"A Personal Journey" by Alfred W. Kaszniak
1 April 2010
Related reading: Dr. Kaszniak's "Empathy and Compassion in Buddhism and Neuroscience"
For the past 35 years, I have enjoyed the privilege of serving as a professor in both medical school and academic psychology departments. This choice of vocation reflects a persisting passion for understanding the mind and behavior, particularly in relation to brain and body biology. As a high school student, I was fascinated by science, enrolling in as many physics, chemistry, and biology classes as were offered, and splitting my extracurricular time between preparation for science fairs and the football team. Coming from a working-class background, science also seemed to provide a career path with the promise of greater financial security than my parents had known. Although the study of science, and scientific experimentation, gave great satisfaction, I began to sense something missing as I approached graduation. Serving as an editor of the high school literary magazine had given me new awareness and fascination with the arts and humanities. The Vietnam War and the upsurge of activism in regard to racial equality and social justice had also deeply affected and engaged me. How was one to sustain these seemingly divergent interests? A gifted social studies teacher in my senior year directed me to reading in scientific psychology, which I previously did not know even existed. Here was a discipline rooted in scientific method applied to understanding human mind and behavior, with wide-ranging implications for reducing mental suffering and social injustice. I was instantly smitten.
During undergraduate college years, I focused my coursework and laboratory experience on psychology, while expanding my horizons with other courses in biology and the humanities. In the later group of courses, one in comparative religion was particularly influential. The professor, warm, widely read and blessed with the ability to convey infectious enthusiasm, exposed me to reading about Buddhism in general, and Zen Buddhism in particular. My attention was riveted. In studying Buddhism I saw a religion that was quite unlike anything that my protestant Christian upbringing had prepared me for. Rather than faith in a theistic worldview, Buddhism, particular in its Mahayana development, was less interested in metaphysical questions and focused primarily on understanding the mind and practices for cultivating wisdom and compassion in the service of alleviating suffering. Resonance with the motivations of my interest in psychology was startling. For the remainder of my undergraduate years, and throughout my doctoral study in clinical psychology and postdoctoral work in clinical neuropsychology, I continued to digest Buddhist writing whenever coursework, research, and clinical training would allow the opportunity. I was becoming a “book Buddhist.”
During this time, I dabbled episodically in meditation, but was without a teacher or community of practitioners that deepens and sustains such practice. Marriage and children held my heart, and the pressures of moving toward promotion and tenure in an academic/clinical career consumed most every waking hour. It was not until our children entered adolescence, and I began allowing myself to experience the relative security of a tenured professorship, that I began a regular sitting meditation practice. Exposure to various teachers, in Buddhist retreats and scientific conferences that brought contemplatives and scientists into dialog, eventually led to a teacher and Zen Center that felt as though I had come home. In the years since, daily meditation, several meditation retreats each year, and the compassionate instruction and support of my teacher have become an increasingly central part of life.
The recent rapid development of neuroscientic interest in meditation has also provided an avenue to bring together my academic and contemplative practice pursuits. Over the past few years, my laboratory has conducted psychophysiological studies of long-term Buddhist meditators and those trained over brief periods of time in mindfulness meditation. For the first time this year, I have also been teaching a new course, the development of which was supported by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, entitled “The Psychology of Empathy and Compassion: Contemplative and Scientific Perspectives.” Undergraduate honors students in the course not only read original scientific research reports and the writings of Buddhist and other contemplative practitioners and scholars, but they also gain introductory experience in contemplative practices. The orientation, in design and conduct of this course, is a non-dual approach and perspective, endeavoring to be that about which we discuss. Thus far, teaching the course has been very satisfying, and the students are actively engaged.
I am deeply grateful for all of those beings and circumstances that have facilitated a life journey in which my academic and contemplative interests and commitment could coexist and now intertwine. There is enormous suffering in the world, and at times religious, class, political, and other conflicts can seem irreconcilable. Simultaneous with the pain in awareness of this suffering and conflict is an abiding calm and joyful sense of interconnection that gives rise to deep happiness. How extraordinary and precious to be alive.
Alfred W. Kaszniak, Ph.D., is Professor and Head of Psychology at the University of Arizona. His work has focused on the neuropsychology of Alzheimer's disease and other age-related neurological disorders, memory self-monitoring, the biological bases of emotion, and emotion response and regulation in long-term Zen and mindfulness meditators.