The mind can be radiant, but it is often dim and further darkened by all that it takes in. The commonplace individual isn't aware this is the case, and doesn't evolve the mind.
The mind can be radiant, and it can be liberated from that which makes it dark. The learned spiritual practitioner is aware of this and evolves the mind.
(Pabhassara Sutta: Radiant mind)
When a new laptop is brought home from the store and removed from its packaging, the computer will operate using its default, out-of-the-box settings. The system is oriented to implement basic tasks for the garden-variety user. Over time the surrounding digital landscape changes, bringing about new demands, such as new file formats or bugs, and at this juncture, the machine requires simple updates or patches to continue performing well. Eventually, however, changes to the computing environment are so great that an entire system upgrade will be required to keep the laptop working smoothly. A new OS must be installed that allows it to execute all the newly available file formats and applications without errors or lags.
The preceding paragraph will not provide new information to many of us, but it was summarized to establish an analogy: the human brain arrives with basic settings of fear and craving, which are then refined by a series of updates, performed courtesy of our educational and social institutions, along with all the ideas and practices transmitted from one mind to another courtesy of our dominant culture, so that we become efficient producers and consumers. Our pre-installed and subsequently refined motivation is none other than the naive tendency to seek external solutions to internal discomfort (avijja in Pali, the Buddha’s recorded language), which keeps us hungering for more and more sensual pleasures. We’re socially automated to seek illusory protections from life’s inevitable experiences: aging, sickness, setbacks, separations from the loved, being stuck with people and situations we don’t enjoy, the final trauma of death itself. To that end we crave and cling to anything that makes us feel safe, even for the shortest of durations, such as financial security, friends, gadgets, careers, sex, drugs, alcohol and so on.
With every notable success in life, our operating system (OS) gives us the jolt of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes us feel powerful and invulnerable. Unfortunately, the dopamine soon wears off, and we return to chase down that feeling of lasting security. This striving, tanha, lies at the core of the human mind’s OS, known in early Buddhism as samsara. Samsara is the cycle of meaningless craving that propels the human species, from generation to generation, to produce so much, so quickly. We achieve, produce and consume in extremes, all out of the futile desire to avoid what cannot be avoided.
It’s this very appetite for security and pleasure that is actually responsible for the greater part of our stress and suffering because our brains acclimate quickly and don’t reward us for the same old successes; we require continual, novel achievements to provide us with more precious dopamine. Whether we realize it or not, we are agitated junkies, looking for the next wondrous thing to make all of life’s fear, boredom, loneliness and confusion dissolve.
Fortunately, we reside in brains that are capable of vast and efficient rewiring, otherwise known as neuroplasticity. As decades of research based on FMRI’s and other technologies demonstrate, how we use the mind changes patterns of neural activity, even the brain’s physical organization (note “Dynamic Mind” by Warren Chaney, 2007 amongst many sources). Rewiring the mind even occurs courtesy of our thinking process. As an example, imagining practicing a piano, rather than actually playing one, rewires the somatosensory region of the brain responsible for processing the sensations of fingertips, which are essential in piano playing (“The Brain That Plays Music and Is Changed by It” Pascual-Leone, Behavioral Neurology Unit, Harvard.) So whether through action or thought, our ability to rewire the brain is both exceptional and promising.
However, our default settings require a great deal of effort to modify, as the genome that determines the brain’s anatomical structure has gone unchanged for the past 50,000 years, when the first signs of advanced human behavior appeared. Many of our programs and OS settings were established for tasks that no longer exist. During the first major upgrade to the mind, which occurred in the Paleolithic era, the hunter-gatherer had a life expectancy of roughly 30 years and faced numerous, daily threats to survival. (For example, spotting and hiding from the wild boars or rampaging elephants, which were present even during the time of the Buddha.)
Today we may set our sights on more refined goals, such as sustainable contentment in life, yet the brain’s wiring remains archaic. Behaviors have been passed down through thousands of human generations, the bulk of which lived well before we achieved the relative security of our modern lifestyles. (As scientist Steven Pinker notes in “The Surprising Decline in Violence,” we live in the most peaceful time this species has known.) The result is that we inherit a mind that’s hardwired towards needless fear, runs unnecessary, inefficient programs that produce a lifetime of inessential stress and anxiety.
What we need is more than an “update” or minor therapeutic and/or spiritual patches to keep us running smoothly; we require an operating “upgrade,” a foundational install of entirely new operating environment. To our great advantage the Buddha, and subsequent spiritual practitioners, provided us with tools that allow us to modify all our default settings. We're upgrading the mind from its outdated presets towards a new state of awareness. Below we’ll review some of our default settings, then discuss a method for upgrading the settings to perform in a more appropriate manner.
Original Brain Setting: Reward and Resistance Priming
Starting with the older regions of the brain, the seat of our core emotional states rest upon our immediate, survival-based replies to stimuli. Our “gut reactions” boil down to a) being drawn towards that which makes us feel safe and b) being distressed and agitated by anything remotely threatening. These twin settings provide the engine of craving, or tanha, which lies at the core of human affliction. In understanding these core programs, we should review two regions of the brain:
1) The nucleus accumbens is a region that sits at the core of the brain's dopamine reward system and drives us toward whatever it associates with immediate stress relief. This part of the brain doesn’t process the long term consequences of our choices because it’s set to remunerate us with a pleasurable jolt of dopamine. (unnecessary; the nature of which has been introduced earlier.) Once again, it’s the dopamine that, after our humorous remark makes other people howl with laughter, provides us with the feelings of being accepted and loved. Dopamine makes us feel we’re part of a clan that will protect us, and we feel, momentarily, safe. Alas, the dopamine breaks down quickly and leaves us once again vulnerable and insecure. In this state dopamine primes us to seek another accomplishment. When we perceive the external sources we’ve associated with security and advantage—money, approval, sensual pleasures, fame, etc.—the brain releases a little dopamine as an incentive to Get going and get more. In essence, it reminds us of the big payoff by giving us a little taste of its medicine. This tagging of objects as desirable is done before conscious awareness or any possible intervention, as it employs a fast neural pathway that creates a physical and mental state of longing. Such preconscious mechanisms are primings: we salivate at the thought of our cake, feel warm remembering words of approval from loved ones, feel energized by the thought of a vacation, etc. However, there’s a way to modify this program, which will be reviewed shortly.
2) The amygdala, conversely, conditions us to avoid anything we've associated with threatening situations or feelings of insecurity. For example, if we feel embarrassed during a romantic encounter, we can expect to feel a sense of anxiety in subsequent sexual connections; a joke that flops may result in our being reluctant to venture further attempts at humor in social gatherings. Beyond the obvious drawbacks of anxiety—it makes it even more difficult to master awkward situations—many of the associations established by our fear mechanisms are needlessly distressing. For example, after a car accident, from then on we may feel panic arise when we hear the same music that was playing via the car’s audio system during the crash. Of course, the music had nothing to do with the traumatic event, but the amygdala doesn’t know that; it simply records every stimuli it can during a threatening situation and tags them all as dangerous. In subsequent encounters adrenaline and cortisol are released, creating the fight or flight response. Over the course of a life, literally thousands of innocent people, places, situations and things can provoke needless fear in the human heart. Similarly to our dopamine reward system, our fear pathways are faster than our conscious minds, and so we are physically primed: thoughts or perceptions of threatening situations create a tight stomach, locked jaw, racing heartbeat, sweating and hair standing on end, etc.
Consequently, we avoid many useful, empowering experiences and gravitate again and again towards the predictable and easy. The gist of such attraction-avoidance priming (what the Buddha called vedana) is we are often tense, prepared to fight off threats that are real or imagined, and this results in a great deal of mental and physical suffering. Releasing cortisol—while providing its short term alertness—over sustained periods of time has dire consequences, from decreased sleep, immune systems, heart disease and stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, panic attacks and anxiety disorders. In other words, it’s hardly in our long term best interests.
Upgrade: 20 - 30 Minutes of Meditation per Day
Certainly, we cannot switch off the brain’s core reward and resistance systems, and such a choice would leave one unmotivated and slow to react in threatening situations, though we can upgrade its performance, aiming for less overstimulation and priming. Several studies (most recently by Harvard and Emory University) have demonstrated that concentration and mindfulness based meditation reduces activation of the amygdala and its response to emotional stimuli. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have documented noticeable thickening of structures associated with memory, attention, introspection and emotion regulation between the brains of meditation practitioners and those with no meditation experience. Amazingly, these differences were noted after two months of daily half hour meditation.
For this upgrade, one straightforward solution is to exploit the virtually unlimited supply of guided meditations available online (for example, guided meditations by renunciates such as Ajahns Sucitto, Brahm, Viradhammo or Sundara, Ayya Khema or lay teachers such as Tara Brach or Joseph Goldstein). All that’s required is for us to sit quietly and listen to the instructions, which generally involve focusing on the breath, body sensations or background sounds or any other spontaneously arising phenomena.
Beyond developing stable concentration, there’s a crucial stage during which we can interrupt craving and clinging as it arises in the mind. As related previously, craving first appears physically, as involuntary gut reactions we are incapable of preventing because such priming occurs before we can consciously intervene. Yet we can, over time and practice, develop the ability to experience our reactions without adding additional thought, planning, agreement, disagreement or action. We simply feel all the physical sensations that are present—the somatic expressions of craving or fear—relaxing the breath and body wherever possible. This practice is known as mindfulness (sati) which develops the peacefulness of equanimity (upekkha), a state of mind that remains serenely unmoved by impulses, urges, and inclinations. The effectiveness of mindfulness cannot be overestimated, and it provides the core tools of contemporary therapies such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance based therapies.
Original Brain Setting: Default Brain Brownout
Also worth scrutiny is the fallback setting of attentional mind, known as default mode network. This is the mind in its wandering state, in which we spend 47% of our waking hours. This is an idle state during which the region of the brain responsible for focused attention—the anterior cingulate cortex or ACC—doesn’t regard a task worthy of sustained attention, and so it moves our awareness freely from one topic to another: fears, memories, fantasies. For example, during a familiar or repetitive chore, such as taking a shower or riding a train to work, we may find ourselves drifting off into reverie.
Though one might assume our “idle mode” should be a pleasant, comfortable status, this is not the case, as the roaming mind is generally an agitated mind. As a recent Harvard study by psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert documented, we're happiest when fully present and fully cognizant of what we're doing. The study of 2,250 volunteers demonstrated that happiness is less a matter of the nature of the task we’re engaged in, but rather the degree of presence and focus we sustain while doing anything. The research found that unmoored attention causes unhappiness, rather than vice versa.
Perhaps matters are made worse by which thoughts and mental content our unsettled attention spans tend to gravitate towards, namely self-centered ideation: envisioning what might happen in the future, concerns about how we appear to others, memories of past disappointments. These idle stopovers can easily trigger the fear mechanisms of the amygdala, releasing stress hormones and initiating physical tension and mental agitation. Eventually a vicious cycle can appear in life as the untethered mind drifts toward dramatic and self-involved thoughts, which inadvertently prompts fear reactions, which in turn lead to dissociative escapist fantasies. The jumpy mind becomes a way of life. So it’s not what we’re doing, but how committed we are to doing it that matters in establishing happiness and peace of mind. Or, as George Harrison sang in Be Here Now: “A mind that wants to wander round a corner is an unwise mind.”
It’s worth stopping here and noting that much of contemporary social practice promotes and engages in multitasking as a way of life. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation (“Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8 - 18 year olds.”) establish that by age 8 children spend 7.5 hours each day, or 53 hours a week with digital media, less than 11 hours of which conveys any content or information. Moreover, throughout our culture, the successful are depicted as jumping back and forth from smart phone texts to interpersonal discussions, as if divided attention is the motor of achievement. This is not the case, and multitasking is implicated in what has been called “brain brownout.” Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging has documented that when our attention is divided between two tasks—such as cell phone and driving—the brain activity required for the tasks was reduced by upwards of 40 percent. “The distracting task draws away power, creating something like a brown out in the brain,” explained the research director Marcel Just (Baltimore Sun, 2008). With our focus restless we are more likely to make mistakes.
One might wonder, given its long term negative consequences, why the brain has evolved to prefer chasing after random thoughts over sustained focus? The answer seems to be that untethered thought is useful during uncommon situations, such as a lingering crisis when problems or threats have been unsuccessfully faced and require additional problem solving. At one point in human history, it was necessary to continue brainstorming on pressing issues and imminent, menacing encounters, however, this neural predilection is now largely outdated.
Upgrade: Stay at Home in the World with Mindfulness
So wherever we find ourselves in life—walking on a beach or cleaning a bathroom—we will be happier and less anxious if we rewired the ACC to remain focused on whatever we’re engaged in. This requires keeping our minds anchored to one task at a time, so that they don’t drift away, following any old dramatic memory or fantasy that arises. To retrain the ACC we return to the practice of mindfulness, whereby we mentally note the actual sensations that comprise any present situation. We can pay attention to the contact sensations that our feet feel with the earth beneath us or buttocks resting on a seat, the subtle impressions of clothing on skin, the presence of background sounds and odors. We can then bring attention to body sensations, noting if the breath is short or long, shallow or deep. We follow this by scanning for somatic/physical expressions of ease or discomfort, uncovering the tight stomach that grounds anxiousness, the locked jaw of disagreement or the deflated chest sensations we might feel beneath craving or desire.
The American Psychological Association lists, amongst many other benefits, reduced rumination and stress reduction as the results of mindfulness practice. In 2010, Hoffman et al (“The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A meta-analytic review”) presented a summary of 39 studies, based on 1,140 participants, of mindfulness research. The conclusion, beyond any reasonable error or research bias, was that meditation practitioners experience less neural reactivity to stressful stimuli, less anxiety and depressive ideation, along with greater attentional focus.
Original Brain Setting: Me Against the World
The mind has a tendency to maintain—particularly in stressful situations—a constant sense of self-versus-other, along with feelings of being trapped in repeating experiences. For example, during the first day at a new place of employment, we might find ourselves taking the most neutral remarks as criticisms, passing glances as indications of being harshly judged. Additionally, given our inexperience at the new tasks, we may add the additional stressful thought: “What a mistake, I’ll never be good at this job! I’ve made such a mistake agreeing to work here...” At this point the body tenses, muscles contract, awareness becomes hypervigilant (aroused, suspicious, similar at times to paranoia). Perhaps, from a survival angle, working ourselves up into such an armored, defensive state of body and mind may have once held advantage, but today these habitual attitudes lead to a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
Why do we construct such a divide between what we consider to be the internal and external? Anatomically, the sub regions of the brain responsible for body awareness (or interoception) and spatial navigation, such as the parietal lobe and insula cortex, provide us with a sense of where we are physically in relation to the rest of the world, which in turn constructs a feeling of I'm in here; you’re out there. Interestingly, this sense of one’s location can change depending on how cognizant we are of our torso and limbs. During certain routines, such as yoga or meditation, one’s sense of location enlarges to include the body as a container of self-awareness, and during abstract reasoning, our sense of self can shrink, until we conceive of awareness as located in a small region of the head.
Meanwhile, impermanence is a feature of what’s known as the left superior temporal gyrus and its gravitation towards “categorical perception.” These terms mean that the brain sorts objects and events into specific, useful categories, at times skewing the features and qualities to make them fit smoothly. We tend to group threats under the heading of “constant” until experience—rather than logic or assurance from others—proves other otherwise, for the brain would rather be safe than sorry. While these slants—self vs. other, impermanence—are commonplace and quite natural, they confine us in a state of ignorance as to the true nature of the mind. It’s worth taking a moment to review this statement further.
Impermanence: each situation in life is contingent not only on innumerable internal factors, but also internal conditions, all of which contribute to the way we perceive each moment. Each event is unrepeatable. Consider the view of a building outside our window. While such a familiar site may not change visibly on a day by day basis, there are other, internal qualities that frame each moment we look at the structure, such as how tired or energetic we feel, how much physical stress and tension we’re carrying, whether we are in pleasant or agitated moods, whether the mind is distracted by other tasks or fully committed to this observation, even the quality of our eyesight. The intersection of all these changing states means the experience is in flux and will have evolved the next time we look at the building. As the Buddha explained in the Loka Sutta:
“The external world changes and falls away. Why? Our eyesight changes and falls away, as does our hearing, faculties of smell, taste and touch. Even the mind itself changes and falls away, and as everything depends on consciousness, along with feelings of pleasure, pain or neutrality, to be known.”
In short, when we conceive of events as enduring, we are fixating on external experience and failing to notice the degree to which each conscious moment is the result of the mind’s fleeting, underlying states.
Self vs. other: We can start with the preceding reflection that all experience occurs within the mind and is filtered and distorted by it. We continue by noting that the farthest star we can observe, along with the closest, innermost physical sensation we feel, are both mental representation occurring in our consciousness. Neither is occurring “outside” of anything; they both arise and pass in our awareness.
Another way to frame this idea: research indicates that the limited data arriving to the retina provides only a fraction of what the occipital lobe presents to us as “out there.” In fact, very event of our life has materialized in a largely sealed off reproduction. For all our senses are interpreted, altered and reanimated by the mind. Or, as Rick Hanson put it so memorably in his book Buddha’s Brain: “Your brain simulates the world—each of us lives in a virtual reality that’s close enough to the real thing that we don’t bump into the furniture.”
Rather than getting lost in needless speculation about subjectivity and illusory nature of what’s real, all we need understand is that there what’s “out there” is always revised and fiddled with before it wind up “in here.” In other words, as the Buddha put it, "The mind is the author of all we perceive, nothing comes before it." Believing in permanence, or in a solid dualistic divide between internal and external, conceals the biased, slanted and contingent quality of all that we have witnessed, all that we have based our beliefs and views upon.
So why is all of this important? Ignorance of the mind’s role in distorting our experience towards the personal and the permanent results in overemphasizing the role that external conditions play in creating experience. As a consequence we blame those around us for our frustrations, setbacks and disappointments. Our misguided faith in the objectivity of our perceptions leaves us defensive, believing that stress is the result of being picked on by the universe. We gravitate to the belief that we are victims, which keeps us blind to comprehending the mind’s signature in creating our suffering. After all, we can’t control the world or other people, but we can change the way we use our minds. When we take responsibility for our suffering, we begin the path of healing and liberation. The Buddha’s very take on karma, or causation of suffering in life, requires understanding that stress is largely the result of our actions, not those of others, and that every state of being is fleeting.
Upgrade: Vipassana Insight Techniques
As stated earlier, the brain regions that categorize and dualize experience tend to resist logic and reason, preferring actual first-hand experience before changing its perspectives. Given that our default settings keep us in defensive postures, the brain prefers to hold on to these outlooks, while overlooking the useless agitation they entail. So we must demonstrate to the mind that all experience is not lasting (Anicca) nor personal (Anatta). Vipassana meditation starts out similarly to concentration—breath or body focused—meditation, but after some stability has been achieved, body awareness or judgment free listening to background sounds, our attention is opened to note the mind’s content as it arises—its perceptions, thoughts, memories, fears and fantasies. At this point the original object of our concentration—perhaps the breath, body or sounds—provides us with an “anchor” that keeps the mind from being baited and hooked by whatever thought or content is passing through the mind.
If we maintain a calm, stable awareness, resting on the breath sensations as experienced in the abdomen, we have enough space and distance from the thoughts moving through the head above to remain detached (most people report experiencing thoughts as arising and passing behind the eyes, between the ears). Having some distance, we note each visitor while we avoid being trapped or ensnared by the thought, not allowing its intriguing images to lure us away from present awareness. Instead, we ground awareness in sensations of the body, without judgment or resistance. We can watch how each thought resonates in the breath or body; we can note how thoughts try to envelope us through repetition, dark threats, insults, promises, etc. Over time Vipassana demonstrates that everything that visits the mind eventually passes. We observe how these interlopers are not ours. They arise out of nowhere, without intent. Many visitors turn out to be echoes of what we’ve heard during conversations or through media channels, essentially the transpersonal memes, to use Richard Dawkins word for ideas passed about from one mind to the next. From the seat of detached awareness, we begin to witness how nothing belongs to us—this is not an intellectual achievement, but rather an experiential insight.
In summary, these upgrades, in conjunction with sustained ethical behavior, do not result in harm to ourselves or others; they bring about a transformation to the brain’s wiring, so that we're no longer governed by the preset, priming and reactive mechanisms that have kept us caught up in greed, aversion and self-centered delusion for so long. This practice is radical and (r)evolutionary, for we’re refashioning the neural wiring of brain, upgrading our minds so that, in the future, our experience will provide us with a safe haven to reside in, rather than a distorted battlefield.
Written June 2013, revised July 2013
Thanks to Malaika King Albrecht for editorial suggestions.
Thanks to Malaika King Albrecht for editorial suggestions.