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Mindfulness and the Search for the Self

In his book, Minding Closely: The Four Applications of Mindfulness, B. Alan Wallace instructs readers to engage in mindfulness meditation as a methodical practice. Now, I'm no mindfulness guru, but I trust that Wallace's instructions accurately reflect the traditional practice of Tibetan mindfulness. In any case, in addition to a philosophical discourse on the foundations of mindfulness that is a bit too anti-materialist for my liking, Wallace lays out a step-by-step guide for hopeful practitioners that is free of "being at one with..." abstractions.

The first titular application that Wallace presents is mindfulness of the body. This involves mindfulness of the breath, which is the foundation of many contemplative practices, and, according to Wallace, is a worthwhile entryway to shamatha, the calming of the mind via a focus on a single aspect of your experience--in this case, your breath. Mindfulness of the body also includes whatever sensations and perceptions might be associated with your external or internal environment, be it the sounds of the air conditioning, the pressure experienced on your bottom while sitting, or the tugs and vibrations of your digestive system.

The second application is mindfulness of feelings. Are you comfortable or uncomfortable? Are there any aches or pains emanating from your body? Are you happy, sad, content, or discontent? Why are you feeling this way? In asking the last question of yourself, you begin tracing the cause-effect relationships responsible for whatever emotions you experience. Are you frustrated because of the loud sounds of outside traffic hindering your concentration? Are you happy because of some personal or professional accomplishment? In tracing these cause-effect relationships, Wallace exhorts the practitioner not to judge, reject, or embrace the aversive or pleasureful feeling in question. Simply observe it as is and move on.

The third application is mindfulness of thought. As most aspects of one's experience overlap, so do the four applications of mindfulness. In this way, mindfulness of one's feelings--and the tracing of the cause-effect contingencies responsible for them--leads to a focus on one's thought patterns. What are the rhythms of your thinking? How distracted are you and what is most prone to distracting you? What objects are on your mind and how did they get there? Are your thoughts relegated to the past, present, or future? How are your thoughts related to one another? How do they arise, endure, and subside, and is there a pattern to their progression?

The fourth application, the one that I am currently focused on, is mindfulness of the totality of experience. As far as I understand it, this application involves incorporating all of the preceding applications into one--that is, mindfulness of the simultaneous flow of one's bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Wallace presents this application as a springboard to vipashyana, or insight. Now, I do not presume to speak for Wallace or any other expert in contemplative practice, but it seems that one of the target goals of mindfulness is the cultivation and maintenance of selflessness. As such, each of the first three applications of mindfulness, as well as their combined effect in the fourth application, functions to, one by one, peel away the layers of one's experience. At bottom, one is expected to realize that there is no core to the onion.

Where Soul Meets Body

Neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary psychology all support the contention that the brain and mind are, to varying extents, modular--that is, compartmentalized--in structure and function. This contention is supported by now classic studies of split-brain patients by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga, but also by imaging studies depicting a surprisingly orderly, grid-like structure spread out across the three dimensions of the neocortex. Even popularizers of the "network" model of cortical function have difficulty avoiding the language of cortical specialization. Network terminology, in effect, is substituted for modularity (e.g., Joaquin Fuster, in his elegant book Cortex and Mind, coins the term "cognit" for cognitive networks that are, in essence, no different from the cortical modules that he tries to escape). Much of evolutionary psychology is likewise grounded on a foundation of cognitive modularity. The modules focused on by evolutionary psychologists, be they associated with disgust, sexual jealousy, or morality, are explained with reference to their historical origin in natural and sexual selection across generations of ancestral evolution.

Despite this seeming compartmentalization of mind, recent findings in neuroscience and psychopharmacology suggest the existence of a network of brain areas, dubbed the "default mode network," that is correlated with the experience of selfhood. Interestingly enough, this network undergoes selective deactivation during the psychedelic experience, as revealed by brain imaging research on the effects of psychedelics such as psilocybin. To counter-culture promoters of psychedelics, such as the late Timothy Leary, these findings would not have been surprising. Indeed, the psychedelic experience of "ego-death" may have much in common with the meditative experience of selflessness, a resemblance made explicit in Leary's description of the psychedelic state from the perspective of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Both experiences of selflessness might be undergirded by the deactivation of the default mode network.

The existence of a brain network dedicated to the experience of selfhood, however, does not take away the fact that the brain--and, by extension, the mind--is not unitary. Indeed, there would be no such thing as the "self" if there were no sensory experiences and perceptions on which the self could feed. The self, that is, is incomplete without the sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, thoughts, and memories that feed into and permeate across the default mode network, or whatever other structure is associated with the experience of selfhood.

I see a clear parallel between the observations of mindfulness practitioners and scientists. Although the distinctions between the different elements of consciousness delimited by the four applications of mindfulness and the modules posited by neuroscientists and psychologists may not correspond in detail, the division of mental life into bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts is paralleled by a similar modular distinction at the level of the brain. For example, bodily sensations are enabled by the somatosensory cortex and brain areas associated with the vestibular and kinesthetic modalities. Emotions, meanwhile, are undergirded by a variety of subcortical structures such as the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus. Higher-level thoughts associated with self-control and future-planning are relegated to the prefrontal cortex. All of these brain areas are more or less modular and each one may be selectively activated by each of the four applications of mindfulness.

Nothing but Experience


What all of this suggests is that the only thing that survives the analysis of mind, be it via mindfulness or neuroscience, is experience itself. Other than the experience, which can be likened to a musical chord that does not exist but for the collective sound of each of its constituent notes, there is nothing.


This truth is difficult to accept, even for hardened meditators and neuroscientists. It just can't be that there is no "I" or "me." But, try as we might to locate the self, its elusiveness always escapes us. And so it should. If we think about it, what are we but a combination of sensations, perceptions, emotions, and thoughts? And what is left when all of these onion layers are peeled by the systemic analysis of mindfulness or neuroscience?

And yet, "selfhood" is an important concept that should not be abandoned. It may even aid us in our inner journeys of self-discovery. Rather than applying the four applications of mindfulness one after the other, for example, we might do well to frame our meditative practice as the search for the self. The target is always selfhood, but the mental landscapes wherein the self is hiding change. So, we might start out by searching for the self in our bodily sensations. If the self does not turn up there, we might try searching for it in our emotions and thoughts, in turn. Finally, we might concentrate on the totality of our experience and see if we can find the self there.

This search can even be thought of us a gradual casting off of everything peripheral to what we perceive as selfhood. That is, when we do not find the self in the sensations emanating from our ears, mouths, and stomachs, we cast these parts off as not being central to selfhood. When we focus on our emotions and recognize them as not encompassing the totality of our selfhood, we might cast them off, in turn. Likewise, when we get to our thought patterns and the linguistic stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, we can try casting them off, too--though our intimate association with our language-infused thoughts might make this endeavor a bit more challenging than the preceding ones. When we get to the totality of our experience, will we find the self? And can this totality, made up of a panoply of internal and external stimuli, from the photons hitting our retinas to the memory of our first bike ride, be grouped under the simplistic concept of selfhood? To find out, let's start peeling the layers.

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