There’s a nice article by Mo Costandi on the plasticity of the sense we have of being embodied selves. The article covers some of the same research that I discuss in Living as a River:
Who – or what – do you think you are? You probably think that your memories and personality are an important part of what you call your “self,” and you’d be right. But the core of your sense of self is something that you probably take completely for granted – your body.
Philosophers have always known about awareness of the body of the body is critical to the sense of self. In his 1739 book, A Treatise on Human Nature, for example, David Hume wrote, “When I enter into myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, or heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception.”
Hume clearly understood the importance of the body for the sense of self, as did various other philosophers who came later, and neuroscientists are now beginning to catch up with them. In the past 10 years, they have made big advances towards understanding the neurological basis of bodily awareness, revealing the mechanisms by which the brain makes – and can break – our sense of self-identity. Leaders in this area of research described their work today in a symposium held at the BNA Festival of Neuroscience…
Freud might have been wrong in the details, but one of his main ideas—that a lot of our behaviors and beliefs and emotions are driven by factors we are unaware of—turns out to be correct. If you’re in a happy, optimistic, ambitious mood, check the weather. Sunny days make people happier and more helpful. In a taste test, you’re likely to have a strong preference for the first sample you taste—even if all of the samples are identical. The more often you see a person or an object, the more you’ll like it. Mating decisions are based partly on smell. Our cognitive failings are legion: we take a few anecdotes and make incorrect generalizations, we misinterpret information to support our preconceptions, and we’re easily distracted or swayed by irrelevant details. And what we think of as memories are merely stories we tell ourselves anew each time we recall an event. That’s true even for flashbulb memories, the ones that feel as though they’ve been burned into the brain:
Like millions of people, [neuroscientist Karim] Nader has vivid and emotional memories of the September 11, 2001, attacks and their aftermath. But as an expert on memory, and, in particular, on the malleability of memory, he knows better than to fully trust his recollections… As clear and detailed as these memories feel, psychologists find they are surprisingly inaccurate.
The takehome message is “We and the world are really one process.” This is also what I understand the Buddha’s teaching to have been, as embodied in the 18 dhātus and in teachings such as the Kalaka Sutta:
“Thus, monks, the Tathagata, when seeing what is to be seen, doesn’t construe an [object as] seen. He doesn’t construe an unseen. He doesn’t construe an [object] to-be-seen. He doesn’t construe a seer.
“When cognizing what is to be cognized, he doesn’t construe an [object as] cognized. He doesn’t construe an uncognized. He doesn’t construe an [object] to-be-cognized. He doesn’t construe a cognizer.
The Buddha’s teaching, although this isn’t always immediately obvious, is one of non-duality. This is, of course, something I go into in Living as a River.
One of the most interesting things that happens in my meditation practice is when I observe experiences arising and realize that I’m not making them happen. I come to the realization that I do not “own” these experiences. In fact, even the sense of ownership of my experiences that normally dominates my mind comes to be seen as another unowned experience. Normally the conscious mind assumes ownership of experiences, but in fact it’s a kind of plagiarist, claiming experiences when it has nothing to do with their creation.
Probably this is gobbledegook to most people — I’d recommend just watching your experience and recognizing that your experiences “just happen.” This is a practical way of coming to recognize the truth of the BUddhist teaching of anatta, or not-self.
An article I recently read gives evidence to back up this radical notion that all our experiences are unowned.
Francesco Riganello at the Santa Anna Institute in Crotone, Italy, and colleagues played four pieces of classical music to 16 healthy volunteers while measuring their heartbeats. The team then repeated the experiment with nine people who were in a vegetative state. In addition, they asked the healthy volunteers to describe the emotions they had felt while listening.
The pieces, each 3 minutes long and by different composers, were chosen because they have different tempos and rhythms – factors previously shown to elicit positive and negative emotions.
Riganello found that the music affected the heart rates of both groups in the same way. Pieces rated as “positive” by healthy volunteers, such as the minuet from Boccherini’s string quintet in E, slowed heart rate, while “negative” pieces like Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony increased heart rate.
Ordinarily we’d listen to music, and the conscious mind makes the assumption that it is listening to the music, and that it is enjoying the music. But in fact the listening is still taking place even if there is no possibility of conscious thought or attention, as in the case of people in a persistent vegetative state. The enjoying may be going on as well, to the extent that the body and parts of the brain are still engaged in the activity of producing physiological responses to the music.
That last statement I made in fact is rather challenging! Can we have enjoyment when there is no one there to do the enjoying. Well, why not? Normally we’d say there could not be the activity of “listening and responding to music” unless there was someone there. And yet clearly “listening and responding to music” does take place in the absence of consciousness.
This challenge should lead us to question our notion of a unitary self, and our notion that the conscious mind is central to the existence of our selves. The practice I suggested above — where we observe experiences arising and realize that we’re not making them happen — is a way to make this more experiential, and to help free us from delusions we have about the nature of the self.
Doctor Who is one of my favorite TV shows, and it turns out that the sci-fi classic offers some insights into the Buddhist teaching of anatta, or not-self. How? By showin how our sense of self is a construct. You’ll have to read the whole article to get the connection with Doctor Who, but here’s an extract:
In 1956, famous existentialist and French resistance fighter Jean-Paul Sartre published his epic work Being and Nothingness.
One of the most influential parts of the book comes from his ideas about how vision helps us develop a sense of self. To grossly simplify his argument, which he makes in a chapter called “The Look,” being seen by somebody else is akin to being recognized by them. So we make a psychological connection between the act of seeing a person with glasses, and the more complicated act of recognizing the person as a man named Jean-Paul who is French, white, nerdy, and likes to write about metaphysics. To sum up, your sense of self and your sense of others is connected intimately with your ability to see them – and their ability to see you.
Sartre points out that this situation can lead to a lot of terrifying situations. First of all, it means we rely on others for a sense of self, and thus for a sense of stability and mental coherence. Even creepier, it means (for example) I basically wouldn’t have any sense of self at all if it weren’t for some Big Other having coming along at some point when I was a tiny little not-yet-self and saying, “You are Annalee. You are female and white and Jewish and you live in America in a middle-class suburb.” Yes, it sounds weird, but parents and teachers and other adults actually say things that more or less boil down to sentences like that.
This morning I read the introduction to Living as a River. It’s great, better than anything I can write about it. The author has an appealing non-preachy unreligious Buddhist’y style.
I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Living as a River. Sometimes I’m disappointed after getting excited by a great first chapter, when the rest of a book heads downhill, fast.
I don’t think this will happen here. Bodhipaksa says that he resonates with both science and Buddhism. He ignores the difficult-to-believe supernatural side of Buddhist teachings, such as dogmas about past lives and survival of consciousness after death.
The purpose of the book isn’t to be “about Buddhism” as the quote mentioned above makes clear. It is about a way of thinking, a way of seeing clearly (or cultivating “insight” as the Buddhist meditation vipassanā is commonly translated) ourselves and the world. For all readers, it should be a joyful journey through a hand-picked series of scientific articles and discoveries, poetry, and anecdotes. It is lucidly written, and even consistently funny (a nice change of pace for some of us!).
As I re-skim it now to write this, I find quote after quote and story after story that I’d love to recount for their simple and direct teaching power.