Francisco Varela

(1946-2001) Chilean MD, he got his PHd in biology at Harvard University

(1946-2001)  Chilean MD, he got his PHd in biology at Harvard University. He was a philosopher, neuroscientist and epistemologist. He worked, among many places, at the “Max Planck Institute for Brain Research” in Frankfurt.  In 1987 together with Adam Engle, Varela founded the Mind and Life Institute (MLI), initially to sponsor a series of dialogues between scientists and the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso on the relationship between modern science and Buddhism.

Umberta Telfener: We were in Spoleto during the Festival of the two worlds, invented and organized since 1958 by Giancarlo Menotti both in Umbria and in the USA (Charleston). It was late June. The Sigma-Tau Foundation had organized Spoleto-Scienza and a cycle of conferences `”What is knowledge”, coordinated by Lorena Preta and Pino Donghi. It was 1990. I was there as the translator of Heinz von Foerster. We were sitting on the steps in front of the Duomo when Francisco Varela arrived with his companion, a French psychoanalyst. Varela was calm and assertive, the others were immediately connecting with him and listening for what he had to say, as if he was a catalyst. He showed a very dense psychic specific weight, as if he were the force that illuminated others from within.  He climbed ‘naturally’ to the chair, even simply sitting on the steps that slope down towards the Cathedral.

Gianluca Bocchi: Varela wasn’t that much older than us. Yet his career appeared so rich that, despite knowing that he was young, we recognized him as “Master”, we positioned him as if he were a few generations older than us. Perhaps even the political events he experienced (he had to escape from Chile, go to the United States, Costa Rica, Paris) had matured him quickly. The opposite of von Foerster who was much older but closer to us generationally. Mauro and I had great respect for Varela. In certain things he was very humble but he also knew that he carried with him a very strong, important story. He seemed to want to speed up the times; it is no coincidence that he went to study with Maturana at the age of 16. Perhaps he had the feeling that, unfortunately, he would die young.
One word from a Masters – when they are masters – is enough to feeling it weighing as fundamental. I remember that we were in a bar in Milan, in an absolutely calm manner he commented: “You see, what the problem is, that our concepts must not be too sticky. They shouldn’t imprison us. We have to trust our concepts, but not too much.” In this comment there was all the essence of complexity. It was a question of posture, at the bar; that phrase had a huge impact on me. I understood what a master does, he doesn’t speak to tell you something from top to bottom but because in that moment that sentence is the profound meaning of his very long journey. In Varela I found an incredible hunger for knowledge: he seemed to know he was immersed in an immensely rich world and had the need to make syntheses. Varela, Morin and von Foerster are true masters for me, not only and not so much for what they proposed in terms of content but also and above all for their posture towards the world.

When we once spoke together about his Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, he was moved, paused and commented in a serious tone: “He was truly a master.” He transmitted to us in an asynchronous manner what he had personally experienced with the monk.

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