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

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. 🙂


13 12 2011

Bear with a brief prelude before getting into the main topic of the post. Of late, I’ve not been writing anything much other than movie reviews. With research work occupying most of my mind and available time, there hasn’t been much “thinking time” and breathing space to accommodate blogging. I’m enjoying  my research experience a lot. Though technically the research work hasn’t yet started, the groundwork isn’t unexciting. There is so much to do and learn that the number of avenues open to me  gives me a heady feeling at times. I always like my passion to drive my work and research is no exception. The only problem I face now is that I need to channel  my tremendous energy into a narrow stream so that a tangible and worthy output can be delivered. Well, the process isn’t so easy – it’s confusing, bewildering and undoubtedly frustrating.  But of course, struggle is inevitable to achieve any success.

Not willing to have a month pass by without at least one post, I’ve resorted to the easy way. Needless to mention, movies present ample opportunity to dish out a post in no time. 🙂  I’ve read only a few books in the past few months and even less that moved me to write something about them. Of course, I haven’t actually written anything about them “yet” but the intent still holds good. The thoughts are just lurking around awaiting their chance to be penned (typed) down.

It is only recently (to be precise, 8 months ago) that I discovered Ranganayakamma and she already found her place in my list of favorite authors. I’ve read 6 books of her so far and loved each one of them. My reviews on two of them: Krishnaveni, Ammaki Aadivaaram Ledaa? Read 3 of her novels in the past month and found myself addicted to her narration. Finished each of the books at one go. Worth mentioning among them is “Rachayitri”. It is a story of a young writer Vijaya, who is highly individualistic with progressive views, and her husband, with conservative notions and beliefs. The novel depicts the clashes that arise between people of completely different levels of thinking and questions many prevalent practices and roles in the society. These days many women are thinking beyond the traditional confinements and age-old conventions, with education and change in the upbringing. But the rest of the society hasn’t kept up with it. I felt that every husband, who puzzles over the individuality and the questioning attitude of the wife, should read this book. The novel also presents a pragmatic account of married life. Like all her books, “Rachayitri” too is educative.

I like the author’s feminist ideas. In fact they are humanist; she urges people to develop right attitude and individuality, regardless of the gender. For women to achieve them, they need to fight against this patriarch and oppressing society and hence the need for  ‘feminism”. The term raises many a eyebrow and makes many people treat it with suspicion. Some even think it as frivolous and/or stupid. I feel that this is mainly due to the misinterpretation of the intention behind the movement by zealous practitioners with half-knowledge and inappropriate activities and also by the  innocent bystanders.

She is also a communist and atheist. I have no issues with any of her beliefs but she thinks that  a person’s true progress is measured by the extent to which he or she acquires the above perspectives. According to her, understanding and believing Marxist’s theory is the true education; shunning god and idol worship is true wisdom. Developing these convictions is the sign of growing up, in her sense. I’m not arguing for capitalism and theism here. In my opinion, every philosophy is relative. There is no absolute truth. I have trouble with her attitude that those without the knowledge of Marxism and acceptance of atheism are primitive people who need help. For me, this sounds exactly like Christian missionaries whose main concern is to convert people of other faiths to their religion; make them believe in Jesus and thereby save themselves from condemnation. There is nothing wrong about any belief. One believes a certain thing for one’s own convenience and comfort.  One finds solace and courage in one’s faith. I find it silly and arrogant of those who deliberately try to establish the superiority of their belief over others’ and actively seek people to join their cult.

It’s one thing if a person explores that particular knowledge and faith and gets interested in it by himself. But forcing it on someone by simultaneously elevating their belief and  debasing other beliefs doesn’t sound well to me. I have little respect for such beliefs. As long as a particular philosophy or faith doesn’t harm anyone, it can be left alone and let the individuals explore other philosophies by their own quest for knowledge. May be the contention between Capitalism and Marxism isn’t that innocent. Each philosophy favors one segment of people, causing harm to the other. While capitalism is based on the principle of individual rights and in effect  states that the fruits of a tree can be devoured by the one who raised it, Marxism calls for uniform availability of resources and wealth to one and all, irrespective of  the origin/source of the bounty. (Excuse my crude and limited perspective; I hope I’m not too far off the mark.)

But I suppose that this” forcing of your beliefs on others” is a universal phenomenon forever in existence. I believe that if something is worthy enough, it doesn’t need trumpeting. I am not against preaching. Preaching is usually done to a willing audience. But trying to sell the philosophy or faith to unsuspecting and impassive individuals, I perceive it as something degrading. Somehow I can’t view philosophies/faiths as commodities that can be advertised and sold.

Absolute Khushwant

21 05 2011

This latest non-fiction by Khushwant Singh is a very delightful and quick read. He shared his opinions and views on various events, subjects and persons like 1984 communal riots, 26/11 attack, Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, religion, Pakistan and many more. He also included a few chapters on his personal life. All through the book, one cannot help being awestruck by his honesty, straight-forwardness and frankness.

He openly declared that he hates Advani and announced that he had done irreparable damage to the country. He praised the present Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh as a man of integrity. He had both good things and bad things to say about various people. I was pleased to note that Mahatma Gandhi is his role model. I’m impressed by Khushwant ‘s energy and drive to work even at the age of 95. He is a truly inspiring person, especially with regard to his philosophy of time and work.

A few months ago, I read another of his non-fiction books – We Indians. It’s a short book about the idiosyncrasies of Indians. It’s comical, satirical and above all true.

I regret discovering this amazing personality so late. Even though I have heard about him for quite a long time, I haven’t really read anything by him expect his first novel, Train to Pakistan, which failed to make a lasting impression on me at that time. It is “We Indians” that evoked my interest in his works, particularly non-fiction.

I’m keen to read more about him and his take on various things.