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Archive for June, 2012

What is happening right now? Right next to you? What thoughts are going through your mind? What waves of emotion are washing over you?

This is your life at this moment, so why not be 100% aware of it? And why not be aware of it all day long, every day?

We all know that the benefits of mindfulness include stress reduction, more harmonious relations with others and more efficient functioning in our life. But these are all abstract and therefore open to argument. The root of all these, and to me the best reason for being mindful, is that it connects us with That Which Is True. What is actually real right now. When we’re acting in relation to the big picture we have a much better time of it than when we’re unconsciously driven by the stories in our head.

We can’t decide to be wise, we can’t decide to have a spiritual revelation, but we can decide to be mindful. We can do it anywhere, anytime: turn away from Storyland, from all the thoughts and emotions crowding your mind, and tune in to your surroundings. Right in the midst of this not-so-special moment you are immediately mindful, and this mundane moment is suddenly very special.

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There’s an interesting way to look at how intelligence arises called emergent complexity, or simply emergence. Not usually used to describe how intelligence works, but that’s where I’d like to go today.

Look at a flock of birds or school of fish and you’ll pick right up on what emergence is about. Simply put, organisms (or any object that can interact with its surroundings), when following simple rules in concert with others, come together to form a  greater whole that behaves in ways the individual parts can’t do on their own.

Here is a computerized model of flocking birds called Boids, programmed by Craig Reynolds in 1986. Even though each boid is only a few triangles on the screen, when they move and interact we immediately see the whole as a recognizable flock. Schools of small fish do this too, packing themselves close enough together to look like one big fish that scares away medium size predators. And when one large enough to attack this seemingly big fish tries to take a bite, the individuals dart out of the way, the school splits in half, and the predator gets a mouthful of water. After it’s passed through, the school joins ranks and once again appears as a big fish.

Artificial intelligence systems have used emergence in general, and Reynolds’ work on Boids in particular, for quite a while. A new example of this is from an LA Times article on a robot programmed to mimic how babies learn language. Computers and robots are increasingly exhibiting what we would call “intelligence”, and I think this can give us clues to our own makeup.

In my previous post I looked into some of the sub-organisms that make us up. Added to the somewhat independent microbes inhabiting our bodies are the cells making up what we usually consider our bodies to be. Looking just at the brain, which has roughly one hundred billion neurons, we can see the laws of very large numbers combining with emergent complexity to make – us! Or rather, the “me” we each have. Now, how about all of these “me”s interacting – what larger whole emerges from that?

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Today’s article in the Los Angeles Times about how many microorganisms call our bodies their home (100 trillion!) shows us yet another way we’re interconnected with the rest of our environment. I already knew that colonies of flora do much of my digestion for me, but this research shows that bacteria, viruses, yeasts and amoebas do so much more for us that they’re calling them a “second genome”.

In Zen we like to use the word “intimate” to describe how closely connected we are with the rest of our world, but this new research makes even that word seem inadequate. Maybe a techie word like “interleaved” would be better. Ultimately we might have to use a word like “indistinguishable” – when we’re suffused with so many beings, how can you say where “you” begin and “outside you” ends? We think of each bacterium as a separate creature, but it can’t live without us and we can’t live without it. The article says it’s difficult to grow many of these organisms outside a human body, so while they move around on their own volition, there isn’t far they can go. Ultimately they’re as much a part of your body as your eyes and ears.

We like to think there is a “me” in charge. A ghost in the machine. Now we see the boundaries between inside and outside that machine dissolving away, that up to 6 pounds worth of that machine is composed of living microbes all working together with “our own” tissues and organs to make up what we like to call our body. It’s actually a community. So then, what about the “ghost” driving the machine? How solid are its boundaries? Is it also a community like the body?

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What is the link between mindfulness and meditation? Can you do one without the other?

The word “meditation” is used differently by just about everyone, and it typically involves meditating “on” something. Meditating on scriptures, emotions, an object near you like a candle, or visualizing yourself being in a different environment like a beach in the South Pacific. Or listening to “Meditation” from the opera “Thais” by Jules Massenet. Basically, you’re taking a break from your usual frenetic activity and connecting with your spiritual side.

Buddhist meditation involves entering a state of concentration called jhana. This term is transliterated into Japanese as zen. Thus, Zen is a branch of Buddhism with special emphasis on meditation. Zen meditation, though, ultimately is not “on” anything. We begin by focusing our awareness on the breath, and may continue developing insight by concentrating on koans, but eventually we settle into the objectless awareness call shikan-taza, or “just sitting”. Since this is different from the usual meanings given to the word “meditation”, Zen people usually just use the Japanese word “zazen” or simply “sitting” to describe what they do. But all of these forms of meditation act as a closing down of mental and emotional activity, which develops single-pointed concentration.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is an opening up of awareness to include everything happening in this moment. Buddha specifically mentioned being mindful of four aspects of yourself: body, feelings, mind and the contents of the mind, but practically this means to be clearly aware of whatever pops up in the moment: the bird singing outside, the itch on your foot, the wave of emotion washing over you.

So, the link, then, is awareness. We can see meditation as deeply-focused awareness and mindfulness is wide-open awareness, with each strengthening the other. While meditating we work on our concentration, which gives power to our mindfulness, and the rest of the day we work on mindfulness, which in turn gives stability to our meditation.

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