Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Buddha's Biology

I had started to occasionally re-post an old post that really struck me during my scan of this blog since its beginning in 2006, and now repeat the following old post, having come upon it for a second time:

I want to mention a book by that I have found to be a useful summary and distillation of correspondences between classical Buddhist psychology and modern psychology and evolutionary biology. Don't let its self-helpy new-agey title put you off (Buddha's Nature: A Practical Guide to Discovering Your Place in the Cosmos). It's by a crazy guy named Wes Nisker, a stand up Buddhist comic and veteran of the sixties and seventies new age San Francisco scene whose other writings include "The Big Bang, The Buddha, and the Baby Boom" and "The Essential Crazy Wisdom". It is a largely accurate descriptions of how Buddhism's four foundations of mindfulness can be taken to correspond to the bottom-up construction of our nervous system and consciousness, and to stages in the evolution of our nervous systems.

Sensing or exploring the nature of our elemental physical existence, our body breathing and homeostasis, is a focus of the Buddha's First Foundation of Mindfulness. This first foundation corresponds to physical elements of the body and homeostasis (regulation of blood flow, body temperature, etc.) These functions center in primitive brain stem structures we share with reptiles and other vertebrates. This core regulates interactions with the physical world elemental to having a self that we seldom think about - like breathing, supporting ourselves against gravity, seeing, tasting, smelling, touching, hearing.

These core structures also regulate our urge to remedy hunger, to have sex, to approach or avoid, to flee or fight when suddenly presented with very threatening situations. Our experience of these primary and instinctual basic drives, in its urgency and automaticity, has a very different quality than our experience of thoughts or more complicated emotions. The Buddha's Second Foundation of Mindfulness rests on the sentience of the nervous system which can note these elemental feelings, impressions of pleasant/unpleasant/neutral/painful, etc. We can, in more quiet moments of reflection or meditation note the more muted `flickers' of these primal forces, appearing and disappearing almost as transient quantal energies.

Our human introspective access to, observation of, emotional feelings more nuanced than the basic drives mentioned above is the focus of the Buddha's third foundation of mindfulness (affection, fear, anger, sadness, playfulness, etc.). These are regulated by a new kind of cortex that appears in mammals between the brain stem and the outer layer of the cortex, usually referred to as the limbic system.

Finally, our higher level cognitive abilities associated with the newer cortex (neocortex) that forms the top layers or our brain - our ability to note how thoughts and feelings are produced, as natural occurrences like breathing or the heartbeat - are a focus of the Buddha's fourth foundation of mindfulness.

Nisker's book has several sections of exercises or meditations useful in sensing layers of the self, its evolutionary nature, and its symbiosis with the external social and physical world.


  1. Anonymous9:00 AM

    So, are biology and evolution the drivers of consciousness or the other way round? what do you think?

  2. Being a good materialist, I would put biology and evolution in the drivers seat, with increasingly complex layers of consciousness, in the transitions leading to humans, being emergent properties reinforced by the Baldwin Effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldwin_effect)

  3. Wouldn't form before mind negate a significant amount of mindfulness in your view—if it all starts at biology?

    Of course, I'm not asking anyone to take a belief in mind before form. That belief would probably be and mindless and the other way around.

    However, consider the possibility that mind and form happen together (they aren't really separate). I understand that this could imply a lot—timelessness, oneness, etc.

    Good post, too.

  4. You get here into pan-psychism, which I've never been very keen on. I think what we call 'mind' and 'mindfulness' is an artifact of our particular linguistic human consciousness.