Monday, March 24, 2008

Is Enlightenment a Brain-State?

Spiritual and philosophical forums are buzzing about the story of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. Taylor, a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, has dedicated her life to brain research, inspired by her brother's schizophrenia. As irony would have it, she herself suffered a rare form of stroke in 1996. In addition to severe physical and mental damage, the brain hemorrhage seemed to temporarily short-circuit the sense of a separate self. At moments on the day of the stroke, she literally couldn't perceive a boundary between her body and the world.

Taylor recovered and wrote My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey. Last month, she gave a talk about the experience; the 20-minute video is freely available on Google, the TED site, and elsewhere. Her description of the stroke has striking similarities to tales of altered states of numerous meditators and mystics.

And there's the rub: what does this tell us about those big, special experiences that so many of us in the "spiritual" sub-culture treasure or strive for? I sense that many commenters are afraid that acknowledging the similarity between Taylor's stroke-induced state and others' meditation-induced epiphanies... will somehow negate the holiness or transcendental value of spiritual/religious practice.

It's much like the ongoing debate about whether states induced by psychoactive substances can be equated with mystical awakening. Hell, now or in the near future, scientists can stick some electrodes into your brain and reliably create religious ecstasies. Maybe, just like the oil companies are hiding the patents for gas-free cars, the Catholic Church and other threatened powers are keeping this brain-electrode technology from the masses.

I've been contemplating all this in the wake of 4+ days of intensive Zen sitting retreat earlier this month. I'd pondered how much has changed in the direction and intention I bring to these retreats, since I did my first one 20 years ago. Back then, Zen was a matter of throwing every ounce of my energy into piercing through ordinary life, into ... I dunno, something else. Something with more meaning, more profundity, more understanding. Like pornography, I figured I'd know it when I see it.

I've met so many "seekers" who cultivate this striving for enlightenment or awakening or whatever. So many teachers and traditions encourage an intense desire for liberation, claiming that you'll find it only when you really, really want it, to the exclusion of all else.

Meditation is different for me now; it's like just sitting. If Zen means anything to me, it means keeping a mind that explores, examines, questions everything. Questioning the most treasured beliefs, the most obvious assumptions. Asking what this thing is that's seeking "more." What is this mind that thinks, "I want to get something"? Formal sitting practice is an ultra-simple situation for perceiving this moment. For inquiring into why I do whatever it is I'm doing. For what? For who?

It's less like trying to win a prize or achieve a goal, and more like looking into a mirror. You generally don't look in the mirror with the idea of getting something. Rather, you're just taking a moment to see things as they are. Pausing to look and wonder -- it reveals a perspective that's different from the merry-go-round of constantly wanting something.

Middle-aged people like me sometimes walk into a room... and then completely forget why we went there. Isn't life itself like that? We can get so entangled with the mechanics of our needs, wants, and habits, that we disconnect from our original reason for living. When I do something... why do it? Keeping that question has become my intention and direction.

Practice doesn't have to be about getting a special state or experience, about trying to fix or improve life. It can simply reflect life.

It's like being in a train station, and deciding to hang out there for the day. After a while, you get absent-minded, and end up boarding a train that takes you here or there. Eventually, you realize what you've done; you never intended to ride the train, you were just sitting at the station. So you go back to where you started, stay there for a while, till again you lose your focus and find yourself riding a train somewhere, and once again realize it and return to the original point.

Again and again, returning to just this. "Mystical" doesn't necessarily mean striving for a special mind-state through any means. Maybe you follow the striving for years; as long as wanting appears, there's no sense in denying it. But it's not mandatory to always want something more or different or better. At any moment, we may pause and look into ordinary, everyday life. Into that unspeakable thing that we're experiencing right now.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello Stuart,

Interested to know, sitting for four days seems like very intense striving. If not to obtain a heightened awareness, why did you do it? When you come back down, isn't there a new awareness? Like Moses coming down from Sinai, Buddha from the Bodhi, Jesus from the Mountain. Isn't a new awareness what is being sought? Whether from a bump on the head, stroke, disease or drugs?

Stuart said...

Hi, anony. Many thanks for expressing yourself so clearly.

Interested to know, sitting for four days seems like very intense striving.

Yeah, it's a difficult effort for me to do sitting retreat for 4 days.

Someone walks a few miles, which is an effort. He may walk with impatience, always thinking about reaching some destination. Or he may walk step by step, taking in the experience and the scenery of each moment. The outer effort is the same, but the inner striving is different.

If not to obtain a heightened awareness, why did you do it?

I don't know. Maybe out of habit (I've been doing sitting retreats every month or two for 20 years). Maybe I did it to look into my true nature. Also, I was sitting with a bunch of other people, so a big part of my motivation was to support them.

Like Moses coming down from Sinai, Buddha from the Bodhi, Jesus from the Mountain. Isn't a new awareness what is being sought?

That's one type of intention, trying to get a mind-state that's new and different.

But it's not the only way. After all, we're aware right now, from the get-go. The intention can be to look into the awareness that's already appeared in this moment... rather than cultivating a desire to get something new and different.

Before striving to get somewhere, shouldn't we look into where we already are? If I want to get to Berkeley... the first step must be inquiring into where I am right now. Who knows, maybe I'm already in Berkeley.

Anonymous said...

"I don't know. Maybe out of habit ...Maybe ...to look into my true nature. Also ...a big part of my motivation was to support them."

Stuart,

Methinks you have more than likely obtained an experience of contact with reality that is not obtained simply by living and simply understanding you are already in Berkeley. You have obtained enough to be motivated to do it to support others. To me it seems you are offering this support out of the gratitude and understanding you have received during retreat from the everyday. To me you are demonstrating that it does take 'doing something' to get this kind of understanding, effort in otherwords or at least asking and making special accomodation in your life for this awareness to appear. Whatever the path chosen, getting this understanding is what initially motivates seekhers. After they get it, it seems universal that the first priority becomes not themselves any longer, but their neighbor and sharing the understanding.

Briefly heard one of your own on NPR/Fresh Air, Pema Chodron. In the clip I heard, she was talking about the tremendous love between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. They couldn't get enough of each others company, although coming from different religious traditions. Her voice was wonderful to hear, her state came through the air waves, even before I knew who was speaking.

Now tell me are you going to deny that these greats have achieved something intangible, but very real by their sacrifice and discipline? Can you say that you or they could have these states without the effort to get them?

Bob said...

Your 4 day retreat is indeed one much more than I could picture myself doing. Did you build up to that length of time?

I meditate for once in awhile for 10 minutes. Sitting and paying attention to breathing generally without seeking.

I like your statement:"It's less like trying to win a prize or achieve a goal, and more like looking into a mirror. You generally don't look in the mirror with the idea of getting something. Rather, you're just taking a moment to see things as they are. Pausing to look and wonder -- it reveals a perspective that's different from the merry-go-round of constantly wanting something."

"like looking into a mirror...." That describes my style.

Very good post.

yomamma said...

" I sense that many commenters are afraid that acknowledging the similarity between Taylor's stroke-induced state and others' meditation-induced epiphanies... will somehow negate the holiness or transcendental value of spiritual/religious practice."

i don't know, it seems to people are very exited by this, like it is a validation of all they feel they know, it would certainly explain why spiritual experiences seem so real. I guess my concern would be that now people will start right brain seminars ( and of course charge big bucks!) you will now overhear mom's at Whole-foods in Marin County admonishing their offspring for being right brained enough.
It seems that spiritual traditions have been trying to explain this structure for millennia, as good vs evil, Eden vs knowledge , spontaneity vs intellect.
Buddhism would say hey don't sweat it, it's all basically empty. I would say it's your old fashioned philosophical dichotomy made flesh, the old human condition dilemma, for each to deal with as they see fit.

hard at work in the lab said...

A few comments:

1. I don't like articles about this because most reductionists don't realize what they are doing. All mind states in humans *must* have an accompanying brain state; there's no other way. Portraying that like it's a revelation is, in my mind, revealing an ignorance regarding the nature of things. If I say that "love is just a brain state" that's a meaningless statement, since it doesn't convey much about love. It might help us understand and possibly treat, via physical means, conditions that might arise out of love, but unless that's our intent--and should that even be our intent? these "just a brain state" questions can get very Brave New World very fast--it's not helpful.

2. States and experiences aren't awakening and aren't enlightenment and aren't awareness. full stop. States and experiences may be interesting, and they may be enjoyable--and are even reproducible hence the discipline of concentration; striving to concentrate is rarely a bad thing--but confusing some fantastic, enjoyable state with awareness is an awful mistake. I suspect that the drug subculture has done much harm in this area. Now, that said, there are certain experiences that seem to recur in separate practitioners and even non-practitioners that seem to indicate there's a universal process by which awareness may unfold. Regardless, the advice remains the same: keep sitting still and pay attention, to whatever is happening moment to moment.

3. I don't know why people are striving for "something else", unless they're trying to develop concentration (a noble effort) or some special mental faculty, but again, even though those might be rare, they aren't enlightenment. The only thing you can awaken to is the moment you are in, and at a larger level your life as it is, credit card debt, annoying job and all. It might, however, take striving to do so. It's not "a new awareness", because it's never not been aware.

4. Part of the reason this is so ridiculous is because there's a mystique to enlightenment. If someone says that it's being able to perceive suffering, not-self, and impermanence moment-to-moment in real time without the illusion of a permanent, separate self, that doesn't sound very sexy, does it? It probably wouldn't fill up the donation basket. That, and there are plenty of ridiculous claims made and a lot of people who don't have the wisdom or experience or--this is important--the conceptual framework to judge the claims, so they're forced either to accept them and then attribute some mystical power to the claimant, or to disregard them entirely. So, you end up with a bunch of weird science about this stuff, and people who aren't really sure what they're talking about feel like they have an opinion to express.

Anyway, that is my two cents.

Stuart said...

Many thanks for the above comments. In the "real" world, I'm lucky to have friends with whom I can discuss the big questions of life. It's great to have additional beings I can connect with this way in the virtual world.

Anonymous said...
it does take 'doing something' to get this kind of understanding, effort in otherwords or at least asking and making special accomodation in your life

Yeah, that's the cause-and-effect: to get anything requires effort. Big effort, big attainment. Small effort, small attainment. No effort, no attainment.

Briefly heard one of your own on NPR/Fresh Air, Pema Chodron.

I've never met Pema, but have really liked some of the stuff in her books. She's from a Tibetan Buddhist tradition; I practice Korean style Zen.

Now tell me are you going to deny that these greats have achieved something intangible, but very real by their sacrifice and discipline?

It's not that it's wrong or trivial to wonder about mind-states, whether of the Dalai Lama, Bishop Tutu, or Buddha. Or about the mind I remember having 10 years ago, or the one I imagine 10 years hence.

I'd say that there's one mind-state, though, that's more important than all the others, by orders of magnitude. That's the living mind of this moment, beyond words and ideas.

I stress this sometimes, because of my karma of having spent years looking for special Truth, from gurus, holy places, words and ideas, etc. I experienced and witnessed a certain suffering, or at least lack of freedom, connected to the idea that Truth (or whatever words you use for The Most Important Thing) is some thing that you get from a particular, limited person, place, thing, or idea.

And maybe one good medicine for this suffering can be seeing the Truth of this very moment.

Bob said...
Your 4 day retreat is indeed one much more than I could picture myself doing. Did you build up to that length of time?

I started sitting 30 years ago when I was 18. Hard to remember, but I think it took 6 months to a year to even begin to get over the physical pain and mental torpor of practice.

After a decade of doing sitting meditation for at most an hour or two in a day, I did my first intensive sitting retreat (something like 9 hours a day of formal practice for days on end), and that was a whole new challenge. Perhaps the hardest thing in life that I ask myself to do.

yomamma said...
I guess my concern would be that now people will start right brain seminars ( and of course charge big bucks!) you will now overhear mom's at Whole-foods in Marin County admonishing their offspring for being right brained enough.

Ain't that how it always is? You get a wonderful experience that washes away your old delusions, and in the very next moment, you need to be alert to the next new delusion you'll fall into.

hard at work in the lab said...
there are certain experiences that seem to recur in separate practitioners and even non-practitioners that seem to indicate there's a universal process by which awareness may unfold. Regardless, the advice remains the same: keep sitting still and pay attention, to whatever is happening moment to moment.

Yeah, there are commonalities in those moments of clarity. And when that moment passes, we're always at the same place: a new moment to attend to.

Anonymous said...

Attending to this moment...Stuart your consistent repetition of that helps me. I spend way too much time in the past and future for sure, looking for information that will help me in the now which is often occluded by lots of confused emotions for me.

The sitting is supposed to help with getting clarity in the now and with handling emotions right? Well I did lots of sitting, alas with a corrupt path, and would come out of that with all my same baggage on my back, along with deluded concepts taken from a bogus philosophy.

I would like to re-establish a sitting practice, really miss it, but am resisting picking up another cloak, more baggage. Certainly not looking for another mantra. Can't get rid of the old one!

Recommend something simple to begin. I trust you, even though it's here in virtual land. :-)

yomamma said...

If i may be so bold as to offer up a few ideas from my experience. I have a cushion in my living room where i sit. and that don't cost a thing other than rent i already pay. I don't always have perfect mind or posture, but I find it still is helpful, just to set time aside and be willing to be there. Meditation or sitting doesn't need to come with baggage! In fact i find it's one of the easier things to lose that stuff with! No group to join if you don't want ,no prayers, no teacher, just follow , observe and or count your breath.

Stuart said...

Anonymous said...
Recommend something simple to begin. I trust you, even though it's here in virtual land. :-)

Thanks Anony :). The practice that I do is mostly about keeping a questioning mind.

Ask yourself, "What am I?" Or "What is this?" or "Why am I alive?" In whatever words, question in the most sincere, strong, deep way possible.

If you ask honestly, what appears is "I don't know." This don't-know is a great guide. Don't-know is like clear space; it's like a clear mirror that reflects whatever's in front of it. White appears, the mirror is white; red appears, only red.

Practice to me means taking up the great question, finding Don't-Know Mind, and keeping it moment to moment. This practice can be done anywhere, any time.

Or it can be done as Formal practice: keeping Don't-Know Mind while sitting still and silent, breathing long slow and steady. Unlike most Yoga styles, in Zen we sit with open eyes. I think this helps keep mental clarity, rather than drifting into a dreamy wonderland.

If you don't like mantra, OK. If you do decide to try mantra, you can try "Clear Mind Clear Mind Clear Mind" on the in-breath, and "Don't Know" on the out-breath. Or "What... am... I?" on the in-breath, and "Don't Know" on the out-breath.

A more formal and thought-out explanation of this sitting style is on the site of the Kwan Um School of Zen, the internat'l school I practice with. See:

http://www.kwanumzen.org/practice/sitting.html

Anonymous said...

Yomamma and Stuart,

The simplicity of your recommends on meditation practice were encouraging. What strikes me most is that this way leaves 'I know" behind, which is very good for me. Being the type who over-reads, over-thinks, I can come across as a 'know it all' sometimes, because frankly I often do know more than others on many topics. What an ego!

So this 'don't know' and sitting on any old cushion feels just right. More creative, allowing the situation to reveal new awareness, that all my research and thinking could never touch.

Many thanks, virtual brothers.

yomamma said...

Glad to be of any service anony, though i am a cyber sis, not a virtual bro!

So ok, back to brainland:
I saw some friends this week-end and one of them suggested coming from the right brain when another admitted to feeling self critical. i know that for this friend ( the suggester) this right brain idea means liberation from suffering, and it may be helping him quite a lot. On the other hand i appreciate the other being candid enough to admit how he really felt , and i wouldn't want to be deprived of that. So often i think people do sugar coat, and try to only present only the socially accepted emotions. i know that's an issue for me , to be true to myself without being overly pushy or freaked-out about not fitting in. so i guess I'm saying this right brain thing represents a mind control issue to me. Sitting , meditating, which i feel is probably the supreme medicine, may very well balance the hemispheres of the brain and therefor allow our less linear and uncritical side to manifest, that's maybe why all those hours of "doing nothing" are worth it and become a priority.
but i also think sitting helps us realize we aren't always the same , or coming from the same place, that all states and perceptions are mind created, whether desirable (by our conventional standards) or not. Your goal could become just to avoid uncomfortable feelings, to only seek high ecstatic states as a way to do that. my issue with being only bliss seeking or uncritical, is that it's not very practical, or realistic, but how many people are attracted to practical and realistic?

Anonymous said...

Yommama, Your entire comment nailed my condition to a t.

"So often i think people do sugar coat, and try to only present only the socially accepted emotions. i know that's an issue for me , to be true to myself without being overly pushy or freaked-out about not fitting in. so i guess I'm saying this right brain thing represents a mind control issue to me."

What I am learning from the zennies: What we chose to attend is usually ego driven, therefore can't be the whole picture. So simple sitting with a questioning mind allows it to emerge. That is as long as we don't place a lot of conditions on top of the sitting.

Sorry on the gender slip. Male/female, now there's an overlay for you. ;-)

Stephen C. Rose said...

I had three experiences as a young man which each in their own way confirmed something to me. The first two were simply explicit experiences a oneness with everything leading to an enduring sense of universality, of good, of congruence with whatever whatever is. The second was a sustained sense of freedom that have I never had at that level before or since, save perhaps, after, of efforts to recover it somehow. I cannot explain it to myself so cannot explain it to others. It was a genuine suspension of judgment that was operative, I suppose a sense of redemption. A few months. Since then I have moved from an uneasy relationship with "theology" wo my own sense of what Jesus taught and embodied which I see as the universal presence of what might be called Abba, of the Spirit, within all as a sacred and active and giving center that is within everyone -- therefore a universalism and hence sympathy with Wilber's spectrum understanding and with at least the term integral. I have never thought of meditation or prayer as a way to such states. For me they were events which I did nothing to induce. Best, S

Doug said...

I heard another NPR interview akin to the one that Anon mentioned, with a monk from the Tibetan tradition, male voice though, and names are escaping me. The subject of brain states came up, and he offered that:

[mangle] brain states account for all the experiences of the realm of ego-delusion, while enlightenment is something else.[/mangle]

That's a pretty bad rendering of what he said, his was much more elegant, with a much more precise vocabulary. But you get the idea... maybe. ;-)

Interpreting through my own experience, practicing meditation develops the mental muscles necessary to put aside brain states as they arise; to let them recede rather than dwelling in them or fostering them. Tools like "What am I," or in my case "Mu!" are useful for doing this. Like anything else, the more you practice at it, the better you get. When you are able to put enough aside, you start to have a clearer view of reality than one that came filtered through all those brain states. Reality didn't change, it's been there all along. It's wonderful, beautiful, mundane, day-to-day life, it's the here and now! You can just see it a little better is all, but it's a happy thing to be able to see it clearly.

Bob - long retreats are certainly tough, but not insurmountable to you or anybody. Just the fact that you're sitting even a few minutes here and there means you're a practically there already, in my opinion. The hardest thing to overcome is the mental barrier that keep us from trying. If you can work up the determination to just do it , the physical pain of sitting for so long can be overcome. Yeah, it hurts, but the hurt just seems to matter less. :) After a while, you forget that it's there, it's just another one of those mind-states that you set aside.

You might consider a good interim goal to be to work your way up to sitting for 30 minutes at a time, even once in a while. Even at long retreats I've never heard of the schedule calling for more than 30-45 min. of continuous sitting without a break to stretch the legs and attend to physical needs. If you can make it through 30 minutes once, then you can make it through 30 minutes again, and before you know it it's been two or four or seven or 10 days.

Cheers!

- Doug

Anonymous said...

Hello stephen c. rose,

On your three experiences
"...leading to an enduring sense of universality, of good, of congruence with whatever whatever is."

I had these expereinces too. At the time they didn't have any labels or names or categories or theories. Later when I went looking to find out more about them, many were eager to define them for me. Your sharing reminded me that they just were. Remembering them now from the simple way you described them restores them to a place of mystery, that 'don't know' quality.

Thanks :-)

Stephen C. Rose said...

Wow Anon...

Very glad to virtually shake your hand.

The first two for me seem genuinely unrepeatable -- huge moments in time there and gone.

The last was after the first two and came following an intense week when I found myself helping my roommate's intended out of that relationship. I had no therepeutic training but I did listen pretty well and evidently I helped. This was at a conference where the emphasis on grace was also intense. My sustained sense of freedom followed the closing service of communion and lasted for several months. I watched myself and everything else dispassionately and was just going along. It may have been a rite of passage as I was definitively moving from the world of privilege in which I had been brought up to a world which would soon land me in the midst of the 60s civil rights struggle.

Anyway I am happy to have a place where I feel it is OK to talk about this.

Cheers, S

Anonymous said...

S,

"I watched myself and everything else dispassionately and was just going along."

Know the state, now in memory. Your tale bringing my own into higher fidelity. All the things I've done to regain an alterred brain state, (Cough, cough!), has never compared to those experiences. Were they induced by a special environment, words, sounds, people? Maybe. The important thing to me now about them is that I know there is a reality outside the narrow confines of 'me'. How I gain access, in ripe middle age no longer the point in my everyday. Feel most compelled to help others, relieve their sadness, maybe just to cheer them, just be with them. Com-passion. Be with them in their sorrows.

That said, I am now thinking that cultivating vivid recall of those past experiences might not be a bad idea going forward. Isn't that one of the aspects of old age that makes it tolerable? Remembering?

Thanks stephen c. rose

:-)

Stephen C. Rose said...

OK Anon...

I will try to answer. I said, "I watched myself and everything else dispassionately and was just going along."

You ask: Were they [the states] induced by a special environment, words, sounds, people?

Induced? I have no idea, But I can say what the environment was. It was special. But none of the events that took place antedated the sense of freedom. I had that when I came -- it was a summer camp for inner city kids in NH and it was interracial, more Black than white. There was no situation in which the sense was different because of anything happening. I would lay out sheets on rocks when kids wet their beds, or smoke a cigarette talking to the guy who was also in my little unit. I was not being "good" -- I remember blowing smoke through a screen door at a kid who was being wise. I am not sure I would have done that in another state than what I was in. I did whatever I did. I had an interracial relationship -- this was 1956 and was warned about that by some white counselors but I just let it roll off and there was no problem. So, yes, it was a special environment. That fall I went back to college -- Williams -- and it was lost or submerged, except that I could no longer contemplate a normal corporate success type existence. So I had been in a process of change.

The two other experiences came after this -- both in Italy in the space of about a month or so, one a simple vision of unity between heavens and earth one night in Capri and another something musical in a chapel that took place on a rainy afternoon in Florence when I was under the weather.

Of all three the latter was the most powerful in the real sense of being taken out of myself and observing and accepting.

I had been reading Jane Eyre that day and had stumbled on a passage about goodness that had made a profound impression on me. I think I looked at the experience in the chapel as a continuation or a confirmation of what I had read.

All these were life changing in an internal sense and I have never veered from the universalism implied in these experiences.

I never tried to recreate these last two, but I have missed the state I was in during the summer when I suspended judgment and I am convinced that there is a profound relationship between freedom and the capacity to observe without judging.

Cheers, S
I have written sonnets referring to that sense of loss.

The whole thing gives me some hope regarding states of mind and senses of freedom.

Hope this makes sense. Cheers, S

I do not know if the url I am pasting below will work. If not you can go to stephencrosehome.blogspot.com and type in the keyword Easter and I have a reflection there that may cast some light on this.

http://stephencrosehome.blogspot.com/2008/03/huckabee-cut-some-slack-quote-some.html

Anonymous said...

Stuart's Orgiginal Post,

"Taylor's stroke-induced state and others' meditation-induced epiphanies... will somehow negate the holiness or transcendental value of spiritual/religious practice."

Does it matter how we get the information that provide these epiphanies? As Stuart mentions some may feel that unless they appear in a deliberately spiritual setting, they cannot be trusted. The point seems to be getting awareness beyond our ego self centered striving. As S.Rose mentions, these experiences yielding a capacity to observe without judging. Wow, we/I sure need more of that in the/my world.

So what I am hearing from zen folk like Stuart is that without the ephiphanies, however they are accompished, simply remembering to keep a questioning mind at all times is one way to keep the door open.

Interested in Taylor's video. Thank you Stuart for posting. My twin brother is schizophrenic, now in the later stages. Spending time with him is utterly refeshing as his statements and observations constantly break through conventional ways of seeing.

Thanks S.Rose for link to your blog. Walk down memory lane. Something tells me all of Stuart's visitors are colorful folk.

Hoping this weekend to be the kickoff to some serious sitting. Or not so serious. Thanks Doug

plok said...

Hey, Stuart -- sorry it's taken me a while to get back to you. I'll say a couple non-Zen things in a second, but first: yes, the train. Where Zen crosses Buber, in interval: it isn't about having an instrumentality. Nice post.

But on the matter of brain-states...I match up reasonably well with the fellow in the lab, except I'll just add one thing: the generation of altered states, by whatever method, doesn't do anybody any good, and indeed isn't really that interesting, except in what it shows or what it's used for. Whoa, not Zen at all, here! Or, is it? It's hard to argue that any given brain-state, altered state, what have you, doesn't contain a certain potential as instrument...this is why the Sufis say a student needs a master, because it's all very well and good to be in an altered state, but then why be in it if you don't plan to accomplish anything but mere chaotic gratification? Well, we might say the same thing about the "normal" state of consciousness: one of my favourite Sufi instructions is the one that warns the initiate even against music...our favourite brain-state adjusting technology, of course. But this road's so easy to take, yet not travel, that maybe it's a good warning. Yes, seeker, just go and sit for a while! Chop wood, look at the water! Do that for as long as you have to. This is much like the Sufi proscription: don't go running to the mushrooms for answers, especially when you're not really looking for answers anyway. Do what you're doing, instead.

Enlightenment a brain-state? Hmm, no...epiphany's the brain-state, I conceive. But these brain-states are all very interesting for showing what thought is, what reality is, how the human mind and brain function together. We have a lot of lies about this currently, I think -- well, we have a lot of lies about a lot of things, look at human relationships and then read D.H. Lawrence, there's something going on in our reactions that we're not bothering to trace all the time. Sadly we're not very good replacements for William James or Marcel Proust, in these times: we've lost the hunter's knack of chasing down the flavour of the moment with words, lost the talent of skillful and diligent psychological exegesis. Now, Dr. Taylor sounds like she may have re-encountered this particular project, and that's very interesting, far more interesting to me than wondering if Special Experiences are replicable with electrodes or drugs, and if such replication devalues the meanings that tend to flow out of such experiences. Of course the answer is a) they are, and b) how could it? You can sit zazen, or you can listen to music, or on the other hand you can take pharmacological rocket fuel that blasts you above the clouds in a matter of seconds...you can even reach into the skull electromagnetically and simply flip the God switch. But these things still aren't all the same activity just because they involve the firing of a whole bunch of the same neurons! In each case the nature of the effort is quite different, and really (pardon my rant), are these questions not distractions, is this not in itself the Flower Sermon? Look, he's holding up a flower -- my God, what does it mean??? But if you dial up a low-ego brain-state through drug or drumbeat or device, that only means you do not have to look at the flower in the Buddha's hand, and what good does that do you? When you do not know what you are doing. A little farther down this road and the Flower Sermon means nothing at all, might as well never have been...but without a realization, where's the value even in getting rid of the Flower Sermon, or finding oneself in the land that's prior to dichotmies, at all? Simply overcoming dichotomies -- simply that -- is the easiest thing in the world: I often do it by falling asleep. Many others do it by dying, or failing to be born. But that's not Enlightenment, either.

Did I say "pardon my rant"? Pardon my rant. Interesting place you've got here, if I think of something else to say I'll certainly weigh in.

Stephen C. Rose said...

Just want to throw into the mix FWIW that enlightenment, as far as I am concerned, is akin to a sort of narcissism if it becomes an end in itself. What is it anyway? And why would a teacher make a difference? As I reflect, I think the end aim of any effort one might make to progress in life, as a result of personal questing or trying to reckon with a great loss, or whatever, is the revaluation of values that Nietzsche made so central to his thinking.

On th e matter of mind states I forgot a pretty essential one I experienced -- it was when I was in college but I transposed it in the following passage in a novella I wrote about bullying and my childhood. A few words:

Adam rented a pair of ankle-length shoe skates, laced them up and began moving counterclockwise around the rink with some fifty other early arrivals. Wondrous organ music filled the space. The skaters rolled along to the familiar cadences of Strauss waltzes, “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” and “Bicycle Built for Two”.

Adam looked up and saw stars twinkling. In actuality, they were colored lights dotting the high ceiling above. Red, blue, green, orange, purple, pink, yellow and gold.

But then everything changed.

Stars appeared all around the arena. Adam saw them. He saw them become trees. He saw multicolored branches stretching upward like supplicating hands beckoning him into the penumbra of movement. Undulating streaks of color almost flamelike. Star-trees. Not moving. Buffeted. Waving. Anchored.
Summoning. Moving yet not moving.

Adam watched. He continued to skate. No one else saw them. They were his. Sent to him. As real as breath. As real as the skaters moving to the music. They were a gift. A message. A solace. A hello.

from http://panflick-manhattan-bully-wars.blogspot.com/

Stuart said...

Anony wrote...
My twin brother is schizophrenic, now in the later stages.

Years ago, I read Eden Express by Mark Vonnegut (Kurt's son). He describes living with schizophrenia in his youth (later, he was successfully treated with medication). Since his youth was in "the 60s," including time spent in a "hippie" commune, the book is a fascinating window into not just schiz, but that counter-culture era.

There are passages in the book in which Mark describes his schizophrenic episodes in a way that vividly reminded me of the peak of an acid trip.

Stephen C. Rose said...

Acid trip? That would be one thing. My only direct experience with a schizophrenic was with a paranoid schizophrenic who had acted out in a violent way a year before only people who knew that did not tell me as I befriended him. On the last day, we spent it together and I dropped him off and he ended up stabbing a person he had been talking to (about freedom) within a few centimeters of killing him.
Then he walked into the woods naked and stabbed himself in the chest and was not discovered until the spring thaw. He had not taken his medication that day. Sorry to throw this in but schizophrenia raises real red flags for me. Including disclosure if you know someone is prone to violence.

Stuart said...

plok said...
A little farther down this road and the Flower Sermon means nothing at all, might as well never have been.

Thousands of years ago, Buddha famously held up a flower. Long long ago, Buddha died, and the flower died long before that. The flower itself has no special meaning.

But in holding up that flower, Buddha was pointing at something. That "thing" is always present, right in front of us. So even though Buddha and his flower may be irrelevent, the thing that it points to is most important.

Yeah, it might as well have never had happened... except that the story, handed down through the centuries, continues to do it's job of pointing at something. For some people, at some times, the story is a reminder, helping us to wake up to just-now. Of course, there are countless other words and actions that, depending on the situation, can serve this purpose.

Stephen C. Rose said...
Sorry to throw this in but schizophrenia raises real red flags for me. Including disclosure if you know someone is prone to violence.

Hi, Stephen. Your story adds another perspective to the issue of schiz. Our mind-states aren't just about ourselves: paranoid delusions can result in great harm to others.

In Mark Vonnegut's book, he certainly revealed the horrors of his illness... and he also wrote of some appreciation he had for the alternate perspective of reality he got through his schiz episodes.

From the get-go, Mark had resistance to taking the medication that made these episodes disappear. Overall, he found his medicated life a vast improvement. But he wasn't entirely without regret about losing the LSD-like altered realities that schitz had let him glimpse.

plok said...

Just as you say:

Yeah, it might as well have never had happened... except that the story, handed down through the centuries, continues to do it's job of pointing at something. For some people, at some times, the story is a reminder, helping us to wake up to just-now. Of course, there are countless other words and actions that, depending on the situation, can serve this purpose.

My point being, that maybe taking a dose or putting on the God Hat isn't substantially different, then, from simply considering the story...except once again it's as you say: big effort, big result; small effort, small result. Granted, flipping the God switch in the brain could change a person's life just as much as any of the other ways we get to epiphany -- but the easier it is to get there, perhaps the more it looks like that's all the effort that's required. And then not even the story of the Flower Sermon is necessary for anything...except, for understanding, perhaps it still is.

That's kind of what I was trying to say.

Anonymous said...

On the topic of mental illness and brain states. I knew it was a risk to mention my brother's schizophrenia and in hind sight regretted it. Reading the comments now doubly so. To allay some of that regret, I will bring up NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. "Individuals with schizophrenia face enormous challenges, including society’s stigmatization of people living with schizophrenia, and the discrimination that results from these prejudices."

My brother was so alive, played sax, ended up in the service where he broke down. Today he is a core member of his program with other vietnam vets. He is compassionate and hardworking.

It used to help me remember some famous people with mental illness: Socrates, Beethoven, Michaelangelo, Dickens, Jack Kerouac, John Nash, Van Gogh, Lincoln, Tolstoy, Newton, Hemingway...the point being that folks who have lost their minds go in and out of these 'brain states' and when they do they sometimes bring us superlative gifts. I understand the fears, because the media likes to play on them. For the most part they are not warranted and are a prejudice like racism.

Yes, I read Vonnegut's Midnight Express and fought with my brother's doctors back in the day to get them to offer megavitamin therapy. Luckily they didn't listen to me.

My brother is doing pretty well today. I am proud of his ability to create a life of value not just to himself, but for others too.

Billy Clyde said...

Is ENLIGHTENMENT a brain-state? My experience says yes.

The light began as a spot somewhere straight ahead and quickly overwhelmed my vision. It was accompanied by a low volume but intense background noise. I remember the noise on reflection; the noise was secondary to the light. It was much like staring into the headlight of an onrushing train. In less than a second, the light blinded me completely. In less than another second, the light and roar passed and I was able to see and hear again – but oh so clearly compared to before.

The moment prior, I had surrendered my self will – completely - to fate. I had said, out loud, “Oh god, I cannot live this way any more”. I had been struggling to shape my life as I saw fit, but was only succeeding at making myself miserable. At the moment that I uttered those words, the bottom fell out, as if a well opened up under me – then the light and sound pierced my brain.

I believe what took place might have been an evolutionary self defense mechanism. First - when I completely surrendered my will to fate - I believe my brain / my ego / my self defense mechanisms concluded that I was in immediate peril of death – why else would I be surrendering my will? My brain equated the surrender of self will with the physical surrender of life itself. To counteract the imminent pain due to the imminent violent ending of life (the kind that would typically occur in nature when you are about to be eaten by a predator) my brain shut off all sensory input – sight, sound, touch, everything – so that I would not feel the pain. The evolutionary survival advantage would be a subsequent clear-headed response to the emergency.

How does the brain create the white light and the noise? I believe something must physically interrupt all sensory input signals from within and without the body. Can the amygdala do that? Can a sudden injection of neurotransmitter chemicals block input and cause the optic nerves to fire? Do all sensory inputs enter the brain through common circuitry? How does optic input intersect with other sensory inputs?

But the light was just the first element of the enlightenment experience. Suddenly, no voice in the head, no more stress or suffering. No more perceptual self…just an immediate experience of the extreme joy of being alive. I found my balance, giggled at the feelings, and headed to the bathroom to look in a mirror to see if I was still among the living. Somewhat to my surprise, my face looked back. Colors were intensely vibrant. I found myself sensing the relationship of everything around me – all the way to the horizon. I was both void and a true center of my universe. The experience was complemented with a third person perspective, from about 10 feet above my head, adding to my eye level perspective. The third person perspective lasted about three days. The other perceptual changes persisted for months.

When you are no longer a “self”, you no longer suffer. There is nothing to suffer over. When there is no voice in your head, there is no self to suffer about. Pain can exist, but it is just an element of reality that is impermanent (and eternal) as is everything else. Action can now be taken in immediate response to unfolding events. Where did the voice go? Maybe the brain structures normally dedicated to self reflection were co-opted for other more urgent tasks?

What was different, in my brain, compared to before? I suspect my brain resources were shifted towards a heightened ability to perceive the “here and now”, a heightened ability to react to the immenent dangers. If a “self” is to survive an unfolding emergency, having a voice in your head filtering your response might result in a nanosecond delays and death. So my brain shifted focus (neurons?) to attend to immediate survival, and it did so at the expense of its “social” or evolved self. I believe enlightenment returned me to an evolutionary time when social groupings were not as critical of a part of every day reality. I was relating to nature one on one, as we rarely do in modern life.

People now use education to survive daily challenges. In fact, the world we live in rewards educated skills, not noble savage talents, unless you are an exceptional athlete. What is the value of enlightenment to modern man, other than the attendant radical reduction of stress and suffering? I think that flexible focusing of brain resources is a skill that can be learned – music maestros have been shown to use more of their brain for music, than average; some savants use more of their brain for number awareness, at the expense of normal life skills; enlightened folk use more of their brain for perception of physical reality.

If we were able to shift between states of awareness - at will – applying larger number of neurons to the various tasks we encounter every day - how much more talented might we all be?

Studying the physical changes attendant to enlightenment might point us to a more evolved brain use in the future. Studying the brain changes attendant to an out-of-body experience; a near-death-experience; or a flash of enlightenment might teach us how to integrate education with enlightenment – states of being that seem to be at polar opposites, right now.

Koans can be the gate, but so can a car crash. I prefer to just sit and enjoy the fresh air.

Bill