July 26, 2012
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The other day I posted a brief essay (of sorts) that continued my investigation into this notion that many of us have about our ‘self’… For over five years now I have been fortunate (or, some may say, unfortunate) enough to stumble upon many ‘seemingly’ unusual and/or socially counter-intuitive views to many Westernised ways or styles of thinking about things… These alternatives, being anything but wrong, from my perspective, have pushed my boat out way beyond what much of Western psychology and philosophy has ‘reasonably’ presumed about the universe in which we live… As well as how we, as sentient beings, relate to it. These ideas have – to say the least – drastically challenged my own personalised philosophies and ideas about what reality might actually be, as well as how I choose to live my life… Not to mention they have changed the way I think about nearly everything I thought I knew anything about i.e. social etiquette, certain scientific knowledge, logical reasoning, etc… doing so to the point that most of the certainties that I had stubbornly held on to over the years have now shown themselves to be – on the whole – nothing more than delusions that are about just as uncertain and biased towards their (or even my) own ends as Russell’s and Whitehead’s “Principia Mathematica” might have been theirs when set aside Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorems”.
Be it known… It has certainly never been my intention to undermine any of our Westernised ways of thinking, or any of our socially acceptable habits of being and/or notions of perceiving the world around us. Rather, my aim has always been to challenge any dogmatic certainties that we might have held cradled a bit to close to our psyches (much like Linus’ security/comfort blanket in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strips) and/or any overly cherished ‘certainties‘ that we may harbour in our ever-changing mind-streams while going about our busy daily lives on the surface of this planet… A jewel of a planet that ‘floats’ – almost miraculously – in an inky black void amidst a cornucopia of never ending universal changes (stars and galaxies being born and then die). Certainly the universe around us never rests for one second. It always resides in a continual state of unending change. Nothing… And I mean nothing, ever remains the same for very long, let alone for ever. So why should we hold on to any certainties… ? Or live clinging to securities that one day the universe will snatch away from us?
Within this state of perpetual change there lies the natural ebb and flow of chaotic patterns that intermingle, interrelate and feedback upon each other, allowing more complex systems to evolve and/or arise within the non-linear tapestry of atomic inter-reactivity, instability and the resulting conjoined possibilities. These biological frames of living matter (that we call our bodies) are a testament to this natural arising of life and, as such, I have searched both high and low to formulate a clearer sort of reasoning/understanding (at least for my ‘self‘) so as to better understand/perceive the natural order of things (regardless of what the generalised consensus might be), as well as to be able to better to relate to this experience of being a so-called ‘living’ entity.
I am humbled to say that, during this search, I have found many other philosophies and understandings that closely relate to my own, all with minor variations that procure a sort of diversity and, yet, still point towards a sort of perennial philosophy. From these various ‘schools of thought’ I have learnt many pertinent things, as well as been afforded a chance to develop and attune further my own understanding and attitude toward life. As Douglas Hofstadter pointed out in his cryptic lecture “Analogy As The Core Of Cognition“, I continually found my ‘self’ observing a type of affine universal self-similarity between these various ways of thinking… Something that kept reminding me of what some have kept calling “God’s Thumb Print“… Which has allowed me to see a part of the infinite whole and realise that it is all interrelated and interconnected to everything… And it was this interrelatedness that eventually brought me into contact with some highly perceptive and well developed philosophies concerning the natural order of things, the mind and how we perceive things, as seen in “Taoism” and “Buddhism”.
For me, Buddhism has been the most fascinating of all the philosophies that I have learnt about. It’s central doctrines all highlight the most important – and sometimes much overlooked – aspects of living i.e. everything changes – nothing stays the same (impermanence), everything is interconnected to everything else – we are interdependent to everything else (interdependence), mind is all pervasive – our states of mind have a very powerful effect on the way in which we perceive the world around us i.e. the power of mind can do some very ‘supernatural’ things, like changing the shape of the brain, affecting the subtle energy channels within the body to produce highly unusual results and, not least, Thích Quảng Đức, who was the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death without any display of pain or suffering at a busy Saigon road intersection on 11 June 1963 in protest to the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Roman Catholic government… As well as developing awareness, especially to our states of mind as they arise and subside, which is the key to finding a balanced and holistic way of living, one that propagates the most well being for all and one’s ‘self’.
As such, I still come back to Buddhism everyday to find new (though they are, in actual fact, near on 2,600 years old) and highly relevant teachings (and/or parallels) about how to understand and relate to this experience of living for positive effect. Many of the Buddhist philosophies that I have learnt about very much mirror some of the scientific philosophies that have recently surface (or have been re-discovered) and, as such, I find a great source of wisdom and inspiration within its bountiful depths. As a sort of testament to Buddhism’s universal usefulness there seems to be a sort of general acceptance within the NHS that Buddhist techniques can actually help people, especially when dealing with much of the anxiety and depression we find in the modern world. This can be clearly seen by the fact that the NHS – here in the UK – now offers mindfulness training, which really seems to helping people cultivate and develop better awareness in their lives, surroundings and ways of being… But, despite this adoption of Buddhist practises by the UK’s health service, a lot of the most important parts to mindfulness training seem to have been skirted over and simply ignored…
Why is this? Well… For starters, many of the eminent Masters who have practised meditation and mindfulness for many “lifetimes” (reincarnation being a subject that I will broach in a coming post) just don’t seem to be included in the scientific equation… No doubt some already are being included, but many are not… Though more importantly, the NHS are not contacting those who are properly educated in mindfulness to seek their advise on how best to implement a course that teaches mindfulness. Perhaps the ‘solid’ scientific background that seems to confidently back-up modern medicine with facts and figures just doesn’t hold the Karmapa or Dali Lama in high regard as contemporaries who were formally trained in their own self-accredited universities of reason and knowledge and, thus, lack the relevant degrees to substantiate passing on their knowledge and wisdom to those in modern Westernised academia… ? Or maybe the deliberate shrouding of many Buddhist practises by the monks and Lamas themselves only adds to the stigma of religious mysticism that already surrounds Buddhism here in the West… ? Either way, the only way to dispel this somewhat ignorant (maybe even arrogant) outlook that the West has about Buddhism is to mention that, what many people fail to understand is, both the Karmapa and Dali Lama have trained harder and longer in these ancient techniques of mindfulness and awareness than any graduate or PhD would or could have done in their respective fields over the course of their lives, making them by far the foremost teachers in their unique disciplines of mindfulness and awareness training. Neither is Buddhism a religion in the traditional sense… Rather, I would say that it is a highly developed philosophy and science of mind, one that has been crafted from years of practise, whereby each exponent has experimented with many techniques until those that work (in developing mindfulness) are recorded and practised diligently by further lineages, all that directly stem back to the Gautama Buddha.
Until this is clearly grasped by many of us, for me, the NHS beginning to train people in mindfulness without proper guidance is a bit like a novice (who has no formal training in the subject) teaching student something that they are not really qualified to teach. Imagine someone – who has no formal training in science whatsoever – however they note that quantum physics actually shows us a lot about the way in which the world works around us (on a mechanical level) – and, yet, then goes on to ignore most of the relevant details behind it, only using snippets of information that seem to suite their own ends i.e. like showing the Double-Slit Experiment and then stating to a student that this clearly demonstrates the fundamentally probabilistic nature of quantum mechanical phenomena, and then awarding them a degree. Okay… But what happened to the rest of the data that those researching and studying quantum physical events in proper academia have discovered over many years of research, all of which helps the student develop a deeply penetrating idea that leads to a more coherent and complete picture of the whole of quantum mechanics, so that they can continue the complicated and arduous research at the cutting edge of discovery to help as many others as is possible? For sure, people have to start somewhere… But I strongly feel that they should start as they mean to go on i.e. learn from the people who know what they are talking about.
On a less critical note… At least the NHS is beginning to realise that the mind is a powerful tool that can help heal itself without the need for medical or pharmacological intervention most of the time. Perhaps this will be akin to modern medicine taking the first steps in a philosophy where the patient might well be better and more equipped to treat themselves rather than a doctor (in many instances), especially if given the right teachings and practises to perform… ?
As part of this lifetime journey with Buddhism, I will continue to write entries in this website about what I find and discover along the way. Certainly there is no other aim to this practise other that to arrange and present my thoughts to another who might be interested in reading about what I have to say. As such, I must stress that, while I do my best to make sure that the information provided within these pages is as correct and accurate (from my own perspective) as can be, I am nonetheless a novice. And, so, I would never use anything that I have written here as fact without checking it out for yourself and finding what you really think and feel about it first. Most who have been following the entries in this website for sometime already know my wariness of anything procuring ultimate fact or certainty. As Lord Byron was once noted to have said, “If I be a fool, it is, at least, that I be a doubting one; for I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom…” And as Einstein once said about mathematics, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” As such, I find myself resigned to a continual modification of what I think I know, turning it continually around so as to be able to view it from every possible angle in order to see whether there are any gaps in it… And, as I trawl through the mountains of research that comes my way, I find snippets that offer a ‘possible’ insight, or fit, for some of those gaps… Still, there will always be gaps… Just like with the length of Britain’s coastline being dependent on its length, so too will there be gaps in our understanding that will always somehow leave the puzzle of consciousness, at least for myself, never quite answered entirely… Slightly clearer it may seem than what most of us originally started with… But never complete. Only direct experience will bring about completion.
So, until total, completely pure, immersive and direct experience is achieved, one that can transcend dualistic thought altogether… I continue with my conceptualised trains of thought and make the following offering that might shed a tiny bit of light on how and why the notion of a “self” could come about, one that perhaps evolved (and was naturally selected for) over time in the cellular infrastructure of our brains.
Just the other month, as I was thinking about some of the other unusual aspects about the ‘self’ (of which I will write more about in future posts), while painting the BIG green doors outside, I came across the following New Scientist article that was stuck to the bottom of my paint can, covered in gently arcing streaks of sticky green paint. It was the word “consciousness” that caught my eye… So, prising it gently from the base of the tin, the article’s front page slowly began to reveal itself. Once it was free from the can’s underside, most of the article was still obscured by vibrant rounded strips of summery Buckingham Green, most of which obscured enough of the article to make it unreadable. Thus I took it to the kitchen table and gently wiped it clean with a spirit soaked rag. As the thick streaks of paint slowly spread across the page, covering some of the clean text, the whole became more legible… The green was becoming so thinned that anything printed underneath could now be clearly seen. Once I could read most of the text, I set it aside in the bright heat of the sun and left its wet, soft pulp to dry into a manageable form as I painted another coat of green onto the old barn’s doors.
Not too long after finishing the last over coat, the page was ready to finger… And so I set about to my usual morning ritual of having a cup of tea in the cool morning breeze while taking cover under the waning shade of the granary’s hulking form, as I set about reading the somewhat shabby pea green, but now legible, article that had been rescued from certain doom… And this is what I read…
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Are These The Brain Cells That Give Us Consciousness?
The brainiest creatures share a secret – an odd kind of brain cell involved in emotions and empathy that may have accidentally made us conscious
THE origin of consciousness has to be one of the biggest mysteries of all time, occupying philosophers and scientists for generations. So it is strange to think that a little-known neuroscientist called Constantin von Economo might have unearthed an important clue nearly 90 years ago.
When he peered down the lens of his microscope in 1926, von Economo saw a handful of brain cells that were long, spindly and much larger than those around them. In fact, they looked so out of place that at first he thought they were a sign of some kind of disease. But the more brains he looked at, the more of these peculiar cells he found – and always in the same two small areas that evolved to process smells and flavours.
Von Economo briefly pondered what these “rod and corkscrew cells”, as he called them, might be doing, but without the technology to delve much deeper he soon moved on to more promising lines of enquiry.
Little more was said about these neurons until nearly 80 years later when, Esther Nimchinsky and Patrick Hof at Mount Sinai University in New York also stumbled across clusters of these strange-looking neurons. Now, after more than a decade of functional imaging and post-mortem studies, we are beginning to piece together their story. Certain lines of evidence hint that they may help build the rich inner life we call consciousness, including emotions, our sense of self, empathy and our ability to navigate social relationships.
Many other big-brained, social animals also seem to share these cells, in the same spots as the human brain. A greater understanding of the way these paths converged could therefore tell us much about the evolution of the mind.
Admittedly, to the untrained eye these giant brain cells, now known as von Economo neurons (VENs), don’t look particularly exciting. But to a neuroscientist they stand out like a sore thumb. For one thing, VENs are at least 50 per cent, and sometimes up to 200 per cent, larger than typical human neurons. And while most neurons have a pyramid-shaped body with a finely branched tree of connections called dendrites at each end of the cell, VENs have a longer, spindly cell body with a single projection at each end with very few branches (see diagram below). Perhaps they escaped attention for so long because they are so rare, making up just 1 per cent of the neurons in the two small areas of the human brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the fronto-insular (FI) cortex.
Their location in those regions suggests that VENs may be a central part of our mental machinery, since the ACC and FI are heavily involved in many of the more advanced aspects of our inner lives. Both areas kick into action when we see socially relevant cues, be it a frowning face, a grimace of pain or simply the voice of someone we love. When a mother hears a baby crying, both regions respond strongly. They also light up when we experience emotions such as love, lust, anger and grief. For John Allman, a neuroanatomist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, this adds up to a kind of “social monitoring network” that keeps track of social cues and allows us to alter our behaviour accordingly (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol 1225, p 59).
The two brain areas also seem to play a key role in the “salience” network, which keeps a subconscious tally of what is going on around us and directs our attention to the most pressing events, as well as monitoring sensations from the body to detect any changes (Brain Structure and Function, DOI: 10.1007/s00429-012-0382-9).
What’s more, both regions are active when a person recognises their reflection in the mirror, suggesting that these parts of the brain underlie our sense of self – a key component of consciousness. “It is the sense of self at every possible level – so the sense of identity, this is me, and the sense of identity of others and how you understand others. That goes to the concept of empathy and theory of mind,” says Hof.
To Bud Craig, a neuroanatomist at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, it all amounts to a continually updated sense of “how I feel now”: the ACC and FI take inputs from the body and tie them together with social cues, thoughts and emotions to quickly and efficiently alter our behaviour (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol 10, p 59).
This constantly shifting picture of how we feel may contribute to the way we perceive the passage of time. When something emotionally important is happening, Craig proposes, there is more to process, and because of this time seems to speed up. Conversely, when less is going on we update our view of the world less frequently, so time seems to pass more slowly.
VENs are probably important in all this, though we can only infer their role through circumstantial evidence. That’s because locating these cells, and then measuring their activity in a living brain hasn’t yet been possible. But their unusual appearance is a signal that they probably aren’t just sitting there doing nothing. “They stand out anatomically,” says Allman, “And a general proposition is that anything that’s so distinctive looking must have a distinct function.”
In the brain, big usually means fast, so Allman suggests that VENs could be acting as a fast relay system – a kind of social superhighway – which allows the gist of the situation to move quickly through the brain, enabling us to react intuitively on the hop, a crucial survival skill in a social species like ours. “That’s what all of civilisation is based on: our ability to communicate socially, efficiently,” adds Craig.
A particularly distressing form of dementia that can strike people as early as their 30s supports this idea. People who develop fronto-temporal dementia lose large numbers of VENs in the ACC and FI early in the disease, when the main symptom is a complete loss of social awareness, empathy and self-control. “They don’t have normal empathic responses to situations that would normally make you disgusted or sad,” says Hof. “You can show them horrible pictures of an accident and they just don’t blink. They will say ‘oh, yes, it’s an accident’.”
Post-mortem examinations of the brains of people with autism also bolster the idea that VENs lie at the heart of our emotions and empathy. According to one recent study, people with autism may fall into two groups: some have too few VENs, perhaps meaning that they don’t have the necessary wiring to process social cues, while others have far too many (Acta Neuropathologica, vol 118, p 673). The latter group would seem to fit with one recent theory of autism, which proposes that the symptoms may arise from an over-wiring of the brain. Perhaps having too many VENs makes emotional systems fire too intensely, causing people with autism to feel overwhelmed, as many say they do.
Another recent study found that people with schizophrenia who committed suicide had significantly more VENs in their ACC than schizophrenics who died of other causes. The researchers suggest that the over-abundance of VENs might create an overactive emotional system that leaves them prone to negative self-assessment and feelings of guilt and hopelessness (PLoS One, vol 6, p e20936).
VENs in other animals provide some clues, too. When these neurons were first identified, there was the glimmer of hope that we might have found one of the key evolutionary changes, unique to humankind, that could explain our social intelligence. But the earliest studies put paid to that kind of thinking, when VENs turned up in chimpanzees and gorillas. In recent years, they have also been found in elephants and some whales and dolphins.
Like us, many of these species live in big social groups and show signs of the same kind of advanced behaviour associated with VENs in people. Elephants, for instance, display something that looks a lot like empathy: they work together to help injured, lost or trapped elephants, for example. They even seem to show signs of grief at elephant “graveyards” (Biology Letters, vol 2, p 26). What’s more, many of these species can recognise themselves in the mirror, which is usually taken as a rudimentary measure of consciousness. When researchers daub paint on an elephant’s face, for instance, it will notice the mark in the mirror and try to feel the spot with its trunk. This has led Allman and others to speculate that von Economo neurons might be a vital adaptation in large brains for keeping track of social situations – and that the sense of self may be a consequence of this ability.
Yet VENs also crop up in manatees, hippos and giraffes – not renowned for their busy social lives. The cells have also been spotted in macaques, which don’t reliably pass the mirror test, although they are social animals. Although this seems to put a major spanner in the works for those who claim that the cells are crucial for advanced cognition, it could also be that these creatures are showing the precursors of the finely tuned cells found in highly social species. “I think that there are homologues of VENs in all mammals,” says Allman. “That’s not to say they’re shaped the same way but they are located in an analogous bit of cortex and they are expressing the same genes.”
It would make sense, after all, that whales and primates might both have recycled, and refined, older machinery present in a common ancestor rather than independently evolving the same mechanism. Much more research is needed, however, to work out the anatomical differences and the functions of these cells in the different animals.
That work might even help us understand how these neurons evolved in the first place. Allman already has some ideas about where they came from. Our VENs reside in a region of the brain that evolved to integrate taste and smell, so he suggests that many of the traits now associated with the FI evolved from the simple act of deciding whether food is good to eat or likely to make your ill. When reaching that decision, he says, the quicker the “gut” reaction kicks in the better. And if you can detect this process in others, so much the better.
“One of the important functions that seems to reside in the FI has to do with empathy,” he says. “My take on this is that empathy arose in the context of shared food – it’s very important to observe if members of your social group are becoming ill as a result of eating something.” The basic feeding circuity, including the rudimentary VENs, may then have been co-opted by some species to work in other situations that involve a decision, like working out if a person is trustworthy or to be avoided. “So when we have a feeling, whether it be about a foodstuff or situation or another person, I think that engages the circuitry in the fronto-insular cortex and the VENS are one of the outputs of that circuitry,” says Allman.
Allman’s genetics work suggests he may be on to something. His team found that VENs in one part of the FI are expressing the genes for hormones that regulate appetite. There are also a lot of studies showing links between smell and taste and the feelings of strong emotions. Our physical reaction to something we find morally disgusting, for example, is more or less identical to our reaction to a bitter taste, suggesting they may share common brain wiring (Science, vol 323, p 1222). Other work has shown that judging a morally questionable act, such as theft, while smelling something disgusting leads to harsher moral judgements (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 34, p 1096). What’s more, Allman points out that our language is loaded with analogies – we might find an experience “delicious”, say, or a person “nauseating”. This is no accident, he says.
However, it is only in highly social animals that VENs live exclusively in the scent and taste regions. In the others, like giraffes and hippos, VENs seem to be sprinkled all over the brain. Allman, however, points out that these findings may be a red herring, since without understanding the genes they express, or their function, we can’t even be sure how closely these cells relate to human VENs. They may even be a different kind of cell that just looks similar.
Based on the evidence so far, however, Hof thinks that the ancestral VENs would have been more widespread, as seen in the hippo brain, and that over the course of evolution they then migrated to the ACC and FI in some animals, but not others – though he admits to having no idea why that might be. He suspects the pressures that shaped the primate brain may have been very different to those that drove the evolution of whales and dolphins.
Craig has hit upon one possibility that would seem to fit all of these big-brained animals. He points out that the bigger the brain, the more energy it takes to run, so it is crucial that it operates as efficiently as possible. A system that continually monitors the environment and the people or animals in it would therefore be an asset, allowing you to adapt quickly to a situation to save as much energy as possible. “Evolution produced an energy calculation system that incorporated not just the sensory inputs from the body but the sensory inputs from the brain,” Craig says. And the fact that we are constantly updating this picture of “how I feel now” has an interesting and very useful by-product: we have a concept that there is an “I” to do the feeling. “Evolution produced a very efficient moment-by-moment calculation of energy utilisation and that had an epiphenomenon, a by-product that provided a subjective representation of my feelings.”
If he’s right – and there is a long way to go before we can be sure – it raises a very humbling possibility: that far from being the pinnacle of brain evolution, consciousness might have been a big, and very successful accident.
This article has been edited since it was first posted
Caroline Williams is a writer based in Surrey, UK
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To find out where I sourced the New Scientist article from, please click here.
OR to learn a bit more about the author, please visit her LinkedIn profile page by clicking here.
July 18, 2012
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The opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.
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While the first part of this exposé on the notion of a ‘self’ discussed how the idea of my own individual ‘self,’ as a distinct and separate entity that (at least in the present social context of most Western understanding) seems to be independently existent aside from everything else outside of it, might – in actual fact – only be an illusory conceptualisation that had been derived from our use of language and fragmented academic understandings (about what we are and what we are not) that aim to separate the world into definable and distinctly measurable/quantifiable parts… Part 2 will focus on the idea of how our senses (which I will parallel with the idea lying behind a particular optical illusion) form the notion of a “self”… When viewed in this way, it poses the question of whether the notion of our “selves” is actually merely just an illusion and, thus, begets whether or not we should be bypassing all and any certainty that we may have that the “self” actually does exist as a separate and independent entity from everything else. Just as a mirage in a desert can fool the thirsty person who perceives it to be a real body of water… Running forward without ever reaching it to quench their thirst… So to can the notion of a ‘self’ be seen as a type of mirage that causes us to function in such a way that is not in line with the true nature of reality.
Certainly we can all – to varying degrees – perceive the world around us using these bio-molecular bodies that we all have come into (I will not doubt this point here, as Descartes did, mainly because other philosophers have adequately covered the ground of this seemingly futile question well enough for me for the moment). Through these bodies, we find our “selves” in near proximity to all that we immediately experience going on around us. It is as though we are continually immersed in all the activity that is directly going on around us, seeing it only from the locality of our own body’s perspective. This is because we perceive all the things/objects/events in our lives via our senses i.e. sight with eyes, hearing through our ears, tasting with our tongues, scents through our noses, touching with our bodies… And as each of our senses are derived from and associated with the various organs we just described, all of which are directly attached to our bodies, is it any wonder that rarely do we see things from the perspective of another body? Our perceptions don’t just easily re-tune into what another person is seeing from their seemingly separate bodily perspective. Thus, on the whole, “I” tend to perceive the world around me exactly as though my very body were the central hub from which all interaction with the outside surrounding world happened. And it is because of this proximity to everything around us that “I” mostly always feel to be embedded right in the middle of ‘my’ body.
So… Is it really any wonder that we perceive our “selves” to be separate independent entities that exist separately from one another, and/or as separately from everything else going on around us? Still… Despite the obvious answer to this question, I would nonetheless like to further expound on the seemingly absurd notion that the “self”, appearing to be independent of everything else around it, actually isn’t… And I aim to make my point by means of drawing a parallel between a well-known optical illusion and the idea of the senses forming an illusion of “self.”
By doing this, I hope not to disprove that the “self” exists at all… Rather my aim is to help us re-equate the notion of our “self” into a softer and more gentle fit for the present world around us i.e. as a designated notion of how our body – along with its feelings, emotions, thoughts, opinions, desires, etc… – can be described as an entity that is different from another’s for the purpose of describing our experiences separately.
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As some of you may already know… I have a tendency to call myself a Buddhist most of the time… Though I dare say that I have quite a bit of trouble walking the path of one nearly all the time. Still, I do my best, and on the whole, whenever some free-time presents itself, I enjoy reading as much as I can about the subject and how it relates back to some of the thoughts that I have while reading about scientific modes of inquiry into what consciousness might actually be.
As it happened, yesterday I was reading about how our consciousness is apparently connected to the world that we perceive around us via a website called the “Mind Lab.” On it, I came across four beautifully presented sessions that aim to investigate and demonstrate how our brain perceives everyday phenomena, as well as how there are in fact clear limits to what and how we can perceive these daily phenomena. While these limits might not be easily noticed by many of us, they nonetheless exist and very much influence the way in which we perceive and understand the world around us.
For the purposes of this entry, I would like to focus on the last session of the “Mind Lab” website, where we are presented with a well known illusion called the Kanizsa Triangle (see diagram immediately below). The Kanizsa Triangle was named after the Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa who first described its effect.
When you look at the above image your brain creates contours (outlines) of a triangle, even though one does not actually exist. In reality it is simply an illusion created by the the wedges and angles that exist in the image. To further this, on the “Mind Lab” website, in the session on “Perception Beyond Sensory Input”, we are told that:
“The brain sometimes perceives shapes and colours even in situations where there is no corresponding sensory input coming from the outside world.”
“For example (in the image directly above), you should see the missing sections of these dark disks as the sides of a square that is brighter than its surroundings, and even be able to see the vague contour lines of a square that doesn’t actually exist.
“When the brain sees an image like this, it interprets depth relationships to perceive that ‘there is a square set on top of four black disks.'”
The article on “Perception Beyond Sensory Input” then goes on to say, “these non-existent subjective contours can also occur with colour.” We are then presented with two more diagrams that illustrate illusions of this type and, are conclusively, lead to believe “that these subjective contours and colours are constructed by the brain to compensate for missing sensory information.”
Through out the rest of the piece we are presented with various examples that show us how our brain and mind automatically interpret things about the world around us, thus making assumptions about things that appear to be there when, in fact, they are not.
While reading through this section of the “Mind Lab” website, it dawned on me that the “self” came across as something very similar to the points (or disks) seen in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion that suggested to the brain/mind that there was a triangle present. But rather than graphical points in a diagram, when I began looking at what the “self” was, these points became points of a nexus of experiential phenomena that suggested the presence of a contained “self” – or an “I” – that resided in geographical proximity to each other, at the centre of a distinct and seemingly separate body i.e. our physical body.
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In order to make my point clearer, I would like to elaborate on a Buddhist idea that I recently came across called the “Five Skandhas” relating to the nature of compounded reality.
It should be noted here that Buddhism is not a religion in the classical sense i.e. it does not have a centralised omnipotent or omnipresent God or series of Gods that can be worshiped or appeased. Rather, Buddhism is based around the teachings of one man, a man who became the Gautama Buddha, or an enlightened being. And, as one does when ones achieves perfect realisation (so I’m told), he became perfectly aware of the true nature of reality and of all compounded phenomena that give rise to experience and karma.
No doubt, as the Buddha himself stated on several occasions, he was only ever truly just a man… A man who had strived to understand the world around him as best as he could in order to help all beings achieve a state of non-suffering, or Nirvana… And in doing so, he had severed all ties to the Karmic patterns of being that had kept him locked into daily routines of unenlightened activity so as to help other beings achieve the ultimate state of realisation that he had attained. Thus, rather than achieving enlightenment through supernatural means, he had merely learnt many helpful techniques from all the learned masters he had met during his lifetime (and previous lives). Then, along with much diligence, he had practised all these techniques with immeasurable devotion until he became a fully enlightened being.
I suppose I find strong parallels between how the Gautama Buddha learnt these techniques of liberation from all the Karmic patterns of his own making, as well as of those of other learned masters, AND how scientific methods of inquiry looking into phenomena so as to figure out how all the facets of the bigger picture fit into together and work around one another… Just as the Buddha strove to see things clearly and perfectly, without any dis-figuration or misunderstanding, in order to crystallise them into a naturally formed primordial experience devoid of any need for description or intellectualism, so too does science strive to see things clearly and perfectly without dis-figuration or misunderstanding (although without loosing the need for description or intellectualism). Perhaps this is why an eminent Buddhist teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche, wrote in his book, entitled “The Joy Of Living”, Buddhism “is a type of science, a method of exploring your own experience through techniques that enable you to examine your actions and reactions in a non-judgmental way…” While looking into the idea of what the “self” was, it was this particular quote that encouraged me to see the parallel between the concept behind an optical illusion (the Kanizsa Triangle) and the Buddhist idea of “non-self.”
Bearing this in mind… The Buddhist idea that I would like to have a look at to illustrate my point about how similar certain ‘optical’ illusions are to the notion of “non-self” is the principle of the ‘skandhas.’ The skandhas (which is Sanskrit) are any of five types of phenomena that serve as objects of ‘clinging’ and bases for a sense of ‘self.’ The historical Buddha often spoke of the “Five Skandhas,” also called the “Five Aggregates” or the “Five Heaps,” and taught that nothing among them is really ‘I’ or ‘mine.’ The skandhas, very roughly, might be thought of as components that come together to make an individual. Every thing that we think of as ‘I’ is a function of the skandhas. Put another way, we might think of an individual as a process of the skandhas (just in the same way that the points and angles in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion ‘suggest’ the presence of a triangle).
When the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, he began with the first Truth, life is ‘dukkha.’ This is often translated as ‘life is suffering,’ or ‘stressful’ or ‘unsatisfactory.’ But it is also well documented in Buddhism that the Buddha also used the word to mean ‘impermanent’ and ‘conditioned.’ To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. The Buddha taught that the skandhas were dukkha.
The component parts of the skandhas work together in such a seamless way that they create the sense of a single ‘self,’ or a notion of ‘I’ (much like the points and angles do in the Kanizsa Triangle when our body observes it). Despite this single sense of an isolated ‘self,’ the Buddha taught that there is no ‘self’ occupying the skandhas (much like there is actually no triangle present in the Kanizsa Triangle). Thus, in Buddhism, developing a deep understanding the skandhas is extremely helpful to seeing through the illusion of ‘self.’
Please note that, while the explanation provided here is very basic, it is suitable to demonstrate how the five senses come together to produce a sense of ‘I’ and/or ‘self.’ Also, it should be noted that the various schools of Buddhism understand the skandhas somewhat differently from one another, so if you were to read more about them you may find that the teachings of one school don’t exactly match the teachings of another.
In a moment I’ll discuss how the Six Organs/Senses or Faculties relate to the Five Skandas. But before I do this, I would like to individually list the Six Organs/Senses, along with their corresponding objects, so that we might get a clearer view of what they are exactly in Buddhist terms.
The Six Sense Organs or Faculties are:
The Six Corresponding Objects to the Sense Organs are (respectively):
1. Visible form
5. Tangible things
6. Thoughts and ideas
Next I will discuss the Five Skandas and how they relate to the Six Sense Organs or Faculties.
1. The First Skandha: Form (Rupa)
Rupa is form or matter; something material that can be sensed. In early Buddhist literature, rupa includes the Four Great Elements (solidity, fluidity, heat, and motion) and their derivatives. These derivatives are the first five faculties listed above (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body) and the first five corresponding objects (visible form, sound, odor, taste, tangible things).
Another way to understand rupa is to think of it as something that resists the probing of the senses. For example, an object has form if it blocks your vision – you can’t see what’s on the other side of it – or if it blocks your hand from occupying its space.
2. The Second Skandha: Sensation (Vedana)
Vedana is physical or mental sensation that we experience through contact of the six faculties with the external world. In other words, it is the sensation experienced through the contact of eye with visible form, ear with sound, nose with odour, tongue with taste, body with tangible things, mind (manas) with ideas or thoughts.
It is particularly important to understand that manas – mind – in the skandhas is a sense organ or faculty, just like an eye or an ear. We tend to think that mind is something like a spirit or soul, but that concept is very out of place in Buddhism.
Because vedana is the experience of pleasure or pain, it conditions craving, either to acquire something pleasurable or avoid something painful.
3. The Third Skandha: Perception (Samjna, or in Pali, Sanna)
Samjna is the faculty that recognizes. Most of what we call thinking fits into the aggregate of samjna.
The word “samjna” means “knowledge that puts together.” It is the capacity to conceptualize and recognize things by associating them with other things. For example, we recognize shoes as shoes because we associate them with our previous experience(s) with shoes.
When we see something for the first time, we invariably flip through our mental index cards to find categories we can associate with the new object. It’s “some kind of tool with a red handle,” for example, putting the new thing in the categories “tool” and “red.” Or, we might associate an object with its context – we recognize a machine as a car because we see them regularly on the roads around us.
4. The Fourth Skandha: Mental Formation (Samskara, or in Pali, Sankhara)
All volitional actions, good and bad, are included in the aggregate of mental formations. How are actions “mental” formations? As is stated in the first lines of the dhammapada (Acharya Buddharakkhita translation):
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”
The aggregate of mental formations is associated with karma, because volitional acts create karma. Samsara also contains latent karma that conditions our attitudes and predilections. Biases and prejudices belong to this skandha, as do interests and attractions.
5. The Fifth Skandha: Consciousness (Vijnana, or in Pali, Vinnana)
Vijnana is a reaction that has one of the six faculties as its basis and one of the six corresponding phenomena as its object. For example, aural consciousness – hearing – has the ear as its basis and a sound as its object. Mental consciousness has the mind (manas) as its basis and an idea or thought as its object.
It is important to understand that consciousness depends on the other skandhas and does not exist independently from them. It is an awareness but not a recognition, as recognition is a function of the third skandha. This awareness is not sensation, which is the second skandha. For most of us in the West, this is a very different way to think about “consciousness.”
It is also important to remember that vijnana is not “special” or “above” the other skandhas. It is not the “self.” It is the action and interaction of all five skandhas that create the illusion of a ‘self…’ This is much like Kalu Rinpoche discusses in “Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness” when he discusses tendrel in relation to what actually makes the sound of a bell.
As a buffer to this idea… I’d like to highlight an exert from a book that I have been reading, entitled “No Self, No Problem.”
We identify with our body made of flesh, bones, and other components and therefore we believe that we are material, substantial, and concrete. This understanding has become so embedded in our belief system that we rarely question it. The results of that are the inevitable conditions of old age, sickness, and death. We acquire these conditions simply out of believing that we are this physical body. We always pay a high price when we believe false ideas. This perception is not just held individually; it is held dearly by the collective mind of society and has been for many generations. That is why it is so strongly entrenched in our psyche. Our normal, everyday perception of each other is governed by this false identity and then strengthened and enforced by the language we use.
At a very early age we are indoctrinated into this notion of self as the body. For example when we see a small child we say, “He is beautiful. I love his hair. she has the cutest eyes.” Through thoughts and comments such as these we are planting the seeds of this mistaken identity. Of course there is nothing wrong with giving compliments. It is much better than criticism. However it is still a form of misconception. The truth is that, independent of any characteristics, a child is inherently beautiful the moment she is born. So we are are all beautiful.
We are living in an age when people are disconnected from their true identity and this false perception is validated from every angle. Everyone is craving a perfect body and seeking it in others. For example, when you go to the grocery store you see magazines displaying pictures of men and women in a perfect and idealized youthful form. It is very difficult to resist these messages. They come from everywhere, all aspects of society, and they validate this sense of mistaken identity. They validate the sense that this body is who we really are. Given the tendency to establish a perfect idealized standard, many people suffer from pride, narcissism, arrogance, shame, guilt, and self-hatred because of their relationship with their body and their ability or inability to reflect this perfect standard.
Every moment when we wake up and look into the mirror there is a voice in our mind that is constantly judging us and others according to this standard. Have you ever noticed that? Our mind is always judging: “Oh, another wrinkle. She is too fat. He is strange looking. She is beautiful. He is handsome.” These judgements not only create a stumbling block on our spiritual path, they also create clouds of negativity in our consciousness and keep us firmly chained in the prison of duality.
But there is no need to hold onto this. There is the possibility of transcending this identification with our body in each and every moment. It is only when we drop all of these judgements that we will recognize that everyone is divine in their uniqueness. Egoic mind is always comparing self with others because it believes itself to be a separate entity and it uses the body as the divine line between self and others.
We are nonmaterial. We are insubstantial. We are not like a tale that eventually breaks down. The very essence of who we are goes beyond the conditions of decay and impermanence. Yes, our body is impermanent but our true nature is not impermanent. Our true nature is deathless and divine, transcending all imperfections. Because of this we are all equal, we are all one. Nobody is better or worse than anybody else. When someone manifests their true nature, they live out of love, kindness, and joy. They inflict less pain on others. When we meditate, sooner or later we discover that this is not just abstract theory. This corresponds to the truth, to reality.
by Anam Thubten
I hope that here you can now begin to see how the notion of a ‘self’ might comes about, as well as how it relates to an illusionary triangle that is suggested in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion. Just as the three disks and three angles in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion sit within proximity to each other in the diagram to suggest a triangle, so too do the six sense organs join together by way of the body via the 5 skandhas to produce a notion of a “self” or “I.”
I should highlight here that I am in no way suggesting that our “self” does not actually exist… Neither am I saying that it is certainly and independently existent of everything else. Rather I am suggesting that, in a relative sense, the “self” is related to many interdependent phenomena and, so, it should be obvious how the notion of our “self” is not independently existing away from everything/anything else around us i.e. the understanding that we are independent entities is actually a flawed perspective… In reality, everything is interconnected to everything else in a long chain-mail of causes and effects.
When we truly begin to understand this perspective, all the separate aspects of “self” and “other” merge into a unifying whole. What exactly happens at this point is somewhat beyond me as, while I can fairly clearly grasp the conceptual idea lying behind the negation of a certain and independent ‘self’, I find it possibly to be one of the hardest and most problematic notions to actually embrace into my being and way of living… I presume this is because ‘I’ am riddled with all sorts socially accepted forms of memetic vagaries and ideals, all of which relate very strongly and concisely to my living in a highly capitalist and consumerist society, the roots of which appear to be so deeply entrenched in my being that it somewhat reminds me of how I clear out the flower beds around my home from all the “creeping buttercup” that comes back each year… Every effort made to remove this invasive and vivacious plant from my garden’s boarders – even if almost all of the tiny/minuscule roots are removed (and, trust me, removing them all is near on an impossible task) – so as to prevent it strangling the other flowers that lie in the beds, is only as good as partially doing the job that is needed… Just one small part of a root left unwittingly in the bed ensures that the “buttercup” will come back the following year. In many ways, in order to take a decent go at negating my ‘self-ish’ tendencies, I would need to totally remove my ‘Being’ from the daily bombardment of advertising and business that I am presently immersed in, as well as taking solace away from usual social engagements and enactments, all of which would be much like one removing all the contaminated soil in and around the surrounding area to get rid of every last piece of the overbearing buttercup. No doubt it is a problem to develop a more attune sense of ‘self’ in a culture that ubiquitously embraces the ‘self’ as a justified and certain way of understanding and being.
Perhaps the only answer is to remove myself further from this culture’s pervasive and ‘self-ish’ embrace on my psyche? Or perhaps I should find a master to help me progress beyond this point at which I find myself stuck… And allow me to let go of my polarised views of what is right or wrong and so embrace all that simply is as it is… ? As emptiness… ?
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To find out more about Anam Thubten Rinpoche’s book, from Rinpoche himself, please click here.
February 23, 2012
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One morning earlier this week I awoke with a bit of a start. I’d been having strange dreams again, ones that had left me with a slight sense of sadness – not too distant from how I felt when I was but a seven year old child watching the grown-ups shooting pheasant in late autumn and mid winter morns. “BANG!” “CRACK!” “POOMB!” their guns would sound loudly in the stark and barren light. Under a steady stream of grey clouds, one’s which were being thrust mercilessly across a broken bleak horizon by savage winter winds, there would be sudden loud gaps of quiet… Quiet that allowed windows of peace so as to hear the gentle, soft rustle of the brown crumpled leaves shivering the cold wooded camp of trees. All the time I would look up at these snaking, gnarled limbs around me, twisted as though they were raised to the heavens in complaint over the clamor and din of the relentless gun fire, wondering if they mourning the loss of their colorful feathered friends who kept their council during these unbearing winter days.
That’s what woke me that morning. Noise. In fact is was a very loud noise… Noise in the form of a heavy knock at the front door. You see… When I fell asleep the previous night, I did so in the recording studio. Being a fully sound proofed room there was usually little or no noise to be heard from anywhere at the best of times, save for the smattering of instrumental play that filled the space when it was being used for recording. Thus, other than the general rustling of clothes (or bedclothes in this instance) and/or the low, almost inaudible, rumble of the occasional car passing by outside, it was a very peaceful chamber in which to sleep. Saying that, I had left the door slightly open that night, and when the knock was procured on the glass door below, the acoustics of the house beautifully funneled the sound in through the open door so that it cut through the soft almost empty bliss of my dreams. Up I sat, instantly aware and somewhat shocked at the volume of the herald. While pulling on my jeans, I hopped over the cables and made my way down the stairs, half expecting to see a giant flicking the glass doors gently with his little finger so as to leave the doors intact.
As I got the door, to my surprise there was no giant… Rather there was a bearded fellow dress in blue trousers and a red jacket, beaming furiously back at me while I starred disappointedly at him. As I unlocked the door, he held out a brown cardboard box, proclaiming, “Got another for ya, mate. Someone’s birthday is it, eh?” as he thrust the box through the half opened door into my fumbling sleepy arms. On he beamed, smiling at the fact that he’d caught someone wiping the sleep from their eyes so late in his morning’s schedule. I huffed a bit, mentioning that it wasn’t even… As I looked down I noticed that I didn’t even have my watch on my wrist. Smiling all the more (even if it was a physical impossibility), the delivery chap happily glanced at his own watch and mentioned that it was nearly 7.45 am. “Yes… You see it’s not even 7.45 am!” I complained half mockingly. Nonetheless he decided to take it upon himself to chirp about what a glorious morning it was, with bright blue skies overhead with a warming sun over the roof. Obviously, he pointed out, this signified the coming of an early, warm spring.
Just then two red breasted robins fluttered past us, so close as to barely miss our faces by a few inches. After the moment’s dazzle, we both erupted into a hearty laugh, after which the delivery chap went on to add something about how territorial robins were, and that these two were probably were having a scrap over who should have exclusive rights to the bird table down the way in front of my neighbor’s window. As I stood listening in agreement, I couldn’t help notice how he was tapping fervently away on a well worn machine that he desperately clutched with his hands. Looking at what he was writing, his gaze darted every now and then back to the box I was holding. Realizing he was trying to read the address at which I resided, I obliged him and quoted it from memory for his ease. After a few further moments of tapping the touch screen, he looked back towards the box trying to locate something that wasn’t as obvious.
“What you lost,” I said. “Need the barcode,” he replied. “Gotta scan the package to make sure it’s registered as delivered.” Firmly gripping the box, I revolved it around in my hands, all the while looking for any white zebra striped labels to reveal themselves. Just as I was glancing at one side, the delivery man told me to hold still. Seemed he had found what he was after. Pointing one side of the little box that he held at the target that I couldn’t quite see, he pressed a button as a red flicker of a laser’s beam shone out from a black reclined orifice. Expectantly he waited… But nothing. Looking quizzically at the screen he retouched a few keys and tried again. Red laser flashed and went off… Nothing. “Bloody thing,” he announced, “it’s been playing up on me all morning!”
As if all of a sudden, his jovial light hearted touch dimmed into a concentrated expression of focused intent as he repeated the process again. Still nothing. Besmirching the machine for not scanning the barcode as it was meant to, he began to hit its side as if to rectify whatever it was that might be wrong with it. “It’s probably still not awake what with it being so early in the morning,” I offered jokingly. “Yeah… Well they should have updated this scanning system a while back now, if you ask me. This was one of the first mobile systems that ever came on the market back in the late nineties… Uses mobile communication. Bit out of date this one now, ya know. And it ain’t like they can’t afford a new one either. In fact they spend more on the general upkeep of this system every year, what with software configuration problems they have, than a new system would cost! We checked.” Sounded like a case of bureaucracy I mentioned. “You can say that again,” he added, while repeating the scanning process again. “Seems they’re more than happy for us to look unprofessional in front of our customers, all for the sake of saving some pennies. Don’t suppose they think about it not sending out a good message… Bad advertising, if you ask me.” Again nothing.
By this time I couldn’t help but notice a slight strain that had appeared on the man’s face, almost as though all of his carefully laid plans for the morning were beginning to slide irrevocably closer into the domain of rush hour traffic. So I asked him if he had many deliveries to do, to which he replied that he had a full days work ahead of him, most of which he might not be able to do now if this machine kept playing up.
At this point, the slightly disgruntled demeanor that had over taken his mind suddenly just dissipated… As it did, he said, “It’s all about being aware. About being aware of the mind and how it controls how we perceive the world around us.” He stopped, took a deep breath, released his hunched shoulders and closed his eyes. Then opening them again he entered back into the original jovial flow of light hearted musings that I’d originally opened my door to only a few minutes ago. “Did you read the Guardian online yesterday?” he chuckled, continuing to scan the barcode once again… To which I replied that I hadn’t. “One of their reporters interviewed this Buddhist monk who lives out in France most of the time… He was talking about how we all need to be more mindful of our environment in which we live, as well as how our mind perceives it… Doing so in order to rekindle a lot of love and goodwill for this lovely world in which we all live in and share with one another… He also mentioned how we should change our living habits, getting rid of the ones that don’t work too well with mother nature, so that we can create a better, happier and easier way of life for us all living on Earth… Where we can do everything we need to do, as well as live comfortably and be able to help other people out who need help, including all the animals, plants, fish, insects and everything else.”
Somewhat amazed at how he had regained his composure over the misfortune of the malfunctioning machine… And pretty taken by what he’d just said, all I could think was… “WOW! That sounds like an interview I’d like to read.” And off I went on one, rambling on about parallels to modernizing simple systems, from scanners that delivery people needed to use, through to environmental changes in the way we generate electricity and grow our food, so as to make everyone’s world a little bit more efficient and better equipped to do the jobs we need to do without causing to much agro for ourselves… He then joined in, mentioning that it would be a good idea to change most of our antiquated, out-dated human habits that didn’t take into concern the delicate nature of how our ecosystem was balanced by indulging in more harmonious interests i.e. growing our own food, etc… “Kewl!” I though. “Here’s a guy who knows where it’s at. And I’m grooving with him.”
Smiling we bantered on for a few further minutes as he tried the machine again. Analogies between faulty computer systems and the way mankind lived in general, along with how we were all slowly causing ourselves more problems than we really needed to be doing, all to save a bit more money than we really needed, so as to spend it on more things that we didn’t necessarily need or even like (like the box I was clutching that, which for the life of me, I couldn’t even think of what was inside it)… Laughing at this, we went on to discussing how smart phones didn’t necessarily make us smarter at all; rather they just threw good healthy social interaction out the window as people became more engrossed in conversations/exchanges with people 20 miles away (or more) and, thus, paid less attention to the people in their local and immediate environment… Or even paid less attention to the environment itself… As well as becoming more stressed out in general!
Despite all this, there was still no joy with his scanning machine… So he threatened to use the old pen and paper that was waiting the van for eventualities like these. As he said this, he tried the machine one last time… “Bleep!” it went, signifying a successful entry. “Yay!” I jostled in, as he joked that it was the threat of pen and paper that must have scared the machine into working. As I wished him well with the rest of his rounds for the day he looked befuddled at the thought of the box not working for the rest of his deliveries. “Gotta stay positive,” I said, to which he replied, “That’s what the monk said in that interview. Seriously, you’d really like it.”
After jotting down an almost unrecognizable, heavily pixilated signature as proof that I’d received my parcel, I pointed out that it would probably have taken him less time to register the parcel by good old-fashioned pen and paper… To which he retorted that the paper work would have to filed when he got back, making it that little bit more work. “The bosses wouldn’t be able to keep track of me either,” he replied. “Not that it even works half the time, mind you.”
I smiled and thanked him for the heads-up about the Guardian article and said that I would look it up when I got back inside over a cup of tea. He laughed through the open window as he climbed back in the van shaking his head… “Alright for some, in’it…” Then he mentioning that the monk’s name was something like “Which Not Hand.” Finding it amusing, I repeated it a few times to myself as he drove off down the drive. As soon as he went out of sight, I looked up at the big blue sky above me and hoped he’d have more success with the antiquated system he was using. Then looking back to the birds fluttering from bush to tree I remembered the way he had regained his composure during our chat. Good to see people were able to use the power of their mind to change their circumstantial outcome.
Back I turned into the house, all the while thinking about the article that the chap had mentioned. After making a cup of tea, I decided that I should probably sit down and read it before I forgot about it, otherwise it would get swept away with the days proceedings. No doubt I had one hell of a hard time finding it, mainly because of the name. But eventually I tracked it down on an online Tweet. As it so happened the monk’s name was Thich Nhat Hanh, who was the author of a book that I had begun reading only a few weeks earlier.
I like it when magic moments like these resonate through me and change the way my day flows. It all adds to this sense of evolving wonder that leads towards better practices, into better ways of living… Urges us to embrace more aware and mindful ways of being. Bearing all this in mind, I feel that I should post the article here, as it beautifully flows into the spaces in between what I’ve already been writing here…
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Beyond Environment: Falling Back In Love With Mother Earth
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explains why mindfulness and a spiritual revolution rather than economics is needed to protect nature and limit climate change…
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has been practising meditation and mindfulness for 70 years and radiates an extraordinary sense of calm and peace. This is a man who on a fundamental level walks his talk, and whom Buddhists revere as a Bodhisattva; seeking the highest level of being in order to help others.
Ever since being caught up in the horrors of the Vietnam war, the 86-year-old monk has committed his life to reconciling conflict and in 1967 Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying “his ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
So it seems only natural that in recent years he has turned his attention towards not only addressing peoples’ disharmonious relationships with each other, but also with the planet on which all our lives depend.
Thay, as he is known to his many thousands of followers, sees the lack of meaning and connection in peoples’ lives as being the cause of our addiction to consumerism and that it is vital we recognise and respond to the stress we are putting on Earth if civilisation is to survive.
What Buddhism offers, he says, is the recognition that we all suffer and the way to overcome that pain is to directly confront it, rather than seeking to hide or bypass it through our obsession with shopping, entertainment, work or the beautification of our bodies. The craving for fame, wealth, power and sex serves to create only the illusion of happiness and ends up exacerbating feelings of disconnection and emptiness.
Thay refers to a billionaire chief executive of one of America’s largest companies, who came to one of his meditation courses and talked of his suffering, worries and doubts, of thinking everyone was coming to take advantage of him and that he had no friends.
In an interview at his home and retreat centre in Plum Village, near Bordeaux, Thay outlines how a spiritual revolution is needed if we are going to confront the multitude of environmental challenges.
While many experts point to the enormous complexity and difficulty in addressing issues ranging from the destruction of ecosystems to the loss of millions of species, Thay sees a Gordian Knot that needs slicing through with a single strike of a sharp blade.
Move Beyond Concept Of The “Environment”
He believes we need to move beyond talking about the environment, as this leads people to experience themselves and Earth as two separate entities and to see the planet in terms only of what it can do for them.
Change is possible only if there is a recognition that people and planet are ultimately one and the same.
“You carry Mother Earth within you,” says Thay. “She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment.
“In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer. In that kind of relationship you have enough love, strength and awakening in order to change your life.
“Changing is not just changing the things outside of us. First of all we need the right view that transcends all notions including of being and non-being, creator and creature, mind and spirit. That kind of insight is crucial for transformation and healing.
“Fear, separation, hate and anger come from the wrong view that you and the earth are two separate entities, the Earth is only the environment. You are in the centre and you want to do something for the Earth in order for you to survive. That is a dualistic way of seeing.
“So to breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it and realise you are the Earth and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the earth. Not to cut the tree not to pollute the water, that is not enough.”
Putting An Economic Value On Nature Is Not Enough
Thay, who will this spring be in the UK to lead a five-day retreat as well as a mindfulness in education conference, says the current vogue in economic and business circles that the best way to protect the planet is by putting an economic value on nature is akin to putting a plaster on a gaping wound.
“I don’t think it will work,” he says. “We need a real awakening, enlightenment, to change our way of thinking and seeing things.”
Rather than placing a price tag of our forests and coral reefs, Thay says change will happen on a fundamental level only if we fall back in love with the planet: “The Earth cannot be described either by the notion of matter or mind, which are just ideas, two faces of the same reality. That pine tree is not just matter as it possesses a sense of knowing. A dust particle is not just matter since each of its atoms has intelligence and is a living reality.
“When we recognise the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born.
“We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one. When you love someone you want to say I need you, I take refuge in you. You do anything for the benefit of the Earth and the Earth will do anything for your wellbeing.”
In the world of business, Thay gives the example of Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of outdoor clothing company Patagonia, who combined developing a successful business with the practice of mindfulness and compassion: “It’s possible to make money in a way that is not destructive, that promotes more social justice and more understanding and lessens the suffering that exists all around us,” says Thay.
“Looking deeply, we see that it’s possible to work in the corporate world in a way that brings a lot of happiness both to other people and to us … our work has meaning.”
Thay, who has written more than 100 books, suggests that the lost connection with Earth’s natural rhythm is behind many modern sicknesses and that, in a similar way to our psychological pattern of blaming our mother and father for our unhappiness, there is an even more hidden unconscious dynamic of blaming Mother Earth.
In a new essay, Intimate Conversation with Mother Earth, he writes: “Some of us resent you for giving birth to them, causing them to endure suffering, because they are not yet able to understand and appreciate you.”
How Mindfulness Can Reconnect People To Mother Earth
He points to increasing evidence that mindfulness can help people to reconnect by slowing down and appreciating all the gifts that the earth can offer.
“Many people suffer deeply and they do not know they suffer,” he says. “They try to cover up the suffering by being busy. Many people get sick today because they get alienated from Mother Earth.
“The practice of mindfulness helps us to touch Mother Earth inside of the body and this practice can help heal people. So the healing of the people should go together with the healing of the Earth and this is the insight and it is possible for anyone to practice.
“This kind of enlightenment is very crucial to a collective awakening. In Buddhism we talk of meditation as an act of awakening, to be awake to the fact that the earth is in danger and living species are in danger.”
Thay gives the example of something as simple and ordinary as drinking a cup of tea. This can help transform a person’s life if he or she were truly to devote their attention to it.
“When I am mindful, I enjoy more my tea,” says Thay as he pours himself a cup and slowly savours the first sip. “I am fully present in the here and now, not carried away by my sorrow, my fear, my projects, the past and the future. I am here available to life.
“When I drink tea this is a wonderful moment. You do not need a lot of power or fame or money to be happy. Mindfulness can help you to be happy in the here and now. Every moment can be a happy moment. Set an example and help people to do the same. Take a few minutes in order to experiment to see the truth.”
Need To Deal With Ones Own Anger To Be An Effective Social Activist
Thay has over many years developed the notion of applied Buddhism underpinned by a set of ethical practices known as the five mindfulness trainings, which are very clear on the importance of tackling social injustice.
However, if social and environmental activists are to be effective, Thay says they must first deal with their own anger. Only if people discover compassion for themselves will they be able to confront those they hold accountable for polluting our seas and cutting down our forests.
“In Buddhism we speak of collective action,” he says. “Sometimes something wrong is going on in the world and we think it is the other people who are doing it and we are not doing it.
“But you are part of the wrongdoing by the way you live your life. If you are able to understand that, not only you suffer but the other person suffers, that is also an insight.
“When you see the other person suffer you will not want to punish or blame but help that person to suffer less. If you are burdened with anger, fear, ignorance and you suffer too much, you cannot help another person. If you suffer less you are lighter more smiling, pleasant to be with, and in a position to help the person.
“Activists have to have a spiritual practice in order to help them to suffer less, to nourish the happiness and to handle the suffering so they will be effective in helping the world. With anger and frustration you cannot do much.”
Touching The “Ultimate Dimension”
Key to Thay’s teaching is the importance of understanding that while we need to live and operate in a dualistic world, it is also vital to understand that our peace and happiness lie in the recognition of the ultimate dimension: “If we are able to touch deeply the historical dimension – through a leaf, a flower, a pebble, a beam of light, a mountain, a river, a bird, or our own body – we touch at the same time the ultimate dimension. The ultimate dimension cannot be described as personal or impersonal, material or spiritual, object or subject of cognition – we say only that it is always shining, and shining on itself.
“Touching the ultimate dimension, we feel happy and comfortable, like the birds enjoying the blue sky, or the deer enjoying the green fields. We know that we do not have to look for the ultimate outside of ourselves – it is available within us, in this very moment.”
While Thay believes there is a way of creating a more harmonious relationship between humanity and the planet, he also recognises that there is a very real risk that we will continue on our destructive path and that civilisation may collapse.
He says all we need to do is see how nature has responded to other species that have got out of control: “When the need to survive is replaced with greed and pride, there is violence, which always brings about unnecessary devastation.
“We have learned the lesson that when we perpetrate violence towards our own and other species, we are violent towards ourselves; and when we know how to protect all beings, we are protecting ourselves.”
Remaining Optimistic Despite Risk Of Impending Catastrophe
In Greek mythology, when Pandora opened the gift of a box, all the evils were released into the world. The one remaining item was “hope”.
Thay is clear that maintaining optimism is essential if we are to find a way of avoiding devastating climate change and the enormous social upheavals that will result.
However, he is not naïve and recognises that powerful forces are steadily pushing us further towards the edge of the precipice.
In his best-selling book on the environment, The World we Have, he writes: “We have constructed a system we can’t control. It imposes itself on us, and we become its slaves and victims.
“We have created a society in which the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, and in which we are so caught up in our own immediate problems that we cannot afford to be aware of what is going on with the rest of the human family or our planet Earth.
“In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a few hours they will all be killed.”
by Jo Confino
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An edited video of Jo Confino’s interview with Thich Nhat Hahn can be seen here.
For information on Thay’s visit to the UK this spring, which includes a meditation in Trafalgar Square, a talk at the Royal Festival Hall, a five-day retreat and a three-day mindfulness in education conference, go to the Cooling the Flames website.
To find out where I soruced this article from, please click here.
And to find out a bit more about Thich Naht Hanh, please click here.
OR, if you would like to see Thich Naht Hanh give a talk here in the UK, please visit the London Southbank Centre’s wesbite by clicking here. Ticket’s are almost sold out!
August 26, 2011
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The greatest achievement is selflessness.
The greatest worth is self mastery.
The greatest quality is seeking to serve others.
The greatest precept is continual awareness.
The greatest medicine is the emptiness of everything.
The greatest action is not conforming with the world’s ways.
The greatest magic is transmuting the passions.
The greatest generosity is non-attachment.
The greatest goodness is a peaceful mind.
The greatest patience is humility.
The greatest effort is not concerned with results.
The greatest meditation is a mind that lets go.
The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.
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June 10, 2011
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About a year or so ago, I came across a New Scientist article that left me feeling rather incensed at the lackadaisical and somewhat slanderous title it promoted to their readers. In fact, when I had gone through some figures in my head – which I will do once again in a moment for you all – it made consider how wrong this article was… And how steeped in delusional values we had all become. I mean, surely everyone could see what a bargain the people of the world were getting here… ? Could they not!? A ‘bargain’ that would allow us all to protect such a priceless wonder of diversity in action, a natural flourishing ecosystem still – on the whole – intact, such as the Yasuni National Park rainforest, for. While I again hate to use the term ‘bargain’ in the context of this blog, I feel it readily addresses the present mindset that many of us here in the West have adopted… A mindset that has become so far removed from the way we used to live… A mindset that is beginning to take for granted the ease at which we can go down to the shops to get what we need to eat, live and (although our luxurious mode of living probably begets the use of another more appropriate word) ‘survive…’ A mindset that is steeped more in corporate sensibilities than the careful consideration of how an ecosystem operates within parameters of sustainability.
I will reproduce it here as it is only a short article, one from which I would like to pick out some important points from so to bring this whole escapade into focus… Might I also observe there is no mention of who the author was either!?
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Pay Us Oil Money, Or The Rainforest Gets It
03 November 2009
ECUADOR’s unprecedented offer to accept payment for not extracting oil from beneath the Amazon rainforest is beginning to draw interest. The move could usher in a new way to both combat climate change and prevent damage to ecologically diverse and sensitive regions.
More than two years ago, Ecuador said it would abandon plans for drilling in Yasuni National Park, one of the few pristine regions of Amazon rainforest remaining, if it was paid half of the $7 billion that it expected to earn from tapping the oilfield. “This was a major turning point in the ‘drill, drill, drill’ mentality,” says Matt Finer, an ecologist with Save America’s Forests, an environmental group based in Washington DC, which released its analysis of the initiative this week (Biotropica, DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-7429.2009.00587.x).
No country has taken up Ecuador’s offer so far, but Finer says there has been “increasing chatter” that Germany will pay about 20 per cent of the total.
Later this month, the UN Development Programme is expected to announce plans to hold contributions in a trust fund, passing along only the fund’s interest to Ecuador. The idea is that this will give future Ecuadoran governments an incentive not to start drilling for oil, while also encouraging other nations to pay up.
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Right… Here comes the part where I do my best to put the facts into focus from a greater perspective that we should all consider here on Earth. As the New Scientist article states, Ecuador needs – or perhaps I should really use the words “would like” – to raise half of the $7 billion that it expected to earn from tapping the oilfield underneath the Yasuni National Park… Which would be about $3.5 billion that they would like to raise.
And that’s when it happened… There I was thinking… “Wow! That’s a lot of money!” But, having recently read something about the Optimum Population Trust, I then remembered how many people presently reside here on the planet Earth… Which is about 6 billion people to date. So then I go all simple minded like… And I think to myself… “So If every person gave roughly $0.60 to the project, it could raise $3.6 billion. Nice! Oh… But hang on one moment… Not everyone is that rich. I remember when I was in the The Gambia back in 1992, people we’re getting paid the equivalent of about $4 a week with the ‘then’ exchange rates.” I know this because I bought two packets of Marlboro cigarettes for a local fellow there in 1992, mainly as a way of thanking him for his kind hospitality while I was on holiday there… And, when he saw the red and white packets I was handing to him, he literally said that it was too big a gift for what he had done, and that he could not accept them.
This literally left me stumped… And, after doing my best to give him the cigarettes, I proclaimed that “It’s really nothing! Seriously, these are for you! Together they only come to $3…” And that’s when the penny dropped… That’s when I realised that I had naively put my foot into the quagmire of inequality that exists all around the world… And traipsed about this fellow’s good will and hospitality until I had unwittingly made it painfully and obscenely obvious that, not only is there inequality in the world, but those who are better off than the rest are shamefully unaware of how fortunate they really are in the greater scheme of things… And what a trip that was. Thankfully my guest was too kind a gentleman to think ill of my naivety and he openly told me about how much he got paid for, literally, picking “peanuts.” And no pun intended there.
Anyway… I sidetrack the point. So there I am… Having realised that, if everyone the world over would give $0.50, the inequality that exists between the world’s varying economies/countries would mean that some people would have to give much more than others… And it would seem that the poorer people of the world would be worse off. So I figured, “Okay. Let’s focus on one rich, big country… A country that is well off enough so that it wouldn’t be such a problem if every person gave a donation to the Yasuní Rainforest Campaign.” And I came up with the USA… Mainly as they were the richest country on the American continent.
Right… So… Without getting to involved in statistical analysis i.e. looking at the median income per household in the USA (which is the amount which divides the income distribution into two equal groups, half having income above that amount, and half having income below that amount), I wanted to discover the per capita income of the USA… Which was about $47,000 per annum, per person in 2010.
Then I wanted to know what the population of the USA was in 2010… Which was about 309 million (or 309,000,000) people. Thus, a total of $14,523 trillion was made by the USA populous in 2010, before tax… Which is quite a staggering figure when one thinks about it. [As a quick comparison, in 2009 The Gambia’s GDP was apparently $789 million, which was only 0.005% of the USA’s GDP… Talk about imbalanced!?]
Okay… Let’s go back to what the Ecuadorian Government hope to raise… Which is $3.5 billion. So… If we divide the number of people in the USA i.e. 309 million into the $3.5 billion requested by the Ecuadorian Government, we get the number of dollars each person in the USA would have to give to raise the money needed to save the Yasuní National Park Rainforest Reserve… Which is roughly… Wait for it… $12 per person… Well, let’s look at it slightly more correctly… It’s $12 per each $47,000 earned in the USA!!! So if for every $47,000 earned in the USA $12 was given to the Yasuní Rainforest Campaign… If every person in the USA gave $12 to the Yasuní Rainforest Campaign… Then the people of the USA could prevent the disastrous consequences for drilling for oil in the Yasuní Rainforest Reserve. Talk about a bargain!!!
I mean… $12 is 0.026% of $47,000. And they’d only have to donate the $12 once to easily raise the $3.5 billion! Which really is peanuts…
But let’s not forget the rainforest itself… And how valuable that is in it’s own right… I mean… Can one ever put a value on something so complex and irreplaceable? If it was to be destroyed… How long do you think it would take to get back into something sembling its present state? Even… Does our need for “oil” take precedence over the “real-estate” inhabited by other sentient beings… Much like our desire for the meat on our plates? Do we i.e. mankind, always fail to consider the delicate rarity of natural ecosystems here on Earth? Do we always expect everything to dance to our tune for our own entertainment? Personally… I’d give the Yasuní-ITT initiative $12 from my salary – and do so each year – to protect the Yasuní rainforest from the fallout of oil exploration and drilling. Wouldn’t we all be better of giving 0.026% of our income each year to help preserve the rainforests of the world?
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To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one’s own in the midst of abundance.
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After all… The world is our home. The Earth is our home! And despite the imagined boarders of mind that we divide the globe up into… We can never deny how interconnected we all are to one another. The ‘self’ that we all cling to so ardently is nothing more than another example of our fractured way of thinking about things… A way that allows us to deny any responsibility for our present course of action and ethics. So would the author of that New Scientist article please stand up and answer for the memetic distortion inoculated onto the populous’ minds, and correct the context in which this idea is presented i.e. that we are living on planet with limited resources… A planet that has a bounty of priceless gems where life – a rarity of wonder in the vast universe – abounds in an interconnected and interdependent web of vibrant interaction? That we have a chance to halt something destructive… Even if only for a short time i.e. 100 years maybe… ???
And even if it is only for a short time that this deforestation is halted… Isn’t it worth it… So as to provide those in the future with a chance to glimpse at what our generations of people have chosen to do? Perhaps they might find themselves in a time when they’ll be able to more clearly distinguish between what we really need to live… And what is only a luxury i.e. like oil… And so make a better decision about the whole ecosystem of Earth’s life… Well… Only time will tell.
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All things appear and disappear because of the concurrence of causes and conditions. Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.
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I will leave it on that note… And present you with a BBC New reel that explains the situation to date in Ecuador concerning the Yasuní Rainforest Campaign.
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Ecuador’s Oil Gamble
News on global issues. Linda Pressly reports on a deal offered by Ecuador over an oilfield under a rainforest. Ecuador is asking for billions to stop the field being developed.
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To find out more about Save America’s Forests, please visit their website by clicking here.
To read more on the Yasuní Rainforest Campaign, please click here.
Or to find out where I sourced the New Scientist article from, please click here.
Plus, to find out more about a forthcoming movie that aims to bring this new way of thinking about the world’s forests vs. our ‘need’ for oil into the “lime-light”, please visit the “Yasuni – Two Seconds Of Life” website here.
And to see where I sourced the BBC News reel from, please visit the BBC iPlayer by clicking here.
May 14, 2011
April 22, 2011
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Knowing others is wisdom… Knowing yourself is enlightenment.
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This is the first part of a series of blogs that I mentioned would be coming… The ones where I was going to do my best to present several ideas which aptly demonstrated that the notion of a ‘self’, a notion which we all seem to cling to so ardently in life, is really nothing more than a sort of grand illusion of consciousness conjured up by the biochemically ‘aware’ molecular systems of our bodies, which – if you’re a human being (or even a bird, perhaps) – use a vocalized type of memetic linguistic patterning to confer ideas, notions, emotions, warnings and/or other data to one another within social groups of a similar species… As it happens, these memes also evolve in a very similar way to the physical bodies that we presently use to convey all these ideas/memes with (after all, we do live in a fractal like universe)… And, it should be mentioned, all of this arose ‘naturally’ from the strange and unexpected relationship between order and chaos inherent within the solar system’s accreted mass of star dust… In fact this same strange and unexpected relationship between order and chaos resides at the heart of all universal phenomena… But more on that later.
For the moment… Please do excuse the length of time it has taken for me to realize this post… However, much patience, practice and research was needed to construct the essence of, what I’m sure many experts on the subject will only consider to be, this very rudimentary study. And perhaps, while I am managing to be humble, I should also add – so as to be totally honest and fair – that I’m really no better off reaching any definitive conclusion about what ‘I’, or rather my ‘self’, actually is either!?!?
In fact… This study has only made me more and more unsure – more unsure than I’ve ever been before – about what constitutes an idea of a ‘self’… Demonstrating for me, at least, that what many of us seem to take for granted as being a ‘certain’, ‘definable’ and ‘constant’ notion of identity and/or existence, upon closer inspection, actually becomes a very vague, intangible and indefinable man-made abstraction centered more around linguistic syntax rather than on direct knowledge or experience alone. I know that might sound quite disconcerting to some… However, it should be noted that it is nothing more than an alternative idea to counter the many commonplace views that presently exist on how the majority of us see our ‘selves’ and our position here in the cosmos today… Not to mention that I feel it might well be a good time to start evolving a bit, both mentally as well as physically.
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The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
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I know, I know… Why would anyone want to challenge the socially accepted Western view of the universe that we’re presently running along with… One that seems to set in stone a type of superiority over the rest of life here on Earth… One where the ‘self’ is all pervasive, and yet, it remains silently un-clear and unrevealed to those who need to know the most about it… ? Well, I for one don’t feel that our present state of Being and/or understanding adequately reflects our true circumstance… Let alone our true nature… And, having spoken to many fellow human beings here on Earth recently (so as to clarify whether we’re all functioning properly or not), I have discovered that many of our present problems i.e. over population, food shortages, war, etc… seem to stem from a fundamental error in the way we all perceive how we connect to the environment around us… To be more specific about this error… We all seem to be observing everything we do through an idea – or lens – of ‘self’. One that focuses our minds into modes of specific and present action within the world we presently find our ‘selves’ in.
But why should this way in which we perceiving things actually be a problem? Well… If we were to accept the idea of our ‘self’ somewhat blindly – like many of us do presently – and see ourselves as all being independently standing i.e. our ‘self’ exists separately and independently of everything else (which many of us clearly thinks is the case, seen by most people amassing bank balances, material wealth like gold, jewelry, cars, fashion based clothes, social status, etc)… Then we can actually limit the way that we see, understand and interrelate to everything and everyone else around us here on planet Earth and within the universe… Why? Because if we choose to completely disregard how the notion of ‘self’ came into being, and use only a marginalized approximation of what this unbounded essence of existence really is, then I fear we may mangle and divorce ourselves thoroughly from any real chance that we might have of developing a true and more appropriately connected state of Being that considers who ‘we’ all i.e. all sentient beings, unquestionably are.
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It is astounding that man, the instigator, inventor and vehicle of all these (i.e. political opinions and religious understandings) developments, the originator of all judgments and decisions and the planner of the future, must make himself such a quantité négligeable. The contradiction, the paradoxical evaluation of humanity by man himself, is in truth a matter for wonder, and one can only explain it as springing from an extraordinary uncertainty of judgment – in other words, man is an enigma to himself. This is understandable, seeing that he lacks the means of comparison necessary for self-knowledge. He knows how to distinguish himself from the other animals in point of anatomy and physiology… But as a conscious, reflecting being, gifted with speech, he lacks all criteria for self-judgment. He is on this planet a unique phenomenon, which he cannot compare with anything else. The possibility of comparison and hence self-knowledge would arise only if he could establish relations with quasi-human mammals inhabiting other stars…
Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961)
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I mean… If we could cultivate an understanding of things that is free of ‘self’ centered tendencies and ‘selfish’ attitudes towards natural resources and ecological processes… An attitude that is devoid of all ‘self’ importance… And, thus, prevents our ‘selves’ from taking this idea of a ‘self’ too literally… Thereby relieving most – if not all – of the unnecessary stress and folly that awaits us if we continue with these ‘self’ centered views and relationships i.e. unwittingly promoting deconstructive behavioral patterns within our societies and ecosystems… Then we might well be able to disarm the citadels of ‘self’-importance that we have all imprisoned our ‘selves’ in… And REALLY SEE how ‘we’ all closely interconnect to the world (and universe) around us…
In many ways, this is why this journey to find my ‘self’ was so important… In fact, it’s why I feel it’s a really important journey for us all to undertake. Otherwise we will be cursed to pollute and destroy our delicate ecosystem over and over again, propagating an unsettled karmic pattern from our unenlightened mind streams and resulting behavior patterns, creating a Saṃsāra without end.
Thus, bearing in mind all I’ve written about within this website, it became, for me, a natural evolutionary process to take sometime to ponder over where the true enemy lay hidden… And, by being as humble and as diligent as I possibly could (please bear in mind I still have many faults and, thus, have done only as best as I could with my present defilements of mind, etc…), I managed to catch a glimpse of the enemy within… The enemy within my ‘self’… The one who created all the ‘self’-centered views, stances, opinions, arguments and ways of being that I’ve had, gotten into or done over the years… And I wondered, how can pacify this selfish mode of being… ?
For, once we manage to dismantle this ‘selfish’ perceptive stance, we might well be able to grasp how our present worldview was constructed and, thus, develop a better attitude toward solving our problem of ‘self’ obsession from the inside out rather than trying to do it from the outside in. Nothing we can do outside will ever really permanently change what is going on inside… Why? Well, it’s a bit like what Robert Persig once wrote in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”…
“But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government again and again. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”
In my humble opinion, it’s in building our present conceptualized understanding of things from the inside out that we have created most of our problems here on Earth.
For example, the idea of ‘self’ – which is a designated social construct that allows anyone who can grasp it to relay, say, how they are feeling in relation to the world around them – provides us with the necessary notions/ideas for constructing sentences with, eluding to a “subject” and “object” with regards to some aspect of happening or action, OR change, between – or relative to – the two entities i.e. a subject and an object… From this formulation we derive the ability to describe to others our place in the world around us, along with the changes that effect all within it daily unfolding, and even how they affect our ‘selves’ and each other (see Noam Chomsky’s “Language And Mind”). Thus the notion of a ‘self’ gives us a very handy tool by which we can understand the world around us, conveying what we feel we need to convey to others in order to act with every one’s best interests at heart (or not) and do our best to survive.
Through this conveyance, We i.e. human beings, were able to organize – via the use of language – our ‘selves’ as collective groups who work together more effectively and efficiently as an objective, collective unit, relaying the merits of certain actions, and condemning overly ‘self’-centered interests that broke up group efforts (see Scientific American’s recent article “Groups With Good Social Skills Outperform The Merely Smart“). In this kind of linguistic/collective exchange, the ‘self’ allowed us to find a type of collective ‘fairness’ and/or ‘equanimity’ within the subsequent constructs of moral codes of conduct… Which, in time, became laws of the land.
So the ‘self’ has bestowed us with the advantage of understanding how we – as individuals – would like to be treated morally and, thereby, it allows us to develop a kind of moral, self-referenced exchange that ultimately posits an agreeable universal code of conduct between us all, precluding good living and optimal survival conditions for the majority. This is a type of morality that most of us would agree with one another upon… Why? Because it allows us to see things in relative terms i.e. the body, where our ‘perceived’ center of consciousness ‘seems’ to emanate from (more on this later), is the center of our perspective… And, relative to everything else, we desire a certain amount of ‘happiness‘ from the actions we perform, so that, on the whole, we all lead stress free and healthy lives. Thus, for the most constructive outcome within the complex dynamics of human flourishing, our actions should be morally guided with a concern for the whole… For looking after the interests of the whole precludes looking the interests of the individual.
So… Bearing all this in mind… Perhaps now is a good time for me to introduce the idea that most languages are essentially the same… I know on one level it might sound a bit bizarre i.e. Japanese is certainly not the same as French, which is not the same as English or Tibetan, otherwise we’d all speak like each other… Rather I mean that the syntax of all sentence structure is essentially the same as one another. In order to demonstrate this, I have quoted the following passage, which comes from the introduction to Noam Chomsky’s book, entitled “New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind.”
Taken from Noam Chomsky’s “New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind”, this is a Forward by Neil Smith. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Pp. xvi, 230. Reviewed by Gilbert Harman, Princeton University
Here are seven essays that describe and deplore a philosophical double standard that respects the methods and results of physics, chemistry, and biology but not the methods and results of linguistics and other sciences of the mind.
One sign of the double standard is that, while hardly anyone thinks one can do philosophy of physics without knowing physics, it is all too common for one to think that they can do philosophy of language without knowing linguistics.
Chomsky is, of course, the leading figure in contemporary linguistics. Starting in the 1950s, his development of generative grammar was an important factor in the shift from behavioristic to cognitive approaches to language and mind. Chomsky’s approach takes the goal of linguistics to be to characterize the human faculty of language, noting its differences from the human faculties for general problem solving science. As Chomsky and other linguists tried to give explicit characterizations of the competence of a speaker of a language like English, it became clear that a child learning language simply does not have the sort of evidence available that would enable it to learn the relevant principles from scratch. There is a “poverty of the stimulus.” The child must be prepared to acquire language with these principles in a way that it is not prepared to acquire the principles of, say, physics or quantification theory.
It is clear that normal children acquire a language that reflects their particular linguistic environment. A child brought up in Japan acquires a version of Japanese. The same child brought up in Brazil acquires a version of Portuguese. So, these languages must in some sense reflect some of the same underlying innate principles.
Further reflection along these lines and a great deal of empirical study of particular languages has led to the “principles and parameters” framework which has dominated linguistics in the last few decades. The idea is that languages are basically the same in structure, up to certain parameters, for example, whether the head of a phrase goes at the beginning of a phrase or at the end. Children do not have to learn the basic principles, they only need to set the parameters. Linguistics aims at stating the basic principles and parameters by considering how languages differ in certain more or less subtle respects. The result of this approach has been a truly amazing outpouring of discoveries about how languages are the same yet different.
More recently, there have been attempts to try to explain some of the basic principles on the assumption that the language faculty is close to an ideal engineering solution to a problem of connecting the language faculty with the cognitive system and the articulatory perceptual system. This “minimalist program” remains highly speculative, but whether of not it succeeds, contemporary linguistics as a whole has been a tremendous success story, the most successful of the cognitive sciences.
One would therefore expect that any philosopher of mind or language would make it his or her business to understand the basic methodology and some of the results of this subject. But many philosophers of mind and language proceed in utter ignorance of the subject.
For me, at least, this demonstrates – via the tenets of linguistics – that languages used for communication, a ‘universal’ trait of human beings presently here on Earth, are all essentially structured in very similar ways to one another. This notion of the subjective vs. objective in turn aids, what I can only call, the programming of one’s ‘self’ – via a type of memetic feedback loop – into who they ‘feel’ they presently are in this moment of their lives.
Perhaps it should also be mentioned here that, as we use with such daily regularity a linguistic ‘method’ that defines how separate aspects of the world occur in relation to ourselves i.e. we use sentences that include a plethora of ‘nouns’ or ‘names’ for almost everything we can experience tangibly or intangibly (see the dictionary for a full scope on the number of words that we use to describe things seperately with, coupled with their manmade ‘meanings’/’definitions’) along with how these names/nouns/concepts all interrelate to the separate notion of our ‘selves’… Thus we are unwittingly cementing in place a worldview based on an understanding of ‘separateness’… Of ‘independent’ arising… Where everything seems to have an ‘apparent’ individual identity and meaning, independent of everything else. And, if we don’t check ourselves daily, then we will fall foul of this ‘self’ referential system of thought, and think that everything must be ‘separate’ from everything else… Or even have a ‘meaning’ or a ‘purpose’ of some sort… A meaning that differentiates and/or separates it from other things… !!!
Perhaps that is why many of us feel at a loss when we truly realize that there is no inherent meaning to anything i.e. that everything is ultimately empty… Even the idea of our own lives, which is just a fantastical social construct at best, has no inherent meaning beyond that which we create for our ‘selves’… And, something that has scared me recently (though I must say I am slowly beginning to feel more at ease with the idea now), that there is no inherent meaning, or even concrete definition, to the notion of my – or even your – ‘self.’ I know I still haven’t discussed why the idea of a solid, or ever constant, ‘self’ is perhaps a delusion… But I am getting there slowly…
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Ultimate truth cannot be taught without basis on relative truth.
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After we have seen how everything slots together within linguistic constructs – and understood from which direction we constructed the conceptualized notion of the universe around us – we might well clinch a better method of action with which to resolve most our problems of sustainability and war with… Not to mention that it might well become a highly effective method that will allow us to see how we constructed the notion of our ‘self’ within our relative modes of understanding. For, once that is understood, I believe that we might well give our ‘selves’ the power to ‘self’ realize and actualize our own remedy from within.
It’s a bit like a motorbike… If you don’t know how one is constructed… Or even what a screw does… Or, even, how this basic unit of the motorbike functions i.e. a screw… Then you will never be able to repair it when it breaks down… Just because you know how to drive a bike doesn’t mean you know how to fix it. But when you look at all the parts that gave rise to its coming together… Even how it stays together… Then we will be able to at least take the motorbike apart, bit by bit, undoing the of the basic units that built it up… And, thus, through that process, we’d be able to have a better chance at seeing what is wrong with it and, so, have a better chance of repairing it.
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So as to look at some functions within the mind/brain/body/environmental continuum… I’d like to recap on what we’ve already covered in this blog… Mainly because I feel they contain some very important aspects about how the ‘self’ functions within this here website… For example, the notion of our ‘self’ functioning as a sort of feedback loop (as discussed in Douglas Hofstadter’s book, entitled “I Am A Strange Loop“), along with how analogy can be viewed as the core of cognition, plus how the mind naturally demonstrates that the very process that drives it is based on an engine of nonlinear dynamics i.e. an engine of pure chaos, as well as how we are beginning to use these models of understanding in order to develop artificial intelligence with… Not to mention we have discussed concepts that treat our ‘self’ as nothing more than an amalgamation of ideas/memes that collect over the course of our lives, via a feedback loop between the mind/brain/body/environment continuum, and which are then assimilated into a central memeplex of ‘self’ for relative temporal processing… !!! We’ve also seen how prone to illusion the system of our biomechanical bodies makes us – the very bodies that we use on a daily basis to perceive the world around us with… And, thus, we can see how we should also be aware of the resulting delusions that therefore creep into our own socially constructed understanding about what the nature of reality ‘seems’ to be… !?!? And, bearing that in mind, we’ve even managed to discuss how nothing is permanent and that ‘time’ is really only a conceptualized understanding about how our past memories relate to the only moment that we really have i.e. this present moment… Thus we can begin to understand how we distort the essence of experience with social constructs, like the concept of ‘time’, which we choose to gauge gradients of change with in relation to our own, somewhat ‘self’ biased perspectives, which are usually mainly centered around our own clusters of personalized memories.
I think all these insights are so important to bear in mind… Why? Because rarely do we truly see past these prejudiced, memetically procured views and glimpse at the pure and ultimate nature of everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – which resides in a continually evolving flux of new patterns… Unfolding freely and interconnectedly from one ‘conceptualized’ moment to the next… In fact, there never was any need for conceptualization… Nor was there ever any moment… There was only Being… Being in the now… A Being that was beyond all definition… Continually evolving… Beyond all understanding… Free from any conceptualization…
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None by his own knowledge, or by subtle consideration, will ever really understand these things. For all words and all that one can learn or understand in a creaturely way, are foreign to the truth that I mean and far below it.
John Van Ruysbroeck (1293 – 1381)
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‘Being’ never needed any conceptualization because experience was naturally selected for without it and, so, it spoke completely for its ‘self’… Pure ‘experience’ is unbounded and beyond all dualistic modes of thinking… But once one takes the bitter bite/byte from the fruit that came off the tree of knowledge, we instantly limit our understanding of all things and forget that we are much like butterflies ‘flapping our wings’ of imagination within the parameters of our caged, syntax based existence, ‘using our structured minds’ to shape the world in which we now live… How many of us realize that there is this beautifully unbounded, enchanting, chaotic beast lurking deep within the system of our ‘selves’… ? One that, if ignored, can amplifiy subtle changes to manifest infinitly further down the line, like ‘hurricanes’ ripple off the flutter of a butterfly’s wings… Capable of destroying as much as creating.
Without a better viewpoint of our ‘selves’ and how we relate to the universal system in a karmic manner, it will be very hard for us to develop a pure and compassionate intent that amplifies predominantly constructive modes of living, while diminishing the destructive aspects of actions suitably for optimal flourishing of all sentient beings… For, without constructive modes of living, we only unwittingly harm other sentient beings, including ourselves, much further down the line.
Furthermore… So as free our own existence from a “God created us in his image” induced self-righteousness, which seems to only further this ‘self’ obsession… I’ve also begun to touch on how science, along with other ‘human’ endeavors, are yielding results that clearly demonstrate that ‘We’ all are really nothing more than a bunch of ‘interdependently’ related chemical reactions which are slowly evolving in a closed-off, ‘petri dish’ type of a planetary environment, which is isolated from other planetary ecosystems only through space’s vast and open, inhospitable expanses… Here, on Earth, whether we realize it or not, we are simply ‘doomed’ (though I fear that is very much the wrong word with which to describe life’s bountiful delights with) to do our best to survive and work around any sudden environmental/social/universal changes that might disrupt or hamper our ability to live in stability with the environment and ecosystem we find ourselves in. That is unless, somewhere down the line, we actually forget what our original purpose was.
Here I’d like to take a moment to introduce an article from Paulo Coelho’s blog entitled, “Learned Helplessness”… Perhaps, while reading it, I would beg everyone to consider the plethora of maladies that this modern world – and its medicine – has invented for us i.e. ADHD, anxiety disorder, etc…
The American psychologist Martin Seligman’s foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at University of Pennsylvania in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression.
A person should be able to walk away from an abusive relationship, for example, or voluntarily quit a stressful job. A psychological condition known as learned helplessness, however, can cause a person to feel completely powerless to change his or her circumstances for the better. The result of learned helplessness is often severe depression and extremely low self-esteem.
Learned helplessness can be seen as a mechanism some people employ in order to survive difficult or abusive circumstances. An abused child or spouse may eventually learn to remain passive and compliant at the hands of his or her abuser, since efforts to fight back or escape appear futile.Learned helplessness results from being trained to be locked into a system. The system may be a family, a community, a culture, a tradition, a profession or an institution.
Initially, a system develops for a specific purpose. But as a system evolves, it increasingly tends to organize around beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos that serve the continuation of the system. Awareness of the original purpose fades and the system starts to function automatically. It calcifies.
Some experts suggest learned helplessness can be passed on through observation, as in the case of a daughter watching her abused mother passively obey her husband’s commands. The daughter may begin to associate passivity and low self-esteem with the “normal” demands of married life, leading to a perpetuation of the learned helplessness cycle.
Child abuse by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helplessness: when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant’s crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child.
Another example of learned helplessness in social settings involves loneliness and shyness. Those who are extremely shy, passive, anxious and depressed may learn helplessness to offer stable explanations for unpleasant social experiences.
A third example is aging, with the elderly learning to be helpless and concluding that they have no control over losing their friends and family members, losing their jobs and incomes, getting old, weak and so on.
How many times could I have just given up and gone to sit with the rest of the herd, medicated up to my eye-balls, happy and supposedly contented with my lot in the daily routine of ‘supposedly’ well adjusted human endeavor… And done so until eventually, one day, I died… ? Too many times was I given this option… And how many times could I have just proclaimed helplessness within this capitalist society and given up this quest of ‘self’ discovery and operated in only the confines of some syndrome or mental disorder, looking for immediate gratification and comfortable conformity? Again, all too many…
Perhaps when one begins to formulate all this for themselves… And glimpse at a more adequate type of interdependent reality for themselves… They might well suddenly realize that our own need for stability limits the way we view this ever-changing world and universe… And, once that step has been taken, perhaps we can then also begin to glimpse at a humbling reminder that shows us we are all really nothing more than the ‘left-overs’ of matter reconfigured in the present solar system’s accretion process – all of which was constructed naturally, via processes of chaos, from a mass of fused atomic debris which had been expired, like soot from a fire, by past splendiferous burns of long gone suns…
Here, perhaps we are somewhat fortunate to have developed a type of organic Life that allows ‘us’ to be present, both here and now, and perceive the wonders of the universe as they unfold around us… Using similar structures and processes to those found in and around the universe so as to guide our perceptive mechanisms and understandings..
Well… I’m sure you can imagine how all this began to sound to a layman like myself… Especially when I began compiling and piecing together all the data and experience I had available to me – which, on the whole, was taken from a vast quagmire of scientific journals, published papers, university/researcher websites, books, video lectures and even going to (though I think ‘sneaking into’ is a far better description of events) a few university lectures in person, as well as some transcendent experiences involving psychedelic drugs and certain meditative techniques – so as to understand a bit more about my place, here, in the unfolding non-linear dynamic of the cosmos…
No doubt, while gorging my ‘self’ on the raw data that ‘I’ had amassed, ‘I’ found my ‘self’ restructuring and rearranging it into streams of, what ‘I’ can only call, an intuitive patterning, or sense of reasoning… One that came from my heart and gut as much as it did my head, all the while filling up the pages of this website with these ‘raw’ ideas… Ideas that relentlessly kept flooding into my mind’s memetic stream… And yet, whilst laying out all these ideas for restructuring, I never knew that I’d be slowly coming back round, ‘full circle’ so to speak, to look back at the observer… At the ‘self’… To see this idea of consciousness looking back at its ‘self’ in an eternal feedback loop… Like someone standing in front of two slightly distorted mirrors faced back in upon each other… And then, when I discovered that the observer, them ‘selves’, can actually shape the way in which the world functions around them simply through the act of perceiving it… !?!? Well… That blew a lot of the ‘supposed’ common sense I had learned from school and society right out of the water.
However, during this process of reflection, the hardest thing for me was trying to pin point where this ‘self’, this observer, actually was… Where ‘I’ actually came from… Why? Because, in trying to discover what my ‘self’ was – this powerful perceiving entity that could shape the universe around it simply by observing – I found my ‘self’ using all the antiquated social constructs that I had been provided with during my childhood and teenage years; concepts and ideas that I had learnt while I was at school and university… And in doing so, I found my ‘self’ needing to ask new questions within questions, so as to to puncture the crusty surface of a hard-baked, almost calcified, social reality… Questions like, if I didn’t use any type of language to communicate with, then, in the absence of any conceptualized notion of a ‘self’, would ‘I’ still be aware of my ‘self’ in the way that ‘I’ presently am, etc… ???
‘I’ mean… Surely if this idea of a ‘self’ was meant to be so obvious a fact… Like, “I think, therefore I am…” ! And as obvious as the existence of a ‘self’ seemingly was… Didn’t there have to be an equally obvious and simple answer about what the ‘self’ actually was/is… An answer that could exist independently of everything else – like language seemed to hint at – without the need to unravel the highly complex and infinitely long chain of cause and effect that brought it all into being… !?!?
But every time I looked at boiling any set of these conceptualized notions about the ‘self’ down into a concise and tidy bit of understanding… I only found endless vagaries, each of which did not quite fit the mark… Each of which didn’t satisfy my need for precision… Each of which required more questions to be asked… And each of which required more answers than the last to be defined and clarified… Spiraling into and endless foray of attach and parry that would apparently lead me to a reachable goal. Oh, how deluded I was.
It eventually became evident that a straightforward and transparent concept of the ‘self’ was not possible. In fact, the solution of my ‘self’ – which I found to be impressively colorful, soluble and ‘seemingly’ apparent in the vocalized solution of syntax which we all used in every day life, much like a dye in water – kept evading any type of concise certainty about what the ‘I’, which was being discussed, actually was. Paradox upon paradox kept layering over one another… I mean… How far could it go? Could these questions go on and on forever and ever… ? Like the way we could go on zooming into and/or out of our present scale of conscious resolution (let’s temporarily forget the apparent limits imposed by the Planck length)?
For example… When I wanted to look at the solidity of my body, where I once thought I perceived my ‘self’ to reside… I wondered whether the ‘self’ could simply be a sum of its physical parts i.e. and enduring form relating to all the atoms in their present structural configurations, connected together in cascading molecular lines/chains of environmental functionality?
But then ‘I’ remembered an idea that was discussed earlier in “An Idea About Who We Really Are“… An idea where the body’s apparent solidity comes into question.
Perhaps here it is a good time to introduce one of those paradoxes that I came across not too long ago, entitled the “Ship of Theseus…” For I feel this adequately allows us to grasp the idea of whether physical (even mental) identity – something that is related to the idea of a ‘self’ – is persistent or not…
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“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
Plutarch tells us that the ship was exhibited during the time [i.e., lifetime] of Demetrius Phalereus, which means ca. 350-280 BCE.
To make the original puzzle clearer… Let me reiterate this idea in planer English… Over the years, the Athenians replaced each plank in the original ship of Theseus as it decayed, thereby keeping it in good repair. Eventually, there was not a single plank left of the original ship. So, did the Athenians still have one and the same ship? Or was it a completely different ship?
But we can liven it up a bit by considering two different, somewhat modernized, versions. On both versions, the replacing of the planks takes place while the ship is at sea. We are to imagine that Theseus sails away, and then systematically replaces each plank on board with a new one (say it is his habit to carry a complete supply of new parts on board as his cargo). Now we can consider these two versions of the story:
Simple version: Theseus completely rebuilds his ship, replaces all the parts, throws the old ones overboard. Does he arrive on the same ship as the one he left on? Of course it has changed. But is it really the original ship?
Let A = the ship Theseus started his voyage on.
Let B = the ship Theseus finished his voyage on.
Our question then is: Does A = B? If not, why not? Suppose he had left one original part in. Is that enough to make A identical to B? If not, suppose he had left two, etc, etc… Where do you draw the line? I mean… If all the new parts came from the same forest… Or even better… If they all came from the same type of tree as the pieces of wood that ship was originally constructed from did, would this allow one to call it the same ship? Or if these pieces of the same tree were carved by the same person… Would it then be the same ship? Then again… Are these just trivialities? And, if so, would it even matter if Theseus stopped along the way and used different types of wood, whatever came to hand, so to speak… Then would this still be the same ship?
The permutations on this paradox are almost endless… For example, if all the atoms in the ship, atoms that have come together after the processes of accretion and evolution that formed us all along with the rest of the solar system that we now see around us today… If these atoms were replaced in exactly the same position and manner… The only difference being that the atomic matter came from a different set of suns… Would Theseus’ ship still be the same ship? Are the processes that made us more important that the material we are built from?? Or is the notion of ‘importance’ its ‘self’ empty of all inherent meaning… And, thus, is inadequate to describe anything ultimately???
In my humble opinion… We can apply this same principle to the physical notion of our ‘self’… For example we have already seen in a prior blog, entitled “An Idea About Who We Really Are” that, over a 15 year period, the human body replaces almost every single cell within its structure. All the material changes within us… Thus, is this body, that you are now using to read these words with, actually the same body that you had several years ago? I know for me, at least, it certainly feels like it is the same body… In fact it feels similar to the body I had 15 years ago… 15 years ago I was 20 years old, and pretty much looked the same… Albeit now I have a few grey hairs and am slightly fatter than I used to be… I know I ‘essentially’ still feel the same now… And I can still do nearly all the same things I used to, etc… But, despite these similar feelings, am I really the same person?
The same happens with experience. Experience shapes the way we react to the world around us. Different experiences cause different memories to be formed… And with these memories, we temporally choose to guide our ‘selves’ through certain situations… So, if we had to two of me… Exactly the same as each other, up to a specific point in time i.e. all the materials and processes that made us both were exactly identical… Along with all the experiences up to that moment in time, etc… Then, if one of me was to experience something completely different to the other… Would that differing experience mean that ‘I’ am no longer my ‘self’?
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Even if the ‘self’ was simply just a sum of its parts and expereinces… We should ask the question… Where should one draw the lines between all these parts i.e. at a molecular level, or at an atomic level, or even at subatomic levels, as with neutrons, protons, electrons, quarks, etc… ?? Or even, where should one draw the line between all these experiences? I mean… What even REALLY constitutes a part??? Isn’t it just the mind grasping at trying to understand the unfathomable process of everything… And, in doing so, procure its own brand of stupid dependability and definition???? Because to define any part properly, shouldn’t we still also include the processes that brought all these individual parts together to function as they do presently, describing, as well, how those processes arose too, and the ones that gave rise to them, ad infinitum?????
But perhaps more pertinently… Do we actually have any real right to divide the flow of an interdependent system up into conceptualized parts? You know, like we feel we do, for example, with borders between countries i.e. separating these interrelated topographies with merely imagined, fracturing lines that stem from our fractured, intellectualized memetic mind streams… I mean… It obvious that these lines simply do not exist in the real world. Nowhere that I have ever been on Earth is there some line that nature left us that denotes who should live where and how they should live or what they should be called… Nowhere!
And even if we did have a right to divide up them up… What would happen if we were to walk around these imagined borders, examining every nook and cranny of the immense majesty and diversity that fell into and out of every facade of their periphery… ? Wouldn’t we also find what Benoît Mandelbrot wrote about in his 1967 paper, published in Science, entitled “How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension“?
Surely with every new question asked, a new level of detail emerges, giving rise to an unbounded and infinite boarder? Just as Lewis Fry Richardson discovered, the length of a given coastline depends on the method used to measure it. Since a landmass has features at all scales, from hundreds of kilometers in size to tiny fractions of a millimeter and below, there is no obvious limit to the size of the smallest feature that should/could not be measured around… And, hence, there is no single well-defined perimeter to the landmass.
In my humble opinion, it is this very idea that should be applied to trying to understand the notion of ‘self.’ For example, when someone asks us the question “who are we?”, various approximations seem to come to mind and, with these approximations, vague assumptions are made about who we are i.e. he/she lives in Tunbridge Wells, wears sunglasses on sunny days, is a vegetarian, etc… And, perhaps, if we were from a scientific disposition, we might also include that we were made from flesh and bone, which in turn is made from proteins, carbohydrates, fats, water, calcium, etc… It doesn’t matter to our conceptualized notions that this flesh and bone changes every few years… Just so long as we can describe what it is that we vaguely want to talk about here and now… !?!?
Just as with landmasses too, various approximations exist when specific assumptions are made about minimum feature size. So… How far can we go on probing the idea of a ‘self’ with out questioning the very logic/ideas/ approximations/processes that created it? Or even the language that we use to describe it? I mean… If we go all the way… ALL THE WAY… Will we not discover that we are really inherently unbounded and indefinable… ?? That we are infinite in a perspective that present social conditioning and understanding has forced us to forget… ???
While looking for my ‘self’, I found that Douglas Hofstadter’s book, entitled, “Escher, Bach and Gödel: And Eternal Golden Braid”, was more pertinent than I had ever really imagined it would be… And recently I’ve found my ‘self’ coming back to it time and again… Because in many ways this search for the ‘self’ reminds me of looking at Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorems.” Rather than the ‘self’ being a real entity that can be defined logically and reasonably within axiomatic definitions based on “good-old” empirical evidence – evidence that is derived from many types of experimental observation, and then assessed via modes of logical reasoning, so as to posit how it all fits together into a greater, universal picture… Upon a closer inspection, this ‘I’ or ‘self’ seems to merge with, and become part of, the WHOLE universal dynamic… A tiny part of the WHOLE picture… Like a baby Mandelbrot set in the totality of the WHOLE Mandelbrot set… Each of these little sets is dependent on all the totality of the patterns preceding it… Patterns that, if they were any different further upstream, would not have brought it to rest in its present place, shape, size and/or fashion.
Saying that… I doubt that the factors that brought about our “selves” into this present universal moment are quite as simple as zn+1 = zn2 + c… Rather, in my humble opinion, there would have to be – more likely – an infinite amount of describing equations, all entangled and entwined into one another, rippling in and out of sync with each other, feeding back through and around them ‘selves’, making – from a human’s point of view – such an overwhelmingly complex totality of indefinable and unpredictable occurring precisions that one might only be able to describe it as Baruch Spinoza once did… Simply as “God, or Nature” its very ‘self’.
When I began to view the idea of ‘self’ in these terms i.e. that there is this evolving fractal chain of interdependent events, linked by cause and effect – one that gives rise to the notion of ‘self’ – it reminded me somewhat of Kalu Rinpoche’s writing on “Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness.” This unfolding cascade of events stacks up with every conscious and unconscious decision/action creating the karmic patterns that determine the unfolding nature of our reality and, therefore, our circumstance.
I know many of us might well call everything We i.e. humans, do or make or say, even, “man-made…” But in reality it is all a part of the natural flow of things… There is an order there, one that defies comprehension… It’s flow is so uncertain and unpredictable that it flexes with every new action or event that is presented to it… Never does it stay the same… In fact, it is so sensitive to everything, that even a little ripple can manifest huge changes somewhere later down the line… Certain ancient Chinese philosophers once called this the great Tao. It was unspeakable, un-describable, and all pervasive… To talk of it would limit it and destroy its essence… To define it would only end up defiling its purity.
So too with the ‘self’… When we try to define our ‘self’, nothing that we hang on ‘it’ conceptually fits ‘its’ essence properly… Every limiting word presumes a rough approximation of something infinite and unbounded… And to use limitations to describe something which is unbounded is dangerous… It breeds delusion and breaks the delicate balance between what ‘IS’ and what we think ‘it’ is. I’m sure that if we all were to spend most of our time striving for enlightenment, then we would begin to see all this i.e. that we are nothing more than a part of the chaos inherent in a universal – although even the term universal might well seem to limit what I really want to express – system that is continually evolving and unfolding in this present moment. When we let go of our ‘selves’ then we truly become free and we can see that nothing begins or ends… Nor does anything exist independent of everything else, especially in the finite ways that we have been taught to describe the world with.
So… To bring it back round to where we started from… To understand what the ‘self’ is, I found my ‘self’ having to look at all the processes that brought me into being… And while I’m sure I’ve only touched on just a hand-full of these in the infinite majesty unfolding continuously around us… It lays a good idea at the unknowable totality of the interconnectedness we all share with one another AND the universe around us… I know we might well like to describe everything in terms of how it relates to our “selves”… But it would be better not to get too attached to this way of describing things… For it can breed delusion and spread confusion by manifesting fantasies beyond what actually “IS”. I As Douglas Adams once said…
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say. Look at what’s supposed to be going to happen on the 1st of January 2000—let’s not pretend that we didn’t have a warning that the century was going to end! I think that we need to take a larger perspective on who we are and what we are doing here if we are going to survive in the long term.
I will leave it here for now… The second part to this study of ‘self’ will follow soon.
April 5, 2011
This explanation of “Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness” by the previous Kalu Rinpoche precedes the coming blog about the negation of my ‘self’. I feel it pertinently and precisely points out several very important concepts that need to be addressed before one can look at why the idea of a ‘self’ might actually be a delusion of conceptualisation.
Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness
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Within the concept of karma, there is no notion of destiny or fatalism; we only reap what we sow. We experience the results of our own actions. The notion of karma is closely connected with that of dependent arising, or tendrel in Tibetan. The chain of karma is also the interaction of tendrel, or interdependent factors whose causes and results mutually give rise to one another.
The Tibetan word tendrel means interaction, interconnection, interrelation, interdependence, or interdependent factors. All things, all our experiences, are tendrel, which is to say that they are events that exist because of the relationship between interrelated factors. This idea is essential to the understanding of Dharma in general and, in particular, how the mind transmigrates in cyclic existence.
To understand what tendrel or dependent arising is, let’s take an example. When you hear the sound of a bell, ask yourself, “What make the sound?” Is it the body of the bell, the clapper, the hand that moves the bell to and fro, or the ears that hear the sound? None of these elements alone produces the sound; it results from the interaction of all these factors. All the elements are necessary for the sound of a bell to be perceived, and they are necessary not in succession, but simultaneously. The sound is an event whose existence depends on the interaction of those elements; that is tendrel.
Similarly, all conditioned lives, all samsaric phenomena, result from a multiplicity of interactions which belong to the twelve links of dependent origination. These twelve factors give rise to each other mutually. It is not that each factor causes the one that occurs next in time; as with the bell example, they are simultaneous, coexistent. It is necessary that the twelve factors be present at the same moment in order to produce a conditioned existence. The bondage of causes and results of these interdependent factors that generate illusion is the action of samsara. Everything within samsara is karmically conditioned interrelationship; all our experiences are tendrel. The truth of appearances created by the bondage of dependent arisings is conventional or dualistic truth. This is how we ordinarily live. It is ruled by karma. The empty nature of what exists at the relative level is what we call ultimate truth. Truly understanding dependent arising allows us to go beyond the conditioning of the relative or conventional level and to attain the peace and freedom of unconditionality. When you completely understand dependent arising, you also understand emptiness. And that is freedom.
Therefore wisdom, or knowledge, is not fundamentally separate from illusion. That is why it is often said that samsara and nirvana are not different and that a form of wisdom is latent in ignorance. Logic and reasoning ultimately lead to such statements, which appear to be contradictory and illogical. Logic and reasoning can go on ad infinitum. They are part of the samsaric process and ultimately lead to contradictions. Even so, since they are tools that can bring about realisation of the truth, they are useful and should not be rejected, even if they are eventually released at the time of realising emptiness.
But be careful. The correct understanding of emptiness is in no way nihilistic. If we decide that everything is empty and without reality, that the state of buddhahood has no real existence, that karmic causality is empty, and that therefore there is no reason to bother, this would be a nihilistic view, even worse than the view that takes relative things to be truly existent. Nihilistic conceptions are a more serious mistake than the realist conceptions that take phenomena to exist as they appear.
The correct understanding of emptiness lies between the two extremes of eternalism (believing things to be inherently or truly existent) and nihilism (believing them not to exist at all). This middle way view eliminates wrong ideas and ultimately allows us to go beyond conceptualised notions about reality. But beware: to conceive of emptiness closes the door to liberation.
The great lineage holder of Saraha said:
“To consider the world as real is a brutish attitude.
To consider it as empty is even more savage.”
And Nāgārjuna said:
“Those who conceive of emptiness are incurable.”
. . . . . . . .
by Kalu Rinpoche
To learn more about the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, please visit Karmapa’s website by clicking here.
And to find out where I sourced this quote from, please click here.
March 30, 2011
May all beings be happy and create the causes of happiness.
May they all be free from suffering and from creating the causes of suffering.
May they all find that noble happiness which can never be tainted by suffering.
May they attain universal, impartial compassion, beyond worldly bias towards friends and enemies.