A practical paradigm shift

Someone just sent me this gif, saying she has been trying this out in her meditation sessions on retreat, lol. Blaze the fire of wisdom, and it can consume all our delusions and suffering.

In Buddhism we rely on the realistic minds of wisdom and compassion, starting with a confidence that we can grow these because we have Buddha seed or Buddha nature. Literally whenever we have this Dharma experience functioning in our minds, we are free from feeling anxious, free from feeling tight or hemmed in by the day’s worries, free from feeling overwhelmed.

Therefore, rather than using our delusions to solve all our problems outside the mind, in the “real world”– which in chapter after chapter of our life is turning out to be a rather exhausting and futile venture — I think the sooner we can shift into that Dharma perspective the better. It is a good idea to visit that refuge zone every single morning when we wake up (instead of the caveman mentality that immediately casts around for things to worry about); until one day we discover we never have to leave it.

This will not only help ourselves, but transform us into a source of refuge and courage for others. We can’t solve our own or others’ problems if we stay confused and unhappy. refuge zone“There are too many unhappy people already,” as Geshe Kelsang once put it. For a practical guided meditation to start feeling that refuge, check out this article

This is by way of preamble as to why I’m talking about the cool science shown in this quantum video, here. Also, a friend sent me a great book called The Order of Time by physicist Carlo Rovelli, excellent bedtime reading. One thing he says is:

If the world were made of things, what would these things be? The atoms, which we have discovered to be made up in turn of smaller particles? The elementary particles, which, as we have discovered, are nothing other than the ephemeral agitations of a field? The quantum fields, which we have found to be little more than codes of a language with which to speak of interactions and events? We cannot think of the physical world as if it were made of things, of entities. It simply doesn’t work.

What exactly am I grasping at?! However, it is one thing to impress people with this kind of fact at parties, and quite another to use this knowledge to intentionally change ourselves and the world around us. We take it in on a superficial, “Wow,” level — like a great Matrix or What the Bleep! type movie, and then continue about our seemingly solid lives as if they’re real.

what the bleepWhy? Maybe it is because we haven’t brought this information into our hearts. We don’t have the wisdom, yet, actually — we can’t bring this information into our hearts because we don’t have the wisdom, only a superficial intellectual head-based knowledge. It is someone else’s idea — we haven’t developed our own experience of it so it’s not affecting the way we view ourselves or other people.

These cosmic ideas are not making a dent in that persistent illusion, an illusion we are not combatting because either we don’t want to or we don’t know how to. Which is where Buddha’s teachings are so immensely useful because he laid out, step by step, how we could understand the true nature of everything, parts of which the quantum physicists are figuring out now. And, more importantly, he explained why we would want to — because gaining a deep experience of this will destroy all our ignorance and suffering.

The Matrix

While we’re on the subject of The Matrix, let me get something off my chest quickly. It’s a thought-provoking movie, and I sometimes think I’m in it as I wander the streets of New York, especially when I wear my cool black coat. But when Neo et al take the red pill and get unplugged, they don’t end up in bliss but in a “real” world — and it frankly isn’t that enticing! It has its moments (dance scene), but otherwise it seems to alternate between dull and scary, not unlike any other ordinary, impure, seemingly inherently existent world. Doesn’t really surprise me that Cypher chose the blue pill of ignorance.

Matrix black coatHowever, according to Buddha, what will actually happen when we unplug from the matrix of our beginningless hallucinations, purifying our mind with wisdom and compassion, is that we will end up not in the samsaric Zion but in the Pure Land of great bliss, a world that we are free to create and play with as we choose. As Geshe Kelsang says in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra (page 20):

There is no such thing as a Pure Land that exists from the side of the object; the  Pure Land is merely an appearance to a pure mind. Equally, there is no such thing as an impure world that exists from its own side; an impure world is merely an appearance to an impure mind.

And what about the mind?

From my very beginnery understanding of modern science, it seems that scientists are saying that everything is illusory, in that it doesn’t exist and appear in the same way; and yet we are buying into the illusion.

However, there is still that “hard problem of consciousness.” The Guardian science section published this article:

“Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?” … For example, how could the 1.4 kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?

Buddhism may differ from much of modern science in stressing the importance of consciousness. Buddha specialized in psychology whereas scientists seem to be suggesting that they have a ways to go in this area. For example Carlo Rovelli says:

We understand biology by studying how living beings evolve and live. We understand psychology (a little, not much) by studying how we interact with each other, how we think.

Buddha Shakyamuni (BC 500) has arguably gone further than anyone else in known history in unveiling reality because not only has he explained the nature of apparently external reality, but he has also shared his deep wisdom and direct experience of the nature and function of non-physical consciousness, which is what is doing all this perceiving and hallucinating. (Nor was he the first Buddha or “Awakened One” to do this, countless came before him in countless world systems. What on earth makes us think this is the only universe?! It’s like an ant thinking there’s only one anthill. Anyway, that’s just a random thought I just had, definitely formless.)

Is there a mind-body problem or not?

The article says:

Critics point out, if this non-physical mental stuff did exist, how could it cause physical things to happen – as when the feeling of pain causes me to jerk my fingers away from the saucepan’s edge?

easy-and-hard-problems-of-consciousness-lThe dichotomy long held onto in the materialist or reductionist world view seems to be both contrived and false, for why should there be a “mind-body problem” — formless mind and “physical” reality can and do get along just fine. We don’t need to do away with subjective consciousness to make sense of jerking our fingers away from pain or making sense of creation in general.

If we accept that there can be two primary realities, or arguably that mind is the primary reality producing “material” or at least perceived reality, we can not only make far more sense of our existence but learn to transform it by changing our perceptions. If we can change our existence by changing our thoughts, which we can and do, then this in itself makes a pretty compelling case for the existence of non-physical mind, wouldn’t you say?

Again, from that article:

Yes, it may be true that most of us, in our daily lives, think of consciousness as something over and above our physical being – as if your mind were “a chauffeur inside your own body”, to quote the spiritual author Alan Watts. But to accept this as a scientific principle would mean rewriting the laws of physics.

I dunno, physics is evolving and being rewritten all the time, so I’m fine with that. Accepting our subjective experience is common sense. None of our internal thoughts, feelings, pleasure, pain, and so on are experienced as physical, yet we cannot deny that they are experienced – the author of that Guardian article uses the example of painfully stubbing his toe. I think we know full well what our states of mind feel like inside, even if we can’t see them, sit on them, or physically measure them. We are experiencing and using them non-stop, day and night. Our whole life is determined by them. And without conscious awareness, what, for example, are the scientists having their ideas about the non-existence of conscious awareness with?!

Inner scientists

Buddha and scienceFrom what I have read (admittedly not much), the “how’s” of existence are not explained yet in modern science, which hasn’t figured out what consciousness exactly is, nor the mechanisms by which it projects everything, nor its different levels; but they are explained in Buddhism in great detail and we can come to know what conscious awareness is in our own direct experience. In fact, Buddha Shakyamuni said:

If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere.

Buddha said we needed to become inner scientists, coming to know formless consciousness more and more deeply through observation with our formless consciousness. As soon as we even close our eyes, our conscious awareness is evident. Do check out this article if you like, for tips on how we can come to know it.

From that same Guardian article:

Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life?

I don’t know about you (well, I kinda do), but I am not a robot because I am a sentient being with, as it happens, an infinitely deep inner life. Just like you. We are conscious and that consciousness cannot be seen in the “material” world. The definition of mind is, simply, that which is clarity and cognizing. Buddha explains how our consciousness is an impermanent formless continuum that goes on forever. It cannot be detected by any of the five sense awarenesses nor their instruments, such as microscopes or particle accelerators, because it has no visual color or shape, sound, smell, taste, or tactile properties. It has zero atoms and molecules. But despite its lack of matter, it matters. Its function is to cognize, to experience, to perceive, to understand, and, in fact, to create.

Conscious awareness exists

Buddha explains in detail how our mind relates to a seemingly external reality beyond our thoughts. Although it created that physical world in the first place through conceptual imputation or naming, our self-grasping ignorance then believes it exists “out there”, independent of perception, as in a dream. It is not just in this life time – since beginningless time our conceptual mind has been over and again projecting an impure sensory and mental world that we then torturously try to live in as if it were real.

Not only that, but our formless mind itself is even not as real as it appears – it is also empty of existing from its own side.

How to Understand the MindIn his brilliantly intelligent but common-sensical way, Buddha explains the differences between the unpeaceful delusions that are based on that mistaken way of seeing things and the peaceful virtuous states of mind that are not; and how we can effectively train in overcoming the former and perfecting the latter, eventually attaining omniscient wisdom that knows how and when all phenomena exist.

Bottom line is that we can exist in the material world while also existing as spiritual beings, I don’t think there is any actual problem with that. If you want to find out a lot more about any of what I just mentioned, can I recommend you study How to Understand the Mind. It has it all.

What’s the point of all this?

Buddhism’s HUGE! IMHO it’s huger than anything yet discovered in quantum physics, and that’s saying something. Beginningless time, endless world systems, endless consciousness, countless sentient beings, infinite enlightened beings, universal compassion, omniscient wisdom — and all of it illusion-like and dream-like, completely empty of existing from its own side.

But who cares about gaining all this extraordinary understanding of reality if it’s not actually helping us to get rid of our unhappiness, bring us joy, or help people? That’s all any of us really want, deep down, isn’t it? Therefore, when Buddha gave his teachings, his whole motivation was to permanently end suffering – all of which comes directly and indirectly from grasping things as being real when they’re not. What our ignorance is doing is projecting things and people that are not there but also believing that they ARE there and then reacting to that; and this the core reason why all of us are suffering. So Buddha wanted to dispel that illusion to lead everyone, including you and me, to the lasting bliss of enlightenment – the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearances — which is mixed with and is reality. 

We can’t wake people up from a nightmare if we believe the nightmare is real.

liberation from sufferingIf we align with reality, like all the countless omniscient beings have done, there is no end to what we can do. The sky’s the limit, only there is no real sky. As it says in that sugar cube video:

There are no limits to your power when you align to a more truthful view of the world you live in. The love that you feel in your heart is an actual power that you have. It’s literally the most powerful force on earth. This is not a cliché — you’ve just been conditioned to believe that it has no real effect. But we’ve seen that its power is absolutely world-changing.

More coming up soon, including the power of our intentions to create our experiences.

 

Meantime, over to you, would love to hear your thoughts …

Related articles

What is suffering and where does it come from according to Buddhism?

One of the world’s best-kept secrets 

 Solving problems on the inside

 

 

 

What do you see when you look at a stranger?

What (or who) do we see when we look at strangers? Do we mainly see their bodies? Their minds, after all, are formless and therefore invisible. Are we evaluating them based mainly on their bodies and on what we imagine must be their external lifestyle and background (e.g. jobs, family, income, possessions, politics, sexuality, choice of entertainment) as opposed to their vast, indeed infinite, spiritual potential?!

In London last summer a friend and I stopped for a pizza in London’s Gloucester Road and did some people watching, all the fashionistas wandering around looking cool, or not, as the case may be. Back in the sweltering NY summer, likewise, I caught myself looking at the sharply dressed men and the women in pretty summer dresses, as well as many older and more shambling people (whom younger people assume have let themselves go); and having superficial, lazy and rather useless discriminations about them. And on a beach not too long ago, I found myself making up stories about all the families I was seeing around me, who was who and what was what, and these stories were also rather one-dimensional or fixed – at least they didn’t take into account the huge variety of thoughts, experiences, relationships and potentials that each of them has been experiencing since beginningless time. I think I sometimes do the same thing in airports! The exceptions are when I’m not being lazy and I’m remembering Dharma, when the world feels very vast and interconnected.*

“The common eye sees only the outside of things, and judges by that, but the seeing eye pierces through and reads the heart and soul, finding there capacities which the outside didn’t indicate or promise, and which the other kind couldn’t detect.” ~ Mark Twain

It struck me that if we’re (I’m) not careful it is very easy to mindlessly judge everyone by various superficial criteria. “Oh he’s gorgeous! Oh, she could really do with a haircut!” etc. We impute people on their body, their form aggregate, and this is terribly restrictive. People are not their bodies. They have bodies, but they also have minds, and frankly their minds are infinitely more interesting. In fact, their minds are as vast as space, and have the potential for unbelievable wisdom, compassion, love and bliss.

One-day experiment

Just try this experiment with me for one day. Ignore people’s bodies and think about their minds. Impute or label people not on their fleshy bodies with their limited shelf life but instead on their boundless formless minds, and particularly on the potential their minds have to do anything at all, including attaining full enlightenment and becoming omniscient Buddhas. Please let me know in the comments if it makes a difference and, if so, what…

*If I’m remembering Dharma quickly, my thoughts watching a stranger in a waiting room or elsewhere may go something like this: I’ve had every conceivable relationship with them since beginningless time; they’ve even been my kind mother and dependent child; they want to be happy just as much as I do; their happiness is more important because they are other; so I’ll put myself in their shoes; now I want them to be very happy and free; they’re not; so I better attain enlightenment quickly for their sake. I find this potted Lamrim, or variation on that theme, works every time on humans and animals, and makes waiting or sitting around vastly more productive and blissful.

Your turn: what do you see when you look at a stranger?

Buddha & the Brain

(This is an article I wrote ten years ago for a New Kadampa Tradition website, and I thought I’d dust it off and share it here as not much has changed in this department!)

In May 2001, Newsweek ran the headline ‘God & the Brain’. The magazine featured a series of articles on the new ‘neurotheologists’ who are attempting to chart the connections between mystical experience and brain patterns, hoping to answer the ‘question of consciousness’.

One of the articles began:

“One Sunday morning in March 19 years ago, as Dr James Austin waited for a train in London, he glanced away from the tracks towards the river Thames. The neurologist — who was spending a sabbatical year in England — saw nothing out of the ordinary: the grimy Underground station, a few dingy buildings, some pale gray sky. He was thinking, a bit absent-mindedly, about a Buddhist meditation retreat he was headed toward.

And then Austin suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness from the physical world around him evaporated like morning mist in a bright dawn. He saw things ‘as they really are’, he recalls. The sense of ‘I, me, mine’ disappeared. ‘Time was not present,’ he says. ‘I had a sense of eternity. My old yearnings, loathings, fear of death, insinuations of self-hood vanished. I had been graced by a comprehension of the ultimate nature of things.’”

Sharon Begley’s article went on to state that scientists are beginning to use brain imaging to pinpoint the circuits within the brain that are active when people meditate or enter periods of deep prayer. Current scientific thinking has us experiencing a sense of ‘cosmic unity’ when the parietal lobes quiet down, manifesting ‘spiritual emotions… of joy and awe’ within our middle temporal lobe, and having our intense periods of concentration, such as in meditation, linked to our frontal lobes.

Notwithstanding the above, Buddha drew a clear distinction between our body and our mind. Although the two are related, he said, they are not the same thing. The mind is not the brain, and the brain is not the mind. The brain is physical, whereas the mind is formless and functions to know objects. In fact, Buddha explained how our deepest levels of consciousness do not depend upon the body at all.

Here we can consider some words from Geshe Kelsang’s book Transform Your Life – A Blissful Journey, published in August 2001. In the chapter What is the Mind? he writes:

Some people think that the mind is the brain or some other part or function of the body, but this is incorrect. The brain is a physical object that can be seen with the eyes and that can be photographed or operated on in surgery. The mind, on the other hand, is not a physical object. It cannot be seen with the eyes, nor can it be photographed or repaired by surgery. The brain therefore is not the mind but simply part of the body. There is nothing within the body that can be identified as being our mind because our body and mind are different entities. For example, sometimes when our body is relaxed and immobile our mind can be very busy, darting from one object to another. This indicates that our body and mind are not the same entity.

In Buddhist scriptures our body is compared to a guest house and our mind to a guest dwelling within it. When we die our [deepest level of] mind leaves our body and goes to the next life, just like a guest leaving a guest house and going somewhere else. If the mind is not the brain, nor any other part of the body, what is it? It is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects. Because the mind is formless, or non-physical, by nature, it is not obstructed by physical objects. Thus, it is impossible for our body to go to the moon without traveling in a spaceship, but our mind can reach the moon in an instant just by thinking about it. Knowing and perceiving objects is a function that is unique to the mind. Although we say `I know such and such’, in reality it is our mind that knows. We know things only by using our mind.

I reckon we all know from our own common-sense experience of our own mind that mind and body are not the same. Here’s an experiment. Close your eyes and think about your mom. Ask yourself: “What does this thought feel like? What is it? Where is it? Does it feel like a chemical or neural impulse? Or the side-effect of heightened lobe activity? Etc.”

When I do this, consciousness of my mother (let alone any non-dual experience of anything transcendent such as the illusory nature of all phenomena or the experience of blessings) does not feel like anything physical at all. Thought exists in a different dimension altogether — the formless dimension beyond the physical, without shape, color, spatial boundaries, tactile properties. Invisible, but the creator of reality. Immaterial, but mattering a great deal.

Moreover, when we refer to ‘my body’, we do not feel as if we are talking about ‘my mind’, and vice versa, which clearly indicates that we know first-hand that they are not the same. We may have the figure of speech “My brain hurts”, but we also talk about our mind, feelings and experiences all the time, and I would argue that when we do we are not even casting a sideways glance at our brain. If you’re feeling depressed, do you have the notion “My brain is depressed”? If you really want something, does it feel like “My brain really wants that!”?

I personally think that we are not born with a belief that our mind is our brain. I think it is a so-called “intellectually-formed delusion” that we acquire due to incorrect reasoning and/or other people telling us. Often we don’t question this conventional wisdom and assume smart people know what they are talking about when they say the mind is the brain, even though it provides far more questions than answers.

I never thought about it much until one day, as a 14-year-old, I was dancing and suddenly felt a wave of bliss at my heart. I thought to myself: “This feeling is not in my brain! It is so much bigger than that. It is not physical!” And that for some reason got me thinking about an article I had read about a mother who had lost her child, and it seemed to me impossible that all that grief could be contained in a lump of grey matter in her head. Also, life just isn’t that meaningless – why do we worry about anything if all that is doing the worrying is a sponge-like organ or a bunch of chemicals? Who cares what happens to us or anyone else if it is only happening to a blob of meat in our skull? Anyway, I had practical thoughts like this before I met Buddhism, so when later I was introduced to Buddha’s experiential teachings on the mind it was a “no brainer” (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-))

In struggling to answer the ‘question of consciousness’ and how the mind relates to the body — which arose when the materialist view of Descartes and his followers took hold of Western philosophy — rather than simply accepting that mind and body are different natures and taking it from there, scientists have tried to answer the question by reducing consciousness to the purely physical. We are blinded by science: this reductionism obscures our own direct experience, based on the false premise that mind and body cannot be different natures. We are cheated out of an understanding of the formless continuum of our mind, with dire ramifications for our spiritual beliefs such as life after death, the existence of enlightened beings, and the possibility of infinite mental and spiritual development and bliss.

There is not and never will be a magical chemical concoction or brain operation that will lead living beings to full spiritual awakening. Finding a permanent way to quieten our parietal lobes is no guarantee of ‘cosmic unity’! And even if these things were possible, they would be pointless.

Geshe Kelsang's hands in meditation

Meditators, on the other hand, are scientists of the mind who spend their lives investigating the nature of consciousness from direct experience (something that can be done only by using mental awareness, not crude physical instruments) — and they have clearly understood that the mind is not anything physical. There may be some relationship between certain types of mental awareness and the brain, as there is between sense consciousness and our sense faculties (the eyeball, nose, etc); but the fact that two things have a relationship proves that they are two different things, not the same thing e.g. a driver affects his car, but is not the same as the car.

People tend to put their hands to their hearts, not their heads, to indicate deep feelings of love there. When we meditate deeply, our consciousness feels seated at our heart. In his Tantric teachings, Buddha explained that our mind is related to subtle inner energy winds that can be said to have locations within the body — we have conceptual thoughts related to the winds in our crown chakra (perhaps why we scratch our head when we’re confused!). Our minds of attachment are related to winds in our navel chakra (hence those butterflies!) We have love and wisdom related to winds in our heart chakra, which is also the seat of our deepest level of mind. Stories abound in Buddhism of great meditators, such as Geshe Kelsang’s Spiritual Guide Trijang Rinpoche, who remained warm and upright for days after their brain was dead, meditating on the clear light of bliss at their heart. You can find out more about all this in the Tantric books.

(Finally, there are stories of people who live with a tiny fraction of normal brain matter but still have an IQ of 100 or more. You can Google it.)

To gain experience of the nature and function of your own mind, you can try out this meditation: How to meditate on the peaceful clarity of your own mind.

Do you think it matters whether or not Westerners are taught that the mind is the brain? Have you had any experiences that convince you that it is not (or that it is!)? I look forward to your comments.