Zen Practice and Neuroscience: A Personal Journey

Al Kaszniak shares his personal reflections on his career in neuropsychology and his personal meditation practice


For the past 40 years, I served as a professor in medical school and academic psychology departments. My persisting passion has been for understanding the mind and behavior, particularly in relation to brain and body biology.

A gifted social studies teacher in my senior year of high school 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 in love.

During undergraduate college years, I focused my coursework and laboratory experience on psychology, while expanding my horizons with other courses including one in comparative religion which was particularly influential. The professor, warm, erudite, and infectiously enthusiastic, exposed me to reading about Buddhism in general, and Zen Buddhism in particular.

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 seemed less interested in metaphysical questions, focusing primarily on understanding the mind and cultivating wisdom and compassion in the service of alleviating suffering. This resonated with the motivations of my interest in psychology. 

During this time, marriage and children held my heart, and the demands of an academic/clinical career consumed most every waking hour. It was not until our children entered adolescence 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 Zen teacher have become an increasingly central part of life.

The recent rapid development of neuroscientific research in meditation has also provided an avenue to bring together my academic and contemplative practice interests. During the past several years, my laboratory conducted behavioral and psychophysiological studies of long-term Buddhist meditators and those trained over brief periods of time in mindfulness meditation. I also began teaching an undergraduate honors course, titled “The Psychology of Empathy and Compassion: Contemplative and Scientific Perspectives.” 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.

I am deeply grateful for all of those beings and circumstances that have facilitated a life journey in which my scientific interests and Zen practice could coexist and more recently intertwine. There is great suffering in the world, and at times religious, racial, 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.

About the Author: Alfred W. Kaszniak, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona. His scientific research 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- and short-term Zen and mindfulness meditators. He also serves as a sensei in the tradition of Zen Buddhism.

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