When I started training in my very first Tai Chi class, the teacher told us that we should consider very carefully if we really want to continue on this path. He warned us that this training would change our whole personality and our whole life. Back in the day I laughed at this, but today, fifteen years later I have to strongly agree with him. It is really not about Tai Chi. Tai Chi is just one example for an internal martial arts style, which means that you will learn to look inside more than you are used to. It’s the same with every spiritual way. Once you start to look inside on a regular basis you will realize that the way you perceive the world around you will start to change.
This has consequences. If the way you perceive reality changes, reality changes also, since you are the one who creates the world you live in. A simple example for this is the energy of Tai Chi. Once you experience the energy flowing through your body yourself, while following the instructions of your teacher, all of the sudden there will be energy flowing through your whole universe. It is the same with meditation. Once you see that a peaceful mind is possible, you will start to experiment with a peaceful world. This process of discoveries will then continue to spread to more and higher functions of your consciousness, if you allow for the training to happen. It will move slowly through your physical world, but more importantly will involve more and more of your mind and therefore the minds around you. There lies a risk in this development which might only dawn on you many years down the line.
The risk is that while you are heavily involved in changing your reality, the rest of the world around you might not do so. After a while this might cause problems for you, especially if you start to put more and more weight on the spiritual side of your practice. The problems arise faster once you start to redefine your values, especially if your society defines these very same values in an entirely different way. Society, for example, loves cheap sensual pleasures in form of multimedia entertainment. Society encourages you to spend a lot of money to satisfy these sensual pleasures which in most cases do not even relate to reality any more. Society also needs you to work hard in jobs heavily disconnected from the same reality, so you can earn the money you need for spending more time in very transitory states of pleasure. Now add to this, that the self-definition of most people in the society around you is deeply rooted within the definition of these shallow values. Most people are deadly afraid to even question these established definitions, so if you plan to get anything back from society and the people living in it, you better learn to embrace these values society defines for you.
Any questioning of these values will distance you from the people around you. You will realize that life has many layers to it and that society is constructed mainly on the most superficial one. It creates what you might want to call >conventional reality<. The further you distance yourself from this reality, the stranger you will appear to the eyes of the people around you. They will have an increasingly hard time to follow you along the ideas you will establish in your mind and soon will feel threatened by the knowledge that is now common to you. The symptoms are very easy. You will not be fun at parties any more. You will be increasingly unwilling to explain yourself and soon people will consider you to be the victim of a brainwashing – which is entirely true. In bad cases you might wander away from the campsite of society far enough to lose your way back home again. This is when you are really in trouble.
This is what my teacher was talking about. You have started to wash your mind and free it from everything that stands in the way of you understanding reality for what it actually is. Part of this process are some harsh truths that people will not follow you on, like the truth that all sensual experience is disappointing by design. It has to be, simply because it is impermanent and uncontrollable. This path is dangerous but it promises that after you put your feet on it and start it with no official entrance or beginning, you might end up walking free through the universe.
Once you are free it should no longer be possible to imprison you anywhere or by anything.
I recently thought a lot about the voices in our heads. Not strictly a Buddhist topic, but bear with me. Now, think of people who hear voices in their head. That is supposedly not normal. If you can hear voices in your head you are considered crazy. So far it is pretty straight forward, right? However, recent studies have shown that the problem is not so much the hearing of voices. Turns out, we all hear voices in our head all the time and we are considered (mostly) normal. Researchers found evidence that the problem are not the voices in a persons head but rather the inability of the person to realize that these voices are indeed his or her own voice.
We, the normal people (allegedly), on the other hand know that the voices in our head are different versions of our own voice.
It’s very strange, but I get that. Just think how freaked out you would be, if one day you suddenly think the voice in your head telling you to slap all you colleagues at the office, belonged to someone else.
Then – being the weirdo Buddhist I am – I thought: Actually, the whole voice thing is a big problem anyway.
The advantage of a strange voice in your head you cannot recognize, telling you to slap everyone at work, is that at least you can blame someone else. What is with all the voices in our head we can hear all day long? Our own voices, we know just to well, who still keep demanding ludicrous stuff – and we do it anyway…
Go there. Hit on her. Buy that. Eat this. Be insulted now. Make this better. You are a looser, Nobody loves you, Mondays suck, more money, better car, etc.
If we have a closer look at all these voices in our head that supposedly speak in the same name – our name – we soon find out that most of them fall in a couple of very distinct categories. Sub-Characters of our personality that we somehow allowed to get personified within our head, leading a not very productive parasitic life deep in our so called character frame. That absolutely freaks me out to no end.
On the other hand, I am a Buddhist and I am supposed to pick stuff apart, so I had a quick survey in my head and spent some time meeting a few of the guys. Let me introduce you:
The Fighter, who immediately suggests that the best solution would be just to punch everyone’s lights out.
The Drinker, who starts whining for a beer at eight in the morning.
The Bad Coach who, no matter what you achieve, keeps screaming that it is not good enough. (He was not even invited, I blame society.)
The Greedy Guy who wants to go buy a new computer/car/watch/phone immediately because only this will make us all happy.
The Drill sergeant who keeps yelling that I should stop annoying people with weird Buddhism and go for a ten mile run.
The Scientist who wants to know everything and understands the world in every detail.
The Monk who meditates all the time and ignores the rest of us.
The Cook who is strongly voting for a pizza to improve the day for everyone.
The Little Boy who is afraid and wants his mommy. (Seriously? Still? I’m almost forty!)
Some of these voices are actually useful. Also, by now it should be pretty obvious why our everyday life is so complicated. We have to make decisions while every single sub-voice-monkey hanging in our character-tree is screaming on the top of his lungs that his solution is the only one worth listening to.
What we have to do is to make an conscious choice at every second of our life regarding who we want to put in charge at this very moment. If we are under physical attack, the fighter is a good choice. However in literally every other situation in life he is the worst choice.
The Drinker has to be told to shut up until everything else for the day was successfully accomplished and even then he will have to discuss things with the Cook first. This is a good first step, however our responsibility goes much further and much deeper.
Not only do we have to make a conscious short term decision who to put in charge at every moment , we also have to make a long term decision which persons are allowed to stay on <Team Me> in the long run.
You have to be very careful here. There are voices who do not allow any other voice next to them, once they are in charge.
The fighter and the drinker are the best examples. They will take over for good first chance they get.
So does the monk. If the monk has the final word, he will end up being the only one left in your head. And he will make sure that after that, no other voice will ever be established in your mind … ever.
Here is the take home message: It is a decision.
You are the one who decides who will stay on the team. How you are supposed to do that? I could go all Buddhist on you, but just for a change let’s go with a famous old Cherokee Legend, that gives a way better answer than I ever could (also Buddhism strongly agrees with the Cherokees on this one):
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life.
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee replied, “Whichever one you feed.”
Let’s talk about the way your brain integrates information for a second. Consider a simple task for your brain. Look at a cup of coffee. So far, so good.
Now, it gets complicated.
What your brain has to do now, is to take all the different sensory input streams from your eyes and nose and hands and turn that into the coherent experience of a good-smelling-cup-of-coffee-in-your-hand. The neurological problem is that all the different parts of this sensory experience are physically located in different parts of the brain. The roundness of the cup. The feeling of the porcelain. The smell of coffee. The heat on your fingers. The color and texture of coffee. The complex geometrical dimensions in which the coffee-cup has to travel accident-free to your mouth, while you read some blog on the internet.
How does the brain take all the pieces from different brain locations and turn them into the >Coffee-Cupness<-Experience? To put it simple: Your brain cells will start to fire in a certain rhythm. While the rest of the brain goes on with its business, everyone who wants to chip in on the >Coffee-Cupness< synchs up to the same frequency. This frequency (called Gamma-Oscillations) will integrate the coffee-cup to one coherent form of conscious experience. The neurons will know that they belong to the same experience, because they fire all in the same rhythm. Those who do not fire in time with the rest, are not part of the >Coffee-Cupness< of things.
Why in the world am I telling you this?
Well, when ten(ish) years ago the famous Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard agreed to paticipate in a scientific study of his higher brain functions using EEG, scientists were eager to find out what happens in his brain, once he enters into a deep state of meditation. What the scientists found out – to their absolute amazement – was that in deep meditation his brain was literally f-l-o-o-d-e-d with these gamma-oscillations.
[Lutz A, Greischar L L, Rawlings N B, Ricard M, Davidson R J (2004): Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice, PNAS, November 16, 2004, vol.101 no.46, p. 16369-16373]
He not only integrated one coffee cup, he integrated the most part of >everything< in his head into on coherent conscious experience. Something that was never even thought to be possible and sure is not part of any science book.
Those of us interested in Buddhism will remember right about now a certain teaching that asks us to experience the >oneness< of all things.Meditation masters who claim to experience oneness with the whole universe might be onto something after all.
This is what meditation can do for you. Meditation will not only change your perception. It will not only change your personality. It will literally change the way your brain processes your experiences. It will turn everything upside down that has been written into neurophysiological textbooks up till now.
Your meditation will make scientists look really, really stupid.