Napa Valley Insight Meditation Message Board › Kathy Cheney - Teachings on the Eightfold Path: July 1st NVMG meeting
This Tuesday (July 1st), Kathy Cheney will lead the Sangha and continue her teachings on the Eightfold Path, which the Buddha described a comprehensive blueprint for living a spiritual life and coming to awakening.
For those who would like to explore this topic in greater depth, Kathy suggests reading the book “The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering,” by Bikkhu Bodhi's. You can access the book by clicking on the link below.
Neuroscience, the Self and Buddhism
Every month I receive a copy of the MIT Technology Review and this month’s issue was on “hacking the soul” – how science and new technologies are providing greater insists into how we feel, think and understand our world. One article that caught my attention was an interview with Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California. His research has shown that emotions and feelings are central to consciousness. In essence our minds begin at the level of feelings; i.e. it is when you have a feeling that you begin to have a mind and a self.
So the cutting edge of neuroscience now concludes that feeling and emotions give raise to our sense of self. But what gives rise to our emotions. According to Damasio, feelings are mental experiences of body states, which includes the state of the eye, ear, mind and body in any given moment. These body states arise from the body’s response to external stimuli (e.g. the eye sees something, the mind thinks something, the ear hears something, etc.). The response is then interpreted by the brain as a feeling, which can be either pleasant or unpleasant. So in essence the order of events is: Car cuts me off (external stimuli), I feel threatened (conditioned message by body state), experience fear (mind interprets body state), and feel horror (unpleasant feelings). It is the processing of these emotional states that give rise to our sense of a solid self.
So interesting this is the exact way the Buddha described the way we perceive phenomena. In essence, the self is just a convenient term for a collection of physical and mental personal experiences, such as feelings, ideas, thoughts, habits, attitude, etc. that arise out of our contact with the physical world. He described an individual as a combination of five aggregates, Physical Form, Sensation (our feelings and our senses), Perception (cognition and reasoning), Mental Formations (habits, prejudices and predispositions), and Consciousness (awareness without conceptualization) – as a way for us to understand the ever changing nature of the self. There is no solid self – or as Damasio says, when emotions arises, due to our contact with the physical world (form, sensations), we connect them with intellectual processes (mental formations, perceptions) in such a way that we create a whole new world around us (consciousness).
We all know that processes are not solid and change all the time (thoughts, sensations, physical stimuli), yet our minds hold on to the sense that there is a solid permanent “me” hiding in those processes somewhere. As if the processes themselves were a real solid thing in the same way that a table or chair are real. When we talk about “no-self” in Buddhism, we are pointing to this sense of a solid self and calling it an illusion. The process of “selfing” is real (this is how our minds work), the belief that it is somehow a permanent “me”, however is not. This appears to also be the conclusion of neuroscience, as well.
While the selfing-process creates narratives that organize our experiences into something recognizable, the illusion of self is inserted as a main character into all these narratives. We expect the character to be the same all the time, to never change or go away, to be “real.” And yet each moment we are running into a stark reality: the self is not as real as we believe it to be, and it certainly does not last. Over time this sense of solid “me” becomes the most salient feature of all of our experience and our greatest source of anxiety. The fact that we see this constantly changing process as a solid “me” creates endless problems for us because it sets up a never-ending fight between us and reality (and reality never loses).
Buddhist teachings argue that it is not useful to frame practice through any conception of self. Identifying the self with any characteristic or experience, even awareness itself, leads to a jumble of speculation, and not to liberation. Instead, Buddhism suggests we look at our experience through the framework of the Four Noble Truths, focusing honestly and directly on our suffering, the grasping that causes it, the peace or happiness that results from the release of grasping, and the way of living that supports a sense of well-being (the eightfold path).
Damasio writes, “If only we want it, deeper knowledge of brain and mind will help achieve…happiness.” The Buddhist teaching point to the same truth by suggesting that we pay attention to our minds, the fear, desire, ambition, and clinging that motivate the building of self-identity. Mindfulness meditation is the powerful tool we have to undertake this exploration – a tool that is open to all beings, no matter where we are on our spiritual journey.