Science & Research

Visiting scholar links Buddhism and physics

The lecture focused on the fields’ shared aspects, like mindfulness, time and ambiguity

Staff Writer
Friday, March 8, 2013

hysics offers “crisper” analogies for meditation than traditional Buddhism does, said Fred Cooper, external professor at Santa Fe Institute and former program director for theoretical physics at the National Science Foundation at a lecture last night.

Cooper, who has studied physics and meditation for over 30 years, spoke about connections between quantum physics and Buddhism in List 120 in a talk sponsored by the Brown Meditation Community.

Buddhism and physics share a common “conceptual framework” consisting of “ground, path and fruition,” but they diverge in the specifics, he said. Physics is grounded in mathematical equations, while Buddhism is grounded in the rejection of a dualistic perspective. In physics the academic path involves learning algebra and other mathematics, while in meditation the path entails transitioning from mindfulness to awareness, he said. For physicists, fruition is winning the Nobel Prize, while for meditation, fruition is reaching enlightenment.

Physics and Buddhism also both question the relationship between space and time, he said. “How do you set a standard of time?” Cooper asked. “What’s past is past. What’s future is yet to come. Time is a relative concept as a meditator.”

In order to measure small quantities of space and time, physicists use high-energy light, which warps the measurements. As a result, when measuring on smaller and smaller scales, space and time “lose their meaning,” Cooper said.

Cooper pointed to parallels between training in physics and training in meditation. “Neither discipline guarantees success. When you get your Ph.D. in physics, you learn all of the mechanics of physics,” he said. But whether a physicist makes a discovery that revolutionizes physics depends partially on luck, as does winning a Nobel Prize or attaining enlightenment.

The book “The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra popularized the similarities between modern physics and Eastern religious traditions. Cooper criticized the best-selling book for claiming physics proved ideas in Eastern religion were correct about the organization of matter.

Because physics relies on an “evolving set of conceptual frameworks,” Cooper said, “The Tao of Physics” does not help either discipline. It compares the current state of physics to Eastern teachings, but the field of physics will likely change in the future, he said.

Asked whether physicists show more interest in meditation or whether meditators show more interest in physics, Cooper said without hesitation that meditators are far more interested in physics. For physicists, “there is safety in being focused on solving equations, but you can’t solve how to live,” he said.

About 80 students and community members attended the talk.

Connor Flexman ’16 agreed with Cooper’s criticism of “The Tao of Physics.”

“A lot of people make the argument for meditation based on faulty physics,” he said, adding that Cooper “didn’t try to prove meditation through quantum mechanics.”

“Meditation allows me to gather my thoughts,” said Henry Langton ’16. He added that he thinks there is a stigma against meditation but said this lecture and advances in neuroscience help justify the practice’s usefulness.

  • KV

    The assertion should not be: “prove meditation through quantum mechanics.” It may rather be “prove quantum mechanics through meditation.” Meditation is defined here as a single point of focus on a thought in awareness.

  • whoever

    It’s good only 80 attended the lecture. Did he get paid for that? 🙁

  • Dasein

    Either this writer just did not fundamentally understand what the lecturer presented
    or the lecturer himself has an awful understanding of Buddhism and
    meditation practice. I do not even know where to begin to tear this down so I
    will not. Simply look at the audacity of the ego that would state “I have a
    better path than the one laid out by the Buddha” and you know you have a
    teacher that should not be teaching. I
    would just like to encourage readers to please ignore everything this
    article asserts and investigate the real teachings, which in short
    have nothing to do with investigating concepts, or discursive thought
    or speculating on the nature of the universe. Buddhist meditation is not about
    anything that will entertain your ego, in fact, is an investigation of the true
    nature of the self beyond anything you intellectual facilities can tell you. Anyone
    getting into any of the above concepts while talking about Buddhist meditation
    is lost, lost, lost.

    • doink


      • doink

        I think this BDH staff writer has a bright future with the New York Post.

  • Magik13

    The only useful function of meditation is to quiet the rambling “monkey mind”. This results in lower blood pressure, less stress, and greater focus. More significantly, by quieting the mind and the ego….the contents of the unconscious are allowed to come to consciousness to be cleared and released. People are carrying all their wounds, trauma, and pain and suffering in their unconscious and in their bodies. Meditation is a tool to access this accumulation of psychic garbage….what Jung called the shadow and what Christians blame on the devil. If a person is successful at clearing their psychic garbage…they can then integrate the shadow and the ego with the deeper part of our Being….the Soul…or the Higher Self. This is enlightenment. Good luck! The process takes years and years of work. Nothing is free or easy in this life.

    • urownexperience

      So what else do you have to do? Enjoy yourself? That only leads to discontent.

  • urownexperience

    “Mindfulness leads to awareness.” I like that. Too many think mindfulness IS awareness. MIndfulness is remebering to pay attention – it’s all mixed up with the thought process. Awareness is being present with an object without an agenda while in samadhi.

  • a1b5jj

    People forget that Fritjof Capra vetted his book ‘The Tao of Physics’ with Werner Heisenberg himself, so they should be a little less quick with their pooh-poohing. It is no mystery to me that serious reflective inquiry without the trappings of experimental apparatus or mathematical scaffolding can intuit ultimate Reality, it happened with Einstein, so why couldn’t it happen with Buddha? Scientists are so vain to think they invented the scientific method of relentless questioning and refusal to be fooled by appearances and having independent peer verification of results, that has been the Buddhist tradition for 2500 years. If you really want to study Time, their is no better way than meditation and ‘stopping thought’, thoughts are quantized and it is worth experiencing ‘what happens’ when they stop. So, “if you’re so smart, why can’t you stop thinking?”, hmmm? There is more than one way to skin Schrodinger’s cat koan.