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Our Ordinary Sense of Self. Different Aspects of “No Self” During States of Absorption and Kensho

                                 James H. Austin, M.D.

       The end of the conceit “I am” –-- that is the truly greatest happiness of all.
                                                                                                                  Udana 2:11
                                                                                                                  Pali Canon

James H. Austin 博士是世界著名神经心理学专家,美国密苏里大学健康中心神经学教授,美国科罗拉多大学健康中心名誉教授。Austin博士多年来致力于研究东方禅宗的脑机 制与心理过程,其代表性著作有 Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness (MIT press, 1998)、Zen-Brain Reflections: Reviewing Recent Developments in Meditation and States of Consciousness (MIT Press, 2006) 以及Zen-Brain: Selfless Insight (MIT Press, 2008) 等。

Zen meditators train attention both during sitting and daily life practice. How else can we conceptualize the process of long-range Zen meditative training? One suggestion is that it involves a deconditioning, the kind that whittles away old maladaptive aspects of the egocentric self. Only then, during decades of gradually re-training our pre-attentive mode of attention, of mindful introspection, of awakenings both gradual and sudden, can a less self-centered person emerge. This individual, in the course of  a long process of  “re-programming” can become increasingly aware, simplified, stable, compassionate and humane.(1)

From this basic perspective of deconditioning, each individual self begins as an active, tangible (if transient) entity. Figure 1 illustrates the ordinary mental field of this individual self. [Figure 1 Here]

Infants and children become conditioned all too soon to acquire their array of personal assets and liabilities. Among the liabilities developed are three dysfunctions of selfhood. Reduced to simplified, operational terms, these liabilities are referable to our constructs of “I, Me, and Mine.” Figure 2 illustrates how this triad of self occupies the axial center, looking out toward the outer world of the environment. [Figure 2 Here]

The liabilities of the assertive sovereign I-self are manifested in overt acts of arrogance and aggression. Those of the fearful, vulnerable Me-self generate inner turmoil, feelings of being battered by life and besieged by anxieties. The Me is an object, the target of life’s vicissitudes.

The dysfunctions of the intrusive Mine are more subtle. They are observable in the ways children and adults cling to possessions, covet material goods, and cherish their own fixed opinions. This pejorative triad, the “ABCs of our I-Me-Mine,” causes suffering not only during childhood, but at every age. It becomes the basis for adult longings and loathings, and for many unfruitful, overconditioned, egocentric aspects of our personalities.

Recent research suggests that most aspects of our multifaceted self are attributable to defined networks that blend their interactions in a variety of subtle functions.(2)(3) As one oversimplification, much of the higher levels of our bodily self-image --- our soma --- is normally represented along posterior pathways that lead up toward the superior parietal region.

Yet this major sensory supply into the parietal lobe must first pass through deeper thalamic circuits. In this respect, the thalamus serves as a “bottleneck.” Notably, its GABA-containing reticular nucleus acts as a “shield.” This inhibitory function becomes important when we ask: How can one’s sensate, physical self vanish during some of the superficial states called the absorptions? Figure 3 illustrates the nature of the mental field during internal absorption when this ordinary sense of a somatic self drops out of awareness. [Figure 3 Here]

However, our ordinary psychic attributes --- those of our psyche --- are more complex. Although their functions build on the scaffolding of this basic physical axis, the higher-level expressions of our psyche are more referable to networks linking other regions. These associations are elaborated on during interactions that link the cortex of the frontal and temporal lobes, and join in consultation with other parietal, thalamic, limbic and paralimbic systems.

Which “ordinary” psychological functions are included within this second, psychic, category? They represent higher-level integrations of functions that are at once cognitive, emotional, and instinctual.

Rarely, some very special experiences arise from unusual changes within our psyche. These novel states expand pre-attentive and intuitive functions in extraordinary ways. Their underlying deconditionings of the self unveil profound, direct insights into the way reality is experienced. The extraordinary insightful states of kensho-satori and Being exemplify such rare moments of experiential realization. Figure 4 illustrates the mental field of insight-wisdom during kensho-satori. Please note how substantially this more advanced state of “awakening” differs from the earlier state of internal absorption. Moreover, absorptions are also lacking in the potential to transform traits of character. [Figure 4 Here]

Locked within our ordinary egocentric consciousness, is it intellectually possible to appreciate the nature of any state so devoid of its usual, dominating internal sense of self? No. Why not? Because we’ve always inhabited a dual world of our own making, both consciously and subconsciously. We do have a perspective on that “other” outside world at large, but it arises only from the self trapped inside this habitual self/other dichotomy.

However, let’s suppose that this usual subjective sense of an inside, egocentric self were to vanish. Does such a moment of “no-self” imply that consciousness is lost? No. What does happen, as the result of this shift? The residual witnessing awareness now opens up to experience --- with utmost clarity and depth of meaning --- the whole Other covert aspect of this former duality. The technical term for such non-subjective perception is allocentric awareness (allo implies other; ego implies self).

How does this no-self, allocentric field of other-centered perception enter experience? In the extraordinary state of kensho-satori, it is directly experienced as “suchness.” Suchness is the realization that “all things are as THEY REALLY ARE.” Figure 5 illustrates how, inside the state of kensho-satori, the usual sense of two parallel self/other universes gives way to yield the impression of “Oneness.” [Figure 5 Here]

After kensho, the stage is set for the individual to enter into a more authentic engagement with the vicissitudes of daily life. This becomes an ongoing process of self-analysis. It is a practice that probes much more objectively than before. This daily life practice ripens incrementally, as the result of more refined degrees of clear mindful awareness, of introspection, and of a succession of little insights.

On this long-term path of mindful, introspective meditative training, the once-tall arrogant I of the earlier problem self is gradually transformed. In what direction? Toward that of a more actualized, lower-case i. The former besieged Me of the anxious self can now become a more buoyant me. Slowly, the clutching Mine of the old pejorative self can also evolve. How? Into a more compassionate mine. In the total transformation toward a lower profile i-me-mine, egocentricity can yield to allocentricity, a person who cares for others. Allo- is no esoteric prefix. A recently introduced term, allophilia, refers to the openness to experience other human beings with the same positive consideration that one usually extends toward oneself.(4)

Recent neuroimaging and other brain research clarifies the functional anatomy of networks that correlate with our ordinary sense of self/other dualities. These newer findings permit novel perspectives with which to interpret the mechanisms underlying our deeper levels of extraordinary perceptual experience. These rare states, having realized selfless insight-wisdom, have the potential to transform one’s traits and be actualized in one’s ongoing attitudes and behavior.(5)

*    *    *


1. J. Austin. Zen and the Brain. Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1998.

2. Austin, J. (2000) ‘Consciousness evolves when the self dissolves’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 7, 11-12, 209-230.

3. J. Austin, Zen-Brain Reflections. Reviewing Recent Developments in Meditation and States of Consciousness, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2006.

4.Positive prejudice. Really loving your neighbor. The Economist 2007. March 17; 66.

5. J. Austin, Zen-Brain: Selfless Insight, Cambridge, MA. MIT Press, 2008.

Figure Captions

Figure 1 – The Ordinary Mental Field.

Stimuli enter from the outside world and from internal proprioceptive events. The blend contributes to our notions that we continue to exist as a central thinking and feeling self.

Figure 2 – The Ordinary Self/Other World of the I-Me-Mine.

Our I-Me-Mine is a tightly knit triad. Its complex attributes relate our sensate physical body to our thoughts and emotions. Its I is sovereign. Its Me is a vulnerable target. Its Mine is all possessive. Note how those small, curved arrows of the Mine not only thrust out to clutch at whatever we try to possess in the outer world. They also curve back to attach themselves to our own fixed opinions and other internally biased notions of selfhood.

Figure 3 – The Mental Field of Internal Absorption with Sensate Loss.

A major absorption dissolves the bodily self. It effaces the ordinary physical boundaries of the I-Me-Mine. What remains? A witnessed, silent, heightened, clear, ambient awareness. The sensory blockade shuts off not only the stimuli from the outer world. It also shuts off proprioceptive information relayed up from the head and body. Most emotions do not register aside from a pervasive enchantment and bliss.

Figure 4 – The Mental Field of Insight-Wisdom (Kensho-Satori).

The brain’s intuitive capacities approach their peak. Subjectivity dissolves. A totally unifying objective vision comprehends the whole outside world. The impression is: All things as they REALLY are; immanent, eternal perfection. Fear vanishes because the entire I-Me-Mine drops out at every affective level. (Dashed lines serve only to suggest the location of former boundaries.)

Figure 5 – Parallel Universes.

At the top of this figure, our usual self/other mode is shown. It constructs two separate parallel universes. On the left side of this duality is our own larger, self-centered universe. We’ve always given it the higher priority. Off to the right lies the rest of the world “outside” us. Farther down, however, in a supraordinate state of consciousness, egocentricity vanishes. The ordinary world (Samsara) and the noumenal world (“nirvana”) are now perceived as unified within an impression of “Oneness.” At the bottom, after kensho, the former over-inflated self (on the left) has become “thinner.” Larger “pores” exist in its formerly rigid boundary. They are intended to suggest that this newly awakened self enters into a fresh appreciation of the outside world, and can engage it actively on terms that are now much more open, direct, and inclusive.

                                                       James H. Austin, MD

James H. Austin is Clinical Professor of Neurology, University of Missouri Health Science Center, and Emeritus Professor of Neurology, University of Colorado Health Science Center. Austin is the author of his well known book Zen and the Brain, which aims to establish links between the neurological workings of the human brain and meditation. Austin has recently written a sequel to it, Zen-Brain Reflections, published in February, 2006.

Austin is also a practicing Zen Buddhist. After a number of years of Zen meditation, Austin spontaneously experienced what Zen practice calls "enlightenment" on a subway platform in London. The chief characteristic of his experience seems to be a loss of the sense of "self" which is central to human identity, and a corresponding feeling of union with the outer world. Austin speculates as to what might be going on in the brain when the "self" module goes offline, and also discusses the seeing timelessness of the experience in the context of the brain's internal clock mechanisms. In Austin's own words[1],

It strikes unexpectedly at 9 am on the surface platform of the London subway system. (Due to a mistake)...I wind up at a station where I have never been before....The view is the dingy interior of the station, some grimy buildings, a bit of open sky. Instantly the entire view acquires three qualities: Absolute Reality, Intrinsic Rightness, Ultimate Reflection. With no transition, it is all complete....Yes, there is the paradox of this extraordinary viewing. But there is no viewer. The scene is utterly empty, stripped of every last extension of an I-Me-Mine (his name for ego-self). Vanished in one split second is the familiar sensation that this person is viewing a city scene. The new viewing proceeds impersonally, not pausing to register the paradox that there is no human subject "doing" it. Three insights penetrate the experient, each conveying Total Understanding at depths far beyond simple knowledge: This is the eternal state of affairs. There is nothing more to do. There is nothing whatever to fear.

Austin claims that the experience represented "objective reality" in that his subjective self did not exist to form biased interpretations. Uncompromisingly scientific, Austin notes that how little Zen Buddhism and scientific rigor conflict.

James H. Austin, Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness.

    Zen and the Brain is a groundbreaking work that bridges the gap between the fields of religion and science.

    A great deal has been written by medical doctors on the functioning of the brain/ and by mediators on the effects of meditation on the human personality. Medical researchers/ who have attempted to bridge this gap through scientific studies on the efficacy of meditation in bringing about physiological and mental changes in the human personality, have been downright skeptical concerning meditation's positive efficacy. However, serious meditators have enthusiastically cited the history of the Eastern and Western meditation tradition as a justification for their claims. One of the major hurdles in this fascinating area of research has been the fact that very few medical researchers have had any personal experience with meditation while the vast majority of meditators have had no training in the neurology of the brain.

    James Austin is among a rare breed of scholars who/ as a trained neurologist, is thoroughly knowledgeable about the anatomy, physiology, and chemistry of the brain, and as a Zen practitioner he is fully familiar with the meditative experience. In his book Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Con­sciousness, Austin makes a bold attempt at bringing together these two diverse dis­ciplines, the twain that are not supposed to meet. Austin attempts to accomplish two major tasks in the eight parts of his book: (1) to describe in a clear fashion the often confused topic of Zen and its close links to the brain, and (2) to venture into the discussion of his personal encounters with the Zen masters, zazen training, and the meditative experience.

    Part 1, "Starting to Point toward Zen," offers a brief outline of the history of Zen and Zen's relationship to the brain, mysticism, religion, schizophrenia, narcissism/ and depersonalization. Part 1, "Meditating," presents the physiological mechanisms of meditation including Zen meditative techniques and skills/ zazen. kōans, physio­logical changes during meditation, the effects of sensorimotor deprivation, brain waves, and the meditative approach to the dissolution of the self. Part 3, "Neurol­ogy," describes the most recent research on the nature of the brain. Here Austin devotes more than 150 pages to the exploration of the various lobes, higher func­tions, remembrances, attention, memories/ and biological theories about the causes of mystical experiences.

    Part 4, "Exploring States of Consciousness/' delves into problems associated with the word "mind," and describes in detail the ordinary and extraordinary states of consciousness, sleep, dreams, conditioning, emotions, pain, pleasure, and the re­lationship of the two hemispheres of the brain. Parts 5, 6, and 7, respectively titled

"Quickening/' "The Absorptions," and "The Awakenings," investigate alternate states of consciousness and "how, when and where they arise in the depth of the brain." Discussion centers on the side effects of meditation, phantom limbs, the roots of laughter, the effects of psychedelic drugs, near-death experiences, the semantics of samādhi, the construction and dissolution of time, the death of fear, emptiness, absorption, and insight-wisdom.

    Part 8, "Being and Beyond: To the Stage of Ongoing Enlightenment," explores the permanent stages of enlightenment. Here Austin offers a clear analysis of the nature of the ultimate being, the power of silence, compassion, the aging of the brain, and the celebration of nature. Austin concludes by describing the still-evolving brain in the still-evolving societies and forecasts the positive social consequences of the advanced stages of ongoing enlightenment.

    Zen and the Brain is a groundbreaking work that bridges the gap between the fields of religion and science. The presentation of the typography of the brain here is rigorous and comprehensive, and Austin's discussion of the intimate connection between meditation and the states of consciousness is clear and inviting. Austin's work belongs to a unique class of books that demand a special kind of training and discipline from the author- Austin understands this challenge and states: "in the future, whoever writes such a book should be a fully enlightened Japanese master, fluent in English; a person who has both a doctorate degree in neurophysiology, hands-on experience in psychophysiological research, years of intercultural teaching experience; and a physician whose training in both neurology and psychiatry has been doubly certified."

    Zen and the Brain will appeal to both undergraduate and graduate students as well as to scholars in the areas of comparative philosophy, religion, and science. The book's attraction is due to its being a rare kind of "clinical autobiography," which started as an excursion into the mysterious world of Zen but changed into the ac­count of a Western-educated neurologist who became the subject of his own inves­tigation. The book is long, running to 844 pages, but each page is clearly written and fully engages the reader with an exposition that is both simple and profound. Once you start reading it, you will find it hard to put down.

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