Zen and the Brain


>>Good morning friends. We are delighted
today have our–to host our friend, Dr. James H. Austin. James is America’s professor of
neurology in the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. He is one of the oldest and
most respected experts on the links between the neurological workings of the human brain
and meditation. He is the author of the book “Zen and the Brain” which is, as far as I
know, one of the earliest and most influential books on the topic. He is also the only real
neuroscientist I know who is also a profoundly deep meditator. And he’s going to be very
shy as in now, but he’s–but he’s quite enlightened, and so making him a very rare master both
in neuroscience and meditation. James’ other books include “Selfless Insight” and “Zen
Brain Reflections”. He is the only friend I have who doesn’t use email. Or he and the
Dalai Lama. So, the two of them. And he’s the–and he’s the only friend who writes me
letters by hand, because the Dalai Lama doesn’t do that. So before we come here, he asked
whether he should be doing the advance or the–or the geneta–the version of his talk.
So I asked for the advanced technical version. So if it’s too older, blame me. But if it’s
good, it’s his credit. And with that, please welcome our friend, Professor James Austin.
Thank you.>>Austin: Thank you, Meng, for your generous,
hospitality and generous welcome to this group. I have a very easy or very difficult job talking
to this group at Google. The difficult part of my job relates to your high level of intellect,
which paradoxically makes it more difficult for you to understand unless you remember
how important it is to have moments of insight. If you can remember the moments when you’ve
had insight, when all you intellectual knowledge has failed you but your intuition has given
you a burst of understanding, then I have an easy job. So try to keep in mind those
moments of insight at your desk or any out of doors when a moment of insight has clarified
a problem that remained impenetrable to your high level of intellect. Meng tells me that
many of you in this group have taken the course on meditation and consciousness, and so I
think it’s appropriate that we all start with a moment of meditation. You’ve already worked
hard all this morning. You’ve gotten here. You’ve come here on time to this lecture.
So let’s start with a brief moment of meditation. The first slide is the old Taoist yin yang
symbol, and the purpose is to point out that their two aspects, the black and the white,
the male and the female, this into that are complementary, not antagonistic. They’re both
necessary to be part of the cosmic whole. You might wonder how a seemingly orthodox
neurologist and academician would ever–would ever be involved in anything as esoteric as
Zen Buddhism. It stared when I was on sabbatical in Kyoto, Japan. I was introduced, fortunately,
to an English-speaking Zen master. And this is the gate through which I entered this Rinzai
Zen temple, Daitokuji, in 1974. It’s an ordinary gate of the kind that we use in the west and
elsewhere in the world. It operates as a unit so that the top and the bottom open simultaneously.
What I’m about to describe to you as a theme throughout this talk is something that may
seem unfamiliar, but here’s the theme. The theme is that when we turn on our self-centered
attention, we exert in a reciprocal opposite fashion our external kind of attentiveness.
And contrary-wise, when we turn on our attentiveness into the external world, we dampen our resources
that go into our self-centeredness. And with this introduction, let’s turn to the two different
kinds of meditation, the attentive art of meditation. For those of you who have handouts,
this will be on the handout so you need not try to memorize it. But basically we start
as we did a few moments ago by looking down and usually at a spot in front of us in a
form of what’s been called concentrative meditation. It’s a more effortful kind of attentiveness.
It’s focused and it’s exclusive. If we’re pointing down like this, were excluding the
world all around us and focusing on one point in a deliberate one-pointed manner. Now, this
requires our voluntary top-down processing, and so it is more self-referential; we’re
in there doing it. It’s the kind of attention that can evolve later on into the absorptions,
and it does involve our paying attention. This kind of attention, this kind of awareness
is personalized. We’re in there doing it ourself. Now, later on, after we’ve trained attention
in a top-down manner, we move into a more receptive kind of meditation. By definition,
this is more effortless. It’s attentiveness that is unfocussed and it is inclusive. It
will take in everything around us; front, back, top and bottom. It’s a more open, universal,
bare awareness and it expresses our involuntary–our involuntary attentiveness to the world around
us. So it, by definition, is more other referential. If self is everything inside our skin, other
is everything outside of our skin. And this is the kind receptivity that can later shift
into more insightful, intuitive modes of processing. It’s called a choiceless awareness because
we are not choosing to do it; it happens. So this is a more anonymous kind of awareness;
anonymous awareness. Now, we have two ways–two ways of processing reality. The one we’re
most familiar with and the one’s that’s easiest to understand is this form, the egocentric,
self-centered kind of processing. If this is the person doing it and looking at an apple,
these lines of sight from the apple are all coming back into the general access of this
person’s attentiveness. And this person–this person has a frame of reference looking at
the outside world. This person is holding on with both hands to this frame of reference
and he’s seeing only what he chooses to. There’s another kind of reality which is revealed
to us without our being aware of it. And just as the word “ego” stands for self, the Greek
word “allo” stands for other. So allocentric reality is that world that the brain perceives
without our knowing that it’s doing so. And when it looks out out there and automatically
identifies these apples and positions them in three dimensional space in relation to
each other, no lines of sight come back here to the person who is doing this kind of attentive
processing. This is allocentric processing. Now, the two kinds of processing, egocentric
and allocentric are on your handout. But the important thing to realize is that they pursue
different pathways in the brain. The egocentric pathway is, in a sense, the northern pathway
which proceeds in the upper part of the brain. The allocentric pathway is pathway that proceeds
from back to front through the southern part, the lower part of the brain. Next topic on
your handout, and your handout has these topics arranged in a serial manner, so if you proceed
from the top, you’ll be getting the whole outline of this presentation. The next topic
we’re talking about is attention itself. William James, the American psychologist and philosopher,
outlined the importance of attention, and he called it “The faculty of bringing back
a wandering attention over and over again, over and over again, is the very root of all
of our judgment, character and will.” I’m going to make a little different tack and
also emphasize that not only is this a voluntary process, but that attention operates involuntarily.
So let’s look at the attentive brain here. And to get oriented, this is the back of the
brain and you’re looking down at the top of the brain with the right hemisphere being
on your right and the left hemisphere being on your left. The nose is here. And let’s
look at the left hemisphere first and you’ll notice it has a lot of fine dots in it. This
is to emphasize that the left hemisphere operates in a discriminatory, fine-grain kind of processing.
And when it looks out at the outside world, and this outside world is on the opposite
side of the environment because things are crossed in the brain, it looks out and sees
with discrimination, fine-grain discrimination. It sees and hears with fine-grain discrimination.
Now, you know that most–for most of us, almost all of us, our language ability is centered
over in the left hemisphere. Whereas, when we’re talking about attentiveness, the corresponding
regions, very exactly in this right hemisphere, are specialized for attention. Most of the
training in Zen meditation involves the training of attention; the training of attention, both
top-down and bottom-up training of attention. And here we see the reason why. Because this
right hemisphere, you’ll notice, has a lot of spaces in between the lines. It’s not a
fine grain, it’s more of a course grain kind of processing. And when it looks out into
the opposite visual field, there is plenty of room between these lines for it to insert
values, atmospheres of aesthetic appreciation, and judgment. Then because it sends a message
over to the left hemisphere through the corpus callosum, it enters into a bargain with the
left hemisphere. It’s an age old bargain. It’s been going on for millenia. And it says,
in effect, “Left hemisphere, you can take over the responsibility of words, and language
and speaking and understanding language. But I’m going to co-opt everything that you see
over in the right side of the world and claim it as mine.” And so the right hemisphere pays
attention to both sides of the outside environment. And this becomes very important because it
means that the right hemisphere is poised to be receptive to the whole outside world.
Many years ago, it was theorized, with good evidence, that these two pathways were organized
into a where pathway and then to a what pathway. It’s now, I think, more reasonable to say
that this northern root is a “where is it in relation to me?” back in the center, and
to say that the southern root is a “what is it?” pathway that arrives at identification
of the object that is seen out there. Those of you who know some anatomy will notice an
interesting point about this northern root, because it goes through the angular gyrus
here on it’s way north into the parietal lobe, and it misses the supramarginal gyrus which
is more involved in the ventral kind of attentiveness. This slide is a composite slide that shows
the brain and what it perceives out there as a–in a theoretical way. We’ll start with
two of these spots up in the top part of the brain because one of them is intraparietal
sulcus or the IPS. And the IPS is linked with the frontal eye field which is in the frontal
part of the brain, and the two together are our two modes of top-down attentiveness. We
spoke of top-down attentiveness earlier, and it’s on one of your handout tables. You’ll
notice that these two modes of attention are in a position to be overlapped by the egocentric
pathway of processing, so that the two together, egocentricity and top-down attentiveness,
are very easy to link together into one giant function. On the other hand, lower down, is
the temporoparietal junction which includes the superior temporal gyrus here and the supramarginal
gyrus. And it links up in the same network and circuitry with the inferior frontal cortex
which is farther forward in the brain. You’re looking here, by the way, at the brain where
the occipital lobe is back here, the seeing part of the cortex, whereas the frontal lobe
and nose is way up here in front. Further more, this lower ventral pathway for attention
is closer to the allocentric or the other centered mode of processing reality, and tucked
into the undersurface of the temporal lobe is a module called the FG or the fusiform
gyrus. This is a gyrus that specialize both for color perception and for the processing
or facial features. Thank you. All right. So here’s this brain and it’s looking up into
the outside world, and what is it seeing? Well, it’s seeing four quadrants of vision,
and let’s look at them separately. Why, you might ask, is there a red rim around the lower
visual field? Well, that’s because the egocentric pathway, starting as it does in the upper
part of the occipital lobe, is much more efficient at processing things that are below the horizon.
So, upper part of the occipital lobe, more efficient at processing lower down. And ladies,
there are several of you in the audience, if you are balancing a baby on your lap, it’s
very important for you to be using the functions that are up here, your functions of touch
and proprioception, because they will help you hold that baby accurately on your lap
so the baby doesn’t fall. And gentlemen, if you are hammering a nail with your hammer
and you’ll hold the nail in your left hand, it’s very important for you have proprioception
and touch so that you can come down with your hammer accurately on the head of the nail
because if you don’t, your fingers are history. So this pathway, the egocentric pathway, is
highly specialized for action. And it depends on the parietal lobe for its proprioceptive
and touch skills. And notice that these objects that it handles are down close to it in its
very personal space in the envelope of space right around it within reach; within reach.
On the other hand, consider the allocentric pathway starting in the lower part of the
occipital lobe. Remember things are crossed in the brain. So this part of the brain is
most efficient at processing items that are up here in the upper visual fields above the
visual horizon. What is up here? Well, in ages past, it would be very handy to detect
the saber-toothed tiger by your sense of hearing, audition, or your sense of color vision so
that you could detect the difference between the stripes on the tiger and the leaf patterns
that are in the underbrush. And it’s important that the tiger be detected at a distance away
from you so it doesn’t wind up in your lap. And having escaped the tiger, if you wanted
to be in a contemplative mode and thank your lucky stars, you could look out in the distance
at the blue sky and the clouds and the mountains and be in a more relaxed frame of mind. These
are the differences between vision and audition which are in the temporal lobe, and touch
and proprioception, the circuitry of which is in your parietal lobe. Now looking here
at a functional MRI scan of the left–we’re looking at the right hemisphere from the outside,
the nose is here by the inferior frontal gyrus and the occipital lobe is back here in the
back. And you see these same structures that we’ve spoken about before, but the interesting
point here is that the intraparietal sulcus is right next to this blue spot which is the
superior parietal lobule. What is the superior parietal lobule? It’s your somatosensory association
cortex. And what does that mean? It means that this is the part of your brain that understands
that you have an arm, a leg, a head and a trunk on both sides, and it puts these together
so that you understand and know instinctively that you have a body that you can act with
which will be your agency for working as a unit in the outside world. So this is where
your sense of physical sense of self comes together. So notice how handy it is to have
your top-down attention mode right next to this organizational principle that enables
you to know you have a whole body scheme with which you can operate in the outside world.
What about the bottom-up attention and its processing? Well, it’s in the temporo-parietal
junction and the inferior frontal gyrus. And there are some yellow colors here and that’s
simply to remind us that our top-down attentiveness and our bottom-up attentiveness have to be
merged in a very sophisticated manner in order for us to put together the kinds of attention
that we need to operate in our daily lives. So the medial frontal gyrus and the inferior
frontal gyrus operate particularly on the right side to arrive at this merger of functions
that enables us to operate. In your handout is a table that simply summarizes the responses
of the ventral, the lower, and the dorsal kind of attention systems, and I won’t dwell
on that any further. It is important, however, to make a distinction, a visual distinction,
between top-down attention which is a sharply pointed, remember, exclusive kind of attention.
It operates on a foundation of bare awareness. It has a pre-attention mode which is entirely
involuntary and which is right out there at the point. And the point here is simply to
illustrate that top-down attention is the vanguard that is out at the tip of all of
our processing. In computer programming, there is also, I gather, something that is out at
the forefront of the processing, and in the brain, it is a sharp point of attention that
impales the topic that we wish to pay attention to so that the rest of our processing can
come in and know where to operate. Think how important it is to this pen which has lots
of ink in it to be able to have a point
in order to write with, and you’ll understand the pointing function of attention, and you’ll
understand why William James regarded it as so crucial to our operations. So this is the
kind of top-down attention and the contrasting form is our bottom-up attentiveness which
is a more global kind of receptivity. It also functions at the level of bare awareness and
it has a subconscious processing also, and everything above its threshold of consciousness
it does have the potential of entering on our consciousness. But most important, everything
below this level operates at a subconscious level. So the bottom-up attentiveness much
of what goes on is not within our conscious understanding. It goes on subconsciously.
Farther down on your handout is the issue of the difference between our physical sense
of self and our psychic sense of self. Zen training, in particular, emphasizes doing
away with the disadvantageous aspects of our self-centeredness. And to understand how this
is so, you need to know the difference between the physical body which is your physical sense
of self, the Greeks called it your soma and your–and your cognitive and your affective
and your instinctual forms of self which are your psychic sense of self which the Greeks
called our psyche. So soma and psyche are very different. I know because I can feel
my arm that I have a somatic sense of self. But can you touch a thought? Can you reach
out and touch your thought? Your thoughts are intangible. So our soma deals with tangible
things and our psyche deals with cognition and emotion and instincts, and these are intangible
categories of functioning. Now, let’s look at the self in operational terms and try to
see how it operates in our daily lives. And to do so, it helps to divide the self into
three operational sub-compartments. The most obvious one is the I, the part of ourselves
that we know exist, we can feel it, we know that it’s there and we can watch it act. And
these are all very adaptive functions. Similarly, the Me is that part of our self to which things
happen. If I don’t look carefully when I’m crossing the curb and going out in traffic,
I’m going to be hit by an automobile and something very bad is going to happen to me. So this
is an adaptive part of the self or Me. And similarly, the Mine helps us identify our
thoughts, our body parts, and our possessions. If we’re going in the parking lot at Googleplex
and trying to find our automobile, it helps to know which automobile is mine and where
we parked it because otherwise we’ll be lost without our car. So these are all the adaptive
good parts of having an I, Me, Mine, but there are disadvantages, there’s a downside. There
are cons to being a self. There are maladaptive aspects of the self that we should like to
do away with. The first and the easiest to identify by our friends are our aggressive
self; our aggressive, arrogant self. We have another self. Here I am trying to get rid
of myself and I have this other self that is somehow in the circuitry. And this tells
us how difficult it is to get rid of our self. We have this echo self which seems to have
subsided. No. It needs to meditate more. So, our friends know that we have an arrogant
and aggressive self, but this part is sort of hidden from us. But the Me part of our
self, this we recognize because this is our battered and our fearful and our anxiety-
ridden self. This is the part that gives us high blood pressure and all kinds of physical
and mental ailments. And how about the mind? The mind, of course, is also clutching its
captured self-indentured, it craves things, it overeats, it wants too much. And these
are the, in short, the ABCs of the I, Me, Mine, the aggressive, besieged and clutching
parts of the self that we can do without. Now, as the new century dawned, a group of
investigators at Washington University in St. Louis, Deborah Gusnard and Marcus Raichle,
looked over a bunch of PET scans–PET scans that had been done in the past and discovered
something interesting. In here, you’re looking at a summary of what they found, because we’re
looking now at the inside of the brain. Previously, we’ve been looking at the outside of the brain.
Now we’re looking at the brain from the inside and you recognize that it’s the inside because
it’s the right hemisphere and here is the corpus callusom that has been cut, the bridge
between the two hemispheres. And what they found was that there were two hotspots in
this inner part of the brain at rest; at rest. Their subjects were trying to relax, not do
anything mentally or physically. And here was a hotspot in the
medial posterior parietal cortex. Front of
the brain here, back of the brain here. Notice, by the way, the other centered, allocentered
pathway coming along here through the under part of the occipital and medial temporal
cortex. And similarly, the other major hotspot was here in the angular gyrus which is we’ve
noticed is the longest egocentric pathway that leads up to the superior parietal lobule.
So here at rest are three hotspots. What happens when the subjects are then given a task which
requires them to be introspective and to look into their self? These hotspots become even
hotter. And various lines of evidence suggest that these hotspots in charge are engaged,
at least partially, in generating our sense of psychic self-identity and in relating this
identity to our environment and to ways to navigate through our environment. So if you
ask, what are these hotspots doing anyway? One might suggest by way of speculation that
this is how you remember where you were born, what your bedroom look like in your early
formative years, where you went to high school, who your friends were in high school, where
you went to college, and what your office looks like at Googleplex. This is where you
fit in to your long narrative history and then to that part of your environment which
you laid down with circumstantial details so that you know how to find your way around
your environment. But now, what happens when the subjects are given an acute task–an acute
task that requires them to be very attentive to their external environment? If you remember
the first slide with the self and external environment, you’ll know and can anticipate
that these hotspots become cooler. These self hotspots become cooler when attentiveness
is required and demanded by events in the external environment. And this has since been
borne out by functional MRI. You’re looking here at the top side at the functional MRI
scans. In here, you’re looking at the left hemisphere with the frontal lobe here and
the occipital lobe here. And here is the posterior cingulate cortex back in the medial parietal
lobe, and here is the medial prefrontal cortex and here’s the angular gyrus, so that this
is a resting functional MRI scan and we still have these three major hotspots. But now,
the subjects are inside the functional MRI scanner for 300 seconds or five minutes. And
we see something fascinating. Because we see that when the cool spots get hotter, the hotspots
get cooler. And when the hotspots get hotter, the cool spots get cooler. And this is happening
in this subject about three times a minute. Now, this is a very, very slow cycle. It’s
endogenous, intrinsic cycle of the brain. It’s not clear exactly what the mechanism
is but it’s probably a combination of some metabolic cycle and some bioelectric cycle.
It’s much slower than the breathing rate of, say, 18 per minute because this is only three
per minute. Where could such a basic rhythm come from, and that, of course, is an interesting
problem for neuroscientists to settle. And if you’re wondering about the IPS which is
cooler and the FEF which is cooler and the TPj and the inferior frontal cortex which
is cooler, rest assured that 20 minutes–20 seconds later things will be different. In
here, 20 seconds later is the evidence of a spontaneous reciprocal shift in the other
direction. As the hot spots get hotter, the cool spots get cooler. Question?
>>Are the subjects doing anything during this?
>>AUSTIN: No, no. This is spontaneous. The subject is not trying to do anything. This
is an involuntary, spontaneous, endogenous, reciprocal shift that’s going on by itself.
Thank you for your question. So here is the cooler angular gyrus and the cooler medial
posterior parietal and the cooler medial prefrontal cortex. And here again, as a reminder, is
a reciprocal function we’ve been talking about. Now, the question then might be those of you
who meditate and who go to a meditative retreat, let’s say you’ve gone through day-long retreat
or on a weekend retreat and then you’ve gone for a seven-day retreat, you’re very relaxed
and yet very receptive, very acute, very sensitized to your environment. And you’ve been doing
this for–not for a week or so but you’ve been doing this for some years. What would
happen if you’re just there relaxed in a receptive mode of attentiveness? Well, speculation here
is a model to think about. Here is your allocentric mode of other referential attentiveness going
up and down maybe three per minute. And here is your self-centered mode going up in a reciprocal
fashion spontaneously. And then all of a sudden a triggering stimulus comes from the outside;
a triggering stimulus. A triggering stimulus has been described in Zen terms and Buddhist
terms for many, many centuries. For Zen Master EQ who was meditating out in a boat, in a
row boat out in the center of Lake Biwa in Japan at night, the triggering stimulus was
a bird that flew over and above him. A bird that he was unaware of and the bird said [makes
sound]. And Zen Master EQ dropped into a certain extraordinary state of consciousness. Why?
Well, we’ve seen that there is this reciprocal arrangement that goes on spontaneously and
we’re speculating that is allocentric, other referential attentive processing would be
captured and very hyper attentive. And similarly in the reverse reciprocal fashion, there would
be a deactivation of his self-referential processing, which is in red and down here.
And after a variable but unknown period of time because time would drop out, his allocentric
processing would be at a higher level. And as a residual during the–during the afterglow
phase, his egocentric processing would be at a very low level and much of his prior
maladaptive self would have been cut off. Cut off–question?
>>How long will the [INDISTINCT] last?>>AUSTIN: A variable period of time, but
I would say anywhere from hours to a few days. Thank you for your question. I’ve just come
back from Beijing where I was given, to my surprise, this ceremonial sword. I thought
it might interest the audience as a curiosity, but it also helps me explain how the sword
cut that is describe in the old literature which is the sword of the Buddha [INDISTINCT]
of enlightenment and [INDISTINCT]. How it operates and nicely slices off at that just
the right parts, our sense of physical and psychic self that is disadvantageous to our
well-being and to well-being of others. Now, you may think it odd that any quasi-religion
or quasi-philosophical or any other system of human endeavor would speak of a sword cut
as a metaphor for a state of consciousness that would supervene but this is the same
way than my Zen master describe such a moment to me. And the technique that he used with
something like this. He said, “A cut will open up in the mind and will strike the depths
of the cut.” He put both of his hands down in this manner and touched his fingers to
indicate a big long V-shaped cut in the mind. So, we are talking there is–and there is
a word in Japanese Kiri-e which describes such a cut in the mind. Now, if the self vacates
the center of consciousness which it does. And then the setters and insight that comprehends
all things in the outside world as they really are and the absence of self. And if there
is no fear at that moment and no time and pro-perception, the physical sense of self
is unregistered. And if perfection is registered throughout the outside world at that moment,
how is it possible that such a moment can occur. Again, we’re talking about a model
explanation but the model begins with the thalamus. But what are we looking at here?
We’re looking at the left side of the brain, nose here, back of the brain here. We’re looking
at the thalamus which is a paired structure. This is the left thalamus and we’re seeing
the largest nucleus in the whole thalamus which is the pulvinar. And the pulvinar on
that model that you have there is indicated in a-in a yellow orange manner. If you see
a yellow orange spot, you’re looking at the pulvinar. What does the pulvinar do? The pulvinar
specializes in salience that’s a quality that enables the foreground item of interest to
leap out and the background to subside and become the background. So, the pulvinar is
a very smart nucleus to have at the onset of all of our perceptions. Now, what you’re
looking at in color is mostly the dorsal part or the upper part or the northern part of
the thalamus. And the other item of interest is a lateral-posterior nucleus and it’s connected
with the superior parietal lobule which is where we organize our physical sense of self.
In front of that are the three limbic nuclei of the thalamus. Through these three nuclei
come all of the messages that rise up from our hypothalamus, our hippocampus, our amygdale,
all of our emotional life passes through these three limbic nuclei and the front of the thalamus.
And it’s so happens that each of these three nuclei are the passageway up to those three
hot spots in the cortex which are our sense of self. So, the way the circuitry is arranged
in the brain, all of the information which comes up from the limbic system and comes
up in a bottom of manner, that comes up through the limbic system and drives our cortex with
all of our wants, all of our attachments, all of our emotions first goes through these
three limbic nuclei in the front of the dorsal thalamus. So, we’re talking about the dorsal
tear first. But notice the ventral pulvinar remains as those the rest to the ventral nuclei.
And the ventral pulvinar goes up to diffuse the formed gyrus and all of the other information
that passes along the allocentric other centered kind of processing. So, then, how is it possible
to drop out all of these dorsal thalamus and therefore rid ourselves of our anxieties and
our sense of self. And the answer is that it is not possible. It’s not possible unless
you pay attention to another nucleus in the thalamus which is a reticular nucleus. Think
of the reticular nucleus as a cap that fits over the rest of the thalamus. And because
it has many GABA, gamma aminobutyric acid nerve cells in it, it exercises and inhibitory
role on the rest of the dorsal thalamus. So, because the thalamus and the cortex normally
operate in an oscillating mode very quickly back and forth, the reticular cap enables
the thalamus to shut down it’s thalamocortical system and to cut off our sense of self. Now,
you may say, “What is the evidence for this in my own experience?” The evidence for this
in your own experience is it what happens when you go into your bedroom, turn out the
lights and drop off to sleep in the evening at night? Why do you fall asleep? Your vision
drops out, your hearing drops out, your sense of physical self drops out? All courtesy of
your reticular nucleus in addition to other circumstances. And why is the thalamus important?
It’s important because everything that you have experienced since you first sat down
in this chair this morning, all of your perceptions have had to go through your thalamus in order
for you to understand in the cortical level what’s going on, with the exception of smell.
And if you smell the coffee or the onions coming from over here, that’s only because
smell is the only exception. All the rest has to go through your thalamus. Now, like
the rest of the western world, the people in Holland were used to a door that operates
as a unit from the top to bottom until about 1600. And then some Dutchman said, “Hey, why
don’t we design another kind of door? Let’s design a door that is hinged at the top and
then independently at the bottom so we have more options. And if our wives are inside
here and the kids are down here playing in the door step, she can look down and watch
the kids or if it’s a very hot day and we want to get some cool breezes from a distant
source, we can close the top part and open up the bottom part and let the cool breezes
come in and sweep along the floor. And if we want to close off to world at night in
security, we can close both halves of the door as we drop off to sleep. The Dutch door
is a metaphor for the way the dorsal thalamus opens and closes at different kinds of days.
Now, there are some triggers of historical interest. The first of course is the–is the
moment the episode involving Siddhartha Gautama about 2500 years ago, who is meditating the
bodhi tree in the pre-dawn hours. When he looked up and saw the morning star–what is
the morning star? The morning star was well known to the ancients. Morning star is the
planet Venus. And this is the way the planet Venus was painted in back of the early Chinese
dynasties. She was painted as a white goddess. And it’s an indication of the harmony that
was involved in her being. She has shown holding a lute. And as further evidence that she was
present in the early morning hours. If you look up here, you can see that she has a rooster
in her crown, evidencing what goes on in the first part of the morning. And next time you
go up north and visit Seattle, do visit the Seattle Asian Art Museum. because in the Asian
Art Museum, you will this statue which is entitled ‘A Monk at the Moment of Enlightenment.’
You will notice the black Buddha who looked up and saw the morning star. This monk is
also shown looking up at the moment of enlightenment. The technique of looking up as a meditated
practice is well known in Tibetan Buddhism. And when Matthieu Ricard was here in 2007,
about that time he was also writing a book about Shabkar and Enlightened Sage in Tibetan
Buddhism in the 19th century. And what Shabkar had to say is this: “I raise my head looking
up and saw the cloudless sky. I thought of absolute space free from all limitations.
And then experienced a freedom without center, without end. In translation, the cloudless
sky is the sky that is free of all delusions. Absolute space without limits, it is this
space with stems around us as allocentric space. The freedom is the liberation that
is part of an enlightened state of moment. Without center means, no self is in the center,
without end meaning infinite. And so as we go out the door through which we entered,
I thank you for your attention.

3 thoughts on “Zen and the Brain

  1. OMG … im glad i aint working at google cause i cant handle this pace of talking..
    It's a lot of gibberish for saying that we shift from reptilian brain part wich runs on dopamine to the more frontal parts of the brain

  2. The problem of all scientist experts is the fact that they are only an expert in their own field, wich causes a mass psychose
    This is represented in the way how this presentation is performed.

    I don't wanna be rude, but this tech talk can use some flavour, you are talking about intuition while acting like a robot without any expressions.. Intuition is the only thing algorithm can't grasp so be proud to have this power while still being human

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