Meditation Blog : February 2005 Archives
In our daily life we usually live amidst a constant stream of thought. We are rapt in thoughts of the past and future, thoughts of ourselves and others.
In meditation the momentum of busy activity settles into stillness. The body and mind are relieved and relax. This happens naturally and without effort. In this letting go the stream of thought gives way to simple awareness: the feeling of the body against the floor, the sounds from the room and the street, the tension in the facial muscles, thoughts arising and passing away.
Meditation is a laboratory for becoming familiar with ourselves. It is an opportunity to observe ourselves in simplicity, going beyond the surface narrative of the thinking mind.
You know what space is. There is space in this room. The distance between here and your hostel, between the bridge and your home, between this bank of the river and the other — all that is space. Now, is there also space in your mind? Or is it so crowded that there is no space in it at all? If your mind has space, then in that space there is silence — and from that silence everything else comes, for then you can listen, you can pay attention without resistance. That is why it is very important to have space in the mind. If the mind is not overcrowded, not ceaselessly occupied, then it can listen to that dog barking, to the sound of a train crossing the distant bridge, and also be fully aware of what is being said by a person talking here. Then the mind is a living thing, it is not dead.
February 20, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink
By examining consciousness more closely, we challenge our usual assumptions about ourselves and the world. Another subject that requires more attention is the notion of the "self."
We commonly maintain the idea of an internal self — the psychological "I" we locate at the core of our identity. But does this "I," this "self," this "me," substantially exist? Rodolfo Llinas, Chairman of the Department of Physiology and Neuroscience at NYU, writes in "I of the Vortex":
"I" has always been the magnificent mystery; I believe, I say, I whatever. But one must understand that there is no such tangible thing. It is just a particular mental state, a generated abstract entity we refer to as "I" or "self".... The "I" of the vortex, that which we work and suffer for, is just a convenient word that stands for as global an event as does the concept of Uncle Sam vis-à-vis the reality of a complex, heterogeneous United States.
Now, is there such an entity as me or I? Or is it just like the weather — an ongoing, ever changing stream of ideas, images, memories, projections, likes and dislikes, creation and destruction, that thought keeps calling I, me, Toni, and thereby solidifying what is evanescent?
The self is constituted by more or less consistent sets of personal characteristics, beliefs, and actions, but it doesn’t exist apart from those complex physical processes that make up the individual. It may strongly seem as if there is a self sitting behind experience, witnessing it, and behind behavior, controlling it, but this impression is strongly disconfirmed by a scientific understanding of human behavior.
It was once believed that atoms were indivisible and the sun revolved around the earth. Perhaps we are even more attached to the belief in a permanent self — the "I" in control of our life. When examined more closely, through the scientific lens, or in the moment-to-moment attention of awareness, such solidified beliefs begin to dissolve.
Continuing on the theme of the last two entries on insect consciousness and bird intelligence, we'll work our way, via the octopus, towards the human brain (and the particular relevance of this topic to meditation.) Rodolfo Llinas, a "founding father of modern brain science," is the author of the fascinating book "I of the Vortex," which offers a compelling argument about the evolution of thought and the mind.
In examining the question of consciousness, Llinas addresses the question of whether animals and other creatures experience subjectivity, or whether they are simply automatons:
I shall use the term qualia to denote subjective experience of any type generated by the nervous system, be it pain, the color green, or the specific timbre of a musical note. This issue has been discussed at great length from a philosophical point of view.
Llinas notes a common scientific perception that:
...while being the basis for consciousness, qualia appeared in only the highest life forms, suggesting that qualia represent a recently evolved central function that is present in only the more advanced brains. This view relegates the more lowly animals, for example ants, to a realm characterized by the absence of subjective experiences of any kind.
To me, these views lack a proper evolutionary perspective.... What is not often understood is how deeply related qualia truly are to the evolutionary, functional structure of the brain.
He goes on to discuss the intelligence of octopi:
I must tell you one of the most alarming experiences I've had in pondering brain function.... that the octopus is capable of truly extraordinary feats of intelligence. I have read of experiments in octopus by J.Z. Young, where these invertebrates have solved problems as complicated as opening a jar to remove a crab kept inside. Operating with nothing but the visual image and olfactory clues indicating the presence of the crab inside and the tactile manipulation of the jar, the creature finally found that the top could be opened by applying force. And after having done so, when presented again with the same problem, the animal was immediately capable of opening the top and fetching the crab out. Astoundingly, this event could be learned with a single trial. More to the point, however, and most remarkable is the report that octopi may learn from observing other octopi at work. The alarming fact here is that the organization of the nervous system of this animal is totally different from the organization we have learned is capable of supporting this type of activity in the vertebrate brain.... there may well be a large number of possible architectures that could provide the basis of what we consider necessary for cognition and qualia.... the simplest assumption from what we see is that their behavior supports subjectivity.... the onus of proof lies with those who believe that these animals are devoid of qualia.
These observations on "possible architectures for cognition," echo the recent reevaluation of the bird brain, and its non-mammalian stucture for intelligence.
Given our knowledge today, we seem to have come as close as we can to understanding qualia [subjective experience]. Those who reject the reduction of qualia to the electrical activity and geometry of neuronal circuits, perhaps do so because they lack any understanding of functional geometries; qualia are not some mysterious events that, "residing between," manage miraculously to change the nature of electrical activity into "feelings." After all... qualia are soluble in local anesthetics. Here the ghost in the machine is responsive to surgery or even a whack on the head. Since when are transcendent properties so fragile and close to the biological process? Parsimony and serious science clearly indicate that "the bridge," "the mysterious transformation" of electrochemical events into sensations is an empty set. It does not exist: neuronal activity and sensation are one and the same event.
Llinas concludes that, "For all intents and purposes, the question of qualia or feelings is the question of conscious experience." Our common approach when considering consciousness is to imagine it hierarchically as a special province of the human brain. We may allow that other creatures have varying, albeit lesser forms of experience, but nothing that compares to the rich, language-infused complexity of the human mind. But such judgments are merely a reflection of our capacity to analyze, compare, and elevate the primacy of our own experience. Llinas suggests that consciousness, or subjective experience, is not an exclusively human capacity, but stems from neural activity itself.
Following yesterday's entry on insect consciousness, we now turn to our avian friends. The New York Times reports on an emerging (and redressive) scientific consensus that birds are highly intelligent.
Birdbrain has long been a colloquial term of ridicule. The common notion is that birds' brains are simple, or so scientists thought and taught for many years. But that notion has increasingly been called into question as crows and parrots, among other birds, have shown what appears to be behavior as intelligent as that of chimpanzees....
Today, in the journal Nature Neuroscience Reviews, an international group of avian experts is issuing what amounts to a manifesto. Nearly everything written in anatomy textbooks about the brains of birds is wrong, they say. The avian brain is as complex, flexible and inventive as any mammalian brain, they argue, and it is time to adopt a more accurate nomenclature that reflects a new understanding of the anatomies of bird and mammal brains....
At a university campus in Japan, carrion crows line up patiently at the curb waiting for a traffic light to turn red. When cars stop, they hop into the crosswalk, place walnuts from nearby trees onto the road and hop back to the curb. After the light changes and cars run over the nuts, the crows wait until it is safe and hop back out for the food....
Like mammals, some birds are naturally smarter than others, Dr. Jarvis said. But given their range of behaviors, birds are extraordinarily flexible in their intelligence quotients. "They're right up there with hominids," he said.
However, considering the consequences of our discovery, birds may have preferred we remained in the dark about their smarts:
"There are still puzzles to be solved," said Dr. Peter Marler, a leading authority on bird behavior at the University of California, Davis, who is not part of the consortium. But the realization that one can study mammal brains by using bird brains, he said, "is a revolution."
"I think that birds are going to replace the white rat as the favored subject for studying functional neuroanatomy," he added.
The organization Edge hosts The World Question Center, which every year fields a question to "leading scientists, writers, and futurists." The question selected for 2005 was "What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?"
Strangely, I believe that cockroaches are conscious. That is probably an unappealing thought to anyone who switches on a kitchen light in the middle of the night and finds a family of roaches running for cover. But it's really shorthand for saying that I believe that many quite simple animals are conscious, including more attractive beasts like bees and butterflies.
I can't prove that they are, but I think in principle it will be provable one day and there's a lot to be gained about thinking about the worlds of these relatively simple creatures, both intellectually—and even poetically. I don't mean that they are conscious in even remotely the same way as humans are; if that were true the world would be a boring place. Rather the world is full of many overlapping alien consciousnesses.
Why do I think there might be multiple forms of conscious out there? Before becoming a journalist I spent 10 years and a couple of post-doctoral fellowships getting inside the sensory worlds of a variety of insects, including bees and cockroaches. I was inspired by A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds, a slim out-of-print volume by Jakob von Uexkull (1864-1944)....
That's what I mean by consciousness—the feeling of "seeing" the world and its associations. For the bee, it is the feeling of being a bee. I don't mean that a bee is self-conscious or spends time thinking about itself. But of course the problem of why the bee has its own "feeling" is the same incomprehensible "hard problem" of why the activity of our nervous system gives rise to our own "feelings"....
To think this way about simple creatures is not to fall into the anthropomorphic fallacy. Bees and spiders live in their own world in which I don't see human-like motives. Rather it is a kind of panpsychism, which I am quite happy to sign up to, at least until we know a lot more about the origin of consciousness. That may take me out of the company of quite a few scientists who would prefer to believe that a bee with a brain of only a million neurons must surely be a collection of instinctive reactions with some simple switching mechanism between them, rather have some central representation of what is going on that might be called consciousness. But it leaves me in the company of poets who wonder at the world of even lowly creatures.
"In this falling rain,
where are you off to
wrote the haiku poet Issa.