Buddhism and modern science

9 06 2017


The Buddhist doctrine of “not-self” is a tricky concept to comprehend. It proclaims that the idea of self, what one thinks as oneself, doesn’t exist. That means, the “I” or “ego” doesn’t exist. As per Buddhism, self is something that can be controlled. What we perceive as a person or a self can be thought of as a conglomeration of five aggregates – form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Buddhism asserts that since each of these things can happen and exist outside of one’s control, none of these things can be the self and hence there is no self that exists. This follows that there is no single author of our actions and there is a sense of impermanence attached to everything we think as self.

This philosophy is in line with the scientific view of the mind in that there is no central CEO that is in charge of one’s thoughts, emotions, or actions, but rather there are several modules within the brain that act together or in isolation depending on the stimulus and situation. To be precise, there are seven modules of the mind representing: self-protection, mate attraction, mate retention, affiliation, kin care, status, and disease avoidance. There are submodules off each module. This modular theory of mind is developed by Robert Kurzban, and is thought to have been shaped by natural selection.

Whatever we think of conscious self is basically a public relations representative, presenting a coherent picture to the outside world as both beneficial and affective, a tendency described as “beneffactance”. It is a term coined by psychologist Anthony Greenwald in 1980. Even if we are not always aware of the motivations behind our actions and decisions, we present ourselves as otherwise to the others and also self.

If more than one module is at play in a given situation, for example in the case of whether to engage in an extramarital affair, the modules corresponding to short-term and long-term implications may “argue” with each other, weighs costs and benefits, until one clearly wins. The reason we are aware of this internal dialogue is because the conscious self – the PR representative – needs to justify the actions to the society. It may not even be the real reason. Many of our decisions and thoughts are not consciously made. For example, consider the experiment done by Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, in which men who were shown pictures of attractive women preferred to have smaller amount money of right now vs a larger amount in future. This shows that the time discount rate of a particular person is not constant and can be influenced by various environmental factors. It is obvious from such studies and findings that our minds are unreliable and transient, which aligns with the impermanence view of Buddhism.

Now, let’s consider how this “not-self” and “modular view of the mind” manifest themselves in the Buddhist practice of meditation. Meditation can be of two forms – concentrated and open monitoring. In the concentrated mode, you focus on a particular thing, say breath, or a mantra etc. deflecting all the other distracting thoughts. In open monitoring mode, which can also be referred to as mindfulness meditation, one just observes all the thoughts that come to mind, but without pursuing them and without judging them.

When you are in the mindfulness meditation, the default mode network of the mind is triggered, in which several modules vie for your attention through feelings in response to the many thoughts that come to your mind. The default mode network gets activated in the mind when you are not focused on anything in particular. As you practice your mediation, and learn not to feed the thoughts that arise in your default mode network, and be detached to the interplay of the various modules, the default mode network quiets down. While the focused mode meditation is effective in quieting down the default mode network in the first instance, given the fact that you are focusing on something in particular, it is the mindfulness meditation that provides the sustainable change.

We operate with various biases acting on us. For example, without any conscious thought or decision, we attribute the good things that our friends do to their good nature and their bad deeds to external influences. And it’s the complete opposite in the case of our enemies. These are the frames that we create in our minds. Studies have proven that we are even biased about our own biases. We genuinely believe that we are less biased than others. Mindfulness meditation enables us to be aware of such mental frames and by doing so to influence and change them.

Over time, you will be able to carry forward the objective, less attached, and mindful stance to both things inside and outside your mind from your meditation practice into the daily life. This essentially means that by re-framing your mind or choosing your reaction or “no reaction” to your thoughts, you can bring a significant change to your perceptions.

Disclaimer: This write-up is my submission for an assignment as part of Buddhism and Modern Psychology MOOC on Coursera. 

Image credit: Lion’s Roar


A powerful thought

27 12 2016


What makes a day “good” or “bad”? What makes a trip success? Well of course, there are expectations. Those and there is rumination.

It’s not the beautiful sunset itself that gives you pleasure but rather the thought of it. It’s not the failure itself that causes fear but rather the thinking you do and the stories you tell yourself about it.

It’s the thought that generates pleasure and fear, says J Krishnamurthy in his beautiful and deeply affecting book – “You are the World”. I browsed through it years ago when I was a teenager and this particular “thought” stayed with me, albeit a tad subliminally. I’m sure it would serve me lot better to bring it to the surface of my conscious self. 😛

To separate thought from experience is the ultimate freedom!

Black Swan

23 11 2016


It’s not too often that I write a largely glorious review for a book which I couldn’t manage to finish despite my best intentions. Sounds kind of counter intuitive. Isn’t it? But that’s how it is for Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Black Swan is a metaphor coined by the author to describe a phenomenon with the following three attributes: “First, it is a outlier. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.” Typical examples include Sep 2011 attack, 2008 economic meltdown etc. In this book, Taleb talks about the nature of black swan events and why we can’t predict them.
As I started reading this book, I couldn’t help marveling at the sheer ingeniousness of the author. It seemed every phrase and sentence oozed intelligence and creativity. I was spell bound. As new as I am to the world of philosophy and philosophers, I was filled with awe. I got introduced to more and more interesting and intriguing concepts and I was enjoying every moment of it. One such concept that runs through more or less the entire book is “platonitcity”. It is the tendency to mistake the map for the territory. The author explains that “the platonic fold is the explosive boundary where the Platonic mindset enters in contact with messy reality, where the gap between what you know and what you think you know becomes dangerously wide.” He says that it is here that the Black Swan is produced.

He draws up the occurrence of black swan events and our perception of them through a simple analogy of “thanksgiving turkey”. While the butcher feeds the turkey for months, only to kill it for a feast. For the turkey, the occurrence of its murder is a black swan event. It doesn’t expect it in the months leading up to it because there was never any evidence to suggest anything other than continued pampering. But it’s not a black swan event for the butcher. So, the key is “not to be a turkey”. 🙂 Our confusion of our perception of ” there is no evidence of the possibility of black swans” with the statement “there is evidence of no possible Black Swans”, which the author calls “round-trip fallacy” lies at the root of why we can’t predict those events.

He also talks about Mediocristan and Extremistan. Mediocristan is a place an outlier doesn’t impact the overall measure and it follows the Gaussian distribution and is non-scalable. Example – weight a person, audience for a play etc. Extremistan, on the other hand is highly scalable and the outliers heavily impact the aggregate. Example – one extremely bestselling author or musician etc. The lesson is not use predictive methods applicable only to Mediocristan to Extremistan. It is in Extremistan there is a high chance of occurrence for a black swan event. Wow, pretty simple and deep at the same time!!

Another tendency of ours which contributes to our misunderstanding of Black Swans is “narrative fallacy”. Our tendency to develop narratives around facts (for the basic and subconscious need of easier storage and retrieval of information) based on our System 1 thinking. The result of this simplification is that we think that the world is less random than it is and we leave the black swans out.

There are many more interesting and though-provoking ideas in this book. It’s a shame that I couldn’t finish it, I must add, despite my best efforts. I don’t know why. It’s true that the book is so dense with content and ideas, even if they all have common threads. I might even have found it a little repetitive (but that’s how many good non-fiction books usually are anyways – just to make sure that you don’t miss the point and that it’s ingrained in your brain, to make maximum impact.). It’s also true that time and again I felt that the author was a more than a little pompous as he repeatedly bashed or disagreed with many other (supposedly) renowned philosophers and experts on many things. Still. Maybe, that’s all true. Maybe that’s how philosophers usually are – hold strong opinions and theories, single minded, assertive, and speak with utmost conviction.

Nothing is impossible

21 10 2016

“Nothing is impossible” is perhaps the most popular cultural dictum in recent times. It propounds how we can and should push ourselves ahead and beyond our imaginary boundaries. The belief in the potential of an individual to achieve anything and everything is so empowering.  “Growth mindset” propels one to break through all the obstacles and overcome all challenges, both real and imaginary,. “Be Positive” is the all-encompassing mantra eulogized by all motivation and self-help gurus.

It is important that you believe in yourself; believe that you can do something in order to be able to do it. You are what you think you are.  “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”, says Buddha. It all makes perfect sense, because it’s all in the mind.

But. Yes, there is a “but”.

Let me stretch this idea a little bit.

Believing that nothing is impossible is a great start. Once you believe that you can, all you need to do is work hard and smart enough to achieve whatever it is that you set out to achieve. The individualistic culture and the motivation space does not underplay the need for “hard and smart work” anywhere but it doesn’t explicitly call out and emphasize it “enough” either. There is certain misguided sense of entitlement that is being propagated here. And this sense of entitlement also implies that not realizing our dreams is a big failure.

Even if all these cards are played right, things may not fall into place always. We are operating in a space with too many variables at play, the interactions of which are way too many to make sense of, let alone measure and track. The bottom line is, we live in an uncertain world. To expect and believe that a certain intention and effort will definitely and always lead to a particular outcome in the midst of so much variability (both internal and external), seems to me, like naiveté at best. On the surface, such assumption doesn’t seem unreasonable at all. Because we succumb to “survivor bias”. When all we hear about is stellar success stories, and not hear so much about failures or all that in between, our perception becomes skewed.  But when you actually look at the entire picture and get the right statistic, you suddenly see the trees instead of just the forest.

A natural corollary to the slogans “nothing is impossible”, “you are the creator of your own destiny”, is the implication that you are responsible for everything that happens in your life.  These also espouse the idea of “free will”. In this complex world, how much can you be really in total control of what’s happening to you  and around? How much can you steer as per your will? It depends, I would say. A great deal, for certain things, to some extent for others. But I don’t think anyone can have total control of or can take total  responsibility for everything. While the sense of control is exhilarating, the feeling of responsibility is acutely burdensome. “With great power comes great responsibility”, says Uncle Ben. One cannot separate those two. 🙂

So, what happens when, due to the very nature of life and/or as a result of complex interactions of myriad components and variables, things don’t work out and you fail or you fall short. If the culture dictates that “nothing is impossible”, how do you explain the failure? Is it all your fault now? Are you resigned to conclude that your best is not good enough? These are some very unpleasant thoughts. You see where I’m going with this?

The happiness research has a technique to handle setbacks – “self-compassion”. Treat yourself with the same compassion that you would provide to a near and dear one in a similar situation. But in my opinion, it doesn’t address the issue completely. It’s just a dressing to alleviate the pain, not the medicine that will cure the wound. So, what else do I think will help?

Humility. Shedding the skin of self-importance and realizing that you are just one element in this giant complex interconnected system makes it easier for you. Am I implying that you be complacent and shirk the responsibility for your life, for what you become completely? Hell, no.

I would resort to The Gita: “Do your duty and be righteous. Don’t worry about the fruits (results).”. There is a lot of wisdom in this philosophy. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you can’t make things happen. There could be several reasons. Should you give up, or just prod along refusing to accept the reality? How do you know when to give up? With all these cultural notions, how  can you make yourself give up and still be at peace with yourself and with life? Alas,these questions are not always easy to answer, irrespective of your guiding philosophy!

The big questions

29 08 2015

The big questions of life – Who am I? What is the purpose of (my) life?

These seem to be the questions that a person is supposed to ask and seek answers for at some point in life. I often come across  people mulling over them at religious and/or spiritual centers, congregations, discussions, programs etc.. And it puzzles me that why I’m not bothered by these same questions. When I expressed my bafflement to a learned acquaintance, he simply replied “You are not there yet!”. To say that I found his response startling would be an understatement. Wow, it never occurred to me.

Why do these questions seem so irrelevant to me? Why do I think I’m above them or even that I have the answers, even though I can’t articulate them.  Is this audacity or ignorance? Most probably the latter.

But when I really try to think about these existential questions, I seem to be satisfied with whatever I could absorb from my limited exposure to the religious/spiritual content. The Who question is less of a concern to me. I’m okay with – God’s child, part of Supreme soul.

Though I’m not very religious in practice, I believe in it. I believe that every soul is part of the  Supreme and that completely realizing this fact is part of the spiritual growth. I believe that the ultimate goal of a human being is to attain the spiritual high – the enlightenment, to reach a state where one’s soul resonates with that of the Supreme. It’s not an easy or  quick  process, and being a worldly being, requires one to surmount worldly attachments in order to  attain the spiritual peace. To grow wiser and to  attain peace is in  itself a worthy goal, in my opinion. To be dutiful, to practice righteousness, to seek knowledge, and to gain wisdom would be my idea of living a life purposefully. Beyond this, I’m not really curious about finding a better purpose at this point.

I’m sure, my current perspective might be a limiting one but I believe it will evolve with time and am in no hurry to rush the process. I believe that I’ll be there – wherever one is supposed to be – at some point. 🙂

A simple mind

4 08 2014

What’s the greatest treasure in this world? “A simple mind.”

In this complicated world, we are compelled to think complicated. There is so much to process, so many things to manage. We have to worry about our future, we need to be wary of our past, and we need to tread carefully through the present. We have to take care of us, our family, and our society. And we need to compete to survive and race ahead. In times where there is no clear distinction between black and white but rather exists a huge range of grays, where virtue doesn’t always win and justice rarely met, we need complex minds to navigate through the labyrinth of life.

Or so do we assume.

But deep down we know that something is amiss. There is a want of something alluding. Peace?

A simple mind is a child-like mind. Of the two choices life presents at each moment, it always chooses the simpler one. Love is simple; hate is complex. Smile is simple; frown is complex. Compassion is simple; indifference is complex. Truth is simple, lie is complex. And so on. It lives in the present, untouched by the past or the future.

I think it all boils down to the ancient philosophy from Gita: Be righteous. Follow your dharma. Do what you need to do, without bothering about the results.

A simple mind is a clear mind. An enlightened mind.

If internal peace is what everyone seeks – the ultimate goal of existence – which path leads us to it? Why do we let ourselves get lost in darkness?

In the face of hardships

1 07 2010

What is one supposed to do when everything goes wrong? How is one supposed to handle it? I’m certain that it feels like an awful nightmare that one wishes to wake up to a different world, because I’m living it right now.

Losing lots of money and thereby peace of mind is a kind of tragedy that can make one more than just feel sad. When it is coupled with loss of time, effort, valuables and lots of “if only I could have done it differently or so and so way” thoughts and moments, it can be very depressing too. Add to that a few easily avoidable mistakes or acts of carelessness/complacency which have resulted in further loss, it’s the perfect recipe to make one feel nauseated and sick to stomach.

A good hearty cry would help a bit, I guess, but it has proved not to be so easy after all 🙂 It’s always believed that sharing one’s sorrows would reduce their effect to half. But what I’ve observed lately is that more and more one talks about the bad/negative stuff, the more difficult  it becomes to be free of those torturing thoughts. This results in nothing but just reinforcement of those negative feelings.

Isn’t it a better idea to try to avoid thinking/talking about it as much as you can (once you are done with your initial coping efforts) and instead replace the negative thought with a positive one every time you encounter it? Easier said than done. I’m finding myself in the tug of war between the irresistible desire to talk about it (might be a natural psychological urge) to anyone who cares to listen and seemingly prudent alternative I just mentioned earlier.

Talking about the coping strategies reminds me of a short story from the great epic Mahabharatha, which I’ve heard/read somewhere:

Once Sri Krishna gave Yudhisthira a piece of writing (on whatever the medium used in those days). He asked the Pandava king to open and read it only in the case of the worst trouble/difficulty and that will provide the solution to his problem. Yudhisthira was tempted to open it in the face of many difficulties he faced in his life but he always saved it for the worse problem he might encounter in the future. At last a point came when he felt so helpless and discouraged that he decided that it’s time to seek the solution by reading the sacred writing. He opened it and guess what he found:

“This trouble/problem too will pass like the earlier ones!”

This is a very powerful piece of wisdom and strikingly true. The strength to solve our problems is within ourselves. Also, however grave may be the tragedy at the time of its occurrence, it’s impact gets reduced as time passes. Time is the best healer in the world.

I tried to practice this philosophy in the face of my recent misfortunes as much as I can and it works!