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Selfless InsightReview - Selfless Insight
Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness
by James H. Austin
MIT Press, 2009
Review by Roy Sugarman, Ph.D.
Dec 8th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 50)

Bringing together Zen and neuroscience is no easy task, monumental even, but for about 30 years, Austin has been an essential part of these two fields.  It is often demonstrated that thesis and antithesis, when brought together, form a dialogue of synthesis, and this is what he has been able to demonstrate.  In a way this is self contemplative neuroscience, as the field of examining human consciousness has itself confronted, neither is an easy task, and is the subject of ongoing debate.

The idea then is that meditative training transforms consciousness.  In other words, the impact of this statement is that meditation somehow plastically alters the brain itself, first, by training to narrow focus, like a spotlight which has both a beam of intensity and width, narrowing down to intensity, and then on the other hand, increasing the width to be accepting and letting go, or selflessness. Athletes know this as going narrow and then wide. Zen, Buddhist scholarship, neuroscience, all must be coalesced to provide an evidence base, as Austin has set out to do.  So moving from a very narrow but intense focus, to an all encompassing reality, seems to result in a dropping away of learned but egocentric-view information, to leave one with a clear representation of things as they are in themselves, complete.

This is accepted to be a long and drawn out saga with no shortcuts, but Austin points out that the benefits of now mainstreaming mindful meditation are likely to be felt sooner, rather than at an advanced stage of practice, and that the greater insights come later.

This is therefore a top-down process of focus followed by a bottom up acceptance and understanding of reality in a less ego centric and more allocentric engagement with consciousness and perceived reality.

Reality as experienced by consciousness is thus not immutable, but there is an end state of perception that is likely to resonate with the viewer who engages with it and within conscious states in a selfless way.

If the search for selflessness is the search for meaning, meaning is what drops out in certain neurological conditions where consciousness is altered. Loss of visual or verbal meaning is thus an agnosia. Object centered processing is thus allocentric. Other-referenced processing in this way, will allow for extended stability of the sequences in enhanced visual processing, one of the major attributes of what is called the extraordinary state of Kensho ("seeing onself"): in this, some temporal lobe functions that normally help interpret the visual and auditory meaning of events could be recruited to infuse fresh impressions of resonant meaning into the adjacent functions of other-centered processing, now unveiled, in his terms.  In a visual agnosia, let's say for an object like a key: the key is seen but not recognized, the meaning is lost, agnosia implying the loss of a prior learned skill, as the history of what a key does is cut off in meaningful terms from what it looks like.  The dementia is thus semantic.

This perhaps illustrates what Austin does with the underlying putative mechanisms of Zen and the known or surmised mechanisms behind conscious reality and meaning.  In a contemplative state such as Kensho, feedback and temporal template loops provide both an experience of what is out there beyond the blackness of the neuronal space, and the meaning of experience gained by learning across the lifetime.  The brain can both zoom in close, and move back out more widely, as a theatre spotlight, might, and in doing so, alters its interaction with the perceived realities.

The issue is the seeking of clarity, so that research can present accelerated maturity in practitioners by using psychological tools such as the MMPI.  Brief Kensho or enlightened experiences thus speed up the processes of psychic maturity, aka emotional clarity, as one achieves with age.

Does therefore eliminating the negative help accentuate the positive? Yes, perhaps, but only after a complex set of interactions, as in the Kensho examples above. Here, the rostral anterior cingulate appears to play a part, helping to adjust the balances of subtle emotional experiences and influences, via the relays with the amygdala.

The job therefore is, as he explains it, is for the processes of Kensho to direct impulses downstream from the rostral anterior cingulate gyrus, sufficient enough to extinguish in the amygdala the "emotional flames" of an entire lifetime of primal and acquired fears, namely, the conditioning of the emotional system of perception that occurs in the first 500ms or so (page 179).  This is the top-down processing mentioned earlier.  In working through this logically, Austin will conclude for instance that this all boils down to two limbic nuclei in the front part of the dorsal thalamus, where the anterior nucleus interacts with the cingulate gyrus, and the medial dorsal nucleus interacts with the prefrontal cortex, a site if I recall, for alcohol related brain changes. Both nuclei can be inhibited by the GABA cap of the reticular nucleus, which, as with alcohol, could mediate the complete erasure of fearful apperceptions during Kensho.

Kensho is thus an attempt to attain a sense of the meaning of 'mind', of how subject and object are one, a concept similar to Satori in Japanese, which means realization or catching on, insight.  I don't know if this is pure Buddhism or not, for as I think Dogen wrote, Kensho is the animated activity of non-Buddhists more than the serious seeker of what used to be called enlightenment.

In the sense of EEG, practitioners may switch quickly from Alpha in some areas to Gamma in others, a fascinating thing to watch I am sure on QEEG. Insights strike, like Kensho, suddenly.

It's a fascinating book, chock a block with amazing insights into the depth and width of the author's extensive knowledge of the concrete and the esoteric, well worth wading through, and gaining insights into the really robust and more than intuitive way he presents the mechanisms of the brain as he connects them with the experiences of the Zen practitioner.  Given mindfulness is such a burgeoning field in treatment, and so well worthwhile in terms of human senses of efficacy, even the more obscure pronouncements from Austin are easily integrated into the knowledge we have, and so help bridge science and philosophy.  It's a brain stretch for most of us, but this builds new neural connections and strengthens others, so do it.

It's one of the better buys you might make this year.


© 2009 Roy Sugarman


Roy Sugarman, PhD, Human Performance Institute, Sydney, Australia


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