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August 04, 2010


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I think FOMO has a firm basis in reality. As an individual, you ARE missing out: on every aspect of reality that is NOT you. It comes with the territory. Too bad...
The other side of the coin of reality is that your being an individual is temporary. Soon you will be dead. Actually, you will not be dead - there will be no individual to BE dead. Or to have missed out on anything. There is no cosmic scorekeeper.

Just like Kirchoff's law: the algebraic sum of voltages in a closed loop is zero - the sum of all experiences that an individual has, or has not had - is ZERO.

I think your conflicts about Buddhist meditation are based on misunderstanding, which happens when you get your information about Buddhism from books alone. I'm a Soto Zen student of 20+ years, and I do not see a conflict between neuroscience and zazen.

The state of pure awareness -- samadhi -- has to be experienced to be appreciated. I understand some research suggests that in deep samadhi some brain functions are suppressed, such as functions that perceive linear time. This is experience reveals that phenomena have no self-existence, and that our experience of the "external world" is partly a creation of our own brains and senses.


Could you describe your experience of the state of pure awareness. I would appreciate your discussion.

Barbara, I also don't see a contradiction between neuroscience and zazen, or meditation in general. My main point in this and my previous post is that Buddhism has to move with the scientific times and adjust to ever-increasing knowledge of how the brain/mind works.

This shouldn't be difficult for Buddhists. But they'll have to give up the belief (which I find reflected in a lot of Buddhist writings) that it is possible to know "things as they are" via some sort of "pure awareness."

Anyway, Buddhism correctly says that we are interconnected with everything in existence. In fact, in a sense there isn't any "we" or "me" at all. So each of us is aware of reality in a unique fashion, our experience being the result of all sorts of nonreplicable causes and conditions.

So there's no privileged position of seeing, other than that of science in regards to the "objective" reality of the natural world. Yes, we can know ourselves (inner) and the world (outer) more clearly, but there always will be an inherent subjectivity in that knowing. Which is why we need science to help us understand things with less filtering.

Brian, having experienced bare awareness I have to disagree with you that it is not possible and that neurology cannot produce such a thing.

What is most noticeable about the experience is what is missing, what you could call background noise. The perceptions lack emotional, visceral and cognitive elaboration, processes which create meaning, leaving the experience itself utterly indescribable other than saying it is empty. I can't think of a better word to describe this awareness than 'bare'. 'Pure' works too though it has meanings that take it beyond into metaphysical realms that ironically elaborate the bare sensory experience.

This isn't to say that the brain isn't highly active below awareness, indeed, sensory activity requires a lot of preconscious activity. But stuff is missing. Parts of the brain aren't participating in the usual manner. It should be easy enough to imagine a system where all parts are not actively engaged at the same time, like a car. The nervous system isn't much different. It has an accelerator and brakes (actually large numbers of them) as well as a steering mechanism.

In fact, scientists have shown brain areas shutting down during meditation through imaging . This appears to be the modus operandi of many altered states of mind like suggestibility in hypnosis or towards a charismatic leader. In this case, the brakes and steering have been removed (medial prefrontal cortex, executive control function,) allowing someone else to drive the car.

During focused meditation, the indications are that the amygdala (the accelerator) is disengaged and actively suppressed (braked) by the prefrontal cortex. In general this is called emotional regulation by psychologists a key feature and benefit of meditation.

So, addressing the philosophical question, does bare awareness reveal reality as it truly is? No more than any other cognitive state, since it is just another limited point of view and perhaps less because fewer cognitive processes are involved in the experience. One might even say that the fewer cognitive systems involved, the more powerful the experience. That would mean that the degree of Truth one experiences is directly proportional to the intensity of the experience one has, making intensity the measure of truth, not comparative logic.

Following on that, it is my opinion that enlightenment is real but at least in some cases (that I can name,) it is the result of a permanent cognitive disfunction (brain damage by way of neural processes.)

The same goes for nondual experience. Apparently some people have the ability to shut down the left half of their brains, (temporarily as they seem to not be able to stop talking about nonduality,) leaving only the right holistic side active. Now nondual experience might be fun, but does using half your faculties produce a whole picture of reality? I think not. But the subjective experience is of overwhelming certainty, kind of like being drunk.

However, a decrease of activity in one area of the brain is often accompanied by an increase in another, a kind of neurological balancing act (brain resource allocation, brain fuel is glucose) which can be useful in meditation (e.g. less noise brings sharper image resolution.) One just needs to be careful not to allow the intense state to impair one's judgement about reality.

Some science:


Ric, thanks for your interesting comment. You make some good points in an appealingly balanced fashion.

Yes, it does appear possible to shut down aspects of the brain that are normally operative, leading to an experience of fuller or more intense reality.

I haven't had the same experience(s) you've had, because we're different people. But I know what you're talking about. Reality can seem a lot more real in certain states of consciousness.

Like you said, though, the question becomes "What sort of real?" I liked your approach to meditation, but sometimes avid nondualists seem to be advocating a sort of infantile awareness.

Just sensing shapes and colors, not knowing that the blonde woman in the kitchen making a sandwich at the moment is my wife -- just seeing her as a bodily form with no past and no future.

That way of non-thinking seems to surrender a lot (or all) of what it means to be human. So I appreciate your more nuanced understanding of what "pure awareness" could mean. The word "pure" is the problem. It's really "altered" awareness, another choice we have, through meditation, of how to view reality.

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