Sunday, January 26, 2014

No Unchanging Self: The Plastic Pachinko Machine

Much is written about the NON-existence of "Unchanging Self". Semantically this nominal is not so inaccurate [though I wonder about this sentence, itself]. The problem arises with the analogies then given. A recent one I read likened ones self to a stream ever changing and flowing. It is in such extreme analogies that I think there is some harm. People may assume their experience of self is 100% mutable. That if they only did the right magic stuff they could suddenly become entirely different. That old fears and scars and modes of suffering could be made to vanish.

A further harm in the analogies is that it gives a sense that my experience of self is fundamentally nothing; a chimera, a ghost, a lie my ego insists on telling because it is undisciplined and immature.

The first point to be clear about is that the locus of self is absolutely fixed. I experience 'me' via my brian and the associated physical neurological and biological systems in my body. I will grant that perhaps there is some new frontier in fine detail related to this in the recent findings regarding bacterial and perhaps even viral 'bioms' that encompass human bodies (each person carries more cells/objects [for viruses] with 'foreign' DNA than 'self' DNA), but generally speaking my experience of 'I' is limited to the physical extent of my nervous system. And more importantly, how 'I' gets represented to my consciousness is entirely occurring in the various organs of the brain.

If this is accepted, that 'self' arises from the physical structure of the nervous system, grossly represented in the brain, then 'self' is changing only to the extent that the physical structure of the brain is changing. The physical structure of the brain is largely un-changing.

I repeat, the physical structure of the brain is largely un-changing.

Additionally, it is also important to understand that he brain is not a homogenous bowl of jello. Yes, I doubt anyone actually thinks of it this way, but compared to what it really is, I think for many it might be the "same difference."

The human brain has evolved over eons. It might be even better to say that the brain which is now human has so evolved, because the structure of the human brain has been carried forward by the species that predate humans in our evolutionary chain.

The major steps in brain structure are more layered, than homogonized. That's why I like to think of the structures of the brain as 'organs', though 'regions' is likely more correct, the exact physical boundaries being uncertain. Some specifics from the brain-organ-soup are autonomic system, brain stem, medulla, limbic, visual cortex, audio cortex, pre-frontal cortex [this list is a bit of a cock-up so here's a link to a nice Wikipedia list]

So, the point becomes that a very large percent of the brain is fixed in structure. The means by which I experience sight, is essentially the same throughout my life. The means by which I hear, beat my heart, 'know' to breath, is largely fixed. Many of my base characteristics are also fixed. How I process fight or flight, how I wake up and become drowsy (e.g., the circadian rhythm). And there are structures more or less permanent that formed when I negotiated high-stress (i.e., important) events in my life. The wounds from early experience such as a fight in childhood, or significant lack of parental care. My biology, DNA inheritance, and early experience all layer in my brain, giving rise to my 'self' (see earlier posts such as "sub-conscious karmic oxen", and "to understand your mind, understand a tree").

There is also a part of my brain that is plasitc. From a high frequency plasticity which deals with ever changing sensory inputs such as sight and sound and location and position and temperature; to a lower frequency plasticity dealing with long and short term memory.

My feelings, my sense of what is going on, my suffering, is a complicated mix, I think, of my underlying fixed aspects and the more plastic aspects of my brain. It's rather like an inverse pachinko machine. An 'idea' (a neurological impulse wave from) gets launched by my sensory and other primitive reaction organs and starts its way towards consiousness. It gets pinged and bopped around by various neural connects (the pins in this pachinko machine) that are both essentially fixed (e.g., the structure of my medulla) and plastic (my cortex), until it ends up as a thought or action that I can experience consciously.

Perhaps this has been too much of a walk into minutia, so back to the point.....

Much of how I experience life is fixed. However, with practice I can exercise ways of thinking that, in a sense, either allow me to add new layers of pins in my pachinko machine, or bend the ones that are there so the same sort of situational inputs are experienced differently in my consciousness.

Some terrible childhood trauma-remembering bundle of neurons might still fire off when an analogous situation is presented to me in my adulthood, but I may be able to layer some new pins (or bend some existing ones) that divert the conscious result from panic to "okay."

It may even be possible that I can change the gross course of the panchiko balls so that sensory experience comes more directly from 'mechanical' rather than 'interpretive' parts of my brain. i.e., so that I can learn to see, hear, experience without using my judgement channels (my judgement organ pathways), but get a more direct feed from my visual or audio cortex.

There is a very large part of the self that is, indeed, permanent, and a very important aspect of the nature of experienced self is that it is also plastic. Self does change and it can be retrained. But I am here. and I am permanent. Not in the geological sense of time, but in the sense of having substance while I am. I am a pachinko machine to be reckoned with*.

[* for Chief Inspector Endeavor Morse, "I am a pachinko machine with which to be reckoned" ????]

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Are These Grapes, And Are They Sour?

There is a Buddhist author whose recent book I enjoyed. I decided to join his mail stream. It never seemed to have any direct information, but notices of lots of courses I could attend, and videos and tapes to buy. 

I received notice of a retreat I could attend; "a rare opportunity." But I had to meet at least one of these qualifications....

1. Have attended Heart of Living Levels 1, 2, and 3 (all three levels) and completed the practice requirements
2. Have attended the Way of Liberation Level I or Mahandramudra Level I with  and completed its practice requirements or will complete them prior to the retreat
3. Have completed the full preliminary practices (the 4 x 100,000 ngondra)
4. Have received pointing out teachings from a qualified Buddhist lineage holder (a tulku or rinpoche)
5. Have had a daily meditation practice for at least five years and attended either group or solitary practice retreats (with 6+ hours of formal meditation practice each day) under the guidance of a Buddhist teacher for a total of at least thirty days

Sid' (aka "the Shyak") taught in open fields to whoever could attend. Ticking off boxes to "get there" is widely taught as not-the-best-way. Realization can come from hearing a stone bounce off a stalk of bamboo. 

This sort of qualified or exclusive monasticism is as deluded as chasing dollars on Wallstreet. 

I am told Buddha is within us all, and that I am exactly who I am supposed to be. 

"Realization" is available to anyone at any time. There is no course that has to be taken. No initiation rites that clear the way. 

Our primate minds dream up all sorts of connections that try to explain the mystery. This has served us well where there actually existed some cause-and-effect relationship for us to map. There actually was a reason for the death rate in the herd to climb when that cat was in the area. That was a very helpful theory. On the other hand the number of virgins in a volcano does not actually affect its likelihood to spew forth. That was a not-so-helpful theory. 

If I meditate for 30min morn and night.... If I have exactly 3/8" between stitches in my rakusu... If my voice trails off just so at the end of Chyodai Kesa no Ge....  *THEN* I will be the stuff that is ready for enlightenment. These are all deluded theories.

When the hand opens
What I am doing is what I am doing
When the hand opens
What I am doing is what is occuring
When the hand opens
What is, is
When the hand opens
..... mu .....

The turning step, the open hand, are not conditions locked up that require a specially shaped key to access.

The practices matter. It is much more difficult to see the gentle bud rising from the mud in the middle of a war, but the practices are not the place, and they are not the only path. 

Adopt the practices that are helpful. Ignore those that are not. Be open to these distinctions changing. 

The practices are not "the grape", and they can indeed be sour if done for the sake of getting grapes. The grape is never out of reach. Just extend your hand and pluck it.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

As If You're Really There

I recently read of some research showing a person's brain reacted just as if it was in the real situation when the person was reading an engrossing book.

I suspect writing to blogs and FB and the like also feels as if it were the real thing when one is really caught up in it.

Likewise when I am talking with someone face to face it probably feels like I am really interacting with them, but I am not.

I am trapped 'behind' my brain and mind which tweeks and colors and interprets all inputs to and outputs from an ever changing 'self'.