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Mind, Brain And Consciousness

Email from a monk: "Just read how about this article titled, 'Men and women's brains react differently when responding to helping others.' It hadn't occurred to me before that 'in both genders, dopamine encodes values.' Yet 'the mind' described by the Buddha, that is to say the Five Aggregates and their fluid, changing, conditioned structures, is not the brain that these scientists are experimenting with. Any way to talk sensibly about science's findings and traditional wisdom?"

Broadly speaking, I often see thought leaders conflating mind, brain and consciousness. Most of the recent science is infatuated with the brain, asserting that brain creates the mind and consciousness. Some evolutionary scientists posit that mind is the more meta container in which brain and consciousness and all our experiences reside. Religions like Hinduism hold that everything (including mind and brain) is embedded in an eternal consciousness, while Buddhism speaks of emptiness from which all three (mind, brain and consciousness) arise.

At a personal level, this confusion is very understandable, because most people have never cultivated capacities to distinguish a sensation from an emotion from a thought -- let alone the dynamic interplay between the three in each moment.

At a market level, we see some uproar around abuses of human labor -- but before we get human on the physical labor front, we've already ventured onto hijacking brain share (e.g. video games where people die of hunger because they're addicted to clicking) and mind share (eg. Facebook and fake news, not just democracy but even Vegas) and are quickly colonizing the spaces where they intersect (e.g. 23andMe and exploding gene therapy and bio-tech solutions).

Given that landscape, :) a skilful entry into this whole domain (for me) has been -- generosity. :) In particular, compassion. It opens the door, and then leaves open the option for varying degrees of engagement. On paper, generosity sounds very digestable since it's about sympathy and donating money. But people have the option to walk a couple blocks with it (e.g. I want to be happier), go on a much longer journey with empathy (e.g. create pro-social systemic change) or run an ultra-marathon (ie. Buddha's asserting that compassion is our resident state). :) I think Buddha might agree too, considering that he listed that is the very first paramita.

On my plane ride back from Poland, I sat next to a 87-year-old physicist who ran Lawrence Livermore lab (still is there, after 60 years of working there!) and was responsible for building the Hydrogen bomb among other things -- although we had very different world views, we really got along, had a fascinating 3 hour conversation and have agreed to dialogue with each other's communities. :) As we spoke in-depth about Gandhi, :) one question that came up was, "Is compassion an emotion?" For him, the world view was somewhat binary -- inner and outer. The nuanced landscape of the inner was new territory for him, and one can bring in the recent science of compassion into the mix, but even that is only going to go so far. Yet it is an arresting proposition to posit that compassion is not an emotion. Most people have an intuitive sense that it's true, yet their mind doesn't know to hold it. And that small not-knowing gap is a skilful gateway for dialogue, even with people who specialize in nuclear weapons. :)

In the spiritual context, I sense that compassion can also be a great gateway to a much more nuanced conversation between awakening and service. If our purpose is an individualist effort to wake up out our separation, one would design in particular way; if others are seen as a crucial part of that process, that would lead to different patterns of social infrastructure; and if engagement with others is optional and you still care (a la Boddhisattva), that level of compassion is altogether a different organizing principle.

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