By Ed Haliwell
A fresh kind of enlightenment is in the air. Madeleine Bunting recently reported on the bold vision for progress being set out by Matthew Taylor at the Royal Society Of Arts. Calling for a new "revolution of the mind", the RSA is grounding its arguments in empirical studies from neuroscience and psychology.
Evidence from these disciplines is making it increasingly clear that we are social creatures with plastic minds, wired for empathy and able to access a consciousness that, if developed, could help release us from the shackles of emotion that so often bind us. Building on its 18th-century precursor, the defining feature of this enlightenment is an understanding that to tackle the world's most pressing problems, we don't just need more action, we need more awareness.
This is familiar territory for Buddhists, whose training is rooted in a path to awakening which holds dear the same kinds of insights – that through experiencing more clearly, we can begin to transcend the suffering that comes from thinking, feeling and behaving as if we are single, separate and solid. As we begin to realise the nature of our predicament through meditative disciplines, we naturally lean towards compassion for others, whose fate is intertwined with our own.
Some 2,500 years separate these appeals to enlightenment, but despite their common ground and aspiration, they can sound very different. One comes in the language of science, backed by observational studies of the brain, say, or human behaviour. The other has an ancient, religious feel – words like Buddha, meditation, even enlightenment (in this context) can prompt negative reactions that stem partly from current attitudes towards religion in our society. Centuries of Buddhism, in its many institutional forms, has no doubt contributed to this perception.
It seems unlikely that the man known as the Buddha would have wanted to establish a religion – his teaching is not a set of things to believe, but considerations for a way of life. Understanding, he said, must come through observation of one's own direct experience – a kind of inner science based on first-person investigation of the body, mind and world. As Stephen Batchelor has pointed out, these core insights are easily cloaked in religious garb when that is the prevailing discourse of the day.
So what happens when Buddhism meets our secular world? Whereas some students of Asian emigre teachers in the 60s and 70s appeared spellbound, wide-eyed with enchantment at exciting foreign rituals, many western teachers have moved on – Jack Kornfield recently explained that "more and more, we're teaching meditation not as a religious activity, but as a support for living a wise, healthy and compassionate inner life". He added that some of his students don't identify as Buddhists, "which is absolutely fine with me".
Some new champions of Buddhist-inspired practice bear no mark of Buddhism at all – from universities and healthcare settings, to schools and boardrooms, mindfulness is being taught without reference to its religious heritage, while Andy Puddicombe's media-savvy Headspace brand is taking meditation to the Jamie Oliver generation. Puddicombe has even managed to get Chris Evans sitting quietly for a second or two.
Traditionalists will complain about babies being thrown out with bathwater, and they may have a point – in our urge to connect with a wider audience, there is the danger of losing important, less palatable messages, honed over thousands of years. But if the Buddha's insights are durable, then surely they can stand the creative tension that comes from attempts, Buddhist and secular, to forge new stretches on the road to enlightenment.