By Neil Schmitzer-Torbert
I started neuralbuddhist.com in 2021, as a place to gather some of my thoughts about Zen practice and science (especially neuroscience). The essays that I post here are reflections on how I have integrated my own Zen practice with my work in neuroscience, and my interests in science, philosophy, and science fiction.
Growing up in the U.S. in a rural part of the Midwest, I really did not have much exposure to Buddhism and to Zen in particular. But, in high school, I attended a public residential school focused on science and mathematics. Probably in my junior year, I came across my roommate’s copy of the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
I was captivated by the stories in that book, and found myself wanting to learn more. Though our school was in the suburbs of Chicago, I never made contact with any Zen centers or sanghas in the area.
During high school and college, I mostly studied Buddhism, and Zen in particular, through books (and was particularly influenced by Charlotte Joko Beck). As a psychology major at Knox College, I was very fortunate to have a mentor (Dr. Tim Kasser) who had interests in meditation and who helped me design several research projects to explore the impact of meditation on wellbeing. During that time, I became interested in academic research on meditation, especially the mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn
After my sophomore year at Knox, I was fortunate to have funding for a summer research internship. Because of my interest in research on MBSR, I used this funding to set up a summer internship at Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s Center for Mindfulness which was then at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, MA.
I spent that summer analyzing a set of data that researchers at the Center had collected (comparing health outcomes for undergraduates who completed an MBSR course to those enrolled in a health course). It was an important experience for me, where I was given a great deal of independence, and I learned a lot about organizing an analysis for a project.
But, I also benefitted that summer from my conversations with the community of the CFM (and to this day, I am grateful for the generosity they showed to a random undergraduate student from Illinois who found his way to their door).
One other key moment from that summer was that I had the opportunity to read a copy of the book, Zen and the Brain, by Dr. James Austin, which I think had been published earlier that year. I had not taken much neuroscience at that point in my undergraduate studies, but I had taken a course on Biological Psychology at Knox, which gave me a foundation to approach the book.
I recall being deeply impacted by the approach that Dr. Austin took in that book, to try to understand the physical systems in our nervous system that gave rise to all of our conscious experience. And, which our Zen practice depended on and interacted with.
Returning to Knox, I decided that I wanted to pursue graduate study in neuroscience, and I worked with another faculty member in the Psychology department, Dr. Heather Hoffmann to develop a plan. Dr. Hoffmann helped me design what was essentially a minor in cellular and molecular biology, which I completed in my junior and senior year, and also supervised my honors research project in psychology (on the role of the rodent prefrontal cortex in memory).
After graduating from Knox, my spouse and I moved to Minneapolis, MN, as I started the PhD program in Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota. At Minnesota, I had the good fortune to join the lab of Dr. David Redish. I went on to spend the next four years studying how neurons in the basal ganglia encode information as rats learned new tasks. This was another very influential time for me, as I learned more about how systems in the brain represented information, and research to develop more sophisticated computation models of brain function (ranging from memory to emotion and decision-making).
While we lived in Minneapolis, I was also very fortunate to finally connect in a meaningful way to a Zen center, studying and practicing at the Dharma Field Zen Center with Steve Hagan. Sitting with that community, taking classes, and attending dharma talks was a key part in the deepening of my own Zen practice.
After finishing my PhD, my spouse and I moved out of the Minneapolis area, first back to Knox College (where I taught for a bit over a year as a visiting faculty member), then to Crawfordsville, Indiana, where I took a position in the Psychology department at Wabash College in 2006, and where we have been ever since. Today, I teach a range of courses in psychology and neuroscience, and my research focuses on using virtual navigation tasks (essentially video games) to better understand memory and decision-making in humans.
After leaving Minneapolis, I did not have a sustained connection to a Zen center or any sangha until very recently. Several years ago, I worked with some members of our own community in Crawfordsville to create a meditation group, but that had already lapsed before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020. Otherwise, I had not visited any centers in our region more than once. Between the challenges of starting my position as a faculty member, and the demands of caring for two wonderful children with my spouse, I found it difficult to maintain a formal practice. So, during much of the time between 2005, when I completed my PhD, and 2020, my practice was once again solitary, and somewhat sporadic for many years.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as much of the country was locked down in the spring of 2020, I found myself wishing that I could deepen my practice, and connect with others. This seemed like an opportune moment, in part because my children were older, and my work at Wabash had matured.
I took advantage of virtual options that were developed during that time (to offer remote options) in order to connect with dharma talks at Dharma Field. But, still I found myself wishing for more in-person options. This fall, I’ve spent more time exploring my local community, and attending a zendo in a nearby town (the Great Wind Zendo in Danville, Indiana), and hope to continue connecting with Zen groups in-person in our region.
And, over the past year I’ve also felt a stronger desire to say something, about Zen practice, and about science and neuroscience. The essays on this blog represent my effort to bring those threads of my own life together. I offer these reflections to you humbly, in the hope that something here may be of benefit.