Tag Archives: zen

On Nonduality

To be clear about this topic, understand that nonduality is a concept represented by a word. The concept is not the experience. No matter how much effort you put into thinking about and analyzing the concept, you will never touch its essence. It is like trying to tell someone who has never eaten an orange what the experience of eating an orange is like. Description can never replace experience. What I will try to do here is use a metaphor to perhaps paint a somewhat more communicative word picture of nonduality. In the end, though, if one really wants to know nonduality directly, one must eat the orange, so to speak. I’ll end this with a quote from a Zen Master when asked about nonduality, who said, “Not two, not one.” I would suggest that his intent was to convey that both are numerical concepts.

The metaphor I will use is that of an orchestra, which will represent the entirety of all physically manifest reality. As the orchestra begins playing, the harmony of all the instruments creates music. The members of the orchestra are individuals and their instruments are separate objects. The relative relationships between these musicians, their instruments and their output represent duality or the world of separate things. The music, which is the single harmonious integration of all the separate contributions into a singular whole, represents nonduality. However, this is an idealized metaphor, so let’s back it up.

Imagine that this orchestra consists of 1000 people, of which you are one, each with a musical instrument. The level of musical competence of the players ranges from novice to expert. Some can read music and some can’t. Now imagine that his group sets out to play a symphony. Also, add into this image the lack of a musical director. In this scenario all of the players begin playing their instruments. A few know the symphony, some can read music and have sheet music for guidance, and most of the group neither know the symphony nor can read music. The effort begins, but the output is not nearly as pleasing as in the initial description above. Nevertheless, the relative relationships between these musicians and their instruments’ output represent duality or the world of separate, relative things. The sound output is still the product of all the separate pieces representing a singular whole or nonduality. This is probably somewhat more like the way of the world. A somewhat chaotic state that is slowly organizing itself into greater and greater coherence, albeit with both forward and backward steps.

Now as a participant in this process, ask yourself what you should do to facilitate the evolution of coherence and the production of a recognizable symphony, allowing that a perfect rendition of the symphony is unlikely. You have at least two options: 1) You could listen carefully and identify the players who are contributing the greatest amount of disorder into the effort and go take away their instruments and eject them from the orchestra. Considering that there likely would be resistance to this, you might find other members who see the situation the same way that you do and organize them into a cadre of music police. 2) You could ignore the disharmony and attempt to narrow your focus down on the members who are producing the best musical output and follow their lead. In this case, you are both attempting to contribute to coherence by coming into harmony with the output of the better players and contributing to coherence by serving as an example to the players in need of guidance. Perhaps you can think of other options but you get the general idea.

The point is you can either become absorbed in the inharmonious output of some of the individual players and contribute little or nothing, or you can focus on a strand of harmony running like a smooth eddy in a turbulent stream and strengthen it. In short, come into harmony with the dynamic process that is the evolving whole or focus on the separate pieces.

This brings up the issue of “evil,” which is a relative concept. What you think is evil may not be viewed as evil by someone else. Perhaps there is a definition of “evil” that could be universally agreed to, but I’m not sure what it is. The closest that I can come up with is “actions arising from ignorance brought about by a highly egocentric view of one’s life circumstance.” However, one can still recognize that ignorance is also masking the divinity that lies within the “evil” doer. This does not mean that you can’t act in self-defense or defend others. The advantage that arises from recognizing ignorance as merely a mask for dormant divinity is that if one is compelled to respond, the response will be no more than is necessary and will not be fueled by strong emotions such as anger, hate, revulsion, etc. I have an entire essay devoted to this view on my website, so I won’t expand on it any further here.

Let’s look at the idea of evil relative to the orchestra metaphor. Think of the incoherent players as “ignorant” and their disharmonious output as “evil.” You can get angry with these players and decide they need to be stopped and ejected from the orchestra, which will no doubt be resisted and could lead to actions on your part that might be viewed as “evil” by some of the other players. You could also recognize these players as simply ignorant of the musical ability that they have dormant within themselves and try to be a model for them or even offer them guidance. What the experience of nonduality brings is a perspective that sees all the players connected through the divinity that resides within them whether they are aware of it or not. Each and every one of the players is an implicit strand within the holistic, dynamic process that emerges as the symphony.

I hope that this was useful but do keep in mind that it is just an imperfect pointer for nonduality, which is only truly known through a transcendent experience, never through concepts and ideas. Peel the orange and eat.

 

Brain Networks and Meditation

Caveat: I have very limited knowledge of neurology and brain processes. What I present here is my understanding of scientific reports about the working of a particular aspect of the brain as a metaphor to explore meditation.

          Brain imaging studies have recently identified a network of brain areas and their associated functions that have been named the default mode network. This network has been labeled default because it seems to be responsible for most brain activity taking place when one’s attention is not specifically engaged. It would appear that focused attention draws largely upon other brain areas and those areas represent a separate network, which to my knowledge has not been labeled. For simplicity’s sake let’s hereafter just refer to these as the Focused Attention Network (FAN) and the Relaxed Attention Network (RAN). These networks are illustrated in the figure at end of this essay. We are all familiar with the notion of left brain and right brain functions, but apparently there is another “divide” along the lines of a brain using focused attention and a brain whose attention processes are relaxed. As with the left and right brain concept, the RAN and FAN brain states do not necessarily mean exclusive functions for each network but rather primary functions. The FAN is frequently directed externally but can also be directed internally at specific cognitive tasks or physical states. The FAN appears to be more analytic and rational, while the RAN seems to be more metaphorical and imaginative.

The FAN appears to engage those areas of the brain that govern executive functions in the brain such as active attention, decision making, problem solving, planning and working memory. It accesses and engages knowledge and skills that an individual has acquired for engaging tasks of various sorts. It also exercises control over motor functions needed to engage in voluntary actions like drawing or surgery. If you’re trying to cognitively inventory the things that you will need to take with you on a trip, to relax a tight muscle in your neck, learn how to solve quadratic equations or teach a child to read, the FAN is engaged. However, when activities requiring focused attention come to an end, RAN is automatically your default state. Clearly, if you’re doing nothing but sitting staring out a window, the RAN will engage. However, when you’re engaged in routine activities that don’t require focused attention such as running on a treadmill or driving down a stretch of road with little or no traffic, you usually will default to RAN. Even when focused attention may be needed, boredom can result in inattention and defaulting to RAN.

When RAN is engaged what you get appears similar to free association or random presentation. In this state, thoughts, memories, images and feelings stream into awareness often with little or no apparent structure. As long as these stimuli stream, you remain in RAN. However, if you focus on one or more of these stimuli and begin to engage with it, FAN comes back into operation. Thus, FAN can be focused on either an external or an internal task. To illustrate the process of going from RAN to an internal version of FAN, think of standing in front of a conveyor belt and watching suitcases streaming by. This is analogous to RAN-generated thoughts and images streaming through awareness. If you grab one of these suitcases off of the conveyor belt and begin unpacking it, this is analogous to focusing on one thought or image and following a chain of associations elicited by your attention to it. You are now back in FAN. This, however, is usually a less engaged level of FAN than the level, for example, required for solving quadratic equations or teaching someone to read. This suggests that there are degrees of FAN and RAN, meaning that they are not “digital” states that are either on or off.

My hypothesis is that RAN is largely responsible for the creation of a fictive-self, self-narrative or ego and especially for maintaining and reinforcing it. One way of thinking about the ego is as a psychological construct that functions as the subject or “doer” assigned responsibility for our activities. This fictive-self begins forming early in the developmental period and generally becomes stronger as a child ages into an adult. It seems to me, again from introspective observation, that most of the activity generated by RAN is to bring into awareness thoughts, images and memories associated with our experiences. These become the “bricks” from which we build, repair and reinforce our fictive-self.

Initially, the mind begins a process of organizing this information into some sort of kernel story that is rooted in and identified with the body/mind. This becomes the core construct around which our fictive-self or personal narrative evolves. This fictive-self or ego largely has the function of providing a sense of coherence and continuity to our life experience. It becomes the basis of the meaning we assign to our lives. As our narrative becomes fairly well established more and more of what arises from the RAN are thoughts, ideas, images, attitudes, opinions and judgments (among others inputs) that reinforce our fictive-self and ensure our identification with the narrative.

The fictive-self can be recognized through the stream of “self-talk” that dominates your awareness when the FAN is engaged with content RAN has generated. Much of this “self-talk” can be recognized as rehearsal of one’s personal narrative. We become the fiction we have created to explain our self to our self. We are like a hamster trapped in an exercise wheel — always running but never getting anywhere. If you want to escape, you must first become aware of the structure of your personal narrative by examining the themes in your self-talk and what they imply about the beliefs, opinions and attitudes largely operating beneath your awareness and directing you like a puppet master. “Cutting” the strings linking you to your puppet master is the most essential step required for liberation.

I would suggest that very young children, before the core construct for the fictive-self is established, are not individuated. Therefore, their consciousness is more likely to be resonate with what some describe as Unity consciousness. Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Or, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, regain your “natural mind.” In other words, you cannot access Unity consciousness or the Absolute (“kingdom of heaven”) unless you can first learn to stand aside from the fictive-self (“be converted”) and return to a less individuated manifestation of consciousness (“become as little children”).

One activity that comes to mind while thinking about RAN is sitting meditation. When one sits to “practice” meditation, two things are likely to happen. First, the FAN is disengaged and, second, the RAN is engaged. These are operations that most of us easily do with hardly a thought. However, the purpose of meditation cannot be to simply engage the RAN, because if that were true, then there would be no difference between meditation and daydreaming. So, the question arises, what is the relationship between the RAN and meditation?

Many meditation teachers initially advocate the practice of sitting  meditation. Sitting meditation is usually described as concentrating on a specific focus such as a rhythmic function like the breath, an auditory stimulus or a visual stimulus. The nature of the auditory or visual stimulus suggested will vary depending upon the tradition from which the suggestion is coming, but there is no evidence that I am aware of from brain imaging studies indicating any functional difference between the effects of different stimuli from different traditions. For example, if the focus is on a sound such as “Aum” or “Amen,” then during mindfulness meditation one simply uses this sound either vocalized or sub-vocalized as a focus, and whenever one recognizes that the focus of attention has drifted, the instruction is to simply mentally note the deviation and return to the focus.

It seems that the basic process in this form of meditation is to learn to use a solitary focus of attention that requires no thought, which engages FAN at a low level. Keeping FAN engaged at a low level with a stimulus requiring no thought helps avoid becoming entangled in the activity of the RAN. Once this condition is met, one can observe the products of RAN running in the background, so to speak. It has been said that the function of the mind is to generate thoughts, just as the function of the heart is to pump blood. If that is so, it is the RAN that is largely responsible for generating the thoughts.

What one must learn to avoid is engaging FAN with any of the stimuli thrown up by RAN. Of course, this will happen and happen regularly for beginners. The only solution is to gently withdraw FAN from the RAN product it engaged and move it back to the meditative focus.

In the process of learning to hold FAN at “arms length” and simply observing the products of RAN passing through awareness, one begins to get a good sense of what sorts of stimuli are being generated by RAN. Frequently, patterns will emerge among the stimuli passing through awareness. This is how one begins to get a handle on the beliefs, opinions and attitudes largely operating beneath your awareness. Many people may also have emotional reactions to patterns of stimuli that relate to negative events in their lives and may be initially overwhelmed by their emotions. These events have probably made contributions of importance to your personal narrative. They may also be the source of especially problematic attitudes, beliefs and opinions that affect your functioning. Becoming aware of these potent cognitive components “pulling your strings” is the first step in cutting those strings.

Most spiritual teachings that point one toward Self-realization consider being able to sustain full presence in the moment (the natural mind) to be a necessary condition. Regaining the natural mind first requires cutting those puppet strings directing your life from outside of conscious awareness. By presence what is meant is that what you experience, whether events, thoughts, feelings, sensations, objects or people, are simply that. You register these stimuli in your awareness but your mind brings to them no preconceived interpretation and makes no judgment arising from such interpretations. This does not necessarily mean that you will draw no conclusion about what you are aware of but that any such conclusion will be untainted by the content of ego. You will discover that in most instances no conclusions are necessary at all. What you observe simply is what it is and requires nothing from you.

It would seem that insight meditation is the next step in one’s meditation practice. The transition from sitting to insight meditation is not a sharp or clear transition. However, at some point the process of noting the activity generated by the RAN and recognizing patterns related to your beliefs, opinions and attitudes begins to develop into an intuitive understanding of the conditioned nature of that aspect of consciousness we call the self. With this intuitive insight comes an opportunity to begin the process of standing aside or dis-identifying with the “fictive or narrative self” that is the illusion you refer to as “me.”

 The illusion of permanent self dissolving as awareness penetrates and knows the illusion. Moving deeper, beyond the small self, beyond aversion and attachment, beyond ignorance.Barbara Brodsky and John Orr (meditation teachers).

Meditation then becomes a natural abiding in awareness of awareness. One’s attention is both relaxed and focused in the present moment. One does not dwell on the imagined future or recollected past. One does not spin “ego stories” about the self nor explanatory stories about others, which can include institutions, organizations or people. One is in the natural mind. Knowing Unity consciousness or the Absolute still depends upon grace (see Taken), but one has done all that is possible to prepare for it and is able to expand into it should it occur.

There is one practice, which I think of as contemplative meditation, that is worth mentioning separately. This is the use, by one school of Zen meditation, of what is known as a koan. A koan is a riddle that is used as the focus of meditation. For example, the widely quoted koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Zen is not the only source of such riddles. Here are a couple from non-Zen sources, “The only way out is in” and “There is only one mind.” It appears that the purpose of a koan is to shut down the RAN by silencing its near incessant chatter with an intellectual conundrum that has no rational solution. This not only serves as a focus for FAN but exhausts FAN’s efforts to bring rational understanding to the conundrum. At the point of exhaustion one might say rationality implodes, leaving what Zen refers to as “no mind” or, according to the Hindu sage Pantanjali, puts one beyond words and concepts. The American mystic Franklin Merrill-Wolff describes this state as consciousness without an object.

Figure

 

Two views of the brain with the RAN in blue and the FAN in orange and yellow.

 

Addendum

In the above, I discussed what in neuroscience is called the “default mode network.” In that section, I relabeled the default network as the “relaxed attention network” (RAN) and the alternate state as the “focused attention network” (FAN). To review part of the above discussion:

 My hypothesis is that RAN is largely responsible for the creation of a fictive-self, self-narrative or ego and especially for maintaining and reinforcing it [emphasis added]. One way of thinking about the ego is as a psychological construct that functions as the subject or “doer” assigned responsibility for our activities. This fictive-self begins forming early in the developmental period and generally becomes stronger as a child ages into an adult. It seems to me, from introspective observation, that most of the activity generated by RAN serves to bring into awareness thoughts, images and memories associated with our experiences. These become the “bricks” from which we build, repair and reinforce our fictive-self.

Now, a recent study discussed in the New Scientist has provided evidence that supports my hypothesis:

“The team gave 20 volunteers infusions on two days, once containing 75 micrograms of LSD, the other [day] a placebo. Then volunteers lay in a scanner and had their brains imaged with three different techniques, which together built up a comprehensive picture of neural activity, both with the drug and without.”

Carhart-Harris et al.

MRI scans showed that LSD caused brain activity to become less coordinated in regions that make up what is called the default mode network. The size of the effect was correlated with participants’ ratings of their own ego dissolution, suggesting that this network underlies a stable sense of self [my emphasis].”

          Another imaging type, magnetoencephalography (MEG), showed that the rhythm of alpha brainwaves weakened under LSD, an effect that was also correlated with ego dissolution. Alpha rhythms are stronger in humans than other animals, and Carhart-Harris thinks it could be a signature of high-level human consciousness.

Click here for journal paper.