We Are All Stardust

By Stefan Klein

Click here to buy We Are All Stardust

Stefan Klein in conversation with V.S. Ramachandran

    Hindus and Buddhists also believe in reincarnation. As a scientist, you could hardly agree with that.

Are you sure? I don’t expect to come back as a dog or pig—that’s nonsense. But things look different when, instead of under¬standing consciousness as bound to particular manifestations of matter, you think of it as information—which it is. Then you’re reborn every few years. The atoms in my brain are constantly being replaced, but I’m still here. In that sense, I’ve been reincarnated roughly fifty times, and I’m doing splendidly.

    That ends with your death.

At that point, the information from my brain is passed on to my children and other people. Indian philosophy offers a metaphor for that: There’s a single divine light that shines through each of us, but individuals are only the windows through which it shines. When someone dies, his window is closed. But the light keeps shining through all the other windows.

    But everything that constitutes you as a person is gone at that point.

True. But don’t forget: Only the smallest amount of the content of our consciousness is private. More than 98 percent of what we think, feel, and experience we’ve absorbed from our culture. I know what a table is, what naked men look like, who Einstein was. You know all that too. Only 2 percent, say, of my consciousness relates to my life story, my daughter, my son. And that 2 percent is all that passes away. The rest lives on.

    Many of your colleagues seem to have come around recently to the belief that Eastern thinking can enrich neuroscience. The Dalai Lama has given talks at the annual meeting of the American Society for Neuroscience. Do you think that his ideas contribute to scientific progress?

Yoga, Tantra, and meditation will provide certain insights. But ev¬eryday life will benefit from those practices far more than science will. Western societies are overwhelmed by anxiety. That has to do with the fact that people here aren’t accustomed to confronting the fundamental questions of their existence: What constitutes a fulfilling life, or, what does “happiness” mean? Everyone talks about it, but no one knows what it is. In the Eastern tradition, however, it’s a completely normal part of life to ask questions like that. We have to cope with the cacophony and dissonance of con¬temporary society.

    What is happiness for you?

Passion and devotion. Unfortunately anyone who pursues some¬thing too passionately arouses suspicion. To be cool is the ideal. At most there’s a passion for mediocrity. Children who deviate from it are ostracized in school. And why is Tom Hanks considered such a great actor? Because he’s an average guy. Take a dozen men, put them in a blender, and out comes Tom Hanks. Back when I lived in India, we found people like that deadly boring. The people we admired were eccentrics: those who engage in idiosyncratic pur¬suits, just because it fascinates them. Those people have a key to happiness: In their devotion they forget their small selves and re¬alize that they’re part of the great drama of life. By the way, we never would have left the caves if our ancestors had been so devoid of all passion and curiosity.

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