Transcendental Science Fiction and the magic of contrast


‘..that quest for new and relevant cultural expressions of the Dharma is of the foremost importance if Buddhism is to have a major impact on the world.’
Subhuti, A Buddhist Manifesto.

I came to Buddhism through the catalyst of Speculative Fiction (SF), which includes, amongst others, the science fiction and fantasy genres.

At the root of Speculative Fiction I saw a spiritual urge; the desire for transcendence. In it I recognised what could almost be seen as a new spiritual movement.

I place the origins of Science Fiction in the nineteenth century with the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, as does Brian Aldiss in his book Billion Year Spree. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Science Fiction arrived around the time Christianity was weakening in the face of Scientism. I think SF might be a new channel for our ‘spiritual’ urge; expressed and explored in new ways. And so I like to refer to Transcendental Science Fiction, or just Transcendental Fiction.

Many have cited films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars for awakening their spiritual lives. I wondered if SF could be a new ethnic religion out of which could spark the transcendental, though few science fiction authors would consider their writing to be at all religious.

SF seems often to be about finding something more to life, about exploring the beyond, or exploring the unknown. Buddhism also has those concerns. Though I’m certainly not equating Buddhism and SF, I think I can show that they sometimes share a drive towards liberation from unsatisfactoriness and this at least can be a starting point for something.

I also discovered that both Buddhism and SF employ the use of contrast to communicate something higher. Early in my quest I found that contrast — particularly of the real and the unreal — always seemed to be at the heart of SF. I then discovered the Perfection of Wisdom literature and found that this was about contrast too; in it was a paradox which arose from the reconciling of the mundane and the transcendental. This felt similar to the use of contrast I had seen in SF.

I also found that Buddhist sutra and SF both make use of layered contrast as well as paradox; this encourages our mind to ascend into higher levels of perception and insight. One theme in Buddhist sutras is the ideal of the Bodhisattva: a being who strives for enlightenment in order to benefit all beings. But in the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines Subhuti says ‘I see no Bodhisattva, and no Perfect Wisdom; whom is there to teach with what Perfect Wisdom?’ We are left with a paradox.

In the Science Fiction story Star Maker Olaf Stapleton shows us the evolution of communal mind as individuals, then whole worlds, join telepathically. The ‘minds’ of whole galaxies eventually join to form one cosmic mind; the perfected awakened cosmos itself, which is finally able to reach out to and find the elusive star maker, the creator of all things, and yet is rejected by him. This uses layered contrast, providing us with successive levels which are built upon each other, in order to reach an otherwise impossible standpoint.

Paradox in SF is like a koan, and usually comes in the form of a co-existence of the real with the unreal. For example in the Planet of the Apes when the whole film builds up to a final climax as this world of talking apes, which we had perceived to be unreal, is shown to be our own world. This challenges the boundaries of our perception of reality; which is already faulty, because we are still unenlightened beings, and so this can be a liberating experience.

In fact all our mundane perception is only made possible through contrast – for example, you can’t have a ‘large’ without having a ‘small’. These contrasts, used in creating art and literature, are also the foundation of our unenlightened perception. It is because of this that all reconciliation of dichotomies may lead us to insight into the truths of Buddhism; we live in a house of mirrors with no inherent nature. It is because of this that contrast and paradox in any literature might lead us to insight into the illusory nature of our world.

I tend to use the term “transcendental” in two senses; more generally as transcending any false limiting of self; for example, being liberated from thinking we are the centre of the universe, or from the view that we could never achieve anything important. But more specifically I use it as the complete seeing through of the illusory view of our world; seeing through the separation into selves and bifurcation of subject and object. These two levels of transcendence are sometimes described as insight with a small i and Insight with a big I. And this term also distinguishes it from Mundane Science Fiction, which limits itself to that which is encompassed purely by the rational (or scientific).

My teacher, Urgyen Sangarakshita, was I believe the first to coin the term “Transcendental Science Fiction,” and it’s he to whom I dedicate my first attempt. I have recently published this through Inklestudios. It’s called The Prison, (click here for a UK version), and it’s now available on Amazon Kindle. You could try it and see if you think I’ve been successful.

The full article on Transcendental Science Fiction is available as a Kindle download here in the US, or here for a UK Kindle version, and free on my blog here. I also have a Facebook group dedicated to Transcendental Fiction.

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In a little park in Ghent

Yesterday i was sitting in a little park in Ghent together with a friend talking about….friendship. The sun was shining gently and cosy on us as if she was warming our love for beauty and truth. And i remembered Narziss and Goldmund, the novel of Herman Hesse, about the remarkable story of two friends.

A few weeks ago i left my job to work for the Buddhist Centre in Ghent and so i had to say goodbye to my colleagues some of whom i have known for years. I definitely wanted to leave my job yes but i didn’t want some of my colleagues to dissapear. I wanted to hold them, to grasp them, i wanted them near me, to stay near me, i wanted our experiences with one another to last. I realised that a good part of my life is over. So i looked for all kinds of reasons to justify that things could go on just like they used to do, as if i would still be working there. What a difference with Narziss and Goldmund!

These two people are friends and they don’t even see each other that much. Most of the time they are living separately but they are in each others’ minds nearly all the time, as a guide, as a mentor. And if they do see each other they don’t waste time. They ask questions to one another, penetrating questions to help the other live his qualities. To help the other unfold the fullest possible potential as a human being. And all that space…they don’t limit each other, they give one another space to breath, to grow, to explore…And there was i manipulating reality, colleagues and myself because i find saying goodbye and things changing uncomfortable, even painful.

Narziss and Goldmund rejoice in each other as well. Rejoicing too is connected with the flowing nature of reality. And their rejoicing in each other is fluent, spontaneous. Sometimes i rejoice in friends as well and sometimes i almost immediately think, in a secretly way, i can do that too and probably even better. But other times when i really succeed in rejoicing wholeheartedly and sincerely, wow, what an energy is flowing then, what a fountain of joy and happinness, what a flow of reality itself.

Narziss and Goldmund showed me that friendship is about letting things flow, about relaxing in reality, about pointing out to each other the qualities one has in order to unfold these and realise a more creative life in accordance with reality.

And i had tried for days on end to deny all this, to capture others in my nets, to limit myself and them to an illusion of holding, not letting go…but now Narziss and Goldmund are my friends.

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Doctor Jekyll and Mister Amygdala

Poster from Jekyll & Hyde, 1931

A friend just wrote to me with a troubling story. He’s had a few upheavals in his life recently, including a divorce, but then he made a dreadful ethical slip and got involved with a former patient of his. Of course that’s a huge ethical no-no in the caring professions, and it may have life-long consequences for his career.

But in responding to my friend’s letter I was reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Most of you know this story from cheesy horror movies, but the book is actually an astute spiritual parable that sprang directly from Stevenson’s subconscious in the form of a nightmare. The story stands up psychologically to the point where you can translate the characters into the terms of modern neuropsychology as represented by the work of author Wildmind contributor Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Dramatis Personae

  • Dr. Jekyll, who is the neocortex and mammalian brain, responsible for self-monitoring, planning, advanced cognition, empathy, and compassion.
  • Mr. Hyde, who is the “reptilian” part of the brain, concerned with fight, flight, and fulfilling appetites.

The Story

Henry Jekyll is a good doctor who helps many people through his work. He has a well-developed mammalian brain in which empathy and compassion are important. He is, however, deeply troubled by his amygdala-driven unexpressed bad-boy tendencies within. He is ashamed of them and afraid of them.

We all have “hindrances” — potentially destructive tendencies toward craving, hatred, and fear. Those tendencies manifest in our thoughts and our actions.

One thing all meditation teachers have to do is to let people know that it’s OK to have these hindrances. When people start self-monitoring (a neocortical activity), as they do when cultivating mindfulness, they start noticing distracted, craving, hateful thoughts. And their reaction is often to get upset about these. But that’s unhelpful, because that’s a case of responding to a hindrance with yet another hindrance. Yes, ultimately we want to get rid of the hindrances, but you can’t deal with them on their own terms, by getting angry about getting angry, or craving a lack of craving, or being afraid of being afraid, or getting despondent about noticing despondency.

These hindrances are not “bad.” They are actually mental behaviors that have evolved over millions of years in order to protect us. Someone threatens you, you get angry, they run away (hopefully). A big carnivore jumps out in front of you, you get scared, you run away. You see something you want, you grab it. And so forth. But these tendencies, while they work well in wolf-packs and worked well when we lived in caves, are maladapted for life in the modern world. Being angry with your computer when it’s working too slowly doesn’t change the computer, and just makes you unhappy and even ill. Bingeing on food because you want it can make us ill in different ways. Negative emotions undermine our relationships with others, so there’s a social cost. And even when they don’t have social or health drawbacks, our hindrances make us unhappy. Our sense of well-being is sub-optimal when we’re frustrated, or craving, or anxious.

The hindrances are not bad, they’re just strategies for finding security and wellbeing that happen not to work very well.

Dr. Jekyll is the man who sees these potentially destructive activities going on, but who is afraid of them. He’s the neocortex observing the amygdala. He identifies with his goodness, and psychologically disowns his hindrances. And he represses them. But in doing so, he’s acting out — internally — a form of violence driven by fear. The neocortex has been silently hijacked by the amygdala, since this fear actually stems from primitive, reptilian parts of the brain.

So Jekyll creates a drug that will anesthetize the bad boy within. He’s trying to anesthetize the amygdala, so that his neocortex no longer has to keep his “baser” instincts in check. But what he hasn’t realized is that over the years of repression, the bad boy has become much stronger. The repression Jekyll has done over the years is a form of inner violence, and thus has been feeding Hyde. And when Jekyll takes the potion it’s his good side (the neocortex, in modern terms) that goes offline, and the inner bad-boy (the reptile brain, the amygdala) that dominates. Mr. Edward Hyde is released. And it ain’t a pretty sight.

Once Hyde — a destructive monster who delights in violence and in indulging his unseemly appetites — is released, it’s impossible to keep him restrained. He becomes stronger with each outing. And indeed, when parts of the brain are exercised, the wiring in them becomes stronger. That part of the brain actually grows.

Of course the story doesn’t end well, and Jekyll is destroyed, but it’s a cautionary tale that we’re meant to learn from. So what should be learn?

What Jekyll should have done is to strengthen the neocortex by developing more mindfulness and compassion, so that the amygdala-driven Hyde would be known, contained without being repressed, and simply fade away through atrophy.

Easy to say! Let’s break that down a little.

When we stop reacting to the hindrances, and either simply accept them without acting on them, or cultivate their opposites — qualities of love, confidence, etc. — the neocortex actually grows. That part of the brain becomes thicker. The number of connections running back to the amygdala increases, so that the reassuring signals reaching it (“It’s OK. There’s no need to panic and get violent. I have this covered”) are stronger. And the amygdala actually shrinks. The brain is a real energy-hog, and takes a lot of work to maintain. If our fight-or-flight mechanisms are not needed, then the body somehow knows that it’s time to remove some of the brain circuitry necessary for those mechanisms.

So Dr. Jekyll is not conquered through fear and repression. He’s conquered through mindfulness and compassion.

It’s worth mentioning that this process of dealing skillfully with hindrances can be short-circuited by “spiritualizing” them. All those spiritual teachers who turn out to have been living double lives, giving inspiring teachings while sleeping with their students? Usually they’ve been telling themselves, and their partners, stories about how the relationships are “sacred” or an expression of non-duality. This is just another example of the amygdala hijacking the neocortex. The old way was, you want, you take. In a spiritual context you want. You make up a half-way convincing story. You take.

This reminds us that Mr. Hyde is sneaky. We need to give the neocortical Dr. Jekyll a lot of exercise, through practicing mindfulness and compassion. And we also need other people to give us feedback and to call us on our bullshit. We need sanghas. Getting enlightened is a team sport.

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