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i’m aware, therefore …

A few days ago (Dec 13th) I wrote that “after a decade of practice, the one obstacles I seem unable to comprehend is the idea of a ‘self.’ A product of Western sensibilities, my perception of reality is based on a distinct self. Buddhist teachings, in contrast, claim that the self is an illusion created by society and an expression the desires and needs of the ego.”

The next day a reader directed me to Buddha’s Brain, a book by two neurologists who’re also meditation teachers. Drawing on recent brain research, they explain how and why a 2500-year old practice works physiologically. This is very helpful for someone who likes to know the whys and wherefores about something he’s told to do. The Buddha himself emphasized direct experience (“be a lamp unto yourself”) and Zen teachers play down book learning. While my preferred learning style leans towards experiencing, observing, and reflecting, I do benefit from science-based reasons behind things. On the topic of a separate self, the authors say that —

A person is a human body-mind as a whole, an autonomous and dynamic system that arises in dependence upon human culture and the natural world. You’re a person and I’m a person. Persons have histories, values, and plans. The person goes on being as long as the body is alive and the brain reasonably intact. But … self-related mental contents have no special neurological status and are just part of the ongoing stream of mental activity. …

Even those aspects of self that are stored in explicit and implicit memory take up only a portion of the brain’s storehouse of information about the world, perceptual processing, skilled action, and more. The self is just one part of the whole person (p. 211, emphasis added). …

… [A]wareness does not need a self to operate. …. [it] can do its job without a subject. … In fact, observing your own experience shows that the self — the apparent subject — often comes in after the fact. In many ways, the self is like someone running behind a parade that is already well under way, continually calling out: “See what I have created” (p. 212).

The first instruction my zen teacher ever gave me (during sanzen eleven years ago) was to use awareness of sound as a meditation practice. As we sat, facing each other on our mats, she drew my attention to the sounds of birds outside the open window. Listen, she said, listen to that sound. And then notice what the mind, the self, does with that sound. First it wants to give it a name, a category, make sense of the experience (a songbird, say, or a Western Warbler), and then to judge the thing as pleasant or perhaps annoying. It may also add “how clever I am to know its name” or similar such commentary. Meanwhile, the bird’s song, the pure phenomenon, has come and gone and we’re no longer in the moment, but trapped somewhere in our fabricating mind.

text: Hansen, R. with Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger. image:


4 responses »

  1. Peter I too struggle and wrestle with this same “self” and what relationship it has to living – or dying. Your excerpt is most helpful:

    In many ways, the self is like someone running behind a parade that is already well under way, continually calling out: “See what I have created” (p. 212).

    Particularly faced with… “Meanwhile, the bird’s song, the pure phenomenon, has come and gone and we’re no longer in the moment, but trapped somewhere in our fabricating mind.”

    I have had a profound year and a bit of assisting another to recover as much of the abilities of the “fabricating mind” as possible. There are aspects of our mind that allow for order, problem-solving, self care, creative thinking that are useful even though they can get in our way when overly relied upon. What I learned in at least this situation is, the essence of a person is not defined by the abilities of the mind to fabricate.

    But is there really a definitive line from one human-being to another or is it only imagined to make sense out of the world? I puzzle over this and often question what is useful and what is just business, keeping me from what is necessary. Sometimes to experience the moment seems only possible through that part of me that is running behind – creating pictures, words, thoughts.


    Winter dawn soft and low within the stillness of giant firs. Small birds flutter at the feeder. Sunday

  2. That is my hope Peter.

    I read Mary Oliver’s poem “Winter” tonight at a solstice dinner with friends. I am sure you may know the one…”And the waves / gush pearls from their snowy throats / as they come / leaping…” and it ends “… in this world I am as rich / as I need to be.” Even in this most incredible poem which brings the reader right to the winter seashore, the ending of the poem brings us back to how this matters to “self.” In this case it seems the self is the anchor for understanding. It was these last lines that my listeners clung after being on the storming shore with winter waves. It is on these last lines I clung when I first read this poem. The last lines moved us from the visceral experience of breath and heart to our head, our intellect. It is there we rested… in meaning attached to self. A human walking on the seashore in a storm seems to require a purpose or at least a purpose for the telling. But waves come in and go out winter after winter storm. No human reason is required to be present and experience them.

    So I keep glimpsing… but if I catch sight of awakening, it is sure to drift just beyond my view. The closest I come is when you taught me how I was present at the very moment I noticed I wasn’t. I spent years going to university to learn how to critically think… now, for this part of my life I seem to need to learn how not to immediately go to my over-developed head muscles. But here I am rambling on… So the possibility of more than one life time to awaken seems like a good thing at the moment.

    Thanks as always for listening Peter.


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