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.

2 thoughts on “A Study of Consciousness”

  1. “…I’m not sure I agree with the argument that “two opposing states cannot coexist without one undermining the other….”

    I too don’t really agree with that statement. A state of duality in the mind seems to be a constant but is not always negative. In my own experience, it’s like housing a married couple who,although they often argue, are essentially united. The voice in one’s head which is discontented, critical etc. is talking to the Other, the part of the mind which is free of all conflict, the one we experience in deep meditation or other focused states of consciousness. To try and eliminate the ‘troublesome’ voice within, it seems to me, is like a form of hara-kiri or getting rid of a twin. Being human might be the struggle to reconcile the warring inner couple, rather than to facilitate their divorce!

  2. Deepak Chopra at a recent seminar was asked by a member of the audience….”Did you just say that all beliefs amount to a confession that we’re afraid?”
    He nodded.
    The man said, “Do you really believe that?”
    Chopra said, “Yes.”
    Thank you, said the man, and walked away.

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