finding the mind

Mind in Buddhism

Mind in Buddhism: Finding the Mind interview

CoverHow would you introduce Finding the Mind in just a few words?

Being aware is the most important part of our experience as human beings, so in Finding the Mind I wanted to explore what it means to be aware, and what you can do with this awareness. Buddhists have been looking into the issue for over two and a half thousand years so my book draws on the whole of the Buddhist tradition, as well as looking at some modern ideas.

I also put a few exercises in the book so that readers can do some of the things that Buddhist meditators have been doing down the ages and see what results they come up with themselves. I wanted to make the book accessible and also quite interactive because ultimately what is important is your own experience, not what somebody else says your experience ought to be. So I hope that Finding the Mind will give people a few avenues into exploring their own minds.

Why is the project of finding our minds so important?

In a way, experiences are all that we have got, so exploring the nature of experience is, I think, basic to our humanity. Also basic to our humanity are our unwelcome experiences – we suffer, we experience pain, and we wish things were different – and Buddhism has some very effective strategies for coping with these unwelcome experiences. Not just coping with them, in fact, but actually seeing through the issues that cause them in the first place.

The Buddha taught that suffering springs from our own minds, and mostly from the fact that we don’t know our own minds, so we end up making the same mistakes in life, over and over again. This is why I think that finding our minds is such an important project.  We become familiar with the way our minds normally work, firstly so that we can then work out how to change our minds, and secondly so that we can also empathize with the experience of other people. Because people’s minds do work in very similar ways, and if we can understand our own minds, we can understand more about what it’s like to be a human being in general.

So finding our minds is not only important but also quite fascinating and exciting – lots of unexpected insights emerge when we start to look at our minds. Imagine that you didn’t have repeated disappointments with life and that you’d found the confidence to engage with the world and leave it a better place! This is what I think engaging with the Buddhist view of the mind can offer.

You dedicate a whole chapter to the subject of compassion. What relevance does compassion have as far as finding the mind is concerned?

Well firstly I think that it’s very important that any discussions of Buddhism include the subject of compassion because compassion is such a crucial part of Buddhism in general. Obviously meditation is also crucial – it allows us to make our experience as simple and straightforward as possible so that we can notice what’s actually going on in our minds and make subtle little adjustments. However, what is equally important is what happens during the rest of the day: how we go to sleep, how we eat, how we behave at work, how we deal with the people we live with. All of this stuff is real – it’s our mind actually responding. So finding the mind is not just about self-discovery, it’s also about connecting with our capacity to respond to life in a more compassionate way.

And as I mentioned earlier, our experience of suffering is something that we share with all human beings. More specifically, it’s a common human experience to feel embattled, for example, or needy, or that there’s something missing. One way through these experiences is through awareness of others – in other words through compassion – because compassion expands our awareness from the narrow perspective of the self, leaving us more relaxed and happier. So, even from a selfish point of view, compassion really works! But of course it is also about something much bigger than that. Other people are just as real as we are, they are just as important. So not to care about other people I think is running away from something.

Does Buddhism point to objective and universal laws that govern the workings of our minds, or does it simply encourage us to explore our own subjective experience?

I think it’s definitely best if our exploration of Buddhism starts from our own experience – from basic mindfulness – but of course with mindfulness we start to notice patterns in our experience and patterns between people as well. We discover that there are universal laws that govern the lives of conscious beings – all beings with a mind – because there’s something about mind which is, in a way, universal. When we see ourselves as a distinct subject in here, for example, we are inevitably going to experience problems with the separation between ourselves and the world around us.

So all conscious beings face similar problems, and finding solutions to these common problems is exactly what Buddhism is about. It’s something that ultimately we have to do for ourselves, but Buddhism gives us maps of the patterns that we’re likely to find in our experience to help us on our way.

In fact the Buddhist tradition has come up with a number of different maps because the underlying truths of life can never be fully summed up in one single conceptual way. And I think it’s helpful to be exposed to the widest possible range of approaches, so in my book I include visual images like the Tibetan wheel of life, along with Buddhist philosophical teachings, and I also recount stories – some narratives and some more mythic stories. I think that once you’ve found an approach or a map that works for you it means that you can change your mental responses by using the understanding that’s come through from other people, as well as from your own mindfulness and self-understanding.

Are there many individual minds or is there just one universal Mind?

Well usually we have a sense of some kind of division between an outer world that we share with others and an inner world that is ours alone. However, I do know that some people have had wonderful panoramic experiences of unity where they feel a very strong connection with everything outside them as well. I think those are really valuable experiences, but I would be very hesitant to turn them into an ideology and to insist that there is only one Mind because quite a lot of the time we experience ourselves very much as individuals – I’m sure that there is truth in both views.

In the author biography on the back of the book it says that you curtailed your career in science to train for ordination into the Triratna Order. Can you talk a bit about this process and the place that Finding the Mind has in the context of your own experience?

I’ve always had a lot of curiosity about the world around me, as well as curiosity about myself. I can remember when I was very young, at that time when self-awareness starts to dawn, just looking around me and finding it incredibly weird and wonderful to think that I was in the present moment which wasn’t ever going to happen again. It was this fascination with my own awareness which led me into science, I think.

Then I got quite stressed while I was studying science at university so I started to meditate, and meditation took me to Buddhism. And Buddhism led me back to that same fascination with awareness! So in Finding the Mind I really wanted, at least for my own satisfaction, to explore what it means to be an aware human being, and to do so with fidelity to both Buddhism as a personal path and to science as an objective discipline. I find it very interesting to try and bring Buddhism and science together, and in some ways Finding the Mind is an outcome of that.

So is Buddhism a science?

Buddhism is certainly like science in some ways. Both Buddhism and science are explorations of what is going on in life, but the big difference between them is that Buddhism deals specifically with human experience rather than the outside world. Science is very interested in the outside, so even when it looks at the mind it views it as an outside phenomenon – science is not an exploration of the mind of the scientist, but the mind of the person she or he is putting into the MRI scanner. Buddhism is interested primarily in exploring the scientist’s own mind – our own minds – how they produce suffering, and how they can free us from suffering. So I would say that Buddhism is scientific, but it’s not the same as science.

You say that ‘the results of neuroscience and of Buddhist insight are being compared, and there are signs of an exciting synthesis emerging.’ Can you expand on this statement?

This is something that I discuss in the last chapter of my book – I talk a bit about the interesting insights that came out of the Mind and Life conferences where a number of top-notch scientists engaged in dialogue with Tibetan teachers including the Dalai Lama. These conferences were really productive, to the extent that a large number of American neuroscientists now also have some kind of Buddhist training or background, which is fantastic.

Since both neuroscientists and Buddhists are trying to find the mind, there is much that they can learn from each other. One of the things that science can learn from Buddhism is the value of introspection – the value of looking at your own experience with a quiet mind and not assuming that that must be completely untrustworthy because it’s subjective. Through introspection you can work from the inside, not just from the outside.

There are also many things that Buddhism can learn from science. It can learn, for example, not to be too bound by the specific teachings of particular Buddhist traditions but to look at them all together in the light of modern findings. To take a rather crude example, until recently the Tibetans still believed that the earth was flat and that there was a great mountain called mount Meru right in the middle of it. Science has enabled them to realize that although the teaching may have great symbolic value, it shouldn’t be taken literally. So I think that Buddhism and science can be friends with each other – they definitely don’t need to attack each other.

Lastly, can we really find our minds?

I feel as if I’m giving it all away here, but I think the answer is no – you can’t find your mind. Still, you’ve got to look! Buddhism is all about looking for our minds and not finding them, and then turning to the centre of our experience to realize that we can’t tie anything down when we look at it. We tend to have quite a lot of views about our subjective experience – we say ‘I’m like this’, ‘I have this identity’, ‘I associate with this’, ‘I call myself this’, and they’re all just stories that we tell ourselves which, in one way or another, cause us suffering.

So the funny thing is that the more you look for the mind and don’t find it, the happier you become – you find a sort of liberation of the mind. I mean, I don’t really know what enlightenment would be like, but I get a sense that even a liberated mind wouldn’t think that it had tied everything down. It would still carry on looking – looking really, really openly.

Buy Finding the Mind here.

Interview by Hannah Atkinson of Windhorse Publications, August 2012

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What happens when I die?

Stupa FTMSome thoughts on rebirth, from Finding the Mind Chapter 2.

I expect you’ve heard that rebirth is part of the traditional Buddhist view. Most people tend to one of two extreme views on what happens at death. One is that you survive death, and the other is that you don’t survive death. You’d think that one or other of these must be true, but no, says the Buddha. There isn’t even a persistent entity, a self, during life, so there is definitely no soul that persists from one life to another. But yet the karmic processes that you have set in motion during your life, those seeds you have sown in the substrate, don’t simply vanish at the moment when the body becomes a corpse. Somehow they are still viable; they can germinate and have an influence over another person, newly conceived. More than an influence – the view is that a foetus growing in its mother’s womb can’t survive without some non-physical contributions from a previous life. So it’s not you that survives death, yet processes that have built up during your life do go on to have their own consequences in another future life.

The Tibetans take a special interest in what happens to consciousness during dying and rebirth. Some of the features of their accounts agree with modern near-death experiences, and with the accounts of children who say they can remember previous lives. So it could be that texts like the Tibetan Book of the Dead are based on genuine memories.[1] Or maybe not.

If your death is not sudden, they say, your awareness gradually withdraws from the senses one by one, hearing being the last to go. Your breathing stops, your heart stops, and your body becomes colder and colder. You may then have some sort of out-of-body experience, where you seem to be witnessing what’s happening to your dead body, including the peculiar responses of your relatives. Then ordinary awareness is lost, you fall into a deep swoon. After some time, a rather different kind of after-death awareness gradually emerges, starting with the dazzling lights of reality, either white or coloured.

The lights elaborate into complex hallucinatory visions, like a stream of dream experiences, including benign and angry ‘Buddhas’ (which one tends to shrink from unless one has a great depth of spiritual experience), and comforting images of various situations, or worlds. For a while you wander in a mind-made body through the landscapes of death. You feel most at home in one of the worlds, because the seeds of actions (karma) that you have accumulated suit you to that world. It feels like home, even if it is very unsatisfactory! So you zero in on a couple making love, say the rather lurid Tibetan accounts, then you sulkily squeeze yourself in between them, and go into another swoon as your consciousness and the other clusters of your personality hastily gather around the newly conceived embryo.

Carrying seeds from a previous life means that the child starts off to some extent with his or her own personality, with preferences, and perhaps with a disposition to be cheerful or moody, gregarious or solitary. It certainly doesn’t start off with the consciousness of an elderly adult, and it needs to begin afresh with gathering life experience. Some of the challenges it has to face may be constructed by karma, which guided it to that familiar territory it felt secure in before birth, but the popular idea that every talent or disability is due to previous life actions (karmas) is not correct: the Buddha rejected the view that all you experience is determined by your past actions. He explicitly stated that there are several strands of causation; karma is only one of them. The environment is another, so are factors influencing health, and there are several more.[2]

You don’t have to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist, but it has been a pretty universal Buddhist viewpoint, and the Buddha argued against the materialist view, prevalent among scientifically minded people today, that consciousness is merely something produced by the physical body. No, he said, the body and consciousness are closely involved with each other, yet the momentum of consciousness pushes through the barrier of death. However, there is nothing that is reborn, no enduring substance, no Soul.

Notes:

[1]  The Tibetan Book of the Dead, translated by Robert Thurman, Bantam, New York 1993.

[2] Nagapriya, Exploring Karma and Rebirth, Windhorse Publications, Birmingham 2004, p.36.

Have animal minds directed evolution?

chap4Mind in Evolution

From The Evolving Mind, Chapters 3 and 4.

We can be very confident that our earth has supported a continuous process of the evolution of the structure of living organisms. More tentatively, we can also trace how the ‘internal’ dimensions of animals – their minds – have evolved. It is fairly clear that the capacity of animals’ minds has been limited by the size, complexity, and degree of centralization of their nervous systems, so that the evolution of physical form has constrained the evolution of mind. But has the feedback worked in the other direction too? Did mind play an active role in evolution, or was the human mind just ‘an accidental afterthought in a quirky evolutionary play’, as the biologist S.J. Gould puts it?[i]

Natural selection leads to increasing adaptation to a specific environment; it tends to promote specialization. In the mind, specialization is served by very specific inborn habits and instincts, which evolve by natural selection. But mind has an element which works in the opposite direction, particularly if individual learning and cultural traditions are possible: mind can be flexible. It can adapt an animal by coming up with behaviours that suit unexpected circumstances.

Because of its great adaptability, it turns out that mind has indeed been active in evolution. In particular, through behaviour, it can influence the process of natural selection itself. Apparently, behaviour can direct selection.

Behaviour-led Selection: An Example

General behaviour-led selection process

General behaviour-led selection process

Here is a plausible example of how animals’ behaviour can direct the evolutionary line their species follows.[ii] As always in biological evolution, change is very slow, or if there are fast changes, they are very rare. This means that complete examples of behaviour-led selection have not been observed occurring in nature. In addition, fossil evidence for behaviour as opposed to structure is very hard to come by. So my example is of what may have happened, not of something that definitely did happen.

The only mammals that survived the dominance of the dinosaurs were little shrew-like creatures, probably living in the undergrowth of woods and forests, and feeding by night on small animals such as insects. They had smallish brains and used their noses rather than their eyes to sense their surroundings. By 80mya, some of these insectivores had taken to the trees, giving rise to the order of primates, mammals such as monkeys, apes, and humans. Some of the earliest fossil primates were rather like bushbabies with buck-teeth, having big, forward-facing eyes, and large brains. How did the change in habitat and structure come about?

Imagine a particularly fearless early mammal running up a low branch one night. Perhaps it is being pursued by a predator; perhaps it is in pursuit of a large and juicy beetle; or perhaps it feels a vague stirring of curiosity. It finds up the branch a snug hole, and spends the dangerous daylight hours asleep there. It is safer from predators, flooding, and other dangers than its relatives, who still hide by day in burrows, under rocks, or in piles of leaves. So it teaches its own young to sleep a little above ground level. Perhaps other members of the same species imitate it, or discover the new behaviour for themselves.

Because of the extra safety, individuals with the new behaviour survive better and leave more offspring (which follow the new tradition) than conservative individuals, and scrambling into low branches every morning becomes the norm throughout the population, probably within a few dozen generations. What is more, the pioneering behaviour has opened up a new ecological niche for the species – the trees. Trees offer safer nesting holes, and also a new range of insect foods; perhaps berries and fruits, too. Our pioneering insectivore may be tempted to spend the whole time in the new habitat.

A change of environment, a new ecological niche, means new selection pressures, and this is where the conventional evolutionary mechanisms come into play. The animals are spending time in trees. However, they are not adapted for climbing but for scampering about in the leaf litter. Any mutations will be strongly selected for if they tend to develop hands that can grasp the branches, a bushy tail for balance when jumping, good binocular vision for safe climbing and finding food, and so on. So first we had a behavioural change which introduced the animal into a new environment, and then naturally selected inherited variations changed the animal’s structure. Even before the change of structure, incidentally, the new climbing behaviour could become an innate, inherited behaviour rather than one that has to be learnt afresh by each baby mammal. Natural selection sometimes ‘prefers’ instinctive to learnt behaviours, because they can be carried out more quickly and automatically, freeing the attention for other tasks.[iii], [iv]

Behaviour and Niche Change

The example of ancient insectivores discovering life in the trees showed how innovations in behaviour can open up a new environmental niche. The finding of new niches has been a vital part of animal evolution. Evolution requires not just natural selection but also a change in niche, and behaviour-led selection can be involved in niche change. If the environment alters, or if some individuals stray into a new environment, behavioural changes are very likely to play a role in helping them to survive. For example, if our primitive insectivores were plunged into a series of severe winters, behavioural innovations in making cosier nests might well prevent the extinction of the population for long enough for thicker and thicker fur to arise by the natural selection of inherited variations in fur length.

The potential for new behaviours is also, presumably, often important when an animal is faced with changes in local habitat and geography, food supply, predators, or competitors. If the insectivore lives mainly on slugs but the slugs die out, it must turn to another food or starve to death. (We must not forget here an even more direct way in which animal choice influences evolution. That is the selection of a preferred mate, whose genes will mix with the suitor’s genes to contribute to the next generation.)

New species are thought to arise usually by the splitting of an existing species, so we need some mechanism which isolates the population from any remaining members of the species still following the old life-style, so that the new and old groups do not interbreed. Some isolation mechanisms themselves involve changes in behaviour, so that behaviour-led isolation should be added to behaviour-led selection as a factor in evolution.

For evolution to proceed, reproductive isolation and niche change must occur together. In animals that can change their behaviour, new behaviours are likely to be the commonest way for that to come about. As the biologist C.H. Waddington observed:

Animals … live in a highly heterogeneous ‘ambience’, from which they themselves select the particular habitat in which their life will be passed. Thus the animal by its behaviour contributes in a most important way to determining the nature and intensity of selection pressures which will be exerted on it.[v]

It is through behaviour-led selection that animals may affect the future course of the evolution of their own species. Individual choices and preferences ensure that evolution does more than merely grope randomly into new areas. By way of recapitulation, here is how the philosopher Karl Popper summarizes this view:

At first sight Darwinism … does not seem to attribute any evolutionary effect to the adaptive behavioural innovations of the individual organism. This impression, however, is superficial. Every behavioural innovation by the individual organism changes the relation between that organism and its environment: it amounts to the adoption of or even to the creation by the organism of a new ecological niche. But a new ecological niche means a new set of selection pressures, selecting for the chosen niche. Thus the organism, by its actions and preferences, partly selects the selection pressures which will act upon it and its descendants. Thus it may actively influence the course which evolution will adopt. The adoption of a new way of acting … is like breaking a new evolutionary path.[vi]

[i] Gould, S.J., Wonderful Life, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1991, 233.

[ii] A similar example was given by H.W. Conn in 1900, quoted in Hardy, A., The Living Stream, Collins 1965, 179.

[iii] Reid, R.G.B., Evolutionary Theory: The Unfinished Synthesis, Croom Helm 1985, 244; Bateson, P., ‘The Active Role of Behaviour in Evolution’ in M.-W. Ho and S.W. Fox, Evolutionary Processes and Metaphors, 191–207, Wiley 1988, p6 of preprint. But John Maynard Smith (‘The Birth of Sociobiology’, in New Scientist 26 September 1985, 50) doubts that the behaviours themselves would become genetically fixed.

[iv] Behaviour-led selection is a specific form of the ‘organic selection’ independently proposed by C. Lloyd Morgan in Britain and J. Mark Baldwin and H.F. Osborne in America. The history and status of the idea of organic selection is reviewed by R G B Reid, Evolutionary Theory, (Croom Helm 1985, 239–247). It is also discussed by (among others) the following biologists: Julian Huxley (Evolution, the Modern Synthesis, Allen & Unwin 1942, 523), G. Simpson (‘The Baldwin Effect’, in Evolution, vol 7 (1953), 110–117), E. Mayr (Animal Species and Evolution, Harvard University Press 1963, 95, 106–7, 604–5), A. Hardy (The Living Stream, op cit, 154–5, 162–207. Hardy gives a number of other references to writing on organic selection in The Living Stream and Darwin and the Spirit of Man (Collins 1984)), C.H. Waddington (The Evolution of an Evolutionist, University Press, Edinburgh 1975, 89, 279–281), J. Piaget (Behaviour and Evolution, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1979 (1st edn 1976), xiv–xv, 15–45, 134–145), Patrick Bateson, (‘The Active Role of Behaviour in Evolution’, in M.-W. Ho and S.W. Fox, op cit, 191–207). The philosopher of science Karl Popper is an enthusiastic proponent of behaviour-led selection as the source of direction in evolution. (Objective Knowledge, Clarendon, Oxford 1972, Chapter 7, and Unended Quest, Collins 1976, 173–80.) Interestingly, standard university textbooks on biology or evolution rarely mention organic selection or the Baldwin Effect (as it is also known), and negligible experimental work has been done on its behavioural aspect.

[v] Waddington, ‘Evolutionary Systems, Animal and Human’, in Nature, vol 183, 1634–8. Waddington included the selection of niches by behaviour in his ‘exploitive system’ (‘Evolutionary Adaptation’, S. Tax (ed), The Evolution of Life (Chicago 1960)).

[vi] Popper, Unended Quest, op cit, 180 (Popper’s emphasis).