Biocentrism and the Continuum of Consciousness

There’s a guy named Robert Lanza, who is Chief Scientific Officer at Ocata Therapeutics (formerly Advanced Cell Technology), and Adjunct Professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, who is supposed to be one of the most respected scientists in the world.

Lanza has a theory called biocentrism.  It is not about ethics but rather deals with the idea of a ‘biocentric’ universe.  He calls it a “Theory of Everything.”  (I thought it was Stephen Hawking who had The Theory of Everything?)

On Lanza’s website, he says,

“According to biocentrism, space and time are simply the tools our mind uses to weave information together into a coherent experience — they are the language of consciousness…”

In other words, the universe could be merely a thought construction.  Perhaps consciousness even has a role in the creation of matter.  Certainly, Lanza maintains, an understanding of consciousness is crucial to understanding the universe.  He’s not the only scientist who is beginning to see things in that way.  However, this interesting theory is a bit off topic for this post.

What I find intriguing today is that Lanza (and others) view consciousness as a “linear stream” that does not end at physical death.  Death is merely a break in this stream and consciousness goes on.

According to what I’ve read, in Lanza’s theory if the body is the generator of consciousness, then consciousness passes away when the body dies.  But if consciousness is received in the same way that a cable box receives satellite signals, that’s a different story – then consciousness would not end with physical death.  Apparently, you can understand this easily if you understand about the quantum double slit experiment, which is, frankly, way over my head. 

In any case, all this is interesting because it coincides with the Buddhist idea of a continuum of consciousness, and if consciousness moving on after death could be verified in some way, it would be possible to attach some credence to notions such as karma and rebirth

Now, here is what the Dalai Lama had to say on the subject of consciousness at UCLA in 1997 during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland:

“[If] you are able to isolate your mind [from] object oriented activity and insure that there is no thinking about the past or anticipation of the future, by trying to remain in the present, then gradually you are able to sense an absence, an emptiness, and that through persistent practice of meditation, slowly, I feel that you can begin to realize, experientially, what is this consciousness, which is the mere nature of experience and knowing, a form of luminous phenomena.

If you approach in this manner, I feel that there is a tremendous scope for discovery.  I feel that at a certain point you will get, through your own experience, a sense of what conscious really is.

According to the Buddhist explanation, consciousness or mind is said to be non-obstructive – there’s no physical properties, there’s no shape, it’s colorless, and it is in the nature of mere experience.  And it is the form of knowing and awareness.  Also we find in Buddhism that there is an appreciation of the existence of different levels of reality.  First of all, in Buddhism, whether or not that object or phenomena exists or not is considered from the point of view of whether the perception of an object or phenomena is a valid experience.

Considering this, it is possible that you can get a glimpse of emptiness, given that consciousness is a phenomena that is dynamic, that is in the form of a process.  Consciousness is transient, it goes through various stages of changes and that, in itself, is an indication that it is a product of causes and conditions. In the case of human consciousness, or mind, if we trace the path of causation we find that within the category of causes there are certain types of causes which can be described as material causes or substantial causes which can be described as material causes or substantial causes.  It is these factors that actually turn into the phenomena.  There are other types of causes which are more corporative or contributing conditions.  In terms of consciousness or mind, since it must posses a substantial cause, one could argue that the continuum, in terms of it’s origin, the continuum of the substantial cause must remain.  Therefore, the substantial cause of any sense of consciousness must necessarily be consciousness, either in a manifest form or in potential.”

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Walls

When I was in high school, I saw an ad in Time Magazine that I’ve never forgotten.  Well, actually I’ve forgotten what the ad was for, but not the headline:

When you put up a wall who are you really shutting out?

I’ve not forgotten the Berlin Wall either.  Officially, it was the Anti-Fascist Protective Wall.  Remember Reagan’s line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”?

Gorbachev did not tear the wall down.  The people did.  It started with 13,000 East German tourists who escaped to Hungary by way of Austria.  It started with some people wanting to leave oppression and go somewhere else.  Like ripples in a pond, it spread and in the end, the East German government had to open the borders and the wall came down.

Walls can be useful.  For instance, a good firewall for your computer is a smart thing to have.  I don’t know about you but my computer is an extension of me.  So the firewall protects me.

I’ve always needed protection.  I’ve always needed walls.

But the challenge of life is to tear down walls, remove the barriers that shut us out from each other.

“For when those walls come down, then love takes over, and it no longer matters what is possible or impossible…”

– Paulo Coelho, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept

In tearing down walls, it is necessary to understand the meaning of empathy, to recognize and appreciate another person’s suffering.  Then, do something about it.  Empathy and action are the two components that produce compassion.

I have mentioned before that the Japanese Buddhist term for compassion, jihi, means “to care, to cry” and “to remove the cause for suffering.”

Around the world, people feel isolated.  Instead of building walls, we should be trying to recover our sense of unity with other people.  Buddhism teaches that not only must we have respect for others, a sense of responsibility toward others is also required.

Kenchen Thrangu Rinpoche says,

“Others, who feel compassion for human beings, feel compassion for the human beings of their own country but not for the human beings of other countries.  Then, some feel compassion for their friends but not for anyone else.  Thus, it seems that we draw a line somewhere.  We feel compassion for those on one side of the line but not for those on the other side of the line.  We feel compassion for one group but not for another.  That is where our compassion is flawed.  What did the Buddha say about that?  It is not necessary to draw that line.  Nor is it suitable.  Everyone wants compassion, and we can extend our compassion to everyone.”

In this sense, we can add that it is not necessary to build the wall.

We don’t need more separation.

We don’t need more thought control.

We don’t to be just more bricks in the wall.

It is up to us, the people, to tear down the wall, or prevent it from being built.

(apologies to Pink Floyd)

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Morning Will Come (It’s Cooooold Out There)

Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cooooold out there today.

No doubt you recognize that line from the 1993 movie Groundhog Day.

It is cold out there.  And in here.  I live in an old building and my apartment is difficult to heat.  There’s a wall heater but it’s expensive to run and doesn’t warm up the entire apartment.  Ditto for my parabolic heater, although using it is more affordable.  Chances are, where you are it’s much colder than it is here in California.  But things are relative, you know.

I used to live in Nebraska where it can get very cold in the wintertime, especially when that frigid north wind is blowing.  One year the temperature did not rise above zero for over sixty days, and again I was living in a old place.  I was extremely tired of shivering and decided to use some psychology.  I thought if I read about people who were colder than me, I might develop some obliviousness to glacial air.

I read some Jack London stories, and some other books I can’t remember now but the one that worked best was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  Anytime you feel like moaning about cold weather, read about some guy stuck in a work camp in Siberia and you’ll soon be thanking you’re lucky stars that you’re where you’re at.

Reveille was sounded, as always, at 5 a.m.–a hammer pounding on a rail outside camp HQ. The ringing noise came faintly on and off through the windowpanes covered with ice more than an inch thick, and died away fast. It was cold and the warder didn’t feel like going on banging… and he just couldn’t manage to keep warm that night. In his sleep he’d felt very sick and then again a little better.  All the time he dreaded the morning. 

But the morning came, as it always did.

Anyway, how could anyone get warm here, what with the ice piled up on the window and a white cobweb of frost running along the whole barracks where the walls joined the ceiling?

At Ivan Denisovich’s camp, the only days the prisoners do not work outside are the days when the temperature falls below -42F (41C), otherwise…  I’ve never been there but I’m pretty sure that Siberia beats the heck out of Nebraska for cold and misery.

Years later, I found a much better method for alleviating the cold, and the heat.  This method is illustrated in an old Zen parable involving Dongshan, the ninth century Buddhist teacher who founded the Caodong (Soto) school.  I have changed a few of the words, but not its essential meaning:

A novice monk once asked Dongshan, “How can I escape the heat and cold?”

Dongshan said, “Why don’t you go where there is no heat or cold?”

“Where is this place?  Is it far from here?”

Dongshan replied, “It is right here.  When it is hot, become one with the heat; when it is cold, become one with the cold.  This is the place of no heat or cold.”

Becoming one with the present moment can make us feel better about our circumstances, even if the circumstances we find ourselves in at that moment are miserable.   It frees us from our preoccupation with “if only” thinking.  If only it was warmer.  If only the pain would go away.  If only this, if only that…

I see the present moment as something like morning, and I never dread the morning.  Each morning is different, no two are alike, and in the same way, the present moment is ever changing, so we should not try to seize and cling to it as though it was something static.  Neither should we try to escape into it, as we would with a book or movie.  However, if we adjust our minds and embrace the reality of now, understanding that now is all there is and then we cherish it’s preciousness, some relief from cold, heat, and pain is possible.

The present moment is here.  Inside my mind, there is no cold.  I feel no pain from the bursitis and lymphedema in my leg.  Morning will come.

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Dashiell Hammett and the Tao of Beams Falling

Some of you may know the name Dashiell Hammett, one of the originators of the hardboiled school of detective fiction.  I am sure most all of you have heard of his most famous work, The Maltese Falcon.

Sam Spade, a private detective, gets involved with a group of murderous characters in search of a “dingus,” a black bird: The Maltese Falcon, a priceless jewel-encrusted statue, presented to the Knights Templar, along with the island of Malta, by Charles V of Spain, lost for centuries.  With this story, Hammett presented us with one of the greatest plots in mysterydom.

In Chapter 7, Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale of the novel, a story about a man named Flitcraft.   The man lived in Tacoma, and one day while strolling around during his lunch hour, he narrowly missed being hit by a falling beam from a construction site.  If the beam had struck him, it would have killed him.  Spade says this left Flitcraft feeling “like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”  Chaos had entered his comfortable world, and he concluded that life was merely a matter of chance.  “What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life.”  Flitcraft left his job, his wife and children, and he set out to wander aimlessly.

George Cotkin, in Existential America, remarks that “Here we have Hammett’s take on the human condition.  Men and women sleepwalk through existence, clutching at illusions and complacency.  When the natural cracks in an existential moment, the potential for freedom, for a new birth, opens up.”

Cotkin’s explanation fits because the theme of The Maltese Falcon is illusion.  I would go into that more but I would hate to give out any spoilers for those who have not read the book or seen the movie.

Years later when Mrs. Flitcraft hires Spade to find her long lost husband, the detective discovers that he has settled down once again, this time in Spokane, living a similar life to the one he left behind.  He had a new job, new family, and name,  Charles Pierce (a reference to Charles Stanley Pierce, a nineteenth century philosopher who wrote about “random occurrence”).

Spade tells Brigid, “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Flitcraft’s wandering is a reaction to the capriciousness of fate.  But I think Spade is using the story to tell Brigid that regardless of whether or not she is being straight with him, in the end it will not matter, he will adjust, and he won’t play the sap for her.  In this way, Sam Spade, the iconic private detective, is like the Taoist sage who moves through life in boundless freedom, exuding wisdom, secure in the knowledge that beams falling, and not falling, is the natural order of things.

Adjusting is not the same as complacency, or “settling.”  Lao Tzu says that the sage avoids complacency, and yet does not try to make things happen.  The sage allows things to happen by themselves, and “helps the people find their own nature, while refraining from action.”

Life is series of happenings.  When we resist what happens, we open the door to problems.  So then, all this to say, let things flow naturally and go with that flow.

Dashiell Hammett was not the best writer of detective stories, but perhaps the most influential.  His innovation was to take murder out of the drawing room and put it back on the streets where it belonged.  He became about as successful a writer as one could be.  Then, with the years of money and success in Hollywood were behind him, he refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and went to jail.  He was 57 years old and emerged from imprisonment, according to his partner Lillian Hellman, “a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker.”  But he had survived.  He adjusted to beams falling.

By the way, TCM is showing The Maltese Falcon today at 6:15pm EST (3:15 PST).  This superb version directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, is extremely faithful to Hammett’s novel.  I consider it the first film noir and probably the best detective movie ever made.

If you miss this viewing, it might show up on TCM On Demand.

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Inner Peace on Earth

“Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”  How many times have we seen and heard this sentiment . . .

It comes from the New Testament, a scene known as “The Annunciation to the shepherds,”  where angels come to a group of shepherds to tell them of the birth of Jesus.  After their announcement, the angels proclaim glory to God “in the highest” and on earth peace and goodwill.  The phrase we are familiar with differs slightly from the various Biblical translations, and was first popularized for Christmas in carols written during the 18th century, and then on about a billion greeting cards.

For most of us, peace on earth means “world peace,” a state of international friendliness, the end of war.  World peace is not yet at hand, and with each act of violence, whether on the streets of Berlin or in Chicago, this lofty goal seems to slip further and further from our grasp. Some people reasonably question if peace on earth is even possible.

However, in another sense, peace on earth is already here. If you are able to achieve a degree of inner peace then this is peace on earth.  In Peace is Every Step, the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says,

“Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see.  The question is whether or not we are in touch with it.  We don’t have to travel far away to enjoy the blue sky.  We don’t have to leave our city or even our neighborhood to enjoy the eyes of a beautiful child.  Even the air we breathe can be a source of joy.”

We don’t have to wait until Christmas, or any other time, to unwrap peace on earth.  To paraphrase John and Yoko’s anti-war mantra, peace is here . . . if you want it.

“Good will toward men” means compassion.  Buddhism teaches that inner peace is the root of compassion, and if we experience inner peace, we should naturally want to share it with others.

For example, the Dharma-sangiti Sutra reads,

“When one has grasped the fact, that this ‘great essence of inward peace’ for oneself as for one’s neighbors, has as its real meaning the avoidance of pain (such as infinite suffering) and the full attainment of joy in this world, one must cherish enthusiasm through a eagerness for it; even as a man shut up in a burning house longs for cool water.”

So then, I do not wish you peace on earth.  Instead, may you, and me, all of us, have a real eagerness for peace.

“The development of a kind heart (a feeling of closeness for all human beings) does not involve the religiosity we normally associate with conventional religious practice.  It is not only for people who believe in religion, but is for everyone regardless of race, religion, or political affiliation. It is for anyone who considers himself or herself, above all, a member of the human family and who sees things from this larger and longer perspective. This is a powerful feeling that we should develop and apply; instead, we often neglect it . . .”

– Tenzin Gyatsu, 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, A Human Approach to World Peace

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