How This Course Was Born 

A question that I am often asked, after the first gasp of amazement when they hear the title of the course, is “How was the course born?” “How did you come to think about all these different disciplines at once and their interconnections on this particular subject?”

To answer these questions now, I need to share with you how I came to be interested and knowledgeable about the subjects we discuss in this course, and what led me to create it.

Let’s begin with Borges.

Jorge Luis Borges and Amelia Barili conversing in 1986

I had the pleasure to meet Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina, in 1980, when I returned to Buenos Aires after working for several years at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) in London and, as the book review editor of La Prensa, was preparing a special number for the International Book Fair on “El libro y la palabra” with contributions from famous Argentine writers. Borges received me very kindly and shared with me that La Prensa was the first major newspaper to publish his work, when he was not so well known yet, and that it was also the first to invite him to give a public lecture in its prestigious circle. Smiling, he confided that he wrote the lecture, but a friend of his, the writer Arturo Capdevila, had to read it to the public because he was too shy to deliver it himself.

I came back often to talk to Borges, and share a walk and simple meal at a nearby restaurant. Our common interest in oriental philosophies, the old English language, and the cosmogonies of Iceland and Sweden, fostered a friendship that lasted until his death in 1986. The New York Times published under the title “Borges on Life and Death”, our last dialogue in which we explore metaphysical insights present in his work.  Talking with Borges was an amazing experience, any word could send us through journeys into other languages and cultures–through a verse of a poem that he recited, or the etymological roots of that word, and its ancient origins–or into a critique of Argentine history and of human customs and modes of being. I admire his probing mind, his humor and intellectual courage, and have dedicated a good part of my life to study his work.

I have taught many courses on Borges at UCB and other institutions, and have presented new perspectives about aspects of his work that have eluded the attention of his critics before. Among those new perspectives are, for example, his interest in shamanism, and in oriental philosophies; his fascination with the concept of “inteligencia americana” and the possibility of subverting canonical influences by choosing to write from the margins of cultural traditions and about those margins; the continuity that exists between his work and that of the Latin American writers of the New Latin American Narrative of the sixties, of which he was a precursor as several of them–Rulfo, García Márquez, Cortázar, Fuentes and others–have publicly declared.

Another continuity never explored before, perhaps because we tend to separate in silos writers of various cultural backgrounds, is the one that exists between the work of Borges and that of Chicana writer and theorist of bilingualism and multiculturalism, Gloria Anzaldúa; both share a common interest in identity and marginality, and in blurring rigidly drawn borders, giving voice to the margins to reclaim their existence as powerful centers of meaning.

Among my writings on Borges are:

my book “Jorge Luis Borges y Alfonso Reyes. La cuestión de la Identidad del escritor latinoamericano”, with prologue by Elena Poniatowska;
and my articles: “Marginalidad y Chamanismo en Jorge Luis Borges y Jose MaríBorges-Reyes-Book.jpga Arguedas”; “Shamanic Dreams and Experiences in Jorge Luis Borges y Jose María Arguedas”;

“De brújulas y nepantlas: Identidad y Fronteras en Borges y Anzaldúa”:

“Borges, Reyes y las encrucijadas del latinoamericanismo”, and

“Lo único que existe es el olvido”, about Borges’ interest in Icelandic sagas, several of which he translated.

My interview “Borges, un tejedor de sueños” published in La Prensa was included in “Obras Completas de Jorge Luis Borges” published by Emecé Editores in 2003.

I am now preparing a book on Borges, Buddhism and Cognitive Science.

My interest in Buddhism pre-dates my friendship with Borges.

I have studied Buddhism on my own and with teachers, during my youth in Argentina, and also in India, England and here in the USA. I have been teaching contemplative practices and meditation at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery and other centers for human development for almost twenty years.

As a university professor and a long time practitioner and teacher of Taoist and yogic spiritual practices (Classical Yoga is a whole system of contemplative practices), I have always been interested in assisting my students to learn from direct experience and to cultivate ways of intuitive knowing that can be accessed through contemplative techniques. I have, for example, been able to implement in my Spanish writing classes some easy contemplative practices presenting them as gateways to transition from intellectual discussions to creative writing, and as ways of focusing the mind before presentations. Students often comment that the peace achieved during those brief meditations stays with them for the rest of the day, enhancing their participation in other courses too.

Because I have directly experienced the amazing results of meditation as a space where insights manifest, I wanted to provide to my students the tools they would need to experience that space in a more regular basis, but I had to face my own fears about suggesting to introduce in an academic environment a course with a contemplative methodology and an experiential learning component.


On the other hand, working with the students I have sensed more and more that our times demand that we integrate into our teaching a contemplative methodology that fosters insight. We are in the midst of a content explosion that quickly outdates any instruction based on content alone. Further, students are increasingly anguished, and it is important that they find ways to more deeply understand this vast amount of information, to sort out what matters to them and to their communities, and to create new meaning from what is presented to them. It is our task to prepare students for a world of rapid change and a future filled with uncertainties. Students in this new millennium will have to be able to think for themselves and be self-initiating, self-modifying, and self-directing. They will require skills that cannot be gained by learning content alone.

We need a paradigm shift in education. Universities need to be sources of creative solutions and of engaged citizens. They should be centers of transformation, not just repositories of information. As E. F. Schumacher pointed out, education can only help us prevent ecological catastrophe if it is education of a different kind: an education that takes us into the depth of things. Or in the words of David Theo Goldberg, director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI), an education in our times demands “revisioned modes of translating ourselves to ourselves. They demand modes of creative and insightful thinking equal to the challenges of being human today, in all their—our—complexities.”

One of my sources of inspiration on how to achieve this was Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer, who suggests that instead of seeing ourselves as faculty dedicated to teaching disciplinary content, we can become more involved in assisting students on learning to learn, or what she calls “Mindful Learning”. [1]

Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer

In what reminded me of Buddhist psychology, she recommends:

* Teaching conditionally

  • Make it clear that there are no basic facts, they depend on the context, and the context is temporary since we are always adding to it or modifying it.

* Teaching relationally

  • Enable the student to take the new information, link it to prior knowledge, and then use it in some new way. Students can explain the new information in different terms, manipulate it to achieve different ends, and apply it to distinct, novel situations. We want to move from the usual impersonal way of learning to deep sustained learning, a state where students learn to own the material. To achieve that, it is better for the brain to figure out the meaning of the information in different contexts and to discover how to read the information in novel ways.

Watch this provoking presentation by Ellen Langer about mindfulness over matter, and about innovation and the process of learning:

Her recommendations gave me the idea of creating a course that would combine different fields of study, and of using contemplative practices as methods of open enquiry. The course would be a concrete example of embodied learning.

From my conversations with Borges, I knew of his interest in Buddhism and of his book ¿Qué es el Budismo? which he had written in1976, when he was already blind, with his friend and fellow member of the Argentine Academy of Letters Alicia Jurado. This little-known aspect of Borges’ work allowed me to introduce the course in our Department. The connection between Borges and Buddhism and between Buddhism and cognitive science made possible a course that would explore all three art, philosophy and science, employing a methodology that would include self-reflection and meditation.

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Borges with the group of the literary magazine Sur: Silvina Ocampo, Bioy Casares, Alicia Jurado and Enrique Pezzoni

Cognitive Science

Before I created the course, I have been studying Cognitive Science for over a decade, on my own and in dialogue with friends who are experts in this field. I was/am fascinated with the resonances that exist between Buddhist philosophy and the cutting edge discoveries of Neurobiology and Cognitive Science about the role of experience in shaping the brain–and the whole nervous system-, and with the way these findings can inform our teaching and learning today.

I am particularly interested in the comprehensive research done in the Mind & Life Institute, through the collaboration of the Dalai Lama with neurobiologists and cognitive science experts from all over the world, and especially with one of the founders of Cognitive Science, the Chilean neurobiologist Francisco Varela. My own research on these subjects, was sparkled by my dialogues with my dear friend, physicist, and system analyst, Fritjof Capra,  with whom I co-lead a workshop on “Deep Ecology in Arts and Science” and another on “The Emerging Consciousness” about the parallels and convergences between the most recent scientific findings about the nature of experience, and the teaching of spiritual traditions of India and China, as well as their possible applications for sustainability and transformation at a social and individual level.

Fritjof Capra and Amelia Barili co-leading the “Emerging Consciousness” workshop

Having lived and worked in five continents, I have always been prone to interdisciplinary and multicultural thinking, but after my conversations with Fritjof, I couldn’t stop thinking, and wanting to learn more, about the ways these two seemingly divorced fields of science and spirituality, and of academia and contemplative practices could actually enrich each other. With the help of a grant from the UC Berkeley Language Center, I dedicated myself to study how could we apply these cutting edge scientific findings to the way we teach.

I found that these fundamental principles established by Cognitive Scientists, and expanded in Fritjof’s book Hidden Connections, pointed to new ways of teaching and learning.

1) The mind/body split is artificial. Descartes was wrong. Body and mind are not two independent and separated realms. Mind is not a “thinking thing” (res cogitans) separated from matter (res extensa). We cannot call them “phenomena” either. As Humberto Maturana points out in his recent book The Origins of Humanness in the Biology of Love, even the use of the word phenomena is problematic and indicative of an older way of thinking. In short, mind is not an entity but an embodied process. Mind in this sense is the process of cognition involved in the process of life.

2) Life and cognition are inseparably connected. Cognition involves the entire process of life, including perception, emotion, and behavior. The interactions of a living organism with its environment are cognitive interactions.

3) Cognition is not the representation of an independently existing world but rather a continual bringing forth of a world through the entire interactive process of living. According to the Santiago Theory of Cognition developed by neuroscientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, “To live is to know.”

4) Communication is not a transmission of information but a coordination of behavior between living organisms. Learning is a self-reflecting experience. Both the teacher and the student are cognitive organisms in process.

Francisco Varela

Connecting the dots during my studies of recent scientific findings about the ways we learn, I realized that these four cognitive principles are complemented by the following principles based on the most recent discoveries in neurobiology:

1) The Principle of Neuroplasticity. Experience changes the function of the brain itself. New pathways are continually being carved out among the 100 billion neurons in the brain, and these can support ongoing learning and enrich our mental health well into our nineties. How we think and feel affects our brain and our capacity for further thinking and feeling. Therefore, it is clearly important to actively shape the nature of our experiences in ways that keep the mind thriving and that foster habits of lifelong learning. This principle is also present in the Buddhist teaching that our future is wide open and that we should take care to be mindful of our actions because we are actively creating pathways and tendencies and shaping our capacity for further development. Moreover, Buddhism acknowledges not only that experience alters consciousness but that consciousness alters experience in a continuous loop.

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2) Reflective Coherence. Neuroplasticity requires internal attunement. In practice this means attuning our attention to our intention. Optimal learning happens when these two dimensions are attuned. This is not just an alignment of traditional dichotomies such as heart and brain, emotion and intellect, or desire and reason but an actual total resonance of all functions, demonstrating that we need to look at this phenomenon as dynamic interactions of these different capacities feeding into one another in resonant patterning. This resonance, or the lack of it, shapes our perceptions and our capacity to understand and learn.

3) Awareness of Self and Other. The internal attunement that fosters neuroplasticity is mediated by the social resonance circuits of the brain, including the mirror-neuron system and related areas of the prefrontal cortex that map the self as observed and observing self. In other words, learners learn best when heart and brain are not at odds but resonating together and when they can meaningfully connect their intra- and inter- personal selves. Learning is indeed an embodied and social experience. Put otherwise, learning happens best when the heart is involved.

The results of my research with the UC Berkeley Fellowship were summarized in my article:

“Learning to Learn: Neurobiology and Cognitive Science as Basis of Autonomous Learning. Principles and Applications” published in 2008 in the UC Berkeley Language Center Newsletter.

This research notched me a bit closer to creating the course. The integrated approach to learning, that I discovered and reflected upon during that year, involving fundamental principles of cognitive science and neurobiology about the role of the experience in any process of learning, struck me as very Buddhist. I decided to design a course that would based on these principles of cognitive science and neurobiology and would include a contemplative methodology, for students to learn, in an experiential way, the basic principles and practices of Buddhism, to better understand those principles, and the subject Borges wrote about in his book “¿Qué es el Budismo?” and alluded to in some of his autobiographical poems and essays, as well as short stories. After learning the fundamental principles of Buddhism and Cognitive Science, we would explore traces of Buddhism in Borges philosophical and existential perspective that deepened his critical inquiry and enabled him to anticipate in his stories, in an uncanny way, some of the most recent findings in the sciences of the mind.

That is how this course, “Borges, Buddhism, and Cognitive Science” was conceived.

You can find out more about the Methodology of the course clicking in this link:

and on my article Borges, Buddhism and Cognitive Science. A New Approach to Applied Cognitive Science and Contemplative Studies Across Disciplines.” published in Religion East and West. Journal of the Institute for World Religions No. 9, in October 2009.

I have kept studying and researching, and my new findings are the basis of my courses on “Each One Helps One: Neuroplasticity in Action”, “Meditation,Volunteering and Neuroplasticity” which I teach at the UCB Osher Life Long Learning Institute. In these courses, experiential learning, self-inquiry and contemplative practices, are integrated as a methodology to study how to cultivate positive neuroplasticity through learning about neuroplasticty from experts in the subject, and through a lab component of serving in NGOs that assist immigrants and refugees with their difficult transition to make US their home. To learn more about these courses, please visit my website.

Many students and colleagues tell me they would like to take the “Borges, Buddhism and Cognitive Science” course, or at least, see the materials we study and discuss. Now, with the help of a grant from the UCB Center for Teaching and Learning, we are creating this website (in Spanish and English) to share some of the materials of the course, and showcase the work our students do in it. A special thanks goes to Hector Silahua for his dedication and good work in creating these two websites. Enjoy it! And, please, remember to link back to this website if you use any of its materials. Thank you.

[1] Ellen J. Langer, The Power of Mindful Learning (Cambridge, MA: Lifelong Books, 1997)AA