It’s Not What You Think

“We use our minds not to discover facts but to hide them.”
Antonio Damasio

“However we perceive an object, the truth is other than this.”
The Buddha

One of the sense pleasures to which the human mind turns is the comfort, the delight in knowing. We study, think, analyze, and learn: is it this way or that? Up or down? Black or white? Good or bad? Yours or mine? Self or no self? Whether it’s the new book on Buddhism or the latest psychological theory or simply the workings of our own minds and emotions, as humans, we work hard to fit sense data into working narratives and concepts. A new client walks into our offices with old and familiar stories about themselves and about their lives, hoping for another clue that will enable them to stop hurting. Indeed, we wonder with them: what, exactly, is the problem? And how can it be fixed? The conceptual mind, eager for the comfort of understanding, doesn’t like confusion. As psychotherapists, our bookshelves have heavy manuals full of strange language and tidy checklists and boxes into which we can all sort “symptoms.” We want to know.  We are even required to know by the standards of our profession.

Knowing, also, makes sense from the perspective of human evolution. Modern neuroscientists estimate that this typical human brain has evolved to a whopping 80 – 100 billion neurons whose job it is to receive and process and organize seemingly infinite sights and sounds and tastes and smells and touch, a sense of the body in space, thoughts and emotions. At any given second, we are told, our senses are taking in and processing about 11 million bits of information. Our distant animal ancestors, spending their days in the uncertainties of nature, gradually evolved complex brains and management systems to help organize, understand and respond to these barrages of stimuli. They ones who survived to become our grandparents had developed their own internal “diagnostic manuals,” tightly organized by category: “food source,” “my territory,” “potential mate,” “danger.”

Brain researchers also tell us that, at its most basic level of organization, these conceptual pathways are simply sets of probabilities through which the human brain orients to all new sensory data by relating it to other, previously stored information, categories and strategies. The forms of these internal systems are influenced in part by our own genetic expression, in part by the organizational strategies of other important humans in our earlier lives, and in large part by personal experience and practice. The largest share of these codes and pathways become invisible, even to our own minds. Psychologist Tim Wilson compares the ratio of conscious to preconscious and unconscious human mind to a snowball sitting atop a glacier. Nevertheless, these pathways come actively to direct our perceptions – what we bring attention to – and they also direct the ways that we then interpret sensory data. In this way, previously conditioned codes tend to govern our understandings of our world and to guide our choice of actions in that world, providing a feedback loop that “proves” to us that our conditioned views are “true.”  As we come to believe our internal narratives, in particular our snowball of conscious ones, we come to think we understand precisely “how it is.”  And so we “know” about people, sexes, religions, races, countries, races, and political parties. We think we know about emotions and about ourselves. We have explanations for our suffering, for our responses to sensory data and for why things unfold as they do. And so, we take our sense impressions, our thought, our names for things, our judgments and conclusions to be “real” and to be who we and others are. I once read a fascinating novel that was written in three parts. It offered three separate narratives on exactly the same time period and events from the points of view of a daughter, her mother and her grandmother. It was a lovely story of the different coding systems that each person used and through which each interpreted and then reacted to one another. As the stories unfolded, as a reader, I was able to view the confusion and suffering that each experienced as they reacted to one another through their own unique physical and emotional responses to what was, essentially, the same sensory data.

Despite their limitations, some of these automatic manuals and brain strategies work rather well. While for the most part we no longer have to deal with lions and tigers and bears, it remains handy to be able to respond quickly, decisively and automatically when navigating busy streets and burning buildings. More simply, it is even useful and important to have higher level cognitive processing strategies – conscious and preconscious – in which stored representations and mental codes enable us to remember our grocery lists, to find our assigned seats at the theater and to recognize our own children as we meet the school bus. These strategies are more limited than we might imagine, however. All of this sense data is, moment-by-sense-experience-moment, constantly changing. Life arises anew in each moment with many surprises – and only a human system to manage it all. Our strategies and stories can be the cause of much suffering if not held lightly and with spacious awareness.

Backyard Buddha editThe amazing thing is that the Buddha saw all of this by diligent and curious study of his own mind. He took nothing for granted and relentlessly investigated with an ambitious but simple goal: the end of human suffering. As he meditated, he saw directly the way that the human mind moves in response to our sensory data.  The Pali word for this is sankhara, meaning volitional formations or fabrications: the capacity of the human mind to move in its particular ways and to assemble things from the impermanent and never-ending flow of phenomena. Further, he saw the conditioned and conditioning nature of all of this. Modern scientists now report that a set of neurons that has fired together in the past is much more likely to fire again in that particular way. As he meditated, the Buddha himself saw this: that the way that data is perceived and ultimately organized and encoded is influenced strongly by all of its previous codes and by the state of the mind at the moment of sensory contact. The Buddha described his insight thus:

“What one intends, what one arranges, and what one obsesses about: This is a support for the stationing of consciousness. There being a support, there is a landing [or: an establishing] of consciousness…”If one doesn’t intend and doesn’t arrange, but one still obsesses [about something], this is a support for the stationing of consciousness. There being a support, there is a landing of consciousness. When that consciousness lands and grows, there is the production of renewed becoming in the future.”

The Dalai Lama has noted that, of course, as humans who have human brains and who walk on this particular planet, it is natural that we all do this. For all of us, as we grow up and then function in the world, we cultivate our sense of an individual set of strategies known as a “self”: our human personality and its dispositions.  He suggests that the task is to be aware of both the reality and the limitations of this self.  We then can learn to use our personalities when and as they are useful but we also can learn to cultivate and rest in the more spacious awareness that, in curiosity and surprise, enables us to be liberated from the constraints of our conditioning.

In my work as a psychotherapist, I have at times found clients to be quite offended when, for insurance purposes, I am asked to assign a diagnostic code to their suffering. Is it anxiety or depression? Axis I or Axis II? Yet the same people often will be only too ready to refer to themselves as angry or depressed or anxious or victim. I have often heard someone refer to themselves or others as (or as not) some particular “type of person.” At a Harvard conference in 2011, Ellen Langer reported ongoing research in which people who self-identified as “depressed” were called several times a day to ask how they were just that moment. Her preliminary results suggest that, when reporting in this way, individuals found much greater variability (and ease) in their experience than their summary codes and identifications would predict. The summary codes of “depressed” that had brought individuals to psychotherapy appeared to be not as solid or stable as individuals’ minds had made them. We don’t want to live inside another’s codes, but it appears to make life much easier if we invent and then identify with our own. It can seem easier to have some identity – even if it’s an unpleasant or troublesome one – than to live freshly in the uncertainty and the moment to moment unfolding of this ever changing human experience.

The Buddha offered meditation mind training as a way to first see and then to soften and finally to completely release our identification with, and attachments to, these codes. He spoke of this to Bahiya:

“Then, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no you in terms of that. When there is no you in terms of that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress.”

The Buddha taught that the real unsatisfactoriness of life with which we so struggle is caused by craving for the pleasures of certainty and by clinging to our various kinds of codes which we use to construct a sense of an imagined self who can exist as a sort of independent entity separate from others, and who can accomplish its own stability and safety in a world of constant change. It (sort of) gets us through our days as human beings. When we run into difficulty, however, when we discover that these codes do not exactly work, when we suffer, we can have a very hard time allowing ourselves to step outside of the codes and directly into the never ending surprise and wonder of immediate experience. It strikes me as similar to a time when I was a child and I had such difficulty trusting that, without my water wings, the ocean would hold me if I just relaxed and allowed it to do that.

So in our work with suffering, an important our task as psychotherapists might be to help others to become less certain and more relaxed with investigating experience. Indeed, our challenge might be to always be discovering how to be curious and relaxed ourselves. To release insistence that it is life – and our interpretations of the events of our lives – that is the problem: to allow presence and to allow not-knowing and surprise. We can learn to relentlessly practice – and teach – a willingness to investigate our experience directly, internally. We can explore our capacity to soften our insistence that the codes and stories of our conscious minds can ultimately solve the problem of suffering. We can gradually come to have faith that we can release the view that through our own efforts we can make life – internal and external – work out on our own terms and be somehow other than it simply, in this moment, is.

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