The Nature of Consciousness

“In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Thomas Metzinger about the scientific and experiential understanding of consciousness. They also talk about the significance of WWII for the history of ideas, the role of intuition in science, the ethics of building conscious AI, the self as an hallucination, how we identify with our thoughts, attention as the root of the feeling of self, the place of Eastern philosophy in Western science, and the limitations of secular humanism.”

“Thomas K. Metzinger is full professor and director of the theoretical philosophy group and the research group on neuroethics/neurophilosophy at the department of philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany. He is the founder and director of the MIND group and Adjunct Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute of Advanced Studies, Germany. His research centers on analytic philosophy of mind, applied ethics, philosophy of cognitive science, and philosophy of mind. He is the editor of Neural Correlates of Consciousness and the author of Being No One and The Ego Tunnel.”

Why Buddhism Is True

The full title of this book is: Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. And it’s the science and philosophy parts of the book that I found most insightful. There is so much within and about Buddhism that are really hard for me to grasp. Emptiness, non-self, just to mention two. This book gave me — for the first time — a tiny, brief glimpse of what these might be. The author explains how natural selection plays such an important role in determining who and what we are. And his explanation of consciousness is the best I’ve come across. This was a breakthrough book for me. I’ll be reading it again. Here are a few excerpts, stripped of all context. Continue reading

Meditation: 365 Days

According to the app I use to track my meditation practice, today was the 365th consecutive day of sitting. Cool. One year with zero misses. Which means absolutely nothing other than I’ve been consistent in my practice. I started keeping track on November 30, 2014 and ran up a string of 371 days before missing a day (pneumonia). The next run — 271 days — ended while I was out of town attending my 50th high school reunion. Which might be the worst excuse imaginable. And now I’m less than a week away from beating that 371 string. Two days without meditating in the past 1,007 days.

The only day that counts, of course, is today. The app and keeping my streak alive give me a little extra incentive to sit every day but I don’t need much incentive these days. The time I spend in meditation is almost always the best part of my day.

Next milestone? 500 days.

“World’s First Android”

Assuming this is an early glimpse of one possible future… how do I feel about it? Mixed, I think. If humans still have some evolving to do — and I sure hope we do — it seems likely such evolution will be in this direction. It’s tempting to slap a “good” or “bad” label on this but such value judgements are human tags and I’m starting to find them irrelevant. Perhaps with time and luck, we can make better versions of ourselves.

Fear Hologram Projector

The brain has the ability to generate vivid, life-like images and scenes. It does this seemingly on its own. These scenes can appear in one’s consciousness at any moment and they can be nearly indistinguishable from reality (‘out there’ as opposed to ‘in your head’). These thoughts, in my experience, are mostly beyond ‘our’ control. They happen to us. And while we can’t prevent them, we can — with practice — observe them. See them for what they are. The analogy that best captures this for me is a Fear Hologram Projector.

“Fear” because the scenarios that trouble me most involve fear and worry and anxiety. “Hologram” because these little mental vignettes are so incredibly real. I don’t know why the brain (some brains) persists in creating these but the brain in my head pulls from a lifetime of images and situations and mashes them up with the most negative of emotions and ideas.

It’s like walking down one of the endless passages in my brain and suddenly finding myself in one of these holograms. And the more mental attention I give it, the sharper and more detailed it seems. The hologram seems to need the energy of my attention to project. The fear hologram can loop endlessly for days or weeks. Or longer.

The brain can, of course, create a more positive, pleasant scenario. We like to imagine good and happy things happening. It would seem to be just as easy to create that kind of hologram as the awful kind. If ‘I’ am going to imagine some future, why wouldn’t I choose to something pleasant? The only answer I can come up with is I don’t get to choose. These mostly just happen. They come unbidden.

How do we turn off the Fear Hologram Projector?

Well, we can’t turn it off until we recognize what’s happening. We can’t see the projector when we’re in the middle of the hologram loop. The key here is probably mindfulness. Seeing what is really occurring. Not in your head but in the real, objective world around you (if you believe in such a thing). We might think of this as “experiential reality.” What we see, hear, touch, smell, taste.

When I find myself trapped in a fear hologram, it feels dark, like a movie theater. The images on the screen are more vivid in a darkened theater. And I can’t see the projector because I don’t know to look for it, or where to look.

But if I can be mindful enough to recognize I’m in a hologram — something generated by a (I choose not to say ‘my’) mind — I can bring up the house lights of my awareness! And in that instant I can see that the images are not real. They’re brain stuff. Stuff ‘I’ didn’t choose. Under the bright light of my awareness, the hologram images fade and as my awareness stops powering the projector, the images disappear. My belief, my buy-in is necessary for the hologram to exist.

I’m reminded of lines from my reading about Buddhism and Taoism.

“Am I conscious now? It troubles me that I seem so often to be unconscious. I wonder what this unconsciousness is. I cannot believe I spend most of my life in a kind of darkness. Surely that cannot be so. Yet every time I ask the question it feels as though I am waking up, or that a light is switching on.” – Ten Zen Questions

“Belief is at best an educated, informed conjecture about Reality. In contrast, seeing — raw, direct, unadulterated experience — is the direct perception of Reality Itself. […] Base your actions on what you see, rather than on what you think.” – Buddhism Plain and Simple

The bad news: our brains (okay, fuck it! My brain) have an endless capacity for materializing FHP’s (Fear Hologram Projectors), twenty-four/seven. And a lifetime of material from which to create the loops. Access to all our fears and anxieties.

The good news: it’s pretty easy to hit the house lights, spot the projector and pull the attention plug. If we can stay mindful. Of course, mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean a state of meditative bliss. If you’re rocketing down a black ski slope; lining up for a night landing on an aircraft carrier; or in the middle of brain surgery… you’re probably not trapped on some mental fear loop. And lots of daily, less challenging tasks, can help us stay in the moment. But the mind never stops. You can hit the house lights and pull the plug on the fear projector… and find yourself back in some anxious future 30 seconds later. And this can repeat over and over, day and night.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I am either ‘awake’ or not-awake. Not-awake can take several forms, of course. There the subconscious which is probably what I’ve been talking about. How frustrating that it handles all of those life and death tasks (breathing, heart, etc) without any help from the conscious me…. and still finds time to gin up endless fear and anxiety scenarios.

Then there are dreams — which tend to be more real than the Fear Holograms — but there’s nothing we can do about those. Fortunately, mine seem to fade quickly upon awakening. And I’ve read that we also experience unconsciousness most nights. Dreamless sleep. Would like to have more of that.

I expect to be reaching for the switch to the house lights for the rest of my life. Endlessly pulling the plug on the FHP. But I find some comfort in the belief that “Thoughts think themselves.” I don’t control them. That’s the subconscious, forever and always.

And I have the cushion. Meditation. Observing the mind, allowing it to become quieter (rarely quiet). Awakening, if only for a moment.

When You Can’t Stop Looking Ahead, Look Backwards

More wisdom from David Cain:

This is the ephemeral nature of human experience, and remembering the gist of it can really take the edge off our current worries. So when it seems like you can’t stop looking forward, look back. They all came and went, and few of them seem to justify the worry we suffered over them.

Because we overlook the ephemeral, passing quality of the events in our lives, we engage in this habit of obsessing over the latest uncertainty, stretching its potential pain into days or weeks of guaranteed pain, in the form of worry. By perpetually trying to guarantee for ourselves a painless future, we are perpetually creating a painful present.

When You Can’t Stop Looking Ahead, Look Backwards