Saturday, December 29, 2007

Neuroscience and Buddhism

The still emerging field of neuroscience has revolutionized our understanding of human behavior and the human mind. We now know that certain chemicals (or the lack of them) in the brain can cause specific mental illnesses, and that we can treat these illnesses with drugs. We have learned a great deal about how the mind processes information and funnels that perception into actions or feelings.

One of the downsides, however, has been the relegation of consciousness to the scrapheap of our experience. For most neuroscientists, consciousness is at best a byproduct of neuro-chemical function, and at worst it is believed not to exist at all.

Merlin Donald, in A Mind So Rare, highlights this view in some of the evidence we have so far:

During the past forty years, in countless laboratories around the world, human consciousness has been put under the microscope and exposed mercilessly for the poor thing it is: a transitory and fleeting phenomenon. The ephemeral nature of consciousness is especially obvious in experiments on the temporal minima of memory -- that is, the length of time we can hold on to a clear sensory image of something. Even under the best circumstances, we cannot keep more than a few seconds of perceptual experience in short-term memory. The window of consciousness, defined in this way, is barely ten or fifteen seconds wide. Under some circumstances, the width of our conscious experience on the world may be no more than two seconds wide. [Pg. 15]

Donald doesn't hold to this hardliner view of consciousness that is held by luminaries such as Steven Pinker and Antonio Damasio. He believes that consciousness is larger than most hardliners will accept.

[Consciousness] is not sensation, which runs only in the foreground of human awareness. Nor is it language, which is, at best, the bastard child and obedient slave of awareness, ever at its beck and call. Rather consciousness is a multilayered, multifocal capacity and a deep, enduring cognitive system with roots far back in evolution. [Pg. 10]

I agree with Donald on this point. But we are here concerned with what neuroscience believes about consciousness. What neuroscience has discovered about the fleeting nature of human awareness, the very few seconds that we can hold an object in thought, was discovered by Buddhists 2,500 years ago. We have come to think of this reality as monkey mind:

Anyone who has tried meditation has some idea of what it means. Thoughts pull attention here and there and may seem to take us out of meditation altogether; they become obsessive. Feeding the monkeys is buying into the show of proliferating thought, reifying it, being led off by it. It is taking thought too seriously. A related metaphor is the allegory of a monkey stretching as far as he can to grab the reflection of the moon in water. He cannot understand that he is looking in the wrong place.

No matter which form of meditation one practices, we all have experienced monkey mind. We sit down with the intention of focusing on the breath, or an image, or a mantra, and soon our mind is composing shopping lists, enumerating the ways we were slighted during the day, planning a vacation, or whatever else might arise. Yet the purpose of meditation is to learn to focus the mind, to get the monkey in its cage.

One of the most effective strategies in Buddhist practice is deity yoga, a Vajrayana tantric practice
that involves, at least initially, holding the image of a deity in our awareness.

During practice, we must involve the two stages. First, the Development Stage - visualisation of the deity to purify negative thoughts during that time so that one's thoughts become purer within the concept. Second, the Final Stage (Accomplishment Stage), after completing the visualisation of deity, when the deity and oneself becomes inseparable and we realise that the non-duality like space, cannot be explained or differentiated, ie the State of Ultimate Nature or the Dharmakaya. The Buddha Nature of the Deity and that of your own mind have no difference in size or any other aspects. So you can accomplish the Ultimate State, which is produced through the Development of the Deity.

Whether or not we can purify negative thoughts, and/or negative karma, through deity meditation is open to debate. However, as a method of focusing our awareness beyond the ten or fifteen seconds that the findings of neuroscience allows us, deity yoga may be unparalleled.

The Buddha and his students knew as much about how our minds function as any modern neuroscientist. Some of what they discovered is couched in magical thinking, but the essential truth is there. What Buddhism adds, however, is the belief and the proof that we can expand that limited window with devoted practice.

With continued and dedicated practice, we can become fully conscious in this moment, and this moment, and this moment. A truly enlightened bodhisattva is fully present in every moment, without the interference of monkey mind.

Rather than basing consciousness studies on college students, who are often the easiest and most available pool of subjects, it would be interesting to see some studies of long-term meditation practitioners. Whether Buddhists, Christian mystics, Sufis, or whoever, it seems to me that those who have learned to expand that limited window of consciousness beyond the few seconds most of us can manage would yield a more promising picture of what consciousness really is.

The true nature of our consciousness is as vast as the Kosmos. This is what Buddhism teaches and offers us the technology to realize in our own lives. Neuroscience has a long way to go before it comes to this truth.


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