Book Review : On the Disintegration of Certainty


Shifting Worlds, Changing Minds: Where the Sciences and Buddhism Meet by Jeremy W. Hayward (Shambhala Publications/Random House: $12.95, paperback; 301 pages.)

Last night, as I sat in my living room and listened to my wife’s animated conversation about her work at the counseling center and her studies in graduate school and her impressions of my son’s spirited 7th-grade history teacher, I found myself gazing at her face, contemplating her beauty and vitality and complexity, and--at the same time--pondering the curious and discomfiting message of Jeremy Hayward’s “Shifting Worlds, Changing Minds.”

“We take it for granted that . . . you and I are essentially lumps of meat with a mind in our head,” he writes. But the perception, he insists, is mere illusion: “Our belief that we are like that creates each other.”


In other words, Hayward insists, my wife’s beauty and grace and kindness, her engagement in our family and her commitment to her work and her studies, are essentially an illusion, a fabrication of my consciousness, which is itself an illusion. “To think that there is a real, objective and external Universe, independent of mind and observation” writes Hayward, “is no longer an acceptable attitude with which to approach . . . reality.”

Science and Spirituality

“Shifting Worlds” is yet another addition to the literature of science and spirituality that started with Fritjof Capra’s “The Tao of Physics.” Here, Hayward attempts to demonstrate how the ancient meditative techniques of Buddhism allow us to reach the cosmic truths that Western science, including physics, biology, linguistics and “the sciences of the mind,” are only now beginning to appreciate. Indeed, the most compelling element of “Shifting Worlds” is Hayward’s ambitious survey of several millenia of Western science and philosophy, and his depiction of modern science as the disintegration of certainty in a cold, empty cosmos.

“The ultimately real world, so the 19th-Century scientists said, exists independently of people’s minds, of our existence, of our observations. And most of us still believe in this world. We have called it Reality, or the Universe,” he writes. “But this context is cracking, and the cracks are coming from within science itself. The revolution taking place now in science is the gradual realization that there is no Reality, no Universe existing eternally, absolutely, and independently of our own observations and thoughts.”

What’s worse, says Hayward, is that the illusion of reality--the apparent duality of the observer and the observed world, of mind and body, of the individual ego and the world around us--is nothing less than an illness. “There is profound anxiety because the belief in permanence is continually contradicted by the actuality of change. But trying to hide from it by patching up the ego in therapy, trying to constantly crank up a stronger sense of self-importance, at the individual or national level, or to smooth it over with Valium, only deepens the wound. Without . . . a precise and finely detailed knowledge of the process of perception,” Hayward writes, “sciences, paradigms, religions, and social actions, new or old, are bound to create only further ignorance and deeper anxiety.”

Illusion of Ego

The answer, according to Hayward, is to be found in the meditative techniques of Buddhism, which allow us to transcend the illusion of ego and reality. “It is actually, for however brief a moment, living fully in the world, free from the barrier of preconception; free from the ‘known,’ which is imagination, memory, and the past; and free from the ‘unknown,’ which is the future and projection of the past into the future,” he insists.

I confess that I recoiled from many of these ideas, and Hayward might be perfectly justified in accusing me of missing the point of his earnest, almost beseeching book. Hayward says again and again that Buddhism is not nihilism, is not a denial of the world, and--in fact--offers us the opportunity to live a more fully engaged and conscious life. Still, the premise of “Shifting Worlds” is that modern science has pulled the cosmological and epistemological rug out from under us, and that Buddhism is the most appropriate means of coping with chaos because it does not rely on the reality of an ordered universe.


After reading “Shifting Worlds,” I came to a different conclusion: even if my wife and my children and I are merely accidental constellations of subatomic particles, even if “imagination, memory and the past” are mere illusions, I persist in believing that we are more than “lumps of meat with a mind.” Indeed, the fact that the stuff of a chaotic universe can take the form of a human being--with all of our marvelous gifts of passion and intellect, our fascination for the world around us, our commitment to life and love--is nothing less than miraculous, and perhaps the best argument that we are, after all, the handiwork of the Almighty.