Buddhist Cartography: sticks and stones

February 23, 2014 § 7 Comments

autumn effect at argenteuil

Suruga Bay, Azaleas

In previous posts I noted that the left side of the brain uses words to give the world form, an ability of the brain that has long been used by artists.  A painter, for example, may deftly apply colors of emerald green and umber to a white canvas that only suggests an appearance but she knows the viewer’s brain will see it as a “tree”, even if she may not know that this is done with words.

The above two impressionist paintings illustrate how the brain creates form out of the formless.

Claude Monet’s “Autumn Effect at Argtenteuil,” (shown first above) is seen as trees that are reflected in water with a village and clouds in the background.  If, however, the right side of the painting were to be covered, the brain would be hard pressed to interpret the orange oils as trees.

In Lilla Cabot Perry’s “Suraga Bay, Azaleas” (second picture) it’s clear that the blue in the middle is a “mountain” only because we call it a mountain.

In their art, these impressionists used the brain’s ability to assign names and details to create form where there otherwise was none.   But this ability is not limited to the museum.  The brain does this on a continuous basis in every day life.

In my own experience, while walking yesterday, I noticed that the blue at the end of the street, like the blue in Perry’s painting, was a mountain because I called it a mountain. I noticed that details at the end of a hedge that I couldn’t actually see, were being superimposed by my imagination, which took the details of the branches right beside me and “painted” them in further ahead.  And far down the street where my senses reported a black square with two lights, my brain was busily labeling this as the headlights of a car.  And when I came across something I did not recognize, my brain sought vainly to give it a name, so practiced was it in naming things.

Ordinarily, I do not question the names given my perceptions.  Like everyone else, I accept the reality of what I see on a day-to-day basis.  I accept the reality of my primary, inner map.  However, all of us have secondary maps on which we have written other words like, “danger,” “threat,” “irritating,” “good” or “bad.”  These words reflect evaluations of things as they relate to us, evaluations often made in childhood that have never been questioned.

If, with practice, we can see how the brain uses words on our primary maps to give the world form and meaning, we can then begin to transfer that knowledge to the words we’ve written on our secondary maps to see how we’ve made the world “dangerous”, “irritating” or “bad”.  Then we may begin to see that what threatened us in the past is now merely a word we’ve superimposed on the world.  And words, to paraphrase the child’s saying, “can never hurt us.”

Buddhist Cartography: Dependent Origination.

February 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Word gives form to the formless 0188

In Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, “My Stroke of Insight,” we learn that the right side of the brain experiences the physical world as a sea of light and sound.  It is not difficult to imagine how a newborn upon first encountering this world, must give this energetic sea boundaries and edges if it is to make sense of the world into which it was born. The left side of the brain, the language side, provides this as the infant gains mastery of language and the word.  And it is through the word that the infant comes to know the world as stable and solid.

The certainty of the adult world comes from the inner maps drawn in childhood. Names placed on our inner maps make the world seem fixed.  Lines drawn around primal sensations make the world seem solid.   However, not all adults perceive the world as rigid and solid.  The artist owes much of her ability to create new forms and new works of art because of her ability to see the world with both sides of the brain.

A Buddhist phrase for the fluidic world is dependent origination or dependent arising.

Dependent origination, as used here, refers to the notion that there is no independent or permanent self, and that everything exists in relation to everything else.  To quote Dr. Bolte Talyor, “the energy of everything blends together.”  It does not take much to see the parallels between dependent origination and how the right side of the brain perceives the world, as described by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor.

Meditation allows us to deconstruct our maps so we can see the world of dependent origination.  However, one does not have to spend years in meditation to begin to see this world and how words have limited our perceptions.

Try this exercise.  Take a moment to investigate the rooms where you live.  Notice the color of the walls in particular.  Then, when you get up in the night, go back into these rooms and find one that is dimly lit.   A room with a night-light is most favorable for this exercise.

In the darkness, walls take on many shades of grey but notice that in your mind you still think of them as colored.  Yellow walls, for example, take on the appearance of light greys but you still imagine them as yellow. Notice how other items that are nothing more than blobs of grey and black are also identified and given form by your words.

This exercise shows how the left side of your brain has so organized the world that you no longer see its endless variety.  It shows that the sea of energy you perceived as a child has taken on permanent form with permanent colors.  Your world has become fixed and solid because of your words.

You can extrapolate this exercise to see other ways that the left side of the brain uses words to limit your world and your self.  Note, however, that this is a two edged sword as positive words are just as limiting as negative ones.  And many a person, from the artist, to the saint, to the “free-thinker,” has found that the world does not want us to give up our words and the false sense of security they bestow.  Yet, the door to freedom lies in putting aside our inner maps and transcending the word.

Buddhist Cartography: “My Stroke of Insight.”

February 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Brainy yin yang valentine

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, “My Stroke of Insight,” provides insight into the brain’s central role in drawing the primary map of the self.

In 1996 Dr. Bolte Taylor suffered a stroke on the side of her brain that controls language, rational thought and time-oriented thought.  Although the left side was severely damaged, the “now” oriented, unitary right side still functioned.  In her book she reports on her experience of right brain functioning and her eight-year recovery from the stroke.

Dr. Bolte Taylor reported that when the left side of her brain shut down she could no longer perceive things as existing separately from any other thing.  Without boundaries or edges she could not distinguish where one object began and another ended. “Instead,” she writes, “the energy of everything blended together.”

In this sea of energy Dr. Bolte Taylor no longer felt herself to be a single, solid self.  It was then she realized that for all her life, “I really had been a figment of my own imagination!”

From these brief excerpts it is not difficult to imagine a time when our newborn brains experienced the world as Dr. Bolte Taylor described.  In that pristine world the self is not yet drawn and the world is experienced as a pulsating, energetic sea of sounds, feelings and electromagnetic radiation.  It is out of this sea that the left and right side of the brain map out a world of form that the adult knows as his or her self and reality.  Yet, as Dr. Bolte Taylor noted, that map exists only in the imagination.

Buddhist Cartography: maps of self.

February 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

Graffiti 1100

The self may be thought of as a map drawn to guide you through life and your relationships.  This self is not the real you any more than a map is the city, town or country it represents.  Yet the vast majority of us believe we are our maps.  Buddhist practice is designed to dispel this false belief and awaken us to our true nature.

We typically have more than one map representing the self but here I am only concerned with two.  The first draws with relative accuracy our inner landscape as it is.  It is a landscape mapped through a process of denying and affirming parts of our basic human nature and experience.  Some examples of what may be included on this map are our cultural values, religious beliefs and family mores.  Others may be more specific to our person such as how intelligent, athletic or talented we are.

When denial or approval is brought about through fear or coercion it may leave us with unresolved fears, false beliefs and aspects our nature that we then seek to avoid.  To do this we draw a secondary map that distorts our inner landscape.  This map leads us away from our discomfort zones that then become “holes” in our consciousness we do not wish to explore.

The secondary map represents a false self that keeps us from being in the moment and opening our hearts to others.  Buddhist practice requires we examine these maps with awareness, especially where feelings of discomfort, pushing away and denial arise.  These feelings point to the holes in our maps that we need to explore.

A word of caution, traumatic holes are highly charged, sensitive areas filled with pain, fear and shame.  Secondary maps act as a safeguard to stop people from falling into these holes.  It is not recommended that any traumatized person venture into these uncharted areas without a qualified teacher or therapist.

Where Am I?

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