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bringing about new demands. however. eventually. the system is oriented to implement basic tasks for the garden-variety user. Over time the surrounding digital landscape changes. The learned spiritual practitioner is aware of this and evolves the mind. the computer will operate using its default. out-of-thebox settings. such as new file formats or bugs. The mind can be radiant. and it can be liberated from that which makes it dark.0: Upgrading Your Brain’s OS Buddhist Methods of Advancing the Human Mind’s Performance The mind can be radiant. to continue performing well. that an entire system upgrade will be required to keep the laptop working smoothly: a new OS will be installed that allows it to execute all the newly available file formats and applications without errors or lags. but it was summarized to establish an analogy: the human brain . The commonplace individual isn't aware this is the case. ˜ The preceding paragraph will not provide new information to many of us. (Pabhassara sutta: Radiant mind) When a new laptop is brought home from the store and removed from its packaging. at this juncture the machine requires simple updates. or patches. changes to the computing environment are so great.Mind 2. and doesn't evolve the mind. but it is often dim and further darkened by all that it takes in.
for our brains acclimate quickly and don’t reward us for the same old successes. which keeps us hungering for more and more sensual pleasures. even for the shortest of durations: financial security. We are socially automated to seek illusory protections from life’s inevitable experiences: aging. With every notable success in life our OS gives us the jolt of the neurotransmitter dopamine. which makes us feel powerful and invulnerable. careers. performed courtesy of our educational and social institutions. the dopamine soon wears off and we return to chase down that feeling of lasting security. so that we become efficient producers and consumers. It is this very appetite for security and pleasure now lies responsible for the greater part of our stress and suffering. gadgets. drugs. unfortunately. being stuck with people and situations we don’t enjoy. we require continual. sickness. Our pre-installed and subsequently refined motivation is none other than the naive tendency to seek external solutions to internal discomfort (avijja in pali. setbacks. from generation to generation. tanha. so quickly. friends. the final trauma of death itself. along with all the ideas and practices transmitted from one mind to another courtesy of our dominant culture. This striving. lies at the core of the human mind’s operating system (OS). known in early buddhism as samsara. to produce so much. separations from the loved. We achieve. the Buddha’s recorded language). all out of the futile desire to avoid what cannot be avoided. alcohol and on. produce and consume in extremes. which are then refined by a series of updates. So we crave and cling to anything that makes us feel safe. Samsara is the cycle of meaningless craving that propels the human species.arrives with basic settings of fear and craving. novel achievements to provide us with more precious . sex.
2007 amongst many sources). yet the brain’s wiring remains archaic. (For example. we are agitated junkies. As decades of research based on fMRI and other technologies demonstrate. which are essential in piano playing (“The Brain That Plays Music and Is Changed by It” PascualLeone. the bulk of which lived well . daily threats to survival. and behaviors have been passed down through thousands of human generations. Behavioral Neurology Unit. boredom. many of our programs and OS settings were established for tasks that no longer exist. which occurred in the Palaeolithic era.dopamine. spotting and hiding from the wild boars or rampaging elephants which were present even during the time of The Buddha. as the genome that determines the brain’s anatomical structure has gone unchanged for the past 50. even the brain’s physical organization (note “Dynamic Mind” by Warren Chaney.000 years. loneliness and confusion dissolve.) So whether through action or thought. how we use the mind changes patterns of neural activity. our ability to rewire the brain is both exceptional and promising. looking for the next wondrous thing to make all of life’s fear. Rewiring the mind even occurs courtesy of our thinking process: imagining practicing a piano.) Today we may set our sights on more refined goals. Fortunately. During the first major upgrade to the mind. Whether we realize it or not. the hunter-gatherer had a life expectancy of roughly 30 years and faced numerous. rewires the somatosensory region of the brain responsible for processing the sensations of fingertips. our default settings require a great deal of effort to modify. such as sustainable contentment in life. when the first signs of advanced human behavior appeared. rather than actually playing one. we reside in brains that are capable of vast and efficient rewiring. Harvard. However. otherwise known as neuroplasticity.
What we need is more than an “update”. Below we’ll review some of our default settings. we should review two regions of the brain: 1) The nucleus accumbens. then discuss a method for upgrading the settings to perform in a more appropriate manner. survival-based replies to stimuli.) The result is that we inherit a mind that’s hardwired towards needless fear. (As scientist Steven Pinker notes in “The Surprising Decline in Violence” we live in the most peaceful time this species has known. a region thats sits at the core of the brain's dopamine reward system. which lies at the core of human affliction. or minor therapeutic and/or spiritual patches to keep us running smoothly. ˜ Original Brain Setting: Reward and Resistance Priming Starting with the older regions of the brain. In understanding these core programs. These twin settings provide the engine of craving. We're upgrading the mind from its outdated presets towards a new state of awareness. drives us toward whatever it associates with .before we achieved the relative security of our modern lifestyles. To our great advantage The Buddha. the seat of our core emotional states rest upon our immediate. or tanha. we require an operating “upgrade. runs needless. inefficient programs that produce a lifetime of inessential stress and anxiety.” a foundational install of entirely new operating environment. Our “gut reactions” boil down to a) being drawn towards that which makes us feel safe and b) being distressed and agitated by anything remotely threatening. and subsequent spiritual practitioners. provided us with tools that allow us to modify all our default settings.
This region of the brain doesn’t process the long term consequences of our choices. it reminds us of the big payoff by giving us a little taste of its medicine. Once again. However. In this state dopamine primes us to seek another accomplishment. etc—the brain releases a little dopamine as an incentive to get going and get more. we can expect to feel a sense of anxiety in following sexual connections. safe. when we perceive the external sources we’ve associated with security and advantage—money. we feel. which will be reviewed shortly. etc. Beyond the obvious drawbacks of anxiety—it makes it even more difficult to master awkward situations—many of the associations established by our fear mechanisms are needlessly distressing. there is to modify this program. approval. it is the dopamine that. feel warm remembering words of approval from loved ones. conversely. it’s set to remunerate us with a pleasurable jolt of dopamine. feel energized by the thought of a vacation. a joke that flops may result in our being reluctant further attempts at humor in social gatherings. fame. This tagging of objects as desirable is done before conscious awareness or any possible intervention. after a car accident.immediate stress relief. the nature of which has been introduced earlier. Alas. if we feel embarrassed during a romantic encounter. provides us the with the feelings of being accepted and loved: we are part of a clan that will protect us. Such preconscious mechanisms are primings: we salivate at the thought of our cake. for example. conditions us to avoid anything we've associated with threatening situations or feelings of insecurity. the dopamine breaks down quickly and leaves us once again vulnerable and insecure. In essence. For example. as it employs a fast neural pathway that creates a physical and mental state of longing. from then on we may feel . 2) The amygdala. sensual pleasures. momentarily. after our humorous remark makes other people howl with laughter.
panic attacks and anxiety disorders. over the course of a life literally thousands of innocent people. Of course. and this results in a great deal of mental and physical suffering. its hardly in our long term interests.30 Minutes of Meditation Per Day Certainly. In subsequent encounters adrenaline and cortisol are released. sweating and hair standing on end. but the amygdala doesn’t know that. Upgrade: 20 . it simply records every stimuli it can during a threatening situation and tags them all as dangerous. etc. Alzheimer’s Disease. creating the fight or flight response. Several studies (most recently by Harvard and Emory University) have demonstrated that concentration and mindfulness based meditation . we cannot switch off the brain’s core reward and resistance systems. situations and things can provoke needless fear in the human heart. our fear pathways are faster than our conscious minds. In other words. locked jaw. The gist of such attraction-avoidance priming (what the Buddha called vedana) is we are often tense. we avoid many useful. empowering experiences and gravitate again and again towards the predictable and easy. the music had nothing to do with the traumatic event. and such a choice would leave one unmotivated and slow to react in threatening situations. immune systems. Releasing cortisol—while providing its short term alertness —over sustained periods has dire consequences. places. though we can upgrade its performance. aiming for less overstimulation and priming. Similarly to our dopamine reward system.panic arise when we hear the same music that was playing via the car’s audio system during the crash. Consequently. from decreased sleep. heart disease and stroke. preparied to fight off threats that are real or imagined. racing heartbeat. and so we are physically primed: thoughts or perceptions of threatening situations creates a tight stomach.
Beyond developing stable concentration. Ayya Khema or lay teachers such as Tara Brach or Joseph Goldstein). Brahm. craving first appears physically. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have documented noticeable thickening of structures associated with memory. and it provides the core tools of contemporary therapies such as Mindfulness Based Stress . a state of mind that remains serenely unmoved by impulses. As related previously. We simply feel all the physical sensations that are present—the somatic expressions of craving or fear—relaxing the breath and body wherever possible. as involuntary gut reactions we are incapable of preventing. For this upgrade. disagreement or action. And these differences were noted after two months of daily half hour meditation. agreement.reduces activation of the amygdala and its response to emotional stimuli. one straightforward solution is to exploit the virtually unlimited supply of guided meditations available online (for example. This practice is known as mindfulness (sati) which develops the peacefulness of equanimity (upekkha). body sensations or background sounds or any other spontaneously arising phenomena. introspection and emotion regulation between the brains of meditation practitioners and those with no meditation experience. Yet we can. which generally involve focusing on the breath. inclinations. urges. there is a crucial stage during which we can interrupt craving and clinging as it arises in the mind. over time and practice. planning. All that’s required is for us to sit quietly andlisten to the instructions. develop the ability to experience our reactions without adding additional thought. attention. such priming occurs before we can consciously intervene. The effectivity of mindfulness cannot be overestimated. Viradhammo or Sundara. guided meditations by renunciates such as Ajahns Sucitto.
concerns about how we appear to others. fantasies. in which we spend 47% of our waking hours. This is an idle state during which the region of the brain responsible for focused attention—the anterior cingulate cortex or ACC—doesn’t regard a task worthy of sustained attention. ˜ Original Brain Setting: Default Brain Brownout Also worth scrutiny is the fallback setting of attentional mind. namely self-centered ideation: envisioning what might happen in the future. As a recent Harvard study by psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert documented. memories. we're happiest when fully present and fully cognizant of what we're doing. known as default mode network.Reduction (MBSR). This is the mind in its wandering state. but rather the degree of presence and focus we sustain while doing anything. comfortable status. The study of 2. The research found that unmoored attention causes unhappiness. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). this is not the case. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance based therapies. rather than vice versa. we may find ourselves drifting off into reverie. Perhaps matters are made worse by which thoughts and mental content our unsettled attention spans tend to gravitate towards. and so it moves our awareness freely from one topic to another: fears. For example. These idle stopovers can easily trigger the fear . as the roaming mind is generally an agitated mind. Though one might assume our ‘idle mode’ should be a pleasant. during a familiar or repetitive chore. such as taking a shower or riding a train to work.250 volunteers demonstrated that happiness is less a matter of the nature of the task we’re engaged in. memories of past disappointments.
which inadvertently prompts fear reactions. 2008).18 year olds.5 hours each day. releasing stress hormones and initiating physical tension and mental agitation. throughout our culture the successful are depicted as jumping back and forth from smart phone texts to interpersonal discussions.” It’s worth stopping here and noting that much of contemporary social practice promotes and engages in multitasking as a way of life. less than 11 hours of which conveys any content or information. given its long term negative consequences. creating something like a brown out in the brain. Or. With our focus restless we are more likely to make One might wonder. or 53 hours a week with digital media. but how committed we are to doing it that matters in establishing happiness and peace of mind.” explained the research director Marcel Just (Baltimore Sun. So it’s not what we’re doing. Moreover. Eventually a vicious cycle can appear in life: the untethered mind drifts toward dramatic and selfinvolved thoughts.”) establish that by age 8 children spend 7. multitasking is implicated in what has been called ‘brain brownout:’ Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging have documented that when our attention is divided between two tasks— such as cell phone and driving—the brain activity required for the tasks was reduced by upwards of 40 percent. which in turn lead to dissociative escapist fantasies. as if divided attention is the motor of achievement. why the brain has evolved to prefer chasing after random thoughts over . “The distracting task draws away power. as George Harrison sang in Be Here Now: “A mind that wants to wander round a corner is an unwise mind. This is not the case.mechanisms of the amygdala. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation (“Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8 . the jumpy mind becomes a way of life.
so that it doesn’t drift away. the subtle impressions of clothing on skin. At one point in human history it was necessary to continue brainstorming on pressing issues and imminent. This requires keeping our minds anchored to one task at a time.140 participants. menacing encounters. amongst many other benefits. beyond any reasonable error or research bias. this neural predilection is now largely outdated. reduced rumination and stress reduction as the results of mindfulness practice. noting if the breath is short or long. then bring attention to body sensations. Hoffman et al (“The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A metaanalytic review”) presented a summary of 39 studies. however. was that meditation practitioners . uncovering the tight stomach that grounds anxiousness. The American Psychological Association lists.sustained focus? The answer seems to be that untethered thought is useful during uncommon situations: a lingering crisis when problems or threats have been unsuccessfully faced and require additional problem solving. following any old dramatic memory or fantasy that arises. based on 1. the presence of background sounds and odors. of mindfulness research. Upgrade: Stay at Home in the World With Mindfulness So wherever we find ourselves in life—walking on a beach or cleaning a bathroom—we will be happier and less anxious if we rewired the ACC to remain focused on whatever we’re engaged in. the contact sensations that our feet feel with the earth beneath us or buttocks resting on a seat. shallow or deep. the locked jaw of disagreement or the deflated chest sensations we might feel beneath craving or desire. To retrain the ACC we return to the practice of mindfulness: We mentally note the actual sensations that comprise any present situation. follow this by scanning for somatic/physical expressions of ease or discomfort. In 2010. The conclusion.
suspicious. from a survival angle. such as the parietal lobe and insula cortex. during the first day at a new place of employment. ˜ Original Brain Setting: Me Against the World The mind has a tendency to maintain—particularly in stressful situations—a constant sense of self-versus-other. awareness becomes hypervigilant (aroused. muscles contract. the subregions of the brain responsible for body awareness (or interoception) and spatial navigation.experience less neural reactivity to stressful stimuli. you’re out there. during certain routines. I’ll never be good at this job! I’ve made such a mistake agreeing to work here.. Interestingly. such as yoga or meditation. For example. less anxiety and depressive ideation. similar at times to paranoia). but today these habitual attitudes lead to a great deal of unnecessary suffering. provide us with a sense of where we are physically in relation to the rest of the world. given our inexperience at the new tasks. we might find ourselves taking the most neutral remarks as criticisms. Why are we construct such a divide between what we consider to be the internal and external? Anatomically. we may add the additional stressful thought: “What a mistake. working ourselves up into such an armored. Perhaps..” At this point the body tenses. along with feelings of being trapped in repeating experiences. along with greater attentional focus. defensive state of body and mind may have once held advantage. Additionally. one’s sense of location enlarges to include . this sense of one’s location can change depending on how cognizant we are of our torso and limbs. which in turn constructs a feeling of I'm in here. passing glances as indications of being harshly judged.
even the quality of our eyesight: the intersection of all these changing states means the experience is in flux and will have evolved the next time we look at the building. While these slants—self vs. It’s worth taking a moment to review this statement further. Meanwhile. other. they confine us in a state of ignorance as to the true nature of the mind. Consider the view of a building outside our window. internal qualities that frame each moment we look at the structure. impermanence—are commonplace and quite natural. While such a familiar site may not change visibly on a day by day basis. useful categories. whether the mind is distracted by other tasks or fully committed to this observation. all of which contribute to the way we perceive each moment. there are other. at times skewing the features and qualities to make them fit smoothly. Impermanence: each situation in life is contingent not only on innumerable internal factors. during abstract reasoning our sense of self can shrink. but also internal conditions. such as how tired or energetic we feel.the body as a container of self-awareness. for the brain would rather be safe than sorry. Each event is unrepeatable. until we conceive of awareness as located in a small region of the head.’ These terms mean that the brain sorts objects and events into specific. We tend to group threats under the heading of “constant” until experience—rather than logic or assurance from others—proves other otherwise. As the Buddha explained in the Loka Sutta: . how much physical stress and tension we’re carrying. whether we are in pleasant or agitated moods. impermanence is a feature of what’s known as the left superior temporal gyrus and its gravitation towards ‘categorical perception.
when we conceive of events as enduring. underlying states. or in a . as the Buddha put it. as does our hearing. taste and touch. innermost physical sensation we feel.” Or.“The external world changes and falls away. Even the mind itself changes and falls away. "the mind is the author of all we perceive. We continue by noting that the farthest star we can observe. very ev ent of our life has materialized in a largely sealed off reproduction. as Rick Hanson put it so memorably in Buddha’s Brain: “Your brain simulates the world—each of us lives in a virtual reality that’s close enough to the real thing that we don’t bump into the furniture. to be known. all we need understand is that there what’s “out there” is always revised and fiddled with before it wind up “in here. For all our senses are interpreted. along with the closest. Neither is occurring ‘outside’ of anything. we are fixating on external experience and failing to notice the degree to which each conscious moment is the result of the mind’s fleeting. pain or neutrality.” In short. Self vs. nothing comes before it. altered and reanimated by the mind. and as everything depends on consciousness. faculties of smell.” Rather than getting lost in needless speculation about subjectivity and illusory nature of what’s real." Believing in permanence.” In fact. are both mental representation occurring in our consciousness. Another way to frame this idea: research indicates that the limited data arriving to the retina provides only a fraction of what the occipital lobe presents to us as “out there. along with feelings of pleasure. Or. they both arise and pass in our awareness. other: We can start with the preceding reflection that all experience occurs within the mind and is filtered and distorted by it. Why? Our eyesight changes and falls away.
but we can change the way we use our minds. So why is all of this important? Ignorance of the mind’s role in distorting our experience towards the personal and the permanent results in overemphasizing the role that external conditions play in creating experience. After all. requires understanding that stress is largely the result of our actions. setbacks and disappointments. the brain prefers to hold on to these outlooks. When we take responsibility for our suffering. while overlooking the useless agitation they entail. but after some stability has been achieved. or causation of suffering in life. which keeps us blind to comprehending the mind’s signature in creating our suffering. we can’t control the world or other people. body awareness or judgement free listening to background sounds. We gravitate to the belief that we are victims. Upgrade: Vipassana Insight Techniques As stated earlier. the brain regions that categorize and dualize experience tend to resist logic and reason. and that every state of being is fleeting. slanted and contingent quality of all that we have witnessed.solid dualistic divide between internal and external. Vipassana meditation starts out similarly to concentration—breath or body focused—meditation. believing that stress is the result of being picked upon by the universe. all that we have based our beliefs and views upon. The Buddha’s very take on karma. as a consequence we blame those around us for our frustrations. misguided faith in the objectivity of our perceptions leaves us defensive. So we must demonstrate to the mind that all experience is not lasting (Anicca) nor personal (Anatta). conceals the biased. we begin the path of healing and liberation. Given that our default settings keep us in defensive postures. our attention is opened to note . preferring actual first-hand experience before changing its perspectives. not those of others.
memories.the mind’s content as it arises—its perceptions. promises. Instead. essentially the transpersonal memes. we have enough space and distance from the thoughts moving through the ‘head’ above to remain detached (most people report experiencing thoughts as arising and passing behind the eyes. Many visitors turn out to be echos of what we’ve heard during conversations or through media channels. Having some distance. From the seat of detached awareness. Over time Vipassana demonstrates that everything that visits the mind eventually passes. between the ears). etc. in Vipassana practice we simply observe the mind’s visitors from the outside. we can note how thoughts try to envelope us through repetition. body or sounds—provides us with an “anchor” that keeps the mind from being baited and hooked by whatever thought or content is passing through the mind. without intent. but rather an experiential insight. At this point original object of our concentration— perhaps the breath. insults. we note each visitor while avoid being trapped or ensnared by the thought. to use Richard Dawkins word for ideas passed about from one mind to the next. thoughts. not allowing its intriguing images to lure us away from present awareness. without judgment or resistance. ˜ . we can watch how each thought resonates in the breath or body. they arise out of nowhere. fears and fantasies. resting on the breath sensations as experienced in the abdomen. we begin to witness how nothing belongs to us—this is not an intellectual achievement. dark threats. from the perspective of the body. stable awareness. We observe how these interlopers are not ours. If we maintain a calm.
upgrading our minds so that. priming and reactive mechanisms that have kept us caught up in greed. these upgrades—in conjunction with sustained ethical behavior (actions that don’t result in harm to ourselves or others. aversion and selfcentered delusion for so long. so that we're no longer governed by the preset. This practice is radical and (r)evolutionary. Brooklyn June 2013 .In summary. for we’re refashioning the neural wiring of brain. in the future. rather than ease and a sense of inner esteem)—bring about a transformation to the brain’s wiring. rather than a distorted battlefield. Williamsburg. Josh Korda. our experience will provide us with a safe haven to reside in. which institute guilt and shame.
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