I love it when I find a book that deepens my understanding of things (understanding being more a river than facts). Science and spirituality are twins in this book, as they are outside of it. Though the author is Buddhist, the possibility for clarity of mind extends to people of all faiths, agnostics and atheists.
Sometimes the best way to see what is, is to look at what is not. Living As a River takes the idea of each of us each having a separate self and does a great job of blurring the edges between us – until they virtually disappear. This doesn’t mean you disappear, of course. You will still get up tomorrow and slog to the bathroom to do business. This book might, however, shift a person’s perspective about themselves in relation to the world.
Here’s a fascinating snippet from neurologist VS Ramachandran, talking about a split-brain patient. The patient’s right brain believed in God, but the more rational left brain was atheist.
Ramachandran points to the obvious theological problem of what, in the Christian view, happens to such a person after they die; does the right brain go to heaven and the left to hell?
But more interesting to me with split brain studies is how they reveal the fictional nature of the self. Split brain patients clearly cannot have one self, since the two parts of the brain function independently and cannot communicate directly with each other, and yet people with split brains have a sense of a unitary self. I
n my book, I show how the left brain of split-brain patients tries to explain away (and thus take the credit for) actions that the right brain has initiated. It seems to me that it’s this “plagiarism” that constitutes the sense of a unitary self. The left brain is, I believe, unaware that it’s a plagiarist — it’s simply deluded. In part, I suspect that stream-entry, which involves the loss of the belief in a unitary self, involves the left brain finally “getting” that it doesn’t run the whole show that we call “the self.” It comes to realize that it’s simply observing, labeling (and often taking the credit for) actions initiated outside of conscious awareness.
There’s an interesting post in the NYT today, arguing that we could think of our electronic devices as extensions of our minds.
Brains play a major role, of course. They are the locus of great plasticity and processing power, and will be the key to almost any form of cognitive success. But spare a thought for the many resources whose task-related bursts of activity take place elsewhere, not just in the physical motions of our hands and arms while reasoning, or in the muscles of the dancer or the sports star, but even outside the biological body — in the iPhones, Blackberries, laptops and organizers which transform and extend the reach of bare biological processing in so many ways. These blobs of less-celebrated activity may sometimes be best seen, myself and others have argued, as bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull.
One way to see this is to ask yourself how you would categorize the same work were it found to occur “in the head” as part of the neural processing of, say, an alien species. If you’d then have no hesitation in counting the activity as genuine (though non-conscious) cognitive activity, then perhaps it is only some kind of bio-envelope prejudice that stops you counting the same work, when reliably performed outside the head, as a genuine element in your own mental processing?
The article uses very similar analytical strategies to those I employ in Living as a River: We start off with a casual and habitual assumption that electronic devices are outside the skull, and are therefore not part of the cognitive process. And we probe that assumption: so we imagine those devices implanted in the brain, functioning to augment our thinking processes, and see how that changes our perspectives.
I have a very free-flowing sense of how cognition takes place, so I have no problem with seeing my iPhone as part of my cognitive apparatus. What most interests me, however, is how our gadgets can become part of the self. This is a rather different concern from the argument above, because it’s not to do with how things work, but with what we identify with. And it seems to me that people nowadays (myself included) have a hard job separating their selves from their gadgets. To give an example, it used to be that when people went on a Buddhist retreat, they’d simply cut themselves off from the outside world for a weekend, or week, or whatever length of time they were away. They’d leave the retreat center office phone number as an emergency contact, but wouldn’t plan to make phone calls. Now an increasing number of people check email, text, and make phone calls on retreat. They can’t imagine not doing this.
The thought of being without a gadget can be like the thought of an amputation. Fear is involved. I’ve seen people almost in a state of panic at the thought of sending their iPhone away for a couple of days to have a cracked screen fixed. Our sense of a functioning self is now dependent upon the presence of an electronic device and, more importantly, the constant flow of information that comes through it. We need the reassurance of email, phone calls, text messages, Twitter and Facebook, that we still exist. We feel anxious: we check Facebook. It doesn’t really address the root cause of our anxiety, but it’ll do for noe.
None of this is new. We’ve been attached in the past to television, mail, and even telegrams, but none of those had the frequency of today’s media, or the same reach (even just a few years ago you could be on a mountain top and be sure of a lack of contact with the outside world. As the ability to stay in touch has expanded, so has our attachment to information, and so has our fear of being cut off.
So I argue that our sense of self includes our electronic devices. Whether or not we see them as part of our cognitive apparatus, we see them as part of our selves, or at least treat them as part of ourselves. That too, is not new (we’ve always defined ourselves and each other by means of possessions) but somehow the umbilical cord of neurotic emotion seems to have been getting shorter.
So we’re seeing our iPhones etc as parts of our selves, and that doesn’t seem to be a good thing. In fact, it seems to be adding to our suffering. One of the central teachings of Buddhism is, in fact, that we’re constantly trying to identify something as the self, and that this inevitably leads to suffering. The medium here is new, but the psychodynamic is now.
Talking to Jeff Ferrannini of Planetary Spirit radio yesterday, I was blown away by a passage he read out, which he said was a Hopi Prophecy.
There was one part to the quotation Jeff read out which does actually seem to be Hopi (I’ll post that elsewhere). But when I researched this teaching it turned out that what I’ve quoted above was (according to an article written in Yoga Journal in 1999 by Gary Gach — who I happen to know) from an elderly Iroquois man called “Uncle John,” and passed on by ChoQosh Auh-Ho-Oh, a Chumash teacher, at a Y2K conference in Oakland, California, in February 1998.
Here’s the part of the quote that astonished me, because it’s so close to the message of Living as a River.
On the web you’ll find this all together as one quotation, but it’s actually the words of several people, and I talked to ChuQosh Auh-Ho-Oh, the conduit for all of these words, to find out who said what. I must thank Matthew for helping to track down ChoQosh’s phone number.
[Uncle John] There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift, that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water.
[The following is an addition by ChoQosh] And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.
[Back to Uncle John] ChoQosh, be sure to tell your people: At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all, ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a screeching halt.
[This bit is Uncle John] The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!
[This is Philip Deer, a Muscogee Creek Elder] Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
[This is ChuQuosh quoting Marianne Williamson] We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
Later: I heard the “Iroquois Uncle John” version of the story on a Prophecy Keepers’ Radio interview with ChoQosh Auh-Ho-Oh. It’s on this page: if you want to hear just that, skip to the third segment of the show, and then scrub forward to about 9:45. But she’s a fascinating speaker, and if you have the time I’d suggest listening to more of the program.
Recently Bodhipaksa was interviewed by E. Christopher Clark, author of All He Left Behind and the creative force behind Geek Force Five — a blog of pop culture commentary and criticism.
Chris started by asking about Living as a River and skeptical Buddhism, but then veered into a discussion of the role of mysticism in the TV dramas, Lost and Battlestar Galactica — passions the two men share in abundance.
Peter Clothier of the Buddha Diaries blog has a very generous review of Living as a River.
It begins, “Sometimes I wonder what the New York Times bestseller list would look like if it reflected true quality of writing and the substance and value of important and challenging ideas…”
And here’s an extract from the middle of the review:
No scientist myself, I can only marvel at Bodhipaksa’s easy dance with both the history of scientific knowledge and its most current advances. His is essentially a phenomenological study of the elemental structures of reality, of our nature as human beings in the world, and of our place in the universe; in the course of it all, he ranges happily from esoteric physics (Loop Quantum Gravity, anyone?) and biochemistry to the intimate functioning of the human body (ever wonder why shit is brown?) and the brain, and out into the cosmic view of astrophysics. He is equally familiar with a great range of current social science research and with the history of human thought from the Buddha and (who else?) Heraclitus, to this day. He amasses his evidence patiently, and brings his reader along with a light touch, clear explanations, and a lively pace.
Unqualified to judge the quality of Bodhipaksa’s science, obviously, I’m comfortable in asserting that it’s always persuasive—and enjoyable to read. And always the bottom line is the mantra to which I myself return frequently in my own meditations: This is not me, this is not mine, I am not this. (I actually learned a slightly different construction: This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am.) It’s at once a humbling and empowering realization. When arrived at with full understanding, it has a wonderfully liberating potential, releasing us into the stream of a reality where our experience is no longer hampered by that dualistic distinction between “self” and “other” that is the cause of so much human suffering and confusion.
I originally came across Bodhipaksa’s work on the Wildmind website when I first became a Buddhist coming on two years ago now and I was looking for accessible resources that I could use to accelerate my spiritual development. I have found Bodhipaksa’s work to be ideal to fill that niche in my spiritual appetite and his latest work Living As A River: Finding Fearlessness In The Face Of Change is no exception.
Bodhipaksa uses storytelling along with fact after scientific fact to confront some of the myths that we have accumulated throughout our lives; that we are fixed beings living in a fixed permanent world just being one of them.
In what amounts nothing short of brilliance Bodhipaksa in one instance uses the story of The Vin Fiz; the first attempt by a man to fly east to west across the United States in an aeroplance to smash the myth of a fixed permanent self and explain the difficult concept of “no self” or “anatta”. This particular story and explanation of “no self” and “anatta” is the crescendo of the whole book however the book does not end here.
Bodhipaksa then continues throughout the book continuing through the six elements as one would peel away at an onion except with this onion you don’t want it to end. This book is definitely the kind of book that makes you think throughout and consider the book as a whole and the book as a sum of its parts.
For those with some experience in Buddhism; chapters 14: Stepping Into The Stream and 15: The Self Beyond Measure could well be considered a cheat sheet for anybody wanting to move their practice to the next level.
Complete with things to look out for in your practice the chapter on Stepping Into The Stream is a mirror for the experienced and not experienced a like and would be worth buying the book for this chapter alone.
The final chapter The Self Beyond Measure polishes up on the content previously discussed and brings the book to an orderly close.
I have given this review a five star recommendation as a reflection of the overall quality of the content of the book. I would recommend it to anybody with a basic background in Buddhism and upwards. I consider this book an essential element of my Buddhist library alongside other greats I have such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Ajahn Chah.
This book is like no other book on Buddhism I have ever read before. Maybe that’s because it’s not really a book on Buddhism, but on life (and death). I actually hate writing reviews for books even for my own blog because when I read a book I just want to enjoy it without trying to remember specific aspects or highlight pages.
However, I just wanted to make some comments about Living As A River because it has made me think and made me feel uncomfortable with some of my current beliefs. And that is a good thing because we have to move through a state of uncertainty when changing.
What Bodhipaksa does so wonderfully is weave a mixture of the past and the present. Yes he talks about the life of Buddha as you would expect in such a book, but it is a long way from being a biography or a book full of stories set in the dim and distant past. He also uses cutting edge well researched science to make some of his points about what we really are as human beings and possibly more importantly, what we aren’t.
I don’t expect to get too many people rushing to say this review was useful to them, but I will say this. I really enjoyed books by the likes of Kabat Zinn, Ram Das, Thich Nhat Han, Pema Chodron and Jack Kornfield, but in my opinion this takes it to the next level and does what those do only in parts, makes the Buddhist philosophy more accessible and understandable to the masses.
It’s also a damn fine read and a book I will be recommending to clients.