Here are two related questions that two students recently asked about mindfulness meditation:
“I am confused about control. There seems to be a contradiction: On one hand it feels like we take control in meditation, on the other hand we learn to relinquish control. What’s the solution?”
“If surrender is the wisdom to differentiate between what we have control over and what we don’t, then wouldn’t it make sense to ‘let be’ or ‘surrender’ to anything that comes into our field of awareness during formal practice without trying to force or coax our minds to establish a predetermined focus of attention? Sometimes I feel that by disciplining ourselves to follow such a structured set of rules, we are establishing certain conditioning, which happens to be the very thing that we are trying to get away from.”
Both questions address a very central point in meditation: We indeed learn to take control, but on a level we are not used to being in control, and we learn to relinquish control on another level we are inappropriately in the habit of trying to take control. We also learn to engage in the investigation of the mind. Just a few hours of meditation will show anyone that one has hardly any control over oneself, let alone any insight worth its salt into the nature of mind. As of 2019, the only possible direct access to my mind goes through self-observation, a methodical, continuous, and objective process that requires a technique to be learned. Through mindfulness practice we establish a new kind of conditioning that wires the brain for mindfulness rather than mindlessness.
The current age of the universe is 13.8 billion years. Planet earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Life seems to have started 3.5 billion years ago. Humans have been around for at least 2 million years and anatomically modern humans for at least 300 thousand years. For most of life’s evolution there existed nothing even close to human consciousness. Various life forms thrived through several cycles of climatic changes and even mass extinctions without anyone ever making conscious decisions as we think we can. For most of this gigantic evolutionary time frame during which planet earth was teeming with life, the lights were on and nobody was home. These life forms evolved in such a way as to grow and multiply like sophisticated biological robots, perfectly adapted to multiply in their natural environment.
Every living creature is an energy processing mechanism, whose biological processes and functions are highly sophisticated calculations that ensure it creates copies of itself and survives. This is called an algorithm. An algorithm is a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems, and reach decisions. A cooking recipe is such an example: You follow the instructions and always get the same result. Biological algorithms (animals) calculate probabilities and undergo constant quality control by natural selection (evolution). Humans are no exception. They are algorithms ensuring propagation and survival. Sensations, emotions and thoughts are the calculations that ensure the organism produces copies of itself. Over 90% of our decisions, big and small, are made by the highly refined algorithms we call sensations, emotions, and desires. For most of what you need to survive and have kids – at least at the time we were hunter-gatherers – you didn’t need to be there. Your organism draws on millions of years of evolutionary experience to get you through this life just fine without you. What you believe to be your self that makes decisions like a CEO of a corporation, is mostly a constructed illusion that for the most part is as controlled by the algorithm as anything else.
Just because humans developed a consciousness capable of exploring both the world and itself, does not mean they are any less algorithms on autopilot. We now know from certain scientific experiments that decisions are made by our organism before we become aware of having made them. ‘You’, whoever you think that may be, is not the master of your organism and rarely the real decision-maker – your organism is, cleverly giving you retrospectively the impression that you made the decision when you haven’t. Millions of years of evolutionary experience equipped us well for autopilot surviving – you certainly would not want such highly important organismic functions that ensure survival to be controlled by your whims. Survival is non-negotiable and has to be ensured with iron-clad precision and predictability.
But there is a catch: With the development of a uniquely human brain structure called the middle prefrontal cortex (MPC), we developed the capacity to re-flect. This means having the mental ability to step outside the organism’s algorithmic calculations and observing them from a distance. In other words, we gained the ability to make algorithmic activity the object of our observation and reality something we can think about, reflect upon, and ultimately manipulate. We can manipulate our own cognitive functions, and reflect upon the world and our own experience. To achieve this feat our brain creates the illusion of a self we call ‘me’, which appears to be in charge when it really isn’t. This creates an interesting dilemma, whereby we gain the capacity to reflect upon and manipulate reality as if we had free rein to make free decisions and be in control, all the while the amount of control we have is far less than we ever imagine, allowing the experienced algorithm to still remain the real boss. In other words, even the part of our minds that is able to reflect, to think about thinking and reality, even that part is deeply under the influence of the algorithm and far more automatic than we think.
With the capacity to reflect we began to be able to put our curiosity and creativity in the service of experimentation. This means that we began to be able to do things that we are ‘naturally’ not made to do. I imagine a hominid a couple of millions of years ago wondering one day what would happen if she deliberately stayed up all night instead of going to sleep – you would never encounter a robin being able to do that. Another early human may have thrown a pebble against a rock and noticed a spark, thinking to himself that the spark looked eerily similar to the fire the last lightning storm unleashed and that he may be able to reproduce it himself. In mind terms, humans began to be able to use a small part of their brainpower to modify algorithmic processes within the very limited range of making changes in both the physical and social environment. While this worked fairly well as long as we were totally embedded in nature with limited capacities to act against its algorithmic principles since the agricultural revolution 10 thousand years ago it has become a real problem. As Yuval Harari points out in his book ‘Sapiens’, humans began to manipulate the lives of animals and plants. While people as individuals did not benefit from this change, it gave humans as a species the advantage of being able to provide more food per territory, assemble more people into a social unit and multiply exponentially. Only the few in charge benefited from this, while for most people this new arrangement meant keeping more people alive under worse conditions – from an evolutionary point of view a very successful development, since evolution’s currency is the number of DNA copies. Producing more than what’s needed opened the door to luxuries, which tend to become necessities with time, generating new obligations. And so the vicious cycle of stress was born: We have more than we need, including more time on our hands, creating a sense of entitlement for things to stay that way; entitlement morphs into a sense of necessity, creating new obligations and opportunities. Before we know it, we are caught in an inescapable trap that turns life into a treadmill that makes our days more anxious and agitated. Without us knowing it, for all the great discoveries humans have come up with, most of our decisions are still made by the algorithm, not ‘us’.
With this cognitive revolution of minds able to reflect upon reality that spawned a cultural evolution beyond our genes, our organisms took a beating. Most of our ability to reflect is compartmentalized to be focused on external reality. By ‘external’ I mean the reality that presents itself to our consciousness outside the very processes by which we create reality. Don’t forget, the brain is not like a computer that receives information from you, stores it exactly the way you put it in or it receives it and lets you retrieve it in the same form as you stored it. The brain not only takes in information from the outside world but also from inside the body and inside itself, processing the whole shebang in ways that create a constructed reality it then projects on the world, including the organism’s own view of itself. In other words, the spontaneous reflection of the untrained mind is compartmentalized and limited to the results of our mind’s processes as they are projected outward onto reality, and do not include awareness of how the mind creates the reality we see in the first place. We are very good at creating and inventing new things, in a misguided illusion of freedom make decisions that outrageously disrupt our organism’s optimal energy flow, and mistakenly believe that we are much more in charge than we really are, but we are lousy at exploring the very processes by which we create reality, in other words, the processes of the mind itself.
I am sure you can see now how this situation leads to catastrophe, both personal and collective. We disrupt the organism’s capacity for integration without knowing how we do it and even that we do it, causing untold suffering, breakdowns and illnesses. Collectively, we barrel down the same path, disrupting and destroying the ecosystem that sustains us. In both cases, we damage and destroy the very context that gives us life – organism and ecosystem. This brings us back to our two students’ questions. The algorithmic power to ensure survival at the expense of thriving and short-term gain at the expense of long-term wisdom, and the power of the treadmill of habit to follow the algorithmic principle of DNA quantity over life quality, both are so deeply conditioned and solidly ensconced in millions of years of evolution that ‘letting be’ just like that without special training would simply perpetuate our path to destruction.
In our capacity for reflection that is ordinarily compartmentalized to only be applied to external reality, there lies a gem. It is the hidden treasure of mindsight. We have the ability to turn our attention towards the very processes of mind that create our reality and open our awareness to encompassing the processes by which we are. The algorithm being what it is, a powerful program that unfolds on autopilot whether we like it or not, we need an equally powerful counter-process of investigation and awareness that can take the algorithm on and elucidate its mysteries. This requires that we enlist and activate a latent potential that lurks hidden behind the facade of automatism. Our capacity for reflection has Janus qualities: It can be in the service of the algorithm that was established millions of years ago when we lived embedded in nature and DNA survival was the only game in town, and it can also be put in the service of an algorithmic transformation so badly needed for long-term thriving in a world, in which we have transcended our natural embeddedness long ago. To this end, ‘letting be’ has to be learned, because it is otherwise just not available to us. All we know is how to do and we are hopeless at undoing; all we know is how to feed the illusion of control and we are incapable of realizing how little control we have; all we know is interfere and we have no clue how to allow millions of years of organismic wisdom to show us the way; all we know is the illusion of making decisions and we don’t have the faintest knowledge of the fact that all we can do is allow, suppress or modify decisions the algorithm has taken long before we become aware of them; all we know is striving and we fall short when it comes to being.
To develop the latent capacity to get out of our way after having examined what mind is, and let the spontaneous process of integration towards health, wellbeing, and no-suffering evolve, we have to introduce a new set of conditioning into the algorithm, one that expands our view of reality to encompass the whole context of being, including how we create reality in the first place. That takes training, because we are for the most part not spontaneously wired for that. Although we will never completely escape the algorithm of the organism that we are, this is our chance to develop a point of reference outside the algorithm’s reach, capable of eliminating the suffering the algorithm can’t help create. Paradoxically, we then discover that ‘I’, the self, is an illusion, like it would be an illusion to believe a corporation has a CEO named John, when in fact it only has a board of directors all with the same first name John. Realizing there is no such ‘I’ in charge, that the algorithm is in charge, and that from moment to moment many different energy flows vie for dominance following algorithmic rules, is deeply empowering, because like in the wizard of Oz, we cease wasting energy fighting the illusion of self. Instead, we can relax into the awareness of the river of internal events unfolding whether we like it or not, realizing that our power lies in how easily and elegantly we can navigate the obstacles the river flows through.
Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.