Thursday, April 30, 2009

Excerpts from "The Embodied Mind" by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch

Francisco Varela is one of my favorite people. For many years he has been advocating for a subjective science of consciousness, an approach that is not much in favor among the current crop of neuro-reductionists who are getting all the attention.

I found this while searching for info on codependent arising. Here are excerpts from two chapters of the book, The Embodied Mind. I've read The View from Within, and loved that book. Sorry about the funky font.
Chapter 4: The I of the Storm
Part: Looking for a Self in the Aggregates

We now turn to some of the categories in the Buddhist teachings called Abhidharma. This term refers to a collection of texts that forms one of the three divisions of the Buddhist canon (the other two are the Vinaya, which contains ethical precepts, and the Sutras, which contain speeches of the Buddha). Based on the Abhidharma texts and their later commentaries, there emerged a tradition of analytical investigation of the nature of experience, which is still taught and used in contemplation by most Buddhist schools. The Abhidharma contains various sets of categories for examining the arising of the sense of self. These are not intended as ontological categories, such as one finds, for example, in Aristotle's _Metaphysics_. Rather, these categories serve on the on hand as simple descriptions of experience and on the other hand as pointers toward investigation.

The most popular set of these categories, one that is common to all Buddhist schools, is known as the five aggregates. (The Sanskrit term translated as "aggregate" is skandha, which literally means "heap." The story goes that when Buddha first taught this framework for examining experience, he used piles of grain to stand for each aggregate.) The five aggregates are:

1. Forms
2. Feelings/sensations
3. Perceptions (discernments)/impulses
4. Dispositional formations
5. Consciousnesses

The first of the five aggregates is considered to be based on the physical or material; the remaining four are mental. All five taken together constitute the psychophysical complex that makes up a person and that makes up each moment of experience. We will examine the way in which we can take each of these to be ourselves and will query whether emotional, reactional conviction in the reality of the self. In other words, we will be looking for a full-blown, really existing ego-self - some lasting self that would serve as the object of our emotional conviction that there really is a ground underneath the dependent, impermanent, everyday personality.

This category refers to the body and the physical environment. It does so, however, strictly in terms of the senses - this six sense organs and the corresponding objects of those organs. They are the eye and visible objects, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and touchables, the mind and thoughts. The sense organs do not refer to the gross external organ but to the actual physical mechanism of perception. The mind organ (there is debate in the tradition as to just what physical structure that is) and thoughts are treated as a sense and its object because that is how they appear in experience: we feel that we perceive our thoughts with our mind just as we perceive a visible object with our eye.

We might point out that even at this level of analysis we have already departed from the usual idea of an abstract, disembodied observer who, like a cognitive entity parachuted into a ready-made world, encounters matter as a separate and independent category. Here, as in Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, our encounter with the physical is already situated and embodied. Matter is described experientially.

Is our body our self? Think how important our body and possessions are to use, how terrified we become if the body or important possessions are threatened, how angry or depressed we become if they are damaged. Think of how much effort, money, and emotion we spend of feeding, grooming, and caring for the body. Emotionally we treat the body as though it were ourself.

Intellectually we may do so also. Our circumstances and moods may change, but the body appears stable. The body is the location point of the senses; we look at the world from the vantage point of the body, and we perceive the objects of our senses to be related spatially to our body. Though the mind may wander, sleeping or daydreaming, we count on returning to the same body.

Yet do we really think of the body as the same as the self? As upset as we might be at the loss of a finger (or any other body part), we would not feel that we had thereby lost our identity. In fact, even in normal circumstances, the entire makeup of the body changes rapidly, as seen by the turnover of one's cells. Let us take a brief philosophical excursion on this point.

We might ask, "What do the cells that make up my body now have in common with the cells that will make up my body in, say, seven years?" And, of course, the question contains its own answer: what they have in common is that they both make up my body and therefore make up some kind of pattern through time that is supposedly my self. But we still don't know what that pattern qua the self _is_; we have simply gone round in a circle.

Philosophers will recognize this little vignette as a variation on the example of the ship of Theseus, which, every so often, has all of its planks replaced. The question is, Is it the same ship or not? And philosophers, being more sophisticated than most of the rest of us, deftly reply that there isn't any fact of the matter one way or the other. It all depends on what you want to say. In one sense, yes, it is the same ship, and in another sense, no, it isn't the same ship. It all depends on what your criteria of identity are. For something to be the same (to have some kind of invariant pattern or form) it must suffer some change, for otherwise on would not be able to recognize that it had stayed the same. Conversely, for something to change there must also be some kind of implicit permanence that acts as a reference point in judging that a change has occurred. So the answer to the quandary is both yes and no, and the details of any specific yes or no answer will depend on one's criteria of identity in the given situation.

But surely the self - _my_ self - can't depend on how someone chooses to look at it; it is, after all, a self in its own right. Perhaps, then, the ego-self is the owner of the body, of this form that can be seen in so many ways. Indeed, we do not say "I am a body" but "I _have_ a body." But just what is it that I have? This body, which I seem to own, is also the home for numerous microorganisms. Do I own them? A strange idea, since often they seem to get the best of me. But who is it that they get the best of?

Perhaps the most definitive argument that we do not take out body as our self is that we can imagine a total body transplant, that is, the implantation of our mind in someone else's body (a favorite theme in science fiction), yet we would still count as ourselves. Perhaps, then, we should leave the material and look to the mental aggregates for the basis of self.

All experience have some kind of feeling tone, classifiable as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and as either bodily feeling or mental feeling. We are very concerned about our feelings. We strive endlessly to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Our feelings are certainly self-relevant, and at moments of strong feeling we take ourselves as our feelings. Yet are they our self? Feelings change from moment to moment. (Awareness of these changes can be made even more precise in mindfulness/awareness practice: one develops firsthand experience of their momentary arising of feeling and sensations as well as their changes.) Though feelings affect the self, no one would say that these feelings _are_ the self. But what/who is it, then, that feelings are affecting?

This aggregate refers to the first moment of recognition, identification, or discernment in the arising of something distinct, coupled with the activation of a basic impulse for action toward the discerned object.

Within the context of mindfulness/awareness practice, the coupling of discernment and impulse in a moment of experience is especially important. There are said to be three root impulses - passion/desire (toward desirable objects), aggression/anger (toward undesirable objects), and delusion/ignoring (toward neutral objects). Insofar as beings are caught up in habits of ego clinging, physical or mental objects are discerned, even at the first instant, in relation to the self - either as desirable, undesirable, or irrelevant to the self - and in that very discernment is the automatic impulse to act in the relevant fashion. These three basic impulses are also called the three poisons because they are the beginning of actions that will lead to further ego
grasping. But who is this ego who is grasping?

Dispositional Formations
This next aggregate refers to habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and acting - habitual patterns such as confidence, avarice, laziness, worry, etc. (see appendix B). We are now in the domain of the kinds of phenomena that could well be called cognitive in the language of cognitive science or personality traits in personality psychology.

We are certainly heavily self-invested in our habits and traits - our personality. If someone criticizes our behavior or makes a favorable comment about our personality, we feel that she is referring to our self. As in each of the other aggregates, our emotional response indicates that we take this aggregate as our ego-self. But again when we contemplate the object of that response, our conviction falls apart. We do not normally identify our habits with our self. Our habits, motives, and emotional tendencies may change considerably over time, but we still feel a sense of continuity as if there were a self distinct from these personality changes. Where could this sense of continuity come from, if not from a self that is the basis of our present personality?

Consciousness is the last of the aggregates, and it contains all of the others. (Indeed, each of the aggregates contains those that precede it in the list.) It is the mental experience that goes with the other four aggregates; technically it is the experience that comes from the contact of each sense organ with its object (together with the feeling, impulse, and habit that is aroused). Consciousness, as a technical term _vijnana_, always refers to the dualistic sense of experience in which there is an experiencer, an object experienced, and a relation (or relations) binding them together.

Let us turn for a moment to the systematic description of consciousness made by one of the Abhidharma schools (see appendix B). The mental factors are the relations that bind the consciousness to the object, and at each moment a consciousness is dependent on its momentary mental factor (like the hand and its fingers). Note that the second, third, and fourth aggregates are included here as mental factors. Five of the mental factors are omnipresent; that is, in every moment of consciousness the mind is bound to its object by all five of these factors. There are _contact_ between mind and its object; a specific _feeling_ tone of pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neutrality; a _discernment of the object; and _intention_ toward the object; and _attention_ to the object. The rest of the factors, including all the dispositions that make up the fourth aggregate, are not always present. Some of these factors can be present together in a given moment (such as confidence and diligence), others are mutually exclusive (such as alertness and drowsiness). The combination of mental factors that are present make up the character - the color and taste - of a particular moment of consciousness.


In both the Kantian and the mindfulness/awareness traditions, there is, as we have seen, a recognition of the absence of a substantial self in the momentariness of experience (figure 4.1). The Kantian move avoids confronting the puzzle of our tendency to believe in a self in the face of this momentariness by positing a pure, original, and unchangeable consciousness as a ground - the transcendental ego (figure 4.2). In the mindfulness/awareness tradition, the attitude is to hold the puzzle of this momentariness vividly in mind by considering that the grasping toward a self could occur within any given moment of experience (figure 4.3).

At this point the reader will probably become rather irritated and say, "Fine, the self isn't really a lasting and coherent thing; it is just the continuity of the stream of experience. It is a process and not a thing. What's the big deal?" But remember, we have been looking for a self that answers to our emotional/reactional convictions. At this immediate experiential level, we do not feel as if the self is _merely_ the stream of experience. Indeed, even to call it a stream reveals our grasping after some sense of solidity, for this metaphor implies that experience flows continuously. But when we subject this continuity to analysis, we seem able to find only discontinuous moments of feeling, perception, motivation, and awareness. We could, of course, redefine the self in all sorts of ways to get around these problems, perhaps even by following contemporary analytic philosophers who use quite sophisticated logical techniques, such as possible world semantics, but none of these new accounts would in any way explain our basic reaction behavior and everyday tendencies.

The point is not whether we can redefine the self in some way that makes us comfortable or intellectually satisfied, nor is it to determine whether there really is an absolute self that is nonetheless inaccessible to us. The point is rather to develop mindfulness of and insight into our situation as we experience it here and now. As Tsultrim Gyamtso remarks, "Buddhism is not telling anyone that he should believe that he has a self or that he does not have a self. It is saying that when one looks at the way one suffers and the way one thinks and responds emotionally to life, _it is as if one believed there were a self that was lasting, single and independent and yet on closer analysis no such self can be found._ In other words, the aggregates (skandhas) are empty of a self."

Chapter 6: Selfless Minds
Part: Codependent Arising

The Buddha was said to have discovered on the eve of his enlightenment...the entire edifice of causality - the circular structure of habitual patterns, the binding chain, each link of which conditions and is conditioned by each of the others - that constitutes the pattern of human life as a never-ending circular quest to anchor experience in a fixed and permanent self. This insight came to be named with the Sanskrit word pratityasamutpada, which literally means "dependence (_pratitya_) upon conditions that are variously originated (_samutpada_)." We will use the term _codependent arising_, since that gloss best expresses the idea, familiar in the context of societies of mind, of transitory yet recurrent, emergent properties of aggregate elements.

This circle is also called the Wheel of Life and the Wheel of Karma. Karma is a topic with a long history, both pre- and post-Buddhist, on which an immense amount of scholarship has been focused. The word _karma_ has also found its way into contemporary English vocabulary where it is generally used as a synonym for _fate_ or _predestination_. This is definitely not the meaning of karma within Buddhism. Karma constitutes a description of psychological causality - of how habits form and continue over time. The portrait of the Wheel of Life is intended to show how it is that karmic causality actually works. The emphasis on causality is central to the tradition of mindfulness/awareness and as such is quite compatible with our modern scientific sensibility; in the case of mindfulness/awareness, however, the concern is with a causal analysis of direct experience, not with causality as an external form of lawfulness. The concern is also pragmatic: How can the understanding of causality be used to break the chains of conditioning mind (an idea quite contrary to the popular motion of karma as predestination) and foster mindfulness and insight?

There are twelve links (called _nidanas_) in the circular chain (the patterning situation as shown in figure 6.1). The circle is an analytic structure that can be used to describe events of any duration from a single moment to a lifetime or, in the Buddhist view, to many lifetimes. Metaphorically, we should say that these motifs have a fractal character: the same pattern seem to appear even when we change the scale of observation by orders of magnitude. Descriptions of the twelve interdependent links follow.

1. Ignorance
Ignorance is the ground of all karmic causal action. It means being ignorant of, not knowing, the truth(s) about the nature of mind and reality. In the material we have discussed so far, this means being ignorant - personally experientially ignorant - of the lack of ego-self. It also means the confusions - the mistaken views and emotions of believing in a self - that come from that ignorance. Hence it could also be rendered as bewilderment. (In the later formulations, it came to include other truths about which a sentient being could be ignorant.)

2. Volitional Action
Out of ignorance, one acts on the basis of a self. That is to say, in the selfless state there is no self-oriented intentions. Because of ignorance of the lack of ego-self, the urge towards habitual, repetitive actions based on a self arises. Ignorance and volitional action are the ground, the prior conditions, sometimes called the past conditions, that give rise to the next eight links (the third through the tenth). If this analytic scheme is being used to talk about the links arising in time, then these eight are said to constitute the present situation.

3. Consciousness
Consciousness refers to sentience in general, the dualistic state we talked about as the fifth aggregate. It may mean the beginning of consciousness in the life of any sentient being or the first moment of consciousness in any given situation. Remember that consciousness is not the only mode of knowing; one is born into a moment or a lifetime of consciousness, rather than wisdom, because of volitional actions that were based on ignorance. If we are speaking of the arising of a particular moment of consciousness, its precise form (which of the six sense bases it arises upon, whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, etc.) is conditioned by the seeds laid down by volitional action(s) of the previous link.

4. The Psychophysical Complex
Consciousness requires a body and mind together. Moments of consciousness in a given situation can gravitate toward one or the other end of the psychophysical complex: perhaps the consciousness is primarily sensory; perhaps it is primarily mental.

5. The Six Senses
A body and mind means that one has the six senses. Even brief situations, for example, eating a piece of fruit - involve moments of each of the six sense consciousnesses: one sees, hears, tastes, smells, touches, and one thinks.

6. Contact
Having the six senses means that each sense is able to contact its sense field, its appropriate object. Any given moment of consciousness involves contact between the sense and its object (contact is an omnipresent mental factor - see appendix B); without contact, there is no sense experience.

7. Feeling
Feelings - pleasurable, displeasurable, or neutral - arises from contact. All experience has a feeling tone (feeling is also an omnipresent factor). Feeling has, as its basis, one of the six senses. At the point of feeling, one is actually struck by the world - in phenomenological language, one could say that we find ourselves _thrown_ into the world.

8. Craving
Craving arises from feeling. Although there are innumerable specific kinds of craving (84,000 in one system), the basic form of craving is desire for what is pleasurable and aversion for what is displeasurable. Craving is a fundamental, automatic reaction.

Craving is an extremely important juncture in this chain of causality. Up to this point, the links have rolled off automatically on the basis of past conditioning. At this point, however, the aware person can do something about the situation: he can interrupt the chain or he can let it go on the next link (grasping). The handling of craving is what determines the possibilities for perpetuation or change.

It is a traditional exercise to contemplate the chain of codependent arising in both directions, backward as well as forward. Because such an exercise communicates well the codependent emergent quality of this causal analysis, we will show what happens when we go backward in our reasoning from the point of craving: craving for pleasure requires that there be sense feelings; to have feelings, there must be contact with the objects of the senses; to contact the sense objects, there must be the six sense faculties; for the six sense faculties to exist, the entire psychophysical organism is required; for there to be a psychophysical organism, there must be sentience.

9. Grasping
Craving usually results immediately in grasping and clinging. Grasping refers not only to grasping after what one does not have and desires but also to aversion for what one has and desires to be rid of.

10. Becoming
Grasping automatically sets off the reaction toward becoming, toward the formation of a new situation in the future. New tendencies and suppositions are formed as a result of the cumulative effect of the previous seven motifs, which themselves were set into motion by volitional action based on ignorance. Becoming initiates the formation of new patterns that carry over into future situations.

11. Birth
In birth, a new situation, as well as a new mode of being in that situation, is finally born. It is usually at this point that one senses the causal chain and wants to do something about it. It is at this point, perhaps, that Western philosophers talk about _akrasia_ (weakness of the will). The irony is that in normal life, the point at which one wakes up to a situation is past the point where one can do anything about it. Birth into a new situation, even an agreeable one, always has an edge of uncertainty.

12. Decay and Death
Wherever there is birth, there is death, in any process of arising, dissolution is inevitable. Moments die, situations die, and lives end. Even more obvious than the uneasiness of birth is the suffering (and lamentation, as is said) experienced when situations or bodies grow old, decay, and die. In this circular chain of causality, death is the causal link to the next cycle of the chain. The death of one moment of experience is, within the Buddhist analysis of causality, actually a causal precondition for the arising of the next moment. If there is still ignorance and confusion, the wheel will continue turning endlessly in the same fashion.

The circle of conditioned human existence is called _samsara_, which is visualized as a perpetually spinning wheel of existence driven by a relentless causation and pervaded by unsatisfactoriness. There are many vivid traditional images for _samsara_: a ship lost at sea in a raging storm, a deer trapped in a hunter's net, animals racing before a blazing forest fire. According to one traditional story, the Buddha on the eve of enlightenment through the twelve links of the chain seeking a way that the chain could be broken. Nothing could be done about the past; one cannot go back and remove past ignorance and volitional action. And since one is alive and has a psychophysical organism, the six sense fields and their contact with objects are inevitable. Inevitable also are the feeling states which the senses rise and the craving that results. But must craving lead to grasping?

It is at this point, some traditions say, that the Buddha formulated the technique of mindfulness. By precise, disciplined mindfulness to every moment, one can interrupt the chain of automatic conditioning - one can _not_ automatically go from craving to grasping and all the rest. Interruption of habitual patterns results in further mindfulness, eventually allowing the practitioner to relax into more open possibilities in awareness and to develop insight into the arising and subsiding of experienced phenomena. This is why mindfulness is the foundation gesture of all the Buddhist traditions.

At this point, we might return briefly to our theoretical formulation. We asked how there could be coherence in our lives over time if there were no self. In the language of societies of mind, the answer lies in the concept of emergence. Just as any agency emerges from the action of individual agents, so the repetitious patterns of habitual actions emerge from the joint action of the twelve links. And just as the existence of the action of each agent is definable only in relation to the actions of all the others, so the operation of each of the links in the chain of codependent arising is dependent on all the other links. As in any agency, there is no such thing a habitual pattern per se except in the operation of the twelve agent motifs, nor is there such a thing as the motifs except in relation to the operation of the entire cyclic system.

The historical formation of various patterns and trends in our lives is what Buddhists usually mean by _karma_. It is this accumulation that gives continuity to the sense of ego-self, so evident in everyday, unreflective life. The main motivating and sustaining factor in this process is the omnipresent mental factor of _intention_ (see appendix B). Intention - in the form of volitional action - leaves traces, as it were, of its tendencies on the rest of the factors from moment to moment, resulting in the historical accumulation of habits, tendencies, and responses, some wholesome and others unwholesome. When the term _karma_ is used loosely, it refers to these accumulations and their effects. Strictly speaking, though, karma is the very process of intention (volitional action) itself, the main condition in the accumulation of conditioned human experience.

In many fields of science, we are familiar with the idea that coherence and development over time need not involve any underlying substance. In evolutionary changes in the history of life, patterns of animal populations give rise to new individuals on the basis of the past (most tangibly expressed in the nuclear genetics of the population) and on the basis of current actions (mating behavior leading to descendence and genetic recombinations). The tracks and furrows of this process are the species and subspecies. But in the logic of Darwin's account of evolution and the Buddhist analysis of experience into codependent arising, we are concerned with the processual transformation of the past into the future through the intermediary of transitional forms that in themselves have no permanent substance.
There is much more to read at the site where I found this.

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