July 8, 2016

The Nature of the Mind & Why our Brains Need a Vacation.

the mind brain

Contrary to what we might believe, it is not how we “handle” or “deal with” others that helps control our stress level, but how we handle our own mind that determines how we feel about our life in general.

This single solitary idea is the very core of all meditative traditions, and tells us that we might have a better grasp on reality and find better ground underfoot if we can learn to be more comfortable with our judgments, reactions, and internal awareness.

This is not complicated. Most of us are more than familiar with the feeling of clutter and chatter that tends to rule our mental life.

Let it go this weekend. Take your brain on vacation.

The way the mind works, the rapidity of free associations, of jumping from one image, speech fragment or memory to the next is overwhelming for most of us. More and more people complain of insomnia and daytime anxiety caused by the erratic zigzagging of the mind. For some people, especially those afflicted with anxiety or any one of the thousands of “disorders” in the DSM-5, experiencing our very own mind is often too intense. For some, this is the root of medication, addiction and often depression.

In modern society, we prefer to be distracted by external stimuli—texting, devices, internet ads, video games, dating sites—all made to distract the mind. Desperate not to be left alone within our mind, to avoid having to feel and think, we turn to our constant electronic companions to check for incoming messages. It is quite a conundrum, and not exactly new. For millennia, spiritualists, religious teachers, scientists, and philosophers have sought to unravel the mind and its relationship to self.

What I will not do here is delve into meditation techniques or spiritual aphorisms, I think it best to spare the reader from more of this talk. However, what I would like to address (and plan to do so continuously) is the “normative” mode of mind that we are acquainted with, most especially now, as an emergent artificial intelligence becomes commonplace.

When I graduated college, I was still rather stupid. Sitting amidst a table of relatives and family friends, I announced proudly, “I am not going to go to work! I am going to be a writer and study Eastern Religion!” The subdued response I received was memorable. I recall my great aunt, who till her death encouraged me to write, said “Good fah you Louis!” in her thick Boston accent. Other than that, it was mostly crickets, creaking chairs and clinking glasses.

Not to be discouraged, I set off immediately to live in Asia. Over the course of the next five years I studied with Hindu, Zen, and Tibetan teachers. I was offered the opportunity to pursue my vows in 1999, but refused them, which to some degree, I regret to this day.

My point is that even after nearly six years of academic training in philosophy another five studying Eastern religion, and 20 years of living later, I still did not understand the human condition. I do, however, understand a little bit about my own mind, my own self and my suffering. I am not ever quite sure of what this is, who I am, or what I am doing here.

I invite the most confident amongst you to ask these exact questions and see what arises for you.

Most theories of the mind and brain in the established scientific world are biological in nature. The Mindful Brain (1978), written by Gerald Edelman, explains his theory of Neural Darwinism, which is built around the idea of plasticity of the human brain response to the environment. His second book, Topobiology (1988), proposes a theory of how the original neuronal network of a newborn’s brain is established during development of the embryo.

In his books, Edelman proposes a fundamentally biological theory of consciousness, based on his studies of the immune system. He explicitly located his theory within Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, citing the key tenets of Darwin’s population theory, which postulates that individual variation within species provides the basis for the natural selection that eventually leads to the evolution of new species.

Unexpectedly, Edelman rejects dualism and also dismisses “computational” models of consciousness, which liken the brain’s functions to the operations of a computer. Edelman argues that the mind and consciousness are purely biological phenomena, arising from complex cellular processes within the brain, and that the development of consciousness and intelligence can be explained by Darwinian theory.

In comparison, the Tibetan philosophy of mind is considered soteriological. Soteriology refers to the notion that the meditative practices themselves are the best mode of inquiry into the mind itself. This would mean that no matter what we know about the brain’s architecture, contemplation allows a practitioner to experience the real reflexive nature of their mind directly.

This unobstructed knowledge of one’s primordial, empty and non-dual Buddha-nature is called Rigpa. The mind’s inner life is described among various schools as pure luminosity or “bright light” and is often compared to a crystal ball or a mirror. The Tibetan teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche speaks of mind thus:

“Imagine a sky, empty, spacious, and pure from the beginning; its essence is like this. Imagine a sun, luminous, clear, unobstructed, and spontaneously present; its nature is like this.”

In Zen, the central issue regarding the philosophy of mind is the difference between the pure and awakened mind and the “defiled” mind. Chinese Chan master Huangpu described the mind as without beginning, form, or limit. The defiled mind is that which is obscured by miscomprehension of form and concepts—in other words, a mind that could not bring itself to conceive that there is no basis for it, nor, for that matter, self. In this state of emptiness (called sunyata) the pure Buddha-mind is thus able to see things “as they truly are,” as absolute and non-dual “thusness” (Tathatā).

These ideas are profoundly expanded in the Shobogenzo (my all-time favorite book). The Japanese philosopher Dogen argued that body and mind are neither ontologically nor phenomenologically distinct, but are characterized by a oneness called shin jin (bodymind). According to Dogen, “casting off body and mind” (Shinjin datsuraku) in Zazen will allow one to experience things-as-they-are (genjokoan), which is the nature of original enlightenment (hongaku).

I continued to study the mind during my professional career, especially when the medical establishment decided it was best to medicate the soul out of me from 2003 until nearly 2012, to treat bouts of serious depression. Fortunately, between therapy, exercise and diet changes, I was able to give up medication. I was also recently invited to take part in two kinds of studies. One involves what happens to the mind while isolated in an immersion tank, and the other involves the ethical dimensions associated with the brain-cloud interface, or tiny nano-medical implants in the neocortex.

Of course, I find all of this ironic. My long-standing interest aside, given all the recent chatter about artificial intelligence, we still barely understand what actual consciousness is from a biological or any other perspective.

What passes now for the most basic level “intellectual modes of thinking” is comprised mostly of knowing and repeating certain data points—knowledge. Extrapolating further information and conceptualizing more novel ideas or expressions are perhaps the next steps in what is the complicated ladder of human consciousness. What we are referring to is perhaps cognitive and intellectual ability, which is different. We also know that the West has bifurcated mind from body beginning with Descartes. Whereas knowledge about the more than two-millennia-old Eastern tradition of investigating the mind from the inside, from an interior, subjective point of view, now support recent insights provided by an empirical model of the West to “probe the brain and its behavior” using a third-person, reductionist framework.

What the contemplative traditions bring to the table are scores of meditation techniques to develop mindfulness, concentration, insight, serenity, wisdom and, it is hoped, in the end, enlightenment. These revolve around a daily practice of quiet yet alert sitting and letting the mind settle before embarking on a particular program, such as “focused attention” or the objectless practice of generating a state of “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion.” Many people report that after years of daily contemplative exercise, they can achieve considerable control over their mind.

The most extreme case of mind control we have an actual record of was the self-immolation of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in 1963 to protest the repressive regime in South Vietnam. What was so singular about this event, captured in haunting photographs that are among the most readily recognized images of the 20th century, was the calm and deliberate nature of his heroic act. While burning to death, Duc remained throughout in the meditative lotus position. He never moved a muscle or uttered a sound, as the flames consumed him and his corpse finally toppled over.

I am filled with utter bewilderment in the face of this singular event and would have found it difficult to accept as real, were it not captured in the testimony of hundreds of onlookers, including jaundiced journalists with their cameras.

The techniques practiced by Thich Quang Duc have been practiced by Buddhists of all stripes for millennia to quiet, focus and expand the mind—the interior aspect of the brain—and have in turn changed the brain that is the exterior dimension of the mind. Moreover, the more training, the more control, as evidenced by Duc’s sad example.

Physicists, psychologists, brain scientists, and clinicians are now realizing that the contemplative traditions share enormous commonality with quantum mechanics, neuroscience, consciousness and various clinical aspects of brain science.

Tokushō Bassui, a great Zen monk who lived a very long time ago, advises us,

“When you are lost, you are like ice; you are always disintegrating, and everything around you is disintegrating. You cannot stop this. So hang loose, and never mind ‘the falling apart.’ Never mind the disintegration. Do not try to [repair] things that do not fit together.”

Later on, a Rinzai Zen monk named Soen Nagakawa (one of the founders of a tradition I studied in) added to this and said,

“Monk Bassui points to the truth, he says, ‘We are enlightened, but like a vase with a crack in it, always a little water is leaking out.’”

That crack is human life or the reality of our resistance to change, otherwise known as suffering. Our misapprehension of the truth of our circumstance, personally and universally, is why we suffer. Try as we might block our ears and eyes, or buy as much comfort as we can, misfortune visits all of us eventually, if only to take us in death.

Many of us feel lost, upset, like we do not know where our feet are—that is the crack in the vase again, isn’t it? The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering. Of course, no one likes the sound of that!

Maybe life is just life, and our brains need a vacation.


Author: Louis D. LoPraeste

Image: derekdavalos/Deviantart 

Editors: Emily Bartran; Catherine Monkman

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