Something Specific

“One should not look for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it…
The question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately he should not ask what the meaning of his life is but recognize that it is he who is being asked.”
The Meaning of Life, Viktor Frankl


Sometimes it just hurts so much. Seeing the depravity of our encounters with the living world that abuse it and leave it sick and dying tears at the heart on a level very, very deep; like jack-boots across a meadow of mountain flowers. I was watching a presentation about the ecological state of the oceans when the gulf opened up for me again. Then, right there in the midst of the horror, a clip was shown of six or eight massive humpback whales floating head down together, drifting slowly with the currents. ‘Scientists believe they are dreaming.’ When my mind grasped what it was witnessing by taking it in, visualizing it myself, sensing it actually happening – it was like a spark was ignited in that darkness. I want to try and talk about that spark.

It is easy to feel that the small, specific actions we take towards healing ourselves and the earth are unimportant in the big scheme of things. This is the age of the mass man where society does not recognize the worth of individuals except in so far as they play out roles that have been predetermined by the advertising and public relation narratives. By setting the sports stars and other celebrities on pedestals, the rest of us are put in our place. What do you think happens to a mind fed a non-stop diet of other people endlessly encountering larger than life adventures? What value do you think such a mind will put on a half dozen dreaming whales?

When we feel like the small things we are doing in our lives lack meaning we have fallen into the trap of abstractions. We are prone to letting our facility with language blind us to the value of that which is real enough to put in a wheelbarrow. Yet it is what’s in the wheelbarrow that will matter to our children. They will not ask what we thought we were doing; they will ask why we did what we did.

All that really exists in the unfolding of time are individual, specific acts. If you are able to turn your care and concern for the well being of the earth into any kind of concrete expression, you have participated in the dialog of our times. This dialog is not the one TV covers, full of lobbyists in meetings where the rich and powerful pound out trade rules for carbon pollution. The dialog I am interested in is the one that is shifting the ground on which all that is standing; the dialog between each person alive today and the biosphere from which they came, on which they depend, and to which they will return.

It is rare for ecological knowledge to remain a purely intellectual affair. Most people involved in conservation, biodiversity protection, organic farming and all the rest of it are passionate about what they do. This ability to act from one’s deepest values brings with it a spark of life; putting one’s hand to the plow, as it were, creates the path. What then of all of us who do not work in these fields or do not have these kinds of opportunities?

We are not called on to try and fix an abstraction. We cannot ‘save the earth’, nor does it need saving; it is a rather incoherent thought actually. We are called to do the very specific work of rebalancing our human ecological footprint with the well being of the earth. Real sustainability is found through simplicity, nowhere else. Our collective desires, which we feed and fertilize, ever encouraging them to grow as billions join the middle class, could not be met by the resources of four earths, let alone the one and only one we have. What no one wants to talk about is that there is plenty of earth to share if each human being lived simply and so used LESS; Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation.

I said last week we are not responsible for most of what we have inherited but we are for how we respond. The crux of the Limits to Growth analysis is that fossil fueled industrial civilization exceeds the long term carrying capacity of the environment on which it ultimately depends. It does so by exceeding the healthy functioning of what system science refers to as the environment’s sources and sinks. Sources are the places where the extraction of resources, which we call production, takes place. Sinks are the places where the used and discarded resource-remains are put as the garbage and poisons of our pollutions. In the real world of biosphere interdependence nothing just appears on the store shelves and nothing just disappears by throwing it in the trash can – this is why it is important to track the use of sources and sinks. Peak oil is an example of the depletion of a one time resource. Over fishing is an example of overshooting sustainability in what could be a renewable resource. These are illustrative examples of issues with sources. Climate change is a one time poisoning of the atmosphere which accompanied Peak Oil. Here the atmosphere’s ability to absorb pollutants and remain within its geologically historic temperature band was overwhelmed. Eutrophication of our rivers and the dead zones they create is an example of an ongoing overloading of what could be a renewable sink through industrial farming practices. These illustrative examples cover the landscape of our ethical choices.

What matters here is how we get our farm crops and how we get our fish. These are very concrete things, things you can put in a wheelbarrow. These are the things you can do something about and just the things that need to be done. What that will mean for you, only you can say. For one person it may mean paying more attention to where the fish they purchase come from, for another it might mean raising Tilapia in their bathtub. Chasing after abstractions only leaves you starved for joy and like a hungry ghost you will be driven to try and take nourishment through a needle-thin throat. Get your hands into the soil. We are meant to be the grounded among the ghosts.

We are so far lost in our consumer dreams it is almost inconceivable to choose to live more simply, to be poorer by choice. Just to learn to be content with second best is a challenge in our society where status and winning is everything. Even the small and symbolic steps which we are able to take away from all that have value. They have value not just for ourselves but potentially for whomever might happen to notice; who knows, perhaps they will be encouraged one day to ask the same questions that lead you to where you are today. In my case it took five, ten years before my life circumstances started to really reflect my ecological values to any degree. At least that is what it looked like on the outside. Inside I was taking whatever concrete steps I could, many of which were mostly symbolic. I mentioned choosing an urban target for guerrilla pollution removal. That sort of thing was how I started confronting the specific reality of my daily existence. Becoming a devotee of the hand-lens was more of the same.

There is not a problem with a ‘dying ocean.’ There is a pod of whales, dreaming in the deep, whose very presence on this earth is threatened because we cannot say no to an overabundance of plastic trinkets and techno-toys.

Dare to hold to the values by which your eye sees clearly even when, especially when, it hurts to know. Dare to do; there is a tree only you can plant.  We should remember “…everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” No one can tell you what you need to do. You will need to ask the earth, our grandmothers and grandfathers, work it out with your inner guru. What we are involved in will play out over centuries and though the general trend towards simplicity is clear, the twists and turns along the way are unknowable. Bear this in mind when the little acts of caring and concern for the earth you are able to do seem too small and too little to be of any worth. Sometimes it is a feather that tips the scales of history, much like a butterfly’s wing might bring forth a storm.

All our acts today include some degree of the symbolic. We are all much too dependent on Homo Colossus for it to be otherwise. What helps is to understand the value of a symbolic act, however small, even when it has an audience of only one. An Acharya I know finding himself in a public restroom will use only a small part of a paper towel to dry his hands, keeping the rest to use later. Small acts of devotion offered in secret…

Many of us would gladly exchange our current lives for ones of much greater simplicity if in the exchange we were assured we would enjoy a healthy earth for ourselves and our children’s children. Well, there are no guarantees but there is no other equally viable alternative either. Though each of us is limited in the specifics of what we can do in making this exchange in our own lives, every step in this direction is influencing the probabilities of what is most likely to happen tomorrow. It seems to me our primary duty is to rejoice every day in the beauty of the earth. Certainly we can all do that and in doing so we renew our Yes and simultaneously renew our No. Just being clear about what we hold dear and what we do not approve of will serve us well. It is the only guide we really need to remake our lives closer to the image in our hearts.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and everyone of you for each and every act you have ever done with the hope of healing the rift between ourselves, and between ourselves and the earth. However small and however seemingly inconsequential they might have seemed, each one has added to the weight of the merit that opens the eyes of people like me. With tears of joy that come with the dawn after a long dark night, I offer each one of you, stewards of the earth, a heartfelt – thank you.

Anything Can Happen

“I never tire of saying that the only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but the moment they are actualized, they are rendered realities; they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and saved from transitoriness. For, in the past, nothing is irrecoverably lost but everything irrevocably stored.
…Man constantly makes his choice concerning the mass of present potentialities; which of these will be condemned to nonbeing and which will be actualized? Which choice will be made an actuality, once and forever, an immortal ‘footprint in the sands of time’? At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence.
…Nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with. I should say having been is the surest kind of being.”
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl


When we spoke of the neurophysiology of memory we touched on the fascinating question about where memories might exist when they are not conscious. In passing, mention was made of one of the Buddhist theories that postulates a type of base consciousness in which all past deeds have left their impression. This so-called Alaya consciousness has been used to explain how teachings about being reborn can be reconciled with teachings about the unreality of the self. It is a solution of sorts to the questions around what role the past performs in a universe characterized by interdependence and emptiness.

The openness of potentialities Victor Frankl wrote about shares some characteristics with the Buddhist concept of emptiness. Emptiness can be said to the source from which events in the present appear. There is freedom here in this emptiness that reaches right into the roots of things because, it is taught, things have no essence. It is not unlike the world revealed by quantum mechanics where there are no fixed and frozen things, only knots of spacetime.

What crosses the gulf between potential and actual is just that which current causes and conditions require. Those causes and conditions include some degree of freedom, particularly when we are talking about the choices available to human beings. While it might seem that what you will do in the next instant is rather constrained by a small handful of rational choices, it is not a fundamental characteristic of the next moment; it is a set of constraints you impose, nothing more. After all, you could get up from reading this right now and head to an airport to fly to Timbuktu or kiss the very next person you meet or any of an inconceivably vast set of possibilities.

This being the case it is interesting that more often than not the next moment follows the previous one with a degree of regularity we have learned to count on. It might very well be that ultimate reality is radically momentary but what we experience in the world of our day-to-day interactions is the world of cause and effect. The best illustration of this important point I am familiar with is found in the field of probability. The equation for dealing with what are called independent events, such as a fair coin toss, differs from the equations used to deal with events whose outcome depends on previous outcomes, such as how tomorrow’s weather depends on the weather we are having today. It is known as the gamblers fallacy to think when flipping a coin that because there has been a string of heads, a tails must be coming up soon. It might seem non-intuitive but really it’s obvious since one toss of a coin can have no effect on the outcome of a future toss of a coin by any force recognized by science.

While ultimate reality might be more akin to the independent probability of the coin toss, the relative reality we human-sized being’s experience is more like conditional probability. Most everything that happens does so because of what came before. In particular, for many of the issues we care about most, past actions alter the probability of possible future actions coming to pass.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses the analogy of a passenger boarding a flight to illustrate this interplay of free will and determinism. For much of the process of being a passenger a person can change their mind and not take a given flight; on the way to airport I can choose to return home; in the airport line I can choose not to go through with the ticketing and so on. Even at the point at which I am are strapped down and buckled in I could change my mind and get up and leave the airplane as long as the door is still open. Even when the taxing down the runway begins, if I had the clout, I could have the plane stopped and get off but there does come a moment when the choice about taking this flight or not is no longer available to me. The moment those wheels lift off the ground I am on that flight and the next set of choices in my life will have to deal with that.

Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious played a similar explanatory role as the Alaya. The world we see everywhere around us is one that was born from decisions and circumstances that filled its past. It does not just spring into being, fully formed, from some nothingness but every detail can be traced back to some previous conditions. It was Jung’s opinion that individuals brought with them a type of psychological inheritance from our long years in deep time that provided the scaffolding for consciousness to function. Further, the ideas we learn to think in, which we receive from our cultural ancestors, shape what it is possible for us to think at all, just as what we dare to think will shape the knowledge and understanding of our progeny.

Jung suggested that not only individuals but whole communities, cultures and nations also were manifesting their current forms due to the specific history they had pursued. At one level, of course, this is just a truism. The point of these teachings though is to bring attention to the fact that there is a whole cognitive dimension to these inheritances as well as the institutions we typically think of. What he had in mind was more than the scholarly pursuit often called the history of ideas, though this was involved. For Jung the psyche was working out its relationship to archetypal themes and motifs in the issues of the day. As made clear particularly in The Red Book we, the generation of the living, are tasked with taking up the burdens of our dead. The Great Depression and the World Wars occupied his thought as examples of a kind of collective psychosis. It seems reasonable: there is something within the issues of the day that reflect issues of psychological maturity among the population as individuals.

In the teachings of the east we find the idea that communities and nations have “karma” just as much as individuals do. Karma is a big subject and one that may need posts of its own one day but for our present purposes the most basic translation as ‘action’ suffices. Actions taken in the past do not just disappear – that is the central lesson of both of these ideas whether we encounter them in their eastern or western form.

Each of us can understand that actions taken in the past do not disappear by considering how our present self is a product of our past self. Who we are today is the culmination of the unique set of choices and circumstances we have experienced. This is both good news and terrifying news. Everyone alive harbors painful and profound regrets for some past deeds. We can say we are sorry and live in such a way as to show our regret is real, yet nothing we do can erase the past.

This is the sadness that accompanies the man in jail who in a moment of passion pulled a trigger and took a life. Nothing brings back the victim. A very similar sadness grips those of us who have seen the social and ecological nightmares born from the engineering and political choices we have already made. “I’m sorry” seems so pathetically weak; can you visualize the two hundred species that went extinct today – today and every day – and say I’m sorry? If you do this exercise you are acting like a stand-in for your own species. You are not personally responsible for most of what it is you have inherited. You are responsible for how you will respond.

Which brings us to the positive side of this relationship between past, present and future. The choices you make today are full of power. The tomorrow of your future self is in the hands of who you are today.

The same reality organizes our social world. In the 1970s, when the first energy crisis struck the western world, we chose not to pursue the alternative technologies that were designed to wean our infrastructure from its wholesale dependency on cheap fossil fuels. The result is the society we have today, in which we face an energy crisis more extreme with little or nothing built up to greet it. What we have instead is a morass of lies and double-talk drowning in delusional anthropomorphic hubris. We all know the system we have today is not sustainable; climate change alone is enough to put paid to the idea that business as usual has a future. Remember the projection of the current trend is that there will be twice as many cars on the road by 2050. Really?

There was once a fairly common bit of folk wisdom along the lines that it is often wise to sacrifice an immediate good for the benefit of a greater good in the future. Saying no to ourselves today is another way of saying yes to our self of tomorrow. Choosing, for example, a second helping of vegetables instead of dessert might very well allow you to experience a longer life with those you love.

Capitalism once had this core of common sense. An entrepreneur willingly sacrifices future earnings to acquire a loan, borrowing from his future self. Before capitalism became the casino it is today, such a decision was not taken lightly. It was a very big deal to borrow from the future to try and create a better present. The Protestant ethic included the belief that hard work today would lead to a better life tomorrow, much as resisting temptation today would lead to a character strong in virtue. These ideas might be properly considered hopelessly old fashion today but the core reality they are teaching us about has not changed. Well, the future isn’t what it used to be and the word is getting around.

When we hear echoes of Nazi Germany in presidential debates it should set off bells. It should jar us a bit from our sleepwalking through history. The things we are doing today matter. These too big to fail banks, the ones failing again, could potentially bring real world suffering to millions and millions of people. The foreign policy hawks itching to bring war to Russia and the Middle East have already set flame to a fuse now burning outside anyone’s control. Are we to be held hostage to witnessing further mistaken decisions being made in our name?

It is not inevitable. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ll let you in on the secret of history – ideas are more powerful than armies.

A small blip from deep space washed over our earth back in September as a gravity wave distorted the length of a two and a half mile detector. We caught space itself warping. Two black holes spun into an embrace over a billion years ago, sending us their calling card from deep time, making world news last week (just while Bowie of the Blackstar is in his Bardo, for those who are paying attention to such things). The confirmation of one of mankind’s most far reaching and profound scientific theories was simply shocking in its specificity. To have a confirmation of those mathematically sophisticated relativity equations running into multiple decimal points is downright spooky. There is a lesson here. Einstein did his work decades before the technology could accumulate the evidence needed for its confirmation. His insight was true. It is a wonderful example of just how far the shared knowledge of the scientific community has come.

Why then do we not grant our scientific models about the ongoing ecological crisis more weight? How is that we deal with them as if what they are teaching us were optional, as if we were shopping for the truth the same way we might shop for our preferred brand of toothpaste? Nothing threatens the stability and peace of the modern world more than the threats that were laid out decades ago in the Limits to Growth study. If this science continues to track as well as it has been, we are in for one hell of a ride. Look around you, really look.

The things we are doing today matter.

Education vs. Manipulation

“There comes a boiling-point in the scale of all intellectual development, at which all faith, all revelation, and all authority evaporate, and Man claims the right to judge for himself; the right, not only to be taught, but to be convinced.”
On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Arthur Schopenhauer


The makers of the ever-tempting potato chip, of the I-can’t-eat-just-one variety, are not the summit of culinary craftsmanship. What they do is package substances that were rare in our evolutionary past; typically fats and salts. Since the human body needs small quantities of these chemicals yet they were rare in our ancestral environments, we are born craving them. This is nature’s way of saying, ‘get up off the couch and go find some.’

In come the chip manufacturers, swooping in and capitalizing on a human being’s powerful deep-time imprints. Defeating the purpose of the cravings, we are right back on the couch with a bag of chips in hand. We can say we are all free to choose to eat that first potato chip or not but we are approaching a slippery slope here. Using some of the deepest cravings of our physiology as temptations have made McDonalds and their ilk some of the most pervasive food suppliers on the planet.

I call this an Aikido move: external powers with their own agendas use your own power against you. In the case of nutrition-less fast-food the strength they are using against the consumer is the intelligence that is found in the body’s ability to regulate the intake of food so it provides every little element that is needed to maintain its homeostasis. This is a very strong intelligence which unfortunately for those hoping to avoid heart disease and fortunately for the profits of said companies, does not include an equally strong shut off signal. Such a signal was not needed in the environment of scarce salt and fat in which these neural circuits were laid down in the genetic code.

Are said companies providing a service, as they claim, or are they manipulating these consumers?

Might some similar dynamic exist within the complex world of human psychology? Of course it does. Rational people are not spending the millions and millions of dollars it takes to develop a Super Bowl advertisement as a contribution to our stock of cultural art. These are mini-dramas full of damnation and salvation, always delivered in ever more provocative ways to bypass the consumer’s critical thinking skills. Like the chip manufacturer, the maker of such images is zeroing in on and using for their own purposes powerful motivations for human behavior which were first laid down in our species thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years ago.

We can choose not to watch but again it is a slippery slope where somewhere these activities cross the line into mental manipulation pure and simple. It needs also to be said, and we need to understand very clearly, that not seeing any corporate advertising is impossible for anyone who must take an active part in their own survival in our modern societies. To say don’t watch is a little disingenuous.

When one of those little advertising ditties occupies your head, you kind of need to let it play through to its finish don’t you? There is a craving here of sorts. Take a moment, right now, to remember the last time you had a really good potato chip. Feel the crispness, hear the crackle, taste the salt… Now, can you sense how much you want a chip or would want that second chip? Can you feel the glands in your mouth region react just to the thought of a chip? Might the mind react equivalently in its own domain?

The advertisers are working with a single goal: to get you to buy. This purchase will take place if you are persuaded that it will benefit you more than saving your money or spending it on something else would. We think of ourselves as rational purchasing agents who just want something (badly, now!) even though we are witnesses to the types of messages we have been subject to concerning the products. Well all those advertising dollars are betting that human beings do not, in fact, work this way. Their messages are all about how with the purchase of their X you will finally be popular, happy, sexually worshipped and all the other shop-worn goodies in their bag of tricks. Their messages are designed to bypass rational thought. They work directly with the emotions and the symbols and myths that pertain to the archetypes of human consciousness.

Advertising adjusts a consumer’s belief and value systems – and it works to the tune of billions of dollars a year. The ad man’s guiding rule gives the whole show away; “create a need, and then sell it.” This is how it’s recursive, Catch-22 works:

Step One: make you feel unhappy, unfulfilled, and lacking
Step Two: show people happy, fulfilled, and satisfied
Step Three: link their happiness with owning X
Step Four: you don’t own X yet? Go to step one…

I consider this a grand scale experiment. The human mind has become a Petri dish in which very deep pockets are working hard on the creation of viruses that can resist even the strongest antibiotics. What is the antibiotic? The consumer’s ability to reason and choose values for themselves. An ad wants to place an imprint in your memory that equates happiness with the purchase of their product. Since deep time’s mysterious purpose in fashioning us so that we seek happiness, almost like we seek salt and fat, failed to take the advertiser’s doodad into account, the ad men take it upon themselves to hijack the desire for happiness. That is the whole point.

Traditional teaching says that there are some environments that are more conductive to the practice of Dharma than others. I suggest the environment of the mass media mind is one in which it is very difficult. There is not much that is wholesome and uplifting out in the cultural wastelands of these times. I think artistic media can be good at reflecting collective issues and darker motivations for the winds of history blowing through our times but we need to understand it is not the innocent escapism it advertises itself to be. We would all be wise to learn to be satisfied with a little less stimulation.

Are you starting to get a sense that creating a sustainable society is going to take a bit more than just changing our light bulbs? I’ve talked about potato chips; an extension of these ideas to the politics and policies of the modern world is left as an exercise for the reader.

Compare these wily ways of advertising with a teaching lesson. A classroom teacher will use primarily verbal skills, the language of reasoning, instead of using larger than life symbolism. As the lesson progresses a skilled teacher will help the learners make connections between the new information and related things that they already know. This places the new information within the context of the whole person and the knowledge and values they have already ascribed to. After the rote memory lessons like the ABCs and the times-tables, teachers need to include a presentation of the evidence for why what is being taught is considered real and true. The teacher’s goal is for each student to fairly weigh the evidence for and against a proposition and thereby come to their own conclusions.

Manipulation is born in the ego’s hubris. It uses whatever power it can get its hands on to control the world and other people. Doing so it creates the dog-eat-dog world in which we are all fighting our way to the top against billions and billions of other people equally desperate to win. The alternative is to approach the world and the people in it in a spirit of cooperation, from the place of loving-kindness.

Both the teacher and the advertiser are looking to install their information into your long term memory, which as we saw last week means they want to create a neurobiological imprint within your nervous system. But there is a difference. To make the difference as stark as possible here is a simple model:

Information -> memorized aka imprinted ->
Education: judged: accepted or rejected and the imprint strengthened or weakened accordingly
Manipulation: bypass conscious judgment: repetition of stimulus and the use of the shocking, feared and the irrational to strengthen the imprint

Mindfulness can allow us to catch a glimpse of the imprints in action. Observing when the rational mind is involved in decisions, and when it is not, is itself a rather powerful technique. When things come over you, you might want to ask: is this a legitimate desire and need for who I am, born from my own values, or is it something implanted by someone else? What we are talking about is who is in the driver’s seat. Mind manipulation has all but replaced learned discussion in the public sphere. Robot programming is all the rage as a literate society dwindles. The blind are leading the greedy and at this rate both will fall over the ecological-crisis cliff. Pray tell, dear reader, how are you going to get off the bus?

Meditation and contemplation are ways to learn to grab the wheel and steer your own vehicle, your own body-mind. It probably needs a little cleaning; a little work here and there; it might even be carrying someone else’s luggage in the trunk but still… Good Sirs and Madams, your chariot awaits.

Imprinting – A Model

How memory works is one of the more unusual discoveries of modern neuroscience. Once a memory enters consciousness it typically includes a sense of veracity, a sense that the content of the memory accurately reflects the circumstances being recalled. When we compare our memories with others who were at the same event we quickly learn how each individual lays down their own version of things, a fact reporters and lawyers work with in a practical way every day.

This universal experience of accessing memories provided brain researchers with a whole host of interesting questions starting with, what is a memory? The neuroscientist knows the brain trace of a memory must be using particular neural circuits, like any brain state. One hypothesis was that when a memory is created a particular set of neurons is assigned the job. This gave rise to what is sometimes referred to in cognitive science as the grandmother cell; the idea that your image-memory of your grandmother’s face is bound up with your grandmother neurons. In this model accessing the memory of your grandmother is as simple as allowing those grandmother neurons to fire. This hypothesis agrees with our intuitive notion that a memory needs to be somewhere since that is what it feels like to access one; like reaching out to contact something already there, laid aside in the past when the memory was created.

It turns out this hypothesis was wrong. There is no assignment of particular neurons sets to particular memories as far as we can tell with today’s theories, instruments and data. What actually happens is that the brain re-creates a pattern of neurological firings. The memory is not in the cells but in the pattern. The act of memory is not re-accessing but an act of re-creation.

Consider an event that is now a memory; say learning how grandma’s face looked while she baked cookies. When the event was occurring your brain was in a particular state. Its neuronal firings were forming a specific configuration by which it processed the sensory signals and the emotional and physiological context of those moments. Part of this enormous symphony of electrochemical information exchange gets relayed through the hippocampus which lays down the perception of grandmother’s face as a memory to keep. The details of how this happens are not understood but the process is believed to work with both short term and long term memory differentiation and we know, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, that it requires a healthy amount of REM sleep before the memory is actually retained long term.

Now when the smell of cookies immediately brings to mind grandma’s face, what research shows is that the pattern is recreated. A memory depends on a particular configuration, a re-creation of a previous brain state. In the grandmother neuron hypothesis we expect a few hundred neurons captured the information about grandmother you will later need to recall. What was found instead is that the whole brain gets into the act of calling forth grandma’s face with hundreds of millions of neurons involved. Oh, and one of the neurons involved in remembering grandma is also involved when you remember your first day of school and every time you recognize the color red or some such. The memories are not ‘in’ the neurons, they are ‘in’ the pattern.

The act of recall then is not at all what it seems to be before it is analyzed. It seems introspectively that when we perform an act of memory we are looking into the past, that we are examining a photograph or movie with our inner eye. In fact what is occurring is a re-creation of the information processing dynamics that occurred in the past. We don’t examine a photograph, we re-create the set and setting in our imaginations. This discovery certainly explains all those observations captured in our folk wisdom about how unreliable memory can be.

In getting aquatinted with our minds this is worth spending time with in contemplation. What are memories? Where and how are memories stored? How are they created? What happens when we remember something? What does it mean when our species drives another one to extinction so that the whole of that expression of life is now no more than a memory?

I am usually persuaded that the best model we have for the mind that accounts for all the wild and weird, as well as its everyday manifestations, is that consciousness is a non-local phenomenon just as such are understood in quantum mechanics. Parts of the evidence for some such strangeness at the heart of our consciousness are the puzzles surrounding this feature of memory which is so central to our experience. Consider, if a memory is a re-creation of a previous brain state, what triggers it? What form must the trigger take to be able to re-create the pattern accurately enough to provide a memory that in turn is accurate enough to be useful? Just how many of these previous brain states are accessible? Under hypnosis and other altered states an amazing spectrum of recall can become accessible. Perhaps not even the smallest detail of any experience is ever wholly forgotten.

Or consider just how many memories the human brain is capable of storing, and where exactly are they stored? They reappear as a re-creation of previous patterns, where are those memories held when they are not being recalled? The Abhidharma postulates what is called the Alaya consciousness as the repository for just his sort of thing. And what does all this mean for the ontological status of my experience of this present moment when it too is no more or less than a particular pattern of energetic neuron firings I might one day remember with no more or less sense that it was real than that which accompanies any other memory?

By the way, this type of contemplation can aid us when suffering pain in the present moment. Recalling that the present moment has no inherent ontological status greater than any other moment of consciousness you have experienced in the past can provide some distance, some separation from the pain, some space from which it can be worked with. The trick is you need to remember this in the midst of the pain. How can we better our chances of remembering such wisdom in the midst of intense mental states like pain? By what we refer to as mind training; the creation of new patterns and then strengthening those through repeated use. This brings us to another word for this process of laying down these neurological patterns in our memory: learning.

The rule of nervous system neural nets is that use strengthens the circuits being used, making it more probable that they will be us again. Since the information is in the pattern, this manipulation of probabilities is very important.

SimpleGraphImagine this simple model is a small part of your memory of the times tables and the path 1 – 2 – 4 represents 7 X 7 = 49. Through rote memorization you learned to take this path every time. You let atrophy the potential but unused path 1 – 3 – 4 which represented say 7 X 6 = 49. When you were reciting your times tables you we’re running through this 1 – 2 – 4 circuit again and again, teaching your brain to make this particular information readily accessible and that when it is accessed, it needs to take this particular form to be useful. This ability to strengthen the ability to ‘do it right’ through repetitions is also what is behind the ability we have to master a craft or a musical instrument. However complex the skills required for mastery might be, they can be honed through this process that strengthens some paths at the expense of all those others which might be taken by someone with less skill.

Those readers interested in a more in-depth discussion of neural nets will find it in a new page I have added to the probability section of this blog. It deals with Bayesian networks used to create a probability oracle using machine intelligence.These are not the same as neural nets as they are studied in computer science but in my opinion model the brain at least equally well.

In addition to repetition there is a second way these brain circuits get strengthened. If the initial experience is one accompanied by shock or other extreme psychological states the imprint can be formed already strong. This is what happens with traumatic memories. Those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from war, child abuse, or other highly charged events are literally being recaptured by greatly strengthened patterns laid down in an instant. Something similar seems to occur on the positive side of life with peak experiences.

The act of learning lays down an imprint on the biological substratum of our neural nets.

This idea of energetic patterns imprinting themselves into our biology can be a very useful one for understanding a number of otherwise hard to understand aspects of our cognitive and emotional experience. For example, the obsessive compulsive suffers from circuits having been strengthened to the point that they fire even when they are maladaptive in the current environment. Another example is how these circuits once they are engaged tend to run their course, which helps explain the physiological underpinnings for what is recognized in psychology as life scripts, mindless loops, and semi-automatic sub-routines. The same dynamics can also be recognized in sports as the skill of riding a bicycle, jumping a high bar, or what not.

Understanding imprinting is a sort of update to seeing ourselves as composed of the skandhas. These circuits are among the parts of the collections by which we recognize ourselves as ourselves. Changing ourselves involves not just an act of will and moral courage but also an often long and difficult journey through retraining electrochemical habituation. Recognizing this we should not beat ourselves up when we fail and we should be grateful for even the smallest increment of getting better.

Psychiatric medicine for depression, when it works, does so ultimately by altering the neurotransmitter soup by which the strength of such circuits are maintained. In this case a chemical level of manipulation is used to effect the chemical nature of the imprinting. Of course, not all medicines being widely used in our culture in such a fashion, however unconsciously, are coming from a psychiatrist’s office.

I believe meditation is also able to do this rewiring. It is a scalpel where most drugs are a sledge hammer. It is capable of using the calm depths of shamatha to power the charge that surrounds vipassana. With practice and over time the skill develops both in starving some circuits – as we pray “may anti-dharmic thoughts cease” – and creating powerful learning and healing encounters around compassion and wisdom as if they were mini-traumas of our own choosing.

Instead of being a puppet of chance and circumstance we have some degree of control over how our minds work. All people are involved in these same processes all the time, though with varying levels of skill. What organizes our ongoing efforts at pruning and strengthening these circuits of the mind are our most deeply held values. They color our every experience by adjusting their weights, their probabilities. The advice to a hot-head to count to ten before giving vent to their anger is a neurological technique for diminishing the auto-pilot nature of going off the handle. In other words, restrain a bit now and in the future it becomes more likely that you will be able to exercise restraint again. Exercise restraint in dealing with small upsets and you increase the likelihood that you will be able to exercise restraint when larger triggering events occur.

Remember that memory is not a playback of a perfect duplicate of the patterns but a re-creation. We embody a certain openness or space in which things can change if we do not keep them frozen. Those who work with traumatic memories know how reframing one can change the whole characteristic appearance of the post-traumatic symptoms. This is what reductionists miss who see in all this neuro-technology of imprinting energy patterns on biochemical circuits nothing but “mindless” stimulus and response. They miss the freedom this spaciousness provides.

Which brings us to the question of who should be authorized to form and manipulate a human being’s imprinting? With imprinting added to our cognitive tool-belt we are in a good position to understand the difference between teaching and manipulation. We will take a look at that next week.