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: http://www.buddhistchannel.tv