In these series of columns I’m using a lot of paragraphs of “Beyond The Self’[i] and add comments regarding the links I see with the Creative Interchange process. To me, Creative Interchange, is a process of inner transformation – and after reading this book I add – not only through dialogue, also through meditation. I’ve put my comments between vertical brackets and in italic. These series will give you a good insight of the content of the book and I recommend you to read and comment this brilliant book yourself.
[i]M. Ricard and W. Singer, Beyond the Self: conversations between Buddhism and neuroscience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.
INVESTIGATING THE SELF
The Buddhist monk deconstructs the idea of the unitary, autonomous self, whereas the neuroscientist confirms that no cerebral zone takes on a central role in the brain. The idea of the self as conductor is a convenient illusion to function in existence.
Let’s first examine why we entertain the feeling that we have an autonomous self. At any time, I feel that I exist, that I am cold or hot, hungry or replete. At every moment, the ‘I’ represents the subjective, immediate component of my experience.
There is also the story of my life, which defines me as a person. This is the continuum of all that I have experienced through time. The ‘person’ is the complex, dynamic story line of our stream of consciousness.
These two aspects, the real-time ‘I’ and the experiential continuum of the ‘person’ enable us to function in this world. There is no problem with these two. But then we add something else: the concept of an autonomous self.
We know that our body and mind change at every moment. [cf. the episode in one of the Systems Thinking in Action Key Note videos of Peter Senge when he asks the audience: “What is this?”, showing his right hand. He goes then on with is reasoning, this is not a ‘hand’, it’s a process] Yet we think that something within all this defines us now and has defined us through our life. We refer to this as ‘me’, ‘self’ or ‘ego’. Not content to be a unique continuum of experience, we assume that at the core of it all, there is a separate, unitary entity that is our true self, something like a boat that travels along the river of our experience.
Once we believe in such a self-entity, with which we identify, we want to protect it and fear its disappearance. This powerful attachment to the notion of self engenders the notion of ‘mine’: ‘my’ body, ‘my’ name, ‘my’ friends, and so on. [cf. the paragraphs in Anthony de Mello’s book “Awareness” regarding our ‘labels’]
We cannot but conceive that this self is a distinct, unitary entity, and despite the fact that our body and mind undergo ceaseless transformations, we obstinately assign to this self the qualities of permanence, uniqueness, and autonomy. The main effect of this belief is not a genuine sense of confidence but, paradoxically, an increased vulnerability. First by assuming that the ego is an autonomous, separate, unitary entity in the midst of our experience, we are basically at odds with reality. We only exist through interdependence, relations, mutual causality, and numberless causes and conditions. Our happiness matters of course, but it can only happen through and with the happiness of others. [cf. the ‘Purpose game’ I’ve learned from Charlie and I’ve ‘run’ hundreds of times to ‘prove’ that point!] Furthermore, the self becomes a constant target for gain and loss, pleasure and pain, praise and criticism, and so on. We feel that the self must be protected and satisfied at all costs. We feel aversion to anything that threatens the self and attraction to whatever pleases and reinforces it. This two basic impulses of attraction and repulsion give birth to a whole see of conflicting emotions – anger, craving, arrogance, jealousy, to name but a few – and, in the end, suffering. [cf. we are prisoner of our ‘demands and expectations’ box or ‘nine-dot’ box of our personal Vicious Circle and try to hide in our constructed, created ‘self’]
On one hand, it is natural and desirable to protect one’s life, avoid suffering, and strive to genuine happiness; on the other, it is a dysfunctional drive to protect the ego. From that exacerbated self-centeredness comes most afflictive mental states. When we entrench ourselves in self-centeredness, we also create a much deeper divide between the world and us.
An example. Let’s compare the stream of consciousness to the Rhine River. It has of course a whole history, but it is also changing all the time – “One can never step twice in the same river,” said Heraclitus – and there is no such thing as a “Rhine’ entity.
THE SELF EXISTS IN A CONVENTIONAL WAY
There is indeed a conventional, nominal self-attached to our body and mind. The concept is fine and functional as long as we don’t conceive it as being a kind of central, autonomous, lasting entity that constitutes the heart of our being.
The misconceived self is a projection, not an integral part of you that exists on its own. It is a mental construct detached form the roots of the person, and therefor needs continuous reassurance, reconfirmation, and efforts to make it appear as what you want it to be.
The conventional self is a mental projection. The Buddhist analytical approach aims at deconstructing this mental fabrication through logical and experiential investigation and comes to the conclusion that we are not that imaginary entity with which we identify ourselves but rather a continuous, dynamic stream of experience.
And we are certainly people, with a continuum of experience relating to a body and the outer world. Yet this continuum is in perpetual transformation, and we cannot find anywhere a singular well-circumscribed entity that would be the ‘one’, the concrete essence of our being. [cf. we are a created, though (hopefully) evolving, self toward an original self, a metaphor for our Intrinsic Worth/Self. Thus we are an ‘ongoing process’ surfing on the Creative Interchange Process]
THE SELF AND FREEDOM
The more sustained feeling of freedom is being unconstrained, is being in harmony with oneself. Real freedom is when the various drives, desires, and constraints within oneself are in harmony with one another. We are programmed to strive for novelty [i.e. we are born with the Creative Interchange Process], and the same time we have a strong inclination for bonding and stability [i.e. we are prisoner of the Vicious Circle] because, in such situations, there is no need for the intervention of the intentional self to settle conflicts by initiating a change. [i.e. we cling to the status quo]
These internal conflicts are basically related to two fundamental impulses of attractionto what is deemed pleasurable and repulsiontoward the opposite.
Inner conflicts are also unnecessarily created by an exacerbated sense of self-importance, as it becomes increasingly demanding. If you don’t feel the need to defend the self because you have understood its illusory nature, then you will be much less prone to fear and inner conflicts. True freedom means to be free from the diktats of this self [i.e. the demands and expectations of the Vicious Circle], rather than following every single fanciful thought that comes to mind. [i.e. jump to conclusion caused by intolerance for ambiguity]
WEAK SELF, STRONG MIND
It seems that many problems arise if one has a weak self that depends too much on others to define itself. Only then does one enter the vicious circle [sic!] of wanting and repulsion.
There can be quite different reasons for this. Some people are tormented by the feeling that they are unworthy of being loved, they lack good qualities, and they are not made for happiness. These feelings are usually the result of scorn or repeated criticism and contempt by parents or relatives. Added to this is a feeling of guilt: Such people judge themselves responsible for the imperfections attributed to them. [i.e. they are victim of their personal outside-in inducted Vicious Circle] Besieged by these negative thoughts, they constantly blame themselves and feel cut off from other people. For these people to go from despair to the desire to recover in life, we must help them establish a warmer relationship with themselves and to feel compassion for their own suffering instead of judging themselves harshly. From there, they will also be able to improve their relations with others as well. The benefits of cultivating self-compassion have been clearly shown by researchers and therapists such as Paul Gilbert and Kristin Neff.[i]
The illusory self wants to assert its existence by either over-demanding or defending itself as victim. A person who is not preoccupied by self-image, self-assertion, and so on is actually much more confident, neither a narcissist nor a victim. A person with transparent self is not vulnerable to pleasant and unpleasant circumstances, praise and criticism, good and bad image, and the like.
A so-called strong ego is in fact only strong in grasping and therefore more vulnerable because, within its self-centered universe, everything becomes either a threat or an object of craving. In addition, the stronger the ego, the larger the target you offer the arrows of outer and inner disturbances. Praise preoccupies you as much as criticism because it inflates your ego further and makes you worry about losing your good reputation. When ego grasping dissolves, the target disappears and you stay at peace.
The ego can attain only a contrived confidence built on unreliable attributes such as power, success, beauty, and fame and on the image that we want to project onto others. The sense of security derived from that illusion is eminently fragile. When things change and the gap with reality becomes too wide, the ego becomes irritated and depressed, freezes up, or falters. Self-confidence collapses, and all that is left is frustration and suffering. The fall of Narcissus is a painful one.
I think the main point here is to distinguish between a strong self and a strong mind. A strong selfcomes with excessive self-centeredness and a reified perception of a self-entity. A strong mind is a resilient mind, a free mind, a wise mind that is skillful in dealing with whatever comes one’s way in life, a mind that is not swayed by anger, craving, envy, or other mental disturbances. [i.e. a mind constantly transformed by living Creative Interchange from within]
By understanding the fundamental interdependence of oneself and others, of oneself and the world, we form the logical ground for developing altruistic love and compassion [through living Creative Interchange from within].
The clearer your realization that the self has a merely conventional existence, the less vulnerable you will be and the greater inner freedom you will gain.
Someone who can rest in a natural, unperturbed, selfless state of mind is not at all indifferent to others and aloof from the outer world but can rely on readily available inner resources [the characteristics and skills of the Creative Interchange process].
To recognize the effects of self-clinging clearly, you need to somehow let the self manifest in its full force and observe what it does in your mind. Then you have to investigate its nature and, having recognized its conceptual nature, deconstruct it. In other words, you should not ignore it but observe how it works and transform it into a state of freedom. At this point, genuine confidence will arise.
A person whom we call free is thus called because that person is free of all kind of fetters, whether the inner fetters of clinging or the outer fetters that come from unfavorable circumstances. Self-reliance comes with freedom, not with an emperor-like, overarching ego.
EGO AND EGOLESSNESS
People with a transparent self feel much more connected to others because many of our problems come from creating an artificial gap between self and others as being fundamentally separate entities. By doing so, the self negates its interdependence with the world and wants to confine itself within the bubble of the ego. The French existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre wrote “L’enfer c’est l’autre” (Hell is the other), Buddhism rather says, “Hell is the self”. Not the functional conventional self, but the dysfunctional superimposed self that we take as real and that we let rule our mind.
You can only truly be at home within the freedom of pure awareness, not within the bubble of self-grasping. The ego bubble [metaphorically the ‘Nine Dots’ or ‘Demands and expectations’ box of the Vicious Circle model] is a narrow mental space in which everything gravitates around the‘I.’ You actually form that bubble with the illusory hope that it will be easier to protect yourself within the confined space that constitutes a kind of refuge for the ego [metaphorically the cage of the bird in Henry Nelson Wieman’s Man’s Ultimate Commitment]. In fact, you have built an inner jail in which you are at mercy of the endless thoughts, hopes, and fears that keep swirling around within that bubble. This feeds an exacerbated feeling of self-importance and self-centeredness that thinks of nothing but achieving its immediate satisfaction, with little concern for others and the world, except for the ways in which it might use them or be affected by them.
People who are engrossed in self-centeredness often want you to experience the world the same way they do, lest they feel rejected. For instance, some may entertain pessimistic views about the world and other people, which lead them to distrust others. To feel appreciated, they want you to enter their ego bubble, adopt the same attitude as them, and function just like them. We could be quite prepared to earnestly take their viewpoint into consideration and be open to their way of being [i.e. appreciatively understanding their mindset], but we can’t adopt their way of thinking and worldview just to make them happy [i.e. appreciatively understanding a mindset does not equal adopting that mindset!].
THE SCOURGE OF RUMINATION
It is largely believed that psychoanalysis tries to create an integrated self, but the procedure differs radically from contemplative strategies. It emphasizes the role of the self, encourages the self to become the judge, and, contrary to meditation, encourages rumination, the exploration of conflicts.
In psychoanalysis, it’s indeed always about me, me, me, my dreams, my feelings and my fears with a lot of rumination about the past and anticipation about the future. The psychoanalytic approach is like trying to find some sort of normalcy within the ego bubble instead of breaking free of that bubble.
In Buddhist practice, one wants to break free from these entanglements, not just come to terms with them. The limpid awareness of the present moment is a complete freedom from ego grasping and rumination. Rumination is the scourge of meditative practice and inner freedom. Now, rumination should not be confused with analytical meditations, which will, for instance, deconstruct the concept of the independent self. Rumination is also different from the vigilant observation of your states of mind that will allow you to recognize the arising of an afflictive emotion and defuse the chain of reaction that usually occurs.
One of the outcomes of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is to distance oneself from those ruminations through mindfulness meditation.
Proper meditation cannot be considered a selfish endeavor since one of its main goals is to get rid of selfishness. Rumination is a troublemaker because it feeds endless chains of thought that keep people exclusively preoccupied with themselves. This is the opposite of remaining in the freshness of the present moment, in which past thoughts are gone and future thoughts have not yet arisen. You simply remain in pure awareness. Whatever thoughts might arise, you let tem go without leaving a trace. This is freedom.
The constructive effects of meditation must be maintained during the post meditation period. Meditation is a technique to escape from the vicious circle of negative thoughts, distrust, revenge, and deception. Those mental fabrications are contagious across the members of a social group. Once one begins to take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – as Ghandi said, if one keeps going on doing so, the whole world will become toothless and blind. The contemplative methods are created precisely to escape the vicious circle and negative thoughts.
Buddhists say that the signs of a successful meditation practice are a well-tamed mind, a vanishing of afflictive mental states, and a conduct that is in harmony with the inner qualities one has endeavored to cultivate. Meditation practice has to translate into real, gradual, lasting change in the way you experience your own inner life and the outer world.
WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?
Neurobiological evidence shows that there is no Cartesian center in the brain. Rather, we face a highly distributed system that consists of multiple interconnected modules that operate in parallel, each devoted to specific cognitive or executive functions. These subsystems cooperate in ever-changing constellations depending on the tasks that are to be accomplished, and this dynamic coordination is achieved through self-organizing interactions within the networks rather than through a top-down orchestration by a superordinate command center.
Our intuition suggests that our self or our mind is somehow at the origin of our thoughts, plans and actions. It is only through neuroscientific exploration that we discover that there is no singular locus in the brain where this intentional agent could be located. All we observe are ever-changing dynamic states of an extremely complex network of densely connected neurons that manifests themselves in observable behavior and subjective experiences.
The brain is a complex system with nonlinear, self-organizing dynamics. It has been adapted by evolution, education, and experience to pursue certain goals and actually can accomplish all the functions we attribute tot the self – at least this position is held by the majority of cognitive neuroscientists today. Those nonlinear, self-organizing systems are creative of behavior that a naïve observer would characterize as intentional, goal directed, and sensible. We tend to deny that such properties can emerge from the dynamics of our brains because we have intuition for the complexity and nonlinearity of this organ.
We need to translate a complex process into something simpler and that we feel more comfortable imagining that there is a unitary entity that is in charge. The problems start when you conceptualize this process as being a truly existent, distinct entity.[ii]
Mental constructs like the self or ego provide simplifying explanations, but at some point they stop being helpful because they do not reflect reality. Conversely, if instead of perceiving the ego as an inner lord we see it as an interdependent stream of dynamic experience, it might be a bit uncomfortable at first, but it helps to free us from suffering, for the very reason that it offers a vision more attuned to reality
FREE WILL, RESPONSIBILITY, AND JUSTICE
THE PROCESS OF DECISION MAKING
Does free will exist? If all our decisions are made by neuronal processes of which we are only partly conscious, are we really responsible for our actions?
For a neurobiologist, it is obvious that neuronal processes that take place in his brain prepare everything a person does. As far as we know, these processes follow the laws of nature, including the principle of causality.
Neurobiology posit that all mental processes – including those that appear to be remote from material processes such as having feelings, reaching decisions, planning, perceiving, and being conscious – follow neuronal processes rather than initiate them. In such a framework of explanations, it is inconceivable that an immaterial mental entity makes the neural network execute what this entity wants them to do to generate an action. Neurobiology takes the strong position that whatever enters our consciousness is the consequence of neuronal activity in the large number of centers in the brain that need to cooperate to produce the specific states that we experience as perceptions, decisions, feelings, judgments, or will. Thus, from this perspective, all mental phenomena are the consequence and notthe cause of neuronal processes.
Isn’t it true that all you can really speak about are correlations between neural processes and mental events? The question of causality does not appear to have been solved so far. I may just as well argue that directly training the mind affects neuroplasticity. Se there seem to be a two-way, mutual causation.
Neurobiology has more than just correlational evidence. Specific lesions lead to specific loss of function, and electrical or pharmacological stimulation of particular brain systems induce specific mental phenomena and feelings of well-being or fear, and modifies perceptions and actions in predictable ways. If you train your mind, there must be a motivation for you to do so. This motivation is a reflection of a particular neuronal state (i.e., specific neuronal activity patterns that eventually generate the motivation patterns that make you sit and contemplate). Thus, once sufficient motivation has built up, you will sit and engage in mental training, which is again associated with specific activation patterns. If sustained over a sufficient long period of time, these patterns in turn will induce changes in the couplings among neurons and thereby generate long-term modifications of brain functions – just as training a movement will change the brain architectures responsible for the generation of the movement.
The arguments of others also have a neuronal correlate in the brain of the receiver. A verbal argument is translated by the ear into neuronal activity; this is decoded semantically in the speech centers of the brain, and the resulting neuronal activation patterns then impact other brain centers and ultimately those that prepare the decision.
Thus, neuronal activity in the decision networks can converge toward a result – the decision – before the subjects become aware of having decided. [I have the strong impression that the authors do not appreciate enough the difference between the concepts conclusion and decision. In my mind I ‘hear’ the sentence as follows: “Thus, neuronal activity in the conclusion networks can converge toward result – the conclusion – before the subjects become aware of having concluded]
The ‘deliberator’ is, however, a neuronal network, and the outcome of the deliberation, the decision [conclusion] is the consequence of a neuronal process that is in turn determined by the sequence of immediately preceding processes. Thus, the outcome of this process depends on all the variables that have shaped the functional architecture of the brain in the past: genetic predispositions, epigenetic effects of early imprinting, the sum of past experiences, and the present constellation of external stimuli. In brief, a pending decision [conclusion] is influenced by all the variables, that determine how a particular brain is programmed and all the influences that act on the brain in the moment of making the decision [conclusion].
Therefor, even if during the few tenths of a second preceding a decision [in fact aconclusion] there has been unconscious processing in the brain, the final decision is essentially the culminating point of a life-long experience.[to me (JR) I appreciatively understand all this as that the brain concludes and the free will decides. As being said the two authors are not seeing clear enough the difference between concluding and deciding, at least Wolf seem to see both as a mutual synonym, which they are not].
This also means that through mind training, we can fashion our conscious and unconscious processes, our ways of thinking, emotions, moods, and eventually our habitual tendencies. In particular, we are responsible for taking this process in the right direction and cultivating a moral, constructive way of being rather than pursuing unethical, harmful behavior. [A sound habit, to me (JR) is to have between the conclusion – of the brain – and the decision of the will a pause, during which we think things through using our values and thus our valuing consciousness].
The way we decide [conclude], the way our neuronal machinery converges toward a decision [conclusion], depends on all the variables that influence the dynamic state of the brain in the moment of the decision [conclusion]. Several factors have shaped the functional architecture of our brains – genes, developmental processes, education, experiences – as well as the influences of the recent past – arguments, context, emotional dispositions, and countless others.
Most people have limited awareness of their own consciousness, of the tiny mental process that keep occurring in the mind, as well as little, if no, perception of the pure awareness that is always present beneath mental constructs. While focusing on neurons and brain structure, we neglect to experience our own consciousness in the present moment, which could give us valuable insights into the nature of consciousness.
What you allude to here is maybe a form of meta-consciousness, the ability to be aware of being aware. To cultivate this meta-consciousness surely requires one to take a step back and escape from the hamster wheel, but why should reflections about underlying neuronal processes distract one from cultivating meta-awareness?
Because the capacity of working memory is limited and shows interindividual variability, the number of arguments that can be held simultaneously in working memory and weighed against each other differs from subject to subject.
Once the decision [conclusion] becomes conscious – “I want to do this, I want to steal, I want to lie” – even if that decision [conclusion] has been built up unconsciously in the brain and you have been driven to it, a regulatory process also takes place and says, “Hey, do you really want to do this? This doesn’t feel right.” I may sense that I cannot resist my urges and yet still struggle against them, so that a regulatory process takes place and modifies or overrides the initial decision [conclusion– you see to conclude is not the same as to decide; between the two you have – according to Matthieu – a regulatory process, which one could call the ‘reason test of the free will’]. Such regulatory processes exist and can be called on. They allow for emotional regulation. They can also be strengthened by trying repeatedly to exercise this regulation, reflecting on the negative consequences of your impulses on others and yourself, being inspired by role models, and so on. The a strong aspiration might come to your mind: “I really should not do this.” So although you may not be “responsible’ at a particular moment for wanting what you want and for the strong urges that arise, you have a certain responsibility to put this regulatory into action, instead of avoiding or suppressing it. You are responsible for putting into action the steps to become what you want to be in one month, one year, or the rest of your life [So you might not be ‘responsible’ for the conclusion, you still are responsible for the ultimate decision and thus action].
Apparently the organization of our brains is such that feelings of uneasiness are generated if set goals are not pursued. It seems to be the same uneasiness that drives us to resolve conflicts. In this way, repeated experience with the outcome of decisions, positive or negative, can eventually induce a lasting change in the functional architecture of the brain and hence its behavioral dispositions. This in turn will impact the outcome of future decisions [conclusions].
We can certainly improve our emotional regulations through learning. One of the roles of the higher functions of the human brain is precisely to allow for a sophisticated form of emotional regulation, which is again a form of responsibility.
My point was that at any time, even when we feel a strong urge to do something, we have the capacity to evaluate the degree of desirability of the action and master our will and mental strength to refrain from engaging in this unwholesome action, even if the urge is strong.
When you sense that a behavior is unwholesome, you are aware that you could use your ability to regulate your emotional impulses and yet still you ignore both of these facts, your liability or responsibility seems to be greater.
However, once language understanding starts, most of the rules and imperatives of conduct are communicated through verbal instructions and rational arguments. One is supposed to be aware of them and be able to include them in one’s deliberations. If one violate those rules, one is held guilty because one is supposed to respect them during the decision-making process. Again, we distinguish between actions resulting directly from one’s subconscious drives and those that we initiate intentionally after some conscious deliberations of the pro and cons. [Once again, Wolf, doesn’t make correctly the distinction between a conclusion and a decision].
Kant said that if you can internalize the rules that are imposed on you, the external imperatives for ethical conduct, such that they become your ownimperatives, then you are at peace. We should experience this more if this were possible to enhance the congruence between unconscious and conscious processes through mind training.
There can be a serious problem when the social imperatives set from the outside are not truly ethical, in the sense of being attuned to the well-being of others, but rather a dogmatic and oppressive, as may happen under a totalitarian system or in some of the oppressive ancestral traditions that led to slavery, human sacrifices, domination of women and so on. In such cases, it would be quite good and reasonable to feel at odds with the outer imperatives and not accept them blindly.
The philosopher Charles Taylor wrote, “Much contemporary moral philosophy … has focused on what is right to do rather than on what is good to be, on defining the content of obligation rather than the nature of good life, and it has no conceptual place left for a notion of the good as the object of our live and allegiance or as the privileged focus of attention and will”[iii]
As Francisco Varela also wrote, a truly virtuous person “does not act out of ethics, but embodies it like any expert embodies his know-how, the wise man is ethical, or more explicitly, his actions arise from inclinations that this disposition produces in response to specific situations.”[iv]
THE RESPONSIBILITY TO CHANGE
We may have no choice now about what we are; otherwise, everyone would certainly choose to be someone filled with admirable qualities rather than a criminal or sex addict, an object of contempt for others. We may also have no choice about the way we behave in the spur of the moment. But we have the responsibility to change when change is desirable, and we are responsible, to some extent, for not having engaged in a process of transformation in the past. [Thus, according, to Matthieu Ricard we are to some extent responsible for not having engaged in the Creative Interchange process].
Doing something when it can be done and seeking the right kind of help is part of our global responsibility.
Because everything is the result of causes and conditions, when all the causes for an event, whether in the brain or elsewhere, are gathered, that event has to happen. Yet over time we can create new causes and conditions and influence this dynamic process. This is the virtue of the mind training and of brain plasticity: Being exposed to new conditions induces brain changes, including in so-called unconscious processes. [What can change the mind, since the mind cannot change itself. Living the Creative Interchange process from within, what Matthieu Ricard calls ‘mind training’]
Instead of engraving judgments about people in stone, we should view them – and ourselves as well – as flowing, dynamic streams that always have a genuine potential for change.
Humans also go through a process of cultural evolution in which the transmitted traits are encoded not in genes but in codified moral conventions that get expressed in social conduct and habits. The important difference is that cultural evolution has an ‘intentional’ component because we intentionally design the architectures that impose the constraints for adaptation and selection. [So we can intentionally design the architectures for Creative Interchange].
Another strategy is to codify moral values and design education systems by which these values can be transformed into action-constraining imperatives that are internalized by individuals and transmitted from generation to generation. These are then complemented by normative systems that put further constraints on the range of tolerated behavior.
A third option is apparently favored by the Buddhist traditions, consisting of attempts to alter the behavioral disposition of individuals through mindfulness training. In all cases, the goal would be to eventually obtain as much agreement as possible between the outer imperatives and the inner dispositions., both being directed toward the good. [cf. Henry Nelson Wieman’s concept of the Greatest Good] The functional architecture of our brains can be modified by education, positive and negative experiences that act as rewards and punishments, insight, training, and practice. The incentives to change are provided by the reward systems in our brains.
Values and norms installed early in life, before the development of episodic memory, remain implicit and deeply anchored in our subconscious, and therefore they are experienced as integral parts of our personality. They are experienced as our own goals, drives, convictions, and moral judgments. Set points imposed on us during later life are more often explicit, we are conscious of their origin and therefore experience them as imposed social constraints that need not necessarily agree with our internal convictions. Nevertheless, we wish to comply with them to reduce conflicting states in our brains and strive for a coherent state.
We also fashion our culture through our thoughts, personal transformation, and intelligence. Individuals and cultures are like two blades that sharpen each other. Because it is possible to train our mind and gradually modify our traits, the accumulation of individual changes can also shape a new culture. [cf. my point of view regarding the transformation the transformation of an Organizational Culture through transformation of the individual ‘culture’ towards what I call the Creative Interchange Culture].
In the beginning, any practice is contrived and unnatural. With familiarization, we begin to do it well and with ease, and, finally, it becomes fully part of us. [cf. the practice of the Creative Interchange skills].
It is conceivable that practicing these novel attitudes over and over again eventually anchor them in brain structures that execute their functions without requiring cognitive control. In this case, the novel behavior would become more and more a new trait of character.
If a certain number of individuals can thus undergo personal change, this will naturally induce gradual changes in the surrounding culture [cf. W. Edwards Deming: “There is no change without personal transformation] – which will have a reciprocal impact on individuals.
We should exploit both options for change: working on the individual and designing interaction architectures for societies that provide incentives for peaceful behavior [these interaction architectures are the conditions in order for Creative Interchange to thrive].
FREE WILL AND THE RANGE OF CHOICES
The range of options available at any particular moment in time varies widely. The range of options can be large when there is no external pressure, no compulsive internal drive, when consciousness is fully awake, and there is ample time for deliberations and examining all possible outcomes. However, says Wolf, even in this optimal case, the taken decision [conclusion] is the only possible one; if another decision [conclusion] would have been taken, then it would have been the only one that the brain could come up with at that moment under these circumstances. Schopenhauer clearly recognized that we decide according to our wish and will, but we cannot want otherwise that what we actually wanted in the moment of deciding [concluding, since the decision is done after the conclusion: do I really decide to realize the conclusion?]
Assume that we don’t make use of our ability to consciously exert control over our impulses [through not using what I call the ‘reason’ test after I’ve made up aconclusion spurred up by a trigger – i.e. a dialogue in the time lapse between the impulse and the reaction; the proposed chain being impulse àconclusion àreason test àdecision àreaction]. Don’t you risk ending up with nothing more than a tautology: “At any moment, only what is can be?” Surely you cannot claim that at any moment, what is could have been otherwise. It is quite true that there is no point in denying what already is or demanding that what already is should be different. Yet we could possibly have prevented its happening, and we can certainly prevent it from happening again. This can be achieved, for instance, by acquiring new knowledge about what is desirable or undesirable to do and by training our minds. [cf the tool I’ve used thousands of times during my second Professional life: Root Cause Analysis].
Wolf comes here to a problem that he wants to address: Our legal system posits that people are in principle free to decide. If they do not decide the right way, they are considered guilty, and the depth of the guilt depends on the options available at the moment of decision. Put another way, the amount of attributed guilt is dependent on the amount of attributed freedom. However, ‘freedom’ in this context only extends as far as the range of options available at the moment of decision making. If this range of options is small because of identifiable inner or outer constraints, then one could argue that the person did not have much of a choice and any other person in this situation would have decided and acted similarly. [To me, Wolf, presents this a bit too much as a ‘Sophie’s Choice’, when in most cases one can created a third, better choice, through what I call the ‘reason-test’, which is in fact a crucial dialogue based on Creative Interchange, to find a better option and thus a better decision.]
Even if our will is not as free as our intuition suggests, then we are of course responsible for what we do because we are the agent: decisions are our decisions, and acts are our acts. We are the authors, and just as we want our merits to be attributed to us and rewarded, we also have to accept the sanctions for our misconduct.
The Buddhist view states that we are all sick because of ignorance, greed, hatred, craving and other mental toxins [i.e. the products of the Vicious Circle] and therefore need to follow the advice of a skillful physician – a qualified teacher – to undertake a treatment of inner transformation so that we may be cured of those mental toxins. You don’t retaliate against people for what they do under the sway of mental illness. They [We] need help from outside, from the wise and experienced persons who have insights on how all this happens and can show them methods to change. [Persons who help us to reconnect with our Intrinsic Worth, thus our intrinsic capacity for creativity, i.e. reconnect us with the Creative Interchange process, we’re born with] From their side, they need the intelligence to recognize the need to change and the determination to use appropriate methods to gradually bring about the transformation [i.e. the determination to live Creative Interchange from within, thus to use the CI ‘tools’].
LOOKING WITH THE EYES OF A DOCTOR
As already mentioned, in Buddhism we consider ourselves sick people who err in the cycle of conditioned existence, what is called samsara, or the world of mental confusion and ignorance [the world of our Vicious Circle]. This is not like the idea of inherited sin in Christianity, since it’s quite different. It is not a fundamental trait of human nature. It is rather due to having lost sight of our fundamental nature [our Intrinsic Worth]. When you are sick, you say, “I have the flu.” You don’t say, “I am the flu.” So the sickness that cause suffering are that of hate, craving, and other mental toxins. These sicknesses are not intrinsic but result from ever-changing causes and conditions [from the Vicious Circle we’re in]. Sickness is not the normal baseline of living but an anomaly that reduces our chance to survive. According to Buddhism, the normal healthy state, the basic human nature, which is also the fundamental nature of mind, when it is not obscured by mental clouds, is more like a nugget of gold that remains pure even when submerged in thick mud [like the Intrinsic Worth that remains pure even when submerged by the Vicious Circle]. So, Buddhism leans more toward the view of original goodness than that of original sin. [cf. Henry Nelson Wieman’s concept of the Greatest Human Good, which is, to him, the most complete transformation of the individual toward the qualities that life can yield and the fullest development of her/his humanity this world] This does not mean that hatred and obsession are not ‘natural’ and are not part of the repertoire of the human mind. We know that well enough! Rather, it means these afflictive states of mind result from mental fabrications that obscure our understanding of the basic nature of mind, pure consciousness, as the ore conceals the gold it contains. We need to differentiate the fundamental nature of our mind form the various afflictive mental states that lead to all kind of suffering. Accordingly, no one in this world is fundamentally evil but rather sick because of the effects of mental poisons. A person Is not fundamentally defined by his sickness.
Likewise, the basic nature of the man can be obscured by afflictive mental states, but pure awareness can always be recognized beneath the screen of deluded thoughts.
The nature of the mind is pure cognition or basic awareness. It can be populated by all kinds of content, all of which are impermanent and changeable. The potential for change always exists.
No one is intrinsically bad because mental constructs are impermanent. It may take time change the contents of the mind stream, and this process might be more or less difficult to achieve, but the potential of change always exists.
Change does not occur easily and all at once. It is a matter of beginning a process that will bring gradual change, with patience and perseverance. Of course, for that to happen, there must be at least some eagerness on the part of the dysfunctional person. Here, too, one may help that person become aware that he is not ‘fundamentally bad’ but some unfortunate aspects of his mind and behavior bring all kinds of suffering on others and himself, and he would be much better off if he accepted the idea of undertaking a process of change.
To be deeply deluded is a mark of fundamental ignorance, extreme distortion of reality, and a lack of compassion and understanding of the law of cause and effect. To consider hate as acceptable or even promote it as a virtue is the archetype of mental delusion.
BREAKING THE CYCLE OF HATE
Forgiveness is breaking the cycle of hate. It does not help to be caught in the same kind of hate that we want to punish. From the Buddhist point of view, there is no question of escaping the consequences of one’s actions. The notion of karma is nothing but the application of the general laws of cause and effect to the consequences of people’s motivations and actions. All actions have short- or long-term consequences. If you forgive someone and forgo retaliation, the person will still face the consequences of her actions.
IS THERE A SELF THAT BEARS THE RESPONSIBILITY?
From the Buddhist perspective, the self is nothing but a mental construct that we use to name our mind stream. There is no such thing as a separate, autonomous, unitary entity that we could pinpoint as being the ‘self.’ So it is not the self that is immaculate; it is the fundamental nature of our consciousness, our basic, primary faculty of knowing, which is not modified by its content. If we are able to refer back to this pure mindfulness, then we have a way to deal with afflictive emotions.
You train to become increasingly aware of the content of your mind so that you can rest in this awareness and continually recognize it without being carried away by your mental constructs and powerful emotions and without actively trying to suppress them [let them go!]
We need to experience this state of awareness and perceive awareness as being always present behind the screen of thoughts. We do have moments of peace, when we are spared for a while from the constant mental chatter that usually keeps our minds busy, when you sit quietly by the side of a mountain, for instance, or when you are exhausted after intense physical exercise. For a while, you may experience a quiet state of mind with few concepts of inner conflicts. The experience might give you a glimpse of what clear awareness, unencumbered by thoughts, might be. To recognize the basic component of awareness might give you confidence that change can indeed take place.
CAN ONE PROVE FREE WILL?
Matthieu: I intuitively feel that an element of consciousness is pushing the decision to prove ‘free will’ forward, and that my respect for reason and wisdom makes it important for me to clarify the issue of free will.
Wolf: This intuition is at the origin of the fascinating question of mental causation, the question whether thoughts or insights that appear in consciousness can influence future neuronal processes. This question is intimately related to theories of the nature of consciousness – a vast subject indeed, to which we should devote a separate discussion session (chapter 6).
ARCHITECTURE OF THE FUTURE
Trinh Xuan Thuan: “The uncertainty principle states that any measurement implies an exchange of energy. The shorter the time for the measurement, the more energy is needed. An instantaneous measurement would therefore require infinite energy, which is impossible. So the dream of knowing all the initial conditions with a perfect precision is mere delusion.”[v]
Interdependence, a central Buddhist concept, refers to a coproduction in which impermanent phenomena condition one another mutually within an infinite network of dynamic causality, which can be innovative without being arbitrary and which transcends the two extremes of chance and determinism. It thus seems that free will can exist within such an unlimited network of causes and conditions that include consciousness.
The brain is an established feature of complex systems with nonlinear dynamics, but it sounds counterintuitive to us because our cognitive systems generally assume linearity. Assuming linearity is a well-adapted heuristics because most of the dynamic processes that we have to cope with in daily life can be approximated with linear models from which we can derive useful predictions for appropriate reactions. Think of the kinetics of objects moving in the earth’s gravitational field – a pendulum, for example. Once set in motion, its trajectory is nicely predictable. The same holds for a spear or a ball. However, if you take three pendulums and tie them together with rubber bands and set in motion, their swings soon become completely unpredictable because of the complexity of the interactions among the three pendulums and the flexing rubber bands.
When it comes to inner phenomena or mind events, the impossibility of knowing all conditions to make a prediction abut future mental states becomes even clearer. Take, for instance, the knowledge of the ‘present moment’: The moment you know the present moment, it is no longer present.
According to the Buddhist view, our thoughts and actions are conditioned by our present state of ignorance and the habitual tendencies that we have accumulated in the past. But wisdom and knowledge can put an end to ignorance, and training can erode past tendencies. [Transforming the mind through living Creative Interchange from within] So, ultimately, only someone who has achieved perfect inner freedom and full enlightenment can truly have free will. [i.e. one who has achieved, once again, his Original Self and thus his full Intrinsic Worth].
Freedom from conditioning [from the personal Vicious Circle] could be the essence of free will. An enlightened being acts appropriately according to the cause and needs of everyone and is not influenced by past tendencies. It also seems that even before achieving the goal of enlightenment, when someone is able to remain for a moment in the limpid freshness of the present moment, a state of pure awareness on which rumination on the past and anticipation of the future haven no bearing, this should be a state conducive to the expression of free will.
Even if we are the product of the past, we are still the architects of our future.
THE NATURE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING
Consciousness is fundamentally a fact of experience. In Buddhism consciousness is considered to be a primary fact.
There are two main methods of approaching consciousness: studying it from the outside (the third-person perspective) or studying it from the inside (the first-person perspective). By ‘outside’ and ‘third-person’ perspectives is meant the study of the correlate of conscious phenomena in the brain, the nervous system, and our behavior as it can be observed by a third person, who does not experience what the first-person experiences. By ‘inside’ is meant the actual experience of the first-person.
We can also question someone in great detail on how he can describe what he feels. This is called the ‘second-person perspective’ because it is achieved through an interaction with someone [the second-person] who is helping you [the first-person] to describe your experience in depth.
But truly, without subjective experience that we can apprehend introspectively, we could not even talk about consciousness. The experience can never be truly and fully described from a third-person perspective. Buddhist scriptures tell the story of two blind men who wanted to understand what colors were. One of them was told that white was the color of snow. He took a handful snow and concluded that white was cold. The other blind man was told that white was the color of swans. He heard a swan flying overhead and concluded that white went swish, swish.
Once again, ‘consciousness’ would not really mean anything without subjective experience. Therefore, to be coherent, we must fully pursue its investigation from that perspective, without constantly jumping from outside in and from inside out as we please. We must follow a consistent line of investigation until its ultimate point.
The naked experience of awareness devoid of mental constructs is transparent to us. I end up there when I refine and pursue further and further my investigation of subjective experience: pure awareness, basic consciousness, and the most fundamental aspect of cognition. This basic awareness does not necessarily need to have particular content, in terms of mental constructs, discursive thoughts, or emotions. It is pure awareness. As is described earlier, this is sometimes called the ‘luminous’ aspect of mind because it allows me to be aware of both the external world and my internal world. It allows me to recall past events, envision the future, and be aware of the present moment.
If people conclude that a given condition evokes consistent experiences, they usually coin a term for the respective experience. Henceforth, this experience assumes the status of a social reality, of an immaterial object, of a concept on which different subjects can focus their shared attention. [cf. the given condition of CI evokes consistent experiences, which we coin ‘Creative Interchange. Henceforth, this experience of CI assumes a status of a social reality, of an immaterial object, of a concept on which different subjects can focus their shared attention]
If we take the first-person perspective as a source of insight into brain processes, we are aware of perceptions, decisions, thoughts, plans, intentions, and acts; we experience these as ours; and we can even be aware of being aware and communicate this fact. Experienced meditators can apparently cultivate this meta-awareness to the point that they are aware of being aware without requiring any concrete content of that awareness.
Humans are embedded in a dimension of social realities that they have created by interacting with one another, observing one another, and sharing their observations and subjective experiences. Through these communicative processes, humans exchange descriptions of their first-person experiences, establish consensus about the congruency of these experiences, and assure each other that these experiences are common to all human beings. In this way, these immaterial phenomena, accessible only form the first-person perspective, gradually acquire the status of reality that one can talk about, attribute to others, and integrate in one’s own self-model [i.e. transform one’s own mindset]
In Buddhism, the matter/consciousness duality, the so-called mind-body problem, is a false problem, given that neither of them has an intrinsic, independent existence.
Because Buddhism refutes the ultimate reality of phenomena, it also refutes the idea that consciousness is independent and exists inherently, just as much as it refutes that matter is independent and exists inherently. The fundamental level of consciousness and the world of apparent phenomena are linked by interdependence, and together the form our perceived world, the one we experience in our lives. Dualism lacks the concept of interdependence and postulates a strict separation between mind and matter; Buddhism states that emptiness is form and form is emptiness. Accordingly, the dichotomy of ‘material’ and ‘immaterial’ makes no sense.
In other words, Buddhism says that the distinction between the interior world of thought and the exterior physical reality is mere illusion. There’s only one reality or, rather, one lack of intrinsic reality! Buddhism does not adopt a purely idealistic point of view or argue that the outer world is a fabrication of consciousness. It just points to the fact that without consciousness, one cannot claim that the world exists because that statement already implies the presence of a consciousness.
It seems that we never place ourselves ‘outside’ consciousness, even if we try to determine its nature and origin. This argument resembles Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem, which says that mathematical theories cannot demonstrate their own consistency, which can also be understood more generally as saying that we are always limited in our knowledge of any system when we are part of that system.
Consciousness is the ability to not only have an experience or a feeling, but also to be aware of that fact. We probably need to distinguish between consciousness as such and the state that allows one to be conscious of something [which is in fact awareness, so indeed one need to distinguish between awareness (‘naked consciousness’) and consciousness (‘colored consciousness’)] The latter can vary substantially because brain states are graded [i.e. brain states ‘alter’ one’s awareness]. It is commonly held that one can only be conscious or aware [see how the authors are themselves struggling with the concepts ‘awareness’ and ‘consciousness’, despite what they’ve said that one should distinguish the two!] of something if it is attended to, if the focus of attention is on this particular content [one could easily argue that one should have the intention to attend to something]. The focus of attentioncan be shifted, either intentionally, in a top-down fashion, or in a bottom-up way by salient external stimuli [one could easily argue that here top-down = outside-in and bottom-up = inside-out] – the sudden appearance of an object or a sudden change in the environment automatically attracts one’s attention [outside-in]. Thus, attention is one of the mechanisms required to bring content into consciousness [awareness], suggesting that there is a threshold for contents to reach consciousness [awareness].
What could it be that it makes us aware of ourselves? Let us talk about the different levels of awareness [sic!]. First, the most basic level is phenomenal awareness, to ability to be aware of something [which we call awareness, i.e. naked, non-colored consciousness]. Then there comes the ability to be aware that one is aware of being aware of something [which we call meta-awareness, i.e. meta – naked, non-colored consciousness]. Finally, there are the more self-related aspects of consciousness [awareness! – we’re talking aboutawareness, aren’t we?!?]. One is aware of being an individual who is autonomous, which capable of intentional acts, and separate from other individuals. One is also aware of one’s conscious self [i.e. one’s ‘created’ self], which is probably the highest level of meta-cognition [!?! Aren’t we always interconnected? I claim we are never autonomous, since we only exist through interconnectedness! To me the highest level of meta-cognition or meta-meta-awareness is that we are aware that we’re always somehow interconnected and do not exist on our ‘own’].
This highest level of meta-cognition is [in Buddhism] called self-illumination awareness. The expression conscious self could be easily be misunderstood as assuming the existing of an autonomous self at the core of ourselves [at the core of ourselves their exist an Original Self and an Intrinsic Worth – expressions that describe the Creative Interchange process at that level – i.e. the autonomous self is an illusion, the CI process is a reality, we’re born with it, what we do with it… is our responsibility!].
The phenomenon that we address with the term consciousnesswould not exist without dialogue among human minds, without education, without the embedding in a rich sociocultural environment, and without the mutual attribution of mental constructs. These constructs are internalized and become implicit properties of our selves [they become the so-called Mental Models]. We experience them as part of our reality and invent terms to name and describe them. They are similar to values. These, too, are social constructs and are not found in the brain; all we can do is identify systems that assign value to certain brain states and couple them with emotions. The same holds for all the characteristics that one associates with consciousness. We do not find consciousness in the brain, but we can try to identify structures that are necessary for consciousness to manifest itself.
Buddhism uses the term the ‘coarse’ aspect of consciousness, which is the aspect of consciousness involved with the complex world of information, perceptions and their interpretations, relating things with each other, and feeling emotions in reaction to outer events or inner recollections. [This ‘coarse’ aspect of consciousness is in fact the left part of the Crucial Dialogue model: Observation of facts and Interpretation of those which leads to – the middle of the Model – Emotions]. None of these would ever arise without the constant interaction with the environment and other sentient beings [we call that particular interaction Creative Interchange].
But we still have to understand the most fundamental aspect of ‘pure awareness’, what Buddhism refers to as the ‘subtle’ aspect of consciousness. A good metaphor is a beam of light – it reveals what there is without being modified by it. Likewise, according to Buddhist contemplatives, pure awareness [naked or non-colored consciousness in my personal language] is neither obscured nor modified by the content of thoughts; it is unqualified and unaltered [we see reality as it is, not as we are – pure awareness is non dual]
CULTIVATING STATES OF SUBTLE CONSCIOUSNESS OR PURE AWARENESS
The process of non-dual awareness can become effortless and uncontrived. During pure awareness state of mind, you are not trying to prevent anything from arising, but when something presents itself, you just let it come and let it go so that it doesn’t make waves. [i.e. your non-colored awareness is not influenced by your colored consciousness]. In other words, you don’t try to stop it [the colored consciousness] neither do you encourage it.
[In fact what you do is to pay no attention at all to what’s sometimes called the Monkey Mind] This internal chattering is usually due to the proliferation of simple thoughts. Without repressing them, you can simply let them vanish as they arise. There is no point trying to stop perceiving the outer world, hearing the birds that are singing. You simply let [i.e. do not prevent] thoughts and perceptions arise [i.e. the ‘coloring’ of awareness] and undo themselves [i.e. return to ‘white’, pure awareness, the bright light beam]. In other words, there is no point in trying to prevent thoughts that are already coming in and you can certainly prevent them from invading your mind [i.e. coloring your pure awareness].
The essence of meditation freeing the mind from randomly intruding contents, and then you fill it with selected contents that you call on through intention – for example, empathy or compassion – granting them a privileged space. It means that we become familiar with something and cultivating a skill in a methodic, no chaotic way. This is not a semi-passive way of learning [as sometimes meditation is seen] but a fully engaged one in a coherent way. After a long period of time such a skill can become consummate and effortless. It is not an ‘automatic’ mental process, which often perpetuate deluded habitual patterns and perceptions. Meditation does not require forceful attention. So you are not effort fully attentive, but you are not distracted at the same time.
ON VARIOUS LEVELS OF CONSCIOUSNESS
So one of the levels of consciousness is the content-free or empty state of awareness. Empty in the sense of being free from content, not empty in the sense of perfect clarity. It is a state of extreme awareness of its own clarity. Light can shine on a dark sky, and yet it doesn’t light up anything in particular. This awareness is called in Buddhism nondual consciousness, because there is no separation between subject and object. Neuro scientists call this meta-awareness, the awareness of being aware of being aware or conscious. If a content then appears, one becomes aware of that, but from the perspective of being an observer of one’s own awareness [BTWAwareness and Observing are part of the first phase of the Crucial Dialogue Model, where the object, content is observed, not ‘colored’]. So, there is pure awareness, where there is no split between a subject that knows something and an object that is known [i.e. nondual consciousness].
The most fundamental form of experience is called in Buddhism: dwelling in nondual awareness. So the scientific question becomes: “What is the nature of that most primal pure awareness?” For the moment science has not answered that question. From the Buddhist perspective, the mind’s ability to act on itself, transform itself, recognize its basic nature, and gain freedom from afflictive mental states is crucial and lies at the center of the spiritual path. It is hard to imagine that someone could achieve such a freedom – which is the same as achieving mastery of the mind because freedom is to be in charge of one’s own mind instead of being the powerless slave of every single thought and emotion that arises – if consciousness were just an irrelevant phenomenon. Anyway, consciousness is a fact. Without it, our subjective world entirely disappears. [From Creative Interchange perspective, CI is the process that can change the mind, since the mind cannot change itself. So to us CI is at the center of the spiritual path]
From the Buddhist perspective consciousness actually influences neuronal processes, in order to transform itself. Please remember that, as the philosopher David Chambers remarked, all biological functions, including the articulation of language that allows communication between two organisms, as well as meta-representation, can be formulated without having to refer to subjective experience. This finding shows that experience is not a particular moment in objective biological functions but something we are aware of prior to any study of these functions. This makes it difficult to establish a causal relation between neuronal processes and consciousness.
If consciousness did not have the capacity to transforms itself, know itself, and work to deeply change its contents, then it would really be worthless. Buddhism starts from the other end of the spectrum: pure awareness. Then it investigates how thoughts, emotions, happiness, and suffering arise from this pure awareness. It tries to understand the processes of wisdom and delusion that are related to recognizing or losing recognition of this pure awareness.
This allows one to maintain the recognition that all mental events arise within awareness simply because of many causes and conditions, which do not belong to pure awareness. Pure awareness is unconditional, in the same way that space do not alter when clouds form – or don’t – within it. As mentioned earlier, pure awareness is a primary fact.
Pure awareness is what allows all mental constructs and discursive thoughts, and it is not a construct itself. It leads you to recognize that, thanks to this, you always have the possibility to change the content of your mind because mental states are not intrinsically embedded in pure awareness. Consequently, with training and mindfulness [Creative Interchange I would say], one can rid of hatred, craving, and other afflictive emotions [embedded in the Vicious Circle]
Matthieu Ricard postulates that awareness impacts future neuronal processes. If we consider pure awareness as a primary fact, and there is nothing that goes against this view, there is no reason to deny that mental constructs arising within the space of awareness could act through neuroplasticity. Thus, through the work of interdependent, mutual causation, one may have downward, upward, and same-level causation.
The evolution of brains capable of performing cognitive operations that we address as ‘conscious’ permitted modes of social interactions that ultimately catalyzed cultural evolution with all its consequences on the further differentiation of human cognition. One could talk about top-down causation in the sense that the immaterial constructs of cultures, the social realities, influence brain functions. In this case, the mechanisms are well established and not in conflict with the laws of nature. The belief systems, norms, and concepts shared by a society influence the self-understanding and action of its members. They act directly on the members’ brains through the exchange of social signals. [i.e. Creative Interchange] Moreover, they imprint the brains of the next generation through education and epigenetic shaping and thus also have long-term effects on brain functions.
Top-down causation is a problem only in the context of a dualistic stance positing material matter, which is supposed to exist as solid reality – a notion that is challenged by both Buddhism and quantum theory – and a supposedly ‘immaterial’ consciousness, which would be a bizarre, indefinable phenomenon devoid of any status. For Buddhism, both matter and consciousness belong to the world of forms. Both exist inasmuch as they are manifest, but they are also devoid of intrinsic, solid reality. Hence the statement, “Void is form, form is void.” Consciousness cannot be reduced to gross matter because consciousness is a prerequisite to conceive of matter and make any description of it.
The Dalai Lama says that consciousness precedes anything we could ever say about it and precedes any possible perception and interpretation of the phenomenal world. We cannot step out of consciousness to examine it as if it were merely one aspect of our world. The Dalai Lama states: “We risk objectivizing what is essentially an internal set of experiences and excluding the necessary presence of the experiencer. We cannot remove ourselves from the equation. No scientific description of the neural mechanisms of color discrimination can make one understand what it feels like to perceive, say, the color red.”[vi]
Buddhism says that the ultimate nature of consciousness is beyond words, symbols, concepts, and descriptions. You may speak of pure awareness devoid of mental constructs, but it is like pointing the finger at the moon and calling it the moon itself; unless you have a direct experience of this pure awareness, these words are empty. [That’s the problem with CI too: unless you have a direct experience of what we call CI, our words are empty]
Contemplatives who have mastered the capacity to clearly identify this pure awareness or this platform without content describe it as vivid and fully aware, as having a quality of peace. They see that thoughts arise from the space of awareness and dissolve back into it, like waves that surge from and dissolve back into the ocean. The mastery of this process eventually leads to people who have an extraordinary emotional balance, inner strength, inner peace, and freedom. So there must be something quite special in having access tot such deep levels of mental processes.
Pure awareness goes beyond attention, because attention implies being attentive to something, in a dualistic mode of a subject who pays attention to an object. It is more correct to say that within pure awareness, various mental functions can unfold, including attention focused on perceptions or any other mental phenomenon. But an satisfactory explanation of the training aspect of attention is not enough to explain the whole range of experience; especially the fact that experience always comes first. This fact is inescapable fact!
It would be interesting to consider phenomena that would, if they were valid, make us reconsider the general assumption that consciousness is entirely dependent on the brain. One can think of three of those that merit consideration and for which we certainly need to distinguish illusions from reality, fact from rumor: (1) people having access to the content of someone else’s thoughts; (2) people describing memories of past lives; and (3) people having near-death experiences or reporting on details of their surroundings at the time that they were apparently unconscious, with a flat EEG, which suggest an absence of electrical activity in the main parts of the brain.
One major problem with all these phenomena is their lack of reproducibility. They cannot be generated intentionally and hence cannot be investigated experimentally. One could of course again argue that they belong to the class of phenomena whose constitutive property is irreproducibility, that they are singularities of a dynamic that never repeats itself. In that case, one can’t study them with the scientific tools at hand. [Something similar is going on with Creative Interchange. CI is a process that cannot be controlled, not from the outside in, and not even from the inside out. One can only provide for the conditions needed for CI to thrive, and CI will happen, we just cannot predict when it will happen. We cannot really trigger it consciously and therefor CI can’t be studied with the scientific tools at hand. Perhaps that is the reason why the scientific world seems not be interested in Creative Interchange (at least the professors I’ve contacted were not willing to – another reason can be that it is a natural process that already has been identified by Henry Nelson Wieman and cannot be invented.]
[i]P. Gilbert and C. Irons, “Focused therapies and compassionate mind training for shame and selfattacking,” in Compassion: Research in Psychotherapy, ed. P. Gilbert. New York, NY: Routledge, 2005. 263-325
K. Neff, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York, NY: William Morrow, 2011.
[ii]D. Galin, “The Concepts of ‘Self’, ‘Person’ and ‘I,’ in Western Psychology and Buddhism,” in Buddhism & Science, Breaking New Ground, ed. B. Alan Walace. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2003.
[iii]C. Taylor, Sources of Self: The making of Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
[iv]F. J. Varela, Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition. Stanford, CA: Standford University Press, 1999.
[v]M. Ricard and T.X. Tuan, The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2004.
[vi]Dalai Lama, The Universe of a Single Atom.New York, NY: Morgan Road Books, 2005. p. 122.