is suffering from depression, get the help you need. 

Update 5/24: I apologize to those of you who were looking for this documentary on KCET last night at 7pm. It was only on digital KCET and is not listed for the coming 2 weeks. I’ll post the next air time when I can confirm it.

Update 5/26: Depression: Out of the Shadows will air on station KOCE (Huntington Beach) on Thursday, May 29 at 8pm. I’m setting my Tivo this time. (At 7pm, a show called Men Get Depression Too will air.)



Grieving a Suicide


Wheaton College professor John Walford gave a passionate testimony about his brushes with suicide at a recent Wheaton chapel service. There have been three recent alumni suicides in the past year, and the university is rightly concerned about a trend that reflects an alarming three-fold increase in youth suicide. 

While I commend both the university in its desire to address the issue with a strong exhortation and Dr. Walford for his transparency, the message fell short in that it lacks the expert advice that might have provided students with consolation, deeper understanding and tangible help.

Today I’d like to commend to you InterVarsity Press editor and Christianity Today columnist Al Hsu’s excellent book, Grieving a Suicide. I met Al in February at the National Pastors’ Convention and noticed this book on a display table. After Gabe’s death and before we left for the services in New Jersey, I asked him to send me a copy. It was waiting for me when we returned to California. I’m reading it for the second time and ordered 10 more copies for family and friends. (I received the shipment yesterday and will distribute the books forthwith.)

Al’s book is dedicated to his father, Terry Tsai-Yuan Hsu, an accomplished electrical engineer who took his own life after a debilitating stroke. Al brings to the topic both a survivor’s understanding and good scholarship.

The book is divided into three parts:

  • When Suicide Strikes—Shock, Turmoil, Lament, Relinquishment and Remembrance
  • The Lingering Questions—Why Did this Happen? Is Suicide the Unforgivable Sin? Where is God When it Hurts?
  • Life after Suicide—The Spirituality of Grief, The Healing Community, The Lessons of Suicide.


In Part I, we learn that “the grief that suicide survivors experience is described by psychologists as ‘complicated grief.’ … Those of us who experience complicated bereavement are actually grappling with two realities, grief and trauma. Grief is normal; trauma is not. The combination of circumstances is like a vicious one-two punch. We are grieving the death of a loved one, and we are reeling from the trauma of suicide. The first is difficult enough; the second may seem unbearable.”

Al categorizes the resultant turmoil as follows:

  1. Shock, disbelief and numbness–“‘The immediate response to suicide is total disbelief,’ writes a suicide survivor. ‘The act is so incomprehensible that we enter into a state where we feel unreal and disconnected.'”
  2. Distraction—“Friends of survivors may need an extra measure of patience … traumatic grief has caused an inability to focus.”
  3. Sorrow and Despair—“Survivors often fall into a state of melancholy and depression … In some ways we may unconsciously identify with the hopelessness that precipitated our loved one’s death.”
  4. Rejection and Abandonment—“Suicide feels like a total dismissal, the cruelest possible way a person could tell us that they are leaving us behind … So we feel abandoned. Our sense of self-worth is crippled. All our doubts and insecurities are magnified a hundred-fold.”
  5. Failure—“Feelings of failure may surface any time a survivor had a caretaking role … Our feelings of regret and guilt may seem overwhelming, but they eventually subside as we realize the death was not our fault.”
  6. Shame—“Beyond the combination of normal grief and traumatic grief, survivors of suicide suffer an additional insult to injury—the societal stigma that surrounds suicide.”
  7. Anger, Rage and Hatred—“We may hate our loved one for doing this to our loved one. We grieve the suicide and rage against him simultaneously.”
  8. Paralysis—“A simple phone call had triggered an anxiety-filled reaction.”
  9. Sleeplessness—“We lie awake, with our thoughts flying in all directions.”
  10. Relief–“About half of suicides are at least somewhat expected due to ongoing depression or patterns of self-destructive behavior. In our sadness, we are shocked to discover that we are glad it’s all over.”
  11. Self-destructive thoughts and feelings—“One danger of being a suicide survivor is the possibility of falling into suicidal despair.”

In the chapter from Part II on remembrance, Al offers this helpful advice:

“Because of the corrosive, personality-altering nature of suicidal depression, ‘by the time suicide occurs, those who kill themselves may resemble only slightly children or spouses once greatly loved and enjoyed for their company.’ The days, weeks and years following a suicide may be a time of gradually recovering the memories of our loved one, of discovering true and lasting remembrances of their life.”

The chapter I have most marked up is the Why chapter. From our first conversation at 5:00 in the morning after Gabe died, Aaron Kheriaty gently but firmly instructed us that the suicide will never make sense. And yet we try …

Al writes, “We must make a distinction between causes and triggers. Suicide might be triggered by divorce or the loss of a job, but those may not be the actual causes … Suicidal desires run much deeper, and if one event does not trigger the suicide, another might.”

Nonetheless there are some defining characteristics:

  1. Medical and biological factors—“Studies show that about two-thirds of suicides had suffered from clinical depression or had a history of chronic mental illness.”
  2. Psychological factors—“Psychiatrist Karl Menninger suggested that suicides have three interrelated and unconscious dimensions: a wish to kill (the self), due to some degree of self-hatred; a wish to die, arising out of a sense of hopelessness; and a wish to be killed, coming from a sense of guilt. …  The agony of depression is so great that the suicide musters the resolve to do away with the pain, at the expense of his or her own life.”
  3. Sociological factors—“In the last quarter-century, society has tilted toward the individual rather than the communal … The glue that holds communities and families together is disappearing … [Suicide] rates among the young, more socially alienated generations have tripled … The more socially isolated we become, the higher our risk.”

Al mentions other factors like suicide as philosophical protest, the higher tendency toward depression/suicide in those with artistic temperaments, suicide because of grief (eg. 9/11 survivors) and suicide as atonement.

He says we may be asking the why question when what we really want to know is How could they do this to me?  For him, it is helpful to realize that his father “did what he did to end his pain, not to cause pain for me.” 

Each life and death is both common and unique. Dr. Walford’s experience with the temptation toward suicide sounds familiar and yet very different from Gabe’s. He communicated it in his chapel message through the lens of spiritual battle. That is one lens. The context of Gabriel’s death reads to me like a perfect storm of contributing factors. I see his suicide through a compound lens.

Walford chose a route to suicide that allowed him the opportunity to come to his senses. Gabe did not. Is one man more spiritual than the other because of method or outcome? I think not.

In Part III of Grieving a Suicide, Al talks about life after suicide. In the chapter on the healing community, he gives good advice on the language we use to describe suicide. Instead of saying someone “committed suicide” as if the victim were a criminal, we can say they died by suicide or they took their own life.

The final chapter offers five lessons we can learn from suicide:

  1. Suicide reminds us that we live in a fallen world.
  2. Suicide teaches us that life is uncertain.
  3. Suicide reminds us of our mortality.
  4. Suicide shows us the interconnectedness of humanity. Al was surprised to discover how well regarded his father was by his peers and what a profound impact his good gifts had on them. He and his family were comforted by the outpouring of support they received. We’ve had these experiences as well.
  5. Suicide demonstrates the necessity of hope. Amen and amen.

Our family has been mercifully spared much insensitivity and ignorance in the wake of this tragedy. I can’t imagine going through this without the wise counsel of those who’ve walked the road before. Grieving a Suicide is a book I don’t ever want to recommend again because doing so would mean someone else enduring this type of senseless tragedy. And yet, a suicide occurs every 17 minutes in the United States.

If you are a pastor or lay minister, prepare yourself with knowledge before you try to minister to the grieving and confused. This book will help you do that; it includes a helpful appendix of suicide prevention/survival resources. If you are a survivor, it will be a balm to your soul.

Thanks Al!

[photo ©cas 2007: sunrise at Mustard Seed Ranch, Warner Springs, CA]

Friday Fun with Religion, Science and the Press

Friday, March 7, 2008


12:00 pm, directly after a Psychiatry & Spirituality Forum lecture to psychiatric residents at UC Irvine


Senior Staff Doctor: “Hello”

Christine: “Hi, I’m Christine. I’m a journalist. I’m doing a story on the Forum for xyz news outlet.

Senior Staff Doctor: “Every time I talk to a reporter, I come out sounding like an idiot. …”

Christine: “Sometimes it’s not the reporter’s fault. It’s those word counts. You have to talk in sound bites.”

Dr. Kheriaty agrees, kibitzing follows.

Senior Staff Doctor to Dr. Kheriaty: “That reporter from wxt news outlet called. She wanted to know if you are some kind of religious zealot. I told her you aren’t, but you know, you ought to have my Native American friend speak. He really helped us get through a contentious work situation.”

Dr. Kheriaty: “We try to be imperically-based and inclusive …”


5:45 pm, CHOC Boardroom, before NIH Embryonic Stem Cell Training Course students arrive for lecture and dinner


Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “Hello”

Christine: “Hello”

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “Are you a student?”

Christine: “No, I’m a journalist.”
Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “A journalist? From what publication?”

Christine: “I’m pitching a story to xyz news outlet. It’s non-sectarian.”

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “It’s not Catholic is it?”
Christine: “No, but I’ve written from that perspective before. I’m not doing that this time. People should be able to disagree and still be respectful though, don’t you think?”

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher: “I don’t know. I’m glad I asked.”

Christine: “Why, will you say something different in your lecture because I’m here?”

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher (direct quote): “No, but the Catholics. I’ll be honest. I despise them.”

Christine: stunned silence

Renowned Stem Cell Researcher (paraphrasing): “The bishop of tzv came down to mwl saying he’s against IVF, ruining a lot of people’s happiness.”

Christine (to herself): “Nice to meet you too.”

[photo ©cas 2008, CHOC North Boardroom, Orange, CA ]

Chronic pain harms the brain, but what about the spirit?

A new study published in the journal Neuroscience finds that “chronic pain can disrupt brain function and cause problems such as disturbed sleep, depression, anxiety and difficulty making simple decisions.”

HealthDay News reports:

“Researchers at Northwestern University‘s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago used functional MRI to scan brain activity in people with chronic low back pain while they tracked a moving bar on a computer screen. They did the same thing with a control group of people with no pain.

In those with no pain, the brain regions displayed a state of equilibrium. When one region was active, the other regions calmed down. But in people with chronic pain, the front region of the cortex mostly associated with emotion ‘never shuts up,’ study author Dante Chialvo, an associate research professor of physiology, said in a prepared statement.

This region remains highly active, which wears out neurons and alters their connections to each other. This constant firing of neurons could cause permanent damage.”

Here are some resources that suggest better days are possible:

American Chronic Pain Association

The National Foundation for the Treatment of Pain

The Mayday Pain Project

American Pain Foundation

Families “lost” in the trauma of mental illness

From an article about Britney Spears in USA Today:

 The National Alliance estimates about one in 17 Americans suffers from a serious mental illness, and mental illness affects one in five families. But as common as it is, families often are in the dark because mental illness is not on their radar the way cancer or heart problems are, Burland says.

Often, they don’t even know the symptoms.

That’s what happened to Sarah O’Brien, 30, of Takoma Park, Md., who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 12 years ago after an incident in which she lost touch with reality. But she looks back and realizes she was exhibiting less obvious symptoms — from obsessively picking at her face to taking drugs — years before that.

Yet not even she recognized her own symptoms.

“I blamed everything on my parents or thinking I was at a horrible school,” says O’Brien, who now works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to help others with mental problems. “I was always blaming stuff on something outside myself.”

No one else recognized it “because mental illness was not on someone’s radar screen — and because there was so much stigma. To people looking in, I was probably selfish, reckless and moody. The reality was that I was suffering inside. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Once a person or one’s family recognizes a potential problem, getting help is the next step. And it’s often a difficult one.

Often the person suffering from the mental illness does not understand that she or he is sick, says Ira D. Glick, a physician and psychiatry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

“If you go break your leg and run into the doctor, the doctor will put a cast on it and give you medicine for it,” Glick says. “You say, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’

“In our field, when somebody has bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder or depression or schizophrenia, what do they say? What do most people say?

‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I don’t need this treatment.’ “

That is why it is so important to have family involvement, Glick says. “We see the family as a partner in the treatment team. It’s the patient, family and doctor all working together to make a diagnosis, set goals and carry out treatment.”

But because it is so difficult under most state laws to have a person hospitalized, families often have to wait until there is a crisis, Burland says.

“You must wait until they meet the criteria for hospitalization … in most states they have to become so gravely disabled that their life is in danger,” she says. “And then you have to call the police or you have to call the crisis team at the hospital to come into your house and take your family member to the hospital. And I want to tell you that it’s one of the most traumatic events that will ever happen to you.”

The ordeal is compounded because of the stigma associated with mental illness, Burland says.

“Families say this is the only illness in the world where you don’t get a covered dish. People don’t call, don’t inquire. The cultural understanding of mental illness is either that it’s their fault for getting ill, or it’s the fault of their family.”

Families often “beat themselves up horribly,” says Judith Orloff, author of Positive Energy and a psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California-Los Angeles. “They come to blame themselves. They think it’s their fault that this person is mentally ill.”

That is why it is so important to have compassion for them.

“Try to stay away from judging so harshly,” Orloff says. “Send any positive energy or thoughts.”

For more information, go to

PTSD/PTG: Two Sides of a Coin

Last week, in my Religious Considerations and Democratic Pluralism post, I failed to note a scholar who spoke at the Politics, Pyschology and Ethics seminar that I mentioned at the end of the post. Her name is Cheryl Koopman and she is a professor of psychiatric research at Standford University. Koopman talked about her research into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Here are some basic facts that I gleaned:

Koopman’s research findings were centered around the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, after which the incidence of PTSD increased dramatically in the United States, particularly in the New York metropolitan area.

PTSD is not just a disorder experienced by war veterans. It is now acknowledged that cancer victims and other trauma survivors can experience PTSD symptoms. Koopman said the nature of traumatic memory is for it to become disorganized. Often either too much or too little is recalled. It differs from narrative memory in that the past becomes indistinguishable from the present. Traumatic memory is not rational and categorical, but sensual. It consists of bodily memories. It is dissociative.

For example, watching footage of witnesses to the terrorist attacks, one can clearly see that they are in shock. PTSD victims get stuck in the shock. It is made worse by continually reliving the horror. Those who watched a lot of news coverage after 9/11 suffered more than those who didn’t. Here was the problem for our community in late 2001. TV or no TV, there was no escaping the reality for a good long time.

Three elements need to be present for someone to be diagnosed with PTSD:

  1. persistent intrusive symptoms
  2. persistent avoidance of reminders
  3. persistent increased arousal

Sleep problems are common and avoidance doesn’t work in the long run. Another finding is that earlier traumas can act as a vaccine against PTSD unless the previous traumas were also severe. For instance, both a rape victim who has been previously assaulted and one who has led a sheltered life will fare worse than a rape victim who has lived through a moderate trauma.

The bad news is that PTSD not only impacts mental and emotional health, it damages physical health. The good news is that, unlike some mental health problems, people recover from PTSD. Koopman suggested these avenues of healing:

  1. Social networks—being with people.
  2. Talking and/or writing about the trauma
  3. Symptom management: meditation, meaningful faith rituals, controlling thoughts volitionally, imagery/hypnosis

More good news is that in addition to PTSD, researchers have observed Post Traumatic Growth. Koopman noted that after 9/11, altruism increased markedly. NY Times columnist David Brooks has talked and written about this in regard to the presidential campaign. He sees 9/11 as the catalyst for our collective longing for unity and self-sacrifice.

PTSD and PTG can exist together. A person can really wish the trauma had not occured and yet be grateful for its lessons.

The Science of Contemplation

That B. Alan Wallace is a scholar and not just some new agey spiritual guru was quickly obvious as he began his UC Irvine Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum lecture entitled Principles of a Contemplative Science of the Mind. Wallace, who is based at the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, began his talk with a reverential bow. He spent a number of years in the 1970s under the tutelage of the Dalai Lama in Tibet and cited William James as a more recent influence. He claims James’s time has not yet come.

The lecture began with definitions of contemplation and science, definitions that revealed a clear intersection in these fields. Definitions that I was unable to record before they disappeared from the massive screen at the front of the auditorium.

Wallace said that mysticism got a “bad rap” 100 years ago and described the historical forces responsible for this unfortunate circumstance. He traced the cause back to the fall of the “epistemological hierarchy of medeival scholasticism.” In that paradigm, Spiritual Revelation was superior to Reason and Reason superior to Experience. With the work of Copernicus, Galileo and others, scientists upended this hierarchy, saying, in essence, to the Church, “You can’t have all of reality. You can have the nature of God, salvation, hell and all of that, but the natural world is ours.”

With their bold rebellion [rebellion some suggest began with the Protestant Reformation] came the advent of Scientific Naturalism as the overarching worldview in the West. It is a worldview that says the nature of reality is known only through natural revelation. Natural Revelation is superior to Reason, which remains superior to Experience. In this paradigm:

  1. Science is the ONLY source of genuine knowledge.
  2. Science is the ONLY way to understand humanity’s place in the world
  3. Science provides the ONLY credible view of the world as a whole.

Instead of Aristotle and the Bible as ruling authorities, Darwin and Newton are now entrenched. According to Scientific Naturalism, the natural world consists only of physical phenomena that can be explained according to the laws of physics and biology. There are no nonphysical influences in the physical world. For example, Wallace, who did his undergraduate work in physics, quoted Lord Kelvin, who apparently said (before Einstein blew the doors off), “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.” Those interested in the field were advised to direct their energies elsewhere.

How did this epistemological reversal unfold? Wallace briefly described the Evolution of Science:

  1. Galileo rigorously observing material phenomena launched a revolution in the physical sciences. He said this revolution was threatening to those who liked the “closure” of the 16th century world, but aimed responsibility for this resistance not at the church primarily, but at philosophers. Yes, it was the church that punished Galileo and others, but, according to Wallace, philosophers were the instigators of his persecution, while he enjoyed a significant following among the monks.
  2. Darwin, rigorously observing biological phenomena, launched a revolution in the life sciences, but …
  3. William James’s proposal, rigorously observing mental phenomena, has been thwarted by a theology of Scientism. James proposed using the principle of psychology to understand the nature of the mind—observing it through introspection. His challenge was not carried through because it didn’t conform to the principles of Naturalism.

Next came an argument for the Limitations of the Naturalist Hierarchy.

  • First, Wallace said, mathematical theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of a physical universe.
  • Second, physical theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of life in the universe.
  • Third, biological theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of consciousness in living organisms.
  • Fourth, psychological theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of spirituality in concious beings.

Wallace sees no way of testing these “uncorroborated” theories. For example, how does one test for the emergence of consciousness or spirituality in a human fetus? Wouldn’t it help in the discussion of abortion to know at exactly what point spiritual, conscious life begins?

He described the Blind Spot in the Naturalist Vision of Reality (which he says began 130 years ago) as follows:

  • No scientific definition of consciousness.
  • No objective means of detecting consciousness.
  • Ignorance of neural correlates of consciousness.
  • Ignorance of necessary and sufficient causes of consciousness (eg.  Is consciousness more than response to sitmuli, akin to iron filings drawn to a magnet? Surely it is, according to Wallace.)
  • Ignorance of how the brain generates, or even influences, mental phenomena.

Next Wallace asked Why is there No Revolution in the Cognitive Sciences? (He conceded that there have been insights, but no revolution, as in the life and physical sciences.)

He cited James here as having said, “Psychology, indeed, is today hardly more than what physics was before Galileo.” He also cited John Searle. I only wrote down the last, problem-defining, portion of the quote, ” … Ontology of the mental is an irreducibly first person ontology.” It appears to be subjective. He provided a historical parallel in Galileo, saying some of Galileo’s detractors refused to look through a telescope because they didn’t want to see something that contradicted their commitment to “folk astronomy.” Likewise, William James’s detractors focus on behavior and neural correlates of mental phenomena and “folk introspection,” while refusing to refine and utilize introspection to study them.

A discussion of research into cognition followed:

Wallace decried the practice of using inexperienced, underpaid grad students in such research rather than experienced contemplatives, who would know what to do when, for example, given instructions to focus on a zebra for 30 minutes inside an MRI machine. Wallace says research indicates that most people can only focus on one object for an average of 7 seconds, while experienced contemplatives can do so for extended lengths of time. He himself has led retreats that involve 8 hr. meditations. He also mentioned a year-long meditation retreat. In his view, experts like himself should be utlilized by scientists in the study of the mind. This is not done, he suggests, because of an ontological commitment to expanding Naturalism. He mentioned Dawkins here, saying atheists tend to reject anything remotely supernatural. He noted, however, that the very definition of physical is debatable, in which case, the Materialists’ commitment is to exactly what?

Here he quoted Occam’s Razor: “It is vain to do with more assumptions what can be done with fewer assumptions.” He suggested applying Occam’s Razor to the insistence that mental phenomena are physical, and asked, What is lost in doing so? [Presumably a lot. A narrowing of life and a marginalizing of the mind and experience, both of which have much to offer science.]

Next he talked about perhaps his most controversial point: The Primacy of IntrospectionHe defined introspection from two perspectives (note: both terms are missing their accents):

  1. noetos — cognitive faculty that directly apprehends non-sensuous phenomena and discloses their intelligible meaning.
  2. samadhi — stable focused attention which may be focused on the space of the mind and its contents.

Next, he described a Contemplative Method, which, he said, transcends religious traditions:

  1. Ethics (social and environmental focus) — Spirituality begins with ethics; where and how we are living. Is our life supportive of our own and others’ well-being? This is the only grounds for a religious metaphysics, in his view; all that is left without it is utilitarianism. [Conversely, philosopher Charles Taylor has reportedly said, “Ethics names what was left of Christianity after Modernism did its work.”]
  2. Mental Balance (psychological flourishing) — He described this as focus, clarity, affective balance and noted that we are able to envision physical excellence, even if it is out of reach to the average person, eg. the olympic athlete. He said we ought to envision such excellence for the mind, imagining extraordinary psychological well-being rather than neurosis management as “normal.”  For example, he noted a Chinese concentration camp prisoner that the Dalai Lama had told him about. The man had been held captive 17 years. Asked afterwards if he had been afraid, the man said yes, he was afraid he would lose compassion for his captors. Wow!
  3. Wisdom (spiritual flourishing) — Deeper sense of flourishing beyond social, environmental and psychological.

Next Wallace described 2 Faculties for Defining Attention.

  1. Mindfulness is the faculty of sustaining voluntary attention continuously upon a familiar object, without forgetfulness or distraction. (This is the Buddhist rather than psychological definition.)
  2. Introspection is the faculty of monitoring the mind, recognizing the occurance of excitation and laxity.

He suggested 3 Goals of Attentional Training:

  1. Relaxation — the sense of bodily and mental ease.
  2. Stability — stillness and coherence of attention on an object.
  3. Vividness — brightness, resolution and focus of attention.

Wallace discussed contemplation apart from metaphysics. He advised any atheists in the room to set aside their atheism for the moment, and then delved into instruction on Settling the Mind in its Natural State:

  • Rest the attention in a field of mental events and observe whatever arises in that domain, without distraction and without groping. (He suggested focusing on a thought rather than its reference.)
  • Examine the degree of subject/object participancy in this endeavor. (To what extent are thoughts and emotions “yours”?
  • Bring awareness to a broad band of previously unconscious mental processes. (Make that which was unconscious conscious.)

His conclusion is that thoughts matter. They have causal efficacy.

Next came another quote from James: “No subjective state, whilst present, is its own object; its object is always something else … The act of naming them has momentarily detracted from their force.”

There was a bit here that doesn’t seem noteworthy, and then his conclusion …

Problems of Introspection, (or, Reasons apart from Social, Economic, etc. that James’s Revolution Failed):

  1. Communicability of “private” language re. mental experiences. (Wallace suggested utilizing the expertise of skilled contemplatives to discern these experiences.)
  2. The tendency of unconscious mental processes and unconscious motivations to conceal or misrepresent.
  3. Possible differences between mental appearances and mental realities.
  4. Observer participancy in the process of introspection (resulting in interference with data; he suggested an approach similar to eavesdropping on one’s own thoughts as a solution here.)

Potential Revolution in Cognitive Sciences:

The success of science was so good that it pushed everything else aside. As a result, it turned outward rather than inward and became dogmatic and elitist. Now, Wallace says, it is time to turn to that which made science possible, our own minds. He suggested:

  • Synthesis of rigorous 1st person and 3rd person means of empirically investigating a wide range of mental phenomena and their relation to the physical world.
  • Collaboration between cognitive scientists, philosophers and contemplatives with exceptional mental skills and insights resulting from rigorous, sustained contemplative training.

He believes such synthesis and collaboration could revolutionize our notion of mental health, replacing a low view of “normal” with a vision of excellence defined as sublime mental health and function.

During the Q&A, Wallace was both praised and challenged. Forum director Dr. Aaron Kheriaty noted that he too had become a fan of William James (not to be confused with his brother Henry) and suggested James’s Varieties of Religious Experience as a place to begin reading. Wallace added Talks to Teachers and a couple other titles to this suggestion.

In one dialogue, Wallace acknowledged that some practitioners of meditation can become more emotionally unbalanced by the practice rather than less so. I believe this is the context in which he mentioned a year-long meditation retreat, saying that it aggravated some neurosis rather than curing them.

Kheriaty challenged the primacy of introspection, asking if we need “something beyond introspection to orient us in terms of ethics.” Wallace conceded that introspection is not a panacea, but a useful tool within a broader context. He said science has a backdrop of metaphysics and that backdrop is Scientific Materialism. He said that in the late 19th century, the existence of atoms was a metaphysical discussion. Buddhists would say many things in metaphysics become phsyics. He noted the excellent mental health of Tibetan Buddhist survivors of genocide early in the last century and said metaphysics is a domain of belief that transcends what can be known. However, the metaphysics for one culture may not fit another.

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved.]

Principles of a Contemplative Science of the Mind

The Psychiatry & Spirituality Forum at UC, Irvine

Upcoming Lecture (Open to All)
Principles of a Contemplative Science of the Mind

One of the most prolific writers and translators of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, Alan Wallace continually seeks innovative ways to integrate Buddhist contemplative practices with Western science to advance the study of the mind.


Monday, January 14th, 12:00 to 1:00

Building 53 Auditorium, UCI Medical Center Campus

101 The City Drive South, Orange, CA 92868-3201

Campus Map:


B. Alan Wallace, PhD

Dr. Wallace, a scholar and practitioner of Buddhism since 1970, has taught Buddhist theory and meditation throughout Europe and America since 1976. Having devoted fourteen years to training as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, ordained by H. H. the Dalai Lama, he went on to earn an undergraduate degree in physics and the philosophy of science at Amherst College and a doctorate in religious studies at Stanford.