Science and the ‘Seeing that Frees’

/ May 19, 2017

I have been reading Rob Burbea’s book, ‘Seeing That Frees’, subtitled ‘Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising’. I want to share my excitement about this book, how I am connecting with it and how it links into a direction for the school.

This is the sort of book that really excites me because I get very tired of my own habitual or ‘stale’ ways of perceiving the world, myself and others. Dipping into this book has invigorated and freshened up my world and I look forward to reading more.

Rob has been the guiding teacher at Gaia House meditation retreat centre for many years and has some concentrated Buddhist practice under his belt. His book focuses on the development of insight which is the ‘seeing that frees’. He does not define insight precisely, but loosely as ‘any realisation, understanding, or way of seeing things that brings, to any degree, a dissolution of, or a decrease in, dukkha’. Dukkha is often translated as ‘unsatisfactoriness’, or ‘suffering’ or ‘dis-ease’, and is something perceivable by us, the practitioner, so that we know and feel that decrease in dukkha for ourselves. (This insight is not necessarily dramatic in nature, it may be a slow unfolding).

I can relate to the personal, individual nature of insight and how it is the lens through which I see the world. Some of the ways I look at things are not helpful to me, yet many of my deeply habitual and more structural behaviours pass under the radar of my awareness; I don’t even realise that they are there, disrupting my peace and my chances of greater happiness.

Each of us can examine our own particular assumptions and beliefs about the way life is. For instance, as I grew up I believed that it was much cooler to be into art and music than science and, that as a girl, it was important to be pretty, or wear particular clothes. There is an insight that I had – of course by accident – through studying science which I will attempt to recount, though it was many years ago and it may lose something in the telling.

In my first year of university I was studying Special Relativity. Eventually, and with hard work, I began to understand it using logic and maths. At that point, I realised that the way I had been looking at the world was not as it was. It wasn’t ‘the reality’, true, or even right.

I also realised that my entire scientific training had been a series of opening doors to a more realistic and complex model of ‘reality’, or the ‘world outside’, and this was yet another opening. First there were the simple Newtonian equations, then there was adding in friction and eventually we got to the fact that force only equals mass x acceleration because here on planet Earth we are working with centimetres, metres and kilometres and fairly slow speeds and rates of acceleration.

If we start approaching the speed of light, then this equation no longer works. In fact, it is just a special case, a reduction of a much more complicated and more beautiful equation that more closely fits the way the world is. In turn, this equation is itself a reduction, a simplification, again and again, like a giant fractal.

Though this realisation came from studying science, it had ramifications far beyond my studies; for a while the entire way that I perceived myself and the world began to open up and to appear incredibly beautiful and magical, just with this small understanding of special relativity. Time was connected to spatial dimensions in ways that intuitively felt right and full of potential and I was part of it.

From here, with a bit of a leap, I can make a case for the importance of teaching our children how to use the scientific method, not just to have insights such as the one I have described above, but to give them the tools to be able to explore their world. I want them not just to know facts about the world but to be able to go deeper and deeper into understanding it.

These are the tools of both formulating precise hypotheses (stemming from their questions and curiosity about the world) and also constructing experiments that will prove or disprove these hypotheses. The diagram above is called the Scientific Method but it might as well be called the Artistic Method or the Life Method because, really, it is about how to get the questions you are interested in answered and how to persist in asking them.

The Buddha said, ‘Be a lamp unto yourselves’ by which he meant that, rather than blindly adhering to beliefs and behaviours, shine a light inwards (cultivate insight) and discover what lessens your suffering; enquire as to your own personal experience of what decreases dukkha. When there is insight, dukkha is eased and this is a felt and understood experience by all of us.

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