Some scientific findings contained in an article in the April 2 issue of The New Yorker, "Are We Already Living In Virtual Reality?" bear on the question of what meditation is all about, and the extent to which meditation liberates us from anything.
The article is about Thomas Metzinger, a philosophically-minded neuroscientist.
As you can read in the excerpt below, Metzinger speaks about our inability to recognize the unconscious mental models that determine how we experience reality. In his book, The Ego Tunnel, which I've read and enjoyed, Metzinger speaks of the walls of the tunnel as being transparent to us.
Here's links to my blog posts about The Ego Tunnel:
Stuck in "The Ego Tunnel" without a self
What we are: a strange loop in an ego tunnel
My review of "The Ego Tunnel" -- 5 stars
Laying bare how the ego tunnel is dug
Don't worry about yourself. You don't have one (a self).
The self as illusion
Life lessons from a neuroscience discussion
Metzinger says in the book, "Although our brains create the Ego Tunnel, no one lives in this tunnel. We live with it and through it, but there is no little man running things inside our head. The Ego and the Tunnel are evolved representational phenomena, a result of dynamical self-organization on many levels."
Here's the excerpt from The New Yorker article. I've boldfaced portions that particularly appealed to me.
In a Frankfurt cake shop—“They say this is where Adorno took the women he seduced; many historical conversations happened here!”—Metzinger teased out the implications of this view of existence. “Do you know what an ‘illusion of control’ is?” he asked, mischievously. “If people are asked to throw dice, and their task is to throw a high number, they throw the dice harder!” He believes that many experiences of being in control are similarly illusory, including experiences in which we seem to control our own minds. Brain imaging, for example, shows that our thoughts begin before we’re aware of having them.
But, Metzinger said, “if a thought crosses the boundary from unconsciousness to consciousness, we feel, ‘I caused this thought.’ ” The sensation of causing our own thoughts is also just another feature of the self-model—a phantom sensation conjured when a readout, labelled “thinking,” switches from “off” to “on.” If you suffer from schizophrenia, this readout may be deactivated inappropriately, and you may feel that someone else is causing your thoughts. “The mind has to explain to itself how it works,” he said, spreading his hands.
Lately, Metzinger has been thinking about his own experience as a meditator. At the center of the meditative experience is the exercise and cultivation of mental autonomy: when the meditator’s mind wanders, he notices and arrests that process, gently returning his mental focus to his breath. “The mind says, ‘I am now re-directing the flashlight of my attention to this,’ ” Metzinger said. “But the thought ‘I am redirecting my mind-wandering’ might itself be another inner story.” He leaned back in his chair and laughed. “It might be that the spiritual endeavor for liberation or detachment can lead to new illusions.”
He looked at me reassuringly. “This doesn’t mean that nothing is real,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that this is the Matrix—the simulation is running on some hardware. But it does mean that you are not the model. You are the whole system—the physical, biological organism in which the self-model is rendered, including its body, its social relationships, and its brain. The model is just a part of that system.” The “I” we experience is smaller than, and different from, the totality of who and what we are.
It turns out that we do, in this sense, possess subtle bodies; we also inhabit subtle selves. While a person exists, he feels that he knows the world and himself directly. In fact, he experiences a model of the world and inhabits a model of himself. These models are maintained by the mind in such a way that their constructed nature is invisible. But it can sometimes be made visible, and then—to a degree—the models can be changed.
Something about this discovery is deflating: it turns out that we are less substantial than we thought. Yet it can also be invigorating to understand the constructed, provisional nature of experience. Our perceptions of the world and the self feel real—how could they feel otherwise?—but we can come to understand our own role in the creation of their apparent realness. “The compensation of growing old,” Virginia Woolf writes, in “Mrs. Dalloway,” is that, while “the passions remain as strong as ever,” we gain “the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence,—the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light.”