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 mind are not a stable, eternal self. Like probably all phenomena in this world, the body and mind’s states are always changing, and follow a predictable, bell-curve-type pattern: they arise, they may stay awhile, 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.

What are the differences between humans and apes? Not many.

When I watch documentaries like these, I see beings who have cultures, languages, families, communities with both internal and external social structures and conflicts, technologies/tools, educational techniques, personal desires and attachments, who mourn their losses, and who have substantively the same body configurations as we do. There are a few key things they haven’t developed yet (e.g., preserving knowledge using artifacts, and using cooking to increase their calorie intake (hence brain neuron density) and to give them more free time), but those developments seem quite minor, and probably just a matter of time and opportunity, to me.


Valuing life

What is appealing about eating, or wearing, the rotting carcas of a dead animal or plant?

Why are captive, genetically weakened animals and plants more valued than the freer, stronger animals and plants in the fields and forests?

Why do larger, more intelligent animals (cows, pigs, etc.) deserve to be killed and fed to smaller, less intelligent animals (cats, dogs, etc.)?

Why is a human brain and body configuration more valued than non-human configurations?

What positive contributions do you make to the world that justify killing thousands of other beings for you throughout your life?

Why are humans in other countries less valuable than humans in your country?

Why are children you give birth to more valuable than orphan children who have already been born?

A conversation about truth between a natural scientist and a Theravada Buddhist

Scientist: If it can’t be measured with an objective, mechanical instrument, it didn’t happen.
Buddhist: Everything you’ve ever thought, seen, made, or done — including hypotheses, instruments, experiments, results, and theories — are constructs of the brain/mind. Everyone’s experience of life is inherently subjective; objectivity is impossible. Even one person cannot truly understand another person.
Scientist: But humans have evolved on this planet for millions of years. Under Earth-like conditions, our constructs are probably very accurate.
Buddhist: Under land-dwelling, great-ape-like conditions, the constructs are probably very accurate. But can a human really fathom the experience of something like the underwater echolocation experience of a dolphin, or the “rapid-pink” (Varela, Rosch, & Thompson, 1991, p. 183) combined temporal-visual sense that allows small birds to fly through dense bushes? Minds are embodied, and different species’ brains and bodies seem to be configured differently.
Scientist: Under ape-like or aquarium conditions, humans can observe dolphins and see what their echolocation abilities seem to allow them to do (e.g., navigate in the dark). Then we can create instruments (e.g., sonar), with which we can interact, that seem to us to allow us to do the same things as dolphins.
Buddhist: We can mentally construct a perception of physical instruments….
Scientist: Agreed.
Buddhist: So the goals of science are conceived from a human perspective. Humans see something they want to understand, or a challenge they want to overcome, so they set about finding a way to feel like they’ve understood or overcome it. What bothers me about this is that, earlier, you claimed “it didn’t happen,” in an absolute sense. How can a research project that was conceived in a species-biased way lead to an impartial, unbiased realization of absolute truth?
Scientist: When research is done on extremely large scales, and involves extremely brilliant people, I think the results approach absolute truth.
Buddhist: I will grant you that it approaches an intersubjective truth, which may be all that most selfish/greedy/angry humans really care about (i.e., a human-serving truth), but not absolute truth.
Scientist: Then on what grounds would you say that absolute truth has been found?
Buddhist: With practice, the human mind has the capability to internally turn upon, observe, and go progressively deeper into itself. Eventually, we think it can go to such a basic level that it is no longer human, and some Buddhists think no longer subjective. From such a perspective, we think that one is in a less biased, or possibly unbiased, position to observe reality.
Scientist: How could that be verified? How could a human, from their everyday state of consciousness, confirm that a Buddhist meditator has gone to such an unbiased state?
Buddhist: Well, we don’t know whether you scientists could think up a way to measure states of consciousness, but we think that people who can achieve such a state are able to tell whether other people have attained it. “Enlightenment,” as we call it, is like a club with very difficult entry requirements. Western science also has quite high entry requirements: a high degree of cognitive abilities, often many years of school, a controlled laboratory environment, etc.
Scientist: How much practice are we talking about here?
Buddhist: For most people, it takes about three years of vigorous practice in solitude (i.e., few external distractions), with a good teacher.
Scientist: So it’s independently, empirically verifiable, but very hard to verify. Most people aren’t going to spend three years sitting out in the woods, in order to gain the ability.
Buddhist: Right. It would be wonderful, if more people would make the effort, but not many are willing. The Buddha suspected that it would always be that way.
Scientist: Can anyone do it, or only certain, privileged people?
Buddhist: We think pretty much every human being has the mental capability. Brain-damaged or severely mentally handicapped people might not, but most people can. It’s easier for some people than others (e.g., people with a calm temperment who live a peaceful life), for many reasons, but it’s just a learned/developed skill, like playing the piano.
Scientist: So it’s transcultural and dissociated from things like personality, gender, and social position.
Buddhist: Yes.
Scientist: It sounds like Buddhist meditation, at least at a very advanced level, might be the doing of science from a more basic or simple, and possibly less biased, state of consciousness.
Buddhist: We would agree. Unfortunately, in order to communicate the findings of enlightened people to humanity, it is difficult to avoid the trappings of languages, cultures, institutions, and so forth. But, like Western natural/positivistic science, we think that there is basically one truth about one reality.
Scientist: Must one worship Buddha statues, wear charm bracelets, and so forth, to practice Buddhist meditation?
Buddhist: No. Monastic Theravada Buddhists think that the Buddha was just a man who accomplished something great. He is highly respected, but not worshipped. Westerners often mis-understand bowing as worship; in the Buddha’s case, it is only supposed to indicate deep respect. However, pop-culture and later Buddhist traditions sometimes take the Buddha in more religious, folklore, magic, astrology, etc. of directions. Buddhist monks are not supposed to participate in such things. It seems like some scientists also have faith in things like the scientific method and the capability of the discursive part of the human mind to understand everything. And then there is science fiction.
Scientist: Thank you. This has been very enlightening.
Buddhist: Not really, but please find a good teacher and practice meditation. Meditation is not the same as talking or thinking about things. Don’t take your discursive, human mind for granted.
Scientist: I’ll think about it.

Reference: Varela, F. J., Rosch, E., & Thompson, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press.

The subtlety of dukkha

Buddhist bhikkhu(ni)s sometimes make the point that suffering, which is an imprecise/incomplete translation of dukkha, is more subtle than just obvious things like sickness, a broken heart, and so forth. The word dukkha’s etymology comes from having a poorly fitting axle on a cart, resulting in a bumpy ride. Dukkha is the nuisance, irritation, struggle, wasted effort/energy/heat, friction, inefficiency, or broken-ness in everyday life, and everything in life involves at least some small amount of dukkha. Here are a few everyday things that people often take for granted as being easy or pleasurable, and how they involve at least some amount of dukkha.

  • Breathing or beating one’s heart requires work by the unconscious aspects of the brain and nervous system, as well as the work of the heart and lungs.
  • Maintaining consciousness requires absorbing and burning energy from food, absorbing and transporting oxygen and blood sugars, getting enough rest, etc. Brains burn a large amount of calories.
  • Sitting or standing upright places a strain on the heart, and causes people’s bones to compress/shrink a little everyday from the force exerted on them by gravity. Healthy bones repair themselves during the night, when the force of gravity is perpendicular to the body. When unhealthy or elderly people’s bones can’t repair themselves enough, such people gradually shrink.
  • Sex requires physical exertion comparable to climbing a flight of stairs, work by the various reproductive organs in the body, and immune and tissue-repair responses by the body.
  • Even very delicate desserts or drugs require bodily swallowing or inhaling, digesting, absorbing, reacting, filtering by the liver and/or kidneys, expulsion of the waste, etc.

Convergence between Buddhism & Physics

Though there appears to be some phenomenology vs. positivism tension between them (e.g., between people who make the point that we can see only our brain’s constructions of reality vs. those who argue that, in order for humans to have survived on Earth for so long, our brains probably have evolved the ability to make constructions that fairly accurately represent an outside world, at least when in Earth-like conditions; see also the Pali commentary on niyama, namely how much of what we experience is determined by karma vs. how much by the available natural and social worlds), I see a convergence between Buddhist notions of becoming (e.g., see Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s “Paradox of Becoming“), Buddhist atomism, and mindstreams, with Western things like presentism and Julian Barbour’s timeless physics.

The idea is that, in every conscious moment, the brain constructs the consciousness of a self and other/world, which is a combination of how the brain desires to exist and the sensory input it is physically able to receive and process. This usually happens continuously in healthy people — people with brain damage, such as from a stroke, sometimes perceive that time slows down, skips sporadically, or stops altogether — such that a stream of related perceptions is apparent, and the person has a feeling of time passing. When awake and presented with physical stimuli, people usually can only construct their presently lived self-other world. But, when they are dreaming and/or lack physical stimuli, they can construct anything they can imagine. However, dreams usually skip around between topics and events, and lack the consistency of waking constructions. Dreams also usually take the form of physical types of consciousness similar to what one would experience while awake (i.e., sights, sounds, pressure, temperature, etc.). As long as a healthy brain, or other way of encoding mental phenomena exists — Buddhists often think that mental phenomena either can exist independently or can be encoded/recorded by the brain onto things like electromagnetism, so that some part of a person can survive death (see the Buddhist concept of Gandhabba, in the sense of a mind between lives) — mental constructions can include how the past was experienced (“memory”), to the degree those those mental phenomena have been preserved from then until now (i.e., they can become distorted, corrupted, or modified over time). But one cannot actually live in either the past or future. The past became the present, and the present will become the future.

The convergence of Buddhism and timeless physics I see centers around how early and Theravada Buddhism conceive(d) of reality as being a field of atoms in certain states that were always changing/transforming into different states. Fields of different kinds of matter supposedly can support different kinds of bodies and minds (e.g., see Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Questions on Kamma“). Fields of more dense or hot matter perhaps can support more corporeal of minds (like human, animal, and plant minds), and fields of less dense or colder matter perhaps can support more refined, purified, heavenly minds. Some people wonder if absolute zero temperature, which is the most devoid-of-energy quantum vacuum state of matter, is the support for a nirvanic mind. Theravada Buddhists often associate the levels of jhana with levels of heavens. The four rupajhanas correspond to the four brahmaviharas, where brahmavihara means “divine dwelling/abode” (see also Buddhist cosmology). I have wondered if the Buddhist notion of hell might very literally correspond to beings whose bodies and minds are based on things like rock, lava, and molten metal inside the Earth and other celestial bodies. The more different that another being’s body / mental substrate is from ours, the harder it might be for us to think like them or communicate with them. The notion that even rocks and light host some kind of life/consciousness also may be related to the Buddhist notion that saṃsāra emerges due to the basic tendency for atoms, matter, and even living beings to cluster together, becoming attached to each other and dependent on each other.

One only can say how a field of matter is now, compared with how it has been, and how it might become. There are spatial dimensions, but no inherent time dimension. Both physical laws and mental desires might allow a field’s state changes to form coherent streams, which are individuals’ bodies and minds. In Theravada, as I understand, people’s bodies and minds are real (unlike in Mahayana and Vajrayana), but they are made up of matter in a transient/impermanent state, which means that people inevitably experience change and the loss of both themselves and others, which causes them suffering. Nirvana might mean learning how to stop basing one’s mind on transient matter, and learning how to base it instead on a more stable kind of matter (often called the “Deathless”). Thai monks I know claim that Deathless matter exists side-by-side and mixed-in, but rarely interacting, with our transient matter. That sounds to me like the baryonic matter vs. dark matter distinction in particle physics, where the nirvanic dark matter in question might be W.I.M.P. particles.