Yesterday Spence Tepper, a frequent commenter on this blog, responded to Appreciative Reader, another frequent commenter. I enjoy how Tepper thinks, even when I don't agree with him. Below I've shared in bold italics some observations on his interesting comment.
""Please explain in clear words what exactly you were trying to say."
Thank you for the clarity of your question.
It was a great question. And I appreciate the response from Tepper below, which is pleasingly direct.
Beyond mind meaning beyond your own conventional thinking.
OK, I agree that it isn't possible to go beyond the mind, because mind isn't something we can go beyond, since mind is what we are. At least, that's what all the neuroscientific evidence shows. When mental activity ceases, we're brain dead. In other words, dead.
From your perspective, all human experience is biologically based. If you start with that gooey bag called the brain and the intricate and delicate biochemical network of trees within it, and the active network of billions of interacting signals, you can reduce the brain to two levels of functioning, maybe three.
1. The brain itself as described above.
2.the programming / conditioning of the brain.
3.it's operating system programming
This is a dubious description of the brain and how it works. It assumes that the brain is akin to a computer. Some neuroscientists believe this, but many or most recent books I've read on this subject say that the mental activity, or consciousness, is inseparable from that amazingly complex network of neurons and the connections between neurons.
Meaning, the brain is a physical entity and mind can't be separated from that messy, gooey activity. Maybe one day mind and consciousness can be off-loaded to a computer or some other device. For now, though, there's no evidence that the mind is anything other than the brain in action. So (2) and (3) above also are the brain in action.
The view of consciousness can be viewed from this perspective.
Normally we are only conscious of item 2, and even then only a portion of that. .We therefore think there is nothing beyond it. We identify with it, personalize our experiences and identify purely with our programming.
The last sentence above is close to how mindfulness is viewed in Buddhism and secular versions of mindfulness. We can indeed be carried away by thoughts, emotions, and the like. However, once again, there's no evidence that the programming of the brain is separable from the brain itself.
Sure, it is possible to make a verbal distinction, as when Alan Watts pointed out that "flash of lightning" actually refers to only one thing, since there's no difference between a flash and lightning. So naturally I'd agree that we can develop new mental habits -- that's a big part of what life is all about -- but I disagree that this involves going beyond the conditioning of the brain. The brain just can be conditioned to do new things.
Mystics claim that you can learn to withdraw from the senses and mind and look within and watch item 2. above functioning from a distance, as an observer.
Sure, they claim that. I used to believe that claim. Where, though, is the evidence that anyone has had an experience that didn't involve their mind, which again, I define as the brain in action? If there's a different definition, it would have to be a supernatural one, since as noted before, a brain is necessary for mind, and mind is necessary for awareness/consciousness.
If what's being talked about here is just mindfulness, I have no problem with the idea that it's possible to develop some distance between our thoughts/emotions and the part of mind that is able to be aware of thoughts/emotions. But mindfulness occurs as part of the mind, obviously. It doesn't involve going somewhere outside the mind/brain.
From a purely biological view, this isn't out of body. But it is real and a regular part of advanced meditation practice. Moving consciousness inward and upward through practice: Beyond mind. Beyond 2.
Agreed. It isn't out of body. However, since it isn't out of body, what does "inward" and "upward" really mean? We're always inward, because all experience occurs through the brain, which is encased in our skull. There's no outward to experience. It's all inward. There's no upward, unless this is meant in a metaphorical sense. How can you move up when the mind is a hundred billion neurons with a trillion or so connections?
That means seeing from a different vantage point, which I suggest is 3, the operating system. From that perspective we are entirely free of emotional drives, reactive conditioning. We are liberated from those and can watch them from that vantage point. That provides us with a new perspective, like the Space Telescope.
Well, the Space Telescope is in space, while the vantage point spoken of here is within the mind/brain. Perhaps it is possible to be entirely free of emotional drives and reactive conditioning, though I doubt it. What does seem entirely possible is to be more free of negative emotions and unproductive reactions than we are now. This is what mindfulness is all about.
That perspective offers completely different views and observations, and of course increases our objectivity. We see that we aren't our thinking, nor our emotions. We aren't even this body, because we can view these in action from a separate point. One that is reached through practice, such as those advocated by Buddha and his more advanced followers.
Again, we can be less attached to our body, but we're still a body with a mind/brain. So the separate point mentioned above is just a manner of speaking about a certain sense of detachment, not an actual point separate from the body/mind/brain.
I'll end by sharing how Sam Harris, who is very knowledgeable about Buddhism and mindfulness, describes what was generally discussed above by Tepper and me. This is from the Spirituality chapter in his Waking Up book.
So what would a spiritual master be a master of? At a minimum, she will no longer suffer certain cognitive and emotional illusions -- above all, she will no longer feel identical to her thoughts.
Once again, this is not to say that such a person will no longer think, but she would no longer succumb to the primary confusion that thoughts produce in most of us: She would no longer feel that there is an inner self who is a thinker of these thoughts.
Such a person will naturally maintain an openness and serenity of mind that is available to most of us only for brief moments, even after years of practice. I remain agnostic as to whether anyone has achieved such a state permanently, but I know from direct experience that it is possible to be far more enlightened than I tend to be.
The question of whether enlightenment is a permanent state need not detain us. The crucial point is that you can glimpse something about the nature of consciousness that will liberate you from suffering in the present.
Even just recognizing the impermanence of your mental states -- deeply, not merely as an idea -- can transform your life. Every mental state you have ever had has arisen and then passed away. This is a first-person fact -- but it is, nonetheless, a fact that any human being can readily confirm.
We don't have to know any more about the brain or about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world to understand this truth about our own mind.
The promise of spiritual life -- indeed, the very thing that makes it "spiritual" in the sense I invoke throughout this book -- is that there are truths about the mind that we are better off knowing. What we need to become happier and to make the world a better place is not more pious illusions but a clearer understanding of the way things are.