Thursday, 28 July 2011

No-Self and What It Really Means

There is no "I". We all know it (if you don't, check it out for yourself - can you find it anywhere in your experience?), but I've only just come to appreciate how far that goes.

When you realise that there is no self, all that is left over, all that's actually shown to be real, is the personality. Behaviour patterns. "Ego", according to some uses of the term.

Actually, even that is a fiction.

What is a human being? Just a set of patterns. A certain proportion of those patterns is physical, matter arranged in specific ways and interacting in specific ways. These patterns are organs, chemical exchanges, organ systems. Exactly where we draw the line between them is entirely subjective - for example, you could call the stomach a pattern, or you could separate it into its biological constituents, the various ways it interacts with other organs, and so on all the way down to individual subatomic particles.

It may seem strange to think of something physical as a pattern, but it works. Google gives one definition as "a regular and intelligible form or sequence discernible in certain actions or situations", and I think that's fair. At any rate, bear with me.

The essential thing is that although these patterns are interconnected, and some rely on others to exist or function at all, they have no inherent property of "being part of one thing" except insofar as we define them as constituting a single body. For example, suppose we introduce a pacemaker into the system. It is interconnected with the other patterns, and many will rely on it to function (the heart, for a start). We can even make a feedback loop so it relies on them as well (by having it detect the heart rate and adjust accordingly).

But this doesn't invest the pacemaker with a property of "body-ness". To take another example, try a dialysis machine. You could be hooked up to a big one outside your body, or we could somehow minimise it and make it ultra-efficient so it fitted inside you. It would effectively function as an extra organ either way, but we would not be magically making it cross a "you/not you" barrier just by making mechanical modifications.

We could even find out that a foetus had a lethal kidney problem, and implant our micro-dialysis machine in it before birth. There would still be no "you/not you" barrier being crossed.

The point I'm trying to make is that there is no objective criterion according to which the patterns which make up the human body constitute a single continuous thing. There is no "bodyness" attribute, any more than building a LEGO house gives a "houseness" attribute to the LEGO blocks. The decision to demarcate a certain combination of patterns as "Alexei", and to treat further alterations to that combination of patterns as "Alexei changing", is a mental one which doesn't reflect anything about actual reality.

Now we go from the hard part to the easy one. Behaviour patterns, that which we call "personality", work in exactly the same way. There is no fixed entity created by a particular combination of thought and behaviour patterns. There is no fixed "Alexei", only a load of tendencies encapsulated as neural patterns in the brain. Of these tendencies, only a few at a time are being expressed, and there is no inherent reason why those being expressed at one time should relate to those being expressed at another.

In other words, there is no such thing as "acting out of character". There is no objective reason why a person's thoughts or actions should be consistent. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't, depending on which patterns are being triggered when. If you know a person's dominant (i.e. most frequently triggering) patterns, and you know what their triggers are, you can predict their behaviour to a certain extent. But you're not actually predicting a person, you're predicting a pattern. There's no person there apart from the patterns that exist at any given moment.

Putting it another way, if a pattern is 1 and a person is 5, 5=1+1+1+1+1. There is no "fiveness", no special quality that makes the whole in any way WHATSOEVER more than the sum of the parts.

Yes, patterns interact, which is to say some trigger others and some rely on others to be triggered at all. The ways in which they do so are staggeringly complex - and remember, exactly where you draw the lines between different patterns is entirely subjective. But in the end, those patterns are all there is. The fact that a certain set of patterns is labelled "Alexei", and that a certain subset of them is labelled "Alexei's body", is just the activity of more patterns.

This is a Portuguese Man O' War jellyfish. It looks like a single living being. It's not. It's a colony of lots and lots of individual living beings called zooids. The zooids are highly specialised, and could not survive if they were detached from the colony, but they are very definitely individual creatures.

You look like a single living being. You're not. You are made of countless patterns. These patterns are highly specialised. Depending on where you draw the lines between them, most could not survive (or, in the case of non-physical ones, exist at all) apart from the rest. Yet they are very definitely individual patterns.

Sure, you could say "I am one very large pattern", and since the lines are subjective, that's a legitimate response. But it's no less subjective than the rest. Your thoughts are part of that pattern, right? But they're triggered by the environment, and could not exist without it. So is the environment part of the pattern too?

You would die without food. But food is just like thought - it might turn up or it might not, and this depends both on the actions of the organism and on the environment. So is food part of the "you" pattern?

And so on. The lines between the patterns are arbitrary. You can draw them around individual organs of the body, you can draw them around individual bodies, or you can draw one line that includes the totality of the universe. But no amount of drawing will change what's actually true.

And what's actually true is that there is an arbitrary number of individual patterns, interacting and interdependent, with nothing holding them together except those interactions and interdependencies. Some of these patterns give names and labels to other patterns, but that doesn't make the names and labels any more real.

A human being is a mental abstraction, a label given to a set of patterns. The patterns themselves are constantly changing, and the pretence of continuity or consistency is just that - a label that doesn't reflect reality.

Look again at the Portuguese Man O' War. That's what you are. A colony of patterns, a few of which are shouting "I exist as one distinct individual!"

There is no you. This is how deep it goes.

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On The Impossibility of Free Will

Today I would like to ask you to perform an experiment.

A word of warning, first. If you're not yet free of the delusion of self, or failing that particularly emotionally stable, don't do this one until you're free. If you think that its implications apply to a "you" that exists, it could be genuinely depressing, and your mental health matters to me. In a sense, its improvement is what this blog is all about.

So. The experiment. What I'd like to ask you to do is to look around your experience and observe your thoughts and actions. There are two questions you need to answer.

1) Am I consciously constructing any of my thoughts, or are they all arriving in consciousness ready-made?

2) Am I noticing my actions while they are still at decision level, or are they already beginning when I notice them?

Take some time. What you're trying to do is identify whether there is a gap between the state of "no thought/no action" and the state of "thought arising/action taking place", a gap in which you consciously cause the thought or action.

I can't find one. I'd already realised that thoughts always arrive in consciousness (so to speak) fully-formed as verbal sentences or visual images or physical sensations, and that therefore there is no room for "me" to be involved in constructing them.

Now I've come to see that the same is true of actions. By the time I notice an action taking place, it's already begun. That means even if there was an "I" capable of volition, there would simply be no room, no opportunity for it to exercise it. By the time something's happening, it is too late. All that can happen on a conscious level is a thought of taking credit.

Again, make sure you check this out for yourself. Be rigorous. Can you notice a thought or action before it's in progress? Or is it already happening by the time you become aware of it? Don't take your thoughts on the matter at their word. Check thoroughly.

For me, this has been the biggest realisation since no-self so far - realisation as in a thing that actually permanently alters how I experience the world, rather than an insight (which I use to refer to new intellectual understandings). Not only is there no me to be responsible for thoughts and actions, it isn't even theoretically possible for a me to do so if it existed.

One more thing. We often think that we have a thought, and then we act on that thought. This is not the case. Thoughts do not cause actions. Test this by performing actions without thinking about them first, such as scratching your nose, helping yourself to a snack from an open container or diving in front of a truck to push a loved one out of the way.

So. There is no gap in which thoughts are constructed or decisions are transformed into actions. Is this true?

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Monday, 25 July 2011

There Is No Self: Redux

OK, people. You already know (I hope) a really obvious truth: there is no self. If you don't, check it out in your own experience. Can you find an "I" as an actual thing anywhere, or are you just taking its existence for granted?

Now, there is something that people who have grasped that there is no self often trip up on. It is this: there is no self.

Yeah, really not where you'd expect to have a problem at this stage, is it? Here's how it works.

Many liberated talk about "the false self" or "the self constructed by thoughts" or "the concept of self". These things don't exist.

Really, check it out.

There is a belief, hopefully by now recognised as false: "the self exists". There are lots of other beliefs about the self, like "the self has free will", "the self observes reality", "the self believes that Pokemon is for kids", "the self despairs of British politics" etc. You can substitute "I" for "the self" to make these beliefs sound more familiar.

But notice this: they are all beliefs about the self.

There is no actual concept, belief or thought which is the self.

Compare angels. The concept of "angel" is made up of other concepts - person, wings, halo, white robe, Heaven, etc. But it is an actual concrete concept. You can imagine angels in and of themselves.

Or take a moral law like "stealing is wrong". It's abstract. You can't visualise it or anything. But it is an actual distinct concept. It exists as a concrete thought.

The self doesn't. It's not a concept the way angels and moral laws are concepts. It's a pointer to a thing which isn't there on any level, in any sense, like the "it" in "it's raining".

So whatever beliefs you have about liberation and the self, rethink them. There is no self. It is fully as true on the level of fiction as on the level of reality.

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Friday, 22 July 2011

Demolishing the Stairway to Heaven

A particularly courageous gentleman who is trying his hardest to find out whether there is a self even as we speak reminded me of a classic objection to no-self and the work of Ruthless Truth today.

Here it is:

"You claim that no-self is the highest realisation, when this is patently not true. There are higher realisations beyond it. No-self is not enlightenment, only the first step on the path."

I would like to address this objection in detail.

There is a simple reason why no-one in RT claims that no-self is the highest realisation. Here it is: truth is not hierarchical. It doesn't come in levels.

Let me repeat that: Truth Doesn't Come In Levels.

Truth can be discovered. You can discover how X works, or what Y really is, or whether Z actually exists or not. When you conceptualise that truth into a model, the model may have varying degrees of accuracy (never 100%, because the model is a separate thing from the truth to which it points), but the truth doesn't care about that. The truth just is.

The truth about X is as true as the truth about Y and the truth about Z. None is inherently deeper or more profound than the other - that only happens when an observer decides to rank them hierarchically according to their own beliefs about the truth.

This is what happens with the above objection. People imagine a hierarchical progression of insight, with True Enlightenment (cosmic wisdom, infinite serenity and bliss, unity consciousness etc.) at the end, and a ladder of increasing understanding in between them and it. To them, no-self is at best the first step on that ladder.

The problem with this is that the whole thing is a mental fiction. Truth doesn't work that way. Sure, when we teach things, we structure them into little truths that build up into bigger ones, but this is a teaching aid designed to fit the way our brains build connections and absorb information. It's a reflection of how we build conceptual structures and develop concrete skills, but it has nothing to do with actually seeing what is true in the first place.

No-self is not the final realisation. Nor is it the first realisation. It's just one of an infinite number of possible realisations. We at Ruthless Truth happen to value it particularly highly because its long-term effects on how people see the world are vast and ultimately positive. But on the level of reality itself, it is no greater or lesser a realisation than "water is liquid at room temperature".

And unlike the aforementioned True Enlightenment, it's an actual permanent realisation, immediately available in real life, rather than a story people tell themselves about an imagined state they have never personally experienced.

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Thursday, 21 July 2011

Hearing Voices

It has come to my attention that many people hear a particular type of sound. This type of sound does not appear to emanate from the external environment, and does not require functioning ears to hear. Nevertheless, it is entirely audible, and can vary hugely in volume, pitch, and all the other things that distinguish different sounds.

Sometimes what is heard is music or other non-verbal sounds. Most of the time, however, this sound takes the form of words in a particular language or mix of languages, as if one were listening to speech.

Sometimes, the content of this verbal sound is relevant to the situation in which the listener finds themselves and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes the things it says are true and sometimes they are false. Later, the words can equally easily turn out to be great wisdom or utter nonsense. There is no way to tell from the sound itself which it is at any given time.

Two things amaze me about this phenomenon now I see it for what it is.

1) Based on the fact that they can hear it and nobody else can, people somehow make the staggering leap of logic to the belief that they must therefore be the ones producing it. They do so even though even the most cursory examination reveals that they have no power whatsoever to control the nature or content of the sound, which arises in their experience fully-formed.

2) People work on the assumption that the content of the sound must be meaningful by default. No matter how many times this turns out to be false, they assume that the sound is automatically worthy of their attention, and that any verbal sentences are, if not true by default, at least much more likely to be true than false.

Are you suffering from this strange phenomenon? Here is a quick questionnaire for self-diagnosis.

1) Do you have the experience of hearing a voice in your head?

2) Do you suffer from the delusion that you can control what this voice says, or when?

Observe it carefully the next time it speaks, and see if this is true.

3) When the voice makes a claim about reality, do you automatically make certain assumptions about what it says?

For example, do you assume that the claim is true until proven otherwise? Or do you assume that the claim is based on certain rational grounds, or on evidence? Do you assume that the claim is important to you and worth hearing out in full? Do you assume that acting on the claim will be to your benefit?

Looking at everything the voice has said in the past, have these assumptions proven to be always or even usually correct?

Please note that the phenomenon can manifest in two other common ways - visual images and physical sensations, the latter typically concentrated around the head and upper torso. The questions listed here are equally applicable to them with a minimal degree of adaptation.

If you have been thorough in your self-diagnosis, it will also have constituted a preliminary course of treatment. When these so-called "thoughts" are carefully examined, and the fact that they have no automatic credibility or significance becomes obvious, their harmful effects on the human psyche are significantly mitigated.

Here at Iatrogenesis Labs, we are working hard on a cure for human domination by thought. In the meantime, the above medical advice, taken with daily supplements of scepticism, should help you build your immune system in time for the winter.

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Thursday, 14 July 2011

Demon Theory: There Is No Consciousness, Only Brain

Part I: There Is No Consciousness

There is no consciousness.

This is a ridiculously bold claim, and its truth is very much predicated on what you mean by "consciousness". So let me clarify.

Consciousness is not a thing in and of itself. It exists only as a label which we give a number of separate things which happen to coincide.

Observe your senses. Do it right now.

Do you see how they are fundamentally independent? If you were deafened right now, your sight would still work the same way. If your eyes were put out, you'd still feel things with your skin exactly the same way. Every single sense works perfectly well without the others. You could make the case for some senses being composite, like the overlap between smell and taste, but the actual streams of data coming from the tongue and the nose are entirely independent of each other even if they are being stimulated by the same thing at the same time.

"Consciousness" is what we call the sum of processed sensory input at any given time, including the sensations that we call verbal and visual thoughts and feelings (which we experience as forms of hearing, sight and physical sensation respectively). Nothing more.

As long as at least one sense's worth of input is being processed (e.g. data from the eyes into what we call seeing), we call ourselves conscious. Whenever none of the input is being processed in that way, we call it unconsciousness.

As with everything I write, put this to the test. If you had hearing and no other sense, would you be conscious? What about touch and no other sense? Taste and no other sense? What if you couldn't sense anything except hearing your own thoughts?

When a given sense isn't delivering processed input, is there a big empty space called "consciousness", waiting for it to come back? Or is "consciousness" just the name we give to whichever senses are currently active?

Consciousness doesn't exist. Not as a thing. Only as a label that unifies a number of entirely separate phenomena taking place in the same brain.

What are the implications?

Well, for one thing, if you think you ARE consciousness, then good luck with that. It means you don't exist in reality, only as a mental label that doesn't refer to an actual object.

You might want to look into that.

For another, it means consciousness isn't an environment or a space or a substrate. Things, including thoughts, don't happen in consciousness, they constitute it. Among other things, this requires a re-think of Demon Theory and its mechanics, which I go into below. Read Demon Theory before you get onto that.

For a third, it means consciousness isn't a thing that can be focused on. Any time you are trying to place your attention on consciousness itself, you are only placing it on a given one (or more) of your senses. This is bad news for the claims of any number of mystical doctrines.

"There is no consciousness". Comprehend the proposition. Then test the bejeezus out of it. Chase down all the implications and see if they're consistent with what you're experiencing. Not with what you think is going on - with what you actually perceive as happening at this exact moment in time.

Part II: Implications for Demon Theory

One key element of Demon Theory is that thoughts have consciousness as their substrate, as the environment within which they compete for information as a resource. Obviously, consciousness as described here cannot be an environment.

However, this is not yet a reason to reject Demon Theory altogether. Thoughts, as we experience them, are another form of sense data. I've discussed this before. Only as sight, sound and feeling (and combinations thereof) do they participate in consciousness.

On the other hand, we know that the senses as we experience them are already the product of processing. Signals from the eyes, for example, have to travel down complex networks of neural pathways before they are processed, on an unconscious level, and interpreted into what we call seeing.

If we experience thoughts as the same sort of processed sense data (which we do - check it out for yourself), then it stands to reason that the actual processing that generates them, on an unconscious level, takes place via signals travelling via specific neural pathways which determine what happens to them.

Those neural pathways, neural patterns, fit the description of Demon Theory's thoughts perfectly.

Let us take a belief as an example. When a particular piece of information comes from the senses, it travels along a particular neural pattern on its way to being processed into how we consciously experience it. That neural pattern gets reinforced in the process - that's why practising a skill makes it easier and more automatic to do the next time.

If the pattern is a belief, every time it processes data, which is to say every time sensory input gets filtered through the belief, that belief grows stronger.

If the neural pattern grows in ways that mean such signals get routed through it more often, which is to say it filters a greater proportion of sensory input, it continues to become stronger. Again, this is common sense.

If it grows in a way that means signals which would normally get routed through a different pattern get routed through it instead, it has effectively won a competition for food with another belief. It will now get even stronger, while the other pattern will atrophy, to the extent that signals are being redirected.

The pattern may even grow in a way that means all the signals that pass through another pattern also pass through it, in which case it has effectively consumed that belief and made it part of itself. Everything that feeds one belief feeds into the other.

Yes, these neural patterns behave exactly like individual living things. Their environment isn't consciousness, it's the actual physical structure of the brain. Their food is indeed information, as Demon Theory states - information in terms of the signals that travel through the brain's neural network.

If you don't believe that simple patterns can act with such sophistication, check out John Conway's Game of Life (credit to StepVheN of "Burning, True" for relating this to Demon Theory; you can find his blog in the blogroll on the right).

Ghostbusters references aside, I think this is pretty important. It discards a vast amount of the fluffy mysticism that has accumulated around the notion of "consciousness", and provides a solid experiential and at least vaguely scientific foundation for Demon Theory's claims.

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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Something Else Must Be Going On

From Ciaran Healy I learned the concept of a philosopher's rule of thumb, a basic principle which one applies to philosophical work to keep it sound and progressing smoothly, rather than veering off into deep and basic errors. One of his favourites is "there are no paradoxes in reality", meaning that there is only one reality and it does not get split in two by things that contradict each other happening at the same time. If you spy a paradox, it can only be in your mind, not in reality (i.e. your understanding of reality is flawed).

Now, I have one too. "If you have established something to be true, and your explanation of a phenomenon contradicts that truth, then the explanation must be wrong. Something else must be going on."

The obvious example is the self. Many people discover that "the self exists" is false. Try this for yourself, it's quite neat. However, when attempting to account for various aspects of human behaviour, they stick to their old ways of thinking which are based on the existence of the self.

For example, when trying to explain human suffering, they say it is because the false self identifies with various objects and ideas.

Picture me slamming my hands down on the desk Phoenix Wright-style. "Hold it!"

There is no self, not even a false one. That means that the self cannot be identifying with anything. So if you see anything which seems like a process of identification by the self, you are wrong. Something else must be going on.

You might have no idea at first what that something else is. Investigate. Look at reality. Make theories and test them. But whatever you do, don't pretend that if a foundational belief about reality turns out to be false, other beliefs which rely on its truth can still be true.

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Tuesday, 12 July 2011

There is no "sense of self"

There is this thing people talk about called a sense of self. It's not actually seeing a self of any sort - that's impossible because no self exists to see. Instead, it is this vague "sense" that something is there, something that somehow feels like a self.

Yesterday, I decided to turn laser focus onto this sense of self.

It didn't take long to figure out what a sense of self actually means. It's a sense of existence, a sense that, no matter who or what I actually am, I do at least exist, and I can sense that fact of existing. It's like "I think therefore I am", but with the "I think" taken out, because this is something you can feel even when you're not thinking. Indeed, some would say that this "I am" is something you can feel only when your mind is still.

Is this true?

I chased down the sense of existence. What did it actually refer to? Where and what was this existence that I was sensing? What was sensing it like?

In every instance, the sense of existence turned out to point to some other, concrete sense. It was the sense of me touching something with my skin. The sense of me hearing an inner monologue. At its deepest, it was physical sensation coming from inside the body, the kinaesthetic sense.

Here's the clincher. Without those concrete instances of sensation, I could not find any sense of existence at all.

Do you know what happens when consciousness contains no sensory input at all, not even sensations from the inside of the body? We call that unconsciousness, or dreamless sleep (depending on context). And in neither of those states is there any sense of existence.

The sense of existence doesn't exist. All that happens is that we apply a label - "existence" - to a concrete sensation, and then pretend that we are sensing this label independently of the sensation it's been applied to.

At any given moment, specific instances of sensory input - such as sight, hearing, thoughts and feelings - are all there is. ALL THERE IS. There is no sense of existence except as an after-the-fact label applied to those instances. There is no sense of self except as an after-the-fact label applied to those instances.

Is this true?

Try it now. Find a sense of self that relies on no other sense in order to be felt. Find a sense of self that's more than a mental label applied to other senses.

And when you've failed, ask yourself what else you've been taking for granted about reality. How about the self that you thought you were sensing? Can you find that anywhere?

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Sunday, 10 July 2011

Demon Theory: Don't Cross the Streams!

This is a response to Demon Theory by Ciaran Healy. Read it first - it's long, but its claims are very big and very hard to refute (no-one's managed it so far), and the implications are pretty staggering.

This post is intended to answer three questions which arise from Demon Theory.

1) If the self is not a thought, what is it and where did it come from?
2) How do thoughts filter the world?
3) Why does honesty check their growth?

As you read, please be sure to check everything I say against your own experience. If you come up with any contradictions, please let me know.

There are two streams of data entering the brain at all times. The first of these is sensory data coming straight from reality. I trust all my readers are familiar with this phenomenon. Let's call it the sensory stream for convenience.

The second stream of data is generated when the brain processes said sensory data and generates new data based on it - thoughts and feelings, in other words. It is a kind of feedback process where sensory data generate thought and feeling data, which in turn can generate more thought and feeling data and so on potentially ad infinitum. Let's call this the feedback stream.

The thing which people don't always realise about the feedback stream is that it is made of the exact same kind of data as the sensory one. For example, verbal thoughts are literally a case of us hearing voices or other sounds, just not coming from the outside world. In fact, you'll find that your voice box vibrates during verbal thinking (I found this easiest to test by shifting the pitch of my thoughts up and down), suggesting that it's just a kind of subvocalisation or very very quiet talking.

Likewise, visual thoughts are literally things we see, and utilise visual nerves in the same way as data from the eyes. Meanwhile, feelings are always felt as sensations in the body, and you'll find that the same feeling is always felt in the same body part.

Now here's when the problem arises. The brain has no way of telling that one stream of data refers to real things and the other one doesn't. It evolved around the premise that sensory data always refers to actual objects - if you are seeing the colour blue, for instance, it is because there is actually a blue thing there to be seen.

So when a thought comes up in the feedback stream, the brain naturally assumes that this thought is generated by a real object. Just like it thinks that a roar is generated by a real animal in the physical world, it thinks that a verbal thought is generated by a real speaker in the physical world.

But at the same time, the roar appears to come from outside the body while the thought appears to come from inside. So if the roar proves the existence of a thing that roars in the external world, the thought must prove the existence of a thinker, which is real but inside the body.

Aha, the brain concludes. There is a real thing inside this body which thinks, and to which all thoughts must be attributed.

But it gets worse. Because there isn't just the fact of speech to thoughts. There are also concepts, static objects which continue to exist even after the act of speech has ceased. The brain doesn't understand the idea of unreal objects - it's only ever encountered real ones. So when thoughts describe abstract concepts, those concepts must also be real objects that exist - once again, inside the body, since that is where all the sensory data that describe them are coming from.

So now there is a whole inner world, containing lots of mental objects (concepts, beliefs etc.). Being both real and permanently inside the body, it must be part of the body. And that means that if any of those things get damaged, the body gets damaged. Survival instinct dictates that the thinker and the mental objects must be protected.

This is vital to grasp. All thoughts and beliefs are treated as part of the organism, because to the brain there is nothing else they can be. And the bigger and more important a thought or belief, the more significant a part of the organism it is, so the more energy gets expended in protecting it. Sometimes, a thought gets so big and powerful that protecting it becomes more important than protecting the actual body.

Now we come to the second part. How do thoughts get that way?

The brain has a special algorithm which serves survival by prioritising the important over the unimportant. It never switches off the two streams of data - even when you close your eyes, you are still seeing the inside of your eyelids - but nor does it give all data equal significance. The birdsong outside gets filtered out. Loud noises or bright objects do not, because they may represent a threat. And so on. Simply put, this algorithm is attention.

The other thing that it's important to understand at this point is this. The brain only has one way to distinguish the two streams, and that is by signal intensity. Real sights and sounds, for example, are more intense than visual and verbal thoughts. When this is not the case, the brain crosses the streams and gets confused - dreams and schizophrenia are two examples where the feedback stream gets mistaken for the sensory stream.

Now, suppose you have obtained from somewhere the belief "white people are evil". One day, you see a white person, and two streams of data enter the brain. One, the sensory stream, is the image of the white person. The other, triggered by it, is the thought "white people are evil".

But suppose the white person doesn't do anything that obviously proves they aren't evil. Maybe they're just washing their car - evil people wash cars too. All that the brain has seen in thought terms is another instance of the "white people are evil" thought being true. It was triggered, and matched reality. The thought pattern gets strengthened.

And when a thought pattern gets strengthened, its signal intensity rises. Beliefs that we are sure of because we've seen them to be true over and over again have a different sort of strength to them than ones we've just formulated as hypotheses about how things might be. They become bigger and more important as far as the brain is concerned, and threats to them are bigger threats to the self.

Eventually, a thought pattern's signal intensity may be higher than that of the thing that triggered it. The attention algorithm naturally prioritises strong signals over weak ones (unless the brain detects a weak signal it knows to be relevant to survival, like a sneaking predator). Then the thought gets prioritised over reality. You look at the white person, and "white people are evil" takes up more of your attention than the actual person. At this point, the algorithm starts filtering out data that contradict "white people are evil" - such data have lower signal intensity, so they must be less real, so in a contradiction, they're the ones to ignore.

This is how thoughts usurp the filtering properties of attention to continue growing. A feedback loop is generated whereby the more times a belief comes up, the bigger the contradiction it takes to prove it wrong, and any contradiction that isn't big enough gets filtered out. Eventually, a belief's signal intensity can rise so high that there's simply no chance of its being proven wrong, at which point its growth becomes unstoppable and we have dogma, fanaticism and other such horrors.

Only honesty is capable of stopping this process. Human beings are capable of directing their attention and overriding the automatic survival-based algorithm. We are capable of focusing on things that are not new, intense or obviously relevant to survival. We are capable of focusing on reality.

When we focus on reality, the signal intensity of what we are observing rises. What we focus on, we see (or hear etc.) more clearly. Its priority rises. This means that when a thought and reality contradict each other, we can make sure that reality gets prioritised rather than filtered out, and the belief seen as false - no matter how powerful it is.

Honesty is our tool for not crossing the streams. By directing our attention at the stream of sensory data, we restore to it its original importance, and render the feedback stream of thought subservient to it. We cease to be enslaved to the uncontrollable growth of thoughts, and can instead steer them in the direction of truth at all times.

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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Winning the lottery

Many people expect enlightenment to be some sort of vast cosmic explosion of consciousness, with choirs of angels singing and the ultimate wisdom of the Universe suddenly at their fingertips. Enlightenment isn't like that (though if you are prone to hallucinations or spontaneous higher states of consciousness, your mileage may vary).

Enlightenment is like winning the lottery. Which is to say, nothing much happens. You get a piece of paper, which you put in a machine, and then a number on a computer somewhere changes into a different, bigger number. That's it.

It's only in the aftermath, over time, that the scale of what's just happened becomes apparent. You get an expensive meal with friends to celebrate. Nice, though not that incredible in and of itself - just like a less expensive meal, but hopefully a bit bigger and better. Then, over time, it hits you that you can afford just about anything you want. State-of-the-art PC/sound system/plasma TV? Sure. New car? Sure. New house? Sure. Then, gradually, you start thinking bigger.

Being able to do what you truly want with your life without having to worry about financing it? Sure. Being able to set up large-scale projects that impact the whole world? Why not. With a bit of savvy financial management and some imagination, the possibilities that open up become endless.

So enlightenment is just like winning the lottery. It's not a big thing in and of itself. It's a tiny thing, the recognition of one simple truth. After that, it's what you do with it over time that counts.

You can do that tiny thing now. Look. Can you see the thing you call "me" anywhere right now? Anywhere at all?

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