A Study of Consciousness

One of the Dalai Lama’s goals is to bring about the scientific study of skills that Tibetan Buddhists have been focusing on for centuries, and, while religious aspects may be part of the reason why science has hesitated to study them, the main problem with applying science to the study of consciousness is that most of what goes on in consciousness is not observable to outsiders. For the most part, observers have to rely on the individual to tell the observer what has occurred inside his head:

In order for the study of consciousness to be complete, we need a methodology that would account not only for what is occurring at the neurological and biochemical levels but also for the subjective experience of consciousness itself. Even when combined, neuroscience and behavioral psychology do not shed enough light on the subjective experience, as both approaches still place primary importance on the objective, third-person perspective. Contemplative traditions on the whole have historically emphasized subjective, first-person investigation of the nature and functions of consciousness, by training the mind to focus in a disciplined way on its own internal states. Scientific experimentation on human subjects raises numerous ethical issues, a problem which the scientific community takes most seriously. For the hermits who have chosen a life of solitude in the mountains, there is the added complication that such experimentation constitutes a profound intrusion into their lives and spiritual practice. It is not surprising that initially many were reluctant. Apart from anything else, most simply couldn’t see the point, other than satisfying the curiosity of some odd men carrying machines. However, I felt very strongly (and still do feel) that the application of science to understanding the consciousness of meditators is most important, and I made a great effort to persuade the hermits to allow the experiments to take place. I argued that they should undergo the experiments out of altruism; if the good effects of quieting the mind and cultivating wholesome mental states can be demonstrated scientifically, this may have beneficial results for others.

Of course, it is precisely these beneficial results that have already attracted many Westerners to various forms of Eastern meditation and exercise. It’s this popularity that seems to have drawn the attention of science.

In the 70’s Dr Herbert Benson advocated a form of secular meditation called the Relaxation Response after observing its positive effects:

Already experiments have shown that experienced meditators have more activity in the left frontal lobe, the part of the brain associated with positive emotions, such as happiness, joy, and contentment. These findings imply that happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain. This law whereby two opposing states cannot coexist without one undermining the other is the key premise in the Buddhist argument for the transformability of consciousness-it means that the cultivation of loving-kindness can over a period diminish the force of hate in the mind. Further, Dharmakirti argues that the removal of a basic condition will remove its effects. So that, by eliminating the cold, for example, one effectively removes all its attendant results, such as goose pimples, shivering, and chattering teeth.

I don’t really remember when I started meditating, but I know I started by doing yoga exercises and gradually adding meditation exercises. The meditation was my way of rewarding myself for doing my exercise consistently. I don’t think I ever equated my meditation with happiness, but it helped to eliminate tension, creating a sense of contentment. In many ways it seemed like a form of self-hypnosis, something I’d encountered even earlier when a dentist used hypnosis to relax me before giving me a Novocain shot or cleaning my teeth. If I hadn’t gone into the army I would never have switched that doctor; I always felt better after I left his office than I did before I went in.

Though I’m not sure I agree with the argument that “two opposing states cannot coexist without one undermining the other,” but I do agree with a Buddhist notion that seems to contradict much Christian philosophy:

These treatises themselves draw on the notion of Buddha nature, the natural potential for perfection that lies in all sentient beings (including animals). The Sublime Continuum and Nagarjuna’s Praise offer two principal theses for the basic transformability of mind toward a positive end. The first is the conviction that all negative traits of the mind may be purified by applying the appropriate antidotes. This means that the pollutants of the mind are not seen as essential or intrinsic to it and that the mind’s essential nature is pure. From the scientific point of view, these are metaphysical assumptions. The second is that the capacity for positive transformation lies naturally within the constitution of the mind itself-which follows the first thesis.

This is one of the basic tenants of Christian Science, and though I wasn’t raised in the church, I was raised with that basic belief system. In fact, one of my biggest arguments against conservative Christians is the idea that man in born inherently evil. At times I’ve wondered if “tabula rasa”isn’t the real state of man when born, but every time I’ve spent time with a small child I end up thinking babies are as innocent as angels. I find the idea that a child would spend eternity in in hell unless they’re baptized an abomination.

I don’t think I could have spent a lifetime teaching if I hadn’t believed that in some form of plasticity of the brain:

Buddhism has long had a theory of what in neuroscience is called the “plasticity of the brain.” The Buddhist terms in which this concept is couched are radically different from those used by cognitive science, but what is significant is that both perceive consciousness as highly amenable to change. The concept of neuroplasticity suggests that the brain is highly malleable and is subject to continual change as a result of experience, so that new connections between neurons may be formed or even brand-new neurons generated. Research in this area specifically includes work on virtuosos- athletes, chess players, and musicians-whose intense training has been shown to result in observable changes in the brain. These kinds of subjects are interestingly parallel to skilled meditators, who are also virtuosos, and whose dedication to their practice involves a similar commitment of time and effort.

It seems that even scientists are beginning to suspect that
meditation may well change the brain.

The Dalai Lama describes two forms of meditation, the first,

One of the most basic mental trainings is the cultivation of mindfulness, especially performed on the basis of observing one’s breath. Mindfulness is essential if one is to become consciously aware in a disciplined manner of whatever phenomena may occur within the mind or one’s immediate environment. In our normal state, our mind remains unfocused for most of the time and our thoughts move from one object to another in a random and dissipated manner. By cultivating mindfulness, we learn first to become aware of this process of dissipation, so that we can gently fine-tune the mind to follow a more directed path toward the objects on which we wish to focus. Traditionally, the breath is seen as an ideal instrument for the practice of mindfulness. The great advantage of choosing one’s breath as the object of mindfulness training is that breathing is an instinctive and effortless activity, something which we do as long we are alive, so there is no need to strive hard to find the object of this practice. In its developed form, mindfulness also brings about a highly refined sensitivity to everything that happens, however minute, in one’s immediate vicinity and in one’s mind.

I’m quite familiar with. In fact, focusing on the breath was the first yogic meditation I learned. More recently, I’ve been using a commercial machine to help me learn to lower my breath rate. I’m not sure it’s helped lower my blood pressure as it claims, but I know it does help me to relax, sometimes to the point that I can’t get much done right after I’ve gone through a session of it.

I’m really not familiar, though with this second form of meditation,

Another practice for the development of attention is single-pointed concentration. Here the observer may choose any kind of object, external or internal, but something that he or she can easily conjure the image of. The training proceeds with the deliberate placement of one’s attention on the chosen object and the attempt to hold that attention as long as possible. This practice involves primarily the use of two faculties, mindfulness (which keeps the mind tied to the object) and introspective vigilance, which discerns whether distraction occurs in the mind and whether the vividness of the mind’s focus has become lax. At the heart of this practice lies the development of two qualities of the disciplined mind-the stability of prolonged attention and the clarity or vividness with which the mind can perceive the object. In addition, the practitioner needs to learn to maintain equanimity, so that he or she does not apply excessive introspection onto the object, which would distort the object or destabilize mental composure.

but I’d like to learn more about it. I know even less about what the Dalai Lama calls “insight:”

We must acquire the skill of probing the nature and characteristics of the object of our observation with as much precision as possible. This second-level training is known in the Buddhist literature as insight (vipushyana in Sanskrit, lhak thong in Tibetan). In tranquil abiding the emphasis is on holding one’s focus without distraction, and single-pointedness is the key quality being sought. In insight the emphasis is on discerning investigation and analysis while maintaining one-pointedness without distraction. Impermanence is chosen as a worthy object of meditation in Buddhism because, although we may understand it intellectually, we mostly do not behave as though we have integrated this awareness. A combination of analysis and concentration on this topic brings the insight to life so that we appreciate the preciousness of every moment of our existence.

Reading Buddhist descriptions of the various forms of meditation reminds me of how many different words the Eskimo language has for “snow.” Which, in turn, probably suggests that we Westerners know as little about meditation and different levels of consciousness as we do about the various qualities of snow.

At the Tropical Butterfly Garden

It was a teacher day Friday, so Dawn suggested I take Lael and Gavin to the Pacific Science Center. Gavin, as it turned out, didn’t really want to go, but he was willing to go if he could take a friend. I didn’t have a problem with that since I figured three happy kids would be easier to handle than one happy and one unhappy one.

When we got there, Gavin and his friend went off to explore by themselves with phone and explicit directions on where and when to meet. Lael and I took off to visit the dinosaur exhibit on the way to the Tropical Butterfly House, Lael and my favorite place at the center.

We finally got there after considerable grandpa nagging, but things didn’t start out well as the temperature change caused my camera to fog up, really fog up. Even after waiting a considerable time, removing the lens filter, and wiping everything down once or twice, this was the best shot I got the first time around.

fogged image of butterfly

Unfortunately, I could’ve taken better pictures with my iPhone.

I was particularly frustrated because there were several new butterflies this visit, particularly this brilliant orange variety.

Bright Orange Butterfly

Luckily, Lael happilly entertained herself identifying flowers

Lael with Flower

while I worked at eliminating the fogging.

About the time I began to sweat, the camera finally warmed up to the temperature inside the TROPICAL Butterfly Garden.

Brown and Orange Butterfly

A Buddhist View of Consciousness

Considering that the next three chapters all have to do with Consciousness, I suspect that the Dalai Lama is just hitting his stride in Chapter 6: The Question of Consciousness. It’s these sections that most attracted me to the book after I finished Maslow’s book calling for a reconciliation of science, psychology, and religion.

The first paragraph evokes the richness of the conscious experience:

The joy of meeting someone you love, the sadness of losing a close friend, the richness of a vivid dream, the serenity of a walk through a garden on a spring day, the total absorption of a deep meditative state-these things and others like them constitute the reality of our experience of consciousness. Regardless of the content of any one of these experiences, no one in his or her right mind would doubt their reality. Any experience of consciousness-from the most mundane to the most elevated-has a certain coherence and, at the same time, a high degree of privacy, which means that it always exists from a particular point of view. The experience of consciousness is entirely subjective. The paradox, however, is that despite the indubitable reality of our subjectivity and thousands of years of philosophical examination, there is little consensus on what consciousness is. Science, with its characteristic third-person method-the objective perspective from the outside-has made strikingly little headway in this understanding.

There is, however, a growing recognition that the study of consciousness is becoming a most exciting area of scientific investigation. At the same time, there is a growing acknowledgment that modern science does not yet possess a fully developed methodology to investigate the phenomenon of consciousness.

Considering modern society’s reliance on “Science,” it does seem hard to believe that it still doesn’t have a methodology to investigate experiences this vital to our well-being. Science, particularly medical science, obviously plays a major part in keep us well, but it is our conscious experiences that allow us to thrive.

The Dalai Lama attributes part of this lack of scientific progress to the limits of language in dealing with subjective experiences:

Perhaps it is because of these difficulties-the limits of language in dealing with the subjective-that many of the early Buddhist texts explain the nature of consciousness in terms of metaphors such as light or a flowing river. As the primary feature of light is to illuminate, so consciousness is said to illuminate its objects. Just as in light there is no categorical distinction between the illumination and that which illuminates, so in consciousness there is no real difference between the process of knowing or cognition and that which knows or cognizes. In consciousness, as in light, there is a quality of illumination.

Even in attempting to bring peak experiences into the psychological domain, Maslow pointed out that in talking to people about peak experiences that he had to resort to metaphors and “poetic” language. Anyone who’s ever been asked to rate their “pain” on a scale of 1-10 realizes just how difficult it is to quantify some feelings. Moans and screams often seem more accurate measures than any mathematical scale. Personally, I’ve always measured my pain on how loudly I yell “F***” when it occurs. If I can’t manage to utter it at all, it will probably be a “10,” the last pain I ever feel.

My mind got stretched just a little further when the Dalai Lama introduced Karl Popper and the Buddhist classification of reality:

In talking about mental phenomena which, according to Buddhist understanding, have the two defining characteristics of luminosity and knowing, there is a danger that one might assume Buddhism is proposing a version of Cartesian dualism namely, that there are two independent substances, one called “matter” and the other called “mind.” To allay any possible confusion, I feel a little digression on the basic classification of reality proposed in Buddhist philosophy is necessary. Buddhism suggests that there are three fundamentally distinct aspects or features of the world of conditioned things, the world in which we live:

1. Matter-physical objects

2. Mind-subjective experiences

3. Abstract composites-mental formations

After a short discussion of these concepts the Dalai Lama points out that this classification seems quite similar to the influential English philosopher Karl Popper:

I gather that this taxonomy of reality, which goes back to the earliest phases of Buddhism’s philosophical tradition, is almost identical to that proposed by Karl Popper. Popper called them, “the first world,” “the second world,” and “the third world.” By these he meant (1) the world of things or physical objects; (2) the world of subjective experiences, including thought processes; and (3) the world of statements in themselves-the content of thoughts as opposed to the mental process. It is striking that Popper, whom I know had no background in Buddhist thought, arrived at an almost identical classification of the categories of reality. Had I known this curious convergence between his thought and Buddhism in the times I met with Popper, I would certainly have pursued it with him.

One of the reasons I’ve been rather slow turning out these daily entries is that I’ve taken the time to provide background to the Dalai Lama’s ideas. I spent some time yesterday following Jeff’s link to recent discussion of “altruism” and much of this morning reading about Karl Popper’s philosophy. At the very least, I’ve managed to remind myself how profoundly ignorant I truly am, at least when it comes to the world of philosophy.

I’m still not sure my mind will stretch enough to get around the Buddhist “principal categories of cause:”

Crucial to understanding the Buddhist concept of consciousness-and its rejection of the reducibility of mind to matter-is its theory of causation. The issue of causality has long been a major focus of philosophical and contemplative analysis in Buddhism. Buddhism proposes two principal categories of cause. These are the “substantial cause” and the “contributory or complementary cause.” Take the example of a clay pot. The substantial cause refers to the “stuff’ that turns into a particular effect, namely, the clay that becomes the pot. By contrast, all the other factors that contribute toward bringing about the pot-such as the skill of the potter, the potter himself, and the kiln that fired the clay-remain complementary in that they make it possible for the clay to turn into the pot. This distinction between the substantial and the contributory cause of a given event or object is of the utmost importance for understanding the Buddhist theory of consciousness. According to Buddhism, though consciousness and matter can and do contribute toward the origination of each other, one can never become a substantial cause of the other.

This reminds me of the terms “substantial” and “unsubstantial” as used in Tai Chi, a physical concept I find as difficult to understand as the Buddhist version of causation. To me “the pot” is simply the “effect” of other causes, not a “substantial cause,” though perhaps the desire to produce a pot is the “ultimate cause” that causes all the other causes.

Rather than rejecting science out of hand because of the difficulty of reconciling the two, the Dalai Lama argues that a collaboration is possible:

Here I feel a close collaboration between modern science and the contemplative traditions, such as Buddhism, could prove beneficial. Buddhism has a long history of investigation into the nature of mind and its various aspects-this is effectively what Buddhist meditation and its critical analysis constitute. Unlike that of modern science, Buddhism’s approach has been primarily from first-person experience. The contemplative method, as developed by Buddhism, is an empirical use of introspection, sustained by rigorous training in technique and robust testing of the reliability of experience. All meditatively valid subjective experiences must be verifiable both through repetition by the same practitioner and through other individuals being able to attain the same state by the same practice. If they are thus verified, such states may be taken to be universal, at any rate for human beings.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Dalai Lama feels this collaboration can take place. Hopefully you are, too.