Zara Houshmand

Zara Houshmand is an Iranian-American writer. Her work has ranged from modern Iranian theater to traditional Balinese puppetry, from virtual reality as an art form to literary translation. She has worked with the Mind and Life Institute for almost twenty years as an editor for books representing its dialogues between scientists and the Dalai Lama. In this exclusive interview she discusses her work as a poet, writer and editor.

Richard Bright: Can we begin with you saying something about your background?

Zara Houshmand: I grew up as a third culture kid, Iranian-American raised in the Philippines, then later living in Iran, the UK, and the US. That suspension between cultures—both the outsider view and the bridging skills learned early—are very much part of who I am and the ideas I’m drawn too. Much of my work has to do with cross-cultural communication, not just the obvious—literary translation, bilingual theatre, writing from an Iranian view for Western audiences—but also dialogue between cultures in a broader sense, between science and Buddhism, art and technology, in a way that’s focused more on the process than any particular position. Collaborative process is another thread of this that’s woven throughout my life.

But at heart I’m a writer, in love with poetry and theatre. I studied English literature and an interest in oral literature through the Old English led me into traditional Asian theatre forms including Tibetan opera and Balinese shadow puppetry. I’m fascinated by the tension between traditional structures and improvisation, by the roots of theatre in ritual experienced directly, not just as history, and by the roots of composition in performance.

RB: In 2000, you made a commitment to translate one of Rumi’s quatrains every day. Can you say more about this?

ZH: When I first encountered the popular American translations of Rumi, I was disturbed. I didn’t recognize what I was reading, as if the entire mindset of Persian culture had been bleached out, leaving a generic, whitewashed spirituality. I decided to try reading the original. Persian was a second language to me, picked up casually as a teenager with no formal schooling, though I had the good fortune later to work closely with the brilliant Iranian playwright Bijan Mofid translating his plays, and that was an education in itself. Even though my Persian was limited, I’d had a deep immersion in the culture, and enough knowledge of medieval literature in other languages to understand what sort of challenges I would face. By chance an online magazine of the Iranian diaspora community happened to be publishing one of Rumi’s quatrains each day, and I made translating it my daily assignment—not just a literal translation but a well-crafted poem that reproduced the world of the original as fully as possible. One thing led to another and soon the translations were also being published daily, and instantly critiqued by a bilingual diaspora audience. This was the early days of social media and it was an interesting phenomenon to engage with a trans-national community of connoisseurs of the original poetry, with varying degrees of competence in the target language and passionate opinions. It’s rare for a modern translator ever to reach a broadly bilingual audience—normally translation doesn’t happen unless it fills a need where each side is opaque to the other.

With the framework of discipline created artificially in this way, the pleasure and peace that I found in the work took me by surprise. It was perhaps an hour each day of deep focus and engagement with Rumi’s mind, but also the satisfaction of completion. Once you’ve understood and felt the original poem, and internalized it so that you can work from deeply within the target language instead of just playing with correspondences, then (in a way that’s both real and imaginary) you are reproducing the original writer’s experience of searching for the words to express just this thought, that unfolds in just this way, with exactly this tone. And if the chosen verse of the day was exceptionally thorny, I couldn’t walk away or choose another one. I did this every day for a year and a half.

RB: As editor for the Mind and Life Institute, you have been responsible for a series of books representing a long term dialogue between Buddhism and Western science. Can you sum up what connections they have in common? And major differences?

ZH: The books follow a series of meetings that have continued since 1987, and were at first quite private and intimate—typically, five or six scientists meeting with HH the Dalai Lama and a handful of Buddhist scholars for a week at a time at His Holiness’ home in Dharamsala. Francisco Varela, who co-founded the Institute, understood that this safe space of privacy, with no press invited, was essential to a completely open and free-ranging discussion, especially in the early days when the whole endeavour was new and easily misconstrued. But in fact, nothing of real substance was ever cut from the books. More recently the conferences have continued in large-scale public venues in the US and Europe, often with video available online.

The format is consistent, each scientist presenting a high-level summary of the current state of their field, or their own research, in language accessible to a non-specialist, followed by dialogue with HH the Dalai Lama responding to the presentation, adding his own observations and insights from Buddhist philosophy, and constantly questioning.

The content varies from one meeting to the next, but there has been a preponderance of mind science—neuroscience, the psychology of emotion and attention, compassion—in part because that’s where the scientists feel that Buddhist tradition and practices offer the richest vein to explore, and where the Buddhists feel they have the best chance of offering something useful. But the meetings have also addressed life sciences more broadly, and quantum physics and cosmology.

RB: You are also a poet. Do you consider your poetry as a spiritual practice and, if so, how?

ZH: Ideally, yes, though I haven’t given it the sustained discipline that a spiritual practice truly needs, or that I gave to translating Rumi. Poetry tends to be what I write when time is limited. Typical poetry-rich times for me were the years of parenting, or working in a high-tech environment, or on long editing projects like the Mind and Life books, when short forms were all I could manage for myself on the side. Also, if I’m working on long form creative writing, then the poetry urge becomes subsumed or embedded in the prose.

But I do think of it as a spiritual practice because the thought that wants to express itself as poetry tends to be what can’t easily be expressed in more rational modes. It begs a manner of expression that’s more subtle, or slant, or layered, or translucent, or suspended between shifts in voice—or whatever solution appears—because it’s an attempt to capture something ineffable in words. To remain still enough to perceive what can’t be expressed, and then still enough to receive some manner of solution to the problem that can’t be solved—that’s the spiritual practice.

RB: As a playwright, a few years ago, you said “I want my theatre to matter. In order for it to do that, I’ve got to address issues that really matter.” What issues really matter to you now?

ZH: That quote is from an interview thirty years ago, for a play that I wrote about homelessness. Issues of social justice matter to me very much but over time I’ve been more inclined to look inward at deeper sources of change—the mechanisms of empathy, breaking down prejudice, embracing the other, fixing oneself at the root in ways that create a more viable relationship with the rest of the world. In other words, doing the spiritual work to make yourself available for the work of social justice. It goes beyond finding a balance of contemplative and active life, or marshalling limited resources to prevent burn-out. Rather, it’s about what it means to commit to impossible tasks wholeheartedly, the deep ethics of optimism.

RB: You have also pioneered the development of virtual reality as an art form, with Tamiko Thiel, in the installation Beyond Manzanar. Can you say more about this?

ZH: In 1995, Tamiko and I were working on the early development of 3D multi-user virtual environments, including what later became Second Life. It was an unusual situation, creating in a medium where conventions were as yet undetermined and where the programming team was responding directly to our explorations in pilot projects. For example, we were deciding such issues as whether facial expressions or articulated limbs were a higher priority for avatars, and whether to allow assumed identities. The idea for the art installation came out of personal circumstance that by chance intersected with this production environment and then evolved over several years.

The starting point was a virtual reconstruction of the prison camp at Manzanar in California where Japanese-American families were interned during WWII, and where the high desert bears a striking resemblance to the landscape of Iran. It moves from a realistic reconstruction of the camp into hypothetical parallels drawn from the present xenophobia aimed at Middle-Easterners. The piece is an immersive environment that the user explores, with a kind of narrative unfolding that seems responsive to the user’s choices, but holds its own arc regardless. The environment transforms as you move through it, for example barbed wire in the distance becoming lines of poetry up close. The limits on navigation reinforce the sense of physical imprisonment, but also allow movement into interior spaces of memory and of healing, such as idealized gardens hidden inside the desert prison.

The collaborative process was very thoughtful and deeply personal. We used material from both our families’ experience as immigrants, and Tamiko’s as internees, as well as the art of Japanese and Iranian gardens and poetry from both sides, and so it was in part a cultural dialogue. One of the more interesting challenges was balancing the weight of a sad history that needed to be honoured with an imagined hypothetical, which unfortunately has become heavier and more real with each passing year.

RB: In her book The Search for Spirituality, Ursula King states that “Dialogue among people of different faiths can help to open up and transform…..It can bring about a spiritual renewal. But it is important to recognize that creative dialogue about spirituality is not and cannot remain restricted to people of religious adherence. It must embrace the secular world to make a difference”. Do you agree with this statement?

ZH: Yes, but…

In all but the most closed, fundamentalist religious societies, people of faith are engaging with the secular world constantly by default. Science is privileged as the arbiter of truth in our culture, and as the foundation of technology. If culture is what’s invisible to us, the air we breathe, then we’re all embracing the secular world regardless of our spiritual life. Perhaps the secular world needs to make an effort to understand spirituality more deeply as a real and necessary aspect of what it is to be human, and not as a vestigial trait from the benighted past. Without knowing the context King is speaking from, I don’t want to ramble too far with this, but what often passes for dialogue is just an exercise in mapping the regions where our worlds concur and where we agree to disagree. It’s as likely to lead to complacency and projection as to renewal unless something is challenged more deeply.

At the beginning of the Mind and Life dialogue between science and Buddhism, a decision was made to bracket the metaphysical assumptions on either side and focus on praxis. I think the scientists were often quite naïve about how the ground rules they had set favoured their side of the discussion. As good secularists, they assumed their own metaphysical assumptions were absent or well attenuated, and they weren’t aware how graciously the Buddhists were accommodating them.

That patient and often unacknowledged graciousness has been an important contribution to the success of the dialogue, which is only to say that dialogue sometimes moves forward in subtle ways that are not obvious to the participants. And it has been successful, not just in the many areas where Buddhist practices are being mined by psychology and neuroscience, but also with the beginnings of so-called contemplative science expanding the very tools available to scientific enquiry, or in the work that Evan Thompson and others are doing to open the doors of Western philosophy and admit the great Indian Buddhist philosophers as equals worthy of study.

RB: Your book, Consciousness at the Crossroads, came about as a result of meetings with HH the Dalai Lama and a group of eminent neuroscientists and psychiatrists.

The concept of consciousness is omnipresent in the fields of neuroscience, quantum physics and spirituality. In neuroscience, it represents the highest and least understandable component of brain function, unescapable but difficult to describe, its mechanism(s) remaining somewhat elusive. The dominant view in this field is that consciousness is an emergent product of the brain. In quantum physics, the relevance of the observer brings it into the centre of discussions about interpretations of reality. Science and spirituality are often seen as two incompatible approaches to reality.

Are they incompatible and, if so, what do you think can be done to bridge this gap? Would you say that there are there forms of consciousness so subtle that science has not yet identified them?

ZH: To some scientists, spirituality is a weasel word that has no more meaning than “beyond the reach of science,” which makes them incompatible by definition. Separate but equal is as much a fallacy here as it has been in other realms—see your final question on interdependence below. Both are human endeavours that have claimed a god’s-eye-view in different ways, and I believe that a truer view of reality can be found right here at ground level if you look very closely.

I am intrigued by aspects of consciousness that are really quite mundane but can transcend our assumptions in subtle ways. For example, the identification of consciousness with the brain assumes a singular point of view, but when you start to think of consciousness in terms of the embodied mind—not a product of the brain in isolation, but a function of the totality of our interaction with the environment—why stop at the individual? Does empathy exist only as a singular point of view? When an audience feeds an actor’s energy, or a crowd behaves in ways that its individuals separately would not, or when collaboration generates something greater than the sum of its parts, we don’t need spooky explanations about other forms of consciousness. Psychology seems adequate from where we stand. But if we’re going to describe consciousness as an emergent property, then if we draw the circle of the substrate larger than a single brain, we see subtly different kinds of properties emerging. And if the circle is not bound by synchrony, if it becomes large enough to include Shakespeare’s brain as well as my own, then other properties emerge.

I think the failing in the current understanding may be not that consciousness is assumed to be an emergent property, but that we have too limited and dismissive a view of what an emergent property is. If you think of information or meaning as emergent properties of raw data intersecting with a particular angle of view, then maybe if you move the camera and adjust the lens, consciousness itself comes into focus. Of course that’s just the metaphor in my own mind, and I’m not the one designing the research or doing the math. I’m just putting words on paper and sometimes they resolve into poems. Is poetry an emergent property of language?

RB: William James proposed that the mind should be studied not only by way of behaviour and brain functions, but should include introspection. Scientists have taken up the first two very keenly, but have been reluctant to take up the method of introspection. Recently, the practice of what is called ‘contemplative science’ has been called for, a coming together of ‘contemplative’ (meditative) and ‘scientific’ methods of inquiry.  How might science and contemplative practice collaborate in the study of consciousness and what, if any, do you see as the benefits of such a collaboration?

ZH: The notion of contemplative science has roots in phenomenology, but is also informed by developments in more conventional scientific approaches to the study of meditation. There’s a growing awareness that mental training has a role to play in how we study consciousness. Subjects who have done many thousands of hours of meditation will give you different results than subjects without such training.

Traditional meditation practices that involve observing one’s own mind, and tracking one’s progress against particular markers of experience, offer a language that can inform what scientists choose to observe. They may not buy the conceptual framework that the tradition uses to explain the experience or motivate the practice, but still there’s a rich new source of data worth exploring. And if a scientist in turn takes up the practice and invests time personally in the training, another source of insight becomes available.

At least that’s the intention. Whether you can isolate a phenomenology of consciousness from the culture that shapes its contents is a question that has hardly registered. So we see studies of mindfulness practices derived from Buddhism applied in a military context, or the practices touted as a technique for productivity enhancement in business, with little regard for how removing them from their ethical and philosophical universe may change their efficacy or their very nature.

Contemplative science has parallels with gonzo anthropology, which has been very productive of genuine insights but also destabilized the whole field. I doubt neuroscience is in any danger, but it will be interesting to see what cracks turn into openings.

RB: The aim of this issue of the Interalia Magazine is to explore the interdependence between Art, Science, Mind and Life. Do you consider that there is an interdependence and what are your views on how this can be further encouraged?    

ZH: Let’s start from the fundamental assumption of the interdependence of everything. Then we can work on erasing the blind spots where we don’t see the interdependence.

An educational system that separates the science and arts tracks doesn’t help, and usually devalues the arts in the process. I remember my horror the day my chemistry teacher placed me in the science track without even asking me. I was very good at chemistry, and it never occurred to him that someone who was capable of doing science might actually prefer to study literature, or might even dream of being a writer. I hope that’s ancient history now, but I think integrated and holistic approaches to education are key.

Sometimes complacency sets in when we rely on obvious strategies—art that looks to science as a source of content or inspiration, science that studies the processes of creativity. Each side is still treating the other as an object, everyone in their proper bubble and no one challenged. (Of course mere presence can have an effect, that graciousness I spoke of earlier.)

True collaboration is challenging. If you’re going to open yourself deeply to the other side, you may have to jettison your rules and improvise new ones midway through the game. That’s far easier at the individual level than institutionally, which is why art may be a more available lever than science has been. Many artists, particularly in theatre, have conceived of their work as a laboratory experiment; that’s an open door. Some of the finest scientists I’ve had the good fortune to know are married to musicians, artists, dancers. Their kids are amazing. I suspect the answers will appear where we least expect them.

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