Sunday, February 21, 2016

Material Dharma






A talk by Gudo Nishijima randomly came up on my play list the other day and provoked some thoughts I find interesting.

He said, Buddha insisted there was one reality.

I completely enjoy this idea. There is only one truth going on and each person has a different view of it. In expressing those views it appears that truth is a matter of belief. Rather it is a matter of observation. This may be a difference between, roughly speaking, religion and science.

I once had the idea that becoming enlightened is rather like turning on the porch light at night for the first time. It's not that there's anything new to see when the light comes on, it was all there prior, but now one can see it. And it is mundane.

I do not think there is a soul. There is nothing extra-corporeal that lingers after death. Rather like one proposal I saw in science mags recently, consciousness is a 4th state of matter. Matter in the universe has characteristics that cause it to assemble into conscious things under certain conditions. We happen to be the outcome of a series of those conditions.

But neither is it as elegant as 'natural selection' makes it sound. I don't like that phrase. It anthropomorphizes what is inherent possibility. There is no 'grand design' coming into its own. Things that survive do, and those that can't don't. Given a slightly different set of conditions, those things that are not now, might well be. There is no 'selecting' going on.

So there is one truth. The dharma.

Nishijima talks a lot about idealism and materialism. Roughly speaking, I think materialism is this one truth. But materialism is also an idea (part of idealism), so this is where things get a little tricky.

Setting aside (or rather allowing) for a moment the fact that discussion of concepts is by its very nature idealistic, reality is materialistic. As I understand the word, the truth of reality is the truth of materials. We and our consciousness are one of those materials. Our thinking is material. There is not one thought conscious or subconscious that occurs that is not the result of some material chemical action in our bodies (in our brains). But, from this material truth, idealism arises.

I think humans are uniquely idealistic. It is very hard to test, I think, whether other animals have 'ideas' per se. There is such a tendency in us to anthropomorphize things (thus attributing emotions to things like 'angry' weather and 'calm' seas), it is difficult to judge if a dog has 'ideas'. A very sophisticated neural network could look like it is 'thinking' about ideas, but quite simply be responding robotically to stimuli. Indeed some thinkers suppose that perhaps even humans don't have free will at all, and are only responding to stimuli in a predictable way that could be copied with the right computer set up with the right pre-conditions.

Regardless of whether it is truly free thought or not I think one can characterize ideas as those things which are self experienced as free, and go on further to say that there is a marked difference in this activity in humans verses other animals.

I think that there may be some 'idealism' going on in other higher mammals such as gorillas and dolphins. If so they may, to some extent fall into the same bucket as we humans which I am attempting to describe here.

So there is one truth based on facts of materialism and this is the dharma.

Because of the specific nature of our material reality (i.e. how our brains are structured), humans are idealistic, and this brings suffering. This is a bit of a recast of the first nobel truth. And, I think it is an important difference.

The less a living organism is 'thinking' (lets use the proxy sentient, for this) the less it suffers. Even sentients might not be the right word here. I think dogs are very sentient, but I think most of their behavior is materialistic. They are just responding to stimuli and don't have a strong conscious experience of situations. At least not anywhere near as strong as humans. They do not sit around pondering, for example, what the semantic difference might be between 'idealism' and 'materialism'.  When they get an itch, they scratch, and they don't think 'my, I've got an itch, I should scratch it. Could this be a Zika mosquito bite?' while they do so.

So I with GB has formed his first noble truth as 'For humans, life is suffering'. And in this I embrace the more general meaning of suffering, which is a type of discontent. This discontent comes from idealism. Thinking (of the type I am trying to express here - not just any brain activity) is idealism.

Therefore, contemplating materialism is idealism.

Our idealism gives rise to suffering. The various ideas we get about what's going on bring us to be discontent.

We cannot escape idealism. It is our nature.

And this is where my current concepts appear t diverge from Nishijima-roshi's. I think the 'purpose' of zazen, or perhaps better said as its fundamental benefit, is a balance of our idealistic nature verses our materialism.

In zazen we express our materialism concretely by simply sitting and letting it be. The sounds the temperature on our skin, the comfort (or not) in our muscles, the smells, the sights, are all our materialistic nature 'manifesting'. Usually in life our idealism dominates our awareness. We operate as all ideals with a few headlines now and then from the real material worlds. In zazen we can 'see' our idealism manifest with our materialism. They both can sit there manifesting without us chasing one or the other with more ideas.....sometimes and for short periods. Then ideas arise. But we can practice not chasing them.

In this, is the one reality accessible? All I can say at this point is I think so. The reality is we are idealistic. Ideas are not truth, not the dharma, but the dharma includes us as idealists. Ideas can express the truth. That is there original purpose I think. We humans, came to the ability of forming stories about the world around us, which afforded us survival. The more correct the stories are the more useful they might be to our continued survival. But we are also in a place in many societies where survival is so inherently built into to fabric we live in that off-ideas (errors) do not bring quick death, and so can be perpetuated.

We cannot directly see the truth beyond seeing our materialism and knowing it is colored with idealism. We can see the power of our idealism to color our experience of the world, and strive to 'dial down' the weight we give it in our lives.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Grundabwesendenangst and Alpha bits.

I just saw a post from a friend that included an interesting graphic related to the impact an early, clained to be flawed, medical 'study' had on the anti-vaxer movement.

I've blogged before about how there seems to be a instintual drive in humans to come up with a story to explain things. When we get it right it's very helpful to our existance.

The anti-vaxers may not as a whole be 'wanting to believe' in a medical conspiracy, or if they are, it may be driven by a more primative fear of not being able to come up with a more believable story.

I've decided a name for this basic fear of there not being a reason. To riff off of classic, cliche, Freudian terms it's cobbled roughly in German as Grundabwesendenangst.

This primal urge to explain in a way we can accept and relate to drives the anti-vax movement, the government-did-it theories of 9/11, and belief in gods. It is so much easier to think of an agency, whether it be a god or a kabal of evit pharmacutical companies that cause badness, than to comtemplate a more complex, apparently random, chain of cause and effect that brings disaster.

When fears point to some large agent, it is an echoe, a proxy, of our need for the alpha leader in a tribe. When we characterize the alpha we have hopes of relating to it. Overlay the US legal penchant and we can call it evil an hope to erradicate it, but this still causes the theory of agency to arise.

We can't think of how a small group halfway around the world could decided to drive planes into our buildings. We can't hope to relate to them as alphas. We don't understand how to lay on our backs and submissively show our bellies so they will not hurt us. We don't know how to engage them in an alpha challenge..... so it can't be them. It must have been our own government with whom we have a much more definable, comprehendable agency relationship.

Tribal instinct allows us to accept evil as long as it is alpha evil we can relate to in agency.

I'm not saying this is an absolute, but it is a strong influence on how we, how I, might tend to behave. I assume some primative parts of me are always on the lookout for the comfort of alpha agency. That's why even in Zen, the sangha wants "the master", and why contemplating "just don't know" can be liberating (and extremely nerve racking). When there is an agent boss, there is reason and our Grundabwesendenagnst is calmed.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

There Is No Screen. "You" are Jello.

 

Lately I have been trying to comprehend my consiousness, and have been churning mainly on the visual side of it. When I open my eyes I have this sense of seeing a "world out there" in which my head is positioned.

Since the dawn of photography, I'll hazard the guess, people think of consious experience as a sort of camera box. It is a sort of Pacific Rim (the movie) "Jaeger" model. There is equipment which gathers visual images and projects them via lenses (old school) or flat screen TVs (new school) to a 'person' type object living between the ears that percieves them. There are countless movies and pictures depicting this model.

Those models are, of course, an onion that can never be peeled. If one accepts a humanoid consciousness that is within ones brain percieving all the sensory input, then what is going on in that humanoids head? As the person said (I think), "It's turtles all the way down from there."

The truth is much more bizarre. All the signals that my brain processes that appear to me as me sitting in a particular place, seeing and hearing certain things with a strong sense of locus, of specific location, do not actually exist themselves in any fixed locus.... sort of.

I have the impression that the sights I see are data that is being captured by equipment (eyes) and transmitted (by nerves) to "me". I have the impression "I" inside my head have aview through biological portholes on what is going on out thier. Likewise for hearing, touch, a sense of attittude (airplane lingo- pitch, yaw and roll), and so on. I have the sense, in the simplest form, that, e.g., my eyes are a long tunnel, letting sights "out there" get to me "in here".

What blows my mind these days, and is very hard to mentally grasp, is that that is absolutley a false analogy. There is no projector room in my head. There is no team of little "mission control" people veiwing data on screens and speakers and providing the experience of "me." The brain is, poetically speaking, jello. It is a soggy blob of neurons. The physical reality of "me" is a tangle of bio-circuits with electrical potentials and chemicals actions going on at a furious rate.

Think of this.... This experience I so earnestly feel as real and in 3D is truely just an arrangement of chemicals and potentials in a pot of goo.

I experience nothing "directly". This "me" that I feel is just electrical potentials. That is why there are optical and audio illusions. I have some limited sense organs that convert physical phenomena into bio-electrical signals, which come into a pot of jelly that manifests and experience of beingness.

If all my inputs were shut down (ala Cat Stevens, "If I ever loose my eyes, all my colors, all run dry"), would "I" even exist, I wonder.

This begins to resonate for me with the notion from the ancients that "subject and object" are both in me. The place in which I write this is truly a mystery. I am an amazing manifiestation of signals. What "I see" is not projected on a screen. I am the electric field inside. Yikes!

 

 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Future Past Theories

Think of a pan of BBs tilted.

Think of that small wave front on the beach that children love to chase.

Think of a line of domino's with one now falling.

Think of a room filled with mouse traps set with ping pong balls and one just sprung.

Now is a cascade of cause/outcome. A wave-front of instant coming into being and dropping away.

'Past' is a theory of what has happened but it has no nominal existance. It is not there.

Now drop the pan of BB's analogy.

Drop the domino's analogy.

Drop the ping pong balls.

Really only the beach wavefront is close.

One can imangine the myriad and unknown influences.

Think of how quantum physics tells us some outcomes are not predicatable. What happens can only be known when it happens, not before.

That is the future.

Also not nominal, non-existant, not foreseeable

The 'future' is a theory now of what might be, but it is not yet there to walk into.

And yet, thank God, I can still make coffee.

Not Not

Saying it's 'survival of the fitest' brings some sort of judgement into it. We tend to anthropomorphisize (?) with observations such as 'the giraff developed a long neck in order to reach higher leaves.' There is no will in evolution. The things that continue, do so because conditions support/allow/dictate. There seems to be no English word that does not carry some judgement flavor (support/allow/dictate). There is no choice available to a thing in its continuing or not. Quite simply the universe demands my existence.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

A Decidedly Strange Story

Rules are related to decision. When one encounters a rule, the presumption is they will consider their pending action and decide to do it or not, depending on how it aligns with the rule.

Rules depend on decision.

If one could explain to a dog there is a rule about tail wagging it would be pointless. A dog wags its tail based on the circumstance it is exposed to, not because it decides to wag its tail.

In this sense, the precepts should not and cannot be rules because decision does not play a significant role in how a person actually behaves.

Decision, quite literally, is a thin layer over a largely automatic and independent brain core. 'Decision' is likely just another word for what in a mind acts as 'story'.

I think 'story' should really be the name of what humans have in the brain that is unique, and perhaps is slightly shared by other higher sentients. 'Story' was an evolutionary differentiator. It became a capability in early humans and because it allowed early humans to put 2 and 2 together and come up with a prediction of future outcome, it provided for better survival, and so got 'amplified'.

Story provided early humans with an effective logic such as 'When the sky is a certain color and the wind just so, rain will soon follow' and 'When I rub one stick into another it releases the fire inside', even more so.

The catch is that our stories feel real. They are constructed from the same brain processes that deal with real sensory perception, and so when the story strikes, when a brain starts running a story, it can seem as if the contents of the story are actually playing out. Recent studies have started to identify that the way the brain reacts when one is truly immersed in a good book, is the same, or very similar, to how it reacts when responding to 'real life.'

That, I think, is the curse that Buddha was attempting remedy. Suffering is the 'story' part of our brain reacting to the world around us. Objectively, suffering does not exist in any particular set of conditions, but the story our brain creates from those conditions, the predictions of the future in the story, actually does trouble us.

 

Similarly decisions feel very real, as if they do impact our behavior. I cannot claim they have no impact, but I do think the impact they feel like they have is more story than truth. Largely, decisions are a story we tell ourselves.



I think decision does play a role in changed behavior... in a sense. I think of it more as 'training' than 'decision'. "I will never again xyz' is decision that I think does not work, particularly if it is in light of "Every day in the past I have xyz-ed".

The more effective form of change through reflections is something like 'Whenever abc occurs I tend to xyz'. This logic accepts that my tendance to xyz is a behaviour, a reaction to stimuli, rather than a 'decision.'

When the story of ourselves is counter to what is really going on in ourselves, we start to loose any hope of real change, and are left with only seeming change. Overt or hidden hypocrisy. Because our story and our feelings do indeed originate from two different parts of the brain, we can indeed have two different influences running in our 'mind'. e.g., fact:'I am really angry at Joe' and story:'I am not the sort of person who becomes angry.'

When our story more nearly matches reality, we have a better chance of affecting who we are in total. e.g., fact:'I am really angry at Joe' and story:'Wow, I am really angry at Joe, and this is what I am going to do'. When we recognize our selves in this way we have a better chance of taking the bull by the ring in its nose and leading it.

 

Just like feelings, it must be true that the story which occurs is in some sense inherent programming. It is not something we invent each time in the moment. It too is set in the configuration of neurons, but it is plastic. Somehow we can train it, and yes in some ways that training occurs through decision... the story of our story

 

I think that is the real value of meditation. To rest our stories enough to see our feelings, our reactions, going by in real time. or perhaps it is development of a third sense which can see both story and feeling/reaction occuring. A meta-story perhaps?

 

Karma Quip

 

 

This is not how Karma works. There is no "judgement" machine working in the world that tracks good and bad and then assigns a just outcome to a person. The universe does not pick and choose. It just functions..... cause linking to affect linking to cause... a wave front of instances tumbling 'forward' in time.

 

So what's the lesson of karma? Why worry? Why care? Because when I am experiencing choice (whatever that might really be) I can consider what sort of wave front I would like to start. But even this smacks of picking and choosing, doesn't it?

 

Perhaps its more a concept of harmonic vibrations ("new age" apologies). When one string on an instrument vibrates in harmony with another, it is not by choice, but by natural inclination. It simply *is* in harmony with the other. The more I can relax (?) into a natural self, the more I will vibrate in harmony with the universe around me. Simply by not doing, and not-not doing I become harmonic.

 

When I am discordant, the lesson of karma observes the bad waves can come crashing back to me. But the lesson of karma is not that picking and choosing yields the better outcome.

 

The slogan above should perhaps be, then, "Have the day headed your way".