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the brain as a metaphor for awakening

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Have you ever held a brain in your hands? It's an intimate experience.

For some time many years ago, I was on a career path heading in the direction of neuropathology research. Driven to understand consciousness and what it means to be alive, I was attacking the problem with both serious meditation and serious scientific study. So I got really into brains. And I got really good at taking them out of skulls because that was part of my training. It takes strength, dexterity, patience, and power tools to do it right and it's a real mess when you do it wrong, as the brain is a slippery, gelatinous thing.

My career went in a different direction, but those experiences have stuck with me and informed my meditation practice.

What I realized was that even the very word "brain" creates an artificial dualism because it implies this separate, discrete thing when it really isn't. What we call "brain" is intimately connected to "brain stem" which is intimately connected to "spinal cord." As in they really aren't truly separate, and when you actually try to physically separate these parts or look at the connections under a microscope you will realize that these divisions are at least a little bit arbitrary. We name them as separate parts because reductionism is useful in science. And science has barely begun to scratch the surface of what there is to know about consciousness and the brain, which is just one component of an exquisitely complex nervous system. In a hundred years, if the human species has not gone extinct or been punted back to the stone age, people will look back on most of what we "know" today and laugh, just as we laugh at what people "knew" a hundred years ago. The beauty of science is not that it allows us to discover the truth, but that it allows us to limit our errors over time.

In this golden age of neuroscience research, with fun toys to play with like fMRI, using the brain as a metaphor for awakening is all the rage. And this can be very helpful for some people at certain stages development--certainly, it was for me. But at the end of the day, this is just another fairy tale that must be let go of as we mature in practice. It is a framework to hold onto for a little while as we get used to staring into the void without screaming.

Any metaphor for awakening is like training wheels on a bicycle--you'll never get very far if you don't take the often terrifying step of removing them. But it's just part of the ride.

RE: the brain as a metaphor for awakening
Answer
6/7/18 6:35 AM as a reply to Andromeda.
 You can also see the brain as a stand-in for miracles. 

Ancient world: "Come and see! It's really true! He walked on water! He healed the blind!" 

2018: "Have you heard the Good News? Neuroscientists have proven it--meditation changes your brain!"

That's cool. Whatever works! But yeah, dropping the metaphors, whatever they happen to be ... good advice. 

:-D 

RE: the brain as a metaphor for awakening
Answer
6/8/18 9:47 AM as a reply to Tashi Tharpa.
The brain as a stand in for miracles, yep!

And I'm not anti-metaphor at all. I just think we need to be very clear on our intentions for using them--mindful metaphor-makers, if you will, especially when it comes to science and meditation. As helpful as a scientific worldview can be at times, it can really put a chokehold on meditation. It's so easy to cling to the comforting idea that science can give us a complete and reliable understanding of reality, to try to replace direct experience with intellectual understanding.

RE: the brain as a metaphor for awakening
Answer
6/8/18 10:15 AM as a reply to Andromeda.
I have a theory - getting lost in maps and explaining awakening to the rational, conscious mind is one reason why in Zen practice you are not "allowed" to go there. 


RE: the brain as a metaphor for awakening
Answer
6/8/18 10:34 AM as a reply to Chris Marti.
I bet you're right, Chris. I had a Zen-ish practice for many years before discovering any maps or models and I'm very grateful for that. They were a help when I finally did discover them, and perhaps less seductive than if they'd crossed my path earlier.

RE: the brain as a metaphor for awakening
Answer
6/8/18 10:55 AM as a reply to Andromeda.
I practiced Zen formally for a few years at a nearby by Soto Zen center. The Roshi was pretty darned strict and didn't countenance any rumination or intellectualizing. It was a difficult process for me and I eventually switched to vipassana - but as time goes by (this was many years ago) the experience there makes more and more sense to me.

RE: the brain as a metaphor for awakening
Answer
6/8/18 11:10 AM as a reply to Chris Marti.
Mine was a personal daily tea ceremony: no thinking allowed, only feelings and physicality. I used that time to compartmentalize my darkest emotions (which were legion) and really explore them. My dark teatime of the soul! It was great preparation for vipassana, and 17 years later I'm still starting off my day with an evolved form of the same ritual. There's a lot about Zen that makes sense.

RE: the brain as a metaphor for awakening
Answer
6/8/18 11:31 AM as a reply to Andromeda.
Andromeda:
There's a lot about Zen that makes sense.
MU!!!

RE: the brain as a metaphor for awakening
Answer
6/8/18 11:39 AM as a reply to Tashi Tharpa.
Tashi Tharpa:
Andromeda:
There's a lot about Zen that makes sense.
MU!!!
Touchee, good sir! =D