The Tao That Can Be Named

“The Tao that can be named is not the real Tao”

That’s all I really want to say, and it’s been said before by Lao Tzu, as the first line of the Tao te Ching, the foremost taoist writing. I recommend this book, but please don’t confuse it with the I Ching, which is a lot of hooey.

I want to write this blog for my kids. It is supposed to be a collection of thing I would like them to be aware of. They finally got to the age where I could talk to them, and then they moved away. The reason I’m begining this blog with the Tao and Zen is that much of what I want to talk about is how we think. Zen sheds much light on how we think. Zen, as I understand it, is exactly how we don’t usually think.

The main themes of this blog will be:
Cognitive science
Skepticism
Evolutionary psychology
Chaos theory
Zen

The ideas may not be in any particular order. As I read about things that connect with prior thoughts, I’ll write something. I’m not an expert on many of these things, I’m only trying to reflect or project ideas I like to my kids. If I get preachy, consider it a mockery of preaching. I’m not a Zen practitioner. I don’t meditate or achieve “higher realms of being” These experiences are just altered states of mind. I’ll choose how I want to alter my mind, and it won’t be by meditating for 30 years. I won’t be achieving a Zen master’s transcendent experiences. Don’t much care. BTW, I have nothing to say about Zen Buddhism. I have no interest in Buddhism or religious beliefs related to Zen. I don’t think Buddha would either.

My initial and main relationship with Zen is through bonsai. While doing bonsai for the past 25+ years, I have wondered what it is about bonsai that makes it special. What is the ‘Oriental Aesthetic’? Why is one bonsai better than another? What makes it worth looking at? What is the ‘art’ of it? What makes natural beauty different from Art? How can I make a better bonsai, and what does better even mean?
One answer, which I’ll elaborate on later, is that Zen bonsai is just seeing the tree as it is without all the attributions and meanings that automatically come to mind. This is not easy to do, but it’s the original ‘pause that refreshes’.

BigHinoki

Zen is being aware of what’s in front of you without making shit up.

 

Zen Eye

In order to see or appreciate things in a Zen way, we should think about what it is we’re trying to see, and what stands in the way, which we can talk in nebulous terms about “brain clouds” and “worldly obstacles” and “empty mirrors”, but perhaps we can define them a little better.   Then we can find ways to eliminate the obstacles and see with our Zen eyes.

We can talk about seeing truth, beauty and reality.  Let’s start with seeing what’s in front of our face.  Zen is about appreciating things directly.  What does that mean?  Why don’t we automatically appreciate them?  What’s so special about directness?  Why can’t we just be aware of reality, know the truth and experience beauty all the time?  The reason is our brain wasn’t designed that way.  I don’t think any creature was designed that way. Whenever anything is perceived by the senses, the perception is filtered (percolated) through the brain before there is awareness.   Even the simplest animal that’s capable of awareness knows at least fear.

Our brains were designed by natural selection to react to the environment in specific ways.  Perception is not simply inputting data.  It is a creative and interpretive process.  Let’s take seeing a tree, for example.  If I open my eyes to a view of one of my bonsai trees, what do I see?  Reality?  Hardly.

One of the concepts of Zen is “Bare Awareness”.  I like this term.  What would it mean to just be aware of reality?  Let’s use a bonsai tree as an example of reality.  I would open my eyes and see a visual pattern.  This arrangement of photons of reflected light would hit my retina, go through my optic nerve across the top of the brain back to the occipital cortex at the back of my brain, then turn around and go forward again deeper in the brain to the frontal cortex, where my conscious brain would appreciate the beauty of the pattern.  That would be a nice encounter with the world.  Unfortunately, this isn’t what happens.  Awareness is not usually this “bare”.  A thousand things happen in the brain between the time the light hits the retina and the time it registers in consciousness.  When I look at a tree, some of the things that automatically go through my mind are:

  • Identification of its size, color, movement, edges, orientation in space
  • Object identification and naming
  • It’s a tree, what kind of tree, common name, perhaps botanical name?
  • It’s a bonsai. What style?  Is it artistic?  What would I change?
  • Who does it belong to?
  • How old is it?
  • What’s it worth?  Do I want to buy it? Steal it?
  • Do I want a similar tree? Where can I get one?

These are just some of the attributes and decisions that I could be aware of.  There are probably thousands of unconscious thoughts and calculations going into each conclusion that comes to consciousness.  The brain has to take the visual image and match it to my visual memory, stored language and names, and everything I know about bonsai.  It has to pass it by the emotional structures in the brain and compare it to my previous emotional reactions to similar images.  It has to evaluate the bonsai in terms of worth.  This is complicated because how I evaluate worth and status depends on my past experience with bonsai trees as well as my built-in modules for assessing status.  Status is something that is conferred on the owner or even the observer of the bonsai.  How can this tree alter my status?  The mental modules that evaluate and place value on things have evolved by sexual selection, a special part of natural selection (a mental module is like a subroutine).  They are constantly working to improve our status in the world.  Our status is not only our value, but also the effective display of our value (to a potential mate).  In crude terms, the brain is evaluating whether this bonsai will get me laid, whether by owning it, donating it, knowing about it, etc.   There are thousands of connections the brain is accessing and/or strengthening or weakening by accessing and combining signals from memories, emotions and (perhaps many) special mental modules.  The brain may be making millions of associations, pairwise comparisons and updates to its knowledge very rapidly in response to seeing this bonsai.  The reason it can do this is because the unconscious brain is a massive parallel processor.  Thousands of operations are going on at the same time.  Of course, the conscious brain is not parallel.  We can only think one thought at a time consciously.  Often thoughts are created by the unconscious processor and pushed into consciousness by connections to the frontal lobes.  If the image or the experience has any unique or surprising features, the conscious brain is recruited to evaluate them rationally.  This is where it really gets complicated.   The conscious mind is capable of being rational, but that doesn’t mean it will be.  Remember, this part of the mind is lazy.  It doesn’t want to do the math.  The mind will often find a way to absorb new information without disturbing or reevaluating its beliefs.  It will make up stories:  “This tree is a hundred years old, and it has struggled on the top of a mountain, while being struck by lightning and chased by wolves…”, etc. 

My point is: all this crap stands between the reflected light of the image and our being aware of it.  The brain is truly busy producing a perception and an evaluation of the image.  We end up not seeing the real tree; we’re seeing what the brain has cooked up for us.  We are not seeing reality.  Of course, we can never see reality itself.  We can see reflected light, hear sounds, etc.  But my point is that perceptions are not the same thing as awareness.  Perceptions are massively processed artificial creations, and are greatly biased by our previous experiences and beliefs.  Awareness is simply seeing what’s there.  It’s probably not actually “simple”, since it is some kind of brain process.  The point is that awareness can occur separately from the perceptions and thoughts that are piled on top of it.  Awareness can exist without meaning, and since meaning is just a bunch of made up crap, that’s a good thing. 

The mental process of Zen seeing, then, means that I see the tree (more) directly, without considering anything about it, such as age, worth, etc.  Doing this can give you amazing insights and enjoyment from the most ordinary bonsai or other images.   Most of these insights can’t be described or labeled, because they are not processed or connected to language by the brain.  This is, I believe, why Zen seems so mysterious.  Zen experiences are by definition not connected to language or meaning, so they can’t be described.  Intellectual knowledge about Zen is not and can never replace the actual experience (of bare awareness or Zen insight, satori, enlightenment).  The best we can get from Zen literature are pointers.  This pointer I’m trying to give you is to stop and try to look at something with a Zen eye.  At first, you will struggle with constant “worldly thoughts” popping into your mind.  All those things created by the brain, down to the very name of what you are looking at have to be discarded.  You can’t just avoid these thoughts since they are automatic.  The thoughts should be thought, then ignored or gotten past.  Keep looking, while dismissing each thought about the image as it comes up.  Eventually the unconscious brain will give up pushing things into consciousness because you are ignoring it.  Then you will “see” something unique.  It may only be for an instant, and may not happen at all the first few times.  But eventually you will see something you never noticed before, something indescribable.  This is a Zen insight, however small.  The amazing thing will be how utterly simple and ordinary it is.  This is because everything is ordinary until our brain gets ahold of it.  What you see will have no meaning.  Once you give it a meaning or a name, you will have lost it.  That’s OK.  There is a lot of ordinary reality out there to discover.

The Tao That Can Be Named

“The Tao that can be named is not the real Tao”

That’s all I really want to say, and it’s been said before by Lao Tzu, as the first line of the Tao te Ching, the foremost taoist writing. I recommend this book, but please don’t confuse it with the I Ching, which is a lot of hooey.

I want to write this blog for my kids. It is supposed to be a collection of thing I would like them to be aware of. They finally got to the age where I could talk to them, and then they moved away. The reason I’m begining this blog with the Tao and Zen is that much of what I want to talk about is how we think. Zen sheds much light on how we think. Zen, as I understand it, is exactly how we don’t usually think.

The main themes of this blog will be:
Cognitive science
Skepticism
Evolutionary psychology
Chaos theory
Zen

The ideas may not be in any particular order. As I read about things that connect with prior thoughts, I’ll write something. I’m not an expert on many of these things, I’m only trying to reflect or project ideas I like to my kids. If I get preachy, consider it a mockery of preaching. I’m not a Zen practitioner. I don’t meditate or achieve “higher realms of being” These experiences are just altered states of mind. I’ll choose how I want to alter my mind, and it won’t be by meditating for 30 years. I won’t be achieving a Zen master’s transcendent experiences. Don’t much care. BTW, I have nothing to say about Zen Buddhism. I have no interest in Buddhism or religious beliefs related to Zen. I don’t think Buddha would either.

My initial and main relationship with Zen is through bonsai. While doing bonsai for the past 25+ years, I have wondered what it is about bonsai that makes it special. What is the ‘Oriental Aesthetic’? Why is one bonsai better than another? What makes it worth looking at? What is the ‘art’ of it? What makes natural beauty different from Art? How can I make a better bonsai, and what does better even mean?
One answer, which I’ll elaborate on later, is that Zen bonsai is just seeing the tree as it is without all the attributions and meanings that automatically come to mind. This is not easy to do, but it’s the original ‘pause that refreshes’.

BigHinoki

Zen is being aware of what’s in front of you without making shit up.

 

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Abandon Belief

When you start questioning your own beliefs, you can learn how the mind works; then you can abandon all belief. This is Zen.
Why “Zen for my Kids”? No reason to be coy. I want to influence how they think, and to share with them ways to examine and evaluate their own thoughts (and other cool stuff.)   I look at many common beliefs in our society that are so prominent and so infuriating, whether it’s alien abduction, angels, ghosts, crystal healing, creationism, and many other common beliefs that are clearly wrong. No matter what you believe, I’d bet you know people who strongly hold beliefs which you think are crazy. Admit it.
As a scientist this struck me. As an academic physician, I saw a lot of medical practice in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s that was clearly nonsense, and I’m talking about mainstream medicine. In addition to mainstream medicine, I once compiled a list of over 100 different alternative medical practices that each have their own belief systems, all of them nonsense. It makes you stop and think, “Why?”
In the 1980’s I started studying several areas that subsequently converged:
• Evidence based medicine
• Skepticism
• Chaos theory
• Evolution and Evolutionary psychology
• Zen
I’ll go into each of these in future posts. Skepticism made me question claims that people make. Skeptics realize that these aren’t all Headline Claims. People make claims to themselves and others every day and in every situation that are based on beliefs rather than facts. It is a necessary part of thinking. And many people try to convince others that their claims are true. Since most people don’t have a clue about scientific evaluation or skepticism, they are often easily convinced. Skepticism makes you stop and think “Is that claim really true?” One of my favorite quotes is, ““Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course or that a man should tell a lie?” (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason).
Evolution, particularly evolutionary psychology, provides a theory of how and why the mind comes up with the crap it often comes up with, and how we accept it. Evidence has been accumulating that there are two coexisting ways of thinking. First, there’s a fast unconscious system that evaluates choices based on our stored memories and prior beliefs. Then there’s a slow, conscious logical system that (sometimes) evaluates what the unconscious system comes up with and can tell, through logic, whether it’s crazy thinking. The second system is, however, generally lazy and untrained; but it can be trained to look for evidence and adopt a conditional belief based on the evidence. This is skepticism.
Evidence based medicine taught me to look for evidence for every claim, and to evaluate the strength of the evidence. In addition, it taught me to evaluate how much actual meaning we can extract from the evidence. Time after time medical researchers will do a study, come up with some result, and then misinterpret the result. The unsuspecting physician reading the study (most of them are, unfortunately, unsuspecting) then gets the wrong idea from the evidence, and we end up spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives on ineffective or dangerous therapies.  The same thing happens in public health and other fields.  So a whole generation ends up with lead poisoning from leaded gas, or exposure to the natural carcinogens in organic food. (Ah Ha! So you do believe in organic foods.  Ask yourself why.)
I approached Zen through bonsai. My hobby of growing and styling little trees, as well as making bonsai pots with Don Gould led me to thinking about Oriental aesthetics, and to an interest in Zen art. This was at the same time I was pursuing skepticism, so I approached the literature about Zen rather intellectually, not with New Age Wonder. I still do. I found that Zen was able to withstand skeptical inquiry. Not, of course, what many people claim about Zen, but Zen itself. It is consistent with our two ways of thinking, and the practice of abandoning those thoughts.  After all, the thing that gets in the way of seeing what’s in front of our face (truth, reality, beauty) is our own mind. And that means our beliefs, emotions, sufferings, memories, sexual and survival drives, and sense of self. We don’t have to suspend disbelief to practice Zen, we have to abandon Belief.

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Chickens, Fast and Slow

I can finally answer the question:
Why did the Chicken cross the road?

It turns out that chickens are stupid.
Why is a “deer in the headlights” paralyzed? Why do they run out in front of cars?
It helps to think about where roads and headlights came from. They have not existed anywhere near long enough to be part of the evolutionary history of animals. They were created in the most recent evolutionary instant.

Chickens and deer are actually quite sophisticated creatures. They just can’t make good decisions. Actually, that’s not true. Most of the decisions an animal makes are exremely rapid and efficient. Their brains are able to take perceptual information, (what the animal sees, hears smells, etc.) and combine it with memories of past events, as well as innate “instincts” such as hunger drives, fears, survival and mating drives. (They may even have some built in modules for evaluating the situation, such as the ability to detect cheating or even a system of ethics; but more about that later.) Using emotions such as fear, anxiety, expected pleasure, their brains can run simulations of what would be the most satisfying or useful course of action. Different parts of the brain “argue” with each other (“I want that.” “You can’t have it” “But I really, really want it!”) until they bang out the best decision. Then the animal acts, usually seeking food, sex, or safety. This decision making process is amazingly fast, considering the hundreds or thousands of pieces of information being balanced. It is an unconscious process. Survival depends on it. However, it is not always correct. Every day the animal runs into situations where the automatic decision making process is missing a piece of information. It might run into a new animal. Or a plant. Or a highway. This system can’t take new information into account because it’s not already stored in the brain. It doesn’t know what to do until the next time the animal encounters the same situation and factors in what happened the first time. IOW, the process can learn, but it can’t reason.

We humans have the same system. It’s called System 1. However, we also have a well developed System 2. This system provides for rational decision making. It comes from our over-developed prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain distinguishes the human brain from other animals. Rational thinking, or reasoning can override the decisions made by system one. If your system one decides to climb down onto the subway tracks to pick up a shiny dime, system 2 can think about the train that is not yet in sight, calculate the risk of getting hit by it, and then say “Oh no you don’t!”

When system one says “I’ll have another piece of cake, please”, system two can say “Not this time, Bud.” This is called will power. System two can be thought of (loosely) as the Will, or Consciousness, the Ego or the Self. System two can be very helpful in keeping us out of trouble, and in making rational decisions that depend on calculations that system one can’t make. HOWEVER, System two does not work by itself. It doesn’t know what the body wants or what emotional factors are more important. Spock can’t command the Enterprise without Kirk and McCoy. People who have damage to a part of the prefrontal lobe where system one sends info to system two are unable to make good decisions, and their lives end up in shambles. This is what happened in the famous case of Phineas Gage, the railroad foreman who had a large iron rod driven through his head and lived to make a lot of bad decisions.

Technically, systems one and two are just intellectual constructs within the field of cognitive psychology. Not everyone agrees on how they actually map to brain function. They are, however, a useful way of thinking.

Daniel Kahnemann in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, discusses many of the attributes, strengths and faults of the two systems that have been researched.

Among other things, he shows how System one:
-Operates rapidly and automatically
-Holds our beliefs and intentions
-Performs those skilled actions we have mastered after training, things we can do without thinking, like riding a bike
-Recognizes surprises. Knows when to get help from system two
-Infers and invents causes and intentions.

Kahnemann lists and describes several other things system one does, many of which can go wrong or be inaccurate, just like inventing causes for random events can make us feel good but can be spectacularly wrong. (This is partly what I meant by “making shit up”) We’ll discuss some of these later.

System two, on the other hand, isn’t perfect either. It is lazy, for one thing. Consider the following problem. Do not try to solve it, but listen to your intuition.

A bat and a ball cost $1.10
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

A surprising number of college students will say the ball costs 10 cents. This is the intuitive answer, and it feels right. System two will often (50-80% of the time) accept this answer. In order to come up with a more accurate answer (5 cents), System two would have to set up a method for solving the problem and checking the answer. It uses the working memory and consciously manipulates numbers and symbols. This takes work and actually burns calories. Often system two just says “screw it. I’m tired.” Sometimes it actually is tired, or distracted, or fooled. Even when it is not lazy it has many quirks and biases that cause decisions to go wrong. It is not a computer. For example, consider the halo effect. This experiment has been repeated many times:
You set up a blind wine tasting between two red wines. You tell your wine experts that one wine costs $10, and the other costs $100. They will always prefer the $100 wine and describe it in more glowing terms, while the $10 wine is just OK. This is even without discussing their ratings with each other. Of course, the secret you haven’t told them is that both wines are the same $10 wine.

There are many other biases that system two has. We’ll talk about some interesting ones later. These two systems (and the built in biases) worked extremely well together in the environment they evolved in. The remarkable transformation of the primate brain to the human brain was largely the addition of the prefrontal lobes. This may have added a layer of thinking, represented by System two, overtop of the animals’ System one, allowing humans to reason, plan, and predict the future. This layer is nonetheless designed (by natural selection) to primarily deal with life on the savannah, hunting and gathering in social groups of no more than about 150. But because of it’s mutant powers of reasoning, planning, extrapolating and predicting, the human brain was able to create larger societies and eventually develop the skills to grow crops, domesticate animals, accumulate wealth, design technology, and eventually text while driving. Because of our two part minds, humans have been able to create and adapt to the modern world. Chickens, not so much.
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