This week, I have a new article appearing on the Tricycle magazine website (“Letting Go of Time“), which I wanted to share.
In this piece I take a close look at our perceptions of time. In general, I usually think of time as being stable, constant, reliable. But, my own experience of time can be quite variable: time can seem to flow quickly, or slow to a crawl.
Using my own background as a neuroscientist and my Zen practice, I feel that I can see more clearly how time, the time we actually live, depends on the brain.
And, reflecting carefully on time has been very helpful for me, personally, to cultivate a deeper, more authentic patience. To be more present in my own life. For that, I am very grateful.
The summer issue of Midwest Zen was published today, and I was happy to have an essay included (“Beyond Fair and Unfair“). After losing my brother to cancer this past March, I’ve struggled to really express what that loss meant to me, and to so many of us who loved him. I tried to put part of that to words for his funeral service, but felt that I had to leave so much out.
This essay focuses on another part of that experience, on the injustice of losing a loved one at young age. I struggled with this a great deal, with the fact that it was so unfair.
Eventually, though, I started to see more clearly that this anger was misplaced, or at least it was for me. When I look closely, I can see that “fair” is way that we give a name to how people treat other people. And so, fairness stands outside of a serious illness like cancer. Fair and unfair do not really apply, even though that felt wrong to me, and still feels wrong to me at times.
In the end, there came a time when I saw clearly that my anger was not useful, and I had to set my own ideas of fair and unfair aside, to deal with what was really in front of me.
But, I still believe in fairness though:
That is not to say that we should discard fair and unfair entirely. Fair and unfair are ideas, constructions of our minds, but not in the sense that they are fictions. Not in the sense that seeing through fair and unfair frees us to be callous, or selfish. Not in that way at all. Fair and unfair are just ideas, but ones which matter precisely in the actions we take that affect other people. They matter in how we treat one another. They are a profound treasure for people who aspire to live together in peace.
Where are we going when we pass out of this life? For that matter, where did we come from, to find ourselves here? For many, myself included, these are important questions – perhaps the ones that first drew us to deeply engagement with spiritual practice.
Like many in the Midwest, I grew up in a largely Christian community. And, although I did not personally have a strong connection to a church, the idea of an afterlife – in which some part of our consciousness would continue past our physical death – was familiar to me.
And as I encountered Zen as a teenager, discussions of an afterlife, and specifically the Buddhist idea of rebirth, were not emphasized in the teachings I encountered (especially those which were popular in the U.S.). So, I was very interested to come across an excerpt of Roger R. Jackson’s new book, Rebirth in the latest issue of Buddhadharma magazine (Summer, 2022), which considers the various ways that Buddhists today understand rebirth. Jackson identifies several broad, often overlapping, approaches, ranging from those who hold that rebirth is literally true, to those are more agnostic about the metaphysical truth of rebirth, and to secularists who often ignore or reject the teaching.
As a scientist, I find myself personally more persuaded by the agnostic or secular camp. And, while I appreciated Jackson’s article, I did find myself reacting, pushing back on some of the approaches described, especially what he calls the neo-traditional approach. This would include attempts to reconcile a literal version of rebirth with our scientific understanding of the world, in part by carving out exceptions to physical laws. He summarizes one such argument by the Dali Lama, that:
… although there may be a stronger connection between neurological events and ordinary mental states than traditional Buddhists believe, there remains the possibility that there are extraordinary mental states that do not depend on the neurological system, namely, the meditative experiences of advanced tantric yogis…
Jackson, p. 19-20
This is an interesting idea: that there could be mental states (something which we can experience) that are not dependent on our body and brain. This kind of approach, to carve out some distance between the mind and the brain, seems to be a common approach that some will offer when we look for ways that parts of our self (our memories, personality) could survive the death of our bodies.
However, before we carve out an exception for any mental states (from brain activity), we should look closely and ask: do we need to do so? And here, I would say that the answer is, no.
Our knowledge about the brain, while still growing, has shown that our mental experience is deeply bound to the delicate functioning of our nervous system. Anyone who has taken care of a loved one recovering from a stroke, or through the painful erosions of dementia, has seen firsthand how important the brain is for our mental experience. Our sense of our “I”, as a stable sense of self, is a kind of illusion – you cannot find a permanent, stable “I” or self in the brain. And, the illusion is a fragile one, that depends in each moment on the continuity of our experiences, our memory, and our personality.
Could it be that there are mental states which exist independent of the activity of the nervous system, as the Dali Lama or others have suggested? Perhaps, but the literature of neuropsychology is full of descriptions of individuals who have lost their memory, or their ability to feel emotions, or experienced a dramatic change in personality after suffering brain damage or disease (and, for the interested reader, I would recommend Paul Broks’ beautiful book, Into the Silent Land, for some examples).
One of the most famous cases in neuroscience is that of Henry Molaison, who had parts of his brain surgically removed to treat very severe epilepsy. Mr. Molaison’s epilepsy was improved after the surgery. But, he tragically lost the ability to make new memories, because parts of his hippocampus were removed in the operation.
For more than forty years, he never made a new memory (though he could learn some new things, closer to what we could call skills). And, if brain damage can block the ability to make memories in this life, I doubt we will be able to carry our memories over to some future life.
Beyond memory, it is difficult for me to identify an example of a feeling, thought, emotion, or any mental state, that cannot be disrupted or transformed by affecting the nervous system. To think that the mental states of meditation are somehow exempt is unnecessary. And, that is why possibility that rebirth is literally true (instead of true in a more metaphorical sense) seems very unlikely to me.
However, even if you find yourself in agreement, you might still be asking: What if you are wrong?
The only reply I have is – of course I am wrong, how could I not be wrong? Or rather, can any of us be right?
I see quite a bit of evidence that our mental experience depends on the activity of our brains, following the laws of nature. But, for our practice, I find it very important – critical – to remember that the very idea that we have a brain (or a body) is itself nothing more than a useful tool. And we should be careful not to let our tools shape how we see reality itself.
The brain is something that we can observe. I’ve held one (though, thankfully, I have never seen my own!). But, calling that thing I was holding a “brain” is also a concept. Like other concepts (trees, cars, weather), “the brain” helps us make sense of the world. There is our direct experience of brain, or tree, or weather. And, there is a step (that we often do not even see) where we name “the brain,” “the tree,” and “the weather”.
Each concept helps us group together what we experience. Concepts help us explain why our experiences appear to have structure, order. And, the scientific approach offers a very powerful way to explain how these things that we have named work, how the physical world works.
But, no matter how good our system is for explaining the world (and the scientific approach has done very well), every approach will always be only partially accurate. Because, in the most important sense, the idea that we have a body, or a brain, is itself an idea, something we add to our actual, direct experience. A useful fiction. Like our idea of “the weather” or “a whirlpool,” concepts give us handles that we can use to grasp at a part of reality. But, in doing so, we have to ignore the ways that a concept has left something out about the real texture of reality.
All-in-all, I find the scientific approach to making sense of experience very useful. Too useful, it turns out, to allow others to carve out space for rebirth (in that literal sense of the concept). Once we do that, we have really left science behind, in order to save the idea that we will be literally reborn after this life. And, just as I am wrong (because my own understanding is built on a set of abstractions) every system we use to understand and make sense of the world is wrong. We all have rebirth wrong, and that is ok.
In the end, remember that whatever system we use to make sense of our experiences, none can be “true” in a satisfying, final way. Each requires some kind of unfounded assumption. From the specific perspective of our practice, though, what matters most is what flows out from those assumptions.
While I consider myself a scientist, in matters of spiritual practice, I really do not care what you believe. I want to know – how do you live?
If our beliefs help us realize the truth of impermanence, of interconnection, and to commit our lives to the benefit of all beings, then those beliefs are valuable. That is the real measure of a belief system. Any system of belief that lets us turn away from the world, or to selfishly cling to our own small, ego existence is useless. And, for our spiritual practice, arguing over which belief system is correct is a waste of our precious time, whether we think that we have one lifetime ahead of us, or many.
Jackson, R. R. (Summer, 2022). How do we make sense of rebirth? Buddhadharma, 17-35.
The mystery of consciousness – how minds arise in the material world – has perplexed me for most of my adult life. This question drew me to both Zen Buddhism and neuroscience when I was in college. Still today, I believe that it is important to understand why consciousness exists – because the nature of consciousness, and of our self, can tell us a great deal about what we truly are, in the deepest sense. o, it is no surprise that I was very excited when I came across Being You by Dr. Anil Seth, a new book on the science of consciousness.
In the book, Dr. Seth presents a synthesis of current research on consciousness, with a focus on his one work (primarily in the area of perception). In the prologue, Seth begins with a description of a time when he went under general anesthesia.
Experiences of anesthesia are not exactly common (many people have likely never had a surgical procedure that requires general anesthesia. Or, they have only had one, if any). But, general anesthesia is also not exactly rare. Personally, I have been put under anesthesia twice, but not since I had my wisdom teeth removed when I was a teen.
So, given the “ordinariness” of this procedure, I was impressed with how Seth used it to tease out the problem of consciousness:
Five years ago, for the third time in my life, I ceased to exist… I returned, drowsy and disoriented but definitely there. No time had seemed to have passed… I was simply not there, a premonition of the total oblivion of death, and, in its absence of anything, a strangely comforting one.
Anil Seth, “Being You” (pages 1-2)
From this (rather unsettling) start, Seth goes on to lay out the problem of consciousness: how does our consciousness emerge from the activity of a brain? He acknowledges that many other researchers and scholars have struggled with the “hard problem” of consciousness, which he introduces with a quote from Dr. David Chalmers:
It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it arises. Why should physical processing give rise to an inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.
This problem, a kind of philosophical koan, is one that has gripped me for as long as I can remember. As a college student, I vividly recall long walks on the unpaved roads near my home, looking across empty corn and soybean fields at the setting sun. I struggled to understand, then and now, – why do I experience this light as a rich set of colors? Why does the winter breeze feel cool? How does my subjective experience actually come from the activity of the brain?
In this book, Seth recommends that we set the hard problem aside, and to focus on what he frames as the “real problem.” The real problem frames the goals for a science of consciousness to “explain, predict, and control the phenomenological properties of consciousness” (p. 25).
While at some level, this feels like Seth is dodging the important question, I left feeling that this could be a valuable mindset to bring to consciousness research. He made an interesting comparison to early theories about life, some of which held that life required something extra, “a spark of life.”
But, a focus on describing and detailing the basic properties of life and living systems has eliminated a need for something “extra” to explain life. As Seth summarizes:
As the details [of life] became filled in – and they are still being filled in – not only did the basic mystery of “what is life” fade away, the very concept of life ramified so that “being alive” is no longer thought of as a single all-or-nothing property… Life became naturalized and all the more fascinating for having become so.
Anil Seth, Being You, p. 32
I don’t know that the consciousness research will follow a similar path, and let go of the hard problem in the end. But, I think that Seth makes a strong argument that focusing on the real problem will help consciousness research move forward. His own book gathers many of the fruits of this approach.
Is seeing believing?
As a Zen practitioner and neuroscientist, one section of the book that I found particularly compelling was how Seth looked at the contents of our conscious experience – essentially our actual subjective experiences. He focuses on our perceptions of the external world at first, and points to how our perceptions of reality are limited. The argument he uses is pretty much consistent with what I’ve written here about how our senses are limited, and misleading, and about the limits of our ability to truly experience “reality.” He argues, for example, that all of our sensory experience of the world – the sights, sounds, smells, etc. that we experience – are not really faithful representations of the world, but are our “best guesses” – in a statistical sense – about what is out there in the world.
This is easily demonstrated in visual illusions, where our experience of color is not determined just by the wavelengths of light that are falling on the retina in our eyes, but also by the context. For example, in the checkerboard below, both boxes A and B really are the same color, but we perceive A as being much darker because of the surrounding context:
But, there is an important difference in emphasis in Seth’s approach, compared to how I would normally describe perception. Usually, I would say that my experience of the world (what I see, hear, taste, etc.) is a representation of the sensory data that that I am receiving. It is how my brain is representing the information coming in from my sensory nerves. I would accept that the brain is attempting to correct for missing information, or context (as in the visual illusion above), so of course we should not trust our perceptions to be direct measurements of the world. The goal of the brain is to produce a useful representation.
But, I would normally accept that what I am experiencing is the incoming sensory information itself. That view, the one I held, assumes that perception is as a process where our senses provide a window onto the world. That window is not fully transparent, certainly. The window controls what information gets through, and transforms or distorts it.
But, Seth goes farther, I think, and in an important way. He argues that our experiences of the world, the contents of our consciousness, is not the sensory information itself. Seth points out that the brain has no direct link to “reality” – it is stuck inside the skull. And the information that the brain receives from the senses is only partial, and often imprecise. So, at each moment the brain must make its best guess about what is out there, in the world, to try to explain the (unreliable, incomplete) sensory signals that are received.
In this view, what we actually experience – the feeling of texture, the color of the sky – is not the sensory information itself. Instead, we experience the predictions that the brain is making, the brain’s best guess about what is out in the world. The sensory information itself, in this view, is mainly used to verify if our guess (a prediction) about the world is true. For this reason, Seth describes our experience of the external world as a controlled hallucination, one where the brain is creating a set of predictions (also referred to as “top-down” – that is, from the brain) that are compared to incoming sensory information (also referred to as “bottom-up” – that is, from the sensory organs).
It seems as though the world is revealed directly to our conscious minds through our sensory organs. With this mindset, it is natural to think of perception as a process of bottom-up feature detection – a “reading” of the world around us. But what we actually perceive is a top-down, inside-out neuronal fantasy that is reined in by reality, not a transparent window onto whatever that reality may be.
Anil Seth, Being You, p. 88
Seth describes this as a controlled hallucination, because he argues that the brain is always making these kinds of predictions. And, when the process of making “top-down” predictions becomes disconnected from those sensory signals, that is when we would start to experience real hallucinations.
But, and for me this was a critical point, Seth points out that the line between hallucination and accurate perception is not a sharp one, but a matter of degree. The brain is constantly making predictions, and what we experience are the predictions. When they are tied to the sensory data, then we would say that a person is accurately perceiving the world. But in both cases, they make up the contents of our conscious experience.
You could even say that we’re all hallucinating all of the time. It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, that’s what we call reality.
Anil Seth, Being You, p. 92
Under this view, hallucinogenic drugs may decrease the impact of sensory data, allowing top-down predictions (our best guesses) overwhelm our experience. While Seth does not give much attention to other states, this could also explain some of the properties of dreaming. Or even the kinds of hallucinations that can be common during intensive meditation (makyō):
The makyō I’ve experienced include the sense that my hands in the zazen mudra were huge (a persistent one early on), faces in the wall I sat facing (a particularly beautiful Avalokiteshvara), and the piercing song of a bird coming from the far side of a lake perhaps three miles away.
I found Being You to be a worthwhile read, and there were many other sections that I found personally relevant (as a Zen practitioner, and as a neuroscientist). I would recommend the book to others, because it was one of those books that showed me the world from a new perspective.
But, there were other sections of the book that I would have liked to see Seth develop further. One of these areas was Seth’s presentation of his overall theory of consciousness, and our sense of self – what he calls the “beast machine” theory. After arguing that our perceptions of the world are fundamentally controlled hallucinations, Seth makes a similar case about emotions and interoception (sensations from the body).
Around this point, Seth introduces a theory of consciousness, and the self, that is grounded very strongly in our status as living being, and in our biological drive to stay alive. We can easily take life for granted, but in reality, keeping even one cell in our body functioning is a delicate dance. How much more difficult when that body has trillions of cells? Seth argues that this drive, to live, is at the core of our brain function:
Evolutionarily speaking, brains are not “for” rational thinking, linguistic communication, or even for perceiving the world. The most fundamental reason any organism has a brain – or any kind of nervous system – is to help it stay alive, through making sure its physiological essential variables remain within the tight ranges compatible with its continued survival.
Anil Seth, Being You, p. 196
Working from this premise, Seth develops the “beast machine” theory of consciousness (and self), which he states as “Our conscious experiences of the world around us, and of ourselves within it, happen with, and because of our living bodies.” (p. 181)
I cannot do justice to the argument here, certainly, but I feel that in this area, he has drawn too narrow of a foundation. Staying alive is a key goal for any living being, and to be certain, it is not an easy process. At every moment, our bodies must work to push back against entropy.
But, is that our only goal, evolutionarily speaking?
Perhaps, but many of the behaviors we engage in are only very weakly related to our physiological survival. Some motivations fit very well: consider the drive to eat, drink, find shelter (all of which help keep our bodies in an optimal range). But what of our motivations for exploration, sex, and parental care. What of the drives that support our social communities? These motivations might somehow serve physiological goals (keeping our body alive), but the direct benefit to our own physiological state seems tenuous. Seth draws one explanation for exploration (as a way of better predicting what you’ll need to do in the future to protect yourself), but I felt even that link was thin.
To flesh out Seth’s theory of consciousness and self, I would have appreciated seeing him integrate more of what we know about other systems in the brain, besides perception. For instance, while there is some attention to decision-making (in the chapter, “Degrees of Freedom”), this part of the book could be developed further. For the interested reader, I would recommend Dr. A. David Redish’s book, The Mind Within the Brain for a good overview of decision-making systems in the brain (full disclosure: Dave was my PhD adviser, so I’m not entirely objective!). For those interested in a Buddhist perspective on the mind (focusing on cognitive and evolutionary psychology), I would also recommend Robert Wright’s excellent book, Why Buddhism is True.
And, while these concerns might seem technical, or trivial, I think they do matter a great deal. Or could, some day.
If we believe that consciousness is intimately tied to our status as living creatures, then we will have concerns about extending any moral protections to non-living beings. And at the moment, that makes perfect sense. But, what about in the future?
Seth uses the popular examples of the android Ava from the movie Ex Machina, and the androids in the series Westworld (both of examples of humans treating their creations quite terribly). By centering his theory on our status as living things, Seth seems unwilling to accept that these (fictional) creatures could be conscious. And he wonders about these kinds of cases: “Will we feel that these new agencies are actually conscious, as well as actually intelligent – even when we know that they are nothing more than lines of computer code?” (p. 269-70).
Seth does state clearly at other points in the text that he is claiming that he believes machine consciousness to be impossible. But, the tone of the book seems skeptical of the potential for machine consciousness, and I worry about that. If you read Being You, I would ask that you look at that part of the book very carefully. If you walk away from this book holding on to a theory that will make it harder for us to recognize machine consciousness, if it ever emerges.
If you end up believing that the take-away message of Ex Machina and Westworld is that we should be worried about being too nice to androids, I think you missed the point.
As work in artificial intelligence proceeds, there is no guarantee if and when one of these robots/androids/programs would become conscious, but if we don’t admit that it is possible, then I do worry that we will unintentionally (callously?) be introducing new suffering into the world.
And, if we are truly committed to freeing all sentient beings from duhkha, we should at least be ready to pay attention to the androids.
Many meditation traditions involve developing our awareness of what is going on around us. Part of that work involves opening up to more fully experiencing the richness of sensation. But, even as our practice matures, and our awareness of the world deepens, even in that moment we are still surrounded by an invisible world, beyond our senses.
As I noted in an earlier post, our perceptions of the world seem direct, and unquestionable. In fact, though, our brains must do a lot of work to make an accurate guess about what the physical world is like. The gap between our perception and the physical world is something that we can easily demonstrate with visual illusions, where we find our perception is out of alignment with the physical world.
While the idea that our perception may skewed is easy to demonstrate, we may not appreciate that from the very first steps, our experience of the world is also very limited. At a fundamental level, our brains must do a considerable amount of work in order to gather information about the world, using our senses.
And, since gathering information is costly (in terms of developing and maintaining each sensory system), our senses are focused on finding the information that is most useful to us, not on representing the entirety of reality. So, while it may seem as if we have access to the entire world, what we can experience is really only a sliver of the reality that surrounds us in each moment.
What information is it that our brains focus on? Each of is probably familiar with our senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. To these, we should also add our vestibular sense (our sense of balance, and the ability to detect when our body starts moving or rotating), and proprioception (our sense of where our body is in space).
We often miss our vestibular and proprioceptive systems when we talk about sensation, probably because they often operate outside of our awareness. We may not even notice them until they are disrupted (think of getting dizzy after a carnival ride, or if you have ever experienced bouts of vertigo). Together, these senses represent the range of information that is available to us, through our direct experience, in each moment.
The challenge for each of our senses is to take some stimulus in the world (the chemicals that make up an odor, the waves of pressure that make up sound), and convert those stimuli into the language of the brain. Changes in the electrical potential across the membranes of the sensory receptors, which drive the release of chemical signals (neurotransmitters) that hand the signal off to the next step along the path to the brain. Research on the neuroscience of sensation has made great advances in our understanding of the intricacies and activity of our major sensory systems. Today we can describe in very fine detail the major steps that go into each of our sensory experiences.
The work by Drs. Julius and Patapoutian represent important advances in our understanding of the very first steps of sensation: taking some information from the world (light, vibrations, sound, flavor) and converting that information into the language of the brain. Research in this area has greatly advanced our understanding of how our brains are able to “touch” the world around us, by recoding physical stimuli in neural signals. The proteins that Drs. Julius and Patapoutian have characterized are a key step in this process. Having a protein that can start the process of turning heat into a change in the electrical potential of a neuron is the first step in building a window into the world around us. And without these proteins, we would be deeply anesthetized, unable to feel physical contact with much of the world.
And, research across our sensory systems has also demonstrated the limits of our sensation. We can only directly experience stimuli for which we have receptors. And even then, only for stimuli that fall in their working range.
So, as we look closely at our sensory systems, we find that our direct experience of the world is limited in two major ways: 1) in the range of information we can detect, and 2) in the kinds of information that we can detect.
For the first point, consider vision. Most humans with normal vision can see a rich range of colors. (And, even humans with color vision deficiencies (often referred to as color-blindness) can distinguish a wide range of colors).
Color is our direct, personal experience of the wavelengths of light around us. What we typically refer to as light is technically visible light. For most humans, visible light is made up of electromagnetic radiation (photons) which have wavelengths that fall in a range from about 400 nm (violet) to just over 700 nm (red), stretching from violet to red. Any color that we can perceive is a representation of the wavelengths (or mixtures of wavelengths) of light that are entering our eyes at the moment.
But, what lies outside of this range, and outside of our vision? Photons with shorter wavelengths we call ultraviolet (UV) light and gamma rays, while photons with longer wavelengths make up infrared light, microwaves and radio waves. Think about that for a moment. Radio waves, gamma rays, and the calmest color of green we have ever experienced. All are in reality photons, and the only important difference between them is their wavelength.
At this moment, some of those other photons, for instance UV and infrared photos, are all around you. Some are passing into your own eyes. And yet, most likely, you can’t see those photons in the UV spectrum, or infrared light. But, why not? Is it impossible to do so?
Of course not: we can easily “see” UV and infrared light by using special tools (think of infrared (IR) cameras, which allow us to image heat, or see in the dark, when there is little visible light).
And, other animals have visual systems that detect UV or infrared light. Bees, for instance, have a visual system that is sensitive to a range of wavelengths that is similar to humans, but shifted to shorter wavelengths, including the ultraviolet range. Many flowers have evolved to have striking UV patterns which serve as cues for pollinating insects like bees, so the experience of a flower is very different for bees and humans, even from the very first step. So, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder (or at least starts there).
Outside of vision, this point holds as a general truth: that what we can perceive is only a fraction of what exists around us at any moment. Consider sounds that are very low, or very high in pitch (beyond our hearing), textures too fine for our fingers to catch, and odors too faint for us to detect. All of these exist in the world, right here and now, just beyond what we are experiencing.
On the second point I raised above, we are not only limited in the range of our experience, but also in the very kinds of sensations we can experience. There are qualities of the physical world that we can demonstrate exist, but which we cannot feel directly. Other animals can, though. For instance, numerous species have developed receptors that allow them to detect types of stimuli that humans do not experience directly, such as magnetic fields, the polarization of light, or electric fields (usually by animals such as fish, living in the water).
In each case, these species of animals have developed proteins that can detect stimuli in the world, and sensory systems that represent that information in a useful way. This allows these animals to directly experience physical stimuli in the environment to which we ourselves are blind. Birds use magnetic fields for navigation, similar to our use of a compass. Some fish have a passive electrical sense, that allows them to feel electrical fields in the water, while others actively generate electrical fields that allow them to feel objects in the water. While we sometimes think of these electric fields as weapons (in the case of electric eels), more often the electric sense is used to feel what is in the water in conditions where vision is ineffective.
So when we look closely at what we can bring into our awareness of the world, we find that humility is always warranted. Right now, in this moment, there is more to the world than what we can experience directly. That invisible world lies beyond our senses, beyond what we can ever experience directly. To reflect deeply on this is important, lest we become overconfident. We cannot hold the entirety of this moment of the world in our perception.
But along with humility, gratitude is also warranted. While our experience is only a sliver of reality, life is so bountiful that even a drop has depths that we cannot exhaust.
In our meditation practice, we hope to better see clearly the true nature of reality. What is it that we see, as we turn our attention to look at our own self? One fundamental insight is that our sense of self, the solidity of “I”, is a kind of illusion.
A tree near our home is showing its age, its branches losing leaves and the center slipping into decay. From a single seed, it grew to towering heights, reaching for the sky as it stood tall over us for many years. And now, it has reached the end of its life. We naturally think of this tree as one living being, the same thing that has been with us since we moved into our home. But, what really remains of that tree, even now, that was there at the beginning?
I have often asked this same question of myself: what really remains, or persists, of my self across time? Day-to-day, and moment-to-moment, it is easy for us to feel that the thread of our identity is unbroken. Of course, I tell myself, I am the same person now (the same, unique individual), that I was an hour ago, or last week, last year. But, why am I right to feel so confident about this point? Consider longer windows of time: as I look back at photo of myself as a child, what really, deeply connects the person who smiled so long ago for the camera, to the person holding that photo today?
As living beings ourselves, each of us is composed of a rich tapestry of cells, from our skin, to our muscles, and the cells that organize and oversee the construction of our very bones. Our brains are no exception, and trillions of cells (called neurons) make up that intricate web in our heads. Each of our thoughts, feelings, memories depends on the activity and integrity of our neurons. The cells that make up us work together, forming a community of sorts. But, they are separate units, and fundamentally replaceable. We could swap out pretty much any cell in our body for a physically identical copy, and we have no reason to think that our body, or our experience, would be impacted.
Where then, is the “I” among all of the trillions of separate cells that form the community of my body? How is it that I persist from moment-to-moment, and day-to-day? Personally, I have found it useful, when thinking closely about our bodies and our selves, to see that what is critical is the pattern of activity that those cells, especially those in the brain, maintain over time.
When I was younger, and beginning to explore Zen, one metaphor that shaped how I understood my self came from a talk given by Charlotte Joko Beck (collected in her book Nothing Special: Living Zen).
We are rather like whirlpools in the river of life… Though for short periods it seems to be distinguishable as a separate event, the water in the whirlpools is just the river itself. The stability of a whirlpool is only temporary. The energy of the river forms living things – a human being, a cat or dog, trees and plants – then what held the whirlpool in place is itself altered, and the water passes on, perhaps to be caught again and turned for a moment into another whirlpool.
Charlotte Joko Beck, “Nothing Special: Living Zen“
The image of a whirlpool, something that we recognize is, at its very core, a transient process – ephemeral – was very useful. With living things, it can be easy to treat them as solid and firm, like the tree near my home. But, we ourselves are no less a dynamic process than is a whirlpool. Across our life, from conception, to birth, aging and death, our physical bodies play out as a dynamic structure of matter and energy. Even in adulthood, after our form has stabilized (for the most part!), we are constantly taking in physical matter (through food, drink, and even the very air we breath).
Beck used the metaphor of the whirlpool to explore the ways that we become defensive, protective, if we identify ourselves only on the basis of our temporary form.
We’d rather not think of our lives in this way, however. We don’t want to see ourselves as simply a temporary formation, a whirlpool in the river of life… We want to see ourselves as permanent and stable. Our whole energy goes into trying to protect our supposed separateness.
Charlotte Joko Beck, “Nothing Special: Living Zen”
In Beck’s talk, she considers how as becoming protective of our transient form, our whirlpool, can lead us to try to hold on to what comes through our whirlpool. Or, to try to erect barriers, turning ourselves into “stagnant pools.” She asks us to consider shifting our view, from identifying solely with our self as a separate being, and to turn our attention back to the ways in which we are deeply connected to everything (the river).
For me, the metaphor of the whirlpool has also been useful in other ways, to help me think about what we really are, in this world. We often treat living things (my self, my family, our pets, the tree outside of our home) as real things that have a stable existence. This attitude has value for us – it is fundamentally useful to us – and for our ability to function in the world. As social beings, the ability to take into account the history of another being in our interactions is key, helping us to know who is likely to be a source of support, or who might put their own desires above the needs of others.
But while it can be useful to think of living things as stable, and enduring, this firmness turns out to be an illusion. Much as whirlpools begin with gentle rotation, mature, and then fade, living things typically go through a rapid development of their physical form, reach some stability in adulthood, and experience a decline towards the ends of their life. Even if we look the same from one day to the next, we are fundamentally dynamic processes, changing in every moment.
Across this arc, what persists that could be a self? Physically, there is little to nothing left in terms of my actual body today that was with me when I was an infant. In many parts of our body, our cells age, die and are replaced with new cells. Even in those cells that persist (in our brains, for instance, many of our neurons will survive for most of our lives), proteins and other molecules are constantly being replaced. Through respiration, we let go of a part of ourselves, the carbon that has been bound to the oxygen we brought in: we shed something of ourselves with every breath.
In the same way that a whirlpool is a stable pattern, living beings are a stable structure, but not static: physical matter pours into them, and through them, with every breath, meal, and drink.
But, while living beings, ourselves included, are transient patterns of matter, could the stability of our identity be in the mental, rather than the physical, domain? If we look closely, we can see that this is probably not the case. Each thought, memory, emotion we have or experience depends on the activity of the brain. So, anything that appears to be stable in our mental experience is weaved from the activity of a body that is in constant flux.
To look at the relationship between our brains and our conscious experience, another piece that I have personally found meaningful is the short story, “Exhalation,” by Ted Chaing. In the story, Chaing’s unnamed narrator describes a strange world, where all of the inhabitants appear to be mechanical creatures, powered by compressed air. The people living in this world must refill their metal “lungs” regularly from a source of compressed air, some vast underground reservoir. If they fail to do so in time, and their lungs run out of air, they will go limp. Replacing their depleted lung with a full one will bring them back to life, but with all of their memories erased. Indeed, it is not clear if the dead who are revived in this way are able to function at all.
The narrator of the story describes his attempts to understand the workings of their own mechanical brains, and in that way understand the source of their memories. He doe this by examining his own brain in great detail. I won’t go into specifics (as I would not want to ruin the story for you, and I would highly recommend it!), but part of the key insight is that pressurized air is used to power a set of tiny switches (essentially air-based transistors), to accomplish the same kinds of computations that our own brains use.
This insight, seeing clearly the relationship of the air to the narrator’s own conscious experience, produced a profound shift in understanding of their own identity.
… I saw that air does not, as we had always assumed, simply provide power to the engine that realizes our thoughts. Air is in fact the very medium of our thoughts. All that we are is a pattern of air flow. My memories were inscribed, not as grooves on foil or even the position of switches, but as persistent currents of argon.
Ted Chiang, “Exhalation”
With the metaphor of the whirlpool that I described above, often I have thought of our whole bodies as whirlpools: intricate patterns of matter, spinning across the arc of our lives. But, when we focus on our mental experience, our thoughts, feelings, memories, I think that this view can be refined, and I have found the image that Chaing has crafted to be very helpful here.
If we (our conscious experience, our persistence as a person over time) are a whirlpool, then our bodies (including our brains), are the rocks and structure of the river bed, which steers the water of the river into the shape of a whirlpool. Just in the same way as the mechanical brains of the beings in Chaing’s story, where the air flowing from the lungs was harnessed as it flowed through them. Their thoughts were made from the air, but were also separate from it, in the same way that a whirlpool is made from water, but is a different kind of thing.
While we need to breathe to live, just as the narrator in Chaing’s story, the nature of our respective needs are different. For us, breath is critical to bring in fresh oxygen (so that we can make use of the energy that is stored in our cells) and to remove the waste products of respiration (such as carbon dioxide). The breath was the very energy that animated Chaing’s beings: all of their lives depended on the reservoir of pressurized air that powered their minds.
For humans, and most of the rest of the life on our planet, our energy doesn’t come from pressurized air, but instead from sunlight. The force that propels our limbs, drives our blood, and gives speed to our thoughts comes from our sun. That energy could have fallen simply onto the earth itself, warming the planet a bit more. But, some of it was captured by plants, and stored away until it could be released, slowly, and (in a sense) intentionally. In the same way that a windmill harnesses the force of the wind that would otherwise pass by, or a solar panel harnesses light, plants store the energy of sunlight in chemical form.
Every thing that we have done, each word we have spoken, each home we have built, each moment of delight we have felt, has been powered by the sun.
So, instead of air, “the very medium of our thoughts” is, fundamentally, sunlight. The power for our thoughts comes from the energy that has been stored from the sun. That energy powers the neurons of the brain. The activity of those neurons (in the electrical and chemical signals that neurons use to process information and communicate) leads to our conscious experience, the whirlpool that is our self.
Chaing ends the story ruminating on the deep connection of life to entropy: his narrator’s life plays out in the movement of the universe from order (pressurized air) to disorder (equilibrium, where there is no difference in pressure).
The universe began as an enormous breath being held. Who knows why, but whatever the reason, I am glad that it did, because I owe my existence to that fact. All my desires and ruminations are no more and less than eddy currents generated by the gradual exhalation of our universe. And until this great exhalation is finished, my thoughts live on.
Ted Chiang, “Exhalation“
But what about us? In an important sense, all of our motion (each movement, thought, memory) depends on a “breath” that was taken when our universe began in the Big Bang. Our existence depends on the creation of the stars, including our own sun. While in principle there are other sources of energy that we can harness, every food that we consume represents energy that was captured and stored from sunlight that fell on our planet.
Most of that light, a vast amount of it, races past our planet, out into the vastness of space. Perhaps some of that light will be detected someday, by some other civilization, and spur some impact there. But, the majority of it will never have a strong effect on the universe at large, or on sentient beings at all.
That tiny, tiny fraction that falls on Earth though? Living beings harness only a fraction of that light (our plants absorb a tiny slice of light, a small range of wavelengths), and that sliver of the bounty of our sun is enough to power the vast web diversity of life on our planet. Each and every thing that we do depends on using that energy. It is true that someday, our sun and the other stars will exhaust their reserves, and the universe will reach some new state (possibly to settle into its own quiet non-existence, perhaps to head to some new rebirth).
But, just as each whirlpool will merge back into the river, the moment that our universe settles back into stillness will come when it will come. Well beyond the limit of our own lives, and very likely beyond that of our species. For us, the present is more properly our concern. If we can preserve our own planet, we can continue to nurture the miracle of our collective whirlpool, the communities of sentient beings that spring into existence on the Earth, and we can continue taking delight in existence and in this great exhalation of the universe.
Has science removed all of the mystery from our world? In our lives today, science has dramatically advanced how we make sense of reality, allowing us to better understand the causes of events. We know much more today about the factors that lead to every event that happens in the world, leading to the expansion of our technology, the refinement of medicine, among other things.
Note: a version of this essay was published in the first issue of Midwest Zen
Today, it could feel like science will eventually explain every part of our life, and that in today’s world, there is no room for mystery.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, science is built on a set of assumptions about the world (that there is an objective world that exists outside of our perceptions, that phenomena in that world are orderly, and that they can be described by general laws and theories). This work, the scientific approach to the world, has allowed us to peer deeply into the fabric of the world, and to look out into the vastness of the universe.
But, even if science eventually “succeeds” – even if we believed that our scientific understanding could be complete, and that such a goal were reasonable – I would hold that even then, there will remain a mystery at the heart of reality: the mystery of existence itself.
Fundamentally, every explanation about the universe, about this life that we keep finding ourselves in, has to take existence itself for granted. Whether we explain the world based on scientific theories, or we look to religious traditions to make sense of the origin of the universe, we can never find a firm vantage point to clearly see if our explanation is really true.
The very existence of existence, the fact that there is a world that our life plays out in, is mysterious. In science, we can trace the life of the universe back to its earliest moments with reasonably high confidence, and there are many strong theories about how the universe came into existence. Some are speculative, and our understanding of this early period is still developing, but we have at the moment a healthy range of plausible options. But, why was the universe able to come into existence in the first place? Why was it possible for something, anything to be? On this question, we have no good answers. Or, none that would not just push the fundamental question of existence back a bit further, unanswered.
We should have similar concerns about religious traditions that explain the existence of the universe through divine intervention – in the end we are left wondering, why is there a God (or gods) in the first place?
In an essay, William James captured this question very well, as he weighed the various approaches people have used to grapple with the question of being:
Not only that anything should be, but that this very thing should be, is mysterious! Philosophy stares, but brings no reasoned solution, for from nothing to being there is no logical bridge.
William James, “The Problem of Being“
Since I first read this essay, this line has stuck with me: “From nothing to being there is no logical bridge.”
While I try to acknowledge this mystery in my life, and in my meditation practice, it is not out of an effort to answer the question: I’m not looking for the “truth” about reality, in a way that would banish this mystery. The mystery of existence is perhaps something we can feel, or approach, and it may be that mystical states (a perception that we experience oneness with existence, or a relaxation of our individual ego) can help us appreciate that mystery. But, I don’t believe there is any possible way for us to perceive the source of existence. I could be wrong, but understanding why there is anything at all seems to be a fundamental limit to our existence.
And, while the fundamental question of existence is mysterious, that has not led me to reject the scientific approach. I personally still feel that the world around us is orderly and predictable. I have not felt a need to reach for magic, or miracles (in the sense of causes that operate outside of natural laws) to explain what happens in the world.
For me, this is the same way I feel about the possibility that life, and intelligent life, exists beyond our own planet. In the entirety of the universe, the number of stars around us is likely countable (that is, finite), but vast, deeply vast. The rich variety of life on Earth is supported by a single star, our sun. In our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are an estimated 100 to 400 billion stars, and that is just one galaxy. In the observable universe (what we can actually observe is limited by how far light can travel and the expansion of the universe), there may be around one hundred billion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of potential suns for their own gardens of life.
The sheer number of stars around us, at this moment alone, is staggering, and really beyond comprehension. In all of that creation, could our planet be the only one to support life? The only one with life that has turned its gaze back to itself, and taken delight in the miracle of existence?
Maybe, but I would not bet against those odds!
However, while I have a great deal of confidence (faith) in the existence of life out in the universe beyond our own planet, I have very little faith in reports about UFO encounters, which claim that our planet is regularly visited by beings from other planets. Recently, there were a set of reports about UFOs, some of them related to releases of information from the United States military. While a UFO, or an unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP) includes any unexplained aerial encounter, most people who are excited about them see evidence of aliens visiting Earth.
While the possibility of life on other planets is very high, from what we know now, the challenges to actually travel between stars is formidable. Unless we find some solutions that can get around limits like the speed of light, any actual travel to another star will take huge investments of time and energy. Other civilizations on other planets may have solved these problems, but the idea that they would have already found us seems pretty unlikely. Not impossible, but one of the principles of a scientific attitude is when you propose a very unlikely theory (that aliens are visiting our planet), you need exceptional evidence, and we certainly don’t have that yet. I would expect that most UFO reports are going to turn out to have rather mundane explanations (such as problems with specific cameras on military planes).
In the same sense, the heart of our existence is a mystery, but not one that necessarily opens the door for magic (unfortunately!) or other approaches to explain existence. This mystery is the foundation of our reality: a firm bedrock that patiently tolerates our efforts to turn it over, and examine it. A mystery that effortlessly dodges both scientific and mystical attempts to tame it. Each effort to break through this mystery, whether through scientific investigation or through mystical experience, leaves the foundation unmarred, unmoved.
Personally, I have found that appreciating the mystery of existence to be an important part of my own meditation practice, and I think that this quote from Carl Sagan captures my own attitude today:
For myself, I like a universe that includes much that is unknown and, at the same time, much that is knowable.
A universe in which everything is known would be static and dull …
A universe that is unknowable is no fit place for a thinking being.
Carl Sagan, “Can We Know the Universe? Reflections on a Grain of Salt”
When Sagan writes about what is unknown, he was not really referring to that which we can never know, but more to the work that is left to do for science (that part of experience that can be explained using scientific theories). But, I would also say that it applies here: there is something important about understanding that some parts of experience are fundamentally unknowable. To experience directly, to touch the mysterious, is equal parts humbling and wonderful.