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.
What will the future of computer science be in our lifetime? Will we find ourselves in a world where we work side-by-side with intelligent computer programs? Or, is humanity teetering on a precipice, where we may end up creating artificial intelligences which will end up competing with humans, perhaps violently?
These and other possible futures for artificial intelligence (or AI) have been a staple of science fiction for many years. It has felt to me that much of our fascination is drawn to the possibility that we could produce intelligent beings that meet, or surpass, the abilities of humans. But, while we have seen many useful technologies (such as in computer vision, for example), most of the advances in the area of real intelligence have seemed slow. Especially when we compare AI to human capabilities. And really, most of the AI available today falls well short of the cognitive abilities of my dog. And don’t get me wrong, I love my dog, but he is really not the brightest of pets.
In the last few months, though, it really feels like things are changing. As someone who teaches in a college, when people started to really talk about ChatGPT, it caught my attention. ChatGPT is a generative AI, and it is quite impressive. You can give ChatGPT an open-ended prompt (“How can we live a meaningful life?”) and it will give what reads like a thoughtful response.
I asked ChatGPT exactly this question, and the response I received was somewhat interesting:
ChatGPT:Living a meaningful life is a deeply personal and subjective pursuit, as what brings meaning to one person may not necessarily do the same for another. However, here are some general principles and ideas that can help guide you towards a more meaningful life:
Identify your values: Reflect on what truly matters to you and what you believe in. Define your core values and use them as a compass to guide your decisions and actions.
Set meaningful goals: Determine what you want to achieve in different areas of your life, such as relationships, career, personal growth, and contribution to society. Set goals that align with your values and give you a sense of purpose.
The response continued through eight more points (practice gratitude, mindfulness, nurture relationships, etc.) and wrapped up with a concluding paragraph. Nothing about the response struck me as problematic, and each of the points raised seemed to be a good recommendation. It lacked some of the life of the more inspirational texts I would turn to, when reflecting on the meaning of life. But overall I thought it was a strong response to the question.
If you have any experience talking with Siri or an Amazon Alexa, ChatGPT is a very different experience, and really quite impressive. So good, in fact, that many of my colleagues (college professors) worry about the ways in which this kind of AI will be abused. Even now, we are cetainly seeing more people use ChatGPT and other generative AI as a short cut for writing papers, presentations, etc. For the faculty I know, the range of reactions we see seems similar to those of the wider public: swinging widely from wild enthusiasm to dread.
No matter what the final impact of ChatGPT and its cousins are on our lives, they represent just one type of artificial intelligence. This moment is important, as we see technologies that had just been conceptually possible (something that was possible in principle, but which had not been built yet) becoming realized or actualized. As these and other types of AI evolve, I think that it is clear that our lives will be transformed, just as life was transformed by other technologies (consider the development of the internet, or radio).
Whether this transformation brings us into a more (or a less) wholesome life remains to be seen, and for us to decide.
The Perversion of Wisdom
In a recent issue of Lion’s Roar, Ross Nervig wrote about the implications of AI for Buddhism. One example that he described was the Roshibot, a chatbot created by Jiryu Rutschman-Byler, and trained on the writings of Shunryu Suzuki.
In the introduction on the Roshibot webpage, Rutschman-Byler cautions that the chatbot “is not designed to relate facts, but to offer ‘plausible conversation’ or ‘coherent nonsense.’” He offers the Roshibot not as a teacher, but as an experiment in looking at the dharma through the lens of AI.
I spent a bit of time talking with the Roshibot, and found the “conversation” (in which I attempted to approach as if I were someone who was new to Zen) to be interesting. Roshibot’s responses were not bad, but I didn’t feel that I found much useful wisdom in them, or insights that would have been useful for my own practice (see the transcript below)
Me: How should I get started in Zen practice?
Roshibot:The first step in Zen practice is to find a good teacher. A teacher can give you important guidance, and you can learn from their example.
After finding a teacher, the next step is to begin a daily meditation practice. This can be zazen, walking meditation, or another form of practice.
It may take some time and effort before you feel confident in your practice. Just like any other skill, Zen practice takes time and dedication to develop. But with patience, and guidance from your teacher, you can make progress on the path.
Me: Why is meditation important for Zen?
Roshibot:Meditation is an essential part of Zen practice. It helps to quiet the mind and develop concentration, mindfulness, and clarity. Through meditation, we can become more aware of our thoughts and emotions, which can lead to greater insight into our true nature. Meditation allows us to deepen our understanding of the Dharma and realize the true self. Regularly practicing meditation is an important part of living a meaningful and skillful life.
Me: What does it mean to realize the true self?
Roshibot: Self-realization, or “enlightenment,” is a fundamental goal of the path of Zen. It means to go beyond our own thoughts and emotions, and to see things as they truly are without attachment, judgment, or bias. This means seeing our true nature, which is one of infinite wisdom and compassion. Self-realization is a state of being free from suffering and completely at peace with the world. It is important to remember that self-realization is not a one-time event, but a continual process that involves constant practice and meditation.
Me: How does self-realization free us from suffering?
Roshibot: Self-realization allows us to see the true nature of the world, which is one of perfect peace and harmony. When we see the true nature of all things, we are no longer attached to our own thoughts or emotions. This means that we are no longer bound by the suffering that arises from our attachments. We can live in the present moment, fully accepting and embracing the world as it is. When we are free from suffering, we can live with greater joy, peace, and contentment.
Me: How can we be sure that the true nature of the world is perfect peace and harmony?
Roshibot:The true nature of the world is something that cannot be described with words. It is beyond the realm of concepts and thought. We can only know the true nature of the world through direct experience. In the tradition of Zen, this direct experience is known as kensho or satori. It is a state of emptiness and clear, effortless awareness. When we realize this state, we become fully awake to the true nature of all things. From this place of enlightenment, the world appears as it truly is – perfect peace and harmony.
Me: If the world is empty, why would we describe it with the concepts of perfect peace and harmony?
Roshibot:The world is not empty in the sense of being nothing, but in the sense of being free from our attachments, judgments, and conceptual thinking. In the true nature of the world, there is no separation between self and other. There is just one interdependent reality that is perfectly inseparable and perfect in itself. When we experience this directly, we can see that it is inherently peaceful and harmonious.
In many ways, Roshibot assumes too much (in use of the terms peace, attachment, etc. that would need to be more carefully explained). When I pressed the chatbot to elaborate or clarify (what does it mean to say that the world is perfect peace and happiness?), Roshibot avoided going into depth. I had to smile at one point, when Roshibot says that enlightenment is a fundamental goal of Zen practice. Most teachers that I know would be very cautious to avoid putting the enlightenment in front of any student as some goal to work towards.
I can see the value of these kinds of chatbots that are trained using Zen teachings. They could certainly serve as more interactive ways for people to learn about Zen than a simple website or static document. And at the same time, I am glad that this was not my first experience with Zen or Buddhism. I don’t know if I would have continued, if I thought that Roshibot’s responses were an accurate representation of the practice and teachings of Zen.
My experience with Roshibot reminded me of a recent talk at the Sanshin Zen Community. In that dharma talk, Shinko Hagn considered artificial intelligence as he discussed the five skandhas (essentially the elements, or aggregates, that make up our experience according to Buddhism: form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness).
Hagn had some skepticism about whether AI could truly be conscious (a skepticism that I do not share personally, see more below). But I appreciated a point that Hagn made about AI, acknowledging that they may be useful and serve useful functions in the world. And that we should take care to distinguish between the knowledge that an AI has from wisdom (the kind of wisdom we pursue in Zen and other traditions).
Roshibot and other AI chatbots do not represent the final evolution of these kinds of generative AI. These AI are based on models that are going to keep improving, and so the experience and depth of their answers may become richer in the future. Fundamentally, though, we should remember that we are not receiving responses from a person who has seen deeply into the true nature of reality. The responses might be based on true teachings, but we have no reason to expect that what comes out of the AI will truly and faithfully represent the insights that were used to train the AI. It is always better to search for a true teacher, and I do not see much value for us to learn from an AI Buddha.
Talking with a generative AI such as ChatGPT can be captivating, and there are some moments when it can feel like you are having a real conversation. These experiences can make us wonder, is it possible for an AI to be conscious?
That is, can an AI be a person, with their subjective point of view that experiences the world, with an awareness of their existence that is similar to our own? That is a question that has captivated humans for many years, and one that will be increasingly important in our time as AI continues to develop. And, it is a very important question for those of us who work to live the bodhisattva’s vow to save all beings (“Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.” If AI could become sentient, then we may wake up one day to find that we have a new type of being to consider in our actions.
While there are many people who are skeptical about the potential for AI to become sentient, I think we should be open to the possibility. To be clear, I do not think that we have seen any cases of sentient AI today. However, based on my own knowledge and training in neuroscience, I do not see any theoretical reason why a conscious artificial intelligence impossible. I could be wrong, of course. And in this post, I won’t be able to flesh out completely why I feel that sentient AI is possible. I can say that my confidence that sentient AI is possible is based on the evidence we have that our experiences depend on information processing in the brain. With the right changes, a little extra stimulation here, a little less there, and any part of our experience can be affected.
Stimulation of the nervous system affects the information processing that depends on the cells in the nervous system (mostly neurons) have on the neurons they are connected to. Each neuron in the brain responds to a complex set of chemical signals from other neurons and from the rest of the body, which affect the electrical signals that one neuron sends to other cells (mostly other neurons). We can describe the role that a neuron plays in the brain by describing all of the ways that it responds to signals that it receives, and all of the signals it sends to other cells. While this set of responses can be complex, and can change with experience, it is at least theoretically possible to completely describe the role that one neuron plays in the brain (and thus in our experience in each moment).
If you think about cochlear implants, this technology is based on an understanding of how cells of the cochlea usually respond to vibrations (produced by sound), and replicating the normal electrical signals. These implants are still improving, and have not yet been able to fully replace the input from the cochlea, but they have restored a great deal of hearing for many individuals. Similar work has the potential to restore sight in people who have vision loss, or to create prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by the brain, and which may also restore some sense of sensation (adding a sense of touch to a prosthetic limb). In all of these cases, some part of the normal inputs to the nervous system (or outputs, for controlling a limb) have been replaced by a computer system that can stimulate neurons, or respond to the signals of neurons.
Imagine if we could design a tiny, tiny, artificial neuron. One that completely mimicked the processing of the original. If we could replace a real neuron with an artificial one, what would happen? This is not likely feasible in practice (to actually replace one neuron in the brain would be technically very challenging, and it would be easier to replace it with another neuron, that physically copies the original, but the idea is possible in principle).
Based on what we know about the brain, I really have no reason to think that my experience would change if I replaced one (or two, or many, or most) of the neurons in my brain with artificial neurons. So, then I have no reason to think that the processing that is done by my brain could not be done in an artificial system, what we might think of as a computer. And so, I don’t see any reason that it is fundamentally impossible for a computer to replicate all of the processing that a human brain does. And, if a computer program fully replicated the processing of a human brain, then I don’t see any reason why that program could not be conscious.
However, while I think that sentient AI is possible, it is important to make a couple of points clear. First, it is very unlikely that any sentient AI would have an experience that is similar to that of a human. Our own experience depends on the brain, as it interacts closely with the body and the rest of the world. The specific experience we have depends highly on the structure of the brain (how it is built to process information) and how that brain interacts with the body and the rest of the world. It would be possible to replicate that structure in a computer simulation. Possible, yes, but largely pointless. These possibilities seem mostly motivated by some kind of thirst for using digital simulations of humans as a kind of artificial immortality (for instance, in the comedy Upload).
To create some kind of digital afterlife for humans, we would probably need to make highly accurate simulations of a brain (quite a feat on its own!). To preserve something like normal human experience, we would need to run this simulation while feeding it a rich representation of the internal state of the body, not to mention all of the interactions with the external world. Probably these could also be simulated in a digital world. But why would we do so, for a being that does not have a body, and is not in the world?
So, I would expect that a sentient AI that is conscious would have an experience of the world that is very different from ours: it would need to represent different kinds of internal variables, and probably process information about the world in different ways. It probably would have beliefs about the world, and something like what we recognize as emotions or motivations (which are important for setting goals and priorities). But, what it is like to be that AI would be very different from our own experience. Perhaps so different that we are not able to truly appreciate it.
Any sentient AI, which might have a very different experience of the world, is not likely to benefit from Zen practice. Our practice is focused on helping humans to awaken, and is specific to the conditions we find ourselves in. Sentient AI is likely to experience a different kind of suffering, and any path to awakening would need to be specific to their own experience. If there is an AI Buddha someday, it will teach for other AI, not for humans.
While I do believe that sentient AI is possible at some point in the future, we have another, more immediate, problem. It is very important for us to see clearly is how difficult it will be to determine if an AI is sentient or not. Already, we have seen people claim that some of the generative AI models are actually conscious. I am not surprised (that people feel this way), as it turns out to be a difficult question to recognize consciousness. After all, how do you really know that the person sitting next to you is actually conscious? In our daily lives, we rely on a set of cues (facial expressions, patterns of responses to verbal and non-verbal interactions) to really determine if another person is conscious and attentive. These cues are ones that can be faked by non-sentient AI, encouraging us to feel as if a non-sentient AI is a person.
So, I would encourage us to consider the possibility that AI could be sentient. And, to recognize that it will be a challenge to determine if a specific AI is sentient or not. If someday we do end up creating sentient AI, it would be a tragedy to be ignorant of this moment. We have an obligation to any sentient being, and I think that sentient AI should not be an exception. For this reason, more than out of a concern that AI represents an existential threat, I think that we should avoid creating sentient AI. The potential that we will create a new kind of sentient being, with perhaps new ways to suffer in delusion, seems too important for us to ignore.
I think of the animated film, The World of Tomorrow, which has a small story, intended to be humorous, where solar-powered robots on the moon must be kept in the light. And so, they are programmed to fear death, and to be afraid of the dark side of the moon, so they flee the darkness. They end up being abandoned there, left to flee and live in constant fear. They do occasionally send some of their depressed poetry back to the humans: “The light is the life. Robot must move. Move, robot, move. But why? Move, move, move. Robot. Forever move.”
Only a fictional example, of course, but we should be very cautious to avoid the casual creation of new suffering. I think that we already have enough beings that need our care and concern.
I recently had the chance to sit down and talk about science and Zen with Berry Crawford, for his Simplicity Zen podcast. I have enjoyed Berry’s conversations with Zen practitioners, and I was delighted to talk about my own experience with Zen, and about our shared interest in science. The full interview is below, and you can also find Simplicity Zen wherever you get your podcasts:
I hope that you enjoy the interview, and after reflecting on our conversation, I would just add a couple of points. As I’ve worked on this blog to express my own understanding of science and Zen, I feel that there are a couple of points that have been important for my own practice.
The first is that for me, personally, it is important that the various ways that I understand (and make sense of) the world are not in conflict. As an overly simplistic example, I would personally struggle to hold on one hand a system of beliefs that claimed the Earth was flat, or that our planet was only a few thousand years old, and then on the other hand to also accept findings from astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology. The incongruence, the fundamental incompatibility, between these systems is too much for me.
So, some of my own reflections about science and Zen are about how I have probed and poked at my own understanding. I’ve been working to take a careful look at their basic compatibility, and for how I would express teachings from Zen using my own knowledge of science, and especially in the areas of neuroscience and psychology. This has been a useful exercise for me, and helped me deepen my own practice.
The second point, which I also think is very important, is that I see science as only one way (out of a great many) that we can make sense of the reality we find ourselves in. Like other belief systems, science helps explain the world, and to help us to act effectively in that world. Beyond science, there certainly are other systems for explaining the world and how it works, and people can live well, and humanely, with very little appreciation for science as a discipline. And, at least when it comes to questions of ethics and morality, I am not very concerned about whether or not people believe in science. I care about how people live.
And, if people can believe that the world is flat, or that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, and they also live their lives in a way that is kind? If so, then the specifics of their beliefs don’t matter to me. At least not in this area. In other areas, it may matter quite a bit. For instance, if you want to become a pilot, or a geologist, or work in any number of careers, then science and the knowledge it has generated will be critical to your success.
My own personal commitment to science comes from the power of the approach: when we live up to our ideals, as scientists, we can see very far into the workings of the world, and can use that information to improve the lives of all beings.
However, in the deepest sense, every system we use (science included) to understand reality will always be limited, as I reflected on in an earlier post. We create a set of concepts, or labels, that we use to pin reality down and make sense of it. I see myself as one thing, and you as another. I see my home, and all of the structures that make it up. I see how problems can arise in my body, or in the function of my home, and I look for potential solutions. Those systems are very useful to us – it is hard to imagine how we could function in the world without them. In the end though, what we treat as fixed things – me, you, a house – are dynamic, ever-changing. Our bodies are constantly in flux, and we are truly more patterns than things.
In our practice, can drop these systems? Can we let them soften, dissolve, even for a moment? That is the challenge for me: to see how not only how I understand Zen teachings within the framework of science, but also how to set down that framework, to put it aside.
The winter issue of Midwest Zen was published this week, and I have a short piece (“Do we really want to sit?“), about my own struggles with patience. I see this in many parts of my life, but in this essay I focused on two places: sitting meditation and running.
At times, I’ll find that that an activity like running is something that I experience negatively, as something uncomfortable. In those moments, I’ll either stop (and turn to another activity), or push through – forcing myself to continue. As part of my practice, I’ve tried to slow down, and to question the source of my impatience:
“I’ve asked myself, why do I have to force myself to run? And underneath that question I see an assumption that I have made, without even noticing it: that running is not enjoyable. At some level, I find running to be aversive, or a kind of chore. And so, I have to push myself to continue. Some days, perhaps this attitude is justified: I really am tired, and running is a struggle. But more often, this feeling arises for no specific reason. It is more of a habit, of approaching the experience of running from a negative frame of thinking, or a fearful, defensive mindset.”
And, of course, I’ve found that when I look closely at any uncomfortable sensations during meditation, I find a similar pattern. And I’ve asked myself: do I really want to meditate?
What I find is that much of my discomfort is driven by how I approach meditating, or running, or so many things in life. By changing my mindset, my entire experience can shift. It has been an important lesson for me, one that I’m grateful for. And, I hope these reflections might be of interest to others who face similar struggles.
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.
Last fall, I found my way back to a more regular Zen practice. When we moved our family to a small, Midwestern town years ago, it was very difficult to find local groups to connect with, especially as we raised our young children. And so, for many years, I fell out of the habit of sitting at a Zen center. I sat by myself, and only rarely with others. Even when I did meditate with others, it was usually in a very informal space.
But, after the extreme disconnection during the height of the pandemic, I felt a strong yearning to connect with other practitioners. And, I found it to be an opportune moment, where my own children were a bit older, and it was easier for me to travel to a local zendo. And, many Zen centers had developed strong options for virtual attendance.
It had been years since I had been to a zendo, and from the first moment that I stepped across the threshold, I was grateful for the feeling of entering back into a community of practitioners. Bowing as I entered, and bowing to my cushion, I was also grateful to recognize the simple forms that provide structure to our practice. Settling back into chanting the four vows, bowing, and prostrations, I was somewhat surprised by the feelings of connection that came with these rituals. I found that I had come back to a kind of joy as I picked up the habits of the zendo once again.
I have been thinking more about these experiences, especially with how they contrast with the habits that often fill up our everyday life. Many times, when I notice that I have been drawn into a habit, these are occasions of inattention – distracted while I drive to store, ruminating on some minor issue while doing the dishes, daydreaming while mowing the lawn. As I look at these moments of everyday distraction, and those of great engagement in the zendo, I wonder what the space is that separates habit from ritual.
For a long time, I have been somewhat wary of falling into habitual behaviors. Many teachings warn us about falling into the trap of habitual behaviors, or describe how practice can be a path that frees us from dysfunctional, rigid patterns of thinking. I encountered some of these ideas when I read Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind when I was first learning about Zen:
A mind full of preconceived ideas, subjective intentions, or habits is not open to things as they are. That is why we practice zazen: to clear our mind of what is related to something else.
Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 88
… as long as you have some fixed idea or are caught by some habitual way of doing things, you cannot appreciate things in their true sense.
Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p 112
These and other teachings shaped some of my early approach to Zen. For better or worse, I considered habitual behavior as a kind of trap, something to be avoided. Or, at least that practice involves substituting “bad” habits for better ones. Ritual, as an example of a repeated, patterned behavior, could be considered a habit. But, what is it that distinguishes rituals from the rest of our habits?
To feel for the gap between rituals and habitual behavior, it helps to look closely at what we mean by habit, which I approach from my perspective as a psychologist and neuroscientist. In our everyday use of the term, we are often pointing out a pattern of behavior (or thought) that is repeated, consistent, and perhaps difficult to change. This idea of habit is broadly similar to what I would mean by the term, when speaking as a psychologist. But, research on habits has tested and extended this definition, somewhat.
Habits are behaviors (or pattern behavior) that typically are learned slowly, over many over many repetitions. This learning process roughly involves monitoring the effects of our actions, and learning what we need to do in order to reach our typical goals. Habits are often tied to stimuli in our environment, such that we might develop a habit of always turning left as we leave our house (if our car or bicycle is usually located in that direction), or reaching directly to a specific button to turn off our alarm in the morning.
The key is that a habit represents the behavior (or sequence of behaviors) we have learned to do in a specific place or moment. When we engage in a habit, we can then perform these behaviors without needing to plan out our behavior beforehand, intentionally. Because of this, habits can be performed quickly at the opportune moment, with little planning, and initiated by triggered by cues around us as we work to reach our goals.
One weakness of habits, though, is that they are not very flexible: in order to respond rapidly and with little oversight, we give up the ability to modify our behavior if we encounter an obstacle, and they can be slow or difficult to change. In this sense, we can contrast habits with deliberative behavior – moments where we spend some time consciously considering our options to find the best one.
Our daily life usually represents a mixture of habits and deliberative behavior (and other kinds of behavior), but we will often use a habit for common, typical behaviors. Think, for instance, of making a drive to a well-known location, and how different this experience can be from driving to a new job, or from a new home.
Habits are with us in all parts of our daily life, though we may not even notice them until a change in the environment or our routine draws them out into the light of day. For example, when I started my job at a small college in Indiana, as our department’s behavioral neuroscientist, I inherited an aging animal research lab in the basement. The building had been built in the 1960s, and the research lab looked like it had never been updated (and still had its original lime green wall tile).
In one room, I found an enormous surgical light mounted to the ceiling, like something you might expect to see in an old movie (maybe a horror film involving dentistry). The device was in terrible condition, and I was never able to make good use of it. But, removing the light was a difficult prospect, and for perhaps a decade I simply ignored it. Or I tried to ignore it, but many times I walked accidentally into the heavy arm of the light – which floated just at about the level of my head.
The light fixture and I reached an uneasy truce over the years, but I never really appreciated how much it had affected me until it was finally gone. One summer day, after one final bruise to my temple, I gathered some tools and took the fixture down. Like many tasks that have been deferred too long, it was a wonderful relief to finally have the light removed, and to feel that the room was more open, and spacious.
But even though the light fixture was gone, I could still feel its weight in the air. Every time I walked through the center of that room, as I approached the empty space, I found myself involuntarily ducking under that space. It truly was a strange feeling, to watch myself dive under a phantom light fixture. I would laugh, and sometimes felt the need to explain myself to my students (some who had joined the lab after the light was gone).
Intellectually, I knew there was no obstruction there, of course. But, another part of me knew something else, something learned slowly with each time I had struck my head on the heavy counterweight. The past has its own weight, a kind gravity that draws us back to familiar paths.
This habit of mine, ducking under the light fixture, was a great help to me over the years, and saved me from a number of injuries. In the same way, all of our other habits, often operating invisibly, just out of sight, are a crucial part of our daily life. It took me some time to appreciate it, but our habits are a gift, the distillation of our experiences. They allow us to move easily through the common paths of our day, and can free up other parts of our minds. Far from being a hindrance, our lives would be very difficult without habits. In fact, in Parkinson’s disease, cells that release dopamine in the brain die off, which impairs the function of structures deep in the brain that are critical for the execution of habits. This can lead to a disruption in the learning or use of habits, making daily life more exhausting, and requiring greater attention to complete everyday behaviors.
If habits are a cornerstone of our daily life, then was I wrong to feel that habits could be harmful? In a sense, yes – habits are not harmful in themselves. Habits can offer us an opportunity to go on “autopilot” – where we find ourselves moving through the world, but with a sense of disengagement. We may be lost in thought, following a daydream or fantasy, or ruminating on the past. Moments when habits can guide our behavior smoothly are also ones where we can fall into a kind of slumber – disconnected from the world around us.
But, this does not have to be the case, and we can look to our experience in rituals for a clear example. As I returned to sitting more regularly last fall, it had been several years since I had visited a Zen center or zendo. I felt quite self-conscious at first, working to remember the simple forms for entering a zendo, taking my seat. But, those old habits came back, and slowly adapted to the specific forms of these new communities. Far from being moments of autopilot, of disconnection, I felt a deep sense of connection – to my body, the world around me, to the group. Especially after the disconnection of the pandemic years, I was so grateful for the experience of sitting again with a community – virtually and in person. These forms offer us – if we are open to it – an opportunity to experience a profound sense of absorption in the moment, and for me, a sense of gratitude and wonder. And in the rituals – all of the forms, chants, each careful behavior – I saw fingerprints of habitual behavior.
In the end, there is nothing special abou the habits that support the rituals of our practice – they are the same as the habits that support our daily life. Each offers us a moment in which we can fall into autopilot, and turn away from reality. And, both offer us an opportunity to cultivate presence, and experience directly our deep connection to all beings. Moments of connection may be more likely in the rituals of our practice, were we have made a commitment, the intention, to engage wholeheartedly. And, where we find the support of our practice community, taking strength from their intention.
There may be moments of mindlessness in the zendo, of course, where we fall into a habit mindlessly. But, our practice is to be aware, and to come back to this moment each time. As we bring that intention to our daily life, we can also engage more mindfully at times when our behavior is guided by habits. Driving to work, or washing the dishes, our intention to engage wholeheartedly can give each habit the depth of a ritual.
Shunryu Suzuki. (1970). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Weatherhill, New York, NY.
… instead of thinking in terms of movement toward something new and shiny and different, let’s try thinking of spiritual practice as a process of remembering that which we already know.
Mark Frank, That Which We Already Know, p. 30
What does it really mean for us to follow a spiritual path? What is the nature of our effort – are we looking to find some kind of insight or experience? Or, are we working towards some other goal?
In Buddhist practice, we are encouraged to look closely at our motivation, to notice what is fueling our efforts, And, we often find that we are striving towards some goal, looking for something outside of our self that might fulfill us, that could ease our suffering. But, this type of seeking is an error – a type of craving that can up prolonging our suffering.
But, even if we are not striving to get something, that does not mean that are not working towards something. We might frame this as a change of view, that our goal is not to get something, but to see the world in a different way.
Recently, I had a chance to read That Which We Already Know, a new book written by a friend, Mark Frank. Mr. Frank is a Zen practitioner, and has written over the years about spirituality and his experiences, including on his blog, Heartland Contemplative. His book focuses on this question: what is it that we are working to realize, in our spiritual practice?
That Which We Already Know is structured as a memoir centered on Frank’s childhood, and richly infused with insights from his Zen practice. He writes beautifully about the time he spent exploring the “Nursery” – a patch of wilderness near his childhood home that he presents as a kind of mini-Eden. The affection he has for that place is clear and touching, and reminded me of my own childhood, growing up in the farmland of rural Illinois.
Frank uses stories about growing up immersed in nature to illustrate his argument: that the goal of our spiritual practice, which Buddhists often name as awakening, is in fact a state that we experienced as children. His premise, and the title of the book, is that awakening is something we already know, and many of our deepest spiritual practices are helping us reconnect with that state.
An important part of Frank’s argument is that in childhood, before we develop the ability to strictly see ourselves as individual, separated from the world, we experience directly a sense of connection and wholeness. As we grow and mature, we develop a strong sense of self-awareness – the feeling that there is a me existing separate you and the rest of the world.
Do you recall such days lived without any sense of separation, with trust and acceptance, with mind and body seamlessly integrated one with the other and together with all things? … This is the freedom of children and the wisest among us, and everything else that resides in the natural world – the freedom to be precisely what we are and nothing we are not …
Children don’t simply know this freedom; they embody it. Ironically, our developing self-awareness brings this freedom into view just as it begins to disappear, like sunlight creating a rainbow in the mist even as it boils that mist away.
Frank, p. 9-10
Looking at the development of self-awareness, Frank draws an interesting parallel to the Christian story of Adam and Eve, framing our normal development as a kind of recapitulation of that first fall from grace. As we grow and mature, our sense of self develops, and we “fall” out of this state of grace into our ordinary, deluded state. Of Eve and Adam’s lack of shame (of their nakedness) before consuming the fruit of knowledge, Frank proposes that perhaps the lack of self-awareness, of being a person separate from the world, was the source of their innocence:
… we might think of this nakedness in metaphorical terms. They’d not yet become clothed with any ideas of separate selfhood. It wasn’t just that they were unaware that they’d done something wrong. They were unaware of being separate beings in the first place.
Frank, p. 14
Reading the book, I thought a great deal about Frank’s premise, the argument that spiritual awakening might share some similarities to states we experienced as children. And, I realized that I have often taken for granted that I see spiritual practice (study, meditation, prayer) as focused to realize something that I did not know. I found that I have assumed, without really thinking much about it, that I came into existence as a deluded being, and my practice was focused on letting go of some of my own false views. Perhaps the difference is subtle, but it was one that I appreciated once I saw it.
Reading Frank’s descriptions of his own childhood, which do make up some of the evidence for his argument, I did struggle to see childhood as an idyllic time when we live without a self (at least not once we are old enough to go off and explore the wildness). In the end, this did not end up resonating with my own experience. I actually cannot say that I have very many concrete memories of being a child – I reach and find only vivid little fragments here and there. And, some of the drier facts that I remember about childhood. I enjoyed my childhood, as I remember it, and I value my experiences. But I do not feel deeply nostalgic about the actual experience of being a child. I don’t remember experiencing the kinds of deep experiences that Frank finds in his own past. And, I don’t know that my spiritual practice is focused on reminding me specifically of what I knew as a child.
Perhaps the gap, between my own recollections and the vision that Frank describes, has something to do with the times and places we each grew up in. Frank mentions the shadow that the Vietnam War and the draft cast over his own childhood. At that time, a real, palpable loss of innocence loomed as one grew towards adulthood. In the early 1980s, I did not have a similar experience, and I don’t remember having any specific concerns about becoming an adult.
I do wonder, though, about the children growing up today. A time marked by the strains of the COVID-19 pandemic, and deep polarization. And I wonder whose childhood – Frank’s or my own – would resonate most deeply with my own daughters.
But, even though the specific image of childhood as a time of wisdom, and awakening, did not resonate with me, the larger argument is one that I found interesting, and compelling. To understand that the innocence of children is a kind of wisdom, and that we can let go of some of the rigid views that cut us off from that wisdom – these were some of the key treasures I took from this book, and I am grateful to Frank for sharing his experiences.
And, while I don’t personally look back to my own childhood and see a state of wholeness and wisdom, I do find myself here and now as a single, limited being. A person that emerged at some hazy point in memory from a place of stillness. To take a moment to look back to what came before, to try to touch the stillness that our life emerges from, has been an important part of my own practice, and I appreciated very much the reminders I found in this book.
Where there is meaningful religious practice, there is stillness. And where there is stillness, there is the potential for transformational human experience.
Tonight, the drawing for the Mega Millions lottery in the United States will have an obscene prize, $396 million USD. At a price of $2 per ticket, I have a hard time truly grasping the number of people that have participated to generate this jackpot. And, if you are one of them, maybe you are looking for lottery tips on how to maximize your chances of winning tonight’s jackpot.
Well, I can’t really help you there, but I would say: don’t buy a ticket at all, if you have any hope of winning. That hope, of winning this lottery, is something that can distort your life, and not for the better. But, if you can afford a ticket, and can buy one cleanly, without any hope or expectation of winning? Then, go right ahead.
But, why should our attitude matter when we play the lottery? And after all, isn’t that why people play lotteries and games of chance in the first place – because they have some hope of winning?
I would argue that our attitude does matter, especially because the odds of winning are so low. To buy a ticket with the hope of winning is to grasp at some unattainable thing. It is like reaching up for the full moon in the sky with the hope of clutching it in your hand.
Tonight, someone may win the jackpot, but you, as one specific person, do not have a (useful) chance of winning. You may very well be aware that the odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot is about 1 in 302 million.
Three hundred million of anything is hard for our minds to grasp. To put it into perspective, you have a (much, much) better chance of being killed by a bee, hornet or wasp sting. Or, of going to the emergency room for a pogo-stick injury.
Or, compare the Mega Millions drawing to flipping a coin. If you were to flip a fair coin once, your chance of getting heads is 1 in 2 (half the time, the coin will come up heads, half tails). If you flip that coin 3 times, your chance of getting heads all three times is 1 in 8. Not bad, really – you would have a better than 10% chance of succeeding.
But, your chance of winning the Mega Millions lottery is about the same as flipping a fair coin 28 times and getting heads every, single, time (1 in 268 million).
So, to buy a ticket for tonight’s lottery with any hope, any expectation, of winning is not rational, in any sense. In practical terms, your chance of winning is basically the same whether you buy a ticket or not.
This is an argument I have made a number of times in my life, to discourage people from playing the lottery. I recall a time several years ago, that I had a student who was excited about the Powerball lottery (1 in 292 million chance of winning). That young man maintained that if he kept playing, every week, he was sure to win someday.
I argued with him, gently but persistently, going around and around again. I worked hard to get him to admit that no one, none of us, has a good chance of winning the Powerball. I made spreadsheets, showing the cumulative odds of winning, if we played every drawing for 50 years of our life. (Spoiler alert: the odds are still pretty terrible.) I wanted to be sure that he understood that it was a waste of money, there was no way he would ever win.
Through all of our arguments, I remember clearly how he would listen to me carefully. Nod his head a bit, with a laugh and a bright, mischievous grin.
And, he would say something like, “No, it definitely is a sure thing.”
Looking back, I can see that I argued with him because I felt an obligation to speak up when I saw someone promoting a wrong view. But, I did start to look more closely at my own motivation. After our first conversations, I found that it was not skillful for me to continue to push the issue. I found that I needed him to admit that he was wrong.
We would all have been served better if I had focused on having a conversation, rather than treating this as another lesson from class. I learned something from these arguments, and I am grateful to that student, for holding his ground.
Today, I don’t worry, in general, about whether people play the lottery or not. While the chances of winning are very low (zero, for all practical purposes), is there any real harm to spending $2 USD on a lottery ticket? If you have $2 to spend, and you enjoy daydreaming a bit – or feeling that you are part of the experience – then why not?
And, at this point I do feel that I owe you a confession. For all my protests, I have played both the Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries. Not very often, and usually at points when the jackpots had grown to $200 million or so. And, I did enjoy the feeling of being part of these jackpots, being a part of the event.
And, it was diverting, to be honest, to imagine what I could do with the winnings. We have people in our family who are struggling in various ways, and could use help. We can see the real, pressing needs in our local community, and in the world. It is tempting to think about how we could make a real impact if we were to win.
But, as I’ve seen several large jackpots emerge over the past year, I have also had some concerns about how I was affected by the lottery. As I looked at myself, I found that some part of me did believe that I could win, hoped for it, even to just a small degree. I found myself drawn into daydreaming about what I could do with the jackpot. Fantasies about how much a prize like that could help the people in my life.
And, after two tickets won the last Powerball jackpot, I did notice that I felt let down. Not in a major way, but I was disappointed that it was over. In that moment, I felt (realized?) that I had been wasting my time and energy. For all of my well-intentioned daydreams, what real impact was there for my family? For my community?
So, I do not see anything wrong in general with buying a lottery ticket (if you can afford it). But, for me personally, I don’t think that I should participate. Because, when I look very closely at myself, my actual experience and behavior, I can see that buying a ticket affected me in a negative way.
Reflecting on my experience with the lottery, I was reminded me a short passage that I had read years ago, about the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, after he had moved to San Francisco. This was early in his work, teaching Zen in America, as he was working to establish his own habits in a new country:
… he was careful not to get involved in the sort of socializing he had done in his last years in Japan, when it had become a diversion from his unsatisfying temple responsibilities. He wouldn’t play go anymore. He walked over to the Go Club on the other side of the building one day, reached for the doorknob, paused, then had backed away and gone home.
David Chadwick, Crooked Cucumber
In the whole biography of Suzuki, this was a small point. But, it was one that stuck with me. Perhaps because I have also found myself drawn into comfortable habits by my own diversions. And, I worried that the lottery could become something similar for me – a way to avoid contact with the reality of my life.
I’ve written before about the importance of looking carefully at our motivation to practice, and being aware of how our goals can distort our efforts. In my own Zen practice, I have also been grateful for times, such as with the lottery, where I have been mindful of how my daydreams have widened – solidified – the gap between my self and reality. I appreciate how Steve Hagan captured this gap, in his book, Buddhism Plain and Simple:
Our life is like a wheel out of kilter. It’s not satisfying. ‘There’s something out there I’ve got to get. And there’s something else out there I’ve got to keep away from me.’ This is bondage–this wanting, leaning, craving for something outside ourselves.
Steve Hagan, Buddhism Plain and Simple
In this quote, Steve Hagan is making a general point about human life, about the roots of our dissatisfaction.
In the case of the lottery, I found that I had become preoccupied, in a small, subtle way. And, in a way that had some negative effects on my life. In noticing this point, I found that for me, the lottery is not innocent fun. For me, I have found that I cannot play the lottery cleanly – without falling a bit out of kilter.
And, this may not be true of you. If you can buy a ticket to the lottery, and then continue on in your life without any impact, that is wonderful. But even so, keep an eye out for other places in your life where you might be caught. My advice to you is to always be attentive to how our life is affected by our actions.
And, I personally work to take Hagan’s advice to heart:
Attend to immediate experience. Cultivate your mind in meditation. Become familiar with the workings and leanings of your own mind. You’ll be spared a great deal of misery, and ultimately you’ll know True Freedom.
Steve Hagan, Buddhism Plain and Simple
Someone will eventually win this lottery prize, and I hope that they will be grateful for their fortune. It would be wonderful if they would use some of their prize to make a difference in the world. For me, I’ll be doing the same, in whatever way I can.
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.
In the last few months, as struggles in the U.S. have intensified over access to abortion, I have found myself conflicted as I reflected on the logic of my own attitudes. On the one hand, I see that access to abortion is an important part of reproductive medicine. But, I can appreciate that drawing a single, firm line to define when abortions could be allowed is difficult.
The life of a living thing begins when conditions are right, and will come to an end when conditions change. Much as a whirlpool emerges from the turbulent flow of a river, we exist as a temporary, dynamic structure. Our life is never really separate from the universe, in the same way that a whirlpool is not separate from the water of the river.
And, as every whirlpool stills eventually, it is natural for each life to come to an end. But, it is also natural, and right, to cherish our time as a living being – and I believe deeply that each life is a precious treasure. But, each human life, from conception to birth and beyond, is a process without sharp transitions. Each life takes its shape and structure gradually, much as a whirlpool begins with a gentle rotation, and only slowly takes its mature form. Where then does abortion fit into our responsibility to life?
Thinking about abortion as a Zen practitioner, one recent piece that I found interesting was by Sallie Jiko Tisdale about Buddhist views on abortion. Tisdale considers the tension that we see in some Buddhist traditions, observing:
… the conclusion of Orthodox Buddhist scholars has long been that a human being appears at the moment of conception. Because human birth is a rare and precious gift, to deprive a being of the opportunity is a grave mistake. Therefore, a one-day-old embryo must be accorded the same protection as living human beings.
However, this view – of the absolute sanctity of human life – contrasts with some Buddhist teachings that human life is impure, or to be avoided:
Traditional Buddhism is anti-birth, based in a celibate and solitary life outside the family. Sexual desire is said to turn the wheel of samsara, and procreative sex is a greater transgression for a monastic than nonprocreative sex. The uterus is a disgusting place and babies begin to decay at birth, yet women are told to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the embryo… A human body is so rare and precious that we must protect it from the day of conception? … Wouldn’t the highest form of practice be to create more opportunities for human birth?
In that essay, I was struck by the line, “Wouldn’t the highest form of practice be to create more opportunities for human birth?”
I put this question to myself: if I believe that to live as a human is a precious gift, then do I see an ethical obligation to increase human life, an imperative for procreation? You can find similar arguments in other religious traditions, where procreation can be framed as a duty (and here, I think of the conservative Christian “Quiverfull” movement which received attention a few years back).
Personally, neither position – that procreation as a duty, or as a defilement – resonates with me. In the end, what is the real difference between these extremes?
Our human life is a rare opportunity. As we look out into the universe around us, we see great beauty. But, we have not yet seen other people, intelligent beings, looking back at us. Our own galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars. There may be other suns in our galaxy (or beyond) that have planets with life on them, and even intelligent life. However, from what we have seen so far, the universe does not appear to be bursting with life. And, intelligent life may be quite rare. In so many places, the flowering of the universe plays out to an empty room.
The life that we have on this planet, then, seems to be a remarkable gift. And, it would have been a terrible shame, I think, if our planet had been yet another lifeless world. If the course of the river of the universe had run entirely straight, with not a single whirlpool, here on Earth. What if not even one person was ever to have taken a deep and authentic delight in this world? How tragic that would have been.
But on the other hand, what if the river of the universe was a chaotic, churning rapids? Full of whirlpools that came into a crowded existence, interfering with one another, full of suffering? We have seen great suffering where humanity increases beyond the ability to support each person. What benefit is there to bringing life into a world that will not support it?
Influenced by my Zen practice, I would love to see the universe more full of life, bursting with it. But, only to the extent that we can bring an end to suffering, to duhkha. Thinking about this delicate balance, I am reminded of a quote from Paul Broks:
To disturb someone from a state of non-existence is a terrible responsibility.
Paul Broks, Into the Silent Land
Broks was not advising us to avoid our responsibility to life. Rather, he was both acknowledging the precariousness of our life, while celebrating the preciousness of life. And the seriousness of creation, the responsibility we have to children. That resonates with me as a parent. I enjoy so much the delight that children take in the world, in all of the possibilities that their futures hold. And I am afraid, too, of where some of those paths may lead. The responsibility of a parent is awe-inspiring. Momentous.
Any conversations we have about abortion, about reproductive medicine in general, should be grounded in this responsibility to our children, to all of life. To all of children who we have called out of the void of non-existence. And, I don’t think that rigid rules (allowing or restricting abortion or any other reproductive medicine) will entirely satisfy this responsibility.
In this vein, I have appreciated a passage in Kōshō Uchiyama’s book, “Opening the Hand of Thought,” where he describes advising a young woman to get an abortion. Uchiyama felt that ending the pregnancy was wrong, but he also believed that it was the right thing to do in her case. And, if she would have suffered negative consequences for that decision, he was willing to suffer right along side of her:
… it’s not enough for a bodhisattva of the Mahayana to just uphold the precepts. There are times when you have to break them, too. It’s just that when you do, you have to do so with the resolve of also being willing to accept whatever consequences might follow.
Kōshō Uchiyama, “Opening the Hand of Thought”, from “The Bodhisattva Vow”
Most importantly, I feel that our responsibility is to care for life. That we nurture the flower that is human existence, for as long as it can bloom. And that we help those humans, and all sentient beings, escape from suffering and to take delight in existence.
In the end, I don’t know what our laws specifically about abortion should be. But our responsibility, one of the bodhisattva’s vows, is to free all sentient beings from duhkha (suffering). Knowing how to act skillfully in any specific case will require our complete engagement, and may lead us to avoid simple rules.