The Embodied Mind in Hindsight

At the end of my first post, I said that when I reread The Embodied Mind now, I can’t help but see it as limited by several shortcomings, ones that have become increasingly apparent over the years and that need to be left behind in order to advance the book’s project of enlarging cognitive science to include transformative experiences of the self and world, and enlarging human experience to include insights from cognitive science. To be specific, I no longer accept three of the rhetorical and argumentative strategies we used.

The first strategy was our portrayal of Western phenomenology, in the tradition of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, as a failed or broken down philosophical project (see Chapter Two). On the contrary, phenomenology continues to be a vital and important movement of lasting relevance to philosophy and cognitive science, as well as to the arts, medicine, and practical disciplines of human transformation. I’ve tried to show this at length in my book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of Mind. That book includes an appendix specifically devoted to correcting and explaining the reasons for our mischaracterization of Husserl in The Embodied Mind. Other philosophers, notably Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi, have shown the importance of phenomenology for cognitive science. Many important phenomenological works have appeared in recent years, making phenomenology a rich and active area of contemporary thought. These works include not just phenomenological philosophy but also phenomenology as a way of doing qualitative research in tandem with cognitive science. Varela, in the last years of his life, contributed to this revitalization of phenomenology, specifically in his contributions to the “naturalizing phenomenology” movement, his helping to found the new journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, and especially in his scientific research program of “neurophenomenology,” which uses phenomenology as well as mindfulness practices in the investigation of the large-scale brain dynamics related to conscious experience. Neurophenomenology provides the framework for my most recent book, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, which I wrote about here at The Brains Blog in 2015. This book revisits many of the ideas and topics of The Embodied Mind, especially the nature of the self and self-experience.

The second strategy was our depiction of Buddhist philosophy, specifically the Indian Buddhist Abhidharma school and the writings of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosopher Nāgārjuna, as based on meditation or as deriving from meditative experience. This idea is simplistic and inaccurate. As scholars of Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy have long known, the formation and evolution of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy were shaped by many factors, such as doctrinal constraints, scholasticism, and (in India) the pressing need to respond to non-Buddhist philosophers. For these reasons (among others), we can’t suppose that Buddhist philosophical ideas were derived directly from meditation. Indeed, it’s equally possible that certain theoretical ideas, such as the discrete momentariness of mental events (see Chapters 4-6 and one of my posts from last year at The Brains Blog as well as this follow-up one), shaped certain kinds of meditative experience. The extent to which Buddhist philosophical ideas both shaped and were shaped by meditative experience remains an open and interesting question in the field of Buddhist Studies.

In any case, classical Indian Buddhist philosophy was certainly not based on the kind of “Buddhist modernist” style of meditation that we called “mindfulness/awareness.” Scholars use the term “Buddhist modernism” to refer to a contemporary, transnational form of Buddhism that cuts across Asian and Western cultural and geographical contexts. One of its central elements is a style of mindfulness meditation practice that derives largely from the modern Theravāda Buddhist meditation revival in Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The mindfulness meditation methods promoted by this movement influenced modern Asian Buddhist reformers and teachers, especially in the West, as well as Western teachers who studied in Asia and returned to teach in the West. Virtually all of the contemporary meditation instruction texts we list in Appendix C of The Embodied Mind, and on which we relied in describing mindfulness meditation, can be described as Buddhist modernist works. I call attention to this fact not to suggest that Buddhist modernism is somehow a less “authentic” form of Buddhism; on the contrary, such appeals to “authenticity” are unsustainable, because Buddhism is and always has been a constantly evolving tradition. Rather, it’s to alert you to the fact that our assumption that Buddhist philosophy derives from or has a special tie to meditation is a typically Buddhist modernist claim. It’s one that doesn’t do justice to the complex historical and interpretative issues that arise in trying to relate mindfulness meditation practices (especially in their Buddhist modernist forms) to the Abhidharma and Madhyamaka philosophies of India and Tibet.

As a philosopher, I also feel duty bound to declare that Buddhist philosophy can be every bit as abstract, theoretical, and technical as Western philosophy, so the idea that Buddhist philosophy is somehow closer to direct experience and thereby more immediately phenomenological—as we state at certain points in the book—is misguided. Moreover, being able to be abstract, theoretical, and technical is a strength of Buddhist philosophy and Indian philosophy altogether, not a weakness.

The third strategy was our tendency sometimes to depict “mindful awareness” or “mindfulness” as a special kind of inner observation that reveals the phenomenal character and structure of the mental stream independent of such observation. This tendency is evident when we argue that mindful awareness reveals consciousness to be really discontinuous and gappy (rather than appearing to be so in certain contexts and under certain conditions) (see Chapter 4). Hubert Dreyfus, in his review of The Embodied Mind, objected to this conception of phenomenology as inward observation. As he pointed out, such an effort of inward observation alters experience, so no valid claim can be made on the basis of such observation about how experience is apart from such observation. Moreover, reading the results of such inward observation back into world-immersed, embodied experience would inevitably distort such experience. I mention this point here because the idea that Buddhist mindfulness practices offer a special kind of introspection continues to be very influential in the cognitive neuroscience of meditation. My view, however, is that although mindfulness practices can facilitate a unique kind of acute awareness of what Merleau-Ponty would call the “phenomenal field” of lived experience, this kind of awareness isn’t inward observation in the introspectionist sense of “inward”—for example, it’s not the inward perception of basic mental elements, whether these be sensations, after the fashion of introspectionist psychology, or momentary, elementary, and discrete mental events, after the fashion of the Abhidharma philosophy.

The Embodied Mind also contains another, better conception of mindfulness meditation. According to this conception, mindfulness practices should be understood as skillful ways of enacting certain kinds of embodied states and behaviors in the world, not as inner observation of an observer-independent mental stream. This conception connects to the central, original idea of the book, namely, the view of cognition as “enaction” or the “enactive approach.” Stay tuned.


  1. Blaine Snow

    Thanks for these clarifications – I remember you spelling them out in San Diego. Is it accurate to say that at last November’s San Diego Contemplative Studies Symposium your closing keynote pointed to a movement in the Mind and Life Institute away from a neuroscience-centered approach to contemplative studies towards a more enactive/embodied mind/self-organizing systems approach? You seemed to indicate there’s been disagreement-discussion among M&L scholars about the emphasis on brain studies and neuroscience.

    • Evan Thompson

      This has been an ongoing point of discussion in the Mind and Life community. There’s definitely a sense–at least among some of us–that there’s been an excessive emphasis on a certain kind of neuroscience and that this needs to be corrected by an embodied/enactive framework and by better neuroscience (e.g., not “what lights up” in the brain studies of meditation).

  2. Tad Zawidzki

    Hi Evan – Great post! I have some questions about your retraction of the claim in the book that practice greatly informed classical Buddhist philosophy. I guess I’m interested in the extent of the retraction. It’s one thing to say that practice alone was not responsible for all of the sophisticated, elaborate, metaphysical discussion. That seems reasonable. But surely it had some influence. The whole notion of the “two truths”, so reminiscent of Sellars’s images, surely must have been triggered by some kind of regular esoteric experience, just as Sellars’s distinction can be traced through Kant and Descartes to the scientific revolution, and esoteric experiences scientists had via new instruments and the experimental method. So can’t meditative practice have played a similar role in triggering a metaphysics centered on the two truths, as scientific practice did in Europe centuries later, with respect to our “two images” metaphysics?

    This analogy may actually have some depth. Consider that meditative practice shares many features with rigorous scientific, experimental method, especially obssessive control for potentially confounding factors. I don’t think it would be a stretch to think of meditative practice as a strict methodology for rigorous phenomenological study. It’s no surprise that it reveals a world unlike the everyday conventional world, much like the scientific method has…

    • Evan Thompson

      Hi Tad — thanks for these comments. I have to admit that over the years I’ve grown pretty skeptical about the line of thought you’re pursuing.

      In the case of the “two truths,” that idea almost certainly comes from the need to reconcile apparently conflicting or contradictory statements attributed to the Buddha in the canonical sutras. Scholars regard it as a hermeneutical and doctrinal device, which is later put to philosophical use, not something triggered by meditative experience. This seems right to me.

      I’ve also become skeptical about the way meditation is often said to be a rigorous phenomenological method, analogous to the experimental method in science. If that’s the case, then why are meditative practices and experiences interpreted in such profoundly different metaphysical ways across the spectrum of Indian philosophy?

      I think of meditation as more like dance: it’s a skillful embodied practice whose meaning depends on the practice tradition and the cultural context. The obsessive concern with control in some practice traditions is like ballet, whereas the castigation of any effort at control in other practice traditions is like postmodern performance art.

      That’s not to say that meditative experiences can’t inform or motivate phenomenology and philosophical thinking. For example, the Yogācāra idea that the subject/object structure of ordinary experience is a construction or superimposition onto awareness does seem to be informed by certain types of meditative experiences.

      But I don’t think it works to say that these experiences are the product of a method analogous to the experimental method of science. That strikes me as smacking of Buddhist modernist apologetics–the attempt to claim a special status for meditative experiences by wrapping them in the mantle of science.

      So my retraction or revision may indeed go farther than you like…

    • Sorry for the dissertation, I’m thinking about this a lot at the moment…

      The Two Truths doctrine is an excellent example of what Evan is talking about in terms of theory shaping experience. Early Buddhist texts find no use for the Two Truths concept. Indeed they make the explicit point that neither existence (astitā) nor non-existence (nāstitā) apply to the world (loka), where ‘loka’ must mean “the world of experience”. (Kaccānagotta Sutta SN 12:15). Why then would Buddhists start characterising the world in terms of *both* existence and nonexistence?

      This is how I understand it. In early Buddhist texts dependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda) is already starting to be used as a theory of everything. But careful reading of the context suggests that it was only intended as a description of experience. And also this is the context in which it makes most sense. Buddhists were pointing out that epistemology could not support the absolute ontology of the Brahmins (i.e. ātman/brahman). Brahmins could not hope to experience an ontological absolute because experience is impermanent. Whatever it was that Brahmins were experiencing, it was not ātman!

      This is all well and good, but somehow Buddhists came to believe that all existence is ontological absolute. Thus, if you say to a Buddhist that something “exists” they will attempt to undermine the idea by pointing out that, whatever that something is, it is temporary or a whole made of parts. In this logic, if something is temporary or complex it cannot be said to exist. If pressed Buddhists remember the other side of the equation and argue that it doesn’t not-exist either. It would be far simpler to say that all existence is temporary, which is what I think Heraclitus said a century before the putative dates of the Buddha.

      At least by the time of the various Abhidharma projects (2nd century BCE?), dependent arising is the go-to theory for explaining *everything*. Only it does not allow *anything* to persist or to exist. We often focus on the first line of the traditional summary, i.e. “This being, that arises”. But the last line of that verse says that when the condition ceases, the effect ceases. The linguistic construction suggests that this is an instantaneous process. In the domain of mental states this causes no problems, because mental states do not persist for long. But to suggest that everything in the world ceases after every moment is clearly bunk. The world is not constantly ceasing to exist and then coming back into existence… but this *is* true of experience.

      This problem occurs when we try to make dependent arising a general theory. As a theory it disallows any persistence. And yet the world itself is persistent and contains persistent objects. This problem is absent from the early texts, so they offer no solution for it. So Nāgārjuna (or probably a community for which he was a spokesman) proposed that we provisionally treat persistent objects as having a kind of existence (saṃvṛtisatya), but assert that ultimate truth (pāramārthasatya) is that they do not exist. This way he can acknowledge that we cannot walk through walls but have to treat them as obstacles without admitting to an ontological absolute – because he believes that any persistence is indicative of such an absolute.

      It’s like the argument with the Brahmins got completely out of hand and was repeated so many times that both the pro and con positions became accepted part of Buddhist culture. As if, in arguing with each other long into the night about the non-existence of God, two atheists came to believe that being an atheist is predicated on rejecting an existent god. Something similar happened with cosmogony, but that’s a different story.

      The irony here is that the one text cited by name in Nāgārjuna’s magnum opus, Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā, is precisely a Sanskrit version of the Kaccānagotta Sutta. Despite citing the *very passage* of the text that warns that ontology flounders when comes to experience–existence and non-existence don’t apply–Nāgārjuna nonetheless asserts this dualistic ontology in which things do exist in the sense that we have to avoiding walking into walls, but that ultimately they don’t exist because they are complex and cease at some point. In others words both existence and nonexistence so apply.

      I think it very likely that either Nāgārjuna or members of his community did have regular access to mental states in which there appears to be no object of perception (which goes by many names such as nirodha or śūnyatā). But this aspect of their philosophy was more driven by insisting that a theory of how mental states arise and cease must also be a good description of the world; and a priori accepting that existence is absolute.

      Unfortunately, dependent arising is a poor description of the world. Objects do persist. Identity persists! Just not permanently. There is no implied absolute in these statements. But because Nāgārjuna assumes an absolute, his philosophy is full of contractions and paradoxes, the Two Truths being the most egregious nonsense to come out of it. The fact that early Buddhists were largely concerned with epistemology (or the nature of experience) has been lost in the more grandiose claims that Buddhists have discovered the nature of reality.

      In practice people who experience these rarefied mental states most often take them for confirmation of the theory they have been absorbing, often for decades. Those who get to the same state having studied Advaita-Vedanta take it for confirmation of their theory also! Apparently enlightenment does not except us from confirmation bias.

      Unfortunately there is very little scholarship of Buddhism which does not explicitly take Buddhism on its own terms. Worse, Nāgārjuna is a god to many Buddhists, an omniscient and infallible guide to reality, second only to Buddha. And they respond as any theist does when someone blasphemes against their god, with confusion, anger, or both.

      • Tad Zawidzki

        Hi! Thanks for the challenging remarks. I guess I have a few remaining puzzles.

        First, regarding the argument from variability of meditative experience, this does not seem dispositive to me. For one thing, underlying the varying ontological glosses, there seems to be some consensus. Is the experience of Atman really that different from the experience of emptiness, when we look at how they’re described? In many respects, at their most refined, descriptions of these experiences are reminiscent of the “via negativa” that Christian theologians speak of: we can describe God, or emptiness, or the refined esoteric experiences induced by strict meditative practice only in terms of what they’re not…

        Second, even if that’s not persuasive, the fact of variable interpretability is hardly a problem specific to meditative experience. Of course it is well known that the esoteric experiences induced via specialized scientific instrumentation and experimental methods are variably interpretable. Consider Brahe and Kepler’s interpretations of Brahe’s astronomical data… It is perhaps true that Buddhist ontological claims, like the two truths, were initially motivated by reflection on ideological commitments. It doesn’t follow that esoteric experiences induced by strict practice didn’t play some important epistemic role in justifying these ontological claims. Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, Kuhn claims, were Neoplatonists. Their ontologies were initially motivated by ideologies. But esoteric experiences helped justify them eventually. They at least provided some kind of existence proof: there are experiences that are easily interpretable as the direct perception of the ontologies initially motivated by ideologies. Same, one could argue, goes for experiences induced through meditation. Yes, interpretation guided by rational reflection is important, and can make the difference between plausible and implausible interpretations. But rational reflection alone, with no experiential basis, is also deficient. Personally, I found Buddhist ideas like no-self and emptiness thoroughly unpersuasive, and even incoherent, until I experienced certain states through meditative practice…

        Regarding the accusation of dogmatic Nagarjuna love, I’m thoroughly unpersuaded. First, of course Nagarjuna agrees with Jayarava, Plato, Aristotle, probably pretty much every philosopher, and most contemporary scientists that it is obvious that physical objects (in the manifest image sense) persist. The problem for most, however, is that there are good reasons for thinking that this is an illusion. Nagarjuna, like Plato and Aristotle, goes beyond Heraclitus. All three recognize that there is a deep puzzle about the notion of an object that can persist through change (something the fragments we have from Heraclitus don’t acknowledge). Plato thinks this puzzle can’t be solved for objects of sensation, as far as I can tell. Thus, the only true objects are objects of reason – the forms. That’s already going quite a bit beyond the obvious persistence of manifest objects. So Nagarjuna is not alone in his ontological revisionism. And contemporary physicists propose something similar; this I take to be Sellars’s point with his distinction between manifest and scientific realities. Nagarjuna’s distinctive contribution, from my one reading of the MMK is to show that the problem of objects persisting through change is more than a mere puzzle. Employing primarily some version of reductio ad absurdum, he argues meticulously that no solution to this puzzle is viable. Now he might be wrong in this. Perhaps he hasn’t considered all potential solutions. But it’s hardly an article of faith. These are powerful arguments that need to be refuted if we’re to reject their conclusions.

        It seems to me that the only theory that has been proposed regarding how manifest objects might persist through change is Aristotle’s, and variants on it, e.g., Kripke. All of these seem committed to a distinction between accidental and essential properties. I don’t know how you make sense of this distinction, so as one sympathetic with Nagarjuna, I’m not too concerned about such attempts to ground naive ontologies.

        I’m also not sure what I think about the claim (which I think is implicit in what Jayarava writes) that Nagarjunians defend some kind of ontology… I’m sympathetic to semantic interpretations of Madhyamaka (like Siderits’s and Tillemans’), according to which the lesson is that a basically Fregean theory of linguistic meaning is ultimately incoherent: utterances do not get their meaning from their constituents in virtue of some kind of representational relation between them and self-standing, language-independent objects. They’re meaning consists in their context-bound, social uses. A certain very human-specific kind of suffering can be traced to treating language as a representation of some kind of independent, self-standing reality. Once we see through this illusion, many ontological disputes disappear. I actually think this is quite compatible with contemporary sciences, the most successful of which represent reality in terms of mathematical models that have no simple translations in everyday language.

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