I stumble through and bump my head

For a couple of years now I have been reading various works from Asia and pondering how Eastern thought contributes to our understanding of ourselves and our world.  This includes specific ancient texts, like the Tao te Ching and various sutras, as well as commentaries thereon, and ancient to almost modern poetry.  Lovely stuff!  I have also been going through The Gateless Gate  (an old collection of Buddhist koans—paradoxical statements meant to help one along the way to enlightenment, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping? Or one of my favorites:  What was your primal face before your parents were born?) very slowly and marveling at how Buddhists can confound linear thinking.  While I learn much from all of these texts, I also have had a nagging quibble that seems important but difficult to articulate  . . . .

. . . Until I read a statement of some hybrid beliefs involving Buddhism and Gaian theory and my quibble crystalized into a coherent structure.

More context before my quibble.  I was reading a book not about Eastern thought but one about Gregory Bateson, a very interesting fellow.  He comes from a self-described family of atheists, himself being the fourth generation of skeptics.  In Gregory’s youth they hobnobbed with some of the great thinkers of early 20thcentury England such as the Huxleys and Alfred North Whitehead.  His father was instrumental in spreading the ideas of Gregor Mendel, the monk who worked so assiduously on plant genetics, integrated with Darwinian ideas; indeed he was one of the first to call this study of heredity “genetics” and Gregory was named after the monk.  The father seems to me a prime example of being in the right place at the right time with a mind prepared to grow the opportunity.

Gregory Bateson was a mostly independent scholar who worked across many disciplines.  As a young man he married Margaret Mead and they did research together in the south Pacific islands.  He then had a long and influential career studying cybernetics, psychiatry, semantics and communication theory, as well as anthropology.  I had heard mention of him over the years without remarking upon him very much until recently, and then his ideas seemed quite relevant to mine and important in general, so I read Understanding Gregory Bateson:  Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earthby Noel Charlton (a decent read though Mr. Charlton spends much energy evangelizing for Bateson’s ideas—they are good but this is not how change comes about.  I may get around to a more thorough review of this book later).

Bateson saw all of nature as a series of nested minds, ours being nested on some intermediate level, so that all of our ecology is actually one mind composed of many minds.  He saw that in our separating ourselves from nature, we had lost ‘grace’ and were harming our world and so also ourselves.  The way back to grace is to engage with the sacred or the unitary grandness of life on our planet (oh, I am simplifying here a great deal—read more for yourselves) through aesthetics, the beauty of nature, and human art.  If you follow my blog you can understand why I wanted to know more about his work.

In the penultimate chapter Charlton reviews how other thinkers were influenced by Bateson and how other ideas meshed with his ecological views.  One of these was Gaian theory, of course, and one of these thinkers was a Buddhist-Gaian scholar named Joanna Macy. This seems a natural confluence here, and you know I like confluences.  When I read Charlton’s rendition of Macy’s ideas, I realized what my mind had balked at as I read other ideas from the East.  Specifically I struggled to understand the notion that enlightenment involves experiencing the unity between objective and subjective or the truth that there is no self.  Yes, I do accept that in meditation such boundaries can and do dissolve but once again, anyone who experiences enlightenment is a biological creature and that entails certain corollaries.

So Charlton says this of Macy’s ideas:  “Similarly, in both Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Macy uses this term interchangeably with ‘systems cybernetics’), the self is a process that cannot be abstracted from its context in nature and society.  It is an ‘open system’ and it is impossible to distinguish self from non-self.  Any division is arbitrary; the individual self is a fiction” (p. 189). Oops!  Sure self is a process on many levels but it can and is abstracted from its context; indeed, at a very basic level anything we use words to discuss is already abstracted from the flux and phantasmagoria of experience.  My question is always about the adequacy of the abstraction, i.e., does it capture the primary structure and its history along with its inter-relationships and dependencies with its soma, its ecology and its its ancient past?

The self, like its soma, is not an ‘open system’ and can certainly be distinguished from non-self, just like the soma is understood to be a life form. These are not ‘open systems’ because a soma, a brain and its MEMBRAIN maintain their integrity through control of the membrane functions, passing information in and out, keeping information in and out. The self follows along with this pattern.  Sure the soma is a wonderful composition of different life forms—the biome is a necessary adjunct to its healthy vital operations, and the self is also a complex composition dependent upon social interaction for its derivation.  I maintain that that the basic features are an autobiographical sense of its life and a sense of its agency, but secondary features abound, e.g., roles, selves associated with those roles, an apprehension of conscious subjectivity, etc.  Again, an adequate abstraction must also include what supports these features that operate below the limen of awareness, and also what the self keeps out of its ‘self-definition’.  For example, I am myself a father and husband, which are clearly within my self’s bounds, and I know the alphabet and basic math, but those are not a part of myself. Is this a fiction?  Why yes it is as a construct in the mind, but as Dumbledore told Harry, it is still true.

Somehow my mind likes Eastern philosophies; I find a good deal of truth and wisdom in their approach.  I think Buddhist enlightenment is a worthy goal, of sorts.  As I say in my creed, I follow an ethic of knowledge, and this leads me to explore the mystic boundaries within and beyond myself.  I find there a most agreeable landscape to wander (yes, yes, remember that not all who wander are lost).  But read the third chapter of The Gateless Gateabout Zen Master Gutei who always answered any question about Zen by raising one finger.  When he heard that his young assistant answered a question about his master’s teaching by raising his one finger, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. The boy ran away.  Gutei called him back and raised one finger, and “the boy was suddenly enlightened”.

Somehow this enlightenment came with the experience that the self is a fiction, that his finger was part of what separated him from this realization, and that he understood that his self was a fiction and experienced reality as unitary and without conceptual distinctions—finger or no finger is a distraction.  Oops and ouch!  I have reached a mystical boundary and bumped my head in finding it.

With any religious school of thought and discipline my skepticism finds antiquated constructs, and there one is.  My ethic of knowledge keeps me grounded in my biological roots.  So enlightenment is a biological notion (maybe a rock or tree is enlightened but they, not some human being, would have to communicate that to me and I do listen out as I wander the farm.)  The self is an outgrowth or feature of life; it bears many relations to all that surrounds it now, past, and future, but a life has an onset and termination.  Some spiritual and religious traditions maintain the self is independent of those events, and I myself wonder about that, i.e., about how it could be true in my cosmology which is devoid of the supernatural. (Remember my motto: “If it is, it’s natural.  If it isn’t natural, it isn’t, except as an imaginative dream).  But the self and its soma is not an open system nor a closed system but a gated system operating to sustain the negentropic balance of energies working at the heart of life’s vitality.

How we understand life and cherish Gaia and structure our participation in this transcendent reality is important.  Bateson and many others know that we as a species are not doing a good job of this. How do we find and follow a better path? I do not know, but I think, like Bateson, that engaging with natural beauty and the vital experience artists render for us is very important.  I also think following an ethic of knowledge and seking a knowledge of ethics is important, e.g., appreciate our science and our human relationships with each other and Gaia.  As the previous post put it, “sometimes human beings are stupid”.  And sometimes we are smart.  I wonder about the cultural rhythms of wisdom and ignorance and travel on seeking a better wave.  But I cannot hold up one finger to indicate the one true way or condone mutilation in the interest of religious purity or spiritual realization.

a Buddhist mummy?

Read and learn is one of my precepts.  Earthsky.org reports a story this morning about a statue from around 1100 in China that was analyzed in Europe with a CT scan.  Inside the statue was the mummy of a monk who died while meditating and was later transformed through layers of fabric and enamel into a statue.  Here is a link to the story with pictures.


It turns out several Buddhist monk mummies are known, most from Japan.  I lived in Japan in my youth and never heard of them.  They evidently die while meditating as they are buried in a chamber.  Imagine this abbot not in nature but in a burial chamber.  Some time after his death, the chamber might be opened and the mummified body kept for religious display.


Seems bizarre but keeping ancestors in some desiccated form or another, e.g., bones, ashes, skull, has been part of our culture for a long time.  The Celts, as a way of sanctifying a building, would bury a live animal in its walls; the more important the building, the more important the animal.  There are stories about humans being buried alive in buildings, important ones like a church, in Europe well into the Christian era.  Evidently some of the Buddhist mummies have been dated from the early 20th Century.

Meditation is a powerful act.  Sogyal Rinpoche in his book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, provides spiritual guidance and examples about meditation and dying from his tradition.  One story is about a group of monks on a long arduous journey.  One of the elders becomes ill and they must pause even though the journey is important.  The elder goes deep into his meditative trance and is mistaken for dead but his leader recognizes the trance, brings him out of it, and then helps him die for real through different meditative steps.  A monk visiting Savannah a few years ago did not sleep for 2 weeks. By day he led his fellows in making a sand mandala and by night he chanted outside their house on a dock by a creek.  Vital processes become different when meditating.  The process of dying is also experienced quite differently than under Western traditions.  Wow, humanity is really something else, eh?

So you hallucinate 2?

One of the things I learned as a psychologist is that many people, healthy and otherwise,  report unusual experiences such as seeing and hearing things that are not there. On some well standardized tests asking many yes/no questions many adults and even more adolescents answered such questions ‘yes’, they had seen things others could not see. These were not patients but the normative sample of presumably healthy people. I find this interesting on several counts. As I have stated before, Susanne Langer posited two types of biological action, impactive that results when energies and objects from outside the organism impinge on it, and autogenic that results from the organism’s own autonomous vital processes. Hallucinations would seem to derive from the latter; they are of our own making. (Then again, even though our perceptual world is impactive in origin, we do construct it as well).

One of the glaring errors behaviorism made (Oh, was there more than one? Oh yes), was to ignore, even deny, autogenic activity in their assertion that, if mind did exist (doubtful to many of these lost souls), it was due to conditioning as we interacted with the environment, as sort of extreme tabula rasa ala John Locke. Our brains show a lot of spontaneous activity. A neuron, even a sensory or perceptual one, is firing even as it ‘waits’ for an outside stimulus to arrive. Neurons in other parts are even more active as they maintain muscle tone, process memories, formulate intents, dream, imagine beauty, etc. and hallucinate. Neuronal responses to stimulation are overlays on their ongoing activity.   The connectome is complicated, self-generated and self-maintaining, as it manifests our mental experience.

Sure, dreams and hallucinations often reflect our experiences but some definitely do not.   And anyway we combine the elements according to our own impulses,  More importantly, our finding beauty and constructing beautiful things must come from within us, i.e., we generate it autogenically; beauty is not really out there but in here. In my current reading in Joseph’s Neuroscience text I am finding out that most dreams and hallucinations, at least the more complex ones, depend upon temporal lobe functioning. Indeed, Joseph says that much of what we call conscious experience and our memories thereof depend upon temporal lobe functions (of course in conjunction with other lobes and remember the claustrum from an earlier post). So many things happen in the temporal lobe that are important to our humanity, even perhaps, as Julian Jaynes postulated, the voices of our gods.

temporal lobe is green

temporal lobe is green

In looking at Joseph’s citations I noticed an article by John Lilly, a name often in the news long ago but not so much now. He was famous back in the day for consorting with dolphins & beat poets and for doing research with the sensory deprivation tank, a tank with warm salt water in a diffusely lighted and mostly soundless room in which you could sit or float with a minimum of sensory stimulation. He first experimented on himself, believing that was the ethical thing to do, and then had other subjects. The relevant point here is that with such extremely reduced stimulation, people hallucinate. Our minds have to do something even if there is nothing sensorily to do.


Expert meditation practitioners can block perception, sort of a sensory deprivation controlled from the inside (by the MEMBRAIN) rather than from control of the outside. To do this they focus on an image or on their breathing and let the mind’s flow go unimpeded or through other methods. Daniel Goleman in his book, Destructive Emotions, reports early research by Richard Davidson into meditation and EEGs. He (Davidson) found that good meditators quickly show typical EEGs which are slower and without the bumps and jumps instigated by ongoing objective experience. At the highest level of meditation practice, the person in deep meditation did not respond to a simulated gunshot from just behind him or her. Most people’s EEGs spiked with the startle reflex but the experts’ hardly bumped up at all. When asked they said that the gunshot was like a bird flying across their field of vision.


In a way, then, meditation is the analogue opposite to hallucinations, both autogenic actions withdrawn from impactive stimulation but one is relaxed and open in its interiority and the other void filling activity. More later and until then, maintain your own meditation and dream of beauty.

Stillness? Oh no!

A Science article through Reuters reports a group of studies by a psychologist at the University of Virginia.  He asked people to sit alone awake doing nothing for no more than 15 minutes both in the lab or at their homes.  In some trials he gave them the option of self administering a mild shock  (that is brilliant).  In general the subjects found this experience aversive; when at home many cheated and texted, went online, etc.  Males had a harder time than females, and many chose to self administer the shock rather than sit quietly.  Anything for a cheap thrill, eh?


This study seems to me simple, elegant and telling on a number of levels.  The easy interpretation is that we have reduced our tolerance of stillness with our electronic ambient.  Okay, but I have known many people, mostly farmers, who were generally never still.  If awake they were doing; if done, they might sit on the porch and visit or watch a sunset or just go on to sleep.  We also have our habitual activities which we like.  Our TV broke last week and we went a couple of evenings without it, sitting on the deck and reading more (lovely) but we were glad to see a sale on Saturday for its replacement.  And we are meditators so sitting quietly for 20-30 minutes focused on our interiority with no outer activity is routine.

Still we (especially the modern American culture) have shaped our preferences and males are more limited in these.  Before I retired as a clinical psychologist to work the farm I saw many boys and teens with low frustration tolerance, low engagement in family activities especially household maintenance, poor sleep, and poor school performance despite good intelligence.  My initial interview quickly focused on screen time, e.g., games, texting, TV, etc.  The ‘cure’ was to reduce screen time and replace it with real, meaning non-virtual activities and to develop increased capacity for stillness, meaning calm engagement with the virtual interiority of our consciousness.  These often proved difficult to implement.  Likewise many adult friends find movies boring unless they have some adrenalin surge aspects like explosions, horror, etc.  And of course many males invest in sports and watching the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat in games.

With the ambient so electronically constructed (have you seen the movie Her?) what new mutations will rise in the population and what old standbys will recede?  If the UVA psychologist did the same experiment in a less wired culture, say Nepal or rural China or any stable agricultural, less industrialized and electrified area, would the results differ significantly?  While we wait for these answers, please sit quietly and enjoy the view, outward and inward,  Namaste.




Last week some news reports came out (see earthsky.org for one) about recent research on meditation from some good folks in Scandinavia.  They looked at EEG patterns in two types of meditative activity.


In one type the person clears their mind, focuses on breathing, and lets the conscious flow come and go, not hindering it and not holding it.  The EEG in this case showed more widespread activation front and back of alpha and theta waves.  In the other type the person focuses on a mental image, be it Buddha, a nature scene, or some other distinct image to hold onto mindfully.  The EEG here showed specific frontal activation of alpha and theta waves.  A quick search showed that the more one practices meditation the more pronounced the ability to induce such rhythms, alpha relating to a relaxed conscious state and theta to alert arousal.  These are reminiscent of the infant’s quiet alert state seen right after feeding, when content, secure, and watching the world perhaps with a bit of infant wonder.

I have written before of the MEMBRAIN, our brain as the membrane surrounding our mind.  To do this it must perform the 4 basic membrane functions, keeping energy (information) in and out, passing energy in and out.


I wrote then about certain signals, e.g., language, art, facial expression, tone of voice, having a privileged pass into and out of the mind through the MEMBRAIN’s channels.  Now I want to use the four functions to differentiate the two modes of meditation.  In the first mode with the diffuse focus, the MEMBRAIN passes little information out but lets it in, not working to keep any out, and also not keeping any in.  Information comes and goes, not held onto nor acted upon.  In the second mode with a specific focus, the MEMBRAIN again passes little information out, but now it passes some in and works to keep out what is not the image, then to keep the image in mind.  Information is gathered and held, little else is let in and again it is not acted on.  In both modes the MEMBRAIN performs its functions through control of arousal and attention seen in the alpha and theta waves, so the areas most involved are medial (down the center), not lateral (across the sides).

Here’s recent haiku that’s half-way relevant:

Now bask in the wild fresh breeze

bringing today’s warm sunlight.

Now don’t.

Just saying.