Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Subconscious Karmic Oxen

I guess I think this is pretty important as I have muted the American Idol finale to try and capture it.


I have been wondering a lot lately about free will. Driven mainly by observing my own desire to behave differently, and failing to do so with great consistency. In a book I have recently read about the brain and emotions and feelings and fairly recent findings about conscious vs. subconscious (or unconscious) activity, there was a reference to how much we humans love to have a good story. Perhaps I should say this more precisely as we tend to produce stories, since "love" leans too far towards a conscious, selectable behavior or preference. Our drive for story is probably an evolutionary advantage. But let me give the example and then continue the commentary.

Due to various biological or physical events, some people can end up with brains where the right half no longer communications with the left half. If I am remembering this correctly, one of the interesting consequences is that one eye can feed information into the "logical" side of the brain, and cause the body to take action, while the linguistic side does not know what that eye has seen, yet strives to explain what's happening. I'm sure I've mis-remembered the fine points but the gross picture is the important part (I'll try and correct this when I get back to my bookshelf and can site the study that explored this).

So the basic scenario is a group of people that can be queued to take action, but the "explainer" part of their brain is unaware of the command. They can be queued, for example, to wave their hand by means of an request written on a card that only the correct (action-side linked) eye can see. Up goes their hand and they wave. The interesting bit happens when they are asked to explain why they just waved their hand. All kinds of completely sincere rationale come out... they were stretching, or they thought they recognized a certain doctor walking down the hall. Nothing even coming close to the truth that an index card was presented to them asking them to wave their hand.

We have to have a story. We have to explain. And this drive to explain in some plausible manner does not have to be "true" to be true.

Part of this may be a drive to satisfy the group. To give a reason that will not get us kicked out, requiring us to fend entirely for ourselves. And part of this may be the simpler drive to always try and create a theory, a story, of how A is connected to B so that we can predict outcomes. There is significant difference between these two motivations but I suspect they are both at play. Explaining our actions in a way that meets social norms keeps us in the group, and the drive to knit events together with rationale keeps us alive (provided our story is a good approximation of reality).

The next part of my thesis requires one to accept that there are conscious and unconscious brain processes. Unconscious, as I intend it, only means brain activities that are outside our awareness. The examples for purely "mechanical" things are fairly easy to accept. After we learn to ride a bike or catch a ball, we are not aware of the myriad of decisions and observations and muscle commands that must be done to accomplish these now simple tasks. It becomes a little more difficult to accept that we have emotions that are driven by unconscious/subconscious processing, or that we make decisions based on them. However, if we can accept the brain as an evolved organ, it becomes easier to see the relationship between the two.

For me, the evolution of the brain is like a research and development laboratory on a college campus that has been around since the start of the industrial revolution, or perhaps rather like the international space station. It originally had some basic functions that it executed well. Then new functionality was needed (read: provided better survival) and more sophisticated systems were installed, but they had to go on top of the original work, not replace it, so a patchwork developed. The original, old functionality is there, but is over-layed with the new high tech stuff. And perhaps in the human brain there are several such layers of functionality.

In our brains there are very good sub-conscious systems that do the basics, keep us alive, get impressed by traumatic events so we are extra cautious (or angry, or scared) when similar conditions arise. And these are overlaid by higher functions such as intellect and general conscious thought.

So, let me try and link these two. We are driven to a story and there is "decision" making going out outside of our awareness, but still withn "us" (i.e. in our subconscious). This is what makes "free will" a difficult concept. It is possible that we have lots of free will, and just don't have the focus required to execute to the plan, or it may be that free choice is not as common as we think, but we develop explanatory excuses because we must have the story.

In other words, our subconscious drives us to an "inevitable" decision (or at least a highly pre-conditioned one), but we explain it as free will acting.

I may resolve in the morning that I will sit zazen at night. It's what I want to do. It's important to me. I will do it. There is a tremendous feeling of free will in this. I have made the decision to sit zazen tonight and I will. Then, when bedtime rolls around, I find I have not indeed sat zazen. I'm disappointed with myself and I'm struggling to know why I can't just sit. I think to myself "I have free will to do this, why isn't it getting done?"

I think rather than having  ubudant free will, we are actually more trapped by decisions in the sub-conscious that we cannot observe directly happening (nor influence immediately), followed by excuses that may make us feel like our decision was free will. Just like the brain-split people that wave and have a good reason why, that totally misses the truth. when I take an action or do not take an action, it may feel like I know exactly why, but that has nothing to do with the true motivating decider, the sub-conscious.

Unfortunately, poor presentations of psychology, and perhaps poor understanding of brain function has lent a sinister tint to the sub-conscious. Like it is some sort of demon that controls us outside of our will. A more relaxed holistic view could be helpful. Our selves have an action/feeling controlling component that we can access (the conscious) and a component that we cannot access (the subconscious), but both together, along with the non-decisional automatic reflexes (like heart beating), make up our "us", our "I". I am driven by what I can experience as thinking, and I am driven by what I can't experience as thinking, but is, nonetheless, me.

So what loads up this subconscious decision maker? I think this is linked to the concept of Karma.

For me, Karma is just a passive law of cause and effect. It is not a guided retribution. It is only the fact that if you do something, it has results. If it is a dis-harmonious sort of something, it can ripple like falling dominos and circle back and bite you. Yelling a your spouse typically gets you yelled at. Kindness tends to beget kindness. But truthfully the way thoughts, and actions and physical things interact is far beyond predictable, except in the grossest, most static though experiments, so karma cannot be used as a tool for specific decisions, but rather a general guiding observation.

Brains are all about decisions, in the neural network sense. Its not always a "decision" like should I have caf or decaf today, but various stimuli from our senses both conscious (sight, hearing, skin-feeling) and unconscious (thinking, but also some nervous system input, like our respiration rate, or the state of our intenstines) (and counting conscious thinking as a sense), these stimuli are weighted in our neural connections and produce an action outcome. We may experience it as free will, but much of it is predetermined by the stimuli and neural weighting.

The subconscious part of the decision process is where karma comes in. All the history of what we have experienced physically as an organism, and absorbed through our feeling-experience in life, along with our genetic makeup which also reflects past actions, ...all of this past cause and effect is at work in our subconscious and has a huge influence on what we actually do (despite what our story telling may say about it).

Thus, I currently see my subconscious life as the current sum of my karma. Its not "retribution" or "just deserts", its just the unaccessible weighting on my decision processes that is informed by past events, and genetics. Karma is also the sum total of the exact physical situation I find myself in. To put it rather crudely, everything up till now has resulted in now, and despite what I think is going on, most of it has been outside my conscious awareness.

So what does this have to do with oxen? Well, I was thinking over this situation of the conscious me that thinks it is in control and knows what's going on, and this unconscious part of me that is plodding along in its own karmic direction, largely uninfluenced by what my thinking goes through, and the ox herding pictures came to mind. A big "aha", at least for now.

The ox can represent our karma, our unseen self that reacts in ways not entirely available to our conscious mind. The ox-herder is our thinking self. The "I" we are most familiar and cozy with. Thus the path of learning becomes clearer.

1. Seeking the ox is wondering "what the heck is going on". What am "I". What is "this."
2. Finding the tracks, is the first glimmer that "this", that "suffering", is related to my perceptions, thought patterns, karma, it is not a static fact of the world as it is.
3. Catching sight of the ox may be the first clear perception during zazen that the "I" mind is much more active than reality requires. The fire just keeps burning.
4. Seizing the ox is struggling with this newly shattered concept of "I". This broken "I". The coming to realize that we are indeed picking and choosing and there is no real need for it. It is identifying the attachments that defy logic.
5. Taming the ox, is learning to accept the plodding subconscious direction of our karmic selves. Coming to terms with the things we cannot change. Realizing the difference between what we feel and what we can chose to do.

I will go no further, as this is the limit of my experience, and what seems like understanding. It is a model that works for me now, but I may abandon it tomorrow. It is a way of describing my experience with my self, and what I have seen as my subconscious activity. It is how I frame the disconnect I experience between what seems like my "will" and what I find myself doing as action.

I should add that seeing part of me, my subconscious, as an ox is very important in developing compassion for myself and others. Susan Edmiston and Leonard Scheff wrote a wonderful book on  anger called "The Cow in the Parking Lot." Which in part noted how we would feel much different over losing a parking place to a befuddled stray cow vs. another driver. Likewise we must accept there are large aspects of our decision processes, and the decision processes of others, that are sub-conscious karmic oxen. If we approach herding ourselves or herding them with this compassion and insight, life has less suffering.

I hope this made some sense.

[note - many revisions to improve clarity after original post]

6 comments:

Susan Edmiston said...

Dear Lauren,

Thanks so much for mentioning "The Cow in the Parking Lot"!

Susan Edmiston

NellaLou said...

Enjoyed the post. The explanation of karma especially good. And how you link it with the ox metaphor. I never thought of it in those terms before.

Lauren said...

Susan,
Thanks for stopping by and leaving a note. And thanks for the book. I found it very useful (am amusing) for my own self-work.

NellaLou,
I'm glad the post had something useful to you. It's probably not an orthodox rendering of concepts (there's that pesky ox again), but it's a framework that works for me now. Cheers!

MyoChi said...

Is there any thing we can chose at all? Who is making the choice? and why is the one making the choice different for you than for me?

Lauren said...

The universe is a creature with 10,000 "I's". There must be some chosing going on, or there would not be any creatures that require "saving." The training of an ox is a far different task than what we experience in our conscious inner monologue.

Anonymous said...

Funny Picture