"The significance of the labyrinth is that it forces you — in order to get to the center — to go around the entire space. And familiarity with the entire path is very important when we’re walking a path."
~ Soryu Scott
I have to admit I’m really attracted to his model of teaching because it really articulates a very specific way of mental noting and labeling.
The self in Western psychology is viewed as that function of the mind that helps us to organize our experiences. It takes raw sense data, memories, and other cognitive functions and turns them into recognizable narratives. It is critical for everything that we do. Without a strong sense of self, we literally could not make sense of anything that happens to us.
What is fascinating is that in the western psychological view, the “self” or the “executive function” is actually a process and not really a thing. It waxes and wanes all the time, goes into the foreground and background of awareness depending on how much we need it, disappears when we sleep, is not the same as it was when we were little, much less the same as it was last year, and is even subtly different than it was last week.
So far, this should make a lot of sense to both psychologists and meditators. But here is where things get interesting: we all know that processes are not solid and change all the time, yet in this particular process there is a nagging sense that there is a solid permanent “me” hiding in that process somewhere. As if the process itself were a real solid thing in the same way that a table or chair is.
It is this unshakable sense of a solid “me” in the midst of this process that is the “self” that is referred to in the Dharma. When we talk about “no-self” in Buddhism, we are pointing to this sense of a solid self in and calling it an illusion. The process of “selfing” is real, the belief that it is somehow a permanent “me” is not.
To help understand how important this illusion is imagine that another mental process had this same illusion tied to it. Take memory for example. When we experience a memory we know that it isn’t “real” in the sense that it does not have a reality outside or our mental functioning. We know that memories come and go, are subject to change and can be forgotten. But what if every time you remembered something you assumed that the memory itself was “real” in the same way that a table or chair is real. That it was substantial and lasting. Even though you could not literally see or experience the memory with your five senses, you still had the unshakable belief that it was a real and solid thing that is supposed to last. Wouldn’t this be a set-up for frustration? Memories slip and slide out of consciousness and like every other mental function they are subject to dramatic change. If we expected them to never go away and always be there, we would constantly be in distress. This is exactly what is happening with us in terms of the self-process.
While the self-process creates narratives that organize our experiences into something recognizable, the illusion of self is inserted as a main character into all these narratives. We expect the character to be the same all the time, to never change or go away, to be “real.” And yet each moment we are running into a stark reality: the self is not as real as we believe it to be, and it certainly does not last. Over time this sense of solid “me” becomes the most salient feature of all of our experience and our greatest source of anxiety. The fact that we see this constantly changing process as a solid “me” creates endless problems for us because it sets up a never-ending fight between us and reality (and reality never loses).
What is odd is that according to psychology, this sense of a solid self is not an issue. In fact it is not really addressed at all. One part of the psychological literature explains that the self is a cognitive process like any other, and then another part of the literature goes on about protecting and promoting a healthy “self.” The fact that we are taking a process and turning it into a solid thing in our minds is simply not addressed.
In psychology, this point may have been missed because of the bias to study and theorize about pathology rather than health. The illusions and problems inherent in a “normally” functioning mind just don’t get a lot of research lab-time. So most theory in psychology works to get damaged selves back to “normal functioning.” Buddhism on the other hand, starts with the assumption that normal functioning is full of suffering caused by a false sense of self, and works to get people from a state of “normal” to enlightened.
"Zen meditation is a medium, you might say, or a technique to approach the medium of consciousness itself. Your consciousness may be a very unforgiving medium, other people may be more flexible but when you begin to sit in Zen meditation you find it is different from the other forms of meditation. In fact it’s not technically actually a meditation. The reason for that is because it becomes objectless and at the greatest depth of artistic creativity it also becomes subjectless, objectless, the individual becomes merged with the medium."
~ Taiun Elliston
It’s almost as if with the evolution of technology and how we’ve optimized our machines, our software, our algorithms, our databases and data analysis capabilities. What comes next is optimizing our awareness and our consciousness and I think that’s increasingly something that is becoming paramount and evident in organizational life...
You know if we think about it, we all work from the age of 21 to the age of 67, 40 hours a week with a couple of weeks of vacation. That’s about 40% of our waking life spent at work -- ninety thousand hours spent at work and [during] that time we will spend most of our productive time, energy and attention.
And so cultivating the quality of the time and of the attention is increasingly paramount. That’s the case because it’s not only something that would be fulfilling for the worker or the member of the organization but it also is useful in terms of business outcomes.
Actually there’s a lot of data on this. In a workplace in which people feel committed, where they feel engaged, where they feel they’re able to really give the best of themselves and exhibit a lot of discretionary effort — when people have that level of commitment and a feeling of wellness they actually perform better.
Corporate Leadership Council and the Gallup Organization are studying hundreds of organizations and millions of employees. They’ve shown that people perform up to 20% better, for example, when they feel committed and engaged. And when they’re thriving they are 57% more productive and they are almost 90% less likely to leave organizations than others who don’t have that experience of well-being.
Well-being, mindfulness, living a sustainable work and outside life are actually differentiators in terms of how effective organizations are whether you’re mission be bottom-line driven, service driven or whatever it is that your organization is purposed for doing…
The consistent and dedicated exercise of mindfulness in the organization is kind of the underlying framework, if you will, that informs all these programs [at eBay]. Something that we’ve been doing at eBay is we’ve been bringing in mindfulness talks and [making] seminars available to employees as well as for some of our leaders and leadership teams…it’s impressive to see a room of 250 Internet employees, on at Thursday around 1:30 in the afternoon sitting in silence for 10 minutes.
“If you’re just thinking you’re supposed to be skipping through a meadow in slow motion like a commercial, you’re missing out on what life is about. Truly happy people are not happy all the time. They’re engaged, they’re here for everything through the ups and downs. If you’re going through loss or you’re going through a hard time or you’re outraged about the state of the world, then you’re human. If you don’t go through those things, then you’re probably living in incredible denial…
So, when you’re feeling anger or you’re feeling loss, suppose somebody close to you is sick or dies or you get some scary news or a change of circumstance, to not be afraid to go into them. This is the key, this where you can feel the suffering and hold it with a wise awareness. Where you process it directly and say, ‘Oh, this is what fear is like. This is what anger is like. This is what sadness is like.’ But that which is aware of the sadness is not sad. That which is aware of the fear is not afraid. The awareness can hold it all. So, it’s a matter of really understanding how to work with our sorrows and our fears that really is a path to joy.”
I’m not big on utopias, and I think one thing that any candid appraisal of technology would have to acknowledge is that every new technology is creating nearly as many problems as it is solving. And most of the problems in our lives today are technogenic, they’ve been generated by previous technologies. It suggests very clearly that most of the problems in the future will be technogenic, created by technologies that we’ve made today. For that reason alone, it’s not utopia, and where we’re headed is not a place where there are no problems or technology solves, mends everything so that we kind of live in this state of bliss. Or, it’s not even to suggest that there’s some endpoint in evolution, or some Omega Point where we’re all headed and everything is fixed and works perfectly, or it’s, in some ways, culminated in perfection. First of all, there is no endpoint in evolution–in fact the point of it is that there is no endpoint, that it’s an open-ended process of continual flux and change and more importantly that the nature of the change itself is changing. So in that way there’s no utopia, but also part of that internal flux is the fact that problems are constantly being invented as well as solutions.
However, saying that I do think there’s a moral dimension to technology and that comes in the fact that while it’s true that newly affected technology will create as many, rarely as many problems as solutions, it’s not neutral. I wouldn’t say that life is neutral although obviously life cannot go on without death. Death is sort of part of those two cycles. But even though for every animal that’s born there’s an animal that dies, we don’t think of life as neutral. No, we say life is good. Overall, the net effect of life is good.
More life is better, even though everything born dies, and so you say “Why isn’t that neutral?” That’s because the same thing happens in technology, when something is invented–let’s say you have a hammer. You could use that hammer to kill someone or you could use it to build something, and there is a sense that that’s just neutral. They’re just tools. You can use them for harm or good.
But in fact, the invention of that hammer actually introduces a brand new choice that we’ve never had before, and that choice, I think, tips the balance. That new choice that did not exist before, tips the balance slightly in favor of the good because there is a new choice for good or harm that had never existed before. That new choice itself is good. Even if we choose the harm in it, we have a choice we did not have before.
So, I think, it turns out that you don’t need very much more good over time to get progress. That if you use technology to create 1% more than you destroy a year, that 1% compounded over time is what we call progress.
See also: What Does Technology Want? (Radiolab, Nov. 16, 2010)
There’s a part of practice that I think is inherent in all different practices. The type of concentration, the familiarity, the intimacy that you get to whatever you’re practicing, whether it’s archery or Zen or music or how to make a perfect pancake. You won’t get there unless you get intimate with the subject. You only get there through practice. As you become more intimate, you know more about it, where you can say “This batter is too liquid or too solid or too warm too cold. It’ll act this way.” All that comes only through practice. It comes up often in conversations with my friends about how people go about life these days, that they’re really not willing to practice anything.
The other day we got to talking about jeans. There’s only one of the old fashioned wooden looms in America. I think it’s actually in Raleigh, North Carolina. All the other ones were shipped to Japan, and that’s in the ‘50s. And that’s where you get the superior denim because people are willing to make things by hand and become intimate with it. Whereas a lot of people in the United States or in Europe will just go, “I’d rather buy ten pairs at Walmart than buy one pair of really good jeans, even though the really good pair will probably outlast the ten pairs they buy at Walmart.” So, there’s a lack of that—you might say depth—that comes from not practicing, from not practicing a craft.
* * * * *
“I had the very good fortune of going into therapy with a man by the name of James Bugental who was a humanist existentialist; a very sensitive and mature man. So I went in for what I thought would just be a few interesting weeks and I came out two years later with my whole worldview just turned around. I was opened to the inner world, which I literally really had no appreciation of. I felt as though I’d spent my entire life living on the top six inches of a wave on top of an ocean that I didn’t even really know existed. I really had, I mean so much in my head, I really didn’t appreciate at all just the extraordinary depth and richness of the inner world and the potentials and also the gifts it can give us.”
Originally, Dharma, meaning all traditional spirituality, in this case…All the great spiritual traditions have appeared in a world where human culture, because of technological reasons, first of all, and because of limited number of humans at the time, did not have the power to threaten the world. To threaten the natural world, to threaten the limits of the resources in the world, to threaten each other. Many cultures existed in spatial isolation, or distanced enough from each other to feel safe, which is now an impossibility. We can’t even plan to achieve that in the future because we’re going in the opposite direction. We’re not just closing on each other, we’re mixing up to an incredible degree all over the world.
So, basically, Dharma appeared in a situation where warnings and instructions on the importance of digging into the fundamentals of human culture and working to transform the culture, not the individual mind, was extremely important. So, that type of instruction couldn’t even appear at that time. Because if you simply practice non-violence, meaning if you did nothing wrong to anyone, there was nothing that could go much wrong on its own accord. But, at this moment, in human history, if you just passively don’t do anything wrong, this may be the greatest evil. Because if you’re capable of not doing anything wrong, then you are one of rare humans who are extremely equipped of doing a lot of good. And if you don’t contribute that good, a certain destructive or a certain skeptical or a certain small-hearted attitude may prevail in the world. Thus, allowing the culture, equipped with an incredible technology now, to actually wreck havoc all around us. We can see traces of this havoc already taking place, right?
There probably are people on the planet today who can actually live fully present in every waking moment of their life, right? 24/7. Like, somehow their ego and their old patterns have completely gone. But for the rest of us, we’re somewhere in the middle, right? There’s a certain level of awakening, but there’s not kind of a full level of awakening. And so for us, I think it particularly helps to have some time each day where we’re just quiet. We’re not taking in new information. We’re kind of emptying our cup. You know the old Zen story where the professor goes to the Zen master and says, “I know all this information about Zen,” and starts telling the Zen master all the information he has. And the Zen master responds by saying, “Would you like some tea?” And the professor says, “Yes.” And he starts pouring him tea, but even as the cup is full, he just keeps pouring and pouring and pouring. And the professor says, “Stop pouring. The cup won’t take any more tea.” And he says, of course, “Just like the cup, your mind is so full of information, it can’t take any more.”
So I think that for those of who are trying to balance this life of mindfulness and technology, it’s extremely important to have some time where we’re not taking in information and we’re bringing attention to our breath and our internal world. And we’re not as focused on our external world. But then the challenge, of course, is to not become a good meditator. The challenge is to become awake, right? And to bring that sense of awareness and full engagement no matter what we’re doing. And if we’re checking email, can we do that fully? If we’re tweeting, can we do that fully? Whatever it is, can we bring our full attention to that? And that whatever we imagine our life is going to be in the next moment, we never know. We don’t even know what the next five seconds is going to be like, much less the next day. And I think that if we can use or engage with technology that’s fully engaged in the moment, I think then technology can be something that we use rather than something that uses us. And I think for millions of people in our culture right now, technology actually feels like something that uses them rather than something they kind of creatively engage with.
"There are all kinds of stories and myths that have arisen about this. Most of them are nonsense. And it became ever more apparent to me, as I worked my way up through this system, that I was not becoming a superman and I wasn’t becoming a saint and my morality was not becoming perfected. And what was happening here was a very organic process that I’ve more recently come to think of as what I call a physio-energetic process. There is some energy that arises in the body and can be developed in stages. And that’s what’s happening. All of the stuff, all of the stories that we layer on to that, that if you reach this stage, you’re going to act a certain way or you’re going to be incapable of committing various immoral acts, that’s just fantasy island...I’ve completely given up on the notion that you’re going to develop to the point of being incapable of lying, for example, or of being incapable of anger or lust."
Anything that we think about the world is really coming from the mind. It is not coming from reality itself. All of the likes and dislikes that we have of the world are really mental projections onto the world. They are not coming from the world. And so when you begin to see that, then you begin to decipher how the mind is distorting reality on a constant momentary level...
I think the fraction line is very relevant to what we are talking about, because that fraction line is -- in a spiritual analogy -- the resistance factor. The upper part of the fraction, or the numerator, which is all things that appear and we latch onto, hold onto, and grasp in life -- all appearances...Meanwhile, there is a common denominator to all of life that is waiting for us...that we have to cross that fraction line in order to experience and in order to embody. Now crossing that fraction line is the entire spiritual journey. It is the movement from the numerator toward the denominator that all spiritual paths point.
Much of Buddhism is about seeing the limited quality of anything that has an appearance, anything that has form. In Christianity, too, Christ says, “Lay not up your treasures where rust does corrupt or thieves let in,” which means the same thing -- don’t focus and invest in the appearances of life.
And when we don’t do that, when we release the need to grasp and hold onto appearances that change, then we start crossing that fraction line and feeling -- and embodying really, because it has never left us -- the common denominator, which is that wholeness, that presence, that all encompassing awareness that is waiting for us...
And we take it as a numerator problem. We think, “Oh, I just haven’t tried hard enough as a fraction, and that if I really tried hard has a fraction I could get to a whole number.” And that's not the point. The point is not to continue to assert the muscles of our numerator, because the numerator will never get us to the denominator. It's seeing the limitations of the numerator, releasing the need to be, or abide, or grasp at the numerator that eventually evolves us into the common denominator.
I think that the idea underlying that story (Enlightenment 2.0) really came out of something that I worry about in my personal life just thinking about my own personal future. When I think about “What would I want in the future if superhuman Artificial Intelligence (AI) became possible?”
...I really think that the human brain architecture is limiting. So that I think if you could change your brain into a different kind of information processing system, you could achieve just better states of mind. You could feel enlightened all the time, while doing great science, while having sensory gratification, and it could be way beyond what humans can experience.
So that leads to the question of, okay, if I had the ability to change myself into some profoundly better kind of mind, would I do it all at once? Would I just flick a switch and say “Okay, change from Ben into a super mind?” Well, I wouldn't really want to do that, because that would be just too much like killing Ben, and just replacing him with the super mind. So, I get the idea that maybe I'd like to improve myself by, say twenty percent per year. So I could enjoy the process, and feel myself becoming more and more intelligent, more and more enlightened, broader and broader, and better and better.
…You think of phase transitions in physics. You have water, and you boil the water, and then it changes from a liquid into a gas, just like that. It's not like it's half liquid and half gas, right? I mean, it's like the liquid is dead, and then there's a gas.
That was the kind of theme underlining this story. There was this super-intelligent AI that people had created. The super intelligent AI, after it solved the petty little problems of world peace, and hunger, and energy for everyone, and so forth, that super-human AI set itself thinking about “Okay, how can we get rid of suffering, fundamentally?” How can we make a mind that really has a positive experience all the time, and will spread good through the world rather than spreading suffering through the world.
Then the conclusion it comes to is it is possible to have such a mind, but human beings can never grow into that, and that it, given the way that it was constructed by the humans, could never grow into that either.
So, the conclusion this AI comes to is there probably are well-structured, benevolent super minds in the universe, and in order to be sure the universe is kept peaceful and happy for them, we should all just get rid of ourselves, because we're just fundamentally screwed up, and can't even ever continuously evolve into something that's benevolently structured.
Which I don't really believe, but I think it's an interesting idea, and I wouldn't say it's impossible.
[So] is the AI a lunatic or does it have some profound insight that we can't appreciate? Which is a problem we're going to have broadly when we create minds better than ourselves.
Just like when my dog wants to go do something and I stop him, right? Maybe it's just because my motivational system is different than his. Like I don't care about the same things as he does. I'm not that interested in going to romp in the field like he is, and I'm just bossing him around based on my boring motivational structure. On the other hand, sometimes I really have an insight he doesn't have, and I'm really right. He shouldn't go play in the highway, no matter how much fun it looks like. The dog can't know, and similarly, when we have a super-human AI, we really won't be able to know. We'll have to make a gut feel decision whether to trust it or not.
...twenty-five years ago nobody went to the gym. Now we've well established through research in our society that exercise is really important so there's a gym on every corner. Well, why isn't there a meditation hall on every corner? Haven’t we established the fact that some spiritual endeavor is just as important for inner health as exercise is for the body? So there ought to be meditation halls on every corner and people should know how important this is and feel like it makes sense to access it and pay for it so that there could be people to offer it.
I mean that there is tremendous spike in research on meditation. Just in last three or four years. It’s exponentially increased and all the research is always showing the same thing that meditation is actually a effective, that it really works, and that it has all kind of benefits. So people seem to believe in research and scientific data, but just talk to your friends who do this practice and that’s probably enough to convince you even without the scientific data.
...It's funny, you know? I'm gone do a retreat for the army for caregivers and chaplains. So the Army's going to spend fifty cents to pay me to do the retreat and then a million dollars to study the effects of the retreat over time. So...it’s very expensive to conduct research. Very expensive. A million dollar research grant is not an unusual grant. A million dollar gift to a dharma center or for a teacher training or something like that is very, very rare. So it’s a little out of scale.
[The conversation continues in Episode 130 -- Buddhism and the Evolution of Religion. Check out Norman Fischer’s article, “Why We Need a Plan B,” in the summer issue of Buddhadharma.]