The not-quite-present moment

Though trying to live in the present moment may be an enlightening exercise, as long as one is conscious, it probably is physically impossible to actually live in the present moment, because the brain always needs a few milliseconds to construct feelings of the self and world from the sensory input it receives. The reality we see is always slightly delayed.


Questions about the mind between lives

Similar to my questions about mindstreams, regarding the gandhabba (the mind between lives), here are several questions about which I have not yet been able to find very good answers:

  • How long can a gandhabba live, and is there anything that can destroy or repel it?
  • Does a gandhabba rely on a body for any reason (e.g., for nourishment)?
  • How far or fast can a gandhabba travel?
  • What can a gandhabba see or know about the world and its new parents?
  • What cognitive capabilities (e.g., what kinds of thoughts and feelings) does a gandhabba have?
  • If a gandhabba wants to join with a new baby’s body while two humans are having sex, how does it know what to do in order to combine with microscopic egg and sperm cells?
  • If it is possible, as some Buddhists believe, for a previously human gandhabba to be reborn as an animal, how does it adjust itself to a non-human body, and is anything gained or lost in that process?
  • If a gandhabba is a citta-santana (citta-stream), and if that is the only way in which past life memories are preserved across bodies, why do people sometimes claim to remember non-citta (i.e., vinnana and manas, which supposedly die with one’s body) things about past lives, like how something looked in the past (eye consciousness is vinnana)?
  • Is it better to conceive a baby near uposatha days, or near a Buddhist temple, because there might be more virtuous gandhabbas present on those days or in that place?

Frogs in a well

Usually, I find that being well-educated and/or well-traveled makes people more open/large-minded, tolerant, patient, non-racist, non-nationalistic, peaceful, etc., and that being poorly educated and/or traveled makes people the opposite of those things. People who, mentally or physically, never go far from home usually seem to be the ones who are passionately attached to one (and against all others) religion, ethnic or national identity, sports team, local dialect of a language, and so on. A common metaphor for such people in south and southeast Asian countries is “frogs in a well.”

Don’t brood: have difficult conversations

Many times in my life, in myself and others, I have seen how inaccurate, incomplete, often negative views can be reinforced by brooding or brainwashing — by a person going into some kind of echo chamber (in their head, on the Internet, only spending time with similar people in the real world, etc.) for a long time and repeating certain thoughts or feelings over and over until they become more and more extreme. The same was apparently true in the Buddha’s time, about 2,600 years ago: “‘He insulted me, he hit me, he beat me, he robbed me’ — anger will never cease in those who dwell on such thoughts” (Dhammapada, 3).

But real people are small and complicated. Everyone finds themselves born into a certain body, family, country, etc., which can be hard to escape. Everyone has had many unique past experiences that informed them. No one can see or learn everything. The only way to understand the complexity of life or people is to get out of your comfort zone (either mentally or physically) and have strange, new, different experiences. Brooding or brainwashing in isolation usually only makes one’s views more xenophobic, unrealistic, inaccurate, and incomplete; having difficult, new conversations and experiences usually makes one’s views more connected, realistic, accurate, and complete.

Here is a nice Ted talk, which says pretty much the same thing:

Selfless virtue

Developing virtues/merits for selfish reasons (e.g., for the karmic, physical, or social benefits) still contains a degree of unvirtuousness (i.e., a delusion of self). In my opinion, the point of being virtuous (and of Buddhism in general) is to completely cleanse this samsaric mind-body complex of whatever is obstructing it from becoming nirvanic, not to seek a nice future/rebirth in samsara.

Heaven might be so luxurious and pleasurable that beings there never think about nirvana or about making more merit, and, according to the seed-and-fruit concept from early Buddhism (i.e., that one instance of karma causes/conditions only one outcome), once the merit that is supporting a heavenly life runs out, one’s next rebirth may not be heavenly.

Mindfulness 101

Mindfulness is probably the main Buddhist meditation technique embraced by the Western mainstream, including Western psychology. In general, it teaches people how to keep a mental distance from their experiences — both to reduce life’s stressfulness and to help people think, feel, and behave in a more calm, clearheaded way — without taking drugs. Like any skill, mindfulness takes practice, but pretty much everyone (excluding perhaps people with serious brain injuries) can do it.

Here are the mindfulness meditation steps that have worked best for me:

  1. With your eyes open, not focused on anything in particular, sit in a room and (mentally, internally) note what you see. Don’t get up and do anything in the room. Don’t critique the room; just let it be as it is. Don’t make any plans about what you will do in/to the room in the future (cleaning, re-arranging, socializing, etc.). If it helps, put a one-word label on the things you see (e.g., wall, outlet, carpet, door, etc.). When you’re comfortable with the process of labeling, stop using labels and just observe the room without thinking about it. Notice that the room was built at some point in the past, that it’s existing/abiding for awhile, and that it will someday decay or be destroyed. Actually, you’re not necessarily watching a room — you’re watching images, sounds, etc. that your mind is creating, based on sensory input. These mental constructions may be different than the room’s objective/absolute reality.
  2. Close your eyes, and mentally watch the sensations of your body: pains, pleasures, itches, urges, fatigue, etc. Again, don’t do anything to them. Just let them be as they are. Don’t scratch, don’t shift around, don’t go eat or drink anything, don’t go to the toilet, etc. Just watch. If labeling things helps, do it as before (in step 1, above), but stop once you’re comfortable enough with the process, and just watch the body without thinking. Notice that sensations all follow a predictable, bell-curve-type pattern: they arise, they may abide/stay awhile, then they decay on their own if you don’t do anything. Even itches, aches, etc. will eventually go away on their own. If any sensation is especially troublesome, hold that part of your body at a mental or physical distance, and say to yourself things like “the pain is over there… the pain is separate from me”.
  3. Turn your attention away from your bodily sensations, towards your mental thoughts and feelings. Watch the thoughts and feelings like clouds passing in the sky, or like a movie or TV show on a distant screen. Don’t get caught up in the movie. Don’t give the thoughts or feelings any energy (because this movie is like a “choose your own adventure” story). Don’t pursue, expand upon, cling to, dwell on, etc. anything you see. Just let things come into your mind, stay awhile, and then go. Like so-called “external” things and bodily sensations, notice that thoughts and feelings eventually fade away on their own; you don’t have to fight with them. Also notice how the part of your mind that is doing the watching feels. It isn’t tied up in anything, so it can be very calm, stable, and clear. No matter what happens in life, you can always return to this peaceful state of mind, and can use it to think more clearly.

This practice can be deepened further with Buddhist vipassana and jhana meditations, finding ever-more subtle and peaceful levels of the mind, and gaining ever-more insights into the nature of mental and so-called “physical” phenomena.

The pain is over there… the pain is not me

For managing pain (or pleasure or boredom), here is a mindfulness technique that has worked well for me. Hold whatever part of the body or mind is in pain at a distance, look at it, and calmly/dispassionately repeat the following to yourself: “the pain is over there… the pain is not me.”

This seems to work for a few reasons:

  1. Calm, clear-headed, detached, dispassionate, etc. mental observation discourages the mind from creating things. It is like placing a buffer of empty space between the constructive part of the mind and the problematic construct.
  2. Pain is a more unconscious, automatic sensation, whereas suffering is a more conscious, habituated perception or psychological labeling of experience. Perceptions (like suffering and joy) can be more easily consciously managed than can unconscious sensations (like pain and pleasure). For example, when babies get injured, they often look to their parents to see how they should respond to, or feel about, the pain from the injury — is it no big deal, or should they cry? Similarly, adults can learn to separate their reactions to pain from their experience of pain.
  3. The body and brain are not a stable, eternal self. Like probably all phenomena in this world, the body and brain’s states are always changing, and seem to follow a predictable, bell-curve-type pattern: they arise, they may stay awhile (or maybe this apparent abiding itself subtly changes from moment to moment), then they decay and condition/become something else. If one can just disassociate oneself from the problematic thing or person for long enough, that thing and/or oneself are guaranteed to change on their own eventually, and they might change enough that the current problem is no longer a problem. Alternatively, if action is better than inaction for some reason (e.g., if the pain is being caused by a poisoned knife stuck in one’s arm, which one should quickly remove), the mental clarity and detachment of this technique should help one to make a good decision and take immediate action.

Like most meditation techniques, the benefits of this technique include that it doesn’t involve taking any expensive, possibly dangerous drugs, or losing one’s mental clarity or self-control; the cons include that it takes persistent, conscious effort and practice.