Amherst Magazine

My Life: Arthur Zajonc

Arthur Zajonc

An integrated life

Arthur Zajonc became interested in meditation and the broader subject of contemplative practice at the University of Michigan, where he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees before joining the Amherst faculty in 1978. In addition to teaching physics and interdisciplinary courses, he directs the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, and in October 2010, he moderated a conference at Stanford that brought researchers together with the Dalai Lama to examine the evolutionary and neurobiological underpinnings of compassion and altruism. Zajonc (rhymes with science) is the coauthor, most recently, of The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal. He spoke to Amherst magazine about his work at the interfaces of science, spirituality and education.

Interview by Katherine Duke ’05

On meeting the Dalai Lama

[In the mid-1990s, Buddhist scholar and former Amherst professor] Bob Thurman invited me to a meeting at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, where a dozen academics worked with the Dalai Lama within a small audience of invited guests. Each of us spoke out of our discipline toward something that we thought might be interesting to him. I spoke about developments in quantum mechanics in which extremely subtle forces are at play in ways that are very surprising.

On upsetting the tea cart

Mind and Life Institute founder Adam Engle invited me to become the scientific coordinator for an extended meeting with the Dalai Lama and a group of other scientists, in 1997. The scientific coordinator conceives a meeting in dialogues with Buddhist scholars, to locate those aspects of Western science around which really productive conversations can take place. [At that extended meeting,] one theme was the role of randomness. Quantum mechanics is inherently probabilistic: there are no definitive predictions concerning single events; rather, laws of physics give patterns only over a collection of many events. In contrast, Buddhism believes that every single event has a set of causes which can be tracked back to previous events. This is a fundamental divide of enormous significance in physics, and for the Dalai Lama to take it as a fact would really upset the tea cart of Buddhist philosophy. So he was pushing hard to see any gaps in the logic and in the experimental evidence.

Zajonc (right) moderated an October 2010 conference that brought researchers together with the Dalai Lama (left) to examine the evolutionary and neurobiological underpinnings of compassion and altruism.

Out of that meeting came several others. [The most recent was organized by Stanford, where] the Dalai Lama said certain attributes, like anger, don’t seem to have too many positive correlations. If one could somehow do away with anger by scientific means, might this not be a good thing? The scientists raised the question: How would one experience moral outrage at an injustice? Or the experience of plays, drama, the arts—don’t they also depend upon our ability to be engaged and angry? It was an interesting switch of roles, where the spiritual dimensions were being talked about by the scientists, and the pragmatic dimensions by the Dalai Lama.

He’ll pepper you with questions. He’s quick at leaping through the logical steps. He’s totally open-minded. If there’s good evidence for a particular view, he wants to evaluate it on his own, and if he takes it to be true, he’ll bring it in—even if it contradicts Buddhist doctrine or tradition. The example he typically gives is the Abhidharma, a classic Buddhist text. It has a kind of cosmology which is obviously wrong, from a scientific standpoint. [The Dalai Lama] says these [facts about] the planets, the moon and so forth need to be updated to agree with the contemporary scientific worldview. You can ask: Why is he interested in science? His answer, I think, is wise: that, properly understood, real insight makes you free. It can relieve suffering.

On the contemplative curriculum

I’ve worked with [Professor of Art and the History of Art] Joel Upton on “Erôs and Insight,” a first-year seminar where meditation is a theme. I’ve also taught “Science, Values and Spiritual Traditions,” with contemplative exercises throughout.

The contemplative is almost a covert part of the curriculum in many liberal arts colleges. If you’re going to stand before a great painting, you’re drawn into the thrall of the painting, and it works its kind of magic. That doesn’t mean that you don’t then do the art-historical analysis and study the biography of the painter and the techniques. But there’s a deep dimension of art, as there is to the sciences, economics and all disciplines. In many instances, that’s what excites us about our disciplines.

On leading group meditations at the Mead

Last week I worked with the painting Paolo and Francesca, by Ary Scheffer. First I say, “Forget everything you may know about this painting and the story behind it.” We’re trying to meet the painting fresh. Then there’s the meditation itself: settling into the body and mind, allowing things to quiet down, giving attention to the object. After a couple of minutes, the mood and the quality of awareness shift, and I’ll have the audience open their eyes and look again, in this very gentle, open frame of mind which meditation induces.

I’ll space remarks carefully so that the audience has ample silence. In this case, [I guided them to notice] sets of polarities. There’s the use of light and dark. There are two figures moving with high speed and two other figures, vertical, standing upright. There’s a foreground and background. There’s anguish and a kind of reason. You look at the contradictory elements in the painting, and rather than seeing one and dropping the other, you try to see them both at the same time, experiencing them in their relationship. One expression which came up this past week was that the painting was on the wall “asleep”—it’s there waiting to be awakened through your attentive gaze.

On what college should teach students to be

Education needs to address the different dimensions of the human being—preparing that human being for not only a life in a vocation but also a life within a body politic and a social world. A “life of consequence” is, in my view, an integrated life.

A couple years ago, the faculty was deep into conversations around our plan for the future at Amherst. They seemed to be caught on important but narrow issues: preparation of students in writing and numeracy, for example. But there was no overarching philosophy about the nature of education itself. At one point a colleague turned to me and said, “Arthur, I think you’re looking for a Big Idea.”

I think education doesn’t have to be reduced to a single idea, but it’s helped by a larger conversation. Just like that painting of Paolo and Francesca: you need the individual brushstrokes, but if there’s no organizing composition, then the painting falls apart. I worry that higher education, through its emphasis on specificity and its embarrassment or shyness about the Big Ideas, will kind of fall apart.

A classic Big Idea is the theme of redressing the imbalance of the “inner” and “outer” cultures, which the Dalai Lama and I spoke about at Stanford. In the “outer culture” of material accomplishment, we have mastered the laws of science to a large extent, we have technologies which are extremely impressive, and we’ve pushed back the wilds of nature. But have we fostered a similar culture inside of ourselves?

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04 and Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service