Yoko Civilization Research Institute California
September 2005 International Conference

Cultivation (shugyõ),  Ethics, and Science:
Creating Shared Values in a Diverse Culture

The major themes of this conference lie at the interface between science and ethics. This interface poses serious problems. Science, staying within its quantitative and instrumental expertise, is incapable of answering existential issues about values. On the other hand, ethics is so interwoven with different religious and cultural histories, that it difficult to imagine coming to widespread agreement about these complex issues at the purely conceptual level. As in other instances where conceptual divides are seemingly impassible, it is helpful to turn back to the questions which first gave rise to the particular region of discourse. In this case: the reality that continually gives rise to ethical discourse is that the best of human intentions are typically subverted by bodily states of greed, anger, resentment, hunger for dominance, fear, and the host of other bodily impulses.  No matter how differently any particular group of people might conceptualize The Good, we all share the challenge of dealing with shared congenital, often self-defeating conflicts.

In this light, the question then becomes how might it be thinkable to effect changes of mind among large populations beset by tides whose seemingly irresistible force is a mixture of economic motives, unenlightened self-interest, and fear of death, unmodulated by shared spiritual values.  How can we think of creating a more ethical culture?  Without some vision, at least, of how such changes of mind are at least possible, there is little hope that the various ethical goals proposed by our small group will have any noticeable effects. And yet, because this is not a conference of political activists or religious missionaries, our response has to be from the standpoint of our skills as intellectuals and scientists, proposing compelling enough theory that larger numbers of people will be swayed to change their behavior.

In this brief commentary, shaped by my reflections on the papers available at its writing, I am going to address the intellectual and scientific implications of bodily practices of transformation for the problems presented here.  I take this phrase to mean repetitive bodily activities deliberately undertaken with the goal of shaping various organic impulses to allow for the growth of desirable adult human qualities.  Such practices include the various forms of quiet sitting meditation developed in spiritual traditions, the martial arts, sensory awareness practices, breathing practices, visualizations, and others.  The goals of such practices include the cultivation of a strongly felt sense of connection with the natural world and other people, generosity, compassion, irony and humor, openness and suppleness of mind, etc.. I situate this analysis within the context of the contributions by our group by Doctors Bravo, Tucker, McKenny, and Yuasa.

Dr. Bravo, for example, addresses the widely discussed contrast between two ways of relating to nature—the “management” view of modern science and technology, and the “cosmic” view of indigenous peoples and local communities—and analyzes the threats to life-supporting ecosystems that come from the split.  How can this split be healed?  How can the “management” view be altered? Both views have been deeply engrained over centuries within the organisms of different populations.  The more ancient cosmic view is the result of old ways of educating people through rituals, symbols, direct teaching, and other cultural practices to develop sensibilities connected with the natural elements, the cycles of seasons, the various essences of plants and animals, the comings and goings in inner states of insight and revelation.  The management view is the result of the European intellectual tradition, originating in the early Christian universities of Paris, Oxford, and Bologna, continuing through the secularized transformations of the 17th Century into the technological revolutions of our era.  This view, also, insinuates itself into our educated populations through the rituals of lecture hall, reading desks, and laboratories, a different sensibility.  That sensibility cultivates the brilliant experimental urge and the desire for freedom, as well as a sense of an isolated self situated in a cosmos apart from the inner states of that self, a sense of the body and natural beings as things to be enhanced and managed.  How is it possible to alter mentalities that are supported by a habituated sensibility that has taken so long to engrave in the organism? 


Dr. Tucker’s analyses in her paper here and in her important work in the US provides an important component of the answer to that question when she addresses the crucial role of religion in these crises in dealing with the primal foundations of behavior:


Religion in its broadest sense is a means whereby humans, recognizing the limitations of phenomenal reality, undertake specific practices to effect self-transformation and community cohesion within a cosmological context.  . . . A key component that has been missing in much environmental discourse is how to identify and tap into these motivating elements and ethics that inspire changes of attitudes and actions.

And yet, it is clear that religions themselves, from the point of view of these papers, cultivate many dangerous ideas: 

Š       Evangelical Christians, who eagerly embrace the rapid coming of the Rapture commonly hold views that are directly counter to any long-term ecological thinking that places fundamental ethical value on respect for ancient material realities.

Š       These and other more mainstream Christians hold dogmatic beliefs that foreclose discussions about genetics, evolutionary biology, stem-cell research, and other questions that arise from the development of science.

Š       Clashes among fundamentalist religions across cultures—Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Irish Protestant and Catholic—are wreaking havoc on the environment, and undercutting any sane attempts to integrate science and spirituality.

Dr. McKenny gives a particularly penetrating analysis of the difficulties of changing minds when he analyzes the contrast between what he calls enhancement technologies by contrast to what I would call ‘experiential technologies of transformation’ (meditation, prayer, body practices, psychotherapy, etc.).  He analyzes the factors that make the former increasingly more attractive than the latter; and more dangerously, how they are rapidly gaining power by giving the appearance of “being substitutes for some of the characteristics religious practices seek to cultivate, rather than as alternatives to, or diversions from the latter.” He also touches on one of the most profound barriers to social change, which is the almost unnoticed, slippery degradation of ancient views of human purpose—wisdom, bliss, compassion, etc.—into the trivial desire for ‘contentment’.

A philosophy and science of cultivation

In my view, an important element that needs to be addressed by the scientific community is the role of practices in the development of a mature intelligence capable of complex ethical reasoning, a theme inspired by Dr. Yuasa’s work.  I am going to elucidate this point in the context of a melding of three intellectual currents which share the notion that body practices are at the heart of understanding the development of modes of thought and value: 

Š       Dr. Yuasa’s analysis of body practices in Asian thought;

Š       the work of a group of  European social researchers on how body practices shape culture;

Š       the work that a number of us have done in the US on making intellectual and spiritual sense of the body practices that have proliferated during the past 150 years, and the beginnings of research into the transformative effects of these practices.  These include both the large movement we call ‘Somatics,’ as well as the increasing number of cognitive scientists who are studying the effects of meditation practices on the organism.

15 years ago, I encountered Dr. Yuasa’s newly translated The Body: Toward an Eastern Mind-Body Theory, and later his The Body, Self-Cultivation, and Ki-Energy. I had for some years been working with a handful of scholars to make sense of a broad range of body practices that had developed in Europe and the Americas beginning in the mid-19th Century. These practices of sensory awareness, breathing awareness, expressive movement methods, and various uses of sensitive touch were created by teachers who saw the harmful effects of Cartesian dualism on the culture.  These innovators shared a twofold goal of educating the body towards sensitive and emotional maturity, and subverting a mind-body split that had become embedded in Western mainstream models of thinking and in the institutions where those models were implemented: schools, sports, medicine, and religion.  Contrary to what the Western popular mind made of these practices from the outside as health exercises or aesthetic works of performance, the teachers of these methods have always thought of them as healing what they saw as the radically harmful effects of the embodiment of the dualistic world-view. Western intellectuals and scientists have been slow to understand the import of this broad network of practices because of the common assumption that it was enough to reject dualism intellectually, and that the body practices were mere personal pursuits, no more worthy of inclusion into scientific discourse than baseball or calisthenics.  And yet, it was clear that even though most thoughtful people intellectually rejected the Cartesian split, the effects of that split survived everywhere in the ways our various subcultures organized themselves so that language and networks of ideas feel like they exist in a world apart from lungs, trees, and air. 

Dr. Yuasa’s work brought a new clarity into my puzzling about these issues.  For example, he contrasts the role of body practices in the Asian development of philosophy and science with Western notions of intellectual development:

What might we discover to be the philosophical uniqueness of Eastern thought?  One revealing characteristic is that personal “cultivation” (shugyõ) is presupposed in the philosophical foundation of the Eastern theories.  To put it simply, true knowledge cannot be obtained simply by means of theoretical thinking, but only through “bodily recognition or realization” (tainin or taitoku), that is, through the utilization of one’s total mind and body.. .Cultivation is a practice that attempts, so to speak, to achieve true knowledge by means of one’s total mind and body.” 26

This is a very radical view.  It leads one to ask where the “bodily recognition” occurs in the academy and the laboratory in any kind of systematic way.  How are scientists and philosophers educated to give attention to that dimension of their cognitive development? Practices of self-cultivation play no essential role in the understanding of the development of theory.  Such practices are often pursued—jogging, hatha yoga, zazen, etc.—but not as directly relevant to scholarly products but to issues conceived of as belonging to the private realm of personal existence, health, well-being, pleasure.

I have developed this topic both in my pedagogy, where I have integrated body practices in the classroom in our graduate studies program, and in my writing, such as my analysis of these practices in: “Body Practices and Human Inquiry:  Disciplined Experiencing, Fresh Thinking, Vigorous Language,” inVincent Berdayes, ed.,The Body in Human Inquiry: Interdisciplinary Explorations of Embodiment. “Sitting, Writing, Listening, Speaking, Yearning: Reflections on Scholar-Shaping Techniques,” in  Shapiro and Shapiro, editors.  Body Movements:  Pedagogy, Politics and Social Change.  Cresskill, N. J.: The Hampton Press. 

More to the point of this conference is the fact that transformative practices have a very minor role in the long history of ethical discourse in the West, which remains primarily within the realm of dialectical logic, dissociated from bodily experience and behavior.  It is true, of course, that Plato and Socrates argued for the preparation of the body through gymnastics and music in its early stages of its long ascent to the Good, and the Stoics emphasized the cultivation of the self. Graeco-Roman ethical philosophy eventually intersected with Christian scholasticism, which itself was nourished by the spiritual practices of meditation, ritual, and asceticism.  But since the secularization of ethical discourse during the European Enlightenment, the overwhelmingly disproportionate emphasis has been on language and reason rather than practices of transformation, which remain in the background, something taken for granted. It is only in the late 19th and 20th Centuries when psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, and the infusion of Asian meditation and martial arts methods began to introduce a notion into popular discourse that there are systematic ways of going about transforming human tendencies towards greed, envy, hostility, pride, and the host of human urges that make it so hard for us to implement our ethical philosophies. 

Dr. Yuasa describes the precise area where the practices play an essential role, overcoming the errors that arise from a mentality that is experientially divorced from physical reality:

One of the characteristics of Eastern body-mind theories is the priority given to the questions, “How does the relationship between the mind and the body come to be (through cultivation)?  Or “What does it become?”   The traditional issue in Western philosophy, on the other hand is, “What is the relationship between the mind-body?”  In other words, in the East one starts from the experiential assumption that the mind-body modality changes through the training of the mind and body by means of cultivation (shugyõ) or training (keiko). Only after assuming this experiential ground does one ask what the mind-body relation is.  That is, the mind-body issue is not simply a theoretical speculation [nor, I, DHJ, would add, a matter of empirical scientific investigation], but it is originally a practical, lived experience (taiken; tai-body), involving the mustering of one’s whole mind and body.  The theoretical is only a reflection on this lived experience. 18


The model of “mind” as  developed throughout the modern era within Western science and philosophy is an entity essentially separate from human bodies and the earth that sustains our thinking.  Changes of mind, in that tradition, require changes of ideas. In Dr. Yuasa’s model, bodily practices are required to transform the raw mind of birth and the restless and grasping mind of adolescence, into the mentality that is fit to engage in adult philosophy and science, and that is wise enough to deal with the complexities of difficult ethical challenges. In the West, what too often is the case is that questions of profound complexity are being addressed by highly educated, articulate, and powerful adults who have at best the sensibilities of teenagers.

There is an important and illuminating link between Dr Yuasa’s formulations and the research originally initiated by a group of social scientists who turned their attention to the role of practices in the creation of cultures: Marcel Mauss, Mary Douglas, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Bryan Turner, to name but a few. They have brought to light the everyday fact that one willy-nilly develops practices that support particular world-views within which one lives:  the sitting-reading habits of the scholar, the laboratory habits of the physical scientist, the world-exploratory habits of the natural scientist, the intersubjective-sensitivity habits of the social scientists. Marcel Mauss called these practices “les techniques du corps,” “techniques of the body.” These habitual modes are the foundation for patterned ways of thinking, for example, the ‘management mentality’.

The late Pierre Bourdieu articulated what he called a science of practice, similar to what Dr Yuasa has called a ‘subjectivistic science,’ a systematic study of how a specific kind of widespread repetitive practice, such as a communal dance form, meditation method, or the practices of a classroom, contain within themselves certain assumptions about the nature of the self in community, the relation to the world, the significance of certain kinds of activity, etc. In his various studies—of Moroccan music and dance, of bourgeois French everyday body practices of cuisine, sport, bodily comportment, of academic practices—he demonstrated how people develop habitual bodily ways of being in the world that provide the sensitive-emotional matrix to support their theoretical and ethical stances. In a similar way, Dr Yuasa has examined these interconnections in the cultivation of the body in such things as Waka poetry and Ki Gong.

A third strand is the typically American pragmatist approach to the development of a science of body practices.  For example, scientists like Richard Davidson and Paul Ekman are carrying forward intricate laboratory studies of the effects of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices on the development of higher brain functions in advanced practitioners, with preliminary findings about how these practices reduce mechanical startle responses, making the person more open and relaxed.  Such bodily states, of course, have the capacity to support a less defensive, responsive, and more nuanced possibility of communal intellectual reflection. Jon Kabat-Zinn has carried out widespread studies of how Vipassana meditation, stripped of any religious or cultural clothing down to its bare form of sitting quietly tracking sensations has affected prison populations, modulates destructive urges towards violent behavior.  Graduates of the Somatics graduate studies program, which I founded in San Francisco, are carrying out clinical studies of how sensory awareness, breathing, and movement practices help violent teenagers and abusive adult males gain control over their outbursts.  Also, we have been part of the worldwide community studying how these practices help in the healing of the traumatic consequences of political torture.

In relation to the questions posed during this conference, one of the results of these studies in the United States is that the increasing intellectual and scientific support for the importance of these practices has made them more attractive to the general population.  Instead of viewing them as strange marginal activities, thoughtful people are beginning to view them as essential components of adult development so that a climate is beginning to emerge in which these practices can assume a more central role in educational institutions.

I have only glimpses of what a wiser deliberative community might look like. 

The strongest example is the renaissance of tribal peoples in the US and Canada, where the recovery of the ancient rituals and the resurgence of the elders is manifest in both organizational meetings as well as meetings directed towards healing.  Old practices of smudging and chant, for example, situate the group within a sacred context from the outset.  The cultivation of sitting, waiting respectfully, and passing the talking stick creates a more reflective communal intelligence.

In my own work, I had funding for some years to bring together groups of leaders from major religious organizations and leading teachers of body practices to experiment with how such practices might further collaboration among otherwise conflictual communities.  The religious leaders were drawn from traditions that are often in conflict:  Fundamentalist and mainstream Christians, African-Americans, Native Americans, Muslims, and Jews.  Over a week’s time, we would typically spend half the day engaged in practices of sensory awareness, breathing, touching, or moving expressively.  And then, we would engage in discussion on finding shared concerns about the world.  It was striking to see how the grounding in bodily practices lessened the tensions of ideological conflict and created an atmosphere more focused on shared concerns about the environment, widespread violence, famine, and the host of other problems confronting serious religious teachers.  Out of those seminars, several collaborative healing projects were born, which still exist.

Our major institutions—medicine, education, business, the military—are in the hands of a diverse group of experts whose spiritual and ethical beliefs range all over the cultural map. Although they often share the most basic values about the nature of the good, when it comes to the particular kinds of questions which we have addressed here, there is widespread disagreement. The United States is perhaps the most advanced example of the problem.  Expert knowledge about the themes of this conference are in the hands of secular scientists who share the evolutionary account of the cosmos and of humans, and genetic accounts of personal existence.  At the same time, a vast population of politically powerful Christians hold a creationist view which rejects both evolution and genetic accounts of personality.  There is no easy basis of trust between these two groups, let alone the many other diverse communities of belief that make up America.  What is left are either complex rationalizations or power politics, in which people seize upon whatever works to implement already entrenched opinions.  This absence of any  shared basis among people of good will, secular and religious,  for resolving new ethical dilemmas creates a vacuum which becomes an easy entry for entrepreneurs who are rapidly finding new ways to reap enormous financial profits, and for cynical politicians, who manipulate this vacuum for political gain.

Against the backdrop of this vacuum an inquiry into the effects of body practices gains its meaning.  Before we can arrive a truly wise answers to the questions that we have confronted here, and mobilize communities to support those answers, we need first to have wiser adult populations, capable of thinking more deeply and communally about what is good in these new situations. Only when a community has gained sufficient mastery over its tendencies towards fear, greed, the lust for power, and the many other kinds of impulses that we recognize as barriers to the good, can that community develop public policies based on ethical wisdom.