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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

The Netflix of Consciousness

How Understanding Evolution and
Neuroscience Can Help in Deep Meditation

David Lane

The best hack that I have discovered after meditating for nearly fifty years is inquiring into the source of one's consciousness without any expectations.

The wayward mind is not the problem in meditation. It is the solution, if properly understood. For too long, the practice of yoga and meditation has been intertwined with a mythological overlay that generates unnecessary confusion and hampers a more robust grasp of how the mind actually operates.

Indian gurus have often talked about meditation as a battle or a war with the mind and how one must conquer its capricious flights of fancy. This is certainly understandable, given how easily our thoughts flitter about and how difficult it is for us to sit still and calm down our persistent wanderings. But this avoids a more fundamental question that should be asked: why does our mind incessantly create such a plethora of thoughts, ideas, projections, and ruminations? In other words, to what purpose does this monkey mind serve?

The answer is quite simple, but richly profound and necessitates a grasp of Darwinian evolution and neuroscience. Our brain has given rise to an extraordinarily complex simulator which continually creates models by which to navigate the ever-changing worlds it finds itself. Our sophisticated form of consciousness is constructed (even if without conscious intent) to insure our survival in a literal eat or be eaten landscape. Thus, it is constantly providing feedback information about the local environment, conferring short-hand cues about whether to avoid danger, attract mates, secure food, get shelter, engage with friends, fight enemies, or become inactive, and so on. This is the reality we find ourselves in and, lest there be any doubt, it is a neurological construction dependent on a variety of incoming data streams. To the degree that our brains accurately predict and correlate such information is elemental for us to live long enough to pass on our genetic code, thus perpetuating our species' lineal descent.

However, and this is a crucial point that should be underlined, the brain has a built-in tendency never to rest in its internal machinations, creating a series of synthetic scenarios even while we sleep.

Hence, it should come as no surprise that the very function of our brains is to produce all sorts of possible trajectories and reflections, since distributing such rich and varied panoramas gives us an advantage over those other species (and individuals) who lack such cognitive skills.

How then does this relate to meditation? Whenever, one wants to sit still and slow the racing mind down, they are too often confronted with a seeming paradox that borders on an unsolvable Koan. In trying to control the mind, we find it buckles and instead of providing a haven of peace and bliss throws out all sorts of fantasies in which to distract us from our stated goal. This can be best summarized by a wise saying I once heard from a Master in India, “Putting a saddle on a horse for the first time makes it kick and run away.”

By knowing that the mind is supposed to release a torrent of continual ideas and plans we can realize that trying to suppress or stop such is a sucker's bet. It is a game of attention and concentrating on blocking thoughts doesn't mitigate them, as much as produce new variations. It is for this reason that meditational disciplines around the world have looked for a hack, a way to circumvent the continual stream of ongoing distractions.

One technique that has gained increasing popularity is mindfulness where one stays as a witness (not a participant) to the marching parade. Let whatever is happening arise of its own accord without resisting its appearance. This is akin perhaps to when we watch television and click on the Netflix app. So many possibilities, so many trailers, so many byways. However, if we stay at the home screen and wait without venturing into a selection, we don't get swept away (or addicted) by reruns of Game of Thrones or Orange is the New Black. But can we stay at that home screen? Can we just witness without being absorbed?

Some yogic schools realizing the difficulty of mindfulness (in its various iterations) developed the use of mantras as a way to keep the attention focused and away from scattering thoughts. What repeating words does, in effect, is make one hover around a central theme, even if the words themselves are meaningless or foreign or lose their depth after saying them a thousand and one times.

Here one is reminded, of course, of the Jesus Prayer which became widely known because of the anonymously authored The Way of a Pilgrim and later due to J.D. Salinger's exposition of how it is practiced in his fictional novel, Franny and Zooey. Following the instructions given in Philokalia or under the guidance of a sage, the aspirant repeats “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” over and over again as many times as possible throughout the day, trying to make it a ceaseless habit. It can have startling effects as witnessed by the Russian mendicant in the The Way of a Pilgrim who after being instructed in the practice by his personal starets (a Christian spiritual father trained in the method) discovers a tremendous sense of peace and bliss wherever he goes and begins to see an inner light.

At first, the pilgrim has difficulty repeating the phrase since he gets caught up in its meaning, but eventually the prayer allows him to keep content within himself regardless of what calumnies he faces along his journey. He even becomes so adept at silently repeating “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” that the constant repetition doesn't cease, even when he has a conversation and even when he is dreaming during sleep.

Likewise, in certain Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, and Sikh teachings, the disciple is given a mantra by his or her guru and is enjoined to repeat such as many times as possible (usually silently). Such mantras, which for many are foreign terms without any cultural reference or significance, serve as a kind of honing device to zero back into a more mindful frame of reference. This may be likened to the home button on the earlier editions of Apple's iPhone. Regardless of how lost one may be in this or that application, all one had to do to get back to the main menu was touch the slightly indented circle button near the bottom of the phone. Many tech analysts have argued that it was this one feature on the first iPhones which made them so popular to those who were technologically naïve.

Yet, the mind is designed to go elsewhere. It evolved to go out and explore and ponder. Thus, it is little wonder why meditation can be so difficult at times. But understanding why the mind operates as it does versus believing outdated and dualistic models (usually religiously oriented and far too often dogmatic in their retelling) can be of tremendous help in stilling the mind. As the old saying goes, “you cannot fix a car's six-cylinder engine if you think it is only a four cylinder.” Likewise, the mind cannot be tamed if one is under the mistaken impression that it is unnatural for it to be jumpy.

Another way to approach this subject is to imagine that you are at Grand Central Terminal in New York City which has 44 platforms and over 60 tracks on its upper and lower levels. Thousands of people are busy deciding where they should go and when. You are in the middle of this ever-growing crowd. The hustle and bustle are such that it is pushing you to choose and hurry up.

This is how our mind operates. Thoughts are like different trains with different destinations and each one of them is vying for you to jump on board. And the moment you do buy that ticket and enter into the compartment, you get carried away. But usually not for long, as you change your mind and take yet another train, and so on and on.

This is the daily routine for most of us and, let's be clear, it is exhausting and usually fruitless since most expeditions are just replays of past regrets or future fantasies that will never be fulfilled. What is most enjoyable is when we have found a moment where we want to place our full attention. We seek out such respites in the world and in the relationships around us, but in so doing we forget that it is actually our awareness, our focused attention, that is fundamental to our feeling of happiness.

The best hack that I have discovered after meditating for nearly fifty years is inquiring into the source of one's consciousness without any expectations. It is extraordinarily rare for any being to have the privilege of being able to sit privately for an extended period of time without being engaged in the struggle for survival. Ironically, when one just sits and enters into contemplation without desiring an end goal it relaxes our instinctual anxiousness. Meditation is a process and whether there is such a thing as enlightenment, Sach Khand, Nirvana, Astral Planes, Moksha, ad infinitum, is secondary to what we do day to day, moment to moment. Sitting is its own reward, even if nothing gets accomplished. One of the chief troubles meditators have is that we have been seduced into doing it for a desired aim and if that is not achieved or is slow in coming we get frustrated and then roam off into all sorts of revelries.

A mantra repeated endlessly has no meaning, save to keep us where we are. It is instructive to know that the Japanese word Zen comes from the Chinese word Chan which itself is derived from the Indian-Sanskrit term, Dhyan, which has been variously translated as meditation, absorption, concentrated attention, contemplation.

What then is the substance of meditation? Our own awareness, just as it is. Yes, to be sure, our consciousness (like our Netflix app) has many permutations and offers us a cornucopia of options in which to engage our attention, but each of them are but differing waves upon the same ocean, regardless of how large or small those surges may or may not be.

Sam Harris, the well-known neuroscientist, atheist, and popular podcaster, tackles the meditational conundrum in a distinctively refreshing way by pointing out that the real obstacle that confronts us is ultimately an illusory one. It is the false notion that we have a permanent self or I which is at the core of who we are. Harris brilliantly points out that such a perdurable self is an evolutionary artifact without solidity. It is a ghost in our neural chemistry that vanishes on closer inspection, like a desert mirage on the highway to Death Valley.

Therefore, Harris suggests that one surefire way to loosen our tenacious addiction to more and more thought forms (and the vacation-like excursions they offer) is to simply look at the self we believe drives our desires and literally witness its vacuity. The Bardo Thodol in Buddhist literature calls this the clear void light or the empty luminosity or sunyata: “all things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature.”

Practically speaking, the meditator realizes anew that what seems meaningful or purposeful or evidential is not when looked at directly. It is our wrong belief in the reality of such things that binds us to them and in the end makes us suffer. This is what is meant by Buddha's First and Second Noble Truths. Yes, suffering exists but attaching ourselves to desire is what makes such misery persist.

Ramana Maharshi, whose fame has continued to grow even seventy years after his death, gave the apt analogy of a movie screen which in itself is white and blank but which contains all sorts of images from the projector that is twenty-five yards away. To the degree that we entangle ourselves with the film that is being played we feel the ups and downs of emotions. To the degree that merely witness or detach ourselves from the movie we remain unmoved and unbounded. Or, we could, just turn our attention away from the screen itself and look at the light creating the film, which in itself is just cascading showers of electromagnetism.

All this reminds me of something my mother, Louise, taught me when I was a very young boy and quite scared by a movie we were watching on television. Noticing my apprehension, she said, “I have an idea. Why don't we turn off the sound and see how you feel then.” To my surprise, my fear went away. I was wonderstruck. It was the eerie music and the sound effects that were making me frightened, not necessarily the images on the screen. This got me to thinking about our emotional life and how much of it is due to contextual overlays that we don't consciously notice. When we do become acutely aware of them, they invariably have less impact on us.

Sam Harris' ultimate point is that if we allow consciousness to explore itself we get liberated from all sorts of false delusions that don't have permanency. We realize that thoughts don't have to be baggage. Or, as my late good friend, Peter Williams, titled one of his more insightful books, You Cannot Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought. Why? Because it is not worth it since it is a waste of our time and our energy.

In my early days of meditation, I tended to have a preset goal in mind and wanted to “progress.” Yes, there were great moments of ecstasy and so on, but many more moments of frustration and discouragement. All of which was unnecessary. As anyone who has ever gone on a strict diet knows, the glitch is that one ends up thinking about food too much. Similarly, wanting to control the mind and restrict thoughts tends to do the opposite. Because we evolved to generate thoughts, it is to our advantage to understand that and not try to build a dam on a river that will overflow the banks no matter what. Instead, allow thoughts to arise whenever and wherever they might, and witness evolution's neural procession. Just keep in mind that you have a home button, a stationary menu, a train depot without necessary departures. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we do have ruby slippers (silver in the book) even if we need to be reminded of it. Yes, there are yellow brick road adventures to be had, but Kansas is just a few clicks away as well.

Ah, so how does this play out in my morning and evening meditations? I get up early, go to a special room I created just for meditation (it looks like World Market on steroids with all sorts of mythic elements wherever you look) and take my seat. I get comfortable, usually crossed legged, and close my eyes. I relax and am happy that I get this opportunity for a respite. I center my attention where I am (usually right behind my two eyes), begin repeating my mantra so as to stay near my home button. Thoughts arise, ideas, ruminations, reflections, and so on. But they are like vaporware and melt away on their own accord if I just witness them as clouds. Now the body feels bliss since the outgoing energy is being bundled together at one space.

I can continue but that would be pointless. Third person descriptions of meditation are like candy on a billboard. Uneatable. Or, as my brother Joseph says about surf movies, “What is the point? I would rather be riding the waves myself.”

“After I became more and more familiar with this realization—as the waking up process revealed more and more truths about my mind—my primary motivation for meditation was no longer the benefits. I realized that I should not chase benefits or even set goals for my meditation practice. I even made the mistake of trying to chase after this realization itself. I knew it existed intellectually, but I was not (and still am not) able to find it in an emotional way all of the time. This is okay though. When we set waking up, enlightenment, or anything else as a goal, the paradox is that by doing so we remain stuck in the fundamental unsatisfactoriness of human life (Dukkha in Buddhist terms).” --SAM HARRIS

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