Those who read the cover story in this summer’s July 17 issue of Time magazine may have suffered quite a shock. The article was entitled “In Search of the Mind,” and although most readers might not have known that the mind was lost, many were no doubt disturbed to discover that even the neuroscientists couldn’t find it.
The Time article summarized the latest brain research and explained that what we normally refer to as “my mind” is actually made up of many separate processing centers in the brain, each one working independently of the others on various parts of our experience. Different centers handle perception, recognition, analysis, emotion, and so on. The language function is so compartmentalized that nouns get processed in one part of the brain and verbs in another.
Furthermore, according to the neuroscientists most of this brain work is routine and highly conditioned. Our brain’s structure was forged over millions of years of evolutionary trial and error, and our neural passageways are grooved by our early life experiences. We think and behave accordingly. Indeed, it might be more accurate, based on the evidence, to say that we do not think at all, but rather that the brain is thinking us.
What most astounded the scientists was their inability to locate the seat of consciousness, the mind’s director, the “self.” The closest they could come to it were so-called “convergence zones,” which are spread throughout the cerebral cortex and act as switching stations, coordinating all the information coming in from the various parts of the brain. And some scientists believe that it is precisely this coordination process that gives us the illusion that someone is actually in charge of our mental life.
The article concluded,
Despite our every instinct to the contrary, consciousness is not some entity inside the brain that corresponds to “self,” some kernel of awareness that runs the show. . . . After more than a century of looking for it, brain researchers have concluded that such a self simply does not exist.
The self does not exist!? Where have we heard that before?
Of course, it is possible that the brain researchers were just looking in the wrong place. Western scientists would be expected to conclude that if they can’t find “the self” inside our brains then it does not exist. It’s a cultural assumption that we live inside our heads. Brains are us! But why not look for the seat of consciousness in the liver or, better yet, the heart. And couldn’t it be possible that consciousness has no material base at all?
Whether or not the scientists can ever find the self, their discoveries at least confirm the Buddhist understanding of how our brains work. The process is quite thoroughly explained in the Abhidhamma, the Theravadan text of Buddhist psychology. The language of the Abhidhamma, unlike that of science, assigns value to phenomena, and the text also explores realms of spiritual consciousness or supraconsciousness ignored by the scientists. Nonetheless, the two maps of our mind world have striking similarities.
Like the scientists, the sages who wrote the Abhidhamma deconstruct mental life into infinitesimal units of experience, commonly referred to as “mind moments,” each of which appear and disappear very rapidly in sequence, like energy quanta. Every mind moment can be broken down into some combination of fifty-two different mental factors, and these arise or not depending on multiple causes and conditions to produce eighty-nine different types of consciousness. The Abhidhamma gives us a picture of a compartmentalized and highly conditioned mental life.
It seems that long before modern brain research, the Buddha discovered how our minds are bound by instinct and habit, or—as he might have said—by both collective and individual karma. Long before Freud, he saw that we are ruled by unconscious forces, which the Buddha named “underlying tendencies.”
In the Chachakka Sutta, the “Six Sets of Six” (referring to the six sense bases and how they work), the Buddha explains in the simplest of terms how our mental life, and thus our suffering, is due to the structure and conditioning of our brains. For instance, isolating a moment of eye consciousness, the Buddha says, “dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises; the meeting of these three is contact; with contact as condition there is feeling; with feeling as condition there is craving [or aversion].” The Buddha saw how the process happens automatically and how we are caught in reaction. It is the chain of dependent origination: “This existing, that arises.”
It seems that the Buddha discovered a truth quite similar to that of the brain researchers. But the one important difference is that the scientists were studying the mind by looking at other people’s grey matter—the Buddha was looking into his own. The Buddha’s discovery led therefore not only to self-knowledge but also to self-liberation.
Following the Buddha’s example, each of us has to do brain research on ourselves. Once we can see how our mental lives are created, we no longer remain so identified with that process. We no longer consider all those reactions and mind machinations to be “self.” We begin to lose our attachment to personality, and to the dramas created by our survival brain. And if we observe carefully, we can begin to say, along with the Buddha,
One regards the eye thus: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” One regards forms thus. . . One regards eye consciousness thus. . . One regards eye contact thus. . . One regards feeling thus . . . One regards craving thus: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.”
While the scientists may have concluded that other people’s brains do not contain selves, it is quite likely that they still believe in their own.
The Buddha not only saw how the mind works, he also learned how to train or “cultivate” it. He realized that we could develop the mental factors of mindfulness and equanimity and use them to override the reactive mind, to disengage from our conditioning. (Theravadans call this “purification” of mind.) According to the Buddha’s teaching, when mindfulness is engaged, we gain some control over our emotional and physical responses to the world. Only then do we have any freedom of mind. And only then do we begin to find relief from our suffering. As the Buddha put it,
One shall here and now make an end of suffering by abandoning the underlying tendency to lust for pleasant feeling, by abolishing the underlying tendency to aversion towards painful feeling . . . by abandoning ignorance and arousing true knowledge—this is possible.
It turns out that the Buddha was an excellent brain researcher and a mind healer as well. And there is also evidence that he was a phenomenal physicist. My first meditation teacher, the Burmese master S.N. Goenka, used to tell his students that the Buddha had even discovered subatomic reality. Goenka explained that in the Buddha’s time, Indian civilization referred to a fundamental particle as a kalapa, the equivalent of an atom. But the Buddha coined a new term, asti-kalapa, to refer to an even more elementary level of reality. The Buddha also said that these subatomic asti-kalapas were constantly transforming, appearing and disappearing trillions of times in the blink of an eye.
Goenka went on to tell us about an American physicist who had won the Nobel Prize for inventing a bubble chamber that was able to isolate subatomic events. This scientist found that a subatomic particle arises and vanishes 10 squared 22 times in one second. That’s close to the Buddha’s estimate of “trillions of times in the blink of an eye.” The Buddha’s mind must have been at least as powerful as an atom smasher, and as precise as laser photography.
By chance, a few of Goenka’s meditation students came to know the Nobel physicist, and they reported that although he had discovered the truth of anicca at the most subtle level of reality, he was nonetheless a relatively unhappy individual who carried with him the usual stock of human misery. Goenka made the point that if the scientist had experienced subatomic impermanence in his own body and mind, he would have transformed himself. Goenka concluded that, like the Buddha, we each need to become “a scientist of the world within, in order to experience truth directly.”
One final story on the same theme: This summer, physicists announced that they had finally found the top quark, the sixth and last of the elementary units of matter. The physicists also reported, rather matter-of-factly, that this newly discovered quark has absolutely no mass and no dimensions. In other words, they have found the top quark, and it doesn’t exist.
Over the years, physicists have split open matter again and again—just as neuroscientists have taken apart the brain—and in the end they cannot find the essence. At its very core, matter disappears into energy, and what this tells us is that everything in the universe is in process. The mind breaks the world into things, but actually there is “no-thing-ness.” It’s shunyata, voidness, appearances; it’s all a creation of Big Mind. When we can experience that truth within us, it has the power to transform; to enlighten. And as the Buddha so humbly says, “This is possible.”