Travel, 'Textures of Silence', Buddhism and Neuroscience
Greetings from Bangkok, where I am briefly staying before starting my teaching tour to Malaysia, Singapore, and on to Europe. I have only recently uploaded a blog for February, but I will soon be quite busy teaching and travelling, and so do not know when I will be able to send another blog. Also, I wanted to let people know my schedule (attached at the end) in case we are able to meet up somewhere in the world.
My three-month stay at Wat Poo Jom Gom has been very rewarding in terms of peaceful meditation practice. Especially during the last month I was in quite good physical condition from many weeks of walking, the weather was almost perfectly agreeable and the weeks of solitude and regular practice allowed the mind to settle into some exceptionally peaceful states – it does happen sometimes!
I will now enter a more active and busy phase of practice, with quite a few teaching engagements, travels and visits to various monasteries and meditation groups. I will particularly miss my hour and a half pre-dawn walking meditation from the hill-top cave to the monastery hall. Since I usually have my most peaceful meditation early in the mornings, I would normally stay in my lodging to continue with practice. However, living at Wat Poo Jom Gom in a secluded cave some distance from the main monastery requires me to journey down to the hall to go on dawn alms-round.
The walk down is a type of meditation like no other. I usually set off at 3:45 am, through the fresh, cool morning air wrapped in dark, pre-dawn silence. Concentration meditation shifts from focusing on the breath to focusing on the small section of path illuminated by the tunnel of light from the headlamp. Mindfulness meditation shifts to an increase in bodily sensations from the cool air, the careful placement of each step on the uneven surface of the rocky path and the different patterns of pre-dawn sounds: the rustling of dry leaves in the breezes, the melodic patter of sandals on the path, the occasion wild dog barking and the flowing symphony of thoughts and textures of silence in the mind.
I leave the cave before 4 am in order to have an unhurried pace. I can thus relax the body so much (plus a modicum of fatigue from low blood sugar after not eating for 20 hours) that it often feels as if I am floating along the path. The mind can be so calm from several hours of meditation, many hours of undisturbed solitude and the sensory deprivation of the dark early morning, that the experience is sometimes an exceptional meditation. On one occasion the mind was so quiet that I came up with the insight: 'The silent mind is beyond space and time, since the only space is 'here' and the only time is 'now''.
I usually make several stops on the way, turn off the headlamp and gaze at the star-filled sky. Every fourth or fifth viewing I see a shooting star, and occasionally I can see a satellite silently passing steadily through the darkness.
Textures of Silence
I refer to 'textures of silence' to designate the various forms of silence (or quietude of mind). For example, the coarsest texture is the sound of blood being pumped through the body and resounding in the ear drum. The second coarsest texture is the higher-pitched sound of 'ringing in the ears', which for some people has become annoying tinnitus. Then there are various textures of humming or buzzing 'in the head' when thought ceases. I sometimes refer to these as the sound of 'hovering thoughts' (being the listener of thoughts) or 'the sound of consciousness' (being actively conscious of the silence).
One of the most interesting forms of silence is that arising from absorbed awareness of physical sensations. This is interesting because there is a collage of textures of silence, combined with a variety of mental noise. If the sensations are extreme there is a predominance of vascular sound, whereas if the sensations are very subtle, the hum of no-thought predominates. Some sensations may of course trigger mental reactions: memories, feelings of pleasure or pain, emotions of liking or irritation, etc.
Wat Poo Jom Gom is a place where I experience much physical sensation, due primarily to living in such direct contact with heat, cold, sunshine, wind and insects. During almost every waking moment the body is continuously assaulted by a vast array of various sensations, some pleasant, but many unpleasant. I almost always have some insect bite which itches or stings, or there is an insect crawling on the skin. Living largely unsheltered from the weather, I am continuously aware of the varying temperature (fortunately not too much in Thailand): the warmth of sun on the skin, the waves of heat-induced sweat and the cooling or chilling gusts of wind. The main result of this dominant awareness of physical sensation is that there is much less mental activity (or at least less awareness of it), and thus it seems that the mind is more easily able to settle into states of quietude. Of course, this is also supported by many hours of solitude, and perhaps by some degree of altered consciousness from the extraordinary natural environment which, since it is something with which I am quite unfamiliar, can often 'stop the mind' which marvels at it. Also, as there are no stories, associations or memories connected to the environment, the mind just stays at the level of silently seeing it – it is just like this and not like anything else.
On one of the occasions when I had an especially quiet meditation, an insight arose that really there is ultimately just nothingness. That is, when the mind is totally quiet there is nothing there. It then occurred to me how hard it would be to explain this, as most people living in the midst of 'thingness' would not understand. This can only be appreciated when we take into account the Buddha's teaching of the principle of co-dependence or co-existence, that things arise interdependently. Thus, in this situation, there is nothingness because there is, at another level, somethingness.
Buddhism and Neuroscience
Perhaps the most important recent discovery of neuroscience is neuroplasticity, that the brain is much more changeable then scientists first thought. This ability of the mind to change is succinctly expressed by the axiom: 'neurons that fire together wire together'. This means that the network of neurons involved in transmitting information changes depending upon the type of information, and when that information is repeated, these networks create habitual pathways. Thus the network of neurons engaged when we repeatedly think positive thoughts begins to create regular positive thought pathways, which encourage positive thoughts to occur more easily and more frequently, until our personality may become more optimistic.
A number of psychologists have also made some valuable discoveries that help support the Buddha's teaching on non-self. For example, Daniel Kahnemann has explained some of the unconscious distortions and biases to which the mind inclines in spite of the general view that we are fully aware and in control of our interpretations and decisions. Particularly insidious are 'priming effects', which occur in the 'implicit' or unconscious memory where exposure to one stimulus influences our response to another stimulus. In one famous study students were unconsciously fed information implying old age, and were then observed to act as if they were much older than they really were! Also, of note are the familiarity bias, the confirmation bias, the affect bias ('the emotional tail, wags the rational dog.') and a number of others.
There has also been some revealing research on the nature of memory (sañña, in Pali), which is a common source of self-identification, supporting the Buddha's teaching that it is intrinsically impermanent and not-self.
Unfortunately, due to the emphasis on studying brain activity, much brain research inclines to what might be referred to as a materialistic view of a human being. Thus, one researcher concludes that we are merely ever-changing neural activity and no permanent 'self' has been found. While at one level of understanding this is certainly true, at the subjective level most people understand otherwise: We are not just neural processes but much more. But what is that 'more'? My reflection is that the 'more' is that this neural activity has meaning for us, which leads to deeper understanding and new ways of relating to life.
A related example may be music. On one hand it is merely electromagnetic signals impinging upon the ear. Subjectively, however, it is much more, in that it has personal meaning for us, triggering subjective emotions, feelings, memories, etc. In Buddhist psychology there is consciousness of sounds, which then condition name-and-form: feeling, perception, intention, attention and contact. These mental processes create a wide range of special meaning for us. We are then conscious of these phenomena, which again condition further name-and-form, which conditions further consciousness, conditioning further name-and-form, in an ever-expanding web of diverse experiences. At the physiological level we can say that these are all just neural activities. However, subjectively they are much more than that, and it is this meaningful subjective experience which is what we call life, in spite of the objective neural undercurrents.
On February 20 I gave a talk at the Buddhadasa Archive in Bangkok (BIA) on the topic of Buddhism, and what modern brain research has learned about the effects of Buddhist mind-training. This talk will eventually be uploaded to the BIA website:
Selected bibliography for those interested in further reading:
The Emotional Life of Your Brain; Richard J. Davidson with Sharon Begley; A Plume Book, 2013
Explains the basic Six Emotional Styles and the results of his research on meditators.
The Self Illusion; Bruce Hood, HarperCollins, Toronto, 2013
A professor of developmental psychology explains the development of the self illusion through our social upbringing.
Thinking, Fast and Slow; Daniel Kahneman, Penguin Books, 2012
Explains the functioning of the two systems of mental activity and how they are subject to limitations confirmed by various distortions, biases and non-attention to information.
White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory; Kotre, John, The Free Press, New York, 1995.
Self Comes to Mind Damasio, Antonio, William Heinemann, London, 2011.
The Brain That Changes Itself; Doidge, Norman, Penguin, 2008.
Buddha's Brain; Hanson, Rick, New Harbinger Publications, Inc., Oakland, 2009.
Travel Programme February to November 2017
Feb. 25-March 5: 10-day retreat at Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary, Taiping, Malaysia
March 11-12: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
March 10: Day and evening retreat at Bandar Utama Buddhist Society: www.bubsoc.org
March 11: Talk at Cittarama, 8pm
March 12: Talk at Nalanda Buddhist Society
March 13: Talk at Subang Buddhist Society
March 16-20: Buddhadhamma Foundation, Singapore
March 18-19: Non-residential retreat.
March 21-28 Santacittarama, Italy
March 29 – April 2: Retreat in Paris, Terre d'Eveil; www.vipassana.fr
April 3 – 20: Wat Sumedharama, Portugal
April 11: Talk at Upaya Centre, Lisbon: upaya.pt
April 15 or 16: Thai New Year Ceremony, Bajao
April 21 – May 20: Dhammapala Monastery, Switzerland
May 3 or 10: Talk in Geneva
May 14: Vesak Ceremony
May 17: Talk in Bern
May 21 – May 26: Amaravati Monastery, UK
May 27 – June 20: Ratanagiri Monastery (Harnham), UK
June 10-17: Retreat at Kusala House, Ratanagiri
June 20 – June 28: Cork, Ireland
June 23-25: Non-residential retreat
June 27: Talk in Dublin
June 28 – July 6: Santaloka, Italy
July 6 – Oct. 20: Rains Retreat at Hartridge Monastery, Devon, UK
November 3: Arrival in Thailand