30 October 2015

Dharma and Science

"Truth is always liberating, not always comforting" -- Janna Levin

"We can't experience profound well-being without working with, not against, the gritty reality of life." -- Pema Chodron

Like a scientist investigates things "objectively", the mindfulness meditation practice instructs us to be curious, and observe and investigate our personal "subjective" landscape, our mind. But there is no "objective" way to report our experience - at least, not yet - fMRI images are as close as we may get to it now. We are left with certain landmark remarks and descriptions from the experienced meditators and teachers as a map or guidelines, as we progress through the practice.

We should be clear that studying the mind this way is not same as studying it scientifically. It is like trying to understand how the car engine may work from the experience of driving the car. Both offers different perspective and usefulness, and hopefully complementing each other. The following are some of my simplified ideas linking the dharma (Buddhist teachings) and Science.

"Substrate" or "space":
There is a well-established concept in cognitive and neuroscience known as "Working Memory" (WM). Apart from the sensory transient memory, WM can only hold four items at a time (say, 4 numbers or 4 names; using internal rehearsing, we may learn to hold up to 10 items). This is why we find it difficult to hold a phone number. This is similar to the registers in the computer CPU. Roughly speaking, we are conscious of what is available in WM at each moment. I think that WM is what we experience as "substrate" or "space". As we continue our practice and slow down our thoughts, we may notice "gaps" or "pauses"in this "space".

Mind-body problem:
The brain is hardware, and the mind is software. The mind emerges from the function of the brain, like "walking" emerges from the legs. If we are still deeply looking for where "walking" is located in the "legs", then it may seem like a problem. "Walking" is a function of the legs, not a physical thing to locate. The Buddha described how "the self is not so solid". I think that it was his way of describing the software concept more than 2500 years ago.

Nobody denies the experience of qualia or redness of red or our subjective experience of vision, sounds, etc. The idea is that it's an illusion. It does not mean that it is not there, it just means that it is not what it seems to be. It is like watching motion pictures – the motion is just an illusion as they are just stack of images. In fact, this how we see the world, image by image – because, it takes time to process and understand each image. Then the brain creates an illusion of continuity. In the end, all our mental experience is a model, a kind of virtual world created by our mind. It is like the computer GUI (graphical user interface), so we can navigate around and utilize it. The dharma describes the illusory quality of our nature.

There is this physical world including us. Our commonsense world view was crushed by Einstein's general relativity, then further crushed by quantum mechanics. At the fundamental level, we understand the world of the elementary particles with quantum mechanics. Chemistry emerges as the elementary particles combine to form atoms and molecules; then from chemistry to life to mind to consciousness emerges step by step at many levels. But it seems, people want some mysterious force of life, and some magical source of consciousness. Perhaps it is their way of holding on to something, or their way of having some hope. The dharma says it's all empty. Pema Chodron puts it: There is nothing to hold on to; this mundane world is all there is!

Emergence of Consciousness:
Before we understood evolution and molecular biology, the emergence of life from the matter also seemed spooky. As Daniel Dennett puts it, this is inversion of reason - where the reasoning itself goes backwards. In essence, what Charles Darwin discovered: In order to make a perfect, highly complex survival machine, it's not requisite to know how to make it. There is no need for an intelligent agent. In a similar fashion, the father of computer science, Alan Turing showed: In order to be a perfect, highly sophisticated computing machine, it is not requisite to know what arithmetic is. Computers do not understand anything about arithmetic or mathematics, yet they perform advanced arithmetic calculations. In essence: It is possible to have competence without comprehension; and comprehension can come later from competence. Comprehension is an effect, not a cause. Likewise our intelligence is an effect, not a cause; our consciousness is an effect, not a cause; our sense-of-self is an effect, not a cause. The description of Skandhas shows how consciousness arises from the others skandhas, other mental factors.

Dalai Lama says: If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh asks that if the dharma teaches selflessness - no solid self or soul - then how rebirth or reincarnation is possible after our physical death. As master Hsing Yun clarifies, the concept of rebirth should refer to the different physical or mental stages within our lifetime. Sometimes we may hold on to the dharma so tightly or so blindly. Yet the dharma says: don't even hold on to the dharma! Then, we can ground ourselves in the dharma and the reality, and make a proper cup of tea!

See also:

I wrote this in response to "Minding Closely: The four applications of Mindfulness --- 8. Mindfulness of Phenomena" -- by B.Alan Wallace.

25 October 2015

Reasoning Gone Bad

We naturally apply logic and reason on everything - this epitomizes our intelligence. But it stands on our fragile careful attention. I think of the following four major ways, how our reasoning may go wrong: the first two are influenced by our emotions; and the other two are influenced by not going far and deep enough.

We may be intelligent creatures, but we are still emotionally weak. Often, not only, we don't know how to handle our emotions, we don't even have the courage to feel and stay with our own emotions. This may be as simple as staying with boredom just for five minutes without doing anything.

"We are nuclear giants and emotional infants" -- Jack Kornfield

Emotionally blind reason:
Every reasoning we make is somewhat emotionally biased. Once we are emotionally invested in anything, we will be blind to see even obvious errors in our reasoning. We may believe in any magic and outright stupidity.

"We who work at the Supreme Court level, where I do, understand that 90% of our decisions are made on an emotional basis; the other 10% supplies the rationality for those decisions" -- Justice William O. Douglas

Invention of reason (Rationalization):
With our emotional weakness, we often become the victims of our own emotions. Then we invent some reasons (excuses) for our behaviors or feelings to satisfy others or ourselves. We rationalize our actions and feelings so we may feel better. Rationalization is so common that we may not even consciously aware of it.

Short-sighted reason:
If our reasoning is short-sighted and not thorough enough, and we could end up with a wrong conclusion. That is how we used to think that the Earth is flat, the Sun rotates around the Earth, and heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. The conclusions are wrong here, as we only applied a small set of short-sighted evidences.

Inversion of reason:
However bizarre it may sound, there are cases in which, not just our conclusion, but our reasoning itself can be totally reversed, upside down.

"I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter. I didn't have time to write you a short one" -- Blaise Pascal
"Oh Lord, protect me from my friends, I can take care of my enemies" -- Voltaire

Inversion-of-reason can be startling and confusing. No wonder, why most people still struggle to fully comprehend the evolution of life. In essence, what Charles Darwin says: In order to make a perfect, highly complex survival machine, it's not requisite to know how to make it. There is no need for an intelligent agent. It further enlightens us, how we maybe getting many of our simple day-to-day reasoning totally backwards. It's not that we like honey because it's sweet, honey tastes sweet because we are evolved to have sweetness for it. There is no intrinsic sweetness in honey, sweetness is wired in our brain. It's not that we adore and care babies because they are cute, we are evolved to find them as cute because we have to adore and care them.

In a similar fashion, the father of computer science, Alan Turing showed: In order to be a perfect, highly sophisticated computing machine, it is not requisite to know what arithmetic is. Computers do not know anything about arithmetic or mathematics, yet they perform simple to advanced arithmetic calculations. In essence: It is possible to have competence without comprehension; and comprehension can come later from competence. Comprehension is an effect, not a cause. Likewise our intelligence is an effect, not a cause; our consciousness is an effect, not a cause; our sense-of-self is an effect, not a cause. Our intelligence is a result of many low level components. Our consciousness is a result of many intertwined unconscious processes. Our sense-of-self is a collection of many concepts. Alas, many are still looking for some fundamental magical source for our intelligence, consciousness, and soul.

Inversion of reason is based on a presentation by Daniel Dennett.

30 August 2015

Battles of Love

From the perspective of romantic love, men and women have many common interests, but also many conflicting interests. This tension is a source of excitement, pleasure and love, and also panic, pain and heartache. This is a game, a battle: Men and women are evolved to play. In this game: they are kings and queens, players and drama queens, and lovers and cheaters. In this battle: there are broken hearts, wounded souls, and destroyed spirits.

The conflicts start from the beginning of the process itself – who they find attractive and how they check out the opposite sex. As women and men are evolved to play different roles, they seek out different traits in their partners. As studies show: Men are most excited to see images of naked women, whereas women are most excited to see images of babies and mothers. Hence women have to seek out other venues like certain romantic novels to satisfy their fantasy. Though both men and women check out the opposite sex, men's tunnel vision makes it obvious, whereas women's peripheral vision makes it difficult to detect. Both men and women equally cheat their partners, though they may do it for different reasons.

Reproduction is at the core of life evolution. Hence every aspects of it including mate selection, mating, pair bonding (love), child birth and parent-child bonding are the most important aspects of our life – as coded in our genes and expressed in our body/brain/mind. When we succeed, it gives us the ultimate pleasure and great feeling; when we fail, it gives us the worst pain and miserable feeling. As women are evolved to play a major role in the reproduction process, accordingly their pleasure and pain (ups and downs) can be more than that of men. Hence women are often said to be more emotional.

If a man leaves a woman after their first mating, it might be devastating to her. She might feel like being used and something precious taken away from her. She is evolved to feel this way, as it might be a very costly mistake of her life – she might get pregnant and she has to raise her child on her own. Men not only have such a cost associated with this aspect, further it can be positive for the survival of their genes. Hence it may be difficult for men to naturally grasp this feelings of women. Men learn this later from the social experiences. Though women learn to soothe this feeling over the time, it is always present in women's psyche – in every mating and even after a long successful relationship. Women like to be reassured and comforted on a regular basis. The purpose of romance is rooted from this.

Though nature may not be fair, but certain balance cannot be avoided. Though the emotions of men maybe under-expressed (and often under-valued), they do have their own shares. After all, the Buddha - who went to extreme measures to understand our pain and suffering - was a man. Men pay a huge price as they are less experienced with handling their own emotions and women's style of emotional/psychological game. They are often just caught up by it in a shocking way – further trapped by lack of social support.

Being cheated on affects both genders in a heartbreaking way. If a man cheated on his woman, and he comes back to her sincerely, it may still be evolutionarily advantageous to her to accept him – whether she carries children of his or someone else or none. But if a woman cheated on her man, and she comes back to him, it is often evolutionarily harmful to him to accept her. Because a man cannot really know his children for sure. He has no other option but trust his woman. Hence he may find it much harder to forgive and accept her, and continue to suffer for a long time. This predicament of men – not able to know their children for sure – is imprinted in many of men's behaviors including trying to possess and control women. The oppression of women in our society maybe rooted from this insecurity of men.

P.S: This post is not meant to complain and criticize each other, but to understand each other, and perhaps to go beyond our insecurities and weaknesses. This is meant to provide some understanding, so we could accept this fundamental aspect of our life and not disheartened by it.

21 June 2015

Waking Up

A short story

Though he initiated the breakup, he never thought that was the end of their relationship. She asked him for two months of time with some simple help. Now it has been more than three months and there is no contact from her so far. He has been wondering about this awful silence and he is somewhat concerned about her. He does not realize that sometimes silence can be deceiving. Though he feels and acts like a king, he is still a boy in his heart. As he passes close by her neighborhood, he just decides to drop by at her place quickly without much of thinking. As he parks his car and walks towards her place, he prepares himself to be as gentle and caring as possible for her. Finally he sees her. There is no surprise or anger or any questions from her. She just carefully and stealthily shoots him with many hurtful arrows one after another. He is very well capable of handling them gracefully. But it is a total shock to him and he does not see them coming until they hit him. Some of those arrows penetrate deep into his heart – for the first time in his life!

He realizes his bad judgments. He placed himself in a totally vulnerable position with his ignorance and by trusting her without any doubt. He also realizes his insensitiveness towards her feelings after their breakup. With all his intention to be helpful to her, somehow he should have hurt her deeply. Perhaps he can learn to accept what she has done, but he finds it difficult to accept how she has done it. After all, betrayal is a powerful poison. He is hurt, angry and sad. He is shocked and confused. He still cannot believe what has actually happened. He thinks there must be some other big misunderstanding. Later he reaches out to her with the hope that he can make things just little better. He does not want to carry any bad feelings. After all, hatred is as poisonous as betrayal. But she is not ready to give any moment of thought. Perhaps she does not understand his motivation. Perhaps she is still angry. Perhaps she is not ready to take even a slightest possibility of discomfort. She is scared and she wants to protect herself at any cost. As he reaches out to her, to his utter shock, she shoots him with even more hurtful arrows again and again! This time he sees them coming, but he does not have any more energy. He just painfully witnesses as everything falls apart.

It will take him months and years to get some sense of what happened – though many things will forever continue to evade him. It will open his eyes how there were so many signs, some of them were so obvious, yet he was so blind to see them before. He will desperately try to find any meaning left in their relationship, and eventually he will throw up everything. But it will continue to run in the background of his brain dragging him down day and night weeks after weeks and months after months.

He knows he has to be patient and given enough time the grass will grow again. He knows he is fundamentally rich deep within and he will recover back. But he has no idea how long or how much this will drag him down. He also wonders about what kind of recovery it will be. Will it be based on fear and mistrust, or courage and trust? Will his heart be hardened and closed, or gentle and open? Will he be bitter and sad, or joyful and happy? Will he be nervous and weak, or confident and strong? He searches everywhere. He realizes there are no straightforward answers or solutions. One day he randomly comes across a book by Pema Chodron. He reads it all night, and falls asleep holding it on his heart.

He finds himself in a strange land. The hot Sun is right above his head. He can feel the heat wave. He is thirsty and exhausted. He looks around. As far as he can see, there is nothing but dry cracked land in every direction. He walks towards what it seems like water, later he realizes that it is just a mirage. Then he notices a tree far away. He reaches there after a long walk. There is an old lady sitting under the tree peacefully. He recognizes her immediately as he just read her book. She offers him a bowl of water to drink. To his surprise, she seems to understand his pain and struggles.

She gently asks him, "What was your reaction when you got hurt?"

He replies, "I desperately wanted to fix it. I tried every possible ways to make the situation just little better. Not only all my attempts were failed, it made the situation even worse"

She rephrases, "When we are hurt, we try to manipulate the situation to make ourselves come out looking good. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it just won't work. Life just nailed you."

He is shocked by her response, "What is a solution then?"

"There is no solution. It is a transformative experience to understand... there is no solution... there is no ground... there is nothing to hold on to... We are running around in circles pretending, there is a ground – when actually there is no ground"

He is shocked even more, "What to do with our pain and struggles?"

"Now the question is: why are you struggling? What is there to struggle when there is no solution? Can you have compassion with yourself (and others), and see how much you are hurting yourself (and others) with your own struggles? Can you learn to relax and stop struggling? Pain, insecurity, impermanence, change... they are realities of life... there is no escape. This is what it means to be a human. If you learn to accept it, then you can sit down and enjoy the ride."

"Then why do we struggle automatically?"

She asserts him, "We don't have anything to lose, but being programmed in our guts to feel that we have a lot to lose. That is why we struggle. If we learn not to be afraid of our pain, groundlessness, insecurity, uncertainty, ambiguity, paradoxes – that would allow us to be open, free and compassionate in any situation"

He interrupts her, "But we are afraid"

"Yes, fear is just part of being alive. We have to skillfully learn to work with our fears. The more we familiarize with our own fear, the less powerful it will be. Without knowing fear, there is no fearlessness, there is no courageousness. Now the question is: can you meet your fear face to face?"

He realizes its challenges, "When we panic… when we go through painful, heart-breaking situations… it is not going to be easy to face our fears"

She nods, "That's why we automatically want to cover over the pain in one way or another, identifying with victory or victim-hood. Instead of trying to find all sorts of escape routes, we can develop a curiosity and get to know our pain and fear courageously. We could develop a warrior attitude and learn to face our own fears and aggressions... learn to fearlessly acknowledge and accept impermanence, change, insecurity and pain, and begin to get the knack of our groundlessness... learn to have room for all things to happen – grief, relief; misery, joy; hurt, healing... learn to be open and vulnerable by recognizing our fundamental richness... learn to recognize that disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger and jealousy are our teaching moments, where we reach our limits, where a new beginning is possible."

"How can we develop such a warrior attitude?"

"One baby step at a time. We could start it by waking up to life by recognizing the preciousness of the present moment. Instead of habitually reacting the same old ways, we could develop mindfulness -  conscious awareness to our thoughts, emotions and actions. Once we started to notice our thoughts and emotions, and their patterns in new a light, we'll naturally develop a skill to handle them gracefully. As we cultivate compassion and courage, we'll naturally develop a confidence and wisdom, and open up to the world fully"

Suddenly the whole scene disappears and he finds himself trapped inside a very deep dark cave. He finds a narrow opening at the top of the cave. He realizes that it is going to be a long strenuous climb. Her voice echoes through the cave, "Don't be afraid. You can do it."

He wakes up from his dream.

I wrote it on May 2014, as an assignment for a short writing course that I took. Thanks to my instructor and all my classmates who reviewed it. Special thanks to my friend Boomi.

17 June 2015

Our Needs

One day we were all chatting in the main hall. One of my 10 year old niece was studying for her school homework.

My brother casually asked her, "Why are you studying so hard?"
She replied, "So I can get good marks"
He playfully continued, "Why do you need good marks?"
"So I can get to a good college"
"Why do you need to go to college?"
"To get a job"
"Why do you need a job?"
"To earn money"
"Why do you need money?"
"I'll buy lot of jewelries"
"Why do you need jewelries?"
"I'll wear and show them off to my friends and all"

Though we all laughed by her answer, later I thought about how much we live for the opinions of others and how much we care about our reputation. Apart from our basic needs (food, water, shelter, etc.), how much we struggle for our status, fame and power.

Maslow's 'Our hierarchy of Needs' describes humans needs and how it evolves hierarchically. There is also a simpler commonsense model with three elements: Health, Wealth and Love. I designed the following diagram using this simple model for my nieces to give them some idea about 'Our Needs' and the purpose of studying.

(Click the image to see it in a bigger view)

I described it to my nieces in the following order:
  • Three basic needs of our life: Health, Wealth, and Love [shown in the middle row]. And each one has two sides to it: External and Internal [shown in one row above is External and below is Internal]
    1. Health => External -> Physical Health. Internal -> Mental health.
    2. Wealth => External -> Hard and Soft wealth. Internal -> Skills, expertise, mental capabilities.
    3. Love => External -> Family, friends and relationships. Internal -> Self compassion and spirituality.
  • How each elements and sides are connected together and depended on each other...
  • How we are often focused on the External sides, forgetting the importance of the Internal sides (as the External sides are easily visible)...
  • How we face many challenges to meet our needs ["Our Challenges" section]... How our challenges can be our powerful inspiration and motivation...
  • How we have our own individual biases and preferences ["Our Biases" section]... 
To me, this is about planting seeds in their young minds and it doesn't matter how much they can understand it now. This is nothing to do with how much we have or we have achieved or we will achieve. This is simply about having some awareness so we set our priorities mindfully.

Man sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived. -- Dalai Lama

14 June 2015

Fortune Cookie

A short story

It was early November, snowing heavily. I was driving from Ohio to New Jersey. Except few monstrous trucks, the road was almost empty. It was my first long road trip. As a new driver and still new to America, I was a bit nervous. I had just completed my first consulting assignment in Ohio, and my company had asked me to come over to New Jersey for a new assignment.

As it was getting late in the evening, I took an exit to eat. It was a small town in Pennsylvania. Most of the restaurants were already closed perhaps due to heavy snow. I found one small Asian restaurant open. I quickly had small chicken fried-rice. The waiter brought the bill along with a fortune cookie. I paid the bill and left the restaurant taking my fortune cookie.

During my past six months stay in Ohio, I met many interesting people. John was my close neighbor, we often played tennis together. Sometimes another neighbor Nancy would join our game. She did a medical training there for few months away from her home. On her last day, John and I gave her a small send-off party in a fancy Thai restaurant. As we were finishing our dinner, a beautiful Asian girl came to our table to give our bill. I said to John and Nancy, "Oh my god, I'm totally attracted to her". I do not think they understood how much I meant it. As we were looking at the bill, we opened our fortune cookies. I opened mine and it said, "You will find your love today". I showed it to John and Nancy. As we were laughing about it, she came back again to collect the bill. Without any thinking, I just took my fortune cookie and gave it to her. She read it, looked at me and shyly went away. Nancy told me that I was so courageous to do it.

John and I went to that restaurant many times after that. With all the busyness in the restaurant, I made few eye contacts with her and she seemed to be interested, but perhaps shy. She often seemed to be close around me but not close enough. I wanted to approach and talk to her but I was shy. It is so ironic that once we like someone, suddenly saying even a simple 'hi' becomes so difficult! Every time, I left the place frustrated. Over the time, I had a feeling that everyone worked in the restaurant knew about me and my interest in her. They even seemed to treat me better.

On one such occasion, as John and I were leaving the restaurant, she was standing at the reception area along with couple of other girls. She looked deeply into me as though to communicate something important. I felt sadness in her look. Still I did not have enough courage to approach her. I said to John, "I have a bad feeling. Perhaps she is going to leave this place soon or something".

When we went to the restaurant next time, she was not there. I casually asked the bartender about her. He replied that as she had finished her school, she went back to her country couple of days back. John looked deeply at me for the first time, as though he just understood what I had been sharing with him all these days. After all, I never spoke a single word with her, and all I really knew was just my intuitions and feelings. Whenever her image comes to my mind, a sharp pain hits my heart.

As I was leaving the small Pennsylvania town, it was still snowing heavily. I was holding my new fortune cookie in my hand that said "Courage is fear holding on a minute longer".

I wrote it on 16th April 2014, as an assignment for a short writing course that I took (This is my first story I ever wrote). Thanks to my instructor (Matt) and all my classmates who reviewed it. Special thanks to my friend Boomi.