“I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I am doing.” John Cage
“Nothing that we perceive is finally, absolutely so.” Ajahn Sucitto
Our father would bring us chocolate bars. He would drive us to the lake after work for a
quick evening picnic or, later, for a vacation week of fishing and swimming under the summer sun. He introduced my brothers and me to the Rochester Red Wings where the excitement of the crowd, the fresh greens of the baseball field, the timbre of the old organ and the fragrance of popcorn wove themselves into our nervous systems and our happy memories. Afterwards there would be chocolate sodas for all at the local ice cream parlor. On Saturdays he would load us into our family’s battered white Ford for our weekly excursion to Front Street where the smells of cheese, sausage and wandering chickens scratching in sawdust would accompany our shopping among the old Polish and Italian storefronts. Our father brought so many moments of nourishment, sweetness and care into our world.
Interspersed with the chocolates and ice cream, the picnics and swimming and baseball, our very same father would, from time to unpredictable time, have passionate and often violent outbursts of rage, followed by arctic silences that could last for days. Each of us, terrified, would retreat into frozen isolation, brokenness, and our own unique and reactive versions of the same rage. These early experiences from infancy onward, laid down patterns of perception and interpretation of self and other that began to program the functioning of our bodies, our symbolic representations (images and dreams and language), our mental processes (thoughts and emotions) and our social expectations and relationships.
And still our discursive brains want to know: was our father a kind, loving, attentive, hardworking, supportive, caring and earnest father? Or a menacing, rageful, punitive, violent and disabling one? Our brains want to make us safe and separate and certain. The brain’s job, evolved over millennia of evolution, is to label, to define, to store information in memory for quick and decisive future reference. Our conscious brains don’t like complexities or the fluidity or ambiguous uncertainty of this human life. They think in the duality of language, naming things with words and concepts: “It’s this;” therefore, “It’s not that.” Once named, objects, experiences, take form and tend to become that forever, supported by emotion and our ongoing narratives.
As humans, we come to imagine that our senses, our perceptions and our emotions give us an accurate picture of life “in here” and “out there.” However, neuroscience is showing us that, with billions of neurons capable of firing at any given moment, our brains provide less a description of “reality” than a set of what neuroscientist David Eagleman has called “newspaper headlines:” a compressed sketch or a brief overview or a caricature of sorts…Once these sketches are in place, they tend to become very robust, filtering new experience through the lens of what has come before, falling quickly into a pattern of neuronal firing that, with repetition, becomes an unconscious habit of mind, with the result being that we then tend to perceive only what the brain predicts.
Further, Dan Siegel notes that The flow of all of this processing from sensation to perception to thought and emotion is influenced by the state of mind at the time of sensing something. Our mental states profoundly influence our construction of reality at this emerging symbolic representational level.
Further still, these assessments of our human brains appear to privilege negative information. Rick Hanson and others note that the brain processes negative, threatening information more quickly and in a more robust manner than positive information. Our ancestors, whose brains had a preference for positive experience or who were unable to quickly perceive and react to threats, got eaten because they were munching berries while the lions were, also, looking for dinner.
And finally, our brains, for similar reasons, disliking uncertainty and confusion, take bits of data and, based on past experience, cleverly and more often than we realize, simply make things up. In the visual cortex, this functions much like a modern Photoshop software, filling in what is actually missing data in the visual field so that a unified and familiar visual perception becomes available.
Our emotions are part of this process of selective information gathering, storage and retrieval. Emotions result from a complex system of feedback loops among inputs from our internal body states, from our sense contact with the (apparently) external world, our felt sense of the relative pleasant or unpleasantness of these, and our current and past perceptions and cognitive appraisals of it all. Heavily influenced by relational experience, these all interact constantly together to provide information about what’s going on and what we should do about it.
Once formed, these patterns of brain activity became unconscious and easily triggered, reinforced by repetition and by our belief in our stories and narratives about them. And so they become, over time, more and more “real.” We come to believe fiercely in our perceptions and views. The brain then assumes that our constructions represent an external reality that is tangibly real, stable, and perceived in similar ways by all: “true.” We identify a self with these patterns of mind. Internal perception becomes the lens through which we view the world, leading to highly selective attention that unconsciously perceives only that which fits its constructions. If something doesn’t fit, we either ignore it, disregard aspects of it, or make up an explanation such that it fits anyway.
As activity of the human mind, all of this is enormously important, with much practical value insofar as it is useful when we need to efficiently locate food resources, protection from danger, and potential mates for reproduction. There is an ordinary and functional goodness in all of this. In the genius of evolution, the human animal has, over millennia, developed strategies to efficiently sort and organize huge amounts of sensory data in order to defend our (apparently) separate existence, to attempt to stabilize what is constantly fluid and changing, and to help us be – or at least feel – safe. Animals without these organizational strategies, paralyzed by too much complex information and/or forgetful of past experience, were likely unable to make quick life and death decisions and so they did not survive to become our ancestors.
At a deeper level, however, these very same perceptual strategies are a source of mis-information and, ultimately, profound suffering. I can now see that I gradually came to see and relate to both myself and my father in limited and narrow ways and through that lens I filtered everything else in our experience together. Time passed; all sorts of things changed, both internally and externally. And still I held on to a set of perceptions, emotions and narratives. Over time, this generalized externally to others whose similar characteristics triggered familiar neuronal pathways. These perceptions, emotions, narratives and responses became self-fulfilling prophecies as I approached new people, all male adults, all authorities, finally all human others with a disposition that guided me to approach hesitantly or too compliantly or to freeze and shut down or to criticize or flee at the first hint of uncertainty. Dukkha. Suffering: living in samsara.
Samsara is this human grasping onto experience, fixating on it and, in this way, wandering over and over again in suffering. The Buddha’s teachings inspire us to begin to see, directly, that suffering arises internally in the mind and not “out there.” Further, the Buddha saw the cause of suffering, not in the neuronal patterns themselves, but in our delusions about them. He saw that if we if we identify too closely, cling too tenaciously, to these organizational processes, if we cling to making them more real and solid than they actually are, we will suffer. He spoke of the cause of suffering as our being re-born over and over, not into organization itself, but into clinging to the forms of that organization: trying to make permanent and more real than is true the moment to moment arisings and passings of the various components of human experience. He invites us to question the headlines and summaries that the brain invents. He teaches us to become disenchanted with these forms: to know them as impermanent and no more real than a glob of foam, a water bubble, a cloud, a mirage that changes in every moment.
This is not, however, to suggest that we ignore important developmental tasks or that we fail to address psychological wounds that have impaired our abilities to function in comprehensive, integrated, and wholesome ways. It is not to suggest that we allow injustice when we have the capacity to challenge and correct it. Just as the Siddhartha came to recognize the importance of physical nourishment and a basic level of physical well-being, so too are we invited to basic psychological and behavioral health. Nevertheless, we are invited, over and over, to learn to let go when these perceptions, emotions, narratives and strategies simply sustain or even breed more and more suffering for ourselves or others. He taught the Dharma not as a structure in and for itself, but as a path that aims relentlessly to cross the floods of human suffering to reach the “farther shore” of complete and irreversible freedom from suffering.
Now that we, in western cultures at least, are identifying so very many psychological rafts, important means of healing from past injuries and traumas, we can get enamored with the process of healing and make fixing ourselves or others a goal which could lead us, paradoxically, to refuse to heal. We can be unwilling to let go of the raft when its time: whether it’s our perceptions, narratives and identifications or an endless “working on ourselves.” We can imagine that there is an unchanging self to “fix.” Or we can imagine that historical events have irreparably damaged a self. Of course, alternately – in a more spiritual form of this misunderstanding – we can imagine that past traumas have no real impact and do not need our attention: that we do not or should not need a raft to cross the river. Psychological work can be an important aspect of human life, but it, too, is a raft for crossing over, not for holding on. Our spiritual/meditation practices cultivate further our knowing of embodied experience arising and passing away moment by moment, both internally and externally, here, now. We gradually learn to ride the waves of experience with more and more fluidity, ease and joy. “It’s like this, now.”