notes: the dalai lama at mit
notes from: the dalai lama at mit, edited by anne harrington and arthur zajonc, harvard university press, 2006
[noisy baby threatens hiding villagers w/discovery] “we have found that the subjects who respond emotionally to this moral challenge – those who say they could not risk the baby’s life – show activity in areas of the brain that are associated with emotion. in contrast, the subjects who decide that risking the baby’s life, however horrible, is acceptable because it will likely save more lives show greater activity in the prefrontal cortex. we believe that this brain activity is related to the effort of overcoming emotion. in other words, the same region of the brain that is active in focusing attention is also active in overriding and controlling the emotional response that might otherwise lead to a different kind of behavior.
[sharing only pittance w/partner] “when we have done brain scans of people who are presented with this situation and reject the offer, we find that the areas of their brain related to emotion are activated. other subjects, however, decide that a penny is better than nothing and accept the offer; these people show greater activity in their prefrontal cortex.
“these observations suggest that control and attention are very closely related. control leads to the focusing of attention on sensory events or actions that lead, in turn, to a particular behavior. at the same time, other observations suggest that the two phenomena are different: that, specifically, internal control reflects one source of attention – a voluntary sort – but that other sorts of attention work differently. for example, a sudden stimulus can capture attention without any voluntary desire to attend to that stimulus. this suggests that attention might be considered more generally, then, to be the selective effect of whatever is currently guiding thought. in some instances, that might be a goal or intention that comes from internal control; in others it might be a stimulus, a memory, or a particularly powerful emotion that might not be under internal control. thus there may indeed be a difference between attention in general and internal control.” p32-3
“what are the timing characteristics of human attention? measured in the laboratory and using normal subjects, it is commonly found that a percept needs 50 to 100 milliseconds of stability to command attention. yet discussions with our buddhist colleagues suggest that a highly trained mind may be able to attend to one event per millisecond, which represents a much more compressed time scale.” p33-4
“it seems that the two traditions – western cognitive neuroscience and buddhism – think of the relationship between attention and effort differently. we scientists tend to think of attention as effortful and to believe that it is difficult to maintain a selective or enduring focus of attention over a long period of time. in buddhist practice it appears that, at least after initial training, focusing attention is an effortless and almost relaxing process.” p34
“the foundation of buddhist practice is ethics, without which there can be no viable spiritual practice at all. according to buddhism, this is a universal truth. it is not confined to buddhism. it is not a sectarian issue. it is just the way things are. but it is not simply a dogmatic assertion. an ethical way of life – a way of life that is oriented toward not injuring others and to being of service where one can – is a life based on empathy, compassion, and altruism, and pragmatically, such a life turns out to be a foundation for achieving mental health and balance. achieving such balance requires the cultivation of attentional and emotional balance as well as cognitive balance. cognitive balance consists of clearly seeing what is presented to our senses, without superimposing things that are not there.” p39
“indian contemplatives even before the time of the buddha were concerned with the nature and potential of attention, and one of their first discoveries was that normal, untrained attention is impaired.” p40
“attention training is a crucial element in the buddhist meditative cultivation of the mind. such attention training has specific goals, of which the first is relaxation. one proceeds in this practice with a sense of ease; it must not be intensely, ambitiously bound up with hopes and desires. one can certainly exert too much effort. on the basis of relaxation. one cultivates stability, involving coherence and continuity of attention to one’s chosen object. but it is not enough for attention to be merely stable. it must also be imbued with a sense of clarity, vividness, and high resolution.” p41
“in the development of attention skills, the employment of mindfulness is not enough. if you are attending to something mindfully, how do you know whether your mind has unconsciously ‘exploded’ out into sensory distractions or wandering thoughts, or ‘imploded’ into laxity, dullness, or sleepiness? to recognize such attentional imbalances as soon as they arise, you must develop and apply a kind of meta-attention (samprajanya), which has the function of monitoring the quality of attention. so mindfulness and meta-attention are the two faculties to be developed int he cultivation of attentional stability and vividness.
“in the buddhist understanding, attention in a single moment is said to be highly selective. whether it is voluntary or involuntary, a single moment of attention is focused on only one of the five physical fields of sensory perception or on the field of mental phenomena, which is considered the sixth domain of immediate experience.” p41-2
“five mental factors of ascertainment, which include aspiration, confidence or trust, mindfulness, single-pointedness, and intelligence…if there were little or no single-pointed stability in our normal cognitive experience, t hen we would never be able to apply intelligence. one of the five omnipresent mental factors is known as sempa, which could be translated as ‘will.’ this is different from aspiration in our system. we are talking here about two different classes of mental factors: five omnipresent factors and five factors of ascertainment. aspiration is an omnipresent factor; will (sempa) is the other type. but how do you define will, or sempa, as opposed to attention? ” p49-50
“at the lowest level we have the sensor characteristics of the stimulus. then, as you move up thru different levels, you eventually reach the meaning. but there is some suggestion that, in fact, conscious experience goes directly to the meaning – that we access the highest, conscious level faster than the low levels, and it takes more effort to perceive the sensory properties unchanged by all the interpretations that we spontaneously make.” p50
“in patients with brain damage who are no longer able to attend to something or to interpret it, we can show that the information has nevertheless gotten into their head somewhere.” p50
“the mapping of the perceptual process is understood in terms of the eye and light coming together. the two form in what buddhist psychology is called eye consciousness. those three together (eye, light, and eye consciousness) then condition feeling thru an initial percept of attractive, unattractive, or neutral feeling. then the sanna, or designation, occurs. prior to naming, the brain says, ‘oh, this is a color, and it’s of this particular intensity.” the naming or thought comes in subsequent to that. given refined training, the attention can be sustained at that contact level.” p51
“the buddhist position is that a single millisecond of cognition almost invariably does not ascertain anything by itself. it is too brief. but in a sequence of these pulses of cognition, if they are focusing on the same object with a high degree of homogeneity, a temporal binding process takes place and there is a cumulative effect. and after a multitude of these milliseconds, whether ten or forty or a hundred, then you ascertain the object you are attending to.
“i would offer a hypotheses, that for this type of attentional training, as you enhance the clarity of attention, which i understand to mean increasing the density of these ascertaining clusters of consciousness, you would be able to pick up things of shorter duration and also pick up more detail in a single moment. in other words, vividness corresponds in part to the degree of temporal resolution, the ability to ascertain very brief stimuli ” p57
“attention skills might be developed thru repetitious activity and fine-tuning of focus in a task such as playing video games, which may be why they increase skills in certain academic areas. but the element of habituation has another side. the way films are made, the average clip is very, very brief. just a few seconds long. what that means is one gets bored more easily. if you need a high level of rapidly changing stimuli to keep your attention, then as soon as things drop below that level, you are bored. you want to do something new, something different. so there are two contrasting elements involved in that habituation. teenagers, or even adults, might be harmed by repetitious, high-intensity activity if it leads to a need for so much stimulus coming in just to avoid feeling depressed or restless.
“one purpose of learning to develop attention with uninteresting objects like the breath is to establish that quality of attention and ease with the present moment with an absolute minimum of stimuli, so that you can feel at home in yourself with very little going on. teenagers need to be playing a video game and listening to the stereo and checking their e-mail simultaneously, and then they feel good! that takes a lot of hardware to feel at home in life.” p60
“in buddhist philosophy, one is not considered sane until one is fully enlightened.” p63
“we might think this floor is beautiful because we perceive it as such. but very quickly we tend to believe that it is intrinsically beautiful, or ugly. we believe that sounds are intrinsically pleasant or unpleasant, and so, similarly, in the cases of taste, touch, and all our sensory experiences. in fact, there is a deeply interdependent process between outer phenomena and our mind. we perceive things and assign values to them; we try to possess things or discard them based on those judgments; and we start to believe that the characteristics we impute to objects actually belong to the objects. in this way, we experience a much stronger compulsion to attract or repulse them.
“the problem is that our experiences of craving or repulsion are at odds with reality. things are not intrinsically beautiful or pleasant. a rose might be beautiful to our eyes, but its ‘beauty’ does not mean much to a whale or a bat. because our perception is at odds with reality, we end up with a sense of frustration, torment, inner conflict, and suffering. likewise for the perceiver’s experience of him-or herself. we know that our body changes from that of a baby to that of an adult to that of an elderly person. we know, too, that in our experience every moment brings something new. yet we can’t help but think that in this stream of constant transformation there is a core, the i, which defines us, which is really us, and which continues in a unitary way thruout this process. this is our instinctive belief. once we have this core identification with an i, obviously we want to protect it and please it. feelings of fear, rejection, or attraction are connected with the strong sense of self-importance that comes from believing in this i. the same sense of self-importance also provides a target to suffering. thru identification with the core i, we become very vulnerable to all kinds of emotional afflictions: intense craving, hatred, pride, contempt, and jealousy. jealousy, for instance, could not exist without a sense of self-importance as its cause.
“in buddhist thinking, such experiences are considered deluded perceptions, because in such perceptions we are solidifying both the inner reality of the stream of consciousness (which is constantly changing) and the flow of ever-changing phenomena outside. imputing or superimposing our judgments, likes, and dislikes onto phenomena to an excessive extent causes us to place tremendous importance on the self and in this way actually makes us function in a way that causes torment and suffering. the whole idea of the buddhist path is to acknowledge and recognize that suffering and its causes for what they are. this is the answer to the question of what’s wrong with our way of perceiving the phenomenal world: it’s just wrong in the sense that it ends up in suffering and torment. that torment in turn prevents us from being open to others and expressing altruism.” p70-71
“in a way, doing this kind of task may seem somewhat artificial and to be taking us even further away from reality. but in fact we are trying to transform our perception of the world from a delusional perception in to one that constantly reminds us of the basic quality of pure awareness when it is free from obscuring emotions.” p73
“they’re not trying to visualize something solid, because in fact that’s what they want to avoid. so they try instead to see the image more as if it were made of light, as if it were a very, very clear rainbow. it is not made of flesh and blood or wood or stone. it is also, however, not inert as a rainbow is. and it has the qualities of wisdom and compassion, so it acts to remind and inspire contemplatives to let those inner qualities flourish within their mind.” p76
“freedom from torments means inner peace, which is quite different form the effort to find happiness in external phenomena and the fleeting pleasures and sensations they produce. that sense of inner peace, in turn, naturally brings much more openness to the world and other sentient beings. lack of fear, lack of self-importance or self-identity naturally flourish, along with greater altruism, compassion, and loving kindness, because the barriers between self and other have been removed.” p77-8
“there is an understanding in the contemplative tradition that the mental imagery that everybody experiences during thought (the technical term is ‘to generate an image’) is meaning-based imagery. it may not necessarily be an image in the sense of a picture but rather some form of concept or construct. one can develop one’s capacity to maintain that image and refine it. this is done thru meditative practice. thru constant training and familiarity with the image that you conceptualize, you can reach a very high level of clarity, such that the content of that thought is referred to as a form, almost like a visible form. unlike ordinary material objects that are characterized by shape and color and so on, the content of that thought is not a material object, but it is nevertheless referred to as a mental object that has a form. it is considered a constructed form. there are parallels recognized between this experience of very vivid, clear imagery and the dream state. there is also an understanding that one can further develop one’s meditative capacity to a very high level, where that form will take on a qualitatively different nature. for example, if the object of the meditation is a fire, the generated form can burn and one can use it like a real fire.
“alan wallace: this refers to the use of kasinas in the pali tradition. by taking the conceptual quintessence of an element such as fire – it could be another element as well – and generating it meditatively, you can actually project it into the sensory world.
“dalai lama: there is a complex understanding of the various levels to which imagery can be trained. the types of practices that matthieu described are part of a vajrayana practice referred to as ‘generation stage.'” p95
“there are a wide variety of techniques for stabilizing and refining the attention. some entail a mental image, but another example is focusing on the breath. ” p100
“a way to use mental imagery to enhance one’s positive emotions is with the meditation we call ‘the exchange of happiness and suffering.’ you use your breathing , which is the most natural function we have. when you breathe in, you imagine that you are gathering all the suffering and pain of all sentient beings like a dark cloud. you visualize that you are drawing it in like a cloud of smoke and absorbing it into your heart, which you visualize as a bright mass of white light. as the black cloud completely dissolves into that light, you visualize that all the sufferings of sentient beings are being dissolved. then, as you breathe out, you breathe all your loving kindness, compassion, and whatever happiness you might have to all sentient beings. it’s not like you cut a piece of cake and distribute it; rather, every sentient being gets it whole. you do this again and again, riding on the breath, doing it just as naturally as you breathe in and out. it’ is a visualization that completely transforms your mind in terms of the concepts of happiness, suffering, and generating compassion. because it’s linked with the breath, it really helps transform your mind toward compassion.” p108-9
“the reality simulation principle, which is based on the idea that so much neural real estate is shared by imagery and perception. it says that most effects that can occur by interacting with an object in the world can be mimicked by interacting with objects and mental images. ” p109
“the training of attention is not done in total isolation, as if it were some utterly independent function of the mind. the training of attention takes place along with, and is deeply enmeshed with, training in developing greater emotional balance: less anger; less emotional oscillation between craving and hostility, excessive hope and fear, elation and depression. in this overall balancing of the mind there is attentional balance, emotional balance, and also cognitive balance. the training in what i call cognitive balance – honing mindfulness and clarity of attention so that you are seeing accurately what is there – is really a prerequisite for the more advanced training in visualization in the generation stage of vajrayana practice.” p112
“i would be interested to see if there is any difference that one can detect between higher cognitive states of afflictions. for example, from the buddhist point of view an extreme grasping at self-centeredness or reification of self is thought to be a highly cognitive affliction. it is not an impulsive or reactive emotion like anger or hostility, but grasping too much at the existence of self as core is seen as a cognitive affliction. i wonder whether one could detect any changes in brain activity between that and the directly opposite state of mind, which is believing in the absence of such an intrinsically real self.” p113
“the sense of control that this cognitive core of the person contains is largely mistaken. there is really nobody in charge of the physical or mental processes, which arise according to their own causes and conditions, not following our whims. the mind is ruled not by a central unit but by competing factors whose strength varies according to circumstances.
“thus, asacga posits as many as eight types of consciousness.” p127
“the dalai lama has this to say: ‘the systematic training of the mind, the cultivation of happiness, the genuine inner transformation by deliberately selecting and focusing on positive mental states and challenging negative mental states, is possible because of the very structure and function of the brain. but the wiring in our brains is not static, not irrevocably fixed. our brains are also adaptable.’ ” p150
“if you look more precisely and carefully at the way emotion arises, all emotions, whether positive or afflictive, arise first from basic awareness, which is like a mirror that is not intrinsically tainted with negativity or obscuration. in addition, any emotion is like a musical note; it has several harmonics. before it becomes afflictive, anger, for instance, has a quality of ‘clarity’ or ‘brilliance.’ when we get angry, our senses are mobilized and our mind becomes sharp.
“if we were able to simply recognize that clarity at the very moment it arose but not let it evolve in the chain reaction of multiplying thoughts that give rise to hostility, and especially to the strong distinction between self and others that creates the wish to harm, destroy, or reject, then it would not necessarily have a destructive aspect. of course we are talking of very fine moments, and being able to remain in the luminous aspect of anger, without letting it evolve into an afflictive state of mind, requires great skill. yet it is possible. likewise with attachment, there is a moment before the blissful quality of desire turns to craving. this is very subtle, but the point is, from a buddhist perspective that the fundamental nature of mind is not intrinsically negative. mental afflictions and toxins are not part of the basic, luminous aspect of mind. they are a deviation that arises hen thoughts ‘chain’ one after the other and become delusion.” p153
“if one had leisure to inspect the fifty-one mental factors with care, one wold note something conspicuous for its absence. fear is not among the six primary or the twenty secondary mental afflictions. fear is not a mental affliction. fear may be virtuous, ethically neutral, or nonvirtuous. in fact, there are certain meditative practices in which you cultivate a sense of fear that is based on reality in order to overcome that fear by taking the necessary steps to address it.” p158
“in the modern world we often think that the best freedom would be to do exactly what comes to one’s mind. but in that case, we would simply be the slave of every single thought that arises in our mind. we would be just like grass on a mountain top that sways whichever way the wind blows. it would be like a sailor saying that freedom means letting his boat drift wherever the currents take her. we think of self-control as something that limits freedom, but in fact it’s just the opposite.” p159
“we are no longer free the instant that fear gives birth to a second and third thought of fear – when we are completely paralyzed by mental constructs of fear. at this point, fear becomes such a disturbing mental factor that we completely lose our inner peace. the anxiety born from this is not necessary at all and not useful; we have become the slave of the all-pervading fear that is imposing on our freedom.
“the whole point of the training is to try to act on the moment when that chain reaction begins. there are many ways to do so. you can use antidotes. when the thought of anger arises, at that same moment you try to introduce a thought of patience, or compassion, or loving-kindness, because you can’t have both the wish to harm and the wish to love at the same moment, toward the same object.” p159
“another method is to attack the chaining itself. when a thought arises, instead of powerlessly letting it multiply, just look at it and ask what is happening. why should it multiply like that? in what way is it imposing to me? is it like a weapon in someone’s hand? is it like a stone, or a fire in my chest? look at it and experience the truth in front of you. when you look at it instead of letting it multiply, it just vanishes of its own accord, like the morning frost under the rising sun. the problem is simply that we are not mindful; we are not vigilant in the moment that a thought arises. we are not even aware of it. of course it starts to multiply, and then it’s too late.” 160
“it’s very clear to psychologists that pleasures are transitory. what is interesting is that ordinary people have so little insight into the sources of their own well-being and happiness. both traditions agree on that. there isn’t a lot of mystery about why westerners believe that transitory pleasures should last. we live in a consumer society. it’s meant to maximize our consumption, not our happiness. we want to maximize our happiness and the society wants to maximize our consumption, and so we are taught that our consumption will bring us happiness. it turns out to be a lie, but we die soon enough and then a whole new generation gets to believe it.” p164
“the western tradition has also apparently developed technologies recently for training the mind in new, powerful ways. i refer specifically to teh discussions of video games, which seem to have effects on attention. at the same time, video games seem to give us only part of what we would ideally want from a mind-training technology. the video-game training seems to fail to develop relaxation, meta-awareness, mindfulness, and the ability to multitask calmly.” p184-5
“there is another very bold claim made in buddhism: that the pursuit of knowledge, if it is to go very, very far, is inextricably related to the pursuit of virtue, ad the pursuit of virtue is inextricably related to the pursuit of happiness. when you come to know reality as it is, this experiential insight yields a state of profound and enduring well-being. when you come to know reality as it is, this also spontaneously yields virtues. this is all entangled together. living a virtuous life will make you more prone to knowing reality as it is, and it will also give rise to greater happiness. each of these feeds into the others. the pursuit of virtue, including compassion, the pursuit of knowing reality as it is, and the pursuit of genuine happiness are completely integrated.” p206
“if we grasp as something as being permanent tho it is not – it is transitory, changing every moment – when we lost it, we are going to suffer. we innately equate things that we believe are permanent with reality. in teh same way, we believe that things have intrinsic properties. we believe that something is 100 percent beautiful in itself and therefore we need to get it; we strive for it. we have an improper perception of the reality of interdependent phenomena, which are mainly relations between the subject and the object. all phenomena are just a stream of constant transformation. if we don’t see it like that, then we are at odds with reality. an improper perception of this nature of the phenomenal world will lead to a wrong perception of the phenomenal world in terms of desire and rejection, adn will end up in a sense of frustration and suffering.” p207
“the way we perceive the world has a connection with the way we behave, the way we experience happiness and suffering, and the way we bring it to others.” p207