Tag Archives: Buddhism

Who is Responsible for Our Actions?

Imagine you plan to write on a piece of paper. You have a pen and the paper on the table. If you were asked to describe the event the logical sequence would be:

  1. There is a thought in the brain that you wish to write.
  2. Associated with the thought, there is an electrochemical reaction in the brain called as the readiness potential.
  3. Based on the readiness potential the brain sends a signal to the hand to perform a desired action of writing.

Man has a free will and when he makes a conscious decision, the sequence of events would be first the thought or the decision, then the brain getting ready for the implementation of the thought through readiness potential followed by the impulse to the organ culminating in the desired action.

This theory of free will received a rude shock when Benjamin Libet, a pioneering neuroscientist performed a simple experiment in 1985. While performing an experiment on his participants, he asked them to take a simple action of raising their hands and also indicate the time when the decision to raise the hand was taken. While monitoring the brain activity, he found that the readiness potential had occurred in the brain not after the decision was taken but about 200 ms before the decision was taken. The decisions we feel we are taking consciously are actually not taken by us but already by our unconscious mind. A number of psychologists and scientists questioned the validity of such an experiment. A series of such minute readiness potential -thought –action sequence happens so rapidly that we feel that there is someone inside our body termed as the self who has a free will and takes conscious decision.

23 years later, the April 2008 issue of Nature Neuroscience has published a research paper on similar lines. The experiment was simple. There are two buttons. The participant has a choice to press any button, in a random fashion. He was asked to indicate the time at which he has taken a decision and the subject was asked to press the button. While the experiment was going on, the brain scan was carried out by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. (FMRI) which can record the activities happening in the different parts of the brain.

The patterns generated does not tell what a person is doing. However different parts of the brain were getting brightened depending on which activity was being performed. .The surprising observation was that the computer was able to predict which button the subject will press based on the FMRI scan. And the brightening of the specific part was happening at least 7 seconds before the subject said that he was taking a decision. The experiment was repeated 100 times and the computer was able to predict at least 70% of the time which button may get pressed, based on the part that glowed corresponding to  the decision whether it was right or left. Prof John Haines and his colleagues who conducted this experiment in Germany came to the startling conclusion that when we feel that we are consciously taking any decision, the unconscious mind has already taken the decision 7-10 seconds before and the conscious mind just has to follow its unconscious counterpart.

In another experiment, Prof. Eric Candel and others conducted an experiment to see the linkages of the conscious and the unconscious mind A group of 17 participants were shown a series of pictures with associated with different emotions fear, anger, hatred, disgust etc. While showing the pictures the brain activity was similarly monitored. Let us assume 100 pictures which can evoke such  emotions were displayed at a normal frame speed of 5 seconds. In between these 100 pictures 2/3 pictures at random with extreme emotions were shown for a fraction of a second. The participants were not able to recollect that they have seen such pictures. Amygdala which is the seat of emotion in the brain used to get brightened when such pictures were shown. However a specific part of amygdala used to get brightened depending on whether the fear was experienced on a conscious level ( picture shown for 5 secs ) or at the subconscious level.( picture shown for 0.1 sec) The amygdala is the seat of primal emotion like fear, anger etc. and the response is used to trigger the fight-or-flight response used for the survival of the organism. The responses are instantaneous.

There are some people who get panicky for trivial reasons or flare up on small issues. This can be correlated with their  amygdale make up. In the same event of traffic jam A may get easily angry whereas B may not get too upset. For sake of simplicity we can say that a short tempered person may operate at a higher level of amygdala arousal say at 900. wheras a cool and composed person may operate at a level of 200. So when a picture  was flashed for a fraction of a second both A and B got panicky but at their respective levels. So A gets angry at a level of 900 and B at a level of 200. However when the same picture is shown at a lower speed the level of arousal corresponding to fear is not proportional to the base level but at a constant level . A goes from 900 to 1000 whereas B goes from 200 from 300. Stated otherwise,  when confronted with an emotion like anger or fear at an unconscious level, the panic response dependent on the individual genetic makeup and while facing the same at a conscious level it was not that terrible.

This research has some interesting fallouts. When people face irrational fears of closed places, air travel or swine flu, they need to bring that experience into the conscious level  where the unwanted emotion is seen and felt in real time and by doing this exercise, the amygdala arousal can be reduced.

Sigmund Freud had propounded the same thing by talking oneself out and thus reducing the unwanted emotions.

Gautam Buddha has proposed the same technique in his Vipassana meditation where such emotions are faced head-on by watching one’s breath continuously and by doing so, the impact of the irrational fears comes down.

The conventional wisdom propounded by the motivational speakers, and evangelist says that one should always think positive and if one gets negative thoughts they should be driven away or rather put under the carpet. And then we tell our children , “you should be seen not heard”, “don’t act like a sissy, boys don’t cry” etc. .But such facades of confidence actually crumble over a period of time making the situation worse. Let me give another example: Let us say at night you are not able to get the sleep and you are tossing from one side to the other. Under such conditions it is logical that most of us get negative thoughts like Why I cannot sleep and try to make the maximum efforts like counting the numbers etc. On the contrary if you just watch your thoughts and then say, “ At this moment I am not able to sleep and that is the current reality. If you go on watching the breath and focus on the process without bothering about the end result there is a greater possibility that you may get  quality sleep much faster.

The conclusion of the above research as corroborated by Gautam Buddha is:

  1. You can handle your irrational fears by bringing them into the conscious mind.
  2. The impact of the fear reduces drastically by repeating such exercise.
  3. The subconscious mind does not have the word NOT in its dictionary, as such whenever unconsciously we say a negative thing the subconscious mind rebounds in an opposite manner. For example, The more you say I will NOT get angry you tend to feel more angry. The more you resist, the more it persists.

One of the greatest hoaxes of life is to feel that that there is a self which goes on directing ourselves. However the truth is otherwise. Most of the conscious actions which we feel we do by choice are actually done by the unconscious. As the difference between the action and the readiness potential is  small, and such actions are happening at such a rapid pace that first we take action and a conglomeration of such rapid actions make us feel that   there is a self inside that that I am doing an action.

Let us see what the ancient Buddhist text say on this subject which has now been confirmed by the latest neurological research:

  • There is no Self as the agent of any action..
  •   There is no Self as the feeler of any sensation..
  •   There is no Self as the experiencer of any perception..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any bony frame of body..
  • There is no Self in or outside any shortly sensed feeling..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any experienced perception..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any remembered memory..
  •   There is no Self in or outside any constructed intention..
  • There is no Self in or outside any momentary consciousness..
  •   There is no Doer experiencing any effect of any action..
  •   There is no Definable Entity transmigrating at Rebirth..
  •   There is no Stable Identity lasting even for a moment..
  •   There is no Owner of anything, whether material or mental..
  • Yet beings, since an endless beginning, passionately maintains this mere IDEA of a stably enduring yet invisible entity, supposed to be the Self, I, Ego, Me,  Identity or Personality, with which they fall deeply & dramatically in love.

Assuming such an IDEA, constructing such an Imagination, Defining such an Invention is more than FATAL, as it causes the constructer to come back to  birth, ageing, decay & death & thereby suffering again & again for aeons.

A Different Way of Curing Addictions (A Buddhist Perspective)

Generally we look at curing  addictions by eliminating the impact of the external environment. For example if a person is addicted to alcohol, he is persuaded to reduce the dependence on alcohol by suggestions on how alcohol is bad for health, its effect on the family, health and financial security. The patient is also exhorted to join Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) so as to reduce his dependence. These interventions work sometime but also tend to fail when a patient relapses as he is unable to resist the temptation.

Let us look at an alternative model from the Buddhist perspective. (Refer figure). An event (stage I) that happens outside is perceived inside the body through any or a combination of the five sense organs like eyes, ears etc. Sometimes it can be only an aural input like a piece of music or a multi-sensory input like relishing delicious mutton biryani ( sight, smell, taste, partially sound )This second  stage is called as perception and acknowledgement of the external event which is a MAP and not the actual event and is termed as Vigyan in Pali. (Stage II). The moment an input is perceived,  it is immediately evaluated by Sangya (stage III) which compares the event with something similar in the memory bank. Based on the comparison the event is either pigeonholed as either good or bad. The comparison instantaneously produces a sensation (Stage IV)) on the body which is either a positive or a negative one. The positive sensation may be tingling, soothing or a similar sensation whereas a negative sensation can be an itching, pain or a similar sensation. So far so good. The journey up till now from an external event of tasting a morsel of mutton biryani produces either positive or negative sensations which do not exclusively depend on whether the biryani is good or bad but depending on how it is perceived and the corresponding sensation it produces on the body. For example, a person who loves spicy Hyderabadi Biryani may like the taste if it is comparable to the one prepared by his mother. (Evaluation – stage III) An American who is used to bland food may find the Biriyani quite pungent. The same food has produced two different body sensations:  for the former   it is positive, and for the latter it is negative.

At this juncture, the subconscious mind comes into play and depending on the type of sensation, shall either produce a bond which is either of craving/attraction or Aversion (Raaga or Dwesha Stage V). The person decides to either have the next morsel or avoids depending on the bond that is created by the subconscious mind. A simple example of biryani can be compared to Alcohol, Nicotine or any substance drug.

 Myths of Addictions:

  1. An external event is the cause of addiction: If it were so, all people who take alcohol should have become alcoholics which are not the case. People do not become addicted to an external event or stimuli but to the sensations on the body.
  2. By telling what is right people can come out of addictions: When we tell the message only reaches the conscious mind. However the subconscious mind which constitutes 90% of the mind and is more habit prone refuses to acknowledge the message given to and by the conscious mind. Quite often alcoholics know the ill-effects but the thought pattern prevents them. On the contrary the subconscious mind now starts justifying the action. Like a person says he is drinking because he had abusive parents, pathetic childhood, financial problems, spouse etc. However he does not realize that the addiction is not for the alcohol but for the craving of pleasant sensations (relaxed feeling) and the aversion of the negative feeling (turkey, shivering, irritation etc.)
  3. Happiness and Pleasure are the same: We believe that pleasure is good and pain is bad. However any event whether pleasurable or otherwise, creates misery in the long run. Let us say a person who loves gulab-jamun feels that the sweet is the source of happiness. If it were so, irrespective of the quantity, galub-jamuns should make him happy. He may enjoy the first few very much, however if continued beyond 10 or so it may produce irritation. So the pleasure was not in the gulab-jamun but in the sensations it produced on the body.

How to Bring Change:

It should be clearly understood that the  first four stages are  primarily  automatic on which a person does not have much control, which include the event(I), the perception & acknowledgement by the senses( II) the evaluation ( III) & the sensations on the body due to evaluation (IV) .However the reaction to the body sensations is within a person’s control. The bonds of attachment and aversion are continuously in the subconscious mind every moment. Taking an analogy of the hard disk of a computer, continuously the data is written by way of bonds (sankhara) which are habit forming.

If we stop creating new bonds, slowly the old ones will wither way and gradually the change starts happening.  To bring this, awareness of the mind and body plays a very important role. It is not about concentration of the mind but a simple process of choiceless awareness which helps a person see the rapid thought process happening in the mind. Simple exercise like watching one’s breath slowly makes the mind so sharp that at one stage one is able to observe the body sensations. These sensations in a day-to-day life are generally not observable as the mind is gross.

The major trap for the mind to get into is while observing the sensations. People may start hankering after the pleasant ones and despise the bad ones. At this juncture, one has to observe the sensations with equanimity developing a clear insight that any sensation: be  it positive or negative is ultimately going to create a sankhara, an impression on the mind. By developing equanimity towards any sensations; slowly the bonds get reduced in the subconscious mind. A change happens at the subconscious level which is long-lasting.

For most of us there is a gap between knowing and doing. At a cognitive level people know the terrible effects of excessive smoking, drinking. However the behaviour can change only at a  subconscious level. To summarize, the sensations on the body produce the addictions and not the external event. This profound technique has been the unique contribution of Gautama Buddha. His  technique of  Vipassana has helped a number of people to bring a behavioural change in managing anger, fear, curing phobias or come out of addictions. Experiments were carried out on the prisoners of Tihar Jail by this technique which has amply demonstrated the efficacy of the technique.

Apart from curing addictions, the above technique of choiceless awareness which provides insights into the mind-body connect can be used in curing phobias, pain, dysfunctional anger etc. Amygdala is the seat of emotions in the human brain from where anger, fear, jealousy etc emanate. The addictions which happen at a subconscious level are very difficult to eradicate by instructing the brain at a conscious level or a cognitive level. Following examples will illustrate  the change was completely or partially brought by this technique.

  1. Subconscious Anger: Ramesh P. aged 61 years is an engineer and has worked at quality control in different spheres of management. The last position he held was that of GM level at an Automobile company. With financial stability, considerate wife and two children, both well educated and well settled we would perceive that Ramesh is be a happy person. Being his room-mate in one of the training programs I could see Ramesh shouting and screaming in his sleep which used to happen  between 12 -1 PM. For first few days, I could not comprehend what he was speaking but later on I figured out it to be a few sentences of vitriolic anger against one of his former managers. Next day when I discussed with Ramesh about the incident,  he confessed that he was not aware of  such an incident but when pointed about the contents of his diatribe, he said that the incident happened around 12 years ago when his company was going through a major expansion and Ramesh was going through testing times when his immediate boss put him under tremendous pressure. Now Ramesh and his boss both have retired.  Whenever they meet,they exchange pleasantries  and are good friends. Only  when it was pointed out to Ramesh about the  latent anger he could see the impact of subconscious mind. Ramesh realized that when he resisted the negative thoughts about the past incident the negative sensations were produced on the body. By denying them he was creating more bonds of aversion ( stage V) thus multiplying his misery. Instead when he decided to be aware of the incident; slowly the impact reduced. The more you resist the more it persists!
  1. Limitation of Chanting: Swati is a housewife from a lower-middle class family and her husband is working as a supervisor in a small private firm. Due to some reason or the other, the two could not get along well. However by sheer persistence and will Swati was able to control her frustration by regular chanting of sacred mantras, making holy pilgrimages etc. A highly religious person she had managed to keep her emotional life under control. However during the Vipassana program on the  7th   day, Swati refused to continue the course. She said now the anger within her has come out so badly that she feels a great urge to kill her husband with a gun. The anger which was lying dormant was exposed, exploded  and resulted in her violet behaviour. By becoming aware, she was able to peep into the subconscious mind and get out of her anger.

You will observe that by the chanting of mantras,  Swati was feeling calm and serence  at a conscious and a superficial level.  However when she looked deep within with awareness she could see the tremendous anger.

  1. Sense of remorse reduces pain: Homi D. was a working as a fighter pilot for the Indian Air Force ( IAF) during the India-Pakistan war in 1971. He had shown exemplary courage in fighting the enemy. He was decorated with awards. During the war, while going out for a sortie most of the  pilots in a vainglorious manner used to  blabber about  the number of bombs they dropped, and the number of people those were killed by their bombings. It was taken as a measure of one’s achievement.  During the war Homi was injured badly, almost to be captured by the Pakistani army. He  had to crawl on his wounded legs for almost 5 hours to return safely to the Indian base. His right leg had been amputated and left one was hit by few bullets. He had to undergo a number of operations but still the pain was unbearable for more than two decades. He even lost his left eye and was fitted with an artificial eye. He underwent a number of treatments, however nothing could alleviate his pain. While undergoing the meditation exercise, Homi became aware  of the pain that he had caused to a number of innocent people killed due to his bombings. Till then, what he considered as  his success, was nothing other than an act of barbarity. And this sense of remorse and guilt helped Homi to reduce the intensity of the excruciating pain. Now the pain even though not vanished, has been reduced by almost 50%.

From the above three examples, you may observe that the events which had happened more than a decade back were stored in the form of sensations. However due to the automatic nature of the subconscious mind whenever this sensations appeared on the mind there  were repeated cycles of aversions which made the subconscious mind filled with aversion; which the conscious mind was not aware of. However by sheer mindfulness slowly the  bonds of aversion ( Stage V)  were reduced and the people were able to come out of their misery.

Rajan Parulekar| Bangalore | India| rajan@paradigm-info.com| +91 98450 14098