Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Perpetual Motion


Our daughter tried for a long time to build a perpetual motion machine from her Legos. She wasn’t the first to give this a shot but as attractive as the idea seems no one has succeeded. The physical law of Conservation of Energy states that energy can’t be created nor destroyed, only converted from one form into another. In that conversion, generated energy must never fall below energy used in order to keep motion going.

I’ve often wondered about the fit between a perpetual energy machine and the way our minds function. The parallels are interesting and instructive in understanding the meditative process. We have a machine within us that manufactures products which are then converted into energy used to fuel the machine, which in turn manufactures more products in a never ending feed-back loop. The “machine” in question is the self, which for illustration purposes let’s call a “thinker”. This thinker manufactures the products of thought and these thoughts are used/converted by the thinker machine into energy which sustains the thinker. In a pure sense this process is a perpetual motion machine. The key question is whether or not the energy used is equal to the energy generated?

Taking this process apart can be quite educational in guiding our meditation practice. What happens on the cushion? It goes like this: We sit down and turn on the “machine”. It begins to “think”. Actually the machine is already on (it’s always running) but we just become aware when we sit down. Because we are being mindful we notice the object/thoughts. Because we have given our self the instruction (1) when we notice these object/thoughts we neither cling nor resist (forms of attachment) but (2) will instead concentrate on our breath. This works for awhile and then (3) the machine starts up once again. We repeat steps 1 thru 3 and then the cycle continues over and over. Some times we have a hard time even getting to the first step but instead are caught up in the pre-step 1 “conversation” because we are not sufficiently mindful to even notice the conversation. Other times we are mindful but not sufficiently concentrated. Yet other times we are able to stay within the boundaries of step 1 and 2 and rarer yet the machine just stops with no more object/thoughts being manufactured. When that happens the thinker goes on vacation and we enter samadhi.

This machine operates according to a set of dynamic “instructions” within the framework of the five skandhas which is worth considering. The first of the five is “form”: The physical/psychic/emotional capacities which constitute what sits on the cushion. The second is “feeling”. This includes sensations that our form feels with it’s capacities. Accordingly these feelings can be physical, mental or emotional sensations. The third skandhas is “perceptions”. Ordinarily we think of perception being equivalent to sensing. It is hard to imagine sensing something which we don’t perceive (or vice versa). From a skandhas point of view perception includes a post-sensing aspect which entails discrimination and judging, in other words how we react to what we sense. We sense (become aware of) a particular object/thought, we vote on whether or not we like/don’t like the object/thought and we move on to the fourth skandhas “will or volition” where we choose how to react (cling or resist). And lastly there is consciousness, what we could call mental state or mood. These dynamic instructions are operating continuously and are a critical aspect of what moves the “machine”.

It is not a given that these causal links must continue automatically in an unbroken fashion. In fact the Heart Sutra tells us that these five are empty, which means that they don’t have a life of their own. They are causally linked and they can be interdicted through mindfulness and redirected concentration. For example a sensation in the knee is not pain. “Pain” is the result of the post-sensing aspect of discrimination, judging and labeling. The sensation is just a sensation which we perceive, judge, label, choose how to respond to, which then generates a mood. This entire chain of causal links occurs at lightening speed—so fast that it seems like a single thing but it is not. When we sit and watch carefully we can see the separate links happening and realize that we don’t have to go along for the automatic trip. Try it the next time you sit. Watch the process carefully and see if you can make a different choice. For example, if your knee is hurting try to just stay with the sensation without turning it into a vote of “pain”. Just focus on the pure sensation and choose to not move. If you are able to cut the chain at this juncture, the remaining links will not materialize because they depend upon what occurs prior to “their turn”. For example without the judgement of “pain” there won’t be the next step of volition and without volition no ensuing “mood”.

What this mindful/awareness/choice teaches us is that we can choose to alter our karma. We don’t have to accept our automatic instructions and the resulting karma that flows from our perpetual motion machines. Either we will run the machine or it will run us.
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