I didn't enjoy neurologist James Austin's book about Zen and neuroscience as much as I thought I would.
My reading of "Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness" may show, of course, that I'm neither selfless nor imbued with enlightened (or kensho'ened) insight -- both of which I plead guilty to.
Regardless, I expected that Austin would provide a clearer and simpler analysis of how Zen meditation and brain science relate. He's written two other books on this subject, this being the most recent, so perhaps "Selfless Insight" is more complicated than his earlier works.
I was left with just a few Memorable Impressions after reading each of the book's often-dense 269 pages.
The detailed descriptions of brain functioning and anatomy didn't resonate much with me, as I was looking for something other than a neurology text for the layman. Ditto with the many summaries of research on how this or that in the brain results in X sorts of awareness under condition Y.
Eventually the stylistic medium of the book became a main message for me, albeit a familiar one. Namely, whatever we experience in (or as) our consciousness is produced by certain states in the physical brain.
I like Zen philosophy and literature because it is grounded. Heaven, the supernatural, God, soul, spirit -- all this airy-fairy stuff is meaningless to a Zen Buddhist like Austin, which enables him to easily meld his scientific bent with his meditative practice.
Early on (page 11), I came across his "home remedy" for how to empty the personal Self of its egocentric preoccupations:
Its first stage exemplifies intention: it involves saying the word "JUST" silently, during each inbreath. Then, during each successive breathing out, the numbers from one to ten are counted silently. This process continues for a variable period.
In the background, down in the lower abdoment, is a simple awareness of the in-and-out movements of breathing.
The next stage involves saying the word "THIS," while breathing in. It is again followed by each silent number from one to ten while breathing out. Later, all the number counting fades and drops out.
At this point, "JUST" returns to reoccupy the whole inbreath, leaving "THIS" to shift over to occupy the entire outbreath. Now, a silent "JUST THIS" remains throughout each in-and-out cycle of breathing. Later, it, too, dissolves into the breathing movements of the lower abdomen and vanishes just like any other concept.
Of course, "JUST THIS" is a temporary expedient. It signifies that only this precious moment exists, within the whole world of awareness. At this moment, there's nothing more to strive for, nothing more to attain. This is it, right now.
Nicely said. I've experimented with this technique, finding it easy to do, relaxing, and centering.
But Austin's Zen involves a lot more than being present with the here-and-now. He describes the intense efforts that practitioners put into their attempts to achieve a state of kensho, an enlightenment experience.
This basically is an other-referential state. In contrast with other spiritual and mystical paths that enjoin the necessity of "self-realization," Austin says that Zen is out to leave the illusion of the Self behind.
Now, instead of an attitude that points all messages inwardly, into a Self-centered awareness, the new mental field could open out into a seemingly new dimension of OTHER-consciousness.
Why does perception now seem to register so clearly and directly inside this novel state of consciousness? Because it has been emptied out of all prior maladaptive limbic associations linked to the old, overconditioned I-Me-Mine.
Passages like these in "Selfless Insight" gave me some aha! moments.
Now I better understand why students of Zen, and the masters they study with, seem to pay a lot more attention to washing dishes, eating rice, watching the moon rise, seeing a shadow of a bird pass over still water, and such, than what transpires in closed-eyed, introspective meditation.
Becoming totally immersed in what is other than us reveals the insubstantiality of the I-Me-Mine Austin speaks of above.
The Zen phrase "No-Self" is a term that needs to be interpreted with care. No-Self does not mean that the person stops witnessing. It does not mean that kensho's open mental field beholds "nothing" at all in some "empty" world outside.
It means that witnessing happens with none of the old intrusive, Self-conscious I-Me-Mine standing in the way. It means that no former veils of Self obscure or distort everything in that outside environment.
Once these old concepts drop off, the anonymous observer is finally graced by the glimpse of an unimaginably "objective vision." This fresh reality sees clearly into the eternal perfection of "all things as THEY really are."
Well, it makes sense that enlightenment, or kensho, would be other-directed -- allocentric rather than egocentric. Trying to find your true self obviously is stupid if no such self exists.
Austin persuasively shows how various centers and processes in the brain could be tipped into a super-allocentric, other-focused state of awareness with the aid of Zen meditative practices.
Bingo! Kensho! Satori! All entirely scientific, practical, physical, worldly.
Where "Selfless Insight" is focused in this fashion, I found myself being drawn into a pleasingly naturalistic conception of Zen Buddhism. But Austin seemingly also embraces traditional Zen views of perfect enlightenment which border (or cross over into) incredulity for me.
For example, he writes:
After a long preamble of meditative training within an enriched cultural setting, what happens when kensho happens to strike off the roots of the Self? The impression of errorless rectitude unfolds automatically. It is the brief realization that no evil conduct could possibly arise in a world so ideal, a domain so shorn of perjorative subjectivities.
Well, Austin is free to believe in the possibility of perfection, and the leaving behind of all subjectivity. To me, though, this is at odds with both neuroscience and the sort of philosophical naturalism that Austin's Zen supposedly is founded on.
(Here's a fairly detailed review of "Selfless Insight" for those who want another perspective on the book.)