Friday, May 25, 2007

Anatomy of motorway congestion

I have a one hour drive to and from work every day. Because of this I start to notice certain patterns I didn't see before.

For example, motorway congestion almost always follows the same pattern.

1. Traffic in the fast lane slows down so that there is little difference between the fast and the middle lane
2. Quite suddenly, the traffic slows down dramatically. This almost always affects the fast lane first, then the middle lane, then the slow lane. This is because the slowing of the traffic is like a wave which is transmitted backwards along the route and faster traffic transmits it faster.
3. At this point it is best to head into the middle or or slow lane. Most people don't realise this and pile into the fast lane in frustration, slowing it down more.
4. As the worst of the congestion passes, the pattern changes - the traffic in the fast lane starts to speed up first. At this point, it's best to get back into the fast lane.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sesshin and ordination

Next week I'll be in sesshin for a week - the longest ever for me. Not only that but I'll be taking my 'Bodhisattva ordination' (a fancy name for Jukai /taking the precepts/taking refuge).

However, before I can do that I have to finish sewing my rakusu and there's still loads to do!

Wish me luck!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Zen Mind and Ordinary Mind

Several years ago I came across an interesting article on Zen in the Karate discussion website . I can't find the article now, but as far as I recall Rob Redmond criticised Zen meditation saying that it was 'just' the reduction of abstract thought, freeing up mental bandwidth for awareness of the present, in other words, it has no deep significance.

In a sense, this is right. Our ordinary conciousness consists largely of projections into the past, future and hypothetical situations. As the illustration above suggests, in this state out attention is largely temporal (forwards and backwards in time), leaving very little mental bandwith for awareness of the reality of what is actually occurring. Not only that, but (given the current impossibility of time travel) experiencing the past and future is impossible, so all of this awareness is virtual - it is hypothesised from what is going on now, such as memories and predictions based on deduction, intuition and experience. We take these abstractions for truth or reality and the process of projection and identification with past and future events causes us to see our life in terms of continuous existence. We wonder whether this continuity will cease with physical death or continue into an afterlife.

When we do zazen or similar meditation, this virtual activity quietens down and we become aware of what is actually going on. I don't mean that we suddenly gain special access to what is thought of as 'objective reality' or Kantian 'things-in-themselves'. But we experience the events of our life unmediated by thought - we experience the sounds of our breathing or sounds from outside directly, in all it's uniqueness and familiarity and it's indescribable complexity. We can feel the causal reverberations of the universe. We can't find anything (other than convention) to distinguish between the events in 'ourselves' from those 'outside'. Seeing our memories as experiences that literally 'we' did or didn't have no longer seems to mean much. The idea of annihilation or continuity into afterlife no longer seem to mean much. Instead memories and anticipations are just mental events occuring now - one more aspect of the relentless surge of change without real begining and end, which is the real nature of this life. To experience this is to experience Ku, Sunyata, emptiness.

I used to think that the aim of Zen was to exist in this state permenantly. However, this is impractical - we need memory and anticipation to survive. Also to see this state as real and the ordinary state as false or inferior is to create one more duality and duality is the activity of samsara, the deluded mind. The true aim of Zen as I understand it, is to find this emptiness in meditation and contemplation and to realise that when we meditate we are not creating emptiness nor are we moving from non-emptiness to emptiness - rather, we are paying attention to the emptiness which is the actual nature of all of our existence, whatever we are doing, whatever our state of mind. There never was a continuous self, nor continuous entities of any sort. There is only a vast rippling matrix of interdependent cause and effect. Looking inwards or outwards we can find no continuity. What we thought was the continuous existence of ourselves is really change. Whether we realise it or not existence is empty of self - whether we are in a 'zen state' or an 'ordinary state' there is no continuous self. We don't need to be in a special state to make emptiness real. The only thing that makes a difference in this respect is seeing the nature of things or not and how this affects our experience of living. In this sense ordinary mind and zen mind are already one, samsara and nirvana are not different.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Self and brain

The last time I did zazen it was really very deep - there was almost no sense of self, only constantly shifting processes of sensation, feeling and thought. At one point the thought appeared that this was an unborn, undying state, neither eternal nor nonexistent, but free from birth and death.

I had just been reading a text, which had inspired me. But this wasn't a sutra or the writings of some mystic, it was a description of the issues surrounding consciousness and self from the perspective of neuroscience.

For some reason the author decided to write it from the perspective of a fiction person in the future.

...who's running the show? How does the brain, with its diverse and distributed functions, come to arrive at a unified sense of identity? "Soul" doesn't figure in the lexicon of neuroscience, but what about the soul's secular cousin, "self"? Could we speak of a person's brain without, ultimately, speaking of the person? Was the self merely the sum of its cerebral parts? The illusion of the ghost in the machine was compelling - the natural intuition that somewhere in the shadows of the brain there lurks an observing "I", an experiencer of experiences, thinker of thoughts and controller of actions.

This was hard to reconcile with the material facts (the vacant machinery that actually packs the skull) and it was plain to see that the mental operations underlying our sense of self - feelings, thoughts, memories - were dispersed throughout the brain. There was no homuncular assembly point where a little soul-pilot sat watching the dials of experience and pulling the levers of action. We were,
neuropsychologically speaking, all over the place. And anyway, who did we think was pulling the levers in the little soul-pilot's head? If we found a ghost in the machine we'd have to start looking for the machine in the ghost.

Belief in an inner essence, or central core, of personhood, was called "ego theory". The alternative, "bundle theory", made more neurological sense but offended our deepest intuitions. Too bad, I thought. We should learn to face facts. The philosopher Derek Parfit put it starkly: we are not what we believe ourselves to be. Actions and experiences are interconnected but ownerless. A human life consists of a long series - or bundle - of enmeshed mental states rolling like tumbleweed down the days and years, but with no one (no thing) at the centre. An embodied brain acts, thinks, has certain experiences, and that's all. There is no deeper fact about being a person. The enchanted loom of the brain does not require a weaver.

These discoveries and questions echo what has been taught in Buddhism for over two millenia - it's not exactly that the self doesn't exist, it's that rather than being an essence or something objectively real, it's a narrative that we tell ourselves and each other. In other words it is conventional truth rather than ultimate truth. Ultimately there are only processes in a constant state of change.

...Michael Gazzaniga, one of the great pioneers of cognitive neuroscience, pointed to a specialised left-hemisphere system - he called it "the Interpreter" - whose function was to wind disparate strands of brain function into a single thread of subjective experience. It worked by identifying patterns of activity across different brain modules and correlating these with events in the external world: it was a teller of tales. The minimal self gave us our sense of location and boundary, and our intuitions of agency - the feeling that we exercise
control over our actions. But these fundamentals of self-awareness were rather fragile constructs. Disturbances of temporal and parietal lobe function could cause profound dislocations of perception such as out-of-body experiences and autoscopic hallucinations (seeing one's body in extrapersonal space). Damage to the frontal lobes could disturb the sense of agency, with limbs developing a recalcitrant will of their own.

The extended self, too, was neurologically fragile. It could be gradually dismantled by dementia, or shattered by a sudden viral attack, the story of the self dissolved with the dissolution of memory. In contrast, a deep-brain stroke or injury to the frontal lobes could leave memory unaffected but recalibrate the machineries of emotion and temperament. The story continued, but the central character had changed beyond recognition. Sometimes the brain's story-telling mechanism itself broke down, resulting in the confabulation of fictional, often fantastical, autobiographical distortions. As science writer John McCrone put it, we are all just a stumble or burst blood vessel away from being someone else. Selfhood is malleable. That was the message.

The Big Questions: What is consciousness?

When I first came across these sorts of ideas as a psychology and philosophy undergraduate, I found them deeply disconcerting. It was one of the things that drew me to Buddhism - Derek Parfit was perhaps the last straw - I endeavored to find a positive and harmonious way of existing in this 'void' of no-self. But now such descriptions are a source of inspiration.