Friday, 30 August 2013

Ego, Self, and Mindfulness

"It is one thing to have upside-down two-dimensional images on the backs of our retinas. It is quite another to see: to have a vivid experience of a world existing “out there” in three dimensions, beyond our own body, a world that seems real, and that we can sense, move in, and be conscious of, and even conjure up in the mind in great detail with our eyes closed. And within this conjuring, somehow, a sense of personhood is generated as well, a sense of a seer who is doing the seeing and perceiving what is to be seen, a knower who is knowing what is here to be known, at least to a degree. Yet it is all a conjuring, a construct of the mind, literally a fabrication, a synthesizing of a world out of sensory input, a synthesis based at least in part on processing vast arrays of sensory information through complex networks in the brain, the whole of the nervous system, and indeed, the whole of the body. This is truly a phenomenal accomplishment. It is a huge mystery, and an extraordinary, if usually entirely taken for granted, inheritance for each of us." - Mindfulness teacher and MBSR founder Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming To Our Senses (2006), p317.
"In the beginner's mind there is no thought, "I have attained something." All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner's mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p22.
"This morning when I touched the earth with the Sangha, I saw all the non-me elements coming together and touching the earth. I did not see me at all, only the non-me elements. That created a lot of space inside. Because you believe in a self, you compare that self with other selves. Out of it come the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, the equality complex. If you touch the truth of non-self in you, you are free." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Question and Answer Session with Thich Nhat Hanh and Monastic Brothers and Sisters, European Institute of Applied Buddhism Waldbrol, Germany, May 20, 2011.
The Cygnus Loop supernova shockwave.
When considering what we can observe about our universe and our role in it; it is vast, possibly without a boundary, and we are small, yet seamlessly dynamically and chemically connected with it, we quickly discover that the lines we draw between things - an exploding supernova and the rock which crystalizes out of it, planet Earth and the sun it rotates around, methane gas and proteins, mushrooms and mosses, humans and monkeys, etc. - are just fabricated conceptual impositions on a constantly changing, fluid environment which can be defined as one whole system.

Some things we rely on change more slowly than others, and humans have done their utmost to create a predictable and conservative physical enivironment in order to manage the changes in their lives - to the degree some things seem as if they are 'written in stone', or are 'universal truths'. Basic scientific observation and experimentation can show us that even stone erodes and crumbles into dust, and something conceptually 'true' is only an observation that is framed to satisfy a pre-concieved hypothesis - an idea never-the-less limited by being a mere map imprinted upon one's brain of a physical territory which exists outside of it.

True truth is just 'what is' - direct experience beyond evaluation; a world in which we act and "actions speak louder than words"; where conceptual language has no say. The ego-driven human mind does not like this approach, however, since everything becomes less predictable - less controllable.

By giving labels to things and separating them into categories, we control them and momentarily take away nature's frustrating habit of putting things in the 'wrong' places. This can be carried out within an office environment very effectively - filing cabinets containing folders, and pigeon holes for different departments and individuals - but beyond offices, libraries, and houses - when it comes to those things which lie beyond and predate human control, such habits become quite toxic.

Very quickly the boundary to the universe can become finite, although it has not been observed to be so, and the processes on the Earth can be seen as inherently hostile, even though they are a necessary part of what supports all life; protecting us from the cold space and intensely hot Sun beyond. Humans can be quick to accept that all life was created by a supernatural being, or that humans did not evolve from monkeys, even though there are significantly larger amounts of scientific evidence in support of alternative ideas.

One particularly powerful and popular idea that has appeared within every single culture in the world, while lacking much scientific evidence, is that of a human soul - a 'life essence' distinguished from the physical nature of a person - a kind of clever, decision-making ghost that arrives in the human organism at some point between conception and birth, and which departs from the body upon death.

The idea of a soul can comfort us because it can mean we are immortal - that we can cheat death by our 'true essence' - our personal intelligence - flying off elsewhere. However, a soul can also serve society in a darker way - it can be used to condemn people - to seal a prescribed fate in a way which limits their access to resources - in other words it allows us to indulge in selfishness.

Once there is an idea of a soul, by way of the unverifiable nature of souls, it is easily argued that one soul can be different from another. No matter someone's physical makeup or nurture, the nature of their soul is unchangeable, and once determined by prevailing cultural beliefs, a particular label given to someone's soul can stick to a person for life. A person's labelled soul defines how a culture interacts and responds to a person. It means that any mistake or bad decision made by a person instantly degrades the quality of their decision-making soul. In this way self-hating perfectionists are easily created, as they attempt to hide every mistake they make - mistakes which reveal some sort of innate impurity - a kind of original sin that pollutes everything a person does.

As we know, people talk of 'dark souls', 'lonely souls', 'merry old souls', and 'soulmates'. Soul culture is to be found in every society on the planet, and yet the scientific evidence all points to an opposite situation existing; that life can arise automatically from dead chemical solutions held within rocky substrates using the same basic reactive processes that allow crystals to 'grow' and emerge from mineral veins in caves.

In the modern West, most people do not believe a soul exists within, say, a 'fools gold' iron pyrite crystal, and yet they are still attracted to the idea of a soul existing within the pattern of organisation of the minerals within their own bodies. We even have examples of tiny animals, such as tardigrades, which can remain in suspended animation out in space without any protection for years, only to come alive again upon entering a suitable environment, or amoebas reacting to chemical gradients in their vicinity and changing their behaviour in very straight-forward biochemical ways. Alas, the natural world, with it's inherent beauty and innovation is not enough for us humans - we often need to impose an additional system on top.

Believing in souls, and different souls making important decisions, leads to a hierarchy of souls - sons of gods, angels, and saints, and, of course, evil-doers, demons, and devils. This has huge repercussions for resource distribution. An evil person will be further back in line than a saint when it comes to handing out rations and defining freedoms. We still see the condemnatory word "evil" applied to criminals in intellectual debates. It seems there is often an assumed belief in a soul underlying most intellectual interaction in the West. Stripping someone of a soul, even, can be taken as removing some divinely-granted gift or social standing from a person - in line with the Christian idea of having "sold one's soul to the devil".

According to some memes on the internet, ginger people do not have souls, and some people of the ginger persuasion have become rather angry at this notion. People want to have a soul - to feel superior to those lower down in the hierarchy; to indulge in an ego.

Mindfulness methodology would say, however, that not having a soul, and truly dropping belief in souls is a liberating act intimately linked with the realisation the legendary Buddha had while sitting beneath the bodhi tree. By treating a human being as fluid and changeable as the seasons - with forgiveness, charity, and compassion - maintains a civilised society which allows people the dignity of overcoming their weaknesses and feeling valued by their community - as a human being first. This requires an acceptance that people are not ultimately predictable organisms acting from an absolute personality. The DNA governing our behavioural potential is much more elegant than that.

Evolutionary psychologists are becoming more and more aware that humans, in their incredibly developed and adapted present existence, have survived through, and continue to survive within different social and ecological environments, and this is because their DNA adapted to become more adaptable depending on their momentary situation. A man, for example, has the potential to be a long-term mating partner with one woman in a monogamous relationship so that he can guarantee the children are his and that he sees them survive to reproduce, or, he has the potential to move around and mate with many different partners, not knowing which children are really his, and not knowing how many will survive to reproduce. Which potential of the man manifests (or gradation thereof) will depend on the social or ecological conditions he meets within his lifetime. If one is to practice defining men as respectable home-makers or cheating bastards then it is easy to see that neither label is suitable - the answer, as one hears within Zen schools, is that they are "Both, yet neither". Ultimately the man has no label - no soul, so self-nature which can be defined. He is ungraspable, fluid, behaviourally-dependent on the seasons, terrain, and society, and women are equally ungraspable in their true nature also - they can be both dedicated romantic partners or prostitutes, for example, and yet they are neither.

Mindfulness embraces this 'no self' dimension to humans at it's core as it encourages us to let go of a need to label and define everything, and to just be in this world beyond rigid concepts - beyond imbuing everything with 'self nature'. Today I may be a saint, but tomorrow I may be posessed by the devil - things and people change. This fluid, adaptable, water-like nature to every living thing is recognised as part of a perspective which works with the here-and-now - the prevailing conditions, in order to make the most of the potential each setting holds. In this way humans can be less restricted by irrational, unnecessary and antisocial conceptions, and get on with enjoying the real things in life. In this sense a leopard can change it's spots, as long as the prevailing social setting allows him to, and this can be a blessing or a curse, since he can let go of inclinations towards being 'red in tooth and claw', but also become the hunted. By opening to such change, however, even though things can get worse if one does not practice with all one's heart, there is always a chance for things to get better - something which cannot happen through the opposite approach of defining an arbitrary hierarchy of souls.