selfhood

Enlightenment in a myriad of beautiful ways

I found a beautiful article by Jack Kornfield recently, which begins with the question, “Is enlightenment just a myth?” There are so many different descriptions of what enlightenment is like, we might begin to wonder whether it’s all made up.

I’m certainly not enlightened, and so I don’t know the answer. But here’s what I do know. Over the years, I’ve watched as my friends and I have changed. And I mean radically. Some of us bear little resemblance to the people we were ten or fifteen years ago. And this is the interesting part. Though I can see that we’ve all become kinder and more confident people, we’ve all changed in very different directions. I think I’ve softened and opened up a lot. Some of us have become natural leaders and community-builders, though with different stripes. Still others have blossomed in their quieter lifestyles — as artists, healers, and the like.

My point is this. I’m seeing living evidence of the many potential colors that enlightenment could come in as each of us continues to grow. We’re all dedicated to the dharma, and yet expressing our commitment in so many different ways. As Jack Kornfield says,

“When you actually experience consciousness free of identification with changing conditions, liberated from greed and hate, you find it multifaceted, like a mandala or a jewel, a crystal with many sides. Through one facet, the enlightened heart shines as luminous clarity, through another as perfect peace, through another as boundless compassion. Consciousness is timeless, ever-present, completely empty and full of all things. … Like the particle-and-wave nature of light, enlightenment consciousness is experienced in a myriad of beautiful ways.”

Here’s a link to Jack Kornfield’s full article. I found it inspirational.

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When meditation seems impossible

My partner goes for a run and comes back looking despondent. ‘I struggled all the way round,’ he says. ‘It was as if I’d never run before.’ He has run several times a week for 3 years now.

‘I know how you feel,’ I say. I’m not thinking about running, though, but meditation. I’ve been meditating for some years now, but when I sit down sometimes it feels impossible. My head itches and the items on my ‘to-do’ list compete for attention. There are odd bodily sensations that could be illnesses in the making. And if all else fails, there’s my good old tinnitus.

Outside responsibilities of work, family and friends, I tend to navigate by feelings. I do things that feel good and avoid things that don’t. This modus operandi has its drawbacks. ‘When did you last use that windsurfing board?’ friends ask. Or ‘I haven’t heard your djembe recently.’ Then there’s my Arabic dance gear languishing at the back of the wardrobe.

With all these activities, pleasure and interest waned. And because these were my motives, there was no reason to carry on. But I’m not meditating for pleasure and interest. Or am I? When I started out, I had ideas of self-improvement. But now I’m told there’s no self to improve. Perhaps I’m trying to re-create an experience I once had, where the veil between me and the world – a veil I didn’t know was there – fell away for half a day.

Who knows? When I’m swamped with difficult feelings, I certainly don’t. And I’m not used to spiritual discipline. The only precedent in my experience is kneeling on the hard, polished floorboards of the school hall to recite the Lord’s Prayer. We prayed with straight faces because Miss Borman rapped you on the knuckles with a ruler in front of the rest of the class if she caught you smirking.

So, when the going gets tough, why don’t I just get up from the cushion and make myself a cup of tea? Well, sometimes I do. But what about those times I don’t? For inspiration, I ask my partner why he finishes his runs. He says it’s because he remembers what life as a couch potato was like.

I’m not blessed by a recollection of the quality of life before meditation. But I am blessed by the anxiety that sends its sinuous tentacles into each and every meditation, reminding me how unmanageable my life can get. So I sit on in fear. I sit on in the shadow of Miss Borman, who believed in our own good even if she had a funny way of showing it. I sit on in the hope that ‘this too will pass’ even though I don’t know it will. I sit on in the hope that the practice will do the ‘me’ I persist in believing in ‘good.’ I sit on to keep myself and the world company. I sit on out of habit and in doubt, feeling like an idiot. I sit on out of gratitude and joy. I sit on to find comfort at least in discipline. I sit on without knowing why. I sit on.

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P.G. Wodehouse: “If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is!”

PG WodehouseWe spend much of our time and energy trying to pretend impermanence isn’t real, but the strange thing is that when we embrace impermanence we become happier, Bodhipaksa argues.

Here’s a very “queer thing” about life: sometimes the things that we think will make us miserable actually make us happier. When Professor Eric D. Miller of Kent State University’s Department of Psychology asked people to imagine the death of their partner they reported that they felt more positive about their relationships and less troubled by their significant others’ annoying quirks.

 I spent the afternoon musing on Life. If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is! So unlike anything else, don’t you know, if you see what I mean.
—P.G. Wodehouse  

We live in a world marked by constant change and impermanence. The things we love decay and perish. The people we love will pass away, or we ourselves will pass away, leaving them behind. Wary that thinking about impermanence will be too much of a “downer” we try not to think about these things too much. And yet, ironically, when we do happen to experience the fragility of existence we often find our appreciation of life is enhanced.

Often the things we think will make us happier—like impressing the boss or getting that raise—ultimately deprive us of happiness. As a well-known saying goes, “Few people on their deathbed think, ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office.’” And yet that’s so often how we live our lives. Life has the potential to be glorious. There’s the joy of witnessing birth and growth. The joy of loving. The joy of learning. The joy of deepening relationships. Sometimes there’s just the sheer joy of being alive. But those moments can be rare and, again rather ironically, we’re often too focused on things that don’t give us lasting pleasure to pay attention to those that do.

Our existential situation is such that it’s hard to have anything but a sporadic experience of security and wellbeing. After all, the world is inherently insecure. There’s nothing in the world that we can absolutely rely upon. True, it’s pretty certain that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but then again there’s no guarantee we’ll be around to enjoy it. Sometimes we forget this, and it’s been argued that in fact we try very hard to forget it.

 The self is like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing, and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be separate?  

An entire movement in psychology is predicated on the hypothesis that we have strategies for dealing with the painful reality of uncertainty and loss. In studies it has been found that we frequently try to find something unchanging and reliable with which to identify, something that acts like a secure island in the midst of a river of change. Often what we cling to is an ideology, or a religious identity, or a sense of belonging to a group or nation. This response is one of fear and clinging. We see change around us and we’re afraid. And so we try to find something to cling to—something more permanent and stable than ourselves.

Another common strategy is that we imagine that we ourselves are small islands of stability in the river of life. We cling to the idea that we have this “thing” called a self. And we imagine this self to be separate and permanent. We become the thing that we cling to. But as Sylvia Plath once wrote, although with a rather different intent, “I am myself. That is not enough.” Our selves are not enough. We find ourselves incomplete, lacking happiness and—despite all our clinging—security. And so we engage in grasping for those things we think will bring us happiness and security, while trying to keep at bay those things we think threaten our happiness and security.

 We think that focusing on our own needs will maximize our happiness and wellbeing, but it often turns out that this merely impoverishes us.  

Fundamentally, we all just want to be happy, secure, and at peace. The problem is that as strategies for finding happiness, clinging and aversion just don’t work very well. They don’t deliver the goods. It turns out that thoughts of impermanence often enrich our lives and make us happier. We cling to status, material possessions, approval, and pleasure, and yet the pursuit of these things often turns out to have been a misuse of our time. We think that focusing on our own needs will maximize our happiness and wellbeing, but it often turns out that this merely impoverishes us, and that including others in our sphere of concern brings us greater satisfaction.

We can swap our ineffective strategies for others that work better, but this requires that we change the way we see ourselves. The self that we imagine to be separate and unchanging is not that way at all. The self is like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing, and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be separate? There’s no borderline that we can say for sure marks where the eddy stops and the river starts. The eddy cannot exist without the stream, and the stream itself is nothing more than a mass of eddies and other currents. I suggest that the self is like that too. We are not separate from the world around us; we instead exist as the sum total of our relationships with a vast web of interconnected processes. We are not physically separate, and we are not mentally separate, and realizing these facts is infinitely enriching.

The Buddha pointed to an alternative way of living, which is that we radically embrace impermanence. In his path of training, we systematically notice all acts of holding on, all acts of trying to resist impermanence, and learn to let go. In doing so repeatedly, we start to see the disadvantages of clinging, and the advantages of non-clinging. Training the mind in this way, we cling less, we experience more freedom and expansiveness, and we find we can face impermanence with less fear.

This post is an edited extract from Bodhipaksa’s forthcoming book, “Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change,” to be published by Sounds True in October, 2010.

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Damaged brains escape the material world

Increased feelings of transcendence can follow brain damage, a study of people with brain cancer suggests.

As feelings of transcending the physical world can be part of some religious experiences and other forms of spirituality, the finding may help explain why some people seem more prone to such experiences than others.

The brain region in question, the posterior parietal cortex, is involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation

To further probe its role, Cosimo Urgesi, a neuroscientist at the University of Udine in Italy, turned to 88 people who were being treated for brain cancer.

Brain surgery

These volunteers suffered from two kinds of cancer: gliomas, which affect the brain cells that surround neurons, and meningiomas, which affect the membrane that wraps the brain itself.

Doctors removed neurons from the 48 glioma patients to stem the spread of their tumours, whereas the people with meningiomas had tumour cells removed, but no neurons.

Both before and not long after the patients received this surgery Urgesi’s team gave them a battery of personality tests. In particular, the researchers were interested…

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in a personality trait known as self-transcendence.

People score highly for this trait if they answer “yes” to questions such as: “I often feel so connected to the people around me that I feel like there is no separation”; “I feel so connected to nature that everything feels like one single organism”; and “I got lost in the moment and detached from time”. The same people also tend to believe in miracles, extrasensory perception and other non-material phenomena.

Personality change

Urgesi’s team found that the 24 people with gliomas in the posterior parietal cortex tended to score higher on the self-transcendence test after surgery than they had before. By contrast, the scores of people with gliomas in the anterior region of the cortex, and of people with meningiomas, did not change after their surgery.

This suggests that it is the removal of neurons from the posterior parietal cortex which is responsible for the personality change, and not simply experiencing a serious illness or undergoing brain surgery, Urgesi says. He suggests that the removal reduces activity in this brain region and that this may increase feelings of transcendence.

Moreover, Urgesi noticed differences in the way the patients dealt with their illnesses. Those who had lost posterior parietal tissue tended to be less troubled by their cancers and their own mortality. Meanwhile those who had had their anterior portion removed tended to react more bitterly, Urgesi says. “They could not accept it.”

Urgesi speculates that naturally low activity in parietal regions in people without either brain damage or cancer could predispose them to self-transcendent feelings, and perhaps even to religions that emphasise such experiences such as Buddhism.

Out of body

“The idea of spirituality equalling the self-transcendence scale is perhaps a bit controversial,” says Uffe Schjødt, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Aarhus University, Denmark.

But he adds that the study “does fit with previous work in the neuroscience of religion”. For example, studies in Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns and people experienced in meditation have shown that the posterior parietal cortex plays a role in prayer and meditation.

Urgesi also notes that electrically stimulating the temporoparietal junction – an area near the posterior parietal cortex – is known to induce out-of-body experiences , which also involve a breakdown in someone’s representation of their physical self and their environment.

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Barbara Sher: “We are like violins. We can be used for doorstops, or we can make music.”

violinWe all want to be happy, but often we’re not. Bodhipaksa argues that this is because of the way we treat ourselves as a thing that lacks happiness, and happiness as a thing to be grasped.

In a parable in the Buddhist teachings, a king hears the sound of a lute for the first time and asks to see what produced such sweet music. A lute is produced, but the king is not satisfied. He wants to know where the music is. His ministers say,

“This lute, sire, is made of numerous components, a great many components. It’s through the activity of numerous components that it sounds: that is, in dependence on the body, the skin, the neck, the frame, the strings, the bridge, and the appropriate human effort. Thus it is that this lute — made of numerous components, a great many components — sounds through the activity of numerous components.”

Similarly, the Buddha points out, an accomplished practitioner investigates the body and mind and finds that “thoughts of ‘me’ or ‘mine’ or ‘I am’ do not occur.” There’s no suggestion in the Buddha’s metaphor that there is no self to be found. Instead, we simply let go of any identification with the body or mind as being the self. We stop clinging to any sense of the self being static, separate, or definable in any way. We cease thinking about “me” or “mine” or “I am,” and this thinking has ceased because we have ceased emotionally clinging to any idea of ourselves.

 The self is an activity. It’s a process. It’s a verb.  

In this analogy, the “self” is the functioning of the body and mind, and is therefore not a “thing.” The self is a process arising out of the functioning of both body and mind. Of course we can’t locate the self in any component of the body. Nor is the self identified with the mind or any component of the mind. The self cannot be reduced to any component or collection of components, any more than the sound of the lute can be found in any one component of the lute or in the entire, assembled lute.

The self is an activity. It’s a process. It’s a verb. As such, it’s not a noun or a “thing.” A process by definition cannot be a thing that we can grasp onto. A self that is a process is not the kind of self that can be static and unchanging. A self that is a process is not the kind of self that exists separately. Be definition, this kind of self arises from a myriad of things that are not the self.

Also, one of the components that makes the sound of the lute possible is “appropriate human effort.” The lute in itself is not an instrument unless it’s in human hands. Without interaction with a human being it simply is a collection of glue, catgut, and various pieces of wood. Without interaction the lute is close to being an assemblage of nouns. The lute has to be in relation to something else before the sound can happen. Thus the idea of a separate self is challenged.

If the self, in the analogy, is the sound of the lute, then the self can only exist in relation to something else. In this case the self only exists in interaction with the world and with other selves. There is no such thing as a self in isolation. The self is therefore something inherently dynamic, interactive, and relational.

 The secret of happiness is to think less in terms of getting and having, and more in terms of noticing and appreciating.  

What does this mean for us in our daily lives? A lot of the time we’re caught up in thoughts about ourselves. We think constantly about whether people like us, whether we’re happy, what we can do to get more recognition. This constant self-reference is meant to ease our suffering, but actually it’s the cause of our suffering. When we let go of this kind of self-referential thinking we discover that it was the act of craving happiness that was making us suffer.

There’s nothing wrong of course with wanting to be happy. The whole Buddhist path, after all, is an attempt to get away from suffering and to reach a state of peace. It’s the way that we relate to happiness that’s the problem. We treat ourselves as a object. We see ourselves, moreover, as an object lacking happiness, as defective. We see happiness as something external that we have to “get,” and so happiness is treated as an object too. Happiness is seen as being like a “component” that we can add to our defective selves. But happiness isn’t something to be grasped. It’s not in fact a thing at all.

In the parable the king thinks of the sound of the lute as being a thing, and he expects to be able to find it by dissecting the instrument. He wants to grasp the music. He’s in a state of craving. What he doesn’t appreciate is that the music arises from the quality of the relationships between the various parts of the lute, the musician, and the listener.

Happiness arises from the quality of our relationships. Happiness isn’t a “thing” to be grasped, but the quality of experience that arises when we cease grasping. As selves that exist only in relationship, it’s the quality of our relationships — the way we relate — that determines the quality of our being, and thus our happiness. The more we grasp (even after happiness) the less happy we’ll be. The more attention to the present moment, ease, acceptance, and love that we bring into our experience, the happier we’ll be.

The secret of happiness is to think less in terms of getting and having, and more in terms of noticing and appreciating.

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Brain activity altered during religious experience

In America there’s a feeling of Christmas. But that’s not the only winter holiday going on. Jews are lighting Hanukkah candles, Muslims recently feasted on Eid al-Adha, and pagans celebrated the solstice. So it’s a good time for researchers to consider spirituality—from a scientific point of view.

One experience central to major religions around the world is that of transcendence, the idea of almost losing a sense of self to the feeling that there’s something bigger out there. Now scientists at the University of Missouri say they’ve located that experience in our brains. All the people studied, from Buddhist monks in meditation to Francescan nuns in prayer, experience this transcendence. And they all have decreased activity in the right parietal lobe of the brain. That area has to do with senses such as orienting yourself in the space around you. The study was published in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science.

Interestingly, people with injuries to the right parietal lobe report increased levels of spiritual experiences. The researchers are quick to say that this connection doesn’t minimize the role of religion, and that religious or spiritual experiences might decrease activity in that region and thus increase that special feeling of transcendence. Just in time for the holidays.

From Scientific American.

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Just who do you think you are?

phrenology head

There’s a compelling article in Atlantic on the theory that the self is not unitary but a composite of multiple selves.

“First Person Plural,” is written by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. He’s writing a book on the theme of pleasure, and I imagine it’ll be well-worth reading.

His article shows that the self is not a single entity but a multiplicity:

Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds­—like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist. And it provides a useful framework for thinking about the increasingly popular position that people would be better off if governments and businesses helped them inhibit certain gut feelings and emotional reactions.

He explores each of these areas in turn. He outlines competing views of the self and presents his own view, which

is conservative in that it accepts that brains give rise to selves that last over time, plan for the future, and so on. But it is radical in that it gives up the idea that there is just one self per head. The idea is that instead, within each brain, different selves are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control—bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.

He explains how competing inner selves result in the kind of conflict where, for example, one self wants to lose weight and the other wants to enjoy pizza, comparing this to research on what used to be called multiple-personality disorder (now dissociative-identity disorder).

There’s some though-provoking hilarity here:

One woman got a settlement of more than $2 million after alleging that her psychotherapist had used suggestive memory “recovery” techniques to convince her that she had more than 120 personalities, including children, angels, and a duck.

And further humor where he talks about imaginary friends (we all have them — who doesn’t have “conversations” in their own head?):

The writer Adam Gopnik wrote about his young daughter’s imaginary companion, Charlie Ravioli, a hip New Yorker whose defining quality was that he was always too busy to play with her.

The practical implications of this theory are worked out in terms of “binding,” which is where one self, anticipating the arrival of another, limits that others’ actions — for example the self that wants to give up smoking may tell friends not to give them a cigarette, no matter how much they may plead. And he discusses the role of binding in politics and society:

The natural extension of this type of self-binding is what the economist Richard Thaler and the legal scholar Cass Sunstein describe as “libertarian paternalism“—a movement to engineer situations so that people retain their choices (the libertarian part), but in such a way that these choices are biased to favor people’s better selves (the paternalism part). For instance, many people fail to save enough money for the future; they find it too confusing or onerous to choose a retirement plan. Thaler and Sunstein suggest that the default be switched so that employees would automatically be enrolled in a savings plan, and would have to take action to opt out.

Lastly he discusses the fact that it’s simplistic to think that the long-term self is always right. Here’s an extreme example:

Many cruel acts are perpetrated by people who can’t or don’t control their short-term impulses or who act in certain ways—such as getting drunk—that lead to a dampening of the contemplative self. But evil acts are also committed by smart people who adopt carefully thought-out belief systems that allow them to ignore their more morally astute gut feelings. Many slave owners were rational men who used their intelligence to defend slavery, arguing that the institution was in the best interests of those who were enslaved, and that it was grounded in scripture: Africans were the descendants of Ham, condemned by God to be “servants unto servants.”

There are two elements that I think could be added to his overall discussion.

First is that one method of self-binding is to adopt an ethical perspective and an ethical code. An ethical perspective is the notion that ethics makes sense and is beneficial to one’s long-term happiness — that neither short-term whim (one of those many selves) nor the uneducated “long-term self” (although he never quite defines what that is) is able to act in one’s best interests. It’s recognizing that the whole self exists in a larger reality and that it must function appropriately in that context in order to be happy. From a Buddhist point of view (as seen in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta) this corresponds to the Right View that there are ethical consequences to our actions.

An ethical code is a working out of that perspective in terms of guidelines for behavior: for example the five or ten precepts that provide an “objective” reference point to turn to when competing selves may drive us to act in a say that’s against our long-term happiness. When we find ourselves about to blurt out something hurtful, say, we can note that this goes against our ethical code, pause, and find a more skillful way to express ourselves — one that takes into account other needs, such as the need to be in harmony with others. We end up with more of our needs met when we act this way — both the need to express our reservations about something and the need to have harmonious relationships.

The slave owners he points to of course had a “carefully thought-out belief system” which amounted to a moral code — but it wasn’t cohesive or self-consistent. A belief system that includes “do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself” and “love your neighbor as yourself” doesn’t sit easily with the notion of treating other humans as chattels, and the definition of Africans as “not human” isn’t sustainable. So not any moral code would do — we have to have a moral code that’s based on reality and that’s self-consistent. We have to have one that’s capable of producing a unitary self.

The second thing that I think is missing is a discussion of meditation, and how it can help us develop a unitary self. [In a separate interview, Bloom comments: “The story of meditative exercises and what they do to your multiplicity of Self is really fascinating. There’s been a lot of interesting research on the subject, although it’s not something I know anything about.”]

In the practice I was doing this morning, the Mindfulness of Breathing, the aim is simply to keep coming back to the breath. Basically, I’m working on developing and strengthening the “self” that observes, long-term, what’s going on in my awareness. Other selves make themselves known by creating thoughts, emotions, and fantasies that project into awareness, and demand attention. The self I’m working on strengthening notices those experiences arising but lets them quietly settle down. It’s kind and observant. Sometimes a particular thought or feeling will be recurrent, and the meditating self may decide to pay attention to what’s going on. For example, a pleasurable fantasy might keep arising. The meditating self realizes that this is expressive of a need for pleasure that’s not currently being met, and takes action to bring more pleasure into awareness, for example by relaxing, by paying more attention to pleasurable sensations in the body, and by developing a more kindly attitude.

Over time the “distractions” — the other selves — simply manifest in awareness less and less. We become more concentrated and happy, The meditating self becomes more complete and sufficient, able to take care of the underlying needs of the multiple selves for prolonged periods of time without needing to suppress those selves. This is what we call samatha or “calm abiding” meditation.

In vipassana meditation — which is complementary to, rather than opposed to samatha meditation — we observe different “selves” arising and passing away, in the form of stray thoughts, fantasies, and emotions. We can develop equanimity as we watch these arise and pass, and realize that none of them is ultimately “us.” If they’re just passing through “us” — as clouds pass through a clear sky — how can they be part of “us”? Which leaves the question of what, ultimately, we are.

From a Theravadin perspective we are nothing more than this collection of selves, but from certain Mahayana perspectives “we” are awareness itself — the space that contains these multiple selves. I suspect that philosophically the Theravadin perspective is correct, but I prefer the Mahayana approach as a working model. I think it’s going to be a long time before that model becomes any kind of real spiritual hindrance in my own practice.


BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.

As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/bodhipaksa.

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