Sunday, January 21, 2007

Wired like Medusa

A good friend sent me this WSJ article: How Thinking Can Change the Brain. It makes the point that your brain can be fundamentally altered by your mind, your thoughts, if you will. Rather than the other way around.

That's nice. But I sent my friend this reply, which is based upon some of my current reading, and it seems to resonate within me:

Ken Wilber has some thoughts on this type of investigation. Good to do, but don’t expect to understand consciousness from it.

In his book “A Brief History of Everything”, Wilber makes a distinction between the surface of things, and their depth. Understanding the brain from this materialistic/empirical examination would be gaining insight into its “surface”. But understanding the mind, and even more so, the spirit that perhaps moves the mind, cannot be seen in this way.

“... he can know what every atom of by brain is doing, and he still won’t know a single thought in my mind. This is really extraordinary. ..."

“... The interior dimension can only be accessed by communication and interpretation, by “dialogue” and “dialogical” approaches, which are not staring at exterior but sharing of interiors. Not objective by intersubjective. Not surfaces but depths.”

“You can point to the brain ... but you cannot simply point to envy, or pride, or consciousness, or value, or intention, or desire. Where is desire? Point to it. You can’t really ... because it’s largely an interior dimension ... This doesn’t mean it isn’t real!”

He goes on to explain how the Enlightenment — for all of its good — placed all of the West’s focus on this materialistic/empirical approach. For example, if someone is depressed, the “lab technician” approach would be to determine a lack of serotonin in the brain, and prescribe some Prozac. Never mind that the depression was caused by a lack of values, a lack of meaning to one’s life, perhaps an existential angst that resulted in the physiological manifestation of a lack of serotonin. And of course, you can take all of the Prozac that you like, and it may make you feel better, but it won’t give you meaning to your life.

I think he is on to something — this integral approach. And as a result, I am now less interested for science to “prove” the unique aspects that come about through meditation. Why not just do it yourself and see? Why not just interact and talk with others that are very experienced in mediation to help guide you and interpret the results. Who cares of I’m generating gamma rays or alpha rays? What meaning is there in any of that?

Just a thought. Thanks for the article. The part I found interesting was this acknowledgment: "This positive state is a skill that can be trained” Had the author said “learned” rather than “trained” I would have been more impressed. He continues to see his “patient/subject” as just one more lab animal to be studied, objectively, empirically, and monologically. Sigh. Maybe he should try talking to them.

Monday, January 15, 2007

On the necessity of conflict

OK, now here is an unpopular position. Life is conflict. Let’s deconstruct that.

So many people long for peace, or at least the absence of war. We wish to avoid the meaningless death of innocents. We ask to spare the children — what could they have possibly done to deserve this?

But what is life? It is evolution. And what is evolution? It is random genetic mutation, manifest into some quantum change, followed by adaptation to the environment, followed by natural selection — a weeding out of the less well-adapted beings, and thereby, a diminution and eventual pruning of some experimental branches, and the strengthening and growth of others. Over eons.

It is conflict that provides this selection process. Now this conflict can take many forms. Consider nature. It can take the form of inter- or intra-species struggle for food. It can take the form of famine or pestilence. It can take the form of natural catastrophes. Sometimes, you can see the selection process working, when an individual is not strong enough to survive. Other times it seems capricious and perhaps even unfair. But that is our ego labeling that which just is.

Consider the absence of conflict. Some see paradise. A return to the Garden of Eden, or the arrival of Heaven on earth. I see death. I see stagnation. I see the corrupting influence of gluttony, sloth, and apathy. Can you really be sure you would continue to advance, either consciously or physiologically if you were not challenged? And what causes this challenge, on a societal scale? Conflict (or competition — they are the same thing). So this "push" forward, if you will, is actually caused by conflict, not by peace.

So do not pray for an end to conflict. Pray for wisdom. Do not pray for avoidance of tragedy. Pray for compassion, love, and gratitude. For when you see conflict and tragedy, know that you see life, in all of its complexity and elegance; its simplicity and its beauty. To wish for a world without conflict is like wishing for a sun that never sets, a sky that never rains, animals that never eat, or humans that never die. Think for a moment and you can imagine the immediate catastrophe that would befall such an earth.

Instead embrace life (small “l”) while discovering Life (big “L”). See the beauty in the flow; the purpose of the process. The give and take. The gain and loss. The hope and fear. The joy and sorrow. Life cannot be another way. We are but humble actors in a grand play, and our progress — our evolution — may come from awakening to the noble truths that surround life as it is. Life is conflict. Life is suffering. (Some wise guy said that about 2500 years ago; we appear to be slow learners; not a good sign for our own evolution ;-) Awaken to that reality. Accept it and detach from your egoic desires. And from that Authentic Self — offer Love and Compassion to all sentient beings. While they struggle to awaken themselves. And yes, while they kill.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Integrity

I found this abridged quote somewhere on the ‘net, but can no longer find the source. At least I can attribute the thoughts to the correct individual. In what follows, Mark Gerzon does a nice job tying together the loose ends that make up our individuality, and on what it means to have integrity. I encourage you to consider his views:
Integrity Grows From A Humbling Realization, Mark Gerzon

"The purpose of life is ... to know oneself. We cannot do so unless we learn to identify ourselves with all that lives." -- Mohandas K. Gandhi.

I have never seen a conflict in which everyone could see the whole. On the contrary, I have only experienced conflicts in which some, and usually all, of the "part-ies" were identified with the "part." They were, literally, "partisan."

This is the basic human condition, the natural worldview of organisms that are born, live and die as seemingly separate entities. When our bodies shout "Me first!" -- we listen. We are wired to survive, and to put our survival before others (an instinct which can be trumped by only one other: protecting our offspring). As a natural extension of our survival instinct, we tend to care more about the welfare of those near and dear to us than those who are, by whatever definition, far away. Our language provides convenient words for each: the first we call "us;" the latter, "them."

The challenge of integrity -- or integral vision, which literally means "seeing" or "holding" the whole -- is to balance this very natural allegiance to the part ("partisan") with an allegiance to what it is but a part of. [...]

This intention toward integrity -- from the Latin integer, meaning "undivided, untouched whole -- is our first, critical step toward transforming conflict. Because of our commitment to "hold" or to "see" the whole conflict, we can become part of the solution to the conflict rather than just adding our energy to it. [...]

Integrity grows out of the humbling realization that there are many ways of seeing the world, and that we cannot take our worldviews for granted. Doing so blinds us to the possibility that our worldviews may be incomplete, skewed or -- to oversimplify -- "wrong." If this is so, then no matter how noble our intentions may be ("freeing the people," "creating jobs," "protecting human rights," etc.), everything we do will backfire.

--Mark Gerzon