Friday, May 19, 2017

Thinking Outside The Box.


From time to time its worth recycling some posts. This one in particular is such a post since it addresses the underpinnings of how life works, all of which is based on thinking. It happens so naturally we rarely connect the dots. The Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” So today here is a follow up post about thinking.

From the time of birth all the way to the end we never stop thinking. We do it while we are awake and while we’re sleeping. Only for brief moments is there a lull in this cerebral activity, and that is both a blessing and a curse. Because we think, we can imagine, and that allows us to create and invent things almost unimaginable. As we invent, others can experience and learn about our inventions and innovate improvements and create entirely new inventions. One creation serves as a building block for the next and the creative process expands geometrically. There would appear to be no end to our creative capacities. The only obstacle to this process is the one doing the thinking.

Thinking is a two edged sword. Not only does it equip us with problem solving skills, it also equips us with the capacity to create problems. Because we think, we can’t help thinking about ourselves and we do this based on the nature of thoughts. A thought is in simple terms a mental image; a virtual projection manipulated in our brains. The image is not a real thing. It is an abstraction of something real. We open our eyes and we see external images. We close our eyes and we see internal images. What we fail to realize is that all images are actually being registered in our brains. What appears as “out there” is in truth nothing more than a virtual projection being registered in our primary visual cortex where it is “seen” and based on this projection our brain tells us “out there.”

But this is not the end of the matter. These images are then subjected to cognitive processing and recording in memory.  Some experiences are pleasurable and others are not. When we experience pleasure we want to grasp and retain the experience and when it is undesirable we remember that as well, and do our best to avoid such events occurring again. This is a learning process, which we engage to do what we can to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, but we soon learn that such a thing is beyond our control. What brings us pleasure in a moment brings us pain in the next. Phenomenal life is constantly changing.

This fundamental desire to avoid pain and retain pleasure is a trap that ends up creating the opposite of what we seek because we attach our sense of worth to moving targets. As the objects of desire come to an end, suffering follows. What we set out to avoid soon comes our way. And out of this ebb and flow we develop a sense of ourselves. We wonder about the one doing the thinking and make flawed conclusions. When adversity occurs we imagine that we brought it upon ourselves which is true in many cases. When pleasure comes our way we imagine that we singularly created the conditions that made it possible. Gradually we form an image of ourselves, which we’ve learned to label an ego—a self-image that is no more real than every other abstraction produced by our brains.

All images are projections—the ones we see externally, which we presume is our real world of objects, the ones we see in our mindseye and the images we develop about ourselves. None of it is anything other than abstract images recorded in our brains, not much different than the images projected onto a movie screen. All of it looks real so we respond as if it were and that results in big problems, for ourselves and people with whom we share our world. Out of this flaw of perception and processing come certain conclusions. We conclude that we can trust some people and not others. We conclude that to survive and prosper we must hoard and save for a rainy day. We conclude that greed is good and we get angry when people draw attention to this flawed conclusion that jeopardizes our egotistical plans. Life then becomes a competition with winners and losers and things turn out the same way as before: the process works to deliver what we set out to avoid. We wanted to maximize pleasure and avoid pain and the result is the opposite because our aggressive lust leads us into isolation, alienation and jeopardy with the very same people we need to insure our desires.

Thinking, thinking, thinking: it never stops from birth till death. It is both a blessing and a curse and we thus create both wondrous inventions and means of destruction. As a result life balances on a razors edge between greatness and evil. That’s life, so what’s Zen?

Long before there was science, of any kind, people were natural scientists and engaged in the scientific method. They wondered. They created hypotheses. They tested these ideas in various ways. They found out through trial and error what worked and what didn’t and they learned just like scientists do today. Now we have formal sciences and one of these is neurology: the study of the brain. Zen is the study of the mind and is conducted almost exactly as any science is conducted, through observation but not with tools. In Zen, the mind uses itself to examine what it produces: the coming and going of thoughts and emotions. When thoughts arise they are observed as unreal images. When they subside we are left with silence of what seems to be a definable observer, but in truth is simply consciousness.

We live in a time awash in technology and assume that it is based on electronics. But the principle of technology is much broader. Fundamentally technology means an application of knowledge especially in a particular area that provides a means of accomplishing a task. Anything from a simple hammer to charting the cosmos properly belongs to the realm of technology.

The common coin understanding of Zen is wrong. Ordinarily Zen is considered to be a branch on the tree of Buddhism but what many people dont realize is that Zen came first, a long time before there was such a thing as the religion of Buddhism. The original name for Zen was dhyana and is recorded in history as far back as 7,000 years. The Buddha lived around 2,500 years ago and used the mental technology of Zen to experience his enlightenment. Properly speaking it isnt Zen Buddhism but rather Buddhist Zen—the mystical form of Buddhism. All orthodox religions have mystical arms and all of them have meditation as a core principle. 

More than 300 years ago, Voltaire, famous French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher defined mediation in a way quite similar to Bodhidharma (“Zen is not thinking”). He put it this way: “Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in Eternal awareness or Pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity.” While Zen isn’t electronic, it is similar since our brain works by exchanging electrical transmissions and Zen is the most thoroughgoing technology ever conceived for fathoming the human mind.

Because of scientific advances that have occurred in our time, we know the human brain is the most sophisticated computer ever and is capable of calculation speeds a billion times faster than any computer yet built. Furthermore it is “dual-core,” computing in parallel mode with completely different methods. One side works like a serial processor (our left hemisphere) and the other works like a parallel processor (or right hemisphere). The left creates code and the right reads the code. The left is very good at analyzing, dissecting and abstracting while the right interprets and says what it all means.

Zen is the mental technology of using the mind to understand itself. The true mind watches the movement and arising of the code in order to grasp how the “machine” works. Everything perceived and processed is applied consciousness and is watched. There is a conditional and object-oriented aspect and there is an unconditional objectless aspect. Both sides of our brain have no exclusive and independent status. Only when they function together are they of much use. It is much like a wheel: the outside moves while the inside is empty and is the axle around which the outside moves. Our conscious subjective center is unseen and without form. Our objective nature has form and is seen.

In a metaphorical way, our brain could be considered hardware and our mind software. Software instructs the hardware how to operate. Together these two are mirror opposites and rely upon the other side. In Buddhist terminology this relationship is called dependent origination, which means they can only exist together. The two sides of our brain are mirror partners. An inside requires an outside. They come and go together. Neither side can exist separately. Everything can only exist in that way.

The entire universe, in infinite configuration and form is essentially empty. If you delve into quantum physics you arrive at nothing. If you go to the farthest reaches of space you arrive at nothing. Before the Big-Bang there was nothing. Now there is everything. Everything is the same thing as nothing. And this amazing awareness comes about by simply watching the coming and going of the manifestations of our mind. Through Zen we learn about both the subjective/empty and the objective/full nature of ourselves. And what we discover through this process of watching and learning is quite amazing. The primary lesson learned is that there is both an image that is not real and a conscious reality that watches the images.

We think in image forms. Thoughts are not real. They are abstractions, coded messages that represent something but are not what’s being represented. In our mindseye we see a constant flow of images and ordinarily imagine these images are real and in such a state of mind go unaware that there is a conscious faculty that watching this flow. That’s what being conscious of our thoughts means. There is one who is watching and there is what’s being watched. Neither of these (the watcher or the watched) can exist by itself. It takes both for thinking to occur.

On the left side of our brain is the image factory, creating thought images and on the right side of our brain is the one watching the images. It’s a marvelous system and both sides must function together. But since we have two sides, responsible for different functions, each side does things differently. The left side thinks in language (coded images). The right side “thinks” in pictures (interpreting the images). The left side talks but doesn’t understand and the right side understands but doesn’t talk. Together the two sides make a great team but individually they make bad company.

The problem with our world today is that we are predominantly left brain analyzers and have not been trained to make sense of what’s being analyzed. The imagined self (ego) is self righteous, self centered, greedy, possessive, hostile and angry. The problem with identity is that we assume that there is an objective and independent watcher doing the watching and we label that watcher as “me”—a self-image (otherwise called an ego). But here is where this must lead. So long as we see an image of ourselves, that image (ego) can’t possibly be the watcher because the watcher can’t see itself. So long as we see any images (self-image included) there is a difference between what is being watched and the watcher.

Education (in a normal sense) trains our language and analytics capacities but ignores the capacities that enhance compassion, creativity, and insight. Consequently we are out of balance aggressors, dominated by our egos and unaware that we are creating an abstract and unreal world that is progressively more and more violent and hostile.

The true person has no image dimension because all images are objective, whereas the true person is subjective consciousness. Subject/Object—two halves joined together into a single real person. One part can be seen (an image) and the other part can’t be seen (consciousness watching the image). An image isn’t real. It just looks that way. The consciousness part that is real—unconditionally the same in all sentient beingsis the part that can’t be seen. The entire time of remaining in this image-based realm, restricted by conceptual thought, is in fact a reflection of reality: a dream. When we move beyond thought to the reality of pure consciousness, we wake up into an imageless realm (the root from which all things emanate), that is too incredible to describe.
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