Tag Archives: Buddhism

Buddhism and Experimental Psychology

buddha

Today, I’d like to discuss an article by the American Psychological Association on Buddhism and experimental psychology.

Interdisciplinary work is currently at the forefront of research into the mind and brain, and what could be more interdisciplinary than working with Buddhist monks? After all, Buddhists have a 2,000 year headstart on empirical investigations into how the mind influences the body and vice versa. The essence of Buddhism’s approach to psychology has never been dogmatic, but rather, has always been empirical in nature. It has always been emphasized that lifelong experience through meditation is the gateway into understanding your own mind, which of course, leads to the understanding of others. It is this emphasis on experience that makes Buddhism so compatible with empirical psychology.

One line of research currently being explored by Paul Ekman is concerned with meditation and emotional control. At its heart, meditation emphasizes mindfulness of mental states. This form of mindfulness is an attentive awareness of your thoughts and emotions. In the same way that one might sit in a cafe and passively attend to the various people walking by, in meditation, one strives to not react to emotions, but rather, only be passively “mindful” of them.

In a series of yet unpublished experiments, Ekman exposed one Tibetan Buddhist monk to a sudden sound as loud as a firecracker and monitored the participant’s blood pressure, muscle movements, heart rate and skin temperature for signs of startle. The Buddhist monk, possibly due to hours of practice regulating his emotions through meditation, registered little sign of disturbance.

This ability to passively sail through mental storms almost certainly has to do with inhibitory control, which is mediated by the frontal lobes of the brain, responsible for the “executive functions” of attention, planning, socialization, and impulse control. So, it seems evident that through mindfulness training, one can increase your ability to attend to thoughts and emotions, and as they say, knowledge is power. Enhance your awareness and mental control will follow. However, because of our evolutionary history, automatic reactions to emotions is deeply ingrained in our forebrains, and consequently the meditative path is long and arduous. But take the following words to heart and be at peace,

I am about to tread the very path that has been walked by the Buddha and by his great and holy disciples. An indolent person cannot follow that path. May my energy prevail. May I succeed.

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Ruminations on realization

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Western interpretations of Eastern philosophy have used many different terms to refer to the enlightenment process. Such terms include liberation, awakening, realization, etc. In this post I want to briefly speculate on what it could possibly mean to have such an enlightenment.

My speculation runs as follows: I can predict my own intentional actions with a substantial amount more precision than almost everything in the environment. Early on in the developmental process for modern humans, social drives will reinforce the use of cognitive capacities to predict egocentric intentional actions(changes) over the changes of the environment, as predicted by evolutionary theory. Upon realization(liberation, enlightenment, etc) the weight of priority changes, allowing the body-mind system to spend equal if not disproportionate amounts of time “predicting” the world around them.

This is a fundamental psychical change which will be manifested in real brain terms, with the primary impact upon the inhibitory and excitatory circuits of the frontal, executive system.

Because of the shift of intentional prediction towards the environment, phenomenal effects of godhood(or Buddhahood) will likely be present. It is crucial that this feeling of godhood is realized within a non-Western context, otherwise it can easily lead to the grandiose delusions typical of schizophrenia. I believe that the proper context is a Brahman-esque interpretation of God.

Thus, enlightenment could be said to be the realization that you are Brahman, or at least a relative aspect of Brahman. This realization that your Self is God implicitly includes the conception that everyone else in the world is also God. Thus, upon liberation, one realizes his/her Godlike nature and simultaneously realizes that such ideas are essentially meaningless because if you are God, then everyone else is as well. This doesn’t diminish the impact of the initial realization, but the relative context alleviates the probability of the grandiose schizoid behaviors typical of young Western adolescents realizing they are the next Messiah. In other words, the knowledge of such a Godhead transcends the dualistic nature of our egotistic minds.

It is this contextual knowledge that allows one to live the “watercourse way” of the Tao and simultaneously be of this world in such a way as to impart the fruits of compassion and loving-kindness. Cognitive capacities devoted to processing egocentric reference frameworks slowly give way to more allocentric ones. Again, this is where the feeling of god/Buddha-hood stems from, because your intentional prediction faculties are more devoted to predicting what is going on outside the boundary of your skin. The implicit relativities of self/other, inside/outside, etc would either gradually or immediately drop out of perceptual awareness, depending on the nature of the realization.

More ruminations on what it means to be liberated

Upon “transcendence”, who would be left to be liberated? Upon realization, is there any logical medium left for there to be a realization? Who enjoys the fruits the enlightenment, after enlightenment? If I understand the Buddhist concept of non-self correctly, then I have not understood it, because there would be no “I” left to understand after realization.

What do I mean by this? I conclude that one “achieves” enlightenment upon realization of how empty such concepts are to begin with. Again, it is the necessary properties of language and minds that force this confusing paradox upon us. One should probably not struggle too much trying to understand what enlightenment means and to what degree the brain is actually “changed” or “different” when one could instead spend time listening to a sound, smelling a smell, or feeling a feeling. In the words of Alan Watts, this is it.

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