Friday, November 26, 2010

My Review: Bodhipaksa's Living As a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change

Living As a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change
By Bodhipaksa
Sounds True, Inc.
$18.95, 340 pages

Regular readers of my blog know that two of my biggest interests are brain science and Buddhism. I am continually fascinated in the various ways each discipline, one objective science and the other subjective phenomenology, seem to so often support each other.

With these interests in mind, one of my favorite blogs and bloggers is Wildmind Buddhist Meditation and its blog-master, Bodhipaksa. He teaches meditation and has been practice as a Buddhist for nearly 30 years. At his site, he regularly posts articles on the brain science of meditation, compassion, and empathy and other elements of Buddhist practice.

He combines these interests in Living as a River as well.

For those of you who are not familiar with him or his work, here is some biographical information from his page and the back cover of the book.

Bodhipaksa was born Graeme Stephen in Scotland and currently lives and teaches in New Hampshire. He is a Buddhist teacher and author who has been practicing within the Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) since 1982 and who has been a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order since 1993. Bodhipaksa runs the online meditation center Wildmind to promote awareness of the positive effects of meditation. He has a particular interest in teaching meditation in prisons. His other works include The Wisdom of the Breath and Still the Mind.
By way of personal disclosure, I have written some book reviews for Bodhipaksa's site and was given a free copy of this book by Sounds True, just in case the FCC happens by and asks.

* * * * *

OK then, so to the book.

Very early in the introduction, Bodhipaksa quotes Sylvia Plath: "I am myself. That is not enough." One sure way to grab my attention is to quote a poet whose work I know well - and then to offer me a different perspective than my own.

Our selves are not enough. We find ourselves incomplete, lacking happiness and - despite all our clinging - security. And so we grasp 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. (p. xiii)

This is part of a section in which he introduces one of the main images, "similies," he returns to often in the book.

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 we can say for sure marks where the eddy stops and the river begins.

He maintains that we are not separate from the world around us - we "exist as the sum total of our relationships with a vast web of interconnected processes" (p. xiii). This is most certainly a part of the Buddhist teachings (or at least some of them), but it is also a part of the postmodern field of cultural psychology - variously known as the situated self (J.T. Ismael), the embodied self (Quassim Cassam), or the relational self (Kenneth Gergen).

The practice model offered in Living as a River - the practice that can help us gain an experiential awareness of our interconnection, our inter-being, with the world - to experience ourselves as both less than we think (less of a distinct, isolated self) and more than we think (an integrated part of a vast whole) - is called the Six Element Practice. It can be, as Bodhipaksa warns, both liberating and disorienting, even frightening, as it strips away the protective sense of being a unique, continuous self. We can be left "feeling raw and exposed."

However, when we engage in these practices, we begin to see and feel that self was never a solid, isolated object to begin with - self is a process, "the sum total of the interactions of a living being and its environment" (p. 48). As the Buddha taught long ago, it is our clinging to this sense of separateness that is the root of our suffering.

Here is a brief description of the Six Element Practice from the book's press kit - it summarizes the practice more precisely than I can.

The Six Element Practice
In this practice we reflect on what constitutes the body and the mind. We call to mind the solid matter (Earth), liquid (Water), energy (Fire), and gases (Air) that make up the body - as well as the form they comprise (Space), and notice how none of these is a static thing that we can hold onto, but instead is a process. We also notice that each of these elements is "borrowed" form the outside world.

With the sixth element, Consciousness, we note how our experiences - our sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts - continually arise and pass away, once again leaving us nothing that we can identify as the basis of a permanent and separate self.

The Six Element Practice is a reflection specifically designed to undermine our delusions of separateness and of having an unchanging self. It's a practice of letting go.

The author makes it clear that the point of the practice is not "to see a human being as made up of the Six Elements, because those elements too are impermanent phenomena" (p. 78). The point is to deconstruct our notions of and clinging to the idea of a separate and unchanging self.

As an example of how dependent we are on this physical notion of the self, he gives the example of some research showing that people make instant and lasting judgments of other people (in this case political candidates) based simply on a quick image of their faces (p. 90). Other research has shown that we do the same thing in terms of a person's sexual preference.

His point is that we are so bound up in the elements that we feel ourselves defined by our bodies, and so we also assume we know other people by their bodies. When we see another person's physical form, we think we are seeing their self.

I understand what he is getting at here - and in terms of Buddhist psychology, his point is correct, but I have issues with rejecting the idea that we can learn A LOT about people from our sense of their bodies.

I want to preface the next few paragraphs by saying that I really enjoyed Living as a River and I would highly recommend it to anyone, but especially to those who wants to work on their identification with the body as the self.

What follows is more about a difference in philosophy than an issue with the book. It's really a minor quibble with an otherwise great book.

From an integral perspective, I have some disagreements with the perspective that our body is not a fair image for our self. As noted above, Bodhipaksa pointed out that we are "the sum total of the interactions of a living being and its environment" (p. 48) - and he makes similar statements throughout the book. This is true, in my opinion, for both good and ill. And if it is true, then we can indeed make some assumptions about a person from how they live in their body.

Let's break it down a little more and examine how a body can reflect the cumulative experience of a beings relationships and environment.

If we are the sum total of our interactions with our environment, and I believe we are both physically and temporally embedded in our culture and our environment, as well as in our bodies, then our bodies are also a manifestation of those experiences.

For example, let's say I was neglected and malnourished as a child. We know that such a child will be physically smaller, will have a lower IQ, will have definite emotional difficulties (as well as likely personality defects), and will probably have other issues as well, especially if there was abuse. And we know a lot of this also manifested in the brain as I grew up - a smaller hippocampus (center of emotional processing and memory), an enlarged amygdala (the fear center), a pronounced startle reflex as a result of the larger amygdala, and a smaller frontal lobe (where long term planning and consequences are processed) as a result of the neglect and lack of nutrition. I probably have a quick temper and act impulsively.

Physically, I would have been a frail child who got sick easily. As a teen or an adult, I most likely will have some form of an addiction - which is a physical manifestation of an emotional need (the need to be numb and not feel my feelings). I may also have joined a gang to feel safer, which would include tattoos and a specific style of dress. I probably act tough and talk rough to hide the wounded child that lives inside of me. It's entirely possible, if the neglect or abuse was bad enough, that I never formed a good attachment with a caregiver and consequently have no conscience. By all definitions, I grew up to be a sociopath.

Any reasonable person meeting this young man would make some very valid and rational judgments about who he is - and they would be partially correct, too. Which is not to say that he is permanently damaged and should be written off - if I believed that I would not be working toward a degree in psychotherapy.

My point is that no matter who we are, we wear our bodies as manifestations of our biopsychosocial history ("the sum total of the interactions of a living being and its environment") - this is the self that is embedded in the environment, in the culture, in the historical period - it is inseparable from all these things.

I can look at a person from a "normal" background and make some assumptions about their history and be very accurate. I can tell you if they have hormone imbalances and which ones. I can tell you about their self-esteem or lack thereof. I can tell you if they self-medicate with food. I can tell you if they spend a lot of time sitting or if they do a lot of physical work. Everything that we experience is manifested in our bodies as well our minds. In fact, our "mind" is the brain/body complex and all of its experiences. This may also double as a definition of the self.

That's my quibble.

I think it is to the credit of the author and the book that he does not contend, as B Alan Wallace does, that consciousness is the ground of the universe, that without consciousness, nothing else exists. Late in the book, when he explains his perspective on consciousness, which is not all unlike my own, he is careful to point out that the world exists outside of our consciousness.

Bodhipaksa uses a lot of science throughout the book to support his ideas and the model he is presenting. I always appreciate that in work that can tend toward the "woo" side. He successfully avoids that throughout Living as a River.

1 comment:

Bodhipaksa said...

Hi William,

Thanks for your kind review. I actually have no quibble with your quibble, except that you're arguing against a position I don't think I actually take. I don't (as far as I'm aware) put forth arguments saying that we can't make valid assessments about another person based on their appearance, although I do (as far as I can recall) make the point that we very quickly make judgments about others based on external factors. One example I can recall using was that it's possible to predict with some accuracy the outcome of elections by gauging people's responses to photographs of the candidates. That suggests that unless people have a near-psychic ability to divine character and even political positions from a photograph, appearance is often trumping all other input -- including politicians' stances on important issues.

For me the crucial part of the thought-experiment you offered above was the phrase "which is not to say that he is permanently damaged and should be written off." Ultimately we're all works-in-progress, and even for someone who is psychologically scarred
there is the possibility of change. In the work I've done with inmates I've carried around the phrase "All being are, from the very beginning, Buddhas" to remind myself not to "fix" people with my judgments, but to see them as dynamic processes with an open-ended potential for growth.