Attending the Body, Freeing the Mind

Cultivating mindfulness, we learn how to pay attention to what might once have seemed ordinary or unimportant. Can it be that looking deeply into the body, and learning how it shapes and holds our experience — memory, habit, belief —  might help us to avoid delusion and find the freedom we seek?  Eric, drawing on a talk by Brian Lesage, guided our reflections this Sunday morning.

Eric writes,

A couple reasons motivate these reflections.  In a world that seems determined to bounce from crisis to crisis, my confidence in anything that I do, including practice, can be easily shaken.  I’ve noticed that at best, this leads to dissociation or an inability to engage with the world which then leads to a shame spiral when I recognize my privilege in being able to do so while others are trapped in horrific situations, and at worst, harmful reactivity borne out of fear and anger.  Reflections like these help me see there is a path to wise action.

You can expand a full transcript of Eric’s thoughts on this topic by clicking here.

I’m so happy to be able to share one of my favorite talks with you from one of my favorite teachers. Brian Lesage, a Vipassana and Zen teacher in NM, has this wonderful way of grounding big ideas with suggestions for everyday practice. In this case, he talks about the Buddhist view of how perception works, and motivates mindfulness and skillful mindstate practices such as metta by showing how they can be applied to shape our experience, not just on our cushion, but in everyday life.

Before we get to Brian’s talk, I’d like to share some of my own reflections on readings I’ve done over the past couple years on a more modern take of how perception works. A little spoiler : the Buddha was brilliant, a genius in a way I’m only beginning to understand.

A couple reasons motivate these reflections. In a world that seems determined to bounce from crisis to crisis, my confidence in anything that I do, including practice, can be easily shaken. I’ve noticed that at best, this leads to dissociation or an inability to engage with the world which then leads to a shame spiral when I recognize my privilege in being able to do so while others are trapped in horrific situations, and at worst, harmful reactivity borne out of fear and anger. Reflections like these help me see there is a path to wise action.

Also, this is my longer answer to a question Steve phrased poignantly a couple weeks ago: “How do I know that I’m not in a cult?” Or in more general terms, how do I reconcile what I’ve learned from a lifetime of being embedded in my own culture which is rooted, paradoxically, in both science and monotheistic religion with what are sometimes called wisdom traditions, like Buddhism, which seem to be a little bit of both yet neither, and of course come from a very different culture.

My personal answer is to look for common ground. What explanatory stories are shared by what seem to be the best parts of different cultures that point to shared reasons for skillful action? Religions and cults don’t see a need to do this… and I include parts of Buddhism in this group. Blind faith is required because reality is filled with evidence or reason that works against the story that is told. If you point out evidence of this kind, you are told “That’s just God testing your faith.” But the term faith as used by the kind of Buddhism I’ve been exposed to is not blind… It is more like justified belief. This is the metric a good scientist will use to draw a conclusion. Some people make the mistake that science proves things. But in reality, it is just another, very reliable way, to update our beliefs about the world. While science does have the added benefit of empiricism to help it out (if you poke the world a certain way, it will respond in a predictable manner that we can agree on), it still relies on explanation and story to be useful. Nobody really knows that all of scientific theory is correct, but science tells a coherent story about the objective world that we can justifiably believe in many circumstances.

But science has punted on the difficult questions that the Buddha wrestled with thousands of years ago. The scientist and historian Steven Jay Gould famously gave a name to this : separate magisteriums. Some questions were best answered by religion and others by science. I think this is a classic dualistic mistake which flows from a culture without a wisdom tradition. But like everything else, science is not fixed. Occasionally, as pointed out by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, science undergoes a paradigm shift. Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein all ushered in new ways of thinking about the world by questioning the assumptions that were once considered unassailable and obviously true. Over the past 20 years, there has been a quiet revolution in the gradual acceptance that science needs to confront its blind spot when it comes to subjective experience. The science of the mind is starting to be taken seriously. It is shaking of its addiction to the usefulness of reductive theories and embracing complexity and emergence.

The progress has been cross-disciplinary involving information theory, computer science, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and psychology. The emerging story is that the mind is an embodied prediction engine used to efficiently manage limited resources available to that body for the purpose of taking effective action. This view, like that of the Buddha, is non-dualistic. Mind and Body are two ways of talking about the same thing. These scientists conclude that the world we experience says more about us and our ancestors than reality. Our everyday waking perception is the stuff of dreams, only one that is constrained by some sensory input determined by our evolutionary niche not to completely ignore. The mind not only makes a best guess about what the world is but also about how accurate it thinks that guess is. This is where attention comes in… but not the directed kind we practice, but the automated kind that is constantly grabbed by shiny stuff. Of course, delusion is built right into this system and until recently the only arbiter of what kinds or levels of delusion were acceptable was survival of the fittest. But humanity has developed new tools of directed attention. In the objective sense, we call this science and in the subjective, mindfulness. Unfortunately, In a perverse arms race, humanity has also developed a new capacity for delusion.

The sense of self emerges from this model of mind as a choice about what is acting vs what is being acted upon. Our sense of subject/object duality comes from this choice. And I should say, this isn’t a choice that you make, but something evolution selected for. While feelings, thoughts, proprioception and interoception lead to knowledge about what is “me,” the sense of taste, touch, smell, sound and vision lead to knowledge of what is “not me.” This leads to decisions about things to approach and things to run away from, which in the most fundamental way, determines what we find pleasant and unpleasant.

The more I read about this work, the more it comes across as profoundly Buddhist. But this group of scientists did not reach their conclusions by introspection, although it is clear that some are influenced by Buddhist philosophy. Still, they followed the data and focused on all of the strange observations that don’t fit our folk psychology and assumptions about rational action. They are telling a story that explains the data with the hope of coming up with better treatments for human suffering. So two different methods from two different ages and two very different cultures, the objective work of modern science and the subjective work of the Buddha and his followers, reach similar conclusions about the human condition. I find this helpful whenever concerns about being in a cult come up, or I’m frustrated in my practice or with the world in general.

As Brian would say, he has these great catchphrases “I want to be very clear about what I’m not saying.” I’m not saying that everyone should accept the Buddha’s teachings because they are supported by science. I’m saying that because there is an story told by scientists who I have reason to trust which mirror the story told by the Buddha’s teaching in many ways, I personally can more readily justify my belief in the stories told by teachers in the Buddhist tradition, not as metaphysical truth, but as grounds for wise action….In a similar way that the stories of science convinced me to get a vaccine. To use the old east / west distinction, which I should be clear, is just a convenient way of talking and not some fixed separation : It looks like a form of wisdom in the west is supportive of that of the east and vice-versa. This is important because when it comes to advice on what to do about this common model of mind and the human condition, the Buddhists have a 2500 year head start. I don’t need to wait for what this new science prescribes because I have a justifiable belief that the explanatory framework that buddhist practice and psychology is based on is a sound one. I don’t have to rely solely on my experience, which could be deluded, nor on the word of a teacher, who could be a cult leader, to have confidence in my practice.

How important all of this is will depend, of course, on your own confidence in your path and your own culture. I hope the work being started by scientists now will help bridge the gap between what I think are some of the best parts of eastern and western cultures. The Dalai Lama himself helped launch this work, sometimes called contemplative science by helping to founding of the mind and life institute over 30 years ago with the neuroscientist Fransisco Varela. I can highly recommend their podcast.

Before I hand it over to Brian, I just want to give a couple examples of playing with perception that scientists use to show how what we bring to our experience then shapes our experience.

Brian’s talk is available here:

From Lisa Feldman Barrett’s Ted Talk we can see that our perceptions do not always line up with reality, but that what we perceive directly influences our reality. In the old story about a person being afraid of a coil of rope because they thought it was a snake, we must remember that they did in fact see a snake; it’s just a snake that wasn’t really there. Our minds co-create our world.

Scientist show these sorts of illusions while people are hooked up to EEGs and FMRI machines, and we can see how brain can be in 2 completely different states even though we are presented with the same sensory input.

Here are some more examples, including Sine Wave Speech, which is a similar sort of illusion, only done with sound.

Further Study – Listed in order of accessibility – easy to difficult

Mind and Life Institute Podcast

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast

Sean Carroll’s podcast is a wide ranging one, which touches on many topics, but importantly he does so through the lens of what he calls his philosophy of poetic naturalism, which you can read about in his very accessible science book.

Sean Carroll : The Big Picture

This is a beautiful little book that will leave you wanting more :

Lisa Feldman Barrett :  7 ½ Lessons About the Brain

Probably anything by Oliver Sacks  … he provides amazing clinical observations that require explanation far beyond what our existing neuroscience and psychology can provide.  I’ve read Hallucinations and Musicophilia, and An Anthropologist on Mars is up next

Anil Seth is not afraid of the hard problem of consciousness.  This is probably the newest book and covers much of the new thinking about the mind

Anil Seth : Being You

For an example of how new ideas can take root in a clinical setting ….

Bessel Van Der Kolk : The Body Keeps the Score (warning : lots of descriptions of trauma)

For a historical perspective on the power of story

Yuval Noah Harari : Sapiens

For a detailed discussion of the new psychology that is emerging and why it is so important that it does.

Lisa Feldman Barrett :  How Emotions are Made

Dan Dennett has done probably more than anyone over the past 50 years to legitimize the expansion of science beyond empiricism.  He was doing this difficult work way before it was cool.  I haven’t read his older books, but some of his newer ones were very helpful to me.

Dan Dennett : From Bacteria to Bach and Back

Dan Dennett : Freedom Evolves

While the System 1 / System 2 model they propose is far too simplistic (which they readily admit), these 2 Israli psychologists spent a lifetime generating experimental data that demanded we update our view of the mind.

Kahnamen / Tversky :  Thinking… Fast and Slow

And a couple of very academic books on these topics.  James Ladyman’s book I’m guessing is an undergraduate text in philosophy.  Andy Clark’s book is difficult, but extremely rewarding.  He is a highly regarded philosopher who acts as a reporter / guide to the work I alluded to in my talk on the predictive processing model of mind.

James Ladyman : Understanding Philosophy of Science 

Andy Clark :  Surfing Uncertainty