Showing posts with label Awareness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Awareness. Show all posts

21 March 2008

An Experience of Awakening?

A friend sent me this today, and I was so struck by it that I thought I'd make it the basis of my rave today. It's billed as "what it feels like to have a stroke", which it does describe. Because of her ability to observe and articulate her observations (the benefits of a scientific training!) we get an incredibly detailed account of the progress of Jill's stroke. She notices a lot more than the average person might, and her neuroscience training gives her a vocabulary and a conceptual framework to understand and communicate her experience. However it goes well beyond the what happens when parts of her brain start shutting down. Perhaps it is best to watch the video clip and then read my comments.

I'll just summarise what Jill says about the hemispheres.

Left: linear/methodical, interested in past and future, interested in details. The left hemisphere categorises, associates, and makes projections and predictions about the future. It thinks in language and is responsible for our internal chatter. Source of the though "I am" - separate individual.

Right: interested in here and now. Thinks in pictures and kinesthetics. Information as a flow of energy, experiences as a collage. Interested in how here and now looks, sounds, smells etc. Knows that we are all one, perfect, whole and beautiful.

Once Jill's stroke is underway it suppresses the activity in her left hemisphere. She describes the experience in terms of losing a sense of the distinction between the atoms of her arm and the atoms of the wall, and not being able to define the boundaries of her body. There is just energy and she is captivated by this. At the same time her "internal brain chatter" falls silent. She has an expansive feeling, and feels "at one with all the energy" and "it's beautiful there". When her recollection of her past falls away it is a profound relief - imagine losing 37 years of emotional baggage! It was euphoric. All job stress was gone, all stress of any kind was gone, and there was an experience of profound peacefulness.

What Jill is using a language that anyone familiar with Buddhism should be acquainted with. She talks about losing a sense of being a limited and isolated self, of losing the "I am" (ahaṇkāra). The immersion in right-brain consciousness gave her a sense of unboundedness (aparimāna) associated with euphoria (sukha, pamojja, piti), and sense of unbounded love for and solidarity with everyone (mettañca sabbalokasmiṃ mānasam bhāvaye aparimānaṃ - Metta Sutta). She repeats the word "peace" (śanti). She gestures and describes a sense of liberation (vimutti). The falling silent of internal chatter sounds very much like entering the second dhyana. However she does not describe things in terms of dependent arising, and I can't help wondering what she would make of the teaching on this.

Jill is describing a classic mystical experience which is familiar to those described in many religious traditions. What is interesting is how closely her explanation follows the conceptual landscape of Buddhism. She doesn't say whether she follows any particular tradition.There ar of course resonances with other traditions. At times she appears to be describing the insight that is summarised as "I am brahman" in the Upaniṣads, for instance. Interestingly Jill does not meet God, or interpret her experience in theistic terms. What makes Jills story profound is that she retains the ability to experience that kind of consciousness, more or less at will (is what she implies anyway). This resonates very powerfully with my own spiritual aspirations.

It seems very likely that Jill's stroke affected that part of her brain that has been dubbed the "God Spot". More recent research has shown that it is more of a network of a dozen or so regions than a spot, but the name is evocative. Stimulation of the brain, whether by epileptic seizure or electrodes applied to the scalp, has been able to reproduce the kinds of feelings that mystics and Jill are talking about. Atheists have taken this as proof of the non-existence of God, but that is to suggest that they understand the effect which is claiming too much. How could, for instance mediation - intense samādhi - produce a vision or an experience of unboundedness? No one knows. No one really understands the relationship between the brain and consciousness except to say that we do know there is one.

Of course what is missing from Jill's presentation is any kind of method. Jill says that anyone can choose what kind of consciousness they dwell in from moment to moment. But we can't follow Jill because she achieved this Awakening via a life threatening (random?) blood clot. And actually although it sounds it, in practice changing our level of consciousness is not that easy. Fortunately the Buddha has described a method which is reported to produce just these kinds of experiences, especially the experience of blissful unbounded consciousness which sees things in terms of energy (ie process) and which makes no distinction between self and other.

Dr Jill Bolte Taylor also has a book out called My Stroke of Insight, and an interesting website.

08 March 2008

Violence and the Media

Memory Alpha
I've always loved reading science fiction, and enjoy science fiction movies and TV shows. My friends and I club together to buy seasons of Star Trek. Lately I've also seen some of the remade Battlestar Galactica and a new series called Heros. In these more recent shows there has definitely been a change in the way violence is depicted. It is more graphic, the obvious intent is to make it seem more real. It is more frequent. It is also more violent. Season three of Star Trek Next Generation, which I am watching at present, seems quite innocent by comparison.

Since my ordination retreat I have become a lot more sensitised to violence in the media. I find now that I cannot bear to watch much on the screen. The emotional response is too strong. I've also become aware of how violence is hyped in other media. Even the much vaunted BBC news focusses in on the most violent and shocking news. Perhaps their coverage is a little more sophisticated than a tabloid, but the tendency is to highlight stories which are violent - wars, disasters with many dead, mass murder, violent crime. These stories get the lead, and they are lingered over.

It is my firm conviction that the purpose of the media is to entertain. Fullstop. I no longer believe that "the news" is an exception to this. Stories are chosen on their potential for stimulating an emotional response, and written in such a way as to get the maximum emotion response from the target audience. It's all about creatingwhat physiologists call "arousal" . Violent images, whether intended as entertainment, or as "news", do have an affect on us even if the effect is below the threshold of consciousness.

Constant stimulation is not good for us. One only has to consider that in the UK mental health problems have replaced back-pain as the the no.1 cause of time off work sick, and of people on incapacity benefits. The thing about a fast pace of life is that our bodies cannot get back to their optimum resting state. My current understanding of depression is that it results from over-stimulation and an inability to process the physical effects of that stimulation. I recall an experiment we did in the 6th form on earthworms. Poke a worm and it writhes about vigorously in something analogous to our fight or flight response - it is making itself difficult to catch and eat. Wait till it stops and poke it again and it will respond with less vigour. Repeat this and the worm gives less response until after only 3 or 4 times it is unable to response to being poked. The lesson here is that constantly provoking a fight or flight response wears you out. I believe this is why depressed people avoid contact and anything stimulating - at worst they lie in bed in darkened rooms not moving.

Whether you realise it or not seeing violent images produces arousal in the body. This is generally short of the fully fledged fight or flight response. It can be sustained over longer periods and with more repetition. But it's clear that for many people it is happening too much, too often.

The knee jerk Buddhist reaction is to say that violence is a breach of the first precept, and violent images are in the same category. I think there is some truth to this, but it seems to me that it is more helpful to take a different tack. The Buddha liked to point out that the unenlightened are obsessed with, intoxicated by, totally caught up in sensual experiences - including the mind-sense. The Enlightened still have sensory experiences, but they have unhooked themselves emotionally from these. They are no longer caught up in the show, they no longer suspend disbelief. If everyday experience is intoxicating, then the media is like amphetamines, and media violence like crack cocaine.

Like any addict we do get a "hit", some kind of pay off, from the drug. Thanks to Will Buckingham of I recently read Cordelia Fine's little book A Mind of it's Own. In it she makes the point that physiologically speaking it virtually impossible to tell the difference between emotions: her example focuses on fear and anger which are physically indistinguishable. The only difference is in your thoughts apparently. Emotion, she says, is arousal + emotional thoughts. What seems to be happening in the West is that we are seeking out more and more stimulating experiences, at the same time as substituting virtual contact via the internet, email, and virtual reality games, for real human contact. The media reflects this desire for more intense and more frequent stimulation. However this is a characteristic of addictive substances also - the addict needs more frequent, and higher strength doses, in order to get the same effect. Overdose is not uncommon because of this.

The Buddha's advice for those unable to disentangle themselves from sensory experience was to apply appamāda (vigilance*), and guard the gates of the sense; or as my teacher Sangharakshita says: reduce input. I decline to watch violence violent images in the media these days as I can tell that they have a lasting deleterious effect on my mental health.

Live long, and prosper.


* appamāda can be translated more literally as not blind drunk on the objects of the senses. I expand on this a bit in my essay on the Buddha's last words.

21 March 2007

When Awareness is too much to bear

There's an image from near the beginning of the Tibetan Book of the Dead as translated by Chögyam Trungpa that has stayed with me. In the bardo we are confronted with Reality in it's pure form, but it is too intense and we flinch away, and then we are presented with Reality in a slightly less straightforward, but still pure, form, but it also is too intense and we flinch. We keep chunking down until we find a level of Reality we can deal with. In every moment Reality is staring us in the face but often it's too intense and we have to look away. And so we are bound to Samsara. It seems that all of us can only bear a little Reality at a time.

I love the phrase consensual reality! Most of the time it just means 'the level of reality which most of the community, or the collective, can handle over a sustained period of time'. What is meant, I'm sure, is not the mob, not the unthinking riot that can spontaneously break about amongst groups, but the more everyday conspiracy that we generally do tacitly consent to. This can be interesting for Buddhists because we are interested in consensus and we are interested in Reality. Buddhist practices aim to raise our level of awareness and to get us to consent to a higher level of reality. So we often don't consent to consensual reality, and that can be a interesting position to be in as anti-war protesters in Sri Lanka found last year when they were attacked by a mob of hardline pro-war bhikkhus! (which must be the acme of Buddhist oxymorons)

It's hard when one is depressed, to put on a good show as a Buddhist. If we hang around with other Buddhists a lot, and I do, then we can get these subtle hints, and sometimes not so subtle, that it is not OK that we are suffering quite so much and quite so publicly. Almost like we're letting the side down somehow. Everyone suffers of course, but some people suffering much more acutely, and witnessing this can make us very uncomfortable. Buddhists are meant to be happy, yeah?

Sometimes when ordinary reality is too much to bear things can escalate way off the scale and you end up in a realm of intense mental suffering, the Hell Realms. This is not an unfamiliar experience for me, and I know a number of people who when confronted with reality have, for instance, tried to take their own lives, or to harm themselves in any number of ways. Remember that everyone is flinching from reality all the time. If we flinch away from an experience that is incredibly painful then we are not behaving in a way that is different to our fellow humans.

The difference is merely one of the strength of the reaction. The more painful the experience the more we flinch, and that can take us into the Hell Realms. It's also important to remember that this is not a punishment. Not facing Reality is in itself painful. But for some reality is so painful that they will attempt suicide, or cut themselves, or numb themselves with strong drugs, or whatever. Sometimes the pain spills over into unskilful behaviour - anger, shouting, attacking - frequently the sufferer blames and punishes themselves which just makes things worse.

Now some people will immediately be able to relate to this - they will have their own experience of harming themselves in some drastic way in order to avoid experiencing reality. But the majority will not get what I am saying. You feel confused by extreme responses to suffering, you feel uncomfortable, you feel threatened, you feel afraid. Try this (with caution): imagine that you are a small, defenceless child, and that someone larger, or a group of people, is physically attacking you. How long does the attack last? Are you badly hurt, or just terrified? Was it a stranger, or someone you know and love? Were there witnesses and how did they respond: with kindness, with mockery, did they join in? Now imagine it all over again. And again. Do this at several times a day for several years. Imagine that you have almost perfect recall of the violent events so that the memories of being attacked and abused are, after decades even, capable of propelling your body into a fight or flight response - your heart races, your muscles tense, your breathing is shallow! Would you be willing to try this thought experiment? How far would you take it and what effect would it have on your mind? Would you chose to do it? Would you be able to? For some people, some times there isn't really a choice - those are our memories, that is our experience.

Sangharakshita points out that in the Tibetan Wheel of Life the Buddha who appears in the Hell Realms offers the beings there Amrita which has a double connotation. Amrita means "deathless" so it stands for the goal. Sometimes when you at rock bottom there is nothing to do but go for refuge. Amrita is also like ambrosia though, like a soothing balm. And this is something that beings in Hell need: they need to be soothed and cooled, they need a little relief. This may seem like a contradiction but sometimes what people who are suffering need is a little distraction. When you suffer intensely it is all too easy to be caught up in that, to feel like all there is is suffering. A little soothing distraction can create enough space around the hurt, enough perspective to allow a more creative response. It is said that the human realm is so special because it is only from there that Awakening is possible. Sometimes a little relief allows a being in Hell to approach a more human state from where anything is possible.

I don't think there's any way around the fact that we need to cultivate awareness, that we need to pay attention to what is going on. But compassion dictates that we allow for human weakness in ourselves and others, that we allow for flinching away from pain. Each person is the best judge of how much pain they can stand, and we need to let them make that decision for themselves. And maybe stand by with amrita.

image - detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgement.

05 February 2006

Practising the Dharma? What do I mean?

mixed image from dumbphotos.comI recently had an email from someone who read my Wikipedia article on Shingon and wanted to know more about it. (Had a look at the article recently and didn't recognise most of the text but that's the Wikipedia for you). I explained to him that I had read everything I could get my hands on, and I had done detailed study of Kukai's writing, but that I did not practice Shingon Buddhism, and therefore couldn't offer much more than what was in that article. My correspondent was interested in what I meant when I said "I practice the Dharma". Amongst Buddhists this kind of throw away line would probably not even get a second thought. We all assume we know what someone means by that kind of statement. But how do you explain it to someone who might not share your jargon or assumptions.

So I started thinking about what I meant when I said I practice the Dharma. At first I was tempted to go into complicated answers that involved lots of doctrinal categories: the path of ethics, meditation and wisdom was an early starter. But then I realised that this would just be gobbledegook to anyone without a few years of reading the same books as me. And unlike my knowledge of Shingon, my Dharma practice is not just book learning.

I do a variety of more formal Buddhist practices: meditation, puja, study, reflection, chanting, right-livelihood etc. But this wasn't going to be much use because each one of these exists in a context which requires explanation. So I started stripping things back to essentials. What is it that I am doing in all of these formal practices, and in the many informal practices I do?

And it came to me that what I do is I try to pay attention to things. This is the guts of what I wrote in an earlier post about my approach to the six perfections. From that perspective I pay attention to other people, to our mutual impact on each other. This produces not only a change in behaviour which promotes awareness, but also liberates energy. Then I can start paying attention to my own mind through meditation. Finally I can begin to pay attention to the nature of reality.

Another approach to this might be to start from my basic desire for happiness. This is something we all have. Even if, like me, we're not always sure we deserve happiness, we still want it. It goes beyond self-esteem and self-views. From this point of view what I am doing as a Buddhist is looking closely at the kinds of things that conduce to happiness and which don't. I also try to note how long that happiness lasts. For instance, a certain amount of dark chocolate does indeed make me feel happy and secure and less anxious. It really works. But it's a short lived happiness. And then there is the anxiety that I will run out of chocolate and the shops will be shut and I'll get a headache because I haven't had my fix lately. Now at present I might not be ready to stop eating chocolate as an antidote to anxiety, but I can still pay attention to the process. I can still observe the cycling between anxiety, eating, happiness, rising anxiety until the desire to eat is triggered again.

So, it became clear that what I do as a Buddhist is I try to pay attention to things, to my mental and emotional states, to other people, and to the real nature of reality. Which sounds a bit simplistic doesn't it? I mean what about the whole edifice of teachings, the profound philosophical doctrines, and, since I'm interested in Shingon, the initiations and lineages. I'm by no means finished thinking about all of this, but it strikes me that all of the superstructure of Buddhism is just an increasing elaborate way of making us pay attention. My impulse is to simplify things, to cut away all of the extrusions and look for what is essential.

In any case it's clear to me that one cannot simply take the Buddhist tradition on it's own terms. I've written about this as well in The Unity of Buddhism. Each strand of traditional Buddhism sees itself as the pinnacle, and other as provisional at best. This is alright when strands exists in relative isolation, but in the present we have access to so many of the strands, each with their unique contribution that it doesn't make sense to privilege one over the others.

The one major objection that I have come up with to this train of thought is that attention is an ethically neutral function. We can pay attention to unethical things as much as ethical. Just paying attention might not actually be enough. It might be necessary to add some qualifier. There is actually a traditional precedent for this - the Pali texts tell us to avoid ayoniso-maniskara, unwise attention.But again I think if we simply pay attention to the consequences of paying attention then it will become clear what things are better to focus on. This was the point of my essay on Imagination. It may be that we need to be reminded of the need for kindness, for kindly attention, from time to time.

It is possible that we might seek our own good at the expense of others. But if we are paying attention to others then we will be aware that they are suffering as a result of something we have done. I find this a very uncomfortable awareness. So if I am paying attention it seems unlikely that I could be happy by exploiting someone else. My happiness is tied up with the happiness of those people around me, and ultimately with all beings.

So what I mean when I say I practice the Dharma is: I pay attention to things. Simply that. And it has been very fruitful to date.