August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
There need be no thought that the human brain is defective in the mass of humanity. The human brain is actually quite a marvelous instrument that for the most part does what we direct it to do. If we ask it to solve a problem of life, higher mathematics or science, it works tirelessly to accomplish the matter as long as we continue to ask it to do so. Even when our attention is directed elsewhere the brain continues its efforts, sometimes producing a solution to a problem long since forgotten.
It is because we forget that the brain does what we direct it to do that we run into trouble. Take, for instance, the successive traumatic effect war has had on people over the last two hundred years. If we assume, as some do, that trauma can be handed down from generation to generation, then even those who have not been to war may suffer post-traumatic stress handed down by parents who lived through the last century’s major wars. This means the mass of humanity may be working with brains that have been taught to operate according to rules of survival in situations where survival is not an issue. If so, is there any wonder that nation upon nation makes and sells arms in the name of better protecting their interests?
I tend to the notion that as a result of past wars humanity has trained their collective brains to see life as a matter of survival. And because the brain gives a sense of reality to whatever thought it entertains, the mass of humanity have come to believe that, in essence, the “other guy” is a threat that must be defended against.
There is hope for humanity and it comes in the form of educating ourselves on the true nature of our brains and reality. We must come to recognize that just because the brain tells us there is a threat, that does not mean there actually is a threat. Just because the brain makes it appear that our beliefs are real, it does not mean that other beliefs are incompatible with our own. As the Dalai Lama said,
“We all want happiness, not suffering, and as a consequence we have to see if the mind can be transformed. Tibetan Buddhist culture is not just about prayers, reciting mantras and performing rituals, it involves explanations of the nature of reality. We Tibetans have the most comprehensive presentation of what the Buddha taught. We should not feel deprived, but proud of the knowledge we possess. What’s more we don’t need to rely on any other language to access this knowledge because it already exists in Tibetan. Don’t waste your time getting drunk or gambling. There’s no reason to feel low or demoralized; much better to be confident and optimistic.” (http://www.dalailama.com/news/post/1083-how-to-achieve-happiness-and-the-unsung-heroes-of-compassion)
Transforming our minds is not a matter to be completed in succeeding generations. It is something we can accomplish now. We can retrain our brains to look at reality in its true nature. One step in this process is to see that our brains tend to assign reality to whatever we imagine. Another is to accept the possibility that if we imagine our neighbor to be our enemy, this may not actually be so.
Be confident and optimistic of your ability to change your mind. Be confident and optimistic that you can see reality as it truly is.
August 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
Watching thoughts arise and fall is rather, should I say it, enlightening?
There doesn’t seem to be any thought that is not assigned some degree of reality. Even when I can positively say that I’m just imagining something, my brain still wants to color it real.
I don’t have any problem with my brain telling me, for example, that the stranger in front of me let a door close before I got there. But when the thought arises that he or she did it “on purpose” and I react with a tinge of resentment, then I have to wonder what good it does for my brain to make even imagined events, seem real?
Long ago it was probably a good survival tactic to have primitive man act “as if” the source of a noise in the nighttime forest was a predator. But today it seems we behave as if anything that offends our self-image is a predatory fact that needs to be acted upon. That the offended one may be the only one who knows an offence has taken place seems to make no difference. There still seems to be a need to act upon this “as if” situation.
When my cat sees something curious, she investigates. If it’s nothing then she licks her paw and walks away. Yet when today’s average person finds nothing in the curious, he or she returns to it again and again thinking something is there that was missed. They’ll buy a lottery ticket, even though they’d have to buy 26 million to have a good chance of winning a major prize. They’ll go to the pub every Friday to have a good time, even though they’ve never woken up the next morning feeling a good time was had. They’ll have the same discussion with their partner, even though it always ends in an argument.
It does seem the average person’s brain is locked into a reality that is neither conducive to happiness nor even real. Yet most everyone acts as if what he or she is doing makes perfect sense.
How is it a cat’s brain works, and ours do not?
August 5, 2014 § Leave a comment
Viewed simply, the brain takes input from the senses, processes it and then projects it outward. When creating this projection the brain does not automatically differentiate between objects of the senses and those of thought or imagination. All are seen as possessing some level of reality.
Believing that thought exists independently of the mind (i.e., has self-existence), one lives in a state of dream illusion. It is like a dream because one believes in this thought world’s reality. It is an illusion because this world is false. Humanity, en masse, lives in this world of dream illusion.
An obvious example of dream illusion is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. With PTSD, those who experienced a trauma continue to live “as if” some threat still exists when it has long since passed. But we need not look to extreme mental health disorders to find examples of dream illusion. We need only look inside our own minds.
We live in dream illusion when a first impression becomes the way we see someone for the rest of our lives. We live in dream illusion when an imagined person we’re having an inner conversation with is thought to be the actual person we want to talk to. We live in dream illusion when judgments of right and wrong, good or bad, become our reality. For do we not then react by seeking revenge through anger when we are wronged? Or become depressed when we judge our self to be bad?
Knowing the need to awaken from dream illusion one may begin meditation by trying to stop thought. But one soon learns that thought is not so easily stilled. So the next step is to simply watch thoughts rise and fall. Still, there are some thoughts that do not fall as easily as they rise. These we can work on by holding them in the awareness and gently seeing them as unreal. The more deep-seated these thoughts, the longer it will take to undermine and weaken them.
As you become better at letting thoughts go, your ability to just observe them will grow. So will your ability to select a thought and examine it without being drawn into the dream illusion it creates. Of course there will still be times when you get caught up in the dream illusion and feel as if all of your work has been for naught. That’s to be expected because meditation is not a linear process. One area of life may have its problems resolved only to have another set of problems take its place. This is the natural ebb and flow of life. It is to be expected.
Eventually you will find thought taking a back seat and the ground of thought, i.e., consciousness, coming to the fore. This, too, you can examine by asking, “What is its true nature?” “How does this calm, motionless state arise?” “How can it be maintained?” “Where does it go when a thought arises?” “Is there a difference between this and the thought that arises?” “Is there a difference between this and me?”
These questions may seem esoteric at the moment, but when the ground of consciousness comes to the fore it will be natural to examine it with such questions, phrased in your own way. Examining consciousness in this way is the beginning of transcendental intelligence.
April 14, 2014 § 5 Comments
I was in Stanley Park looking at the park map when my friend asked, “If we are here, then who are these people by the restrooms?”
Site maps often show two figures to indicate restroom facilities while using a marker of some sort to tell us where we are. As these maps emulate the workings of the human brain it should come as no surprise to learn that the brain also has an inner marker that says, “You are here.” What might come as a surprise is that, as with the site map, there isn’t actually any “you” there at the tip of the marker.
Just as the brain creates inner maps of the outer world, so does it create a map of a self that relates to the world. And just as the maps of the outer world are not the actual world, nor is the map of self your actual Self.
Identifying with the map of self has us believing we are such traits as “unreliable,” “worthless” or “bad” when, in fact, our true nature is clear; just as the water of a lake is clear and only reflects the blue of the sky or the green of the forest.
Most of us have been reading our inner maps for so long that we have forgotten our true nature. Mindfulness and meditation are two practices that train us to turn our attention away from these maps so we may focus, first, on the outer world and, then, our true nature.
In mindfulness we focus our attention on whatever task we are doing at the moment. This turns our attention outward and away from our inner maps. As we progress in this outer focus we become more aware of the inner maps that our brains have superimposed on the world. We begin to see the difference between what “is” going on in the world as opposed to what we “think” is going on.
As part of my practice, I see my inner maps as constructs of the brain that exist only in the brain. I find this a great help in seeing the unreality of thought, as whatever exists in the brain alone can have no real existence in the outer world. This has helped dispel many fears, false beliefs and delusions; and is quite consistent with Tibetan Buddhism where the essential point is to see the world is an illusion.
In meditation the awareness is once again focused away from the inner maps, but this time it is turned back upon itself, i.e., one’s clear, true nature.
Here words become misleading. There is no actual “back” or “upon” in any sense that implies an objective self looking outward at the world. To think there is some person, mind or soul being aware of itself merely replaces one map of self with another, subtler one.
The ultimate form of meditation is Dogen’s shikantaza where one just sits as awareness itself. However, before most of us can “just sit” we need to disengage from our inner maps. We need to put our maps of self and the world aside.
As I mentioned above, I have found it helpful to see my inner maps as fabrications of the brain. This applies not only to the maps I superimposed over the physical world but to my map of self, as well.
The inner map I have of myself is purely a construct of this brain and body. I did not have this map before incarnating into this body and, upon taking a new form, any new map of self will be just as illusory and impermanent as the one I use now.
Ultimately, self is nothing more than a marker on a map that says, “You are here.” The only truth of that marker is that it points to emptiness, which is your true nature and your real Self.
April 1, 2014 § Leave a comment
In the days of the wooden mast sailing ships the most valued of secrets was the exploration map of the oceans and the world. On these maps the fortunes of nations were made or lost.
So important were these maps that traders and kings would hide them in sealed rooms while simultaneously displaying outdated ones for their competitors to see. They would also display maps with missing details or showed land were none existed in an attempt to mislead their enemies.
People suffering from trauma also use inner maps with holes where details should be and land where none exist. The holes are filled with hurt, anger, fear and shame. The land is the rationalizations and lies told to protect the psyche from the trauma, a false self, if you will, whose exposure would be as devastating to the traumatized as the theft of a map would have been to the fortunes of the old nations.
I recently had occasion to hear of a classic trauma map. A woman had offered her name as a reference for a man seeking employment. When the man actually gave her name she became unreasonably agitated to the extent that she sabotaged the man’s effort with the employer.
Following her trauma map, the woman was willing to be a reference because she felt it necessary to be helpful. However, lending her name meant she was bringing attention to herself; something a trauma map is designed to avoid. Her agitation and subsequent sabotage were the results of her trying to protect her core self from being known.
On another occasion a victim of rape told me that she avoided being assaulted again by going down dark alleys at one or two in the morning whenever she had to do some grocery shopping. As in the first story, this woman’s trauma map was drawn with the aim of self-protection, and self-protection meant not being seen.
Trauma maps are inner, secondary maps that are drawn with the pen of denial. They are drawn with the aim of hiding one’s core nature, which is seen as the source of one’s vulnerability. The essential feature of the map is, “Show your self in any way, and you die.” Concomitant with this denial is the creation of a false self that is drawn to deflect attention away from the core self.
Maps drawn from trauma may work well in traumatic situations but once the survival event is over, following them leads to paradoxical and conflicting behavior. Mindfulness starts the traumatized on the path to healing by enabling them to check their false thoughts with their actual experience. From this, the difference between thought and reality slowly comes to light.
Trauma maps, however, lead the seeker away from self, while mindfulness and meditation are meant to bring one face to face with one’s own true nature. Because of this, every effort must be made to avoid using a trauma map to guide one’s meditation. This means special attention is to be paid to observing and accepting one’s thoughts and feelings without repressing, denying or being overwhelmed by them. The traumatized mind is to avoid a central element of trauma, i.e., denial, by developing the quality of accepting whatever arises in consciousness without necessarily acting upon it.
Overcoming the brain’s directive to deny thought and emotion, without then becoming overwhelmed by them is a slow process for any mind, let along the traumatized one. But by using meditation to stabilize the mind, and mindfulness to accept what the brain has been denying, trauma and PTSD can be overcome. Then, your own true self that was seemingly lost will be found and, like the prodigal child, you will come home again.
March 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
Each of us is a walking atlas of inner maps that we use to navigate through life.
We have a primary map drawn through the brain’s ability to give form to the world through the use of language and the word. This map gives our world a sense of stability and permanence that we call reality.
We have inner maps drawn by our families, culture and religion. Others we’ve had more of a hand in drawing, such as friendship and relationship maps. And, of course, there is the map we call the self, the map of who we think and believe our self to be.
Our atlases are the creation of the left side of the brain. This part of the brain has its own type of GPS, or Global Positioning System, that it uses to select the map most appropriate for any given situation. When you walk into a crowded room, for example, your internal GPS will pick up relevant signals and then select a map that tells you how to feel about the room, whether to leave or continue in and, if appropriate, it will even direct you where and with whom to sit.
Inner maps are sets of rules and judgments that direct behavior and thought. We are usually not aware of their influence, as they typically lie either on the periphery of consciousness or entirely in the unconscious. But the maps selected by our internal GPS determine to a large extent how we behave, what we feel and most of what we believe to be the choices made of our own free will.
The left side of the brain evaluates every passing moment of your life, making constant references to rules and judgments picked up in childhood. It selects inner maps that direct you how to feel and what to think. This process is often referred to in today’s spiritual literature as your “story”. But if you want to know your true nature, you must still the story. You must stop judging and close your atlas.
Mindfulness and meditation allows you to become aware of the story contained in your atlas. To still the story, it helps to see your everyday thoughts as maps drawn by the left side of the brain. It helps to see them as automatic processing that can go on without your conscious attention. As such, they are not really you or your thoughts, so they can be put aside without any loss. Then your attention can be turned to the non-thinking, right side of the brain wherein lies silence.
The right side of the brain is the non-verbal side so when you disengage from thought, you open the door to silence. This is what is meant when the mystic tells you to still your thoughts, or when the Buddhist tells you to turn your mind to stillness.
If uncertain what is meant here, use mindfulness to see how your brain constantly judges, thinks and speaks. Then ask yourself what it would be like if your brain could not do this; if you were not able to speak or communicate verbally. Your answer cannot be in words which means your thinking brain cannot respond. This creates a momentary stepping back from thought. Gently hold onto that feeling.
As the brain will want to start up again you must focus the awareness on this feeling of not thinking. Over time you will find that you can maintain this awareness even as the left side of the brain still thinks in the background. Your aim is to take this disengagement into meditation and deepen it.
February 23, 2014 § 7 Comments
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.”