The Scientist and The Baker

By Lisa Ernst

Most people who take up meditation will find over time that they are drawn to a particular practice style that becomes their foundational approach. Usually the approach will tend either toward what I call the “scientist” orientation or the “baker” orientation.

The scientist gets to know the object of his or her study through objective observation. This is a classic Vipassana style of practice, where the meditator uses an object of concentration to still and focus the mind. The value of this practice is in allowing the practitioner to observe arising phenomena such as physical sensations, emotions and thoughts without becoming swept away by attachment, aversion and personal identification.  Through committed practice, the meditator gains experiential insight into impermanence, suffering and no-self.

Bakers like to get their hands dirty, to put them in the flour and other ingredients and work with them as an extension of their bodies.  Through repeated practice, bakers lose the separation of themselves and the ingredients, diving deeply into immediate experience of baking.  In meditation, this style is known as direct experience, where the meditator immerses him or herself in whatever is arising and becomes “one” with it, losing a sense of fixed self and dissolving into emptiness. This sometimes challenging approach is associated with Zen and certain Tibetan forms of meditation, although it can be found in some Vipassana approaches as well.

I use the analogy of baking because, unlike other forms of cooking, it is a science. Without very specific ingredients in measured quantities, baking will fail. So without the underlying science to support the recipes, bakers won’t achieve successful outcomes.  Conversely, bakers provide sustenance for the scientists, resulting in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Although most meditators tend toward the scientist or baker style as their primary practice orientation, often they move between the two as needed as they become more experienced.

Which practice approach most closely fits your own?

“Seekers who disdain clamor to seek quietude are as it were throwing away flour but seeking cake. Cake is originally flour, which changes according to use. Afflictions are none other than enlightenment.”

–Pao-Chih, from THE ZEN READER