anatta (non-self)

Is Buddhism right?

Joshua Rothman (Boston Globe): Buddhism is in vogue in the West, partly because Buddhist practices, especially meditation, are popularly associated with contentment and well-being. As religions go, Buddhism strikes many people as a sensible and practical lifestyle choice.

Owen Flanagan, a distinguished philosopher at Duke, thinks this purely practical approach to Buddhism misses the point. In a new book, “The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized,’’ Flanagan argues Buddhism matters not just for practical reasons, but for philosophical ones. Subtract the “hocus-pocus” about reincarnation and karma, he argues, and you’ll find a rigorous, clear-eyed account of the universe and our place in it – one that would satisfy even the most ardent modern-day materialist. Buddhism matters, in other words, because it’s actually right.

Buddhism is practiced in different ways around the world. Still, Flanagan writes, if a stripped-down, unifying “Buddhist Credo” existed, it would affirm that “everything is impermanent” and, ultimately, “subject to the principles of cause and effect” – including the bodies and minds of human beings. Physicists, biologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists would agree. Science is based on the realization that human beings are part of a material world that’s driven by impersonal, physical laws.

In the Western tradition, this notion has been cause for despair. Buddhism, however, takes this worldview as its starting point, and then goes on to ask moral questions about how we ought to behave. It takes work, in the form of study and meditation, to accept that you’re just a part of the physical world, and that your soul doesn’t exist in any meaningful, permanent way. Once you’ve made the leap, though, you can live a more moral life. “Recognizing that I am a selfless person metaphysically,” Flanagan writes, “helps me see that I have reason to be less selfish morally.” The real value of Buddhism, he concludes, is that it finds moral meaning in our material world – something our Western moral systems, centuries after being upended by the Scientific Revolution, are still figuring out how to do.

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Jettisoning the notion of the “true self”

tom and jerry angel and devil

Joshua Knobe has a thought-provoking article in the New York Times on the topic of what we believe to be our “true self.” Knobe is an associate professor at Yale, where he is appointed both in Cognitive Science and in Philosophy. He is one of a new breed of philosopher — the kind that not only takes account of science, but actively participates in scientific exploration.

In the article, In Search of the True Self, he explores the thorny problem, just what is the “True Self” anyway? Take the example of a Christian who believes that homosexuality is a sin, but comes to realize that he is homosexual. As the article says,

One person might look at his predicament and say: “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden. If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”

But then another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion: “Fundamentally, [he] is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values. If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what was is most essential to the person he really is.”

You and I will almost certainly come down on one side or the other, but we may end up with diametrically opposed views of what it means for this man to be true to himself. The decision about what is someone’s True Self seems to be a subjective one.

According to Knobe, one answer, “endorsed by numerous different philosophers in different ways” is that “what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection.” That seems fair enough, but then he goes on to say that from this viewpoint our conflicted Christian would realize that “his sexual desires are not the real him … If he loses control and gives in to these desires, he will be betraying his true self.” This seems highly questionable. A reasonable person might say that if he has been born with an impulse to love others who happen to be of the same sex, and that if acting on this impulse harms no one, then it is the Christian restriction on homosexuality, and even the entire belief system of that religion, that is irrational. But as it happens, this isn’t what particularly interests me about this question of the “true self.” What does interest me about it is something I’ll return to later.

Also see:

Knobe points out, however, that the very idea of our rationality being the True Self is incomprehensible in our wider culture, where our more base instincts are seen as who we really are. (I blame Freud. The Id is seen as being what’s really gone on, while the Super Ego (our values) are seen as fake, and as a front.)

So we have two opposed viewpoints, and Knobe highlights that the “trouble is that both of them assume that the true self can be identified in some straightforward way with one particular part of a person’s psychology.” He says that the matter is “more complex” although the study he cites (one he conducted with his colleagues George Newman and Paul Bloom) doesn’t seem to point to anything very complex at all. The study simply shows that what people identify as the “True Self” is subjective, and based on their existing religious and political views: “The results showed a systematic connection between people’s own values and their judgments about the true self.”

As a Buddhist I find the concept of a True Self fascinating. I experience myself as being composed of competing impulses: on the one hand I want to be kind, while on the other I’m inclined to yell at my kids when things don’t go the way I want them. I have a clear sense that being kind is more aligned with who I want to be. But is either of those “my true self”? Actually, I could say either “both” or “neither.”

In a practical sense, both kindness and yelling are parts of my behavior. I have to own them. No one else can take responsibility for my behavior. And in this sense I am, as the Buddhist suttas tell us:

the owner of my actions [karma], heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.

So from that point of view the answer is “both.” Both acting kindly and yelling unkindly are equally “really me’ although I may choose to prefer one over the other.

Why do I choose one over the other? It’s because, in my experience, yelling leads to suffering for myself and others, and I do not like suffering or causing suffering. Kindness, on the other hand, leads to a sense of enrichment and happiness, and I enjoy experiencing those things. And that’s why I’d prefer to act kindly rather than yell. It’s not that one is “the real me” and the other is not — it’s that they have consequences for my sense of well-being.

This follows the Buddha’s advice to his son:

Whenever you want to perform a bodily act, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily act I want to perform — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?’

What is “unskillful” is what does leads to suffering rather than happiness. Rather than have some abstract principle leading us to look at what is “true” or not true in ourselves, we simply look at what leads to suffering or happiness. The Buddhist path is purely pragmatic, as this sutta shows:

I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ If this development of what is skillful were conducive to harm & suffering, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because this development of what is skillful is conducive to benefit & happiness, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’

You may note that what is unskillful is not what is “bad.” To say that an action is unskilful is simply to point out that it leads to suffering. There’s no value judgement involved.

But what of my assertion that as well as both kindness and yelling being “the true me,” neither of them is the true me?

Pragmatically, both skillful and unskillful tendencies are truly me, and I have to take responsibility for them. Saying that one side or the other is “not truly me” is a bit of a cop-out. But when we look at the factors that cause suffering, we find that at the core of these is a sense of self-identification that leads to self-definition, reinforcing a sense of the self being static and separate. Ultimately we let go of any identification of any part of ourselve as being “the real self.”

Nothing that we can identify as a constituent of the self defines the self, and so our selves are essentially indefinable. We’re told that our form is not the self, and neither is feeling, perception, our habits or even (despite what some Tibetan forms of Buddhism say) our consciousness is not the self.

In the end, we have no “true self.” Whatever constitues the self “must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.'” The very effort to identify a “true self” is a cause of suffering, and is to be abandoned.

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Letting go of limiting self-views, embracing our potential

Recently a woman wrote to me to tell me about her meditation practice. One thing she said was very interesting. She said “I can’t connect with lovingkindness meditation.” We hear this kind of statement all the time, and most of us use this kind of language frequently: “I can’t…”

  • I can’t stop worrying
  • I can’t sleep
  • I can’t make friends
  • I can’t talk to anyone about this
  • I can’t relax

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it represents a very fixed view of ourselves. These statements purport to define the speaker. Moreover the definition is a very limiting one. Once we say that we “can’t” do something we’ve made it less likely that we ever will. Once you’ve said something like “I can’t sleep” you’ve moved from description to something more like a declaration of intent. You might as well say “I won’t sleep.”

I’m not saying that every use of the words “I can’t” or “I can never” is always self-limiting. “I can’t run a mile in three minutes” or “I can’t be in two places at once” are just simple statements of fact. But very often these words suggest that the speaker has lost faith in him or her self. When we speak this way we suggest that we are passive victims of circumstance — that we real have no choice, because there are no choices open to us. We’ve given up.

When I hear people using “I can’t” language, I usually suggest that they try out a different way of expressing themselves and see how that feels. So compare the feeling tone of the following statements with those above:

  • I haven’t yet found a way to stop worrying
  • I haven’t yet found a way to get to sleep
  • I haven’t yet found a way to make friends
  • I haven’t yet found a way to talk to anyone about this
  • I haven’t yet found a way to relax

Do you see how these “I haven’t yet” statements are more open? They inherently recognize this possibility of change, while “I can’t” statements suggest that change isn’t possible. The “I haven’t yet” statement also suggests that we’re actively seeking change, while the “I can’t” statement suggests that we’ve given up (which we probably, on some deep level, have not, since we haven’t found peace or acceptance within our imagined limitation).

Who’s more likely to find a way to relax: the person who says “I can’t relax” or the one who says “I haven’t yet found a way to relax”?

There can be added complications. Take the statement “I can’t meditate.” This one represents an extra problem. It limiting, in the same way that other “I can’t” statements are limiting, but it’s not quite adequate to say “I haven’t yet found a way to meditate.” Why is this? It’s because the statement “I can’t meditate” is a compounded error. Not only is it limiting us by defining ourselves (saying that we have a lack of ability), but it goes a step further by falsely defining meditation.

What does it mean to “meditate”? When someone says “I can’t meditate,” they probably really mean to say something like “When I tried meditating I didn’t like the results I experienced.” They have an idea of meditating (it’ll be blissful and I’ll be able to stop the flow of anxious, angry, restless thoughts) and what they experience isn’t like that. So they think they’re doing meditation wrong. Having decided they’re doing meditation wrong, they assume that they are incapable of doing it right: hence, “I can’t meditate.”

But the thing is, it doesn’t mean you’re not meditating properly just because you’re experiencing lots of thinking and don’t feel happy. In meditation we have to start where we are, and work from there. So if there are lots of thoughts, there are lots of thoughts. If you’ve noticed that fact, that’s not failure. It’s success. So the person who says “I can’t meditate” has actually been meditating; it’s just that they’ve assumed that they weren’t. They’ve had unrealistic expectations. They hadn’t yet found a way to accept their experience while meditating.

So sometimes we need to dig a little deeper, and to uncover other false assumptions that lurk behind that innocuous-looking “I can’t.” Sometimes we need to peel away the onion-skins of self-definition, and to liberate ourselves from limiting self-views.

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Why do ancient Buddhist beliefs overlap so strongly with those of neuroscience?

Over the last few decades many Buddhists and quite a few neuroscientists have examined Buddhism and neuroscience, with both groups reporting overlap. I’m sorry to say I have been privately dismissive. One hears this sort of thing all the time, from any religion, and I was sure in this case it would break down upon closer scrutiny. When a scientific discovery seems to support any religious teaching, you can expect members of that religion to become strict empiricists, telling themselves and the world that their belief is grounded in reality. They are always less happy to accept scientific data they feel contradicts their preconceived beliefs. No surprise here; no human likes to be wrong.

But science isn’t supposed to care about preconceived notions. Science, at least good science, tells us about the world as it is, not as some wish it to be. Sometimes what science finds is consistent with a particular religion’s wishes. But usually not.

Despite my doubts, neurology and neuroscience do not appear to profoundly contradict Buddhist thought. Neuroscience tells us the thing we take as our unified mind is an illusion….

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, that our mind is not unified and can barely be said to “exist” at all. Our feeling of unity and control is a post-hoc confabulation and is easily fractured into separate parts. As revealed by scientific inquiry, what we call a mind (or a self, or a soul) is actually something that changes so much and is so uncertain that our pre-scientific language struggles to find meaning.

Buddhists say pretty much the same thing. They believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, which is usually translated as ‘non self.’ One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing.

When considering a Buddhist contemplating his soul, one is immediately struck by a disconnect between religious teaching and perception. While meditating in the temple, the self is an illusion. But when the Buddhist goes shopping he feels like we all do: unified, in control, and unchanged from moment to moment. The way things feel becomes suspect. And that’s pretty close to what neurologists deal with every day, like the case of Mr. Logosh.

Mr. Logosh was 37 years old when he suffered a stroke. It was a month after knee surgery and we never found a real reason other than trivially high cholesterol and smoking. Sometimes medicine is like that: bad things happen, seemingly without sufficient reasons. In the ER I found him aphasic, able to understand perfectly but unable to get a single word out, and with no movement of the right face, arm, and leg. We gave him the only treatment available for stroke, tissue plasminogen activator, but there was no improvement. He went to the ICU unchanged. A follow up CT scan showed that the dead brain tissue had filled up with blood. As the body digested the dead brain tissue, later scans showed a large hole in the left hemisphere.

Although I despaired, I comforted myself by looking at the overlying cortex. Here the damage was minimal and many neurons still survived. Still, I mostly despaired. It is a tragedy for an 80-year-old to spend life’s remainder as an aphasic hemiplegic. The tragedy grows when a young man looks towards decades of mute immobility. But you can never tell with early brain injuries to the young. I was yoked to optimism. After all, I’d treated him.

The next day Mr. Logosh woke up and started talking. Not much at first, just ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Then ‘water,’ ‘thanks,’ ‘sure,’ and ‘me.’ We eventually sent him to rehab, barely able to speak, still able to understand.

One year later he came back to the office with an odd request. He was applying to become a driver and needed my clearance, which was a formality. He walked with only a slight limp, his right foot a bit unsure of itself. His voice had a slight hitch, as though he were choosing his words carefully.

When we consider our language, it seems unified and indivisible. We hear a word, attach meaning to it, and use other words to reply. It’s effortless. It seems part of the same unified language sphere. How easily we are tricked! Mr. Logosh shows us that unity of language is an illusion. The seeming unity of language is really the work of different parts of the brain, which shift and change over time, and which fracture into receptive and expressive parts.

Consider how easily Buddhism accepts what happened to Mr. Logosh. Anatta is not a unified, unchanging self. It is more like a concert, constantly changing emotions, perceptions, and thoughts. Our minds are fragmented and impermanent. A change occurred in the band, so it follows that one expects a change in the music.

Both Buddhism and neuroscience converge on a similar point of view: The way it feels isn’t how it is. There is no permanent, constant soul in the background. Even our language about ourselves is to be distrusted (requiring the tortured negation of anatta). In the broadest strokes then, neuroscience and Buddhism agree.

How did Buddhism get so much right? I speak here as an outsider, but it seems to me that Buddhism started with a bit of empiricism. Perhaps the founders of Buddhism were pre-scientific, but they did use empirical data. They noted the natural world: the sun sets, the wind blows into a field, one insect eats another. There is constant change, shifting parts, and impermanence. They called this impermanence anicca, and it forms a central dogma of Buddhism.

This seems appropriate as far as the natural world is concerned. Buddhists don’t apply this notion to mathematical truths or moral certainties, but sometimes, cleverly, apply it to their own dogmas. Buddhism has had millennia to work out seeming contradictions, and it is only someone who was not indoctrinated who finds any of it strange. (Or at least any stranger than, say, believing God literally breathed a soul into the first human.)

Early on, Buddhism grasped the nature of worldly change and divided parts, and then applied it to the human mind. The key step was overcoming egocentrism and recognizing the connection between the world and humans. We are part of the natural world; its processes apply themselves equally to rocks, trees, insects, and humans. Perhaps building on its heritage, early Buddhism simply did not allow room for human exceptionalism.

I should note my refusal to accept that they simply got this much right by accident, which I find improbable. Why would accident bring them to such a counterintuitive belief? Truth from subjective religious rapture is also highly suspect. Firstly, those who enter religious raptures tend to see what they already know. Secondly, if the self is an illusion, then aren’t subjective insights from meditation illusory as well?

I don’t mean to dismiss or gloss over the areas where Buddhism and neuroscience diverge. Some Buddhist dogmas deviate from what we know about the brain. Buddhism posits an immaterial thing that survives the brain’s death and is reincarnated. After a person’s death, the consciousness reincarnates. If you buy into the idea of a constantly changing immaterial soul, this isn’t as tricky and insane as it seems to the non-indoctrinated. During life, consciousness changes as mental states replace one another, so each moment can be considered a reincarnation from the moment before. The waves lap, the sand shifts. If you’re good, they might one day lap upon a nicer beach, a higher plane of existence. If you’re not, well, someone’s waves need to supply the baseline awareness of insects, worms, and other creepy-crawlies.

The problem is that there’s no evidence for an immaterial thing that gets reincarnated after death. In fact, there’s even evidence against it. Reincarnation would require an entity (even the vague, impermanent one called anatta) to exist independently of brain function. But brain function has been so closely tied to every mental function (every bit of consciousness, perception, emotion, everything self and non-self about you) that there appears to be no remainder. Reincarnation is not a trivial part of most forms of Buddhism. For example, the Dalai Lama’s followers chose him because they believe him to be the living reincarnation of a long line of respected teachers.

Why have the dominant Western religious traditions gotten their permanent, independent souls so wrong? Taking note of change was not limited to Buddhism. The same sort of thinking pops up in Western thought as well. The pre-Socratic Heraclitus said, “Nothing endures but change.” But that observation didn’t really go anywhere. It wasn’t adopted by monotheistic religions or held up as a central natural truth. Instead, pure Platonic ideals won out, perhaps because they seemed more divine.

Western thought is hardly monolithic or simple, but monotheistic religions made a simple misstep when they didn’t apply naturalism to themselves and their notions of their souls. Time and again, their prominent scholars and philosophers rendered the human soul exceptional and otherworldly, falsely elevating our species above and beyond nature. We see the effects today. When Judeo-Christian belief conflicts with science, it nearly always concerns science removing humans from a putative pedestal, a central place in creation. Yet science has shown us that we reside on the fringes of our galaxy, which itself doesn’t seem to hold a particularly precious location in the universe. Our species came from common ape-like ancestors, many of which in all likelihood possessed brains capable of experiencing and manifesting some of our most precious “human” sentiments and traits. Our own brains produce the thing we call a mind, which is not a soul. Human exceptionalism increasingly seems a vain fantasy. In its modest rejection of that vanity, Buddhism exhibits less error and less original sin, this one of pride.

How well will any religion apply the lessons of neuroscience to the soul? Mr. Logosh, like every person who’s brain lesion changes their mind, challenges the Western religions. An immaterial soul cannot easily account for even a stroke associated with aphasia. Will monotheistic religions change their idea of the soul to accommodate data? Will they even try? It is doubtful. The rigid human exceptionalism is cemented firmly into dogma.

Will Buddhists allow neuroscience to render their idea of reincarnation obsolete? This is akin to asking if the Dalai Lama and his followers will decide he’s only the symbolic reincarnation of past teachers. This is also doubtful, but Buddhism’s first steps at least made it possible. Unrelated to neuroscience and neurology, in 1969 the Dalai Lama said his “office was an institution created to benefit others. It is possible that it will soon have outlived its usefulness.” Impermanence and shifting parts entail constant change, so perhaps it is no surprise that he’s lately said he may choose the next office holder before his death.

Buddhism’s success was to apply the world’s impermanence to humans and their souls. The results have carried this religion from ancient antiquity into modernity, an impressive distance. With no fear of impermanent beliefs or constant change, how far will they go?

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Buddhist Geeks interview with Bodhipaksa

living as a riverBuddhist Geeks is an insanely popular podcast, featuring in-depth interviews with some of the most influential Buddhist teachers around today. Recently the Buddhist Geeks’ Vince Horn interviewed Bodhipaksa about his new book, Living as a River, which explores how penetrating the truths of impermanence and insubstantiality can free us from fear and clinging.

The interview has now been transcribed, and is available online:

Vincent: Hello, Buddhist geeks, this is Vincent Horn, and I’m joined today, over Skype, with Bodhipaksa. Bodhipaksa, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I know that you’ve actually tuned in to Buddhist Geeks before, and I’ve been following you on Twitter. So, it’s really cool to connect with someone that’s kind of plugged in to what we’re doing here at Buddhist Geeks.

Bodhipaksa: Thank you, I’m a big admirer.

Vincent: Cool. Thank you. I just wanted to say a little bit about your background, and this is sort of new for me. Even though I studied Buddhism in college, I knew very little about the order that you’re connected with, and that’s currently called Triratna Buddhist Community. It was formerly known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. You were telling me before the interview that the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order is not a community that’s really that popular in America, but that it’s huge in other areas.

Bodhipaksa: Yes, it’s very large in Britain, in particular, it’s possibly the largest. It’s certainly one of the three largest Buddhist movements there.

Vincent: Nice. What was the deal with the shifting the name from the Western Buddhist Order to this Triratna Community?

Bodhipaksa: Well the Western Buddhist Order and Friends of the Western Buddhist Order started in London in the 1960s. It was initiated by a Buddhist monk who was from England who’d been practicing in India for 20 years. He came back and decided, for various reasons, to set up a new kind of Buddhist movement. He wanted, specifically, to set up something that addressed the Western condition. He didn’t think that either of the two main forms of Buddhism that were around in Britain in the mid-60s were particularly appropriate. There was monastic Buddhism, and there was kind of “hobby Buddhism.” People going to evening classes and learning about Buddhism but not really thinking of it in terms of a life-changing practice.

So he decided to start something that wasn’t monastic but was full on. Initially, actually, he called the movement Friends of the Western Sangha, renamed it, shortly afterwards, to Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, as that meant more to some people. But it’s grown since then. It started off in a little basement in London, and we now have a lot of order members, about a third of the Order, I believe, is in India. We have other members in Australia, in New Zealand, and a couple of people in Russia as well. Pitching yourself as being Western when you’re in those places doesn’t really work very well.

Vincent: Right.

Bodhipaksa: So, a name was picked, which is more universal. Triratna means the “three jewels,” of course, of the Buddha dharma and sangha. So we have a name that’s in Sanskrit and can be related to wherever you are.

Vincent: Nice. It sounds like this is a more progressive, looking it from the point of view of sort of spectrum of conservative to progressive, in the Buddhist tradition. So I think this is highly progressive type of movement.

Bodhipaksa: Definitely not conservative, more experimental. We have a lot of women order members. They’ve been smaller in numbers than the men, for example. Of course, as you know, in traditional Theravada Buddhism, in most forms of traditional Theravada Buddhism, there is no full ordination for women, so we’re progressive in that kind of regard. The women are catching up, actually. They’re going to be overtaking the men in a few years, I understand.

Vincent: I wanted to talk with you today about some of the things that you’ve written in a book that’s coming out right around now, which is “Living As a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change.” This book is coming out through Sounds True, where I worked for a few years, and your name definitely came up a lot while I was there.

I just wanted to say, first, that I really enjoyed reading it. It just flowed in a way that was really pleasant to read. I think it was the ideas, too, were very accessible. I’m thinking now, as you describe the Triratna Community, that there’s a connection here between the way that the ideas sort of just made sense immediately to my Western mind. Yeah, so I just wanted to thank you for that, because it’s not always common to read a book that’s both profound and also is really accessible and easy to read.

Bodhipaksa: Thank you very much.

Vincent: Yeah. I wanted to speak with you about one of the ideas that seem really central to the book, and of course, is central to the Buddhist tradition, which is the teachings on non-self. Could you say a little bit about why the teachings on non-self, or person permanence, are so central, so important in the way you talk about things?

Bodhipaksa: Well sure. I guess, the teaching of non-self or not-self is absolutely central to Buddhism. It’s seen as being one of the core delusions that we need to overcome if we want to achieve a deeper level of happiness and well-being. The idea that we have a separate and permanent self seems to be burned up with a lot of fear and confusion. It leads to defensiveness and to acquisition, a kind of overinvestment in materiality and then things like status, etc. So, it seems to be something that we really have to work at.

Vincent: There’s one piece where you talk about the mind and the brain and how we’re sort of wired for what’s called “change blindness.” What’s the deal with that concept, because that’s something that I found was a kind of a unique way of looking at this whole thing?

Bodhipaksa: Sure. Well, I try to think of some of the reasons for why we think we do have separate and permanent selves because we tend to, almost all of us, have this idea that “Yes, I am separate. There’s this boundary between me and the rest of the world, and I don’t really change that much.” Even if we can’t, exactly put our finger on it, even if we’ve seen a lot of change in ourselves, we think that there’s something permanent within ourselves. So, I try to look at some of the reasons for why is that we might overlook the change that is actually taking place in our experience. One very interesting thing that psychologists have been looking at is what’s called “change blindness.”

I describe a really interesting experiment in the book where people were invited to participate in a psychological experiment. They didn’t know exactly what the nature of the psychological experiment was when they were signing up. All they knew was that they had to turn up like it’s, for example, the fourth floor of the Psychology building in Harvard. They would be asked a few questions. So, you walked in, you got your letter saying that you’ve been invited to participate in the project. There’s somebody behind the desk who asks to see your letter and say a few words about what you’re going to be doing. You’re going to be going down the coordor here, take the second door on the left, but I need to give you this packet, first of all. He ducks behind the desk, stands up again, hand you the packet, and you go on your way. Most people, something like 80% of people don’t notice that the person who stood up with the packet was not the same person who ducks down behind the desk to get the packet, in the first place. [Laughter] They didn’t look alike, they weren’t dressed the same. They were of different heights, they had different hairstyles, they had different facial features. That’s a lot of change not to notice.

Vincent: That’s incredible.

Bodhipaksa: Some people noticed it, about 20% of people, I think, did notice it, but the vast majority of people don’t. It seems that we’re just not very good picking up on change. There’s various theories, I think, for why that is.

The brain can’t really process very much information at one time, so when you’re suddenly there in front of the desk and you’re busy thinking about all kinds of things, like, “Did he say the second door on the left or did he say the right? Am I going to get paid? I wonder what the questions are going to be like.” So, your mind is already kind of half-full of stuff. There’s not really enough mental space, as it were, to pick up on some other things.

So, we just end up screening out a lot of change. There’s a lot of the experiments like this being done actually. One of the most fascinating ones which I did was watching a video of people passing a basketball back and forth. You had to kind of how often the people dressed in white passed the ball to each other. What you didn’t notice until you watch the video again, that somebody dressed in a gorilla costume walked right through in the middle of the basketball court during the game. You just don’t see, you just don’t notice it. It’s hard to believe you wouldn’t, but it’s not.

Vincent: It’s amazing. I mean, I’ve heard about the gorilla experiment before, and I just couldn’t believe it. Yet, it seems really clear that, in fact, people didn’t see the gorilla.

Bodhipaksa: I think one thing that happens is that we just kind of label our experience. We have this kind of crude wordless labels almost. So, the guy behind the desk is just “the guy behind the desk.” We don’t need to know anymore about the guy behind the desk. If he was somebody who we thought we might need to remember, then we might put some energy into really noticing his facial features, of how he was dressed or whatever. But, he’s just “the guy behind the desk. “So, that label suffices, it’s almost like an icon that’s there, and we just continue on our way.

I’ve tried to integrate this into my meditation teaching, because I realize that the brain has a limited capacity for bandwidth. Our short-term memory, for example, can only usually hold about 5-7 things. There’s not really that many things that we can pay attention to at one time. So, what happens when you’re sitting, meditating just following your breath, is very often that a lot of thoughts are coming up and you start paying attention to those thoughts. And I found that, if you, as it were, choke the bandwidth of your mind by just paying a lot of attention to a lot of different stimuli at the same time, then you enter a state of a kind of open, expansive awareness, where there’s basically no room for thinking anymore. You’ve taken up all of your bandwidth. It’s a bit like there’s a bandwidth hog using your wireless internet connection, and everything’s going really slowly. That’s normally a bad thing, but here what we’re talking about going slowly is the discursive thinking that’s connected with stress and anxiety and irritability and wanting things. There’s no room for that anymore, so all we do is just notice our experience.

Vincent: And this is something that is really counterintuitive to the normal way of walking around, and I wanted to talk with you about one of the main practices that you present in the book, which is the Six Element practice. Could you say a little bit about where that practice comes from, and then also it’d be fun to get into how it works and how it’s related to what we’ve been talking about.

Bodhipaksa: Sure. It’s a practice that is found in the earliest strata of Buddhist teachings–that is the Pali Canon–and it’s found in a text called the “Middle Length Sayings.” And, it is a practice of reflection on impermanence and non-self. In a way it’s kind of a non-duality practice, because what we’re doing is we take each of the elements in turn, and the elements are: the Earth element, which is everything solid, both within ourselves and outside of ourselves; the water element, which is everything liquid within ourselves and outside; the fire element, which, outside of ourselves, is represented in terms of energy, and within ourselves is represented in terms of the energy that’s involved in life or living metabolism. There’s the space element, which is the space that contains our body, and the space outside of ourselves, and there’s the consciousness element, which is a bit different.

What we do, for example, with the Earth element, is we start off by reflecting on the Earth element that constitutes the body, so you become aware of everything that’s solid within your body, and you can do that in two ways. You can do that experientially by just accessing your experience of the body right now. You can feel some solid parts of the body. Your hands are in contact with each other, for example, or your feet are in contact with the floor, or your butt is in contact with your meditation cushion, or whatever you’re sitting on.

So you can feel some of the solidity, but the practice also encourages us to use our imaginations and connect with what we know is there and is solid. So, I can’t sense my kidneys and my liver, for example, or even my bones, except where they’re making contact with something, but I become aware that all of that solid matter is there.

You reflect on the solid matter outside of yourself, so having reflected on solid matter that constitutes you, you reflect on the solid matter that constitutes what you normally think of as being “other.” So you’re calling to mind all the solid matter in the outside world–the Earth itself, all the rocks, the soil, the plants, buildings, other beings, etc.

And then you’re reflecting that these two things are not separate. So, you can reflect, for example, on how everything that is within you, everything that is solid within you, has come from the outside world, and we don’t tend to think of this very much. We’re vaguely aware of the fact that we’re eating, and that’s solid matter, and it’s going to be incorporated into the body, but when you start thinking about it, there’s not a single molecule in your body that is completely self-generated. There’s not a single atom which you’ve created. It all comes from outside. Even when you were born–or before you were born–when you were conceived, you started off as being a cell from your father, sperm, a cell from your mother, an egg. They weren’t you; that was part of your mother, part of your father. They fuse. They start growing by absorbing the elements from the outside world, and all of that is borrowed, and that goes on through your entire life. Everything is borrowed.

And you reflect on how it’s all moving back, as well. So having reflected on how the Earth element has all come from outside of you, you reflect on how the Earth element is in a continual process of returning. So, right now, I’m exhaling carbon dioxide, which was carbohydrates, which had been part of plants in the outside world, so it’s all flowing through. I took a dump this morning, so that’s part of the Earth element returning. And losing skin cells–as I’m sitting here, hairs are falling out. So there’s all this Earth element returning to the outside world. And of course, when you die, ultimately, you give all of it back.

So, you reflect this way for the Earth element, for everything solid, for the water element, everything, liquid. I think I forgot to mention gas in the previous explanation. But the fire element, which is the energy taken from the outside world, and the air element, which I forgot to mention earlier, and is everything gaseous within the body and outside. And, you start to sense yourself not as being a thing, not as something separate and static, but you start to experience your body as being something in a process of flow. It’s like a stretch of river, which is not a thing. It’s an event, as it were. Things are flowing through.

You reflect on the space element, which in a way, it’s your appearance, which is continually changing. You reflect on the fact that all of these physical elements that we’ve been talking about have been passing through you, but this space that is you isn’t ultimately you either. It’s continually changing, and it’s also borrowed from the outside world. You don’t have any space that is just you.

So, what we’re doing is we’re looking at what we normally identify with as being ourselves, and realizing that there’s no substance there, there’s certainly nothing separate. There is nothing static.

I haven’t mentioned the consciousness element yet. That is the other thing that we identify with. We identify with our bodies, and we identify with our minds, and when we look at the consciousness element, all we see is a continuous process of change. There are various experiences coming into being, existing for a short time, and passing away again. There’s physical sensations of heat, pressure, etc. There are thoughts, feelings, emotions. They’re all arising and passing away again, so you begin to sense that, too, as being a river. And if none of these experiences that you’re having are, as it were, stuck inside you–if you’re not attached to them–if they’re not attached to you in some way, then in what sense are they actually you? You start to experience this sense of almost existential vertigo. All the attachments that you have to thinking about you are a certain way begin to get let go of.

Vincent: It sounds like, in some ways, the practice you’re describing is very similar to many types of practices, and yet there’s a difference that I’m also noticing. I’ve never done a practice quite like what you’re describing. And I was wondering, because it seems like you’re the type of person that can sort of take a step back from their own approach, if you could maybe say a little bit about what you found the strengths of this approach to be when compared to, maybe, other approaches and techniques, and also if you’ve noticed any weaknesses or limitations.

Bodhipaksa: Ok. In terms of strengths, I think it’s a very all-around practice. What I described in terms of the consciousness element, for example, is very similar to Vipassana meditation–traditional, classic insight meditation. In fact, it is traditional, classic insight meditation. But you’re also reflecting on your body, which is quite a powerful and grounded thing to do. You’re not just reflecting on your experience of sensations within the body, as you would tend to do with insight meditation, but you’re reflecting on your body as you are attached to it in your day-to-day experience.

So, I think it’s got that strength. It’s something that you can reflect on outside of meditation, of course, as well. When you’re eating, when you’re going to the bathroom, when you’re lifting the plug of hairs out of the shower and flushing it down the toilet, you can be aware of all these ramifications of what you are as a process. It does seem to be quite powerful.

On the other hand, well, that power can be unsettling for some people. When I was taught the practice, I was taught that it’s very important to do it in a metta-ful state–that is a state of mind imbued with loving-kindness. If you tried to, as it were, dismantle your sense of self when you’re not in a very positive state of mind, or if you experience self-hatred, for example, then I think that could lead to quite a disturbing and jarring experience. So it’s not a complete practice. I think it has to be combined with loving kindness practice, in particular. I’d say if it’s got a weakness, that’s it, but, in a way, it’s not really a weakness. It’s just how it is.

Vincent: Interesting. And one thing I was noticing is that there seems to be a real recognition just built in to the way that the practice is described–of this interdependence of things, that maybe is not as obvious in, for instance, some of the techniques that I’ve practiced.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. It’s definitely a practice of reflecting on interconnectedness. It can lead to very strong experiences of the dissolving of the sense of self and other.

Vincent: Interesting. And like you’re saying, sometimes that dissolving can also be disturbing, and so there’s a way in which it’s got to be balanced by something.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. Yeah. If you have that balance, though, if you have that sense of loving kindness so that it’s not so threatening anymore–and I have had experiences of feeling quite threatened during the practice–but if you do have that sense of confidence that comes from loving kindness, then that dissolving of the boundaries between yourself and others can be a really powerful experience. The practice leads, in fact, not to the dhyana that you often hear talked about, but to what’s often, in my opinion, erroneously called the arupa jhanas, the formless dhyanas, or higher dhyanas, which begin with a sense of the breakdown between the sense of self and other.

Vincent: Yeah, it’s interesting just the way you’re describing space and consciousness. Those are in the higher dhyanas or jhanas.

Bodhipaksa: They’re the first two.

Vincent: Yeah, they’re the first two.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. So, the practice segues into the experience of the so-called arupa jhanas. I say that “the so-called” higher dhyanas, because it turns out you don’t have to go through the dhyanas, the four dhyanas, in order to get to the so-called higher dhyanas, and in the Pali Canon, they’re never called dhyanas; they’re called ayatanas, spheres. So I think there’s a bit of mythology built up that you have to go through the dhyanas in other to get to these so-called higher dhyanas. You can do it that way, but you don’t have to.

Vincent: Cool, I love the Buddhist Geekiness coming through right now. It’s good.

Bodhipaksa: Me too.

Vincent: [Laughs] So, to take it even to, maybe, a next level of geekiness, there was one thing that I was struck by as I was reading “Living as a River,” and that was that in some ways, when I heard you talking about non-self or writing about impermanence, there’s a way it struck me that it could be interpreted as you describing what I want to call “ontological realities”–that in some way, impermanence and not-self are true in some ultimate sense. And, as you know, this is one of the big critiques that the Madhyamaka school, and particularly Nagarjuna, were making of earlier strata teachings. And I wondered if you could say a little bit about that, because it’s something that isn’t really entirely clear in reading the book itself.

Bodhipaksa: Well, I would have hoped it was clearer than it might actually be, so maybe that’s something for the 2nd edition. No, I don’t think of impermanence and insubstantiality in a way as being ontological realities. I don’t think the Buddha really talked in terms of ontological realities at all. I think he talked about how our experience is, and I think what he was saying was that within our experience–what he called “The All”–that is, the sum totality of everything that is possible for us to experience. Within our experience, everything is changing all the time, and that there’s nothing within our experience that is permanent enough or stable enough to be able to be the basis of a separate and defined self.

So, I don’t think the Buddha really was that interested in external reality. I mean, obviously he was, in a sense; he lived in the world, but he wasn’t a scientist in the sense that he was making a statement that all fundamental particles are impermanent, for example. Even if he was aware of that concept, that wasn’t his interest. His interest was in suffering and how to get rid of suffering, and in order to address that, you have to look at the nature of our experience.

When the Buddha said everything is impermanent, I don’t think he was actually talking in terms of the world–the physical world that we inhabit. It so happens that it seems that pretty much everything does change. I believe some fundamental particles–perhaps neutrons or something–don’t, in a way, change; they don’t mutate into other particles; they don’t decay, but of course it all was moving around and interacting with other things, so there’s some kind of change there. But I don’t think that’s what the Buddha was interested in.

The Madhyamaka got–well, the Mahayana, more broadly–got kind of caught up in the same kind of trap. I mean, they ended up having to. They tended to reify Sunyata, emptiness. It tended to be seen as being a thing, and so you have Mahayana teachers who are having to say, “Well, emptiness itself is empty.” You got to keep reminding people of this, because it’s just a natural tendency to see impermanence as being a thing, and it’s not a thing, it’s just a description of the way things change. Sunyata isn’t a thing, it’s just a description of how our experiences and how our experience doesn’t constitute anything that can be taken to be an existent, permanent, separate self.

Vincent: Cool. And I guess to sort of finish up or wrap up this conversation, which has been really fascinating, I wanted to talk about, the penultimate goal in some ways, of Buddhist practice, which is enlightenment. And, one of the last chapters in your book is called Entering the Stream. You talk about stream-entry, or what you call entry-level enlightenment.

This is something that I know some teachers do talk about. And then, a lot of teaches seem to shy away from this in some way and there’s maybe not a lot of awareness of this concept, hich is actually, if you look back in the early strata like you were mentioning the Pali Canon. This stream-entry comes up all the time. So many suttas have this as a mention of, this person got stream-entry listening to the Buddha or, or doing this practice, etc. So could you say a little about stream-entry, and also, if you’ve noticed that this is something that people may shy away from in their teachings?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah I’ve noticed that there are some teachers who definitely make a point of talking about enlightenment and that enlightenment is why we’re doing practice in the first place. But when the average person comes along to a Dharma Center, usually their motivated by, something along the lines of, their life sucks. Or there’s some element of their life that sucks. There’s stress and there’s conflict with other people. And they just want to be a bit happier. So they come along and they find that there’s these tools which help them to become a bit happier, at least. I mean the tools can do a lot more than that. But, meditating makes you happier. When you’re, experiencing a bit more loving kindness, you’re a bit happier. When you learn to let go of things, you’re a bit happier. When you’re paying more attention to your experience and experiencing the freedom that comes with that, you’re a bit happier. And people I think get kind of stuck in that. It’s like, “Oh, this is okay. Yeah I’ll just keep doing my dharma practice and I’ll just keep getting a bit happier.” Buy they’re not thinking in terms of making some kind of big breakthrough in the way that they see the world. There’s this incremental change that they’re bringing about in their mental state. But they’re, not fundamentally challenging the way that they see the world.

And I think even teachers can get caught up in that. I have, in the past. Several years ago I was talking with some fellow practitioners and teachers. And saying, “You know I realize I don’t think about enlightenment very much. [laughing] Do you guys think about it? Do you talk about it? Do you teach about it?” And everyone kind of sat there and realized, “Well actually we, we don’t.”

So I started making it a point, and this was probably about seven or eight years ago, I started making a point of being more up front about why we were doing dharma practice in the first place. And, thinking more in terms of aiming at stream-entry. And, in a way I had always thought about that. It was in the back of my mind. But it wasn’t so much a kind of, conscience goal. More something I assumed would just happen at some time.

Vincent: Interesting. And I’m wondering, do you think to some degree with teachers that there’s a way in which the path has become so integrated into their own lives and so normal in a certain sense, that it becomes, weird to think about those sort of things? Or not natural in some way, to think about that in terms of their own experience, but it might be, in some ways, really important for someone who’s just starting on the path? Do you think that’s a possible explanation for why you and those teachers weren’t sort of talking about it that much?

Bodhipaksa: I’m not really sure. I think there’s a number of things going on. One is that we have a tendency, I think because of, a lack of self worth, and because of the nature of our delusions, whereby we think we have separate and permanent selves. We tend to think that spiritual goals are very far away. My own teacher, the founder of the Western Buddhist Order, Sangharakshita, he’s talked about stream-entry a lot. Which is why I said it’s always been in the back of my mind, at the very least. And, he said stream-entry is attainable in this lifetime. If you do a good few years of solid, dharma practice, you can take it for granted that you’ll, at some point, reach stream-entry. And so stream-entry becomes the goal. So there’s a lot of people in the Triratna Buddhist Order, who talk about stream-entry and think about it, as the next goal. But it becomes kind of, elevated. In the same way that the Buddha’s attainment has become kind of elevated, it’s almost out of our reach.

The Mahayana did this a lot. They took the goal of the Buddha, of Buddhahood, and said, “You’ve got to practice for innumerable lifetimes. You’re going have to practice for hundreds of thousands of lifetimes in order to get enlightened. And the Buddha has all these amazing cosmic qualities and he can create entire universes and all this kind of thing.” The Buddha seems so far away. He’s remote. Totally remote.

And people start doing something similar with stream-entry. They start thinking of stream-entry as being, well it’s basically enlightenment isn’t it? And if you’re enlightened you’re basically perfect. So somebody who’s a stream-enterer is going be completely sorted. And it becomes another attainable goal. It’s a goal that’s been put in front of us and we’ve been told, “You can do this.” And we say “no, I don’t think so, not now, maybe sometime in the future.” That to me I think is the main reason that stream-entry gets pushed off is because well, we don’t think that we’re worthy, we think that there’s something inside of us that’s fundamentally flawed that’s going stop us from getting there, and so we make it unattainable.

Vincent: Interesting. And could you talk a little bit about why entering the stream is important; maybe kind of what it is, if it’s something that you can talk about.

Bodhipaksa: Okay. Why it’s important. Well, in the terms that the Pali Cannon uses, that is I think we can assume are the terms the Buddha used, there are a number of fetters holding us back. These are delusions and attachments that stand between us and full enlightenment, full Buddhahood. And if we break the first three of those we’re what’s called a stream enterer–we break the fetter of having a fixed and separate self, we break the fetter of doubt, and we break the fetter of dependence upon practices or inappropriate dependence on practices.

And all three of those are broken more or less simultaneously. I believe the teaching is they’re broken simultaneously, but I don’t know if you necessarily can experience them simultaneously. I think they’ll tend to be experienced in consecutive terms. And there’s just a breaking of a fundamental core delusion that there is something a separate and fixed about you. And that’s a liberating experience. When that core delusion dissipates and you realize everything that constitutes your experience is just changing all the time, and there is nothing else. There’s no hidden baggage that’s holding you back. Obviously, there’s the psychological baggage that holds us back and we have to transform, and dig up, and work with, and transform, but there’s nothing fundamentally holding you back from enlightenment. There’s an enormous sense of confidence, which emerges, which replaces the doubt.

Another thing that happens, which is related to the third fetter, is that you realize this is all actually very simple. When we’re caught up in the third fetter of inappropriate dependence upon religious practices, that tends to get caught up with our lack of self confidence. So, we think well, we need some special teaching, we need some special teacher in order to get enlightenment. We need to be doing something else from what we’re doing, so we perhaps wander restlessly from practice to practice, or we do our daily practice in a kind of semi-despondent way because we know it’s not really taking us all the way yet, and there’s an element of doubt involved in that.

But really what the Buddha was saying was something really simple. Look at your experience, right now. It’s changing all the time. It’s continually changing. All you have to do is look, and you’ll see that it’s continually changing all the time. There is no basis for a fixed, separate, permanent self.

And what tends to happen of course, with practices is that we talk about them, and think about them, and we sometimes over think things. An image I sometimes find myself using, a slightly absurd one, is that stream-entry is a bit like the Buddha having said, “Look, there’s a big pink elephant floating in the sky. Look at it.” And everyone says, “Wow, the Buddha says there’s a big pink elephant floating in the sky, I wonder what this elephant is like? I wonder how big this elephant is?” And then you get all the schools of thought about the big pink elephant, about whether it’s closer to being white, or closer to being red, etc., etc. So we talk about practice, we talk about impermanence. Ayya Khema made the point we sometimes talk about impermanence so much that we forget to look and see that every experience that we’re having right now in this moment is impermanence.

Yeah, it’s actually really simple in the end. Just look, just see, notice that everything is changing all the time. At some point you’ll get it. At some point it’s going to click and you’re going realize that yeah, everything I’m experiencing is completely impermanent. There’s no basis for a fixed separate me.

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Paul Klee: “Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void”

Paul Klee, 1927, photo by Hugo Erfurth

Paul Klee, the famous Swiss/German expressionist painter, may seem to be making an almost mystical claim here — that creativity comes from beyond the conscious mind. I think you’d be right in assuming that creative impulses come from unconscious parts of the mind, but not that this is an exclusively mystical state. In fact, all action ultimately has this quality of coming from “beyond,” but we simply fail to notice this most of the time, because we’re in the grip of the illusion that the conscious mind is “us,” that it owns our actions, and that it’s in control.

When I speak, I’m often aware that my words come from what Klee calls “the void.” Words appear as if from nowhere, without conscious intervention. It’s not that my conscious mind is in some way “queueing up” words internally so that I can deliver them a few moments later. Now I used to assume that that’s exactly what did happen, but more and more I’ve realize that that assumption arose because of the conscious mind’s ongoing habit of plagiarism. Let me explain what I mean, using some examples that I cite in my recent book, Living as a River.

Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void … My hand has become the obedient instrument of a remote will.

Back in the 1970s, a researcher called Ben Libet asked people to flex their wrist at random times of their own choosing. They were to flex the wrist the very moment that the impulse to do so arose. At the same time, he monitored their brains, and found that the motor cortex of the brain (the part that controls movement) fizzed and popped with electrical activity a full half second before the subjects moved their wrists. That meant that Libet knew, half a second before the subjects did, that they were going to flex their wrists. Now the subjects thought that they were making these movements at exactly the time the impulse arose. But what seems to have gone on is that the conscious mind claimed responsibility for an action that had been initiated outside of consciousness.

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Libet’s findings were controversial, because they seem to undermine our notion of free will. Some said that his equipment was simply picking up on static in the brain. So, fast-forward to today, and to Berlin, Germany, where John-Dylan Haynes, at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, used much more sensitive functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to do a similar experiment. fMRI is able to observe, in real time, activity deep in the brain. This time, Haynes asked subjects to randomly press a button either with their right or left hands. And this time, Haynes found that he could predict, six seconds before the subjects were conscious of the desire to act, which button they would press. That’s astonishing, if you think about it. Haynes can tell, six seconds before you do, what you’re going to do. In this experiment, as in life, the conscious mind thinks it’s just made a decision, when in fact it’s more like it’s just become aware of a decision having been made elsewhere, and has claimed responsibility for it.

Now this is all really weird. In fact I’m reminded of a time I had a young man, who I suspect suffered from schizophrenia, come to a meditation class. I was talking to him just before he left the class, and in mid-conversation a house-fly buzzed in between us and smacked into the class door we were standing beside. “I did that,” he said, in an effort to convince me that he not only was sane, but had special powers. Now to you or me, this young man’s inability to distinguish between his own intentions and outside actions is a sign of mental illness. He saw the fly thud against the glass and thought he’d made that event happen. But Libet and Haynes have shown that we ourselves do something similar all the time. Our conscious minds observe an action taking place, and immediately say “I did that.” It’s not that different from what the young man with schizophrenia did. The conscious mind it is a plagiarist, claiming authorship of actions it’s not actually responsible for.

Our sense of self is, in fact, largely to do with this false sense of ownership. We observe thoughts, emotions, and actions emerge into consciousness, and immediately assume, “I did that.” But in the meditation practice I explore in Living as a River — The Six Element Practice — we counteract this tendency to “possess” our actions by noting thoughts, feelings, etc as they pass through the mind, and by repeating “This is not me, this is not mine, I am not this” as we note each one. Eventually, the sense of ownership begins to fade away — or suddenly vanishes. The conscious mind ceases to plagiarize, and we find ourselves simply witnessing our experience coming into being.

This isn’t to say that we don’t have free will, incidentally. It’s just that free will is not something that’s entirely the result of conscious activity. When you “consciously” decide to do something, you are actually making a choice, it’s just that your conscious mind doesn’t seem to do much more than observe the event taking place and claim responsibility for it. If that.

So all the time, our thoughts, emotions, and actions are arising from “the void.” But Klee is talking about the special case where we notice that this is what’s happening, and when we’ve let go of the act of clinging to, and identifying with, our own actions. This is quite a special state. It’s a state of effortless creativity, because there’s nothing standing between your creative energies and their expression. And the plagiaristic conscious mind frequently gets in the way.

Everyone who has experience of writing knows the sheer terror of the blank sheet of paper (or screen). The conscious mind looks at the pristine field in front of it and simply can’t come up with anything that’s good enough to commit to writing. Any thought that emerges is judged to be unsuitable — as a reflection of our own inadequacy. The thing is that the conscious mind is trying to create, which is something it’s incapable of doing. It’s actually standing between our creative energies and their expression. What we need to do, in order to let our creative energies flow freely, is to get ourselves (or the conscious mind) out of the way. We need to set aside judgement, and to allow the conscious mind to have the role only of being an observer, allowing the “remote will” to express itself. Many writing coaches use this approach to “unblock” creativity, for example by setting rules that say that you have to write for a set period of time, without going back and editing.

Through meditation we train ourselves to do something similar. In life we end up proliferating thoughts, so that the mind is jammed with inner talk. In such a state there’s no way for creative impulses to express themselves, because the mind’s “bandwidth” is already being fully used. If a creative impulse were to try to communicate itself, it would get a metaphorical “busy signal.” In meditation we learn to let go of unnecessary thoughts (and 99% of them are not necessary) and this creates a “space” in the mind, opening up channels of communication with our deeper, and more creative impulses.

How does this manifest in real life? It shows up as more authentic, wise, and compassionate communication. Instead of second-guessing ourselves, constantly worrying about what people think of us, we can simply respond to others on a human level. We find that we’re more intuitive. That we’re more playful. That we’re more insightful. We get the conscious mind out of the way, and find we can be more ourselves.

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“All the elements of nature are interwoven and united with each other.” Gospel of Mary Magdalene

In this extract from his book, Living as a River, Bodhipaksa discusses how we have mistaken views that limit our sense of who we are.

In 1911, a 32-year-old sportsman and daredevil called Calbraith Perry Rodgers, with a scant 60 hours of airtime in his logbook, set off to cross the United States from coast to coast in his specially modified Wright airplane—the first in private ownership. His dream was to win the $50,000 that tycoon publisher William Randolph Hearst was offering to the first person to fly across the continent within 30 days, but Rodgers, as much a canny businessman as an adventurous pioneer, had a financial backup plan in case the trip took longer than the month allowed. He’d persuaded J. Ogden Armour, a Chicago entrepreneur, to underwrite the costs of the mission in exchange for the words “Vin Fiz”—Armour’s brand of grape-flavored soda—being emblazoned on the tail-fin and wings of the craft. And so, The Vin Fiz Flyer became the name of Rodger’s airplane.

Title: Living as a River
Author: Bodhipaksa
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-910-8
Available from: Sounds True,, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound,,, and Apple’s App Store.

The Vin Fiz took to the air from a field in Sheepshead Bay, near New York City, late in the afternoon of September 17, its pilot swaddled in layers of sweaters and sheepskin to provide warmth in the unheated cockpit. Seven weeks and almost seventy landings later the craft touched down at a racetrack in Pasadena, California. Sadly, Rodgers failed to win Hearst’s prize. For all his courage and persistence, his flight had taken far longer than the 30 days allowed, and as a further blow to Rodgers’ hopes, the year-long window for participating in the competition had expired before the Vin Fiz reached Pasadena. But a week later, buoyed by the glory of having made aviation history with his epic voyage, Rodgers set off to cover the remaining 20 miles to Long Beach and the Pacific Ocean. In retrospect that was not such a good idea. The last leg alone took almost a month, with two crashes, one of which was serious enough to result in a broken ankle. All for a distance could be comfortably cycled in two hours.

All that is born, all that is created, all the elements of nature are interwoven and united with each other. All that is composed shall be decomposed; everything returns to its roots; matter returns to the origins of matter.
—Gospel of Mary Magdalen

Although he didn’t win Hearst’s $50,000, for Rodgers to cross the country in such a primitive aircraft was an astonishing achievement. The Vin Fiz was a fragile thing made from a spruce frame covered with linen, its body looking more like a box kite than a modern plane. It was powered by a tiny 35 horsepower engine: no more powerful than some modern lawnmowers. Rodgers had no navigational instruments, and he found his way across country by the simple expedient of following a train, which also pulled a boxcar packed with spare parts for the journey. And Rodgers was to need a lot of spares. The doughty Vin Fiz malfunctioned, crashed, or was damaged in rough landings so many times during the 84-day crossing that by the end of the journey only one wing-strut and a rudder remained from the original machine that had left New York.

Without in any way undermining the magnificence of Rodgers’ achievement, when I first heard this tale many years ago, I found myself wondering in what sense The Vin Fiz had actually completed the journey. Only two components survived the trip, and given a few more miles it’s possible that even those remaining parts of the original airplane would have been replaced from the dwindling supply of spares in the white railroad car, in which case nothing would have remained of the original craft. In a sense, one plane took off from Sheepshead Bay and another landed in California. With each repair, the machine had become in some sense a new aircraft. The Vin Fiz struck me as being a perfect example of the Buddhist teaching of anatta, or the non-permanence and insubstantiality of the self.

Flight of imagination

Compressing time and space in the theater of the imagination, let’s visualize the cross-country flight of the Vin Fiz. Let’s see the frail craft at the mid-point of each of its hops across the country, suspended in mid air, the images strung together to form a brief movie. Squeezing the entire journey into the space of a minute, notice that the craft is continually changing. In a sudden jump of perception a tattered wing becomes whole again. A rattling bolt falls to earth and at that same moment is replaced. A propeller, a wing-strut, a stretch of linen, a wheel, an entire engine—each vanishes and is instantaneously regenerated. As we watch the Vin Fiz in this way, it is a plane that is forever in the process of becoming another plane. And when at last we visualize the final touch-town, only that stubborn wing-strut and hardy rudder remain unchanged. And we can, if we wish, imagine one more frame of this imaginary movie and see even those components being replaced.

So what was it that flew across the United States? What was the Vin Fiz? The craft that arrived in Pasadena was not physically the same one that had departed New York. The form was the same, the name was the same, but almost everything constituting the aircraft had changed. No one component was the Vin Fiz. No single component contained the essence of the aircraft: certainly not the wing-strut and rudder that happened to survive the journey, and which were merely accidental survivors. The Vin Fiz was also not the entirety of its components, since they were forever changing. When we try to look for the Vin Fiz it becomes mirage-like, its “thingness” vanishing under scrutiny.

The Vin Fiz clearly existed. But it was a process rather than a thing, an ever-changing assemblage of parts functioning in a particular way, rather than a static object. It was a process that had continuity rather than identity. It had no essence, but consisted of a series of ever-changing components that were brought together in a manner that allowed an ever-changing form to cross a continent. What arrived in Pasadena was not identical to what left Sheepshead Bay, but there was a continuous process connecting the various iterations of the craft as it evolved over the course of its journey. The continuity of the Vin Fiz is also maintained in the mind. Had the Viz Fiz suffered only one devastating crash half-way from coast to coast, and had a new craft been assembled from the parts in the railroad car (including only one wing strut and a rudder from the original aircraft) and continued the journey, would Rodgers be credited with the first continental crossing by air? Naturally not. We would not have believed that one craft had made the crossing. It would seem like a stunt had been pulled. And yet an assemblage of replacement parts (including one wing strut and a rudder from the original aircraft) was precisely what did arrive on the West coast. What held together the Vin Fiz, just as much as the rivets and bolts, was the sense of continuity that the mind sees, which allows us to say that a process had continually functioned as an aircraft, despite modifications. When we look for a “thing” called the Vin Fiz, it now seems mirage-like, and undefinable.

The same is true of the human body. As the body makes a journey across the continent of life, from the coast of conception to the far shore we call death, it too is continually changing, the physical and mental components forever being replaced. What arrives at the final touchdown is a far cry from what originally departed at the beginning of life. The body you’re born with is not the one you’ll die with. Looking at the body in the same way as we looked at the Vin Fiz, we can see there is similarly no essence within it. There is no locus within the body where a self can be found. Our physical selves seem mirage-like, held together not so much by chemical bonds but a physical process of continuity and by an idea of selfhood.

Our ideas of what constituted the boundaries of the Vin Fiz are also limited. At some point after its historic flight, the Vin Fiz was broken up, its parts dispersed to rot or burn. We no longer have the sense that there is a thing or process that we can label “Vin Fiz,” and yet the continuity has simply taken a different form. Parts of the aircraft – the ash from burned wood and linen, metal parts that long ago turned to rust – have become soil, supporting manifold forms of life. The carbon dioxide from its burning has become plants, which have since been eaten and transformed into uncountable living things. Just a few years before it crossed the continental Unites States, the Vin Fiz had not yet come into being; it was trees, flax, soil, and ores buried deep underground. We could look at these things and never dream that they would one day fly across a vast continent. When we look in this way we can see that there was no beginning to the Vin Fiz. Nor was there an end of it. But the mind tries to impose boundaries on processes that in essence are boundless. We think of the Vin Fiz beginning and ending. We see the craft in the air as being the Vin Fiz, but the components on the train as not being the Vin Fiz. We impute to the Vin Fiz a false sense of separateness.

We impute the same false sense of separateness to ourselves as well, and the purpose of reflecting on the elements is to dispel the mistaken assumption that the self is a thing—static, separate, and enduring. The purpose of reflecting on the elements is to see the truth of flow, of impermanence, of insubstantiality, and of interconnectedness. And on the way to seeing this truth we have to let go of the idea that the body is a thing – that it is separate and that it has some kind of permanent essence. When we do that, we start to realize that we can’t “own” the body. The body is not ours in any real sense, nor is the body “us” in any real sense. The self cannot be found within it. This, as we’ll see, isn’t to diminish ourselves. Rather, it’s to free ourselves from a limited way of seeing the self so that we can appreciate that we’re much, much more than we habitually assume.

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Bodhipaksa’s new book on embracing change now available in a Kindle edition

The Kindle edition of Living as a River is now available on

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Being the river

In this excerpt from the chapter on the Water Element, I discuss how water is the archetype of all change. All things flow, and we ourselves are not static and separate entities, but eddies in the stream of life.

Title: Living as a River
Author: Bodhipaksa
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-910-8
Available from: Sounds True,,, and

The most striking thing about the Water Element is its quality of flowing. It’s because of this characteristic that I too think of water as being the archetype of all the other elements. The Earth Element does flow, to be sure. It flows in a literal sense, as with landslides or the movement of tectonic plates—but these movements are either rare enough that they spring to mind infrequently, or they happen on timescales that are remote from our day-to-day experience. We generally expect mountains to remain where they are and the ground beneath our feet to provide a reliable support. Fire (energy) and air also flow, but these aren’t directly visible like the flow of water. On the other hand, it’s part of my everyday experience to perceive water flowing. I see water flowing from the sky, flowing along the river that passes by my house, flowing from faucets, and flowing down drains. I hear the trickle of urine on my periodic trips to the bathroom. I can feel the blood pumping in my arteries and the saliva sloshing in my mouth. This ready familiarity means that the flow of water becomes a metaphor for the other elements that compose our bodies. As the Buddha once said: “Just as a mountain stream, coming from afar, swiftly flowing, carrying along much flotsam, will not stand still for a moment, an instant, a second, but will rush on, swirl and flow forward; even so . . . is human life like a mountain stream.”

When I meditate upon the various elements entering this human form, swirling around, and passing out again, it is in fact the image of a river that most often comes to mind. Sometimes I imagine that I’m sitting next to a six-foot stretch of river that represents my self—my body, feelings, thoughts, and memories. I sit on the bank, watching the waters flow by in this length of river that represents what is myself, me, and mine. As I watch the waters roll by I’m forced to recognize that what constitutes this “me” is forever changing. What I’ve just identified as “me” is now gone, and has been replaced. This is disconcerting, and I begin to realize more and more that I constantly grasp after a kind of self-definition and try to delimit the self, as if I fear that I will be lost in the flow of the elements. The grasping becomes more conscious, the identification more obvious. Yet as I continue to reflect on the transitory nature of the elements as they pass through my form, I realize that grasping is futile. One may as well try to hold onto flowing water as to claim the elements as one’s own, or as oneself. The moment of identification is followed so closely by the moment of dis-identification that they are essentially the same moment, and the moment of grasping becomes the moment of letting go. I find myself experiencing a sense of ease, less compelled to try to grasp the ungraspable. I begin to feel liberated.

Sometimes the image is different. I imagine that I sit before a waterfall. The sheet of water is like a cinema screen, and on it is projected a photograph or movie of my body. I can see myself, and yet there is nothing static within the image. What makes up the representation of myself, what constitutes the substance, what is apparently “contained” within the image I see of myself, is not a thing but a flow, an endlessly changing current, an ever-moving wall of water. In no two moments am I the same person, because the waterfall is not the same waterfall. As with the image of the river, the contents of the form are forever being replaced. There is an appearance of substantiality—of something static—but there is no essence. And again, sitting with this image, as I continue to observe the transitoriness of my self, I have a sense that there’s nothing to grasp. Indeed I begin to sense that there’s no one to do any grasping, since it’s my self that is void of substance.

Being the River

Early in my introduction to Buddhist practice, I had an opportunity to participate in a puja, the collective chanting of some inspirational and philosophical texts. Most of what I heard went straight over my head because I found the idiom foreign and the concepts abstruse. But it was one of the more baffling texts that I also found most intriguing: a work called the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is so named because it explains the core philosophical teaching of the Mahayana school: a teaching known as shunyata, or emptiness. Actually, the word “explains” is not entirely accurate because of the highly paradoxical nature of the text, which combines two different perspectives on the world in order to illuminate the self’s indefinable nature. And so we
have statements such as:

Form is emptiness,
Emptiness is form.
Form is only emptiness,
Emptiness is only form.

This kind of statement is in effect saying, “Look we have something we call a ‘self’ (which includes a ‘form’ or body), but when we look closely at that self we find that it lacks (or is empty of) the characteristics we assume it to have: characteristics such as permanence and separateness. The self is made up of stuff that is/was/will be ‘not self.’ And when we say it is ‘made up’ of this not-self stuff, that’s not to imply that it’s static. The not-self stuff that makes up the self is simply flowing through.” As you’ll see, it’s hard to talk about the Heart Sutra, or the teaching of emptiness, without lapsing into the same kind of paradoxical talk it employs.

The words of the Heart Sutra rattled around in my young mind (I was in my early twenties at the time, and coming toward the end of a grueling degree in veterinary medicine), both fascinating and frustrating me. To some extent I intellectually understood the teachings it summarized, but I knew that a direct appreciation of the teachings eluded me. It was as if I’d been studying the geography of France in textbooks but had never set foot on the country’s soil. Then, one day, as I was hoeing a patch of ground in the West End of Glasgow (I was spending part of my summer vacation working in a Buddhist gardening cooperative), an image appeared to me that explained the Heart Sutra in a way that went deeper than mere intellectual appreciation. I hadn’t exactly set foot in France, but it was if I’d found myself flying low over the French countryside, finally getting a clear view of it through a gap in the clouds. It was a direct experience, albeit a brief and distant one.

The image involved water. Specifically, I had an inner vision of an eddy in a river. Like many boys who had access to country streams, I’d grown up fascinated by water—the way it flows, its textures, its sounds, and the way in which it ultimately defied all my attempts with dams made of mud and stone and branches to hold back its flow.

Eddies particularly fascinated me. I was intrigued by how they held their form in the midst of constant motion, and by the fact that it was their motion that allowed that form to exist. It’s also quite astonishing that water can have a hole in it, which is essentially what an eddy is—a restless hole in the water.

An eddy never holds exactly the same form for two consecutive moments, but there is often a relative constancy of location and shape that give it, to the human mind, a sense of permanence. The kind of relatively static eddy that forms at the edge of a stream looks more or less the same over a period of time. It may change, but I have a sense that it is the same eddy. The mind in fact names this thing “the eddy,” implicitly assuming that this eddy is a “thing.” But when I look more closely, what do I see? There is no clear boundary to the eddy. Where does it stop and the river begin? It’s impossible to say.

Although I still perceive a form there, it’s a form without a boundary or, to put it paradoxically, a form without a form. Even wondering where the eddy stops and the river begins implies an assumption that the eddy and the river are in some way separate, as if the eddy could be extracted from the river. That of course is nonsense, but it’s a nonsense that in some way my mind creates by regarding “river” as one thing and “eddy” as another. Even if I edit the question to read, “Where does the eddy stop and the rest of the river begin?” there’s still a mental sense of separation that I find impossible to avoid. The fission of the concept of a river into “eddy” and “rest of the river” inevitably implies a real division. I can’t help but look for the eddy’s edge, and every time I fail.

What’s the eddy made of? Obviously it’s made of the same stuff as the rest of the river—water. But just as Heraclitus’s river isn’t the same river in two separate moments because the waters that form it have changed, so—and for the same reason—is the eddy not the same eddy in two consecutive moments. Do we then have a succession of eddies, one following another in rapid succession? If I assume this then I’m forced to ask when one eddy ends and the next begins, and I’m faced with the same situation that I encounter when I look for the eddy’s edge. I’m looking for boundaries in a situation where there is only continuity. Our imagined eddy has an apparent form, but that form, when we look for it, is elusive; the eddy is not permanent and neither does it have any separateness, even though my mind expects to find both of these characteristics.

All of this came to me, as I was gardening, in a few brief moments, rather like a bolt of lightning; and it occurred to me that the metaphor encapsulated what the Heart Sutra was expressing, and that this applied to all forms, including ourselves. I too am a kind of eddy in the flow of elements. I have an apparent form, but that form has neither permanence nor separateness. The eddy that I call myself is made up of stuff that is not-self, and that “not-self stuff” is simply flowing. When I look for the boundary between myself and the world, I can’t find one. When I look for some defining “stuff” that is in me and constitutes the essence of me, I can’t find that either, because everything is in motion. I can see my self, but I can’t pin down what it is. My self seems to be indefinable.

Excerpted with permission from Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change, by Bodhipaksa (Sounds True, October 2010)

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