Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head

Monday November 10, 2008


The other day I was rummaging through an accumulation of three years of half-written blog posts that are tucked away behind the scenes at thinkBuddha: these are thoughts that have not yet come to fruition, ideas that started to emerge and then snuck back into their holes, words in search of some kind of direction, thoughts that are trying (but failing) to cohere around one particular subject. When I write this blog, it is not often with a clear idea of where I am heading. Often I find myself writing because I feel that there might be some interesting thoughts to be had in a particular direction, and so I set up to see where these thoughts want to lead me. Sometimes they don’t lead anywhere in particular, but sometimes they seem to cohere in a fashion that seems pleasing enough for them to be published.

The thought, that is to say, emerges in the writing, and if it doesn’t emerge, I save the article as a draft so that, if I feel like it, I can come back to it later. To write – to use the image from Russell Hoban that I have quoted here before – is to (or to attempt to) make friends with your own head. This idea implies, quite correctly it seems to me, that our own heads go their own merry way without taking the trouble to ask us if that is OK. They do their stuff, and we do ours. And when they do things that we don’t like, we claim not to be in our right mind (“What was I thinking of..?”) whilst when they do things that we do like, we congratulate ourselves and tell us how clever we are.

But who, we might ask, is taking the credit here? Not the brain, but the noisy, garrulous self that seems ( to my mind at least – a curious expression in the present circumstances…) to pop in and out of existence, to come and go on whim. It is as if, in the busy office that makes up the mind, there is one colleague at least who, whenever he shows up for work (and, for much of the time, the work goes on far better without him) can’t help going on and on about what he is up to, about how important he is to the running of the whole show, about how the decisions that he made last week (his colleagues are too polite to point out that he was, in fact, mysteriously absent when the real work was happening) have been so successful that he is going to award himself a further bonus and a pat on the back…

Whether this jumped-up individual has a useful role to play in our lives or not – and opinions here differ considerably – it does seem to me that there is a place for recognising how much of the work goes on without our noticing. In the New Scientist this week, there’s an interesting article on the secret life of the brain which explores the huge amount of activity in the ‘resting’ brain – when we are not focused on any particular task, when we are lolling around, gawping out of the window or sitting on the bus with (we implausibly claim) hardly a thought in our heads. It is then that our brain’s default network kicks into action. Rather than just generating random noise, however, opinion is now converging on the role of the default network in processing memory and doing all kinds of other clever stuff.

Yet, lest we get carried away with the smooth, quiet efficiency of the office when the noisy self-important self is not hanging around, we should also be aware that offices are machines that tend to generate activity for its own sake, that churn out the paperwork because, well, that’s just what they do, that can tend to lose sight of anything other than the task in hand. It is not just a case of keeping Mr. Noisy in check, but also of making sure that those quiet, mild-mannered clerks (who do, after all, work for the same organisation as Mr. Noisy) don’t turn your mind into a nightmare bureaucracy. And here, perhaps, a spot of meditation could be useful in keeping these petty bureaucrats who generate endless paperwork in check. This, certainly, is the view of Pagnoni, Cecik and Guo, who have published an interesting paper (which, commendably, is available for open access here) on the role of Zen meditation in quieting the default network.

[T]he habitual practice of being heedful to distraction from spontaneous thoughts during meditation renders regular meditators, as compared to control subjects, more able to voluntarily contain the automatic cascade of conceptual associations triggered by semantic stimuli.

Here we have at least three different kinds of state. The first is that of the focused task, an engagement with the world (such as writing a blog post) that binds together various thoughts, that sifts and winnows; the second is that of the default network kicking in, doing its obscure work behind the scenes; and the third is that of the heedfulness to distraction in which one is neither focused upon a task, nor is one succumbing to the cascade of paperwork that spews out of the office. As for Mr. Noisy, we can perhaps see his appearance on the scene as a fourth kind of state (sometimes he’s there when my mind is out to graze, sometimes he is not; sometimes he comments on my writing of this blog, sometimes he is curiously absent), an appearance that is parasitic upon the first and second of these states, but that is mitigated against by the third.

The relationships between these different kinds of states and the roles that they play in the weaving our lives are no doubt complex. It is, after all, a complicated business having a mind (or being had by a mind…). But what intrigues me – both as a practitioner of meditation and also as somebody who has a kind of amateur’s interest in the process of making friends with his own head – is what exactly is going on in this third state in which there is neither a cascade of conceptual associations, nor any obviously demanding task, nor a shouty self to worry about…

And out of this complex and bewildering brew, sometimes things that are vaguely coherent can emerge. It’s astonishing really, if you think about it.

But I want to end this brief reflection with a story I read about fifteen years ago, one that is in a book by anthropologist and cognitive scientist Dan Sperber. The story seems, in the present context, to be apposite. I think – although I am not sure – that the book in which it appeared was his Rethinking Symbolism. It goes something like this:

A scene marked my childhood. My father was seated in an armchair in the lounge, completely motionless, his hands empty, his eyes fixed on nothing. My mother whispered to me: ‘Don’t bother your father, he’s working.’ This worked on me. Later, I too became a scholar, I went to Ethiopia as an ethnographer, and I heard a Dorze mother whisper to her son: ‘Don’t bother your father, he’s feeding the ancestors.’

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#1 · blinkwax

11 November 2008

thought provoking post. I wonder what the process is that requires us to first produce a draft that we then use to ‘evolve’ a final story? Why cant we just produce a final draft off the top of our heads?
And what is the difference between the draft and the final that makes us feel the latter is better?
Just some draft thoughts.

#2 · Ed Knight

11 November 2008

Well put. Enjoyable. And useful. Thanks.

#3 · Gijesh

1 February 2011

Really interesting post…answered some of my doubts..thank you ..

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