Being Human: A Collective Meditation On Who We Are

Written by 

Like moonlight seen in a well,

The one who sees it, blocks it.

-- Jane Hirshfield

Like moonlight seen in a well,

The one who blocks it, sees it.

-- Jane Hirshfield

Until recently, a conference attempting to answer the question of what it means to be human would be a very right-brained affair. Seats at the table would be held for philosophers, cultural critics, mystics, poets, and in some cases, medical doctors. The idea that laboratory scientists have something useful to say on the subject would be novel, if not slightly mocked.

Luckily for us, the hard sciences have made huge strides, not just in technological capacity, but in philosophical orientation. Neuroscience in particular is making discoveries so relevant to the nature of the self that any conversation about being human that ignores its lessons is doomed to two-dimensionality, even irrelevance.

The inaugural Being Human conference (San Francisco, March 24, 2012) was the first major expression of a new framing of the question about the nature of the self. It’s hardly the first time we’ve seen a science-meets-philosophy or east-meets-west investigation. But the focused inquiry, trained like a laser on a single, deep, and tremendously important question, made Being Human feel like the beginning of a new era. Perhaps, if it fulfills its mission, it can seed a new integrated worldview, free from mythology, subjective biases, historical tethers, or pseudoscience.

(If you missed the event, or wish to revisit some of the presentations, the complete videos are available here. I especially recommend watching Peter Baumann’s introduction, which begins at 4:00 in this video.)

Neuroscience steals the show

The Being Human conference was not about neuroscience. And yet somehow it was.

image1---illusionThe opening presenter, Beau Lotto, set the tone beautifully (video here). He promised that by the end of his presentation we would know less than we thought we knew now. He proceeded to dismantle the notion that we have direct contact with the world we live in. By exploring our perception of color, using visual illusions and other tricks, he showed us just how much our perception of the world is shaped by the meaning-making engines working under the hood, far below the level of conscious awareness. In the example shown here, the two tiles on either side of the table leg are actually the same color. But our brain sees the context of those squares (one in shadow, one in light), and interprets the colors as two different neutral shades. Perception of context shapes the perception of data; it leaves one questioning what is real.

While this may seem like just a cute trick, he performed enough tricks to propel everyone in the room (and those watching the live stream) into a state of doubt, wonder, and humility. He created a space of not-knowing that is typically reserved for meditation teachers and cosmologists named Sagan.

It was a perfect beginning to the day. We intuit that the question “what does it mean to be human?” does not have a final succinct answer, but is endlessly rediscovered in the spaces in between. Those spaces need to be sought, or created, and Lotto brought them into full view.

Each of the scientists who took the podium followed a similar thread. VS Ramachandran showed his research in dealing with phantom limbs, which provides a valuable window into the mind-body connection. David Eagleman, a rising rock-star of a neuroscientist, presented much of the work that went into his recent bestseller Incognito (reviewed by Br. TJ here). He summed up his message by quoting 20th-century philosopher Roger Waters: “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”

Eagleman (whose presentation begins at 39:30 in this video) traces his research lineage back to Phineas Gage, the now famous railroad worker whose head was pierced by a rail spike in 1848. While Gage survived the incident, by all accounts he became a different person after the accident. What does that mean, “he became a different person” -- who is “he” and how could he possibly become someone other than himself? When we look at a chocolate cookie and experience the inevitable conflict between our short-term impulses (“yummm”) and our long-term planning (“fat!”), who exactly is fighting with whom? When we have a great idea, one that was actually brewing in the unconscious mind for hours or days, who is the one to get credit for that idea? Eagleman drove the point home eloquently, but persistently: our conscious mind is a tiny fraction of what is going on inside the wet three-pound lump of massively complex electrochemical mystery meat that we call home.


The research in neuroscience took on an almost Vedantic quality of neti-neti -- “not this, not that.” By dismantling each successive layer of the things we label as “me,” it left you in a state of emptiness, bordering on distress. Who am I? Nope, not that. But what about...? No, not that either. Is the self all of it, or none of it, or something else entirely? In the space of not-knowing, there’s a chance we might see something new, unexpected, significant.

Thomas Metzinger is a German philosopher who works closely with neuroscientists. He has written several books that challenge the myth that there is a thing called the self somewhere inside you. Instead, you are a process. I haven’t read his work yet, and I’m certainly fascinated. His thesis wasn’t fully formed in his short presentation, although he presented good food for thought. He cited some amazing research on alien hand syndrome as a powerful data point showing that we are not who we think we are. He followed Ramachandran’s comments on phantom limbs by citing the case of a woman born without limbs who experienced phantoms. How can this be? How can the brain produce data simulating the experience of a thing that never existed? Whose arms are being felt, and who is feeling them? Again: wonder, and more wonder.

A special shout out to Laurie Santos is required here. A professor of at Yale doing research in psychology and biology, she brought a much-needed element to the event. In introducing her studies of the economic behavior of non-human primates, she insisted that any investigation into what it means to be human must include those elements of our humanity that we are not proud of. It’s fine to research creativity or rational thought or empathy. But what about our capacity for irrational behavior? What about hatred or prejudice, or how difficult it is to learn from our mistakes? If we don’t study our foibles, we will succumb to the same cognitive biases that create distortions at every level of self and culture.


Culture and emotions

The powerful and spacious sessions on perception and cognition were a tough act to follow. The presentations on culture were interesting, but they just weren’t at the same level of engagement with the core issue of what it means to be human. To be fair, this is a big question, and progress can only be made when a certain type of rigor and courage is brought to the table. That rigor is not owned by neuroscience, but today it seemed to be.

The sessions by Anne Harrington, Hazel Markus, and Paul Ekman were testament to this. Each of the presenters is extraordinary in their own right, especially Ekman, who is widely regarded as one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century. The subjects were interesting -- issues of emotion, the culturally created self, and the placebo effect in relation to consciousness and culture -- but the level of presentation did not match the setting. For example, much of Ms. Markus’ talk was an introductory discussion of two modes of being (independent vs. interdependent); her time was not spent pushing any edges, or creating space inside the audience for new possibilities. I look forward to hearing more adventurous results from these important researchers.

It’s hard not to see Being Human as a metaphor for the teenage upstart prematurely claiming the throne of victory, in a group where no one even acknowledges a throne. Metzinger, while not himself a neuroscientist, did the scientists a favor by firing the warning shot for them: “Psychology may begin dissolving into neuroscience.” There are times when this new and rapidly-evolving field does seem capable of swallowing entire areas of study, however unsatisfying that might feel. After the conference, Eagleman expressed his relief to me that it was Metzinger who said it; there does seem to be some touchiness around the subject of how ambitious his field is. But the fact remains: neuroscience is taking some quality shots on goal, and this is much needed. (Obligatory hockey reference for our Canadian readers!)

The conference organizers did their best to ensure that the event was full-spectrum, and not dominated by the neuroscientists. I have no doubt that future events will see a more balanced field of presenters, with adventure and depth (and shots on goal) coming from every direction.

Back on the cultural module: I would have greatly appreciated a more rigorous exposition of the culturally-created self, with a similar level of not-this, not-that” that we saw the neuroscientists perform with the individual self. For example, someone like Thomas de Zengotita, whose Mediated is a devastating deconstruction of the cultural self, or even Andrew Cohen, who brings great insight in unpacking cultural conditioning, would have shone in this setting. Clearing out the weeds -- the presumptions and wrong ideas -- is what turns the light on the mysterious question at hand.

(On a related note: Ramachandran spoke briefly of mirror neurons. About 20% of our motor neurons fire when we see other people interact with the world. Some scientists are hypothesizing that mirror neurons are the biological root of empathy. A longer presentation on this aspect of culture would be an exciting addition to the dialogue.)


The mystics

The closing hour of the day was facilitated by Tami Simon. She hosted a warm, lovely dialogue and meditation with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Richard Davidson, and Gelek Rimpoche. It was afternoon tea with some deeply spiritual people.

It’s hard to say anything negative about this beautiful group. They did what they could not help but do, which is to say: they were beautiful.

On the other hand, it felt like a missed opportunity. Mystics and contemplatives have immense contributions to add to the inquiry of what it means to be human. Far from resting on the laurels and insights of past masters like Jesus or the Buddha, living mystics engage directly with the question in personal and powerful ways. The answer to the spiritual question “who am I?” is not one that has already been discovered (and is merely awaiting your acknowledgement), but a never-ending invitation to deeper processing and further development. As mysterious and empty is the space at the heart of the question, it is simultaneously always expanding, ever-rich, and the perfect fertile soil for this type of collective, multi-faceted investigation.

Having a passionate living mystic like Shinzen Young or Adyashanti -- people who bring space, rigor, and precision to their inquiry -- would be a fabulous addition to this project. Perhaps if it is done right, over time, the successful coordination of science and spirit may just win over some of the skeptics who balk at the relevance of introspection or spirituality.

The event

I find myself surprised at how much passion I have for what this event means, and where it will lead. Is this a new meta-theory being born? A destruction of residual boundaries separating science from philosophy from meditation? The beginnings of a new spiritual path, with guidance from research done in the MRI machines, or a new science with guidance from contemplatives? We’re in very exciting territory here, and I have little doubt that the coming decade will be a magnificent time for self-discovery on a massive scale. This is, perhaps, the collective application of the Vedantic inquiry: Who are we?

As a whole experience, Being Human was a radically positive event. The organizers had their act together. The physical space was elegant, the technology was solid, the food was good, the lines for the bathroom moved swiftly. The conversations during the breaks were special even by San Franciscan standards: people would approach strangers and ask about their spiritual experience or their relationship to conscious capitalism. Most people sat on the floor to eat, speaking with whomever bumped their elbow. A thousand people, some of whom traveled from Europe just for the event, found themselves among instant friends.

As I mentioned above, it seems like neuroscience has set the bar for the philosophers and mystics. Having the urgent desire to crack the mysterious code at the heart of our being, along with a degree of softness and space -- is this the way one typically describes the hard sciences? The cultural critics and contemplatives will surely rise to the occasion at future events.

Jane Hirshfield, a poet who read after each session, hinted through her presence how valuable a visionary artist could be at this kind of event. Perhaps in future years we will see live graphic recorders or painters transcribing not just the words but the feeling of the shared investigation.

Lastly: big props to Peter Baumann, host, organizer, and patron of Being Human. He set the tone beautifully, and will surely be the driver of the evolution of future conferences.

Oh, and one important piece was glaringly omitted from the event: a thumping dance party. Who could possibly know what it means to be human without busting a move? Drop the cocktails, people, we’re all in this together.


You are a fly on the wall of a very special meeting. At this round table sit the very best scientists, philosophers, sociologists, mystics. These are not closed-minded specialists, blinkered to all but a single dimension of the human experience, but generalists with refined skills. They are passionately pursuing the same question, using different tools. They each know that the answer does not lie in any single direction, but in mutual discovery of partial truths, and the rapid abandonment of dead-ends. They relish the challenge of asking a question for which there may never be a final answer, and the camaraderie of other seekers.

Except you’re not a fly on the wall. You’re at the table. Not only as a full participant, but as the very subject of the inquiry.

This is Being Human.

Related items

Join the Discussion

Commenting Policy

Beams and Struts employs commenting guidelines that we expect all readers to bear in mind when commenting at the site. Please take a moment to read them before posting - Beams and Struts Commenting Policy


  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Wednesday, 04 April 2012 11:58 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    Great job, Jeff!
    And totally agree with you about Shinzen Young, and the need for clarity and precision. Working with that.... priceless!

  • Comment Link Stephen Goldin Wednesday, 04 April 2012 15:56 posted by Stephen Goldin

    Nice job, Jeff. WDYT about politicians (or political commentators) being involved? Plus we will never have a wide view of being human as long as it is only relatively well off white people having the conversation alone.

  • Comment Link James Barrow Wednesday, 04 April 2012 16:07 posted by James Barrow

    Jeff, your writing is great. Only just came across your previous article on Identity Formation, also brilliant. Just signed up to your GoingToGround blog too. Please contribute more here!

  • Comment Link Jeff Bellsey Thursday, 05 April 2012 04:41 posted by Jeff Bellsey

    @Bonnitta - thanks very much!

    @James - also, thanks. I really appreciate your words.

    @Stephen - Um, yeah, politicians. I'm not sure they actually count as a useful group of people :) I'd instead suggest *sociologists* be included, as the best political commentators are actually more doing social commentary than discussing power and politics alone.

    As for your cultural comment: I certainly agree. However, IMO the most important thing is that we do whatever possible to draw out everyone who has the perspective-taking capacity and the urge to pierce the mystery at the heart of the matter. I wouldn't suggest that we attempt to impose cultural preferences atop the process, as that wouldn't enliven a conversation whose primary goal is depth (as opposed to inclusiveness). Just my opinion though :)

  • Comment Link Chela Davison Thursday, 05 April 2012 16:35 posted by Chela Davison

    Great article Jeff. Your writing is so accessible and alive.
    I really appreciate your critique of who was leaning in and who wasn't. First, you feel trustworthy as a journalist, both honouring the presenters but also making some important distinctions and even demands.
    I can also see you doing in this piece what you're asking for from these presenters, pushing an edge and asking for more on behalf of what could happen if we were all a little more willing to take risks with our work.
    I was disappointed to miss this conference and really really appreciate your account. Thanks!

  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Thursday, 05 April 2012 19:09 posted by Jeremy Johnson

    Hi Jeff. Pleasure to meet you in this digital space. You're a terrific writer and I can feel the passion you have for this fascinating mingling of mystics and scientists. I share the same enthusiasm and am glad to discover you (and that this event happened!)

    I think what we are beginning to see is the conscious co-mingling of scientists and mystics (let's add some visionary artists to the mix!) within the Mystery of human existence. I share some of your concerns, however, with the intoxicating tendency that neuroscience, etc. may have in wishing to overtake psychology, or engulf it if you will. The scientists are beginning to sound more like the mystics and philosophers. To be honest, though, I don't sense the same* kind of arrogance that may have existed, say, 100 years ago with positivism. I think the intoxication that comes with a scientific hermeneutic, which is now beginning to ask deep questions about human nature and not merely reductive ones, is forgivable and even exciting (why else would the mystics be invited)? This is an exciting time to be on the other end (the mystics and artists) because they are being challenged to interpret this data and participate with the scientist in dialogue. Jonah Lehrer describes this as the "fourth culture" (though he doesn't dive into mysticism). I believe such a human society is necessary in order to address the planetary crisis we are in, and the initial steps towards a planetary culture.

    Like you, I believe this is the shape of things to come; the conscious and intentional return of science to the Mystery which artists and mystics have always been exploring; In other words, this is a good sign that the culture is addressing and coming towards re-integration of human nature. A good sign, but as always let's push the envelop, eh?

    Once again, nice to meet you. Thanks for sharing your insights here and the mutual enthusiasm!

  • Comment Link Jeff Bellsey Friday, 06 April 2012 19:27 posted by Jeff Bellsey

    @Chela - Thanks! Right on; the project is mine, ours. Not "theirs."

    @Jeremy - Thanks for your comments. I'm not sure that neuroscience "wants" to swallow other fields whole. It's just that the technology is advancing to the point where it may replace certain functions that were previously provided by psychology. For example, let yourself imagine what pharmaceuticals would feel like if they provided *exactly* the same result as meditation or therapy. Would there be an advantage to the long-form process of therapy, or would the benefit of faster healing be its own reward? We will be asking these questions soon enough, as science uncovers technologies to adjust neurological functioning (and our experience of self) in safe and effective ways.

    I find myself fascinated by ideologies of all sorts. Interiorists do their utmost to dismiss scientific results that grate; materialists dismiss contemplative data as unreliable; artists dismiss "the old" as irrelevant. Which of us are willing to drop ALL of our cherished world views to embrace the new, the true? How can we embrace a less structuralist/dialectic approach that teaches us to endlessly differentiate to find the truth, and embrace a more unitive/process approach that includes everything in one swallow?

    I am both a mystic and a scientist. But those are passing labels on the process of my humanity. I am human, first, last, and only.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 10 April 2012 23:56 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Hey Jeff, I was thinking about TJ's recent post on the brain science of mushroom trips yesterday, and I was wondering if there were any plans to add a dimension of psychedelic investigators to the next Being Human conference. And if not (or if so), do you think this would be a worthy addition to the event?

    And great article btw, the writing is very clear, punchy and insightful, I enjoyed reading this piece a lot. And I gotta say, I texted Bergen to ask if the poem at the start was supposed to repeat itself. And he replied "look again". foiled!! :)

  • Comment Link Jeff Bellsey Wednesday, 11 April 2012 16:14 posted by Jeff Bellsey

    Hi Trevor - I'd be surprised NOT to see something like this included in the future. Probably adjacent to new research on anesthesia, and the lessons it holds for how the self emerges from the brain. Yeah, a group of presenters from various fields dealing with the deep chemical science of the self would be a tremendous addition to the conversation.

    From what I hear (and I'm just a rumor-monger, not a spokesperson), the next two events will be one-day affairs, and after that it's anyone's guess. So whether or not this particular angle gets represented in the near future is a good question. Long-term it's a shoe-in.

    And I worried a bit about the danger of the double-poem. Maybe it's like an easter egg :)

Login to post comments

Search Beams

Most Popular Discussions