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The Neuroscience of Zen

Dr. Philippe Goldin and Ryushin Paul Haller spoke tonight as part of the California Academy of Sciences lecture series in San Francisco, at the packed Herbst Theater. This was the last lecture of this season, and we learned tonight that every lecture of this season was sold out, including this one.

Goldin has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and spent 6 years in India and Nepal serving as an interpreter to Tibetan Buddhist lamas. He now works at Stanford. Haller is a Buddhist monk and Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center.

Goldin opened by saying that now is a time of convergence, a meeting of East and West. The East has had centuries of Zen Buddhist traditions that seem to draw upon some ancient wisdom, and the West has rigorous scientific methodology and study and it excites him that these things are now untied. We now know that zen practices stimulate the brain in a very measurable way, and have tangible, positive effects.

Haller pointed out that both neuroscience and zen are "amoral," meaning they are not attempting to prescribe any sort of moral rightness or wrongness. Instead they seek to illuminate and explain "what is." Incidentally, I found Haller's mannerisms and way of speaking interesting. On the one hand, he's an old man that one might be mistaken for a crazy person or something. But he's actually very thoughtful in his speaking. Also he's Irish and has a bit of an Irish accent, though he's also lived in Russia, Afghanistan, Japan, and Thailand. His appearance and accent don't really match the stereotype of the kind of wiseman that he is.

Meditation Exercise

Haller said he'd like us to do an exercise with him, and that we might find it silly but that it might help us. He asked us to imagine for the next two or three minutes, that we "are not ourselves." Meaning we have no concept of what it's like to be who we are, and instead we are just experiencing the present moment.

He then apologized for asking this, but he said we should all stand up. I thought this moment alone said a lot about him. His apology was sincere in that he was acknowledging that he is kind of invading our personal space by asking us to do anything at all. And we didn't even have some terrible forced interaction with strangers, like Jane McGonigal's disaster thumb wrestling thing. Anyway, after standing up, he asked us to sit down, but in a different way than usual. He demonstrated the method, and said we should imagine that we are not familiar with our chairs, that perhaps they won't be able to hold our weight. So sit down very carefully, and with much attention to whether the chair can take the weight, and what it feels like as we sit down. He then asked us to close our eyes as he suggested we think about our breathing, the feeling of our feet on the floor, the feeling of the muscles on our face, and so on.

This is, of course, meditation. It's something I know a fair amount about from reading science about it, but not something I know of first-hand. Somewhat ironically, he got my attention here. (The irony is that meditation all about the direction of attention.) It's actually very difficult to just think about those things he's saying without thinking about anything else. The mind is whirring and buzzing with thoughts about every kind of thing, and meditation is an attempt to clear the mind of those things. Think of it as trying to balance on one leg. A master of balance is actually someone who, when a slight imbalance begins, can very quickly correct it and return to a balanced stance. Likewise, an expert at meditation can return to an empty mind very quickly when stray thoughts enter.

I am no master. I have written many summaries of lectures (see all my years of GDC summaries, for example), and I never take notes, ever. I remember it all. But I think I didn't realize until Haller's exercise what I was really doing. I am so used to my thought patterns during these lectures that I wasn't even aware of them. I was echoing what he said, interpreting into my own version, and putting together thoughts and sentences that I would later write in this very post. A cacophony of thoughts, and I can't very well do that while emptying my mind and thinking about only breathing, or whatever.

Meditation and Pain

Goldin then told us a bit about the brain studies of meditation, and how different fMRI scans look during meditation. He cited one study about pain that compared the brain scans of trained meditors who were experiencing pain from having their arms in ice water compared to the scans of people with no training in meditation. Of course we already know the meditators can withstand much more pain, but the real question was how are they doing it. One theory involves the reinterpretation of pain. There are parts of the brain dedicated to reflecting on things: judging them, interpreting them. Perhaps the meditators are using these brain functions to redirect pain so that it feels like something else. This is not what the study showed, though. Instead, that part of the brain was completely *inactive*. Not only were the expert meditators not reinterpreting the pain, there were not even really interpreting it in the first place.

To put it another way, when normal people experience pain, there is an internal monologue of sorts. "Ow!!! That hurts!" Not just an awareness of the pain, but an awareness that you are aware of it, if you can wrap your mind around that. It's like a feedback loop that dwells and dwells on that pain and spins it to higher and higher heights. A more extreme example of this would be if the actual pain were minor but the mental spinning and spinning of it got so out of control that it was debilitating. This is exactly what an anxiety attack (or panic attack) is.

But the expert meditators showed none of this. The pain receptors lit up at a high spike, perhaps even a higher spike than non-meditators, and then there was no dwelling on it at all. The pain is there, but not analyzed, not spun to higher and higher levels of anxiety. It just passes through.

More on Zen

Haller spoke somewhat cryptically about the benefits of zen meditation. I don't think he's cryptic because he has poor speaking skills or because he doesn't know what he's talking about. I think the concept he's getting at is just very hard to describe and he's doing his best. He talked of being able to step outside the mental traps that we are all stuck in, and see them from the outside. (The pain example above is just one facet of this.)

Goldin works with people who have anxiety problems and he talked about how meditation and zen techniques can help those people step outside of that anxiety and to simply be in the present moment. Instead of "next moment could be bad! next moment could be bad!" it's more like "this present moment is ok." He said when anxiety suffers achieve this even for a brief moment, it is a form of freedom, and very noticeable.

That said, he also mentioned that he thought some amount of pain and suffering is a good thing. He said science studies show that the amount of negativity in young people is much higher and that as they age, they generally become more positive. And he says he believes there is evolutionary basis for this. We know a lot about how memory and learning sticks and is retained in a much deeper way when emotions are high. Young people having strong emotions can be a driving force to learn, to change, and to achieve. He also believes that some amount of suffering teaches empathy for other who suffer, and ends up connecting people, which he also regards as good.

Haller said this reminds him of a Buddhist quote, "May you have enough suffering in your life to drive you to seek enlightenment." I laughed when Haller then said, "Though in all my years, I have actually never met anyone who was deficient in the requisite amount of suffering."

What's the Point?

Goldin asked Haller if Haller could summarize what he thought the point of zen really is. Seeking enlightenment is good for what, exactly?

Several times Haller laughed when asked these ridiculously weighty questions. I think this reminded us how impossible it is to answer some questions in a few sentences. Haller did answer though, and he said the point is to "become open to shifting."

Rather than being locked into the same old thought patterns, zen is attempt to step outside of them to gain a larger perspective. We are usually so trapped in our ways of thinking that we don't even know we are trapped in them. By briefly turning off the whirring of the brain, it's a chance to perceive the world differently just briefly, and perhaps notice more about our thoughts when we return. For example, earlier in this post I became more aware of how my thoughts work during lectures, something I had never before noticed.

The Earth Goes 'Round the Sun

I think this is the most important point of the presentation, so now's time to pay extra attention.

Goldin said that Haller had previously told him that one of the main things required in practicing zen buddhism is "fierce courage." He asked Haller to explain why "fierce courage" would be necessary at all.

Haller said that Copernicus said the Earth goes 'round the Sun, and that this got a lot of people really mad. Offended, even. We know now that Copernicus was correct: the Earth really does go around the Sun. But even today, that actually doesn't match our personal experience. In the ordinary course of a day for a human, we might see the sunrise. We probably see the sun high in the sky during the day. We might see the sunrise at night. It sure looks like the Sun goes 'round the Earth. And our own mental model of going about our day kind of involves giving truth to this illusion. It's practical. It's a construct that helps us understand the passage of time during a day. We rely on it and it serves us well.

So when Copernicus comes along and says this thing you rely on is actually just a fiction, and it's all wrong, some people are just really attached to that fiction. It's *scary* to think it would be wrong because it means there's some other reality out there--and unknown and possibly terrifying one--that doesn't match what you want it to be. It takes a bit of courage to re-imagine the universe once you find evidence that the Earth goes 'round the Sun.

Goldin's Mr. Miyagi-style move at this point was to say that very concept of "self" is analogy here. There is no "self" center of the brain. There is no place where "the self" is. There are parts of the brain that contribute to some aspects of self, such as the inner monologue of thoughts you have, or the awareness of your body, or the passage of time, but "the self" is basically a useful and practical fiction.

Goldin says he sometimes does an exercise with people where they are to imagine their own birth, then imagine themselves at every point throughout their life. When they are 10 years old, 15, 20, 25. Their present self. Their future older self, and their last breath of life. He then asks "which is the true self? Which one is 'really you'?" The point of the question is to realize there isn't one that is really you. It's not like the 20 year old you is "the real you" but it's also not like it isn't. There is no single self across time, there is just this illusion we have that there is a continuous, stable thing called self that we all have. The cells that compose our bodies when we are young are not even the same cells as when we are old, so again, which is the real self?

I agree that it takes "fierce courage" to even consider that idea. That your notion of self is in the same category of convenient fictions as the Sun going 'round the Earth is unsettling.

Incidentally, Susan Blackmore wrote about this same idea in her book, The Meme Machine. There she explained that when some memes join up and work together, they can be stronger (meaning more ability to spread). A simpe example would be "send this e-mail / letter to your friends" and "you will make money." Apart, those don't do much but together they create viral chain letters. She said that when a whole lot of memes glom together into a huge construct, she calls that a memeplex. She stresses throughout her book that memes (and memeplexes) have nothing to do with being right or true. They only have to do with being effective at spreading. This might be because they have practical use, or it might be because they are exploiting some weakness of our psychology.

The punch line is she said the ultimate memeplex is "our sense of self."

Questions and Answers

There were two questions from the audience that I thought were worth sharing. The first was "Do you do directed meditation." Haller's answer was so fitting. He first clarified that the question is about him telling others what to think about to help induce meditation, such as what he did with us at the start of the presentation. He said that yes he does, but it's more accurate to say he does whatever he thinks will work. The thing he tried with us was just some thing, one of many things he could have done. He said that how he helps others with meditation is not some random thing, it's not like any method he could choose out of a hat is equally good. He has inside him, from years of expertise, intuition about what meditation really is, and what might help. So he uses that to do whatever he thinks is best given the current situation, environment, and peole involved. There is no script, there is no prescribed set of steps. That's the ultimate answer from a guy who said to "become open to shifting."

The other question I liked, which is one I had too, is about the seeming contradiction of meditation. The higher brain functions that do all this self-reflection, this thinking about thinking--they are the newest parts ofthe brain evolutionarily. That means they are the most advanced parts, and the amazing parts of the brain that set us apart from other animals. (Incidentally, they are also the parts that come online latest during a child's development and that deteriorate soonest in old age.)

Anyway, why should we strive to *turn off* this newest and most amazing part of the brain. Isn't that taking a step backwards? Goldin and Haller had different answers, though both aspects of the same idea.

Goldin said that if you are angry, for example, and you are practiced in the self-awareness and mindfulness of meditative studies, then here is what you will experience. First, your anger over whatever thing will start to rise. Then, your training about self-awareness will give you some perspective to think, "oh, this is one of my favorite flavors of anger. I recognize this." By stepping outside of the thought pattern and seeing it, being very familiar with it, you can let it go, and let it pass through you. If you do not have this tool, then instead what is likely to happen is that anger can build and build and become counterproductive.

Haller's answer I think clarified this further. He explained a state of mind that involves turning off all judging and evaluation (which Goldin earlier said are not just hand-wavy words, there really are parts of the brain dedicated to this that meditation is able to turn off entirely). Haller says that in this state of mind, you are aware there is this person (you) in the world, along with many other people. This person was born, is aging, and will die, like other people. A constellation of problems and joys surrounds this person. It's a complex constellation with many connections and patterns. Not judging it, you just see it. It's there, and you can--for a moment--acknowledge it for all that it is.

By doing this, by having this brief escape from your sense of self, and the thought patterns you are so often trapped in, you can perhaps "become open to shifting." The goal of turning off the chatter of your brain is not to revert to some earlier stage of evolution. It's to gain flexibility in thinking so that when those new parts of your brain are back online and judging and evaluating things, you can have a wider viewpoint to make decisions, the willingness to consider more viewpoints, and the fierce courage required to shift out of ideas you've been stuck in.

Thanks to both Goldin and Haller for such an enlightening dialog.

Reader Comments (9)

You mentioned that the highest functions come online last -- if you have the time you might want to pick up a copy of Jaynes' "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind." It's right up your alley so I wouldn't be surprised if you've already read it, but if not it tries to tackle not only what consciousness is (hint: far less than is commonly believed, and far closer to the flashlight-like "attention-placing" organ you describe here) but when it evolved (only about 3000 years ago). The research is a few years old by now but it's still the most coherent explanation of consciousness/focus/meditation I've read.

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAtma

Cool. Reminds me of wilbers thoughts concerning the transrational :

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAva

I predict this will be one of your least popular posts, but I loved it :)

Zen meditation is usually quite painful, sitting with your legs crossed, without moving, for multiple 45 minute periods is painful from: connective tissue stretching, loss of circulation, tissue compression, joint twisting, muscular tension, etc.

I wonder about the relationship between the pain of existence, the pain experience in mediation, and the pain experiments mentioned in the presentation.

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Grové

You guys should check this out:

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterhope

Thanks Thomas. What is the purpose of position being painful though? Why not sit in a more comfortable position for meditation, wouldn't that make it easier to achieve the goal of getting in the right mental state?

May 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I sat in on a few directed meditation sessions during college, one by a Zen abbot from Japan, another by a professor and practicing monk (I believe from the same school of thought). There were, of course, questions about posture and positioning, and why they are done, and why they are "right."

The short answer is that if the positioning is done correctly, they are done almost entirely _to be comfortable_. Actually, it would be more correct to say that meditation positions are done to be the least distracting physical positions possible: the ones you can stay in for the longest amount of time without physical problems setting in to knock you back into thinking about discomfort.

This is really weird for us Westerners (Americans in particular) because we often find sitting cross legged to be uncomfortable (especially with both feet on top of legs, rather than under. But the problems we experience have to do with 1) our years of bad posture to begin with, and 2) our lack of practice. (Individually, we might also have various physical ailments or joint disorders that make this harder as well.) But as with yoga, practicing a certain position enough generates flexibility to the point where it doesn't seem painful at all, and it shouldn't.

A few points:
1) The back must be straight. If you're like me, you slouch a lot, and sitting up straight is _hard_, especially when sitting cross-legged. The remedy recommended by the abbot was to sit on a cushion, with your knees on the floor (or as close as possible). By elevating the pelvis this way, the back has a much easier time supporting itself properly, much as when you are standing, and you won't feel the need to slouch or the pain that comes from holding a not-quite-straight back for long periods.

2) The tongue should be gently against the roof of the mouth, towards the front. The abbot said the main purpose was to create a ramp so that saliva flows naturally towards (and down) the throat, so that it never accumulates enough that you feel the need to swallow. (You may have to swallow a few times when you first start, especially if you start a bit hungry.)

3) Breathe in and out through the nose. It's okay for the lips to be slightly open, but breathing through the mouth will conflict with point #2 above. (By the way, as a frequent sufferer of allergies and sinus congestion, I've always been amazed at how mediation that uses breathing as the focus can allow minutes or hours of incredibly free breathing.)

4) The lids of the eyes should be half-closed. Fully closed can work, but often practitioners (especially new ones) can fall asleep when their eyes are fully closed. Half-closed blocks out most distractions while making it harder to fall asleep.

5) If you can cross your legs comfortably with feet on top (lotus position), you should. If you can't, you should do a half-lotus, with one foot on top. If that's really uncomfortable, do a standard feet-under-the-knees crossed leg. (Seriously, use a cushion.) I know that for me (and probably most people who don't practice yoga), putting legs out in front is a lot harder than crossed legs, and more prone to cramps/circulation problems. Crossed legs + cushion also works better than a chair, as you'll find that sitting up straight is harder in a chair, and the edge of the chair puts pressure on the legs.

Now, not all portions of the position have such prosaic reasons. The placement of one palm in another (why should one hand go in the other and not vice versa? I can't remember which should go on top) with thumbs touching, and I believe the lotus position as well, had explanations about the flow of energy through the body, creating one big cycle. If you don't buy into that, then those details might not matter as much to you.

Also, keep in mind that this was one form of Zen meditation. There are many other ways that Zen practitioners meditate; there are many other forms of Buddhist meditation. There are many other forms of non-Buddhist meditation, in religious and non-religious flavors. But I found this one very accessible, and its reasoning clear.

Also, I am not an expert, so if a reader finds an error in my post, it is likely to be mine. Apologies.

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Simonson

I agree with Justin that if one practices enough, and has good enough posture, then there won't be very much pain. At this point, full lotus position or half lotus position are two of the most comfortable ways for me to sit. I feel a lot less anxious when my legs are grounded like that, but it becomes a question of duration. Even zen masters can have a hard time making it through an entire 7 day intensive retreat in the full lotus posture.

I did a quick internet search and found a decent write up of working with pain in meditation:
"Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional"

"When one experiences posture pain in sitting meditation, it is actually an opportunity to work with it. Regard it as your best friend, as you can learn much from it. So do not drive it away. Invite it in and get to know it. It is not a matter of just bearing the pain. The practice is to investigate it - to penetrate it deeply. If you can successfully work with physical pain, then you are more likely to be able to work with mental pain."

"It is the resistance to the pain that is causing the suffering. The mind is striking at the so-called pain, complaining about the pain, wanting it to go away or trying to dissociate from the pain. But once you are able to work with pain you will be able to differentiate the pain from the suffering, and thus how one relates to the pain will change."


May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Grové

I came for insights into fighting games as a high school student. Now as a University student, I return for entries like this.

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRome

Sirlin, you will surely enjoy this:

June 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChance Lacina
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