Buddhist Cartography: You Are Here.

I was in Stanley Park looking at the park map when my friend asked, “If we are here, then who are these people by the restrooms?”

Site maps often show two figures to indicate restroom facilities while using a marker of some sort to tell us where we are. As these maps emulate the workings of the human brain it should come as no surprise to learn that the brain also has an inner marker that says, “You are here.” What might come as a surprise is that, as with the site map, there isn’t actually any “you” there at the tip of the marker.

Just as the brain creates inner maps of the outer world, so does it create a map of a self that relates to the world. And just as the maps of the outer world are not the actual world, nor is the map of self your actual Self.

Identifying with the map of self has us believing we are such traits as “unreliable,” “worthless” or “bad” when, in fact, our true nature is clear; just as the water of a lake is clear and only reflects the blue of the sky or the green of the forest.

Most of us have been reading our inner maps for so long that we have forgotten our true nature.   Mindfulness and meditation are two practices that train us to turn our attention away from these maps so we may focus, first, on the outer world and, then, our true nature.

In mindfulness we focus our attention on whatever task we are doing at the moment. This turns our attention outward and away from our inner maps. As we progress in this outer focus we become more aware of the inner maps that our brains have superimposed on the world. We begin to see the difference between what “is” going on in the world as opposed to what we “think” is going on.

As part of my practice, I see my inner maps as constructs of the brain that exist only in the brain. I find this a great help in seeing the unreality of thought, as whatever exists in the brain alone can have no real existence in the outer world. This has helped dispel many fears, false beliefs and delusions; and is quite consistent with Tibetan Buddhism where the essential point is to see the world is an illusion.

In meditation the awareness is once again focused away from the inner maps, but this time it is turned back upon itself, i.e., one’s clear, true nature.

Here words become misleading. There is no actual “back” or “upon” in any sense that implies an objective self looking outward at the world. To think there is some person, mind or soul being aware of itself merely replaces one map of self with another, subtler one.

The ultimate form of meditation is Dogen’s shikantaza where one just sits as awareness itself. However, before most of us can “just sit” we need to disengage from our inner maps.   We need to put our maps of self and the world aside.

As I mentioned above, I have found it helpful to see my inner maps as fabrications of the brain. This applies not only to the maps I superimposed over the physical world but to my map of self, as well.

The inner map I have of myself is purely a construct of this brain and body. I did not have this map before incarnating into this body and, upon taking a new form, any new map of self will be just as illusory and impermanent as the one I use now.

Ultimately, self is nothing more than a marker on a map that says, “You are here.”   The only truth of that marker is that it points to emptiness, which is your true nature and your real Self.

Buddhist Cartography: Trauma Maps

In the days of the wooden mast sailing ships the most valued of secrets was the exploration map of the oceans and the world. On these maps the fortunes of nations were made or lost.

So important were these maps that traders and kings would hide them in sealed rooms while simultaneously displaying outdated ones for their competitors to see. They would also display maps with missing details or showed land were none existed in an attempt to mislead their enemies.

People suffering from trauma also use inner maps with holes where details should be and land where none exist. The holes are filled with hurt, anger, fear and shame. The land is the rationalizations and lies told to protect the psyche from the trauma, a false self, if you will, whose exposure would be as devastating to the traumatized as the theft of a map would have been to the fortunes of the old nations.

I recently had occasion to hear of a classic trauma map. A woman had offered her name as a reference for a man seeking employment. When the man actually gave her name she became unreasonably agitated to the extent that she sabotaged the man’s effort with the employer.

Following her trauma map, the woman was willing to be a reference because she felt it necessary to be helpful. However, lending her name meant she was bringing attention to herself; something a trauma map is designed to avoid. Her agitation and subsequent sabotage were the results of her trying to protect her core self from being known.

On another occasion a victim of rape told me that she avoided being assaulted again by going down dark alleys at one or two in the morning whenever she had to do some grocery shopping. As in the first story, this woman’s trauma map was drawn with the aim of self-protection, and self-protection meant not being seen.

Trauma maps are inner, secondary maps that are drawn with the pen of denial. They are drawn with the aim of hiding one’s core nature, which is seen as the source of one’s vulnerability. The essential feature of the map is, “Show your self in any way, and you die.” Concomitant with this denial is the creation of a false self that is drawn to deflect attention away from the core self.

Maps drawn from trauma may work well in traumatic situations but once the survival event is over, following them leads to paradoxical and conflicting behavior. Mindfulness starts the traumatized on the path to healing by enabling them to check their false thoughts with their actual experience. From this, the difference between thought and reality slowly comes to light.

Trauma maps, however, lead the seeker away from self, while mindfulness and meditation are meant to bring one face to face with one’s own true nature. Because of this, every effort must be made to avoid using a trauma map to guide one’s meditation. This means special attention is to be paid to observing and accepting one’s thoughts and feelings without repressing, denying or being overwhelmed by them. The traumatized mind is to avoid a central element of trauma, i.e., denial, by developing the quality of accepting whatever arises in consciousness without necessarily acting upon it.

Overcoming the brain’s directive to deny thought and emotion, without then becoming overwhelmed by them is a slow process for any mind, let along the traumatized one. But by using meditation to stabilize the mind, and mindfulness to accept what the brain has been denying, trauma and PTSD can be overcome. Then, your own true self that was seemingly lost will be found and, like the prodigal child, you will come home again.

Wood print “Yui” printed by Kyoto Hanga in Tokoyo.

Buddhist Cartography: Uncharted Silence.

Each of us is a walking atlas of inner maps that we use to navigate through life.

We have a primary map drawn through the brain’s ability to give form to the world through the use of language and the word.  This map gives our world a sense of stability and permanence that we call reality.

We have inner maps drawn by our families, culture and religion.  Others we’ve had more of a hand in drawing, such as friendship and relationship maps.  And, of course, there is the map we call the self, the map of who we think and believe our self to be.

Our atlases are the creation of the left side of the brain.  This part of the brain has its own type of GPS, or Global Positioning System, that it uses to select the map most appropriate for any given situation.  When you walk into a crowded room, for example, your internal GPS will pick up relevant signals and then select a map that tells you how to feel about the room, whether to leave or continue in and, if appropriate, it will even direct you where and with whom to sit.

Inner maps are sets of rules and judgments that direct behavior and thought.  We are usually not aware of their influence, as they typically lie either on the periphery of consciousness or entirely in the unconscious.  But the maps selected by our internal GPS determine to a large extent how we behave, what we feel and most of what we believe to be the choices made of our own free will.

The left side of the brain evaluates every passing moment of your life, making constant references to rules and judgments picked up in childhood.  It selects inner maps that direct you how to feel and what to think.  This process is often referred to in today’s spiritual literature as your “story”.  But if you want to know your true nature, you must still the story.  You must stop judging and close your atlas.

Mindfulness and meditation allows you to become aware of the story contained in your atlas.  To still the story, it helps to see your everyday thoughts as maps drawn by the left side of the brain.  It helps to see them as automatic processing that can go on without your conscious attention.  As such, they are not really you or your thoughts, so they can be put aside without any loss.  Then your attention can be turned to the non-thinking, right side of the brain wherein lies silence.

The right side of the brain is the non-verbal side so when you disengage from thought, you open the door to silence.  This is what is meant when the mystic tells you to still your thoughts, or when the Buddhist tells you to turn your mind to stillness.

If uncertain what is meant here, use mindfulness to see how your brain constantly judges, thinks and speaks.  Then ask yourself what it would be like if your brain could not do this; if you were not able to speak or communicate verbally.  Your answer cannot be in words which means your thinking brain cannot respond.  This creates a momentary stepping back from thought.  Gently hold onto that feeling.

As the brain will want to start up again you must focus the awareness on this feeling of not thinking.  Over time you will find that you can maintain this awareness even as the left side of the brain still thinks in the background.   Your aim is to take this disengagement into meditation and deepen it.

Buddhist Cartography: Mindfulness and Delusion.

Mindfulness is the Buddhist practice of turning the awareness to the present moment. The present moment is here defined, paradoxically, as your immediate space and its physical sensations of sounds, tastes and sights. It excludes, therefore, memories of the past and imaginings of the future.

When beginning meditation, we may be instructed to focus the awareness upon some object like a candle flame or the breath. Mindfulness extends this practice into daily life with the instruction to give full attention to whatever is being done at the moment.

Those practicing mindfulness know that thought regularly intrudes upon any attempt to stay in the moment. When this happens, the initial instruction is to turn the awareness back to whatever task was at hand. The intent, however, is not to suppress thought but to establish the immediate moment as a control group with which to explore thought.

A control group is a group separated from another group we wish to observe and test. In mindfulness, the control group is the immediate moment. The group we wish to test is our inner maps, or the thoughts and beliefs we have of reality and our self. This testing is done by continually comparing what we think is happening to what is actually happening (i.e., in the control group).

A preliminary step in establishing mindfulness is to separate the control group from the thoughts to be studied. This simply means developing an initial level of discrimination so you see a difference between what you actual experience and what you think about the experience.  The latter is something superimposed onto actual events and is often laden with emotions and beliefs.  I call this superimposition a secondary map.

An example of a secondary map is where a person views the world as an angry place when, in fact, there are no angry people around.  A person with such a map is often not aware his map is false so may go about avoiding people and being defensive.  If this person were to take up the practice of mindfulness, however, he would assign himself the task of checking his secondary map against the control group of the immediate moment.  And, finding no actual hostility, he would eventually conclude his inner map were false.

The belief in the reality of our secondary maps is quite strong and may take some time to dispel.  This belief is delusion in the Buddhist sense of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of reality.  Mindfulness ends delusion by developing your power to discriminate between delusion and reality; between the false and the true.

Delusion ends when through the consistent comparison of our inner maps to the immediate moment we see that what we “think” about our self and the world is not really our self or the world, at all. This is why mindfulness is said to be a power that brings clear comprehension and leads to wisdom, calmness and liberating discernment.

Buddhist Cartography: Sticks and Stones

In previous posts I noted that the left side of the brain uses words to give the world form, an ability of the brain that has long been used by artists.  A painter, for example, may deftly apply colors of emerald green and umber to a white canvas that only suggests an appearance but she knows the viewer’s brain will see it as a “tree”, even if she may not know that this is done with words.

The above two impressionist paintings illustrate how the brain creates form out of the formless.

Claude Monet’s* “Autumn Effect at Argtenteuil,” (shown first above) is seen as trees that are reflected in water with a village and clouds in the background.  If, however, the right side of the painting were to be covered, the brain would be hard pressed to interpret the orange oils as trees.

In Lilla Cabot Perry’s* “Suraga Bay, Azaleas” (second picture) it’s clear that the blue in the middle is a “mountain” only because we call it a mountain.

In their art, these impressionists used the brain’s ability to assign names and details to create form where there otherwise was none.   But this ability is not limited to the museum.  The brain does this on a continuous basis in every day life.

In my own experience, while walking yesterday, I noticed that the blue at the end of the street, like the blue in Perry’s painting, was a mountain because I called it a mountain. I noticed that details at the end of a hedge that I couldn’t actually see, were being superimposed by my imagination, which took the details of the branches right beside me and “painted” them in further ahead.  And far down the street where my senses reported a black square with two lights, my brain was busily labeling this as the headlights of a car.  And when I came across something I did not recognize, my brain sought vainly to give it a name, so practiced was it in naming things.

Ordinarily, I do not question the names given my perceptions.  Like everyone else, I accept the reality of what I see on a day-to-day basis.  I accept the reality of my primary, inner map.  However, all of us have secondary maps on which we have written other words like, “danger,” “threat,” “irritating,” “good” or “bad.”  These words reflect evaluations of things as they relate to us, evaluations often made in childhood that have never been questioned.

If, with practice, we can see how the brain uses words on our primary maps to give the world form and meaning, we can then begin to transfer that knowledge to the words we’ve written on our secondary maps to see how we’ve made the world “dangerous”, “irritating” or “bad”.  Then we may begin to see that what threatened us in the past is now merely a word we’ve superimposed on the world.  And words, to paraphrase the child’s saying, “can never hurt us.”

* Note: clicking on the names of either painting will open a new window at the original site of the painting.

Buddhist Cartography: Dependent Origination.

In Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, “My Stroke of Insight,” we learn that the right side of the brain experiences the physical world as a sea of light and sound.  It is not difficult to imagine how a newborn upon first encountering this world must give this energetic sea boundaries and edges, if it is to make sense of the world into which it was born. The left side of the brain, the language side, provides this as the infant gains mastery of language and the word.  And it is through the word that the infant comes to know the world as stable and solid. 

The certainty of the adult world comes from the inner maps drawn in childhood. Names placed on our inner maps make the world seem fixed.  Lines drawn around primal sensations make the world seem solid.  However, not all adults perceive the world as rigid and solid.  The artist owes much of her ability to create new forms and new works of art because of her ability to see the world with both sides of the brain.

A Buddhist phrase for the fluidic world is dependent origination or dependent arising.

Dependent origination, as used here, refers to the notion that there is no independent or permanent self, and that everything exists in relation to everything else.  To paraphrase Dr. Bolte Talyor, “the energy of everything blends together.”  It does not take much to see the parallels between dependent origination and how the right side of the brain perceives the world, as described by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor.

Meditation allows us to deconstruct our maps so we can see the world of dependent origination.  However, one does not have to spend years in meditation to begin to see this world and how words have limited our perceptions.

Try this exercise.  Take a moment to investigate the rooms where you live.  Notice the color of the walls in particular.  Then, when you get up in the night, go back into these rooms and find one that is dimly lit.   A room with a night-light is most favorable for this exercise.

In the darkness, walls take on many shades of grey but notice that in your mind you still think of them as colored.  Yellow walls, for example, take on the appearance of light greys but you still imagine them as yellow. Notice how other items that are nothing more than blobs of grey and black are also identified and given form by your words.

This exercise shows how the left side of your brain has so organized the world that you no longer see its endless variety.  It shows that the sea of energy you perceived as a child has taken on permanent form with permanent colors.  Your world has become fixed and solid because of your words.

You can extrapolate this exercise to see other ways that the left side of the brain uses words to limit your world and your self.  Note, however, that this is a two edged sword as positive words are just as limiting as negative ones.  And many a person, from the artist, to the saint, to the “free-thinker,” has found that the world does not want us to give up our words and the false sense of security they bestow.  Yet, the door to freedom lies in putting aside our inner maps and transcending the word.

Buddhist Cartography: “My Stroke of Insight.”

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, “My Stroke of Insight,” provides insight into the brain’s central role in drawing the primary map of the self.

In 1996 Dr. Bolte Taylor suffered a stroke on the side of her brain that controls language, rational thought and time-oriented thought.  Although the left side was severely damaged, the “now” oriented, unitary right side still functioned.  In her book she reports on her experience of right brain functioning and her eight-year recovery from the stroke.

Dr. Bolte Taylor reported that when the left side of her brain shut down she could no longer perceive things as existing separately from any other thing.  Without boundaries or edges she could not distinguish where one object began and another ended. “Instead,” she writes, “the energy of everything blended together.”

In this sea of energy Dr. Bolte Taylor no longer felt herself to be a single, solid self.  It was then she realized that for all her life, “I really had been a figment of my own imagination!”

From these brief excerpts it is not difficult to imagine a time when our newborn brains experienced the world as Dr. Bolte Taylor described.  In that pristine world the self is not yet drawn and the world is experienced as a pulsating, energetic sea of sounds, feelings and electromagnetic radiation.  It is out of this sea that the left and right side of the brain map out a world of form that the adult knows as his or her self and reality.  Yet, as Dr. Bolte Taylor noted, that map exists only in the imagination.

Buddhist Cartography:  maps of self.

The self may be thought of as a map drawn to guide you through life and your relationships.  This self is not the real you any more than a map is the city, town or country it represents.  Yet the vast majority of us believe we are our maps.  Buddhist practice is designed to dispel this false belief and awaken us to our true nature.

We typically have more than one map representing the self but here I am only concerned with two.  The first draws with relative accuracy our inner landscape as it is.  It is a landscape mapped through a process of denying and affirming parts of our basic human nature and experience.  Some examples of what may be included on this map are our cultural values, religious beliefs and family mores.  Others may be more specific to our person such as how intelligent, athletic or talented we are.

When denial or approval is brought about through fear or coercion it may leave us with unresolved fears, false beliefs and aspects our nature that we then seek to avoid.  To do this we draw a secondary map that distorts our inner landscape.  This map leads us away from our discomfort zones that then become “holes” in our consciousness we do not wish to explore.

The secondary map represents a false self that keeps us from being in the moment and opening our hearts to others.  Buddhist practice requires we examine these maps with awareness, especially where feelings of discomfort, pushing away and denial arise.  These feelings point to the holes in our maps that we need to explore.

A word of caution, traumatic holes are highly charged, sensitive areas filled with pain, fear and shame.  Secondary maps act as a safeguard to stop people from falling into these holes.  It is not recommended that any traumatized person venture into these uncharted areas without a qualified teacher or therapist.

True Practice.

Though there be nothing to attain our human brains are unaccustomed to doing nothing, so we often end up sitting in practice looking for something to accomplish.  Ironically, it is this seeking that needs to end if our practice is to be true.

Seeking can take many forms such as trying to grasp some subtle object of contemplation or have some uplifting experience.  Less obvious is imagining there is some state where we have no problems and are totally at peace.  Another that often goes unnoticed is using our practice to reinforce the stories we’ve been telling our selves, rather than seeing them as just stories.

Often these stories are used to mask or cover sensitive areas in our life.  They direct our attention away from those areas which then become effective holes in the psyche.

Although some holes may be newly formed as a result of some sudden trauma, the majority were usually formed early in life.  For instance, someone raised in an abusive environment may come to believe that all people are violent, so the story they tell is designed to avoid people and violence.  To avoid the childhood pain another may tell a story of control, while another may place themselves in the role of a lifelong victim.

Many begin practice when their stories no longer protect them from the holes in their lives.  But the life-long habit of telling these stories does not stop because practice has begun.  In fact, the practice may be used to continue the story.  The man who chose to avoid people, for instance, may adopt a practice that leads to meditation in isolation.  The one who tells a story of control may use his or her practice to try and control painful thoughts and emotions.  The victim story teller may develop a martyr complex.  So the question arises, “How do I know my practice is true?”

Practice may be considered true if it brings you face to face with the holes in your life.  That means becoming aware of your stories, letting them go and being willing to stand in the void that’s left.

If you’ve been telling a story that says people are inherently violent, then examine it closely and question it’s validity.  Is there anyone who is actually like that around you right now?  Or is that just a thought in your head that you’ve been replaying all your life?

If you’ve been telling a story that says you must maintain control, then ask what motivates your fear of losing control.  Is it a real danger?  Or is that danger only in your imagination?

If you’ve been telling yourself a story of victimization, then ask why you’ve placed yourself in that role?  Do you believe you need to be taken care of?  Do you think that asserting yourself will lead to some catastrophe?  Whatever the answer, face it.  Question its foundation in reality.

True practice takes a willingness to jump into holes that make you uncomfortable.  It requires a leap into the unknown without any safety net to catch you.  It means letting go of the boundaries that give the illusion of safety but are instead chains binding you.

True practice means following your own way until you come to the point where you see that even the self is nothing more than a story and you let it go, forgetting all about yourself.  Until then, make your best effort just to continue your practice with your whole mind and body, without creating any new stories, then whatever you do will be true practice.

Stopping along the Way.

Many come to meditation to calm the emotions and control unruly thoughts.  If the practice is allowed to deepen the realization dawns that the tide of emotions and the waves of thought never cease.  The waves still lap upon the beach and the tides still cover the sand, even if there are fewer storms.

Peace of mind may then be sought through an attempt to calm the subconscious roots of the storms.  Introspection and psychology then become the focus of study.  For some this may be a necessary step but as the practice again deepens there comes a sense that the tree is only being pruned, leaving the roots of dissatisfaction untouched.

At this point there may be an intense study of literature that speaks of higher mind, true nature and meditation.  The mind, still addicted to thinking, seeks some subtle as yet undiscovered key that will unlock the door.  This may go on for years and some may die while still in the search.

One day the writing of a Sage may be found that says, “Stop the search!  There is nothing to be attained.”  Interestingly.  This may arouse many more years of puzzling out as some other meaning is sought before the true meaning is comprehended, that there really is nothing to attain and nothing to find.

(This is actually a good thing for whatever can be attained can be lost.)

If the Sage’s words are truly understood the Seeker is faced with a dilemma.   How does the search stop?  And what is it that stops?

At some point another realization may dawn that from the first the Seeker was always told the search was hopeless.  It was in part because of this that Siddhārtha Gautama upon becoming the Buddha, debated whether he should teach the Dharma.  At about the same time Lao Tsu wrote in his Tao Te Ching that the Tao is beyond form, beyond sound and intangible.  Lao Tsu therefore wrote that if you look for it, it cannot be seen.  If you listen, it cannot be heard.  And if you try to grasp, it cannot be held.

Though they both knew few would understand the Way both Buddha and Lao Tsu did leave a record for the Seeker to follow.  Since then, others have done the same.  Dogen said, “Just sit and do nothing.”  Hakuin gave koans to occupy the searching mind knowing full well there was no answer to them.

Since all Sages know there is nothing to attain, they also know no method could help attain it.  Still.  They had faith that some would recognize the essence of “nothing to attain”.  So they did their best to point the way.

If the Sages of old have done anything it was to tell the Seeker what not to do.  Do not sit in meditation looking for something.  Thoughts and feelings will arise but do not grasp onto them no matter how profound they may seem.  Cease any effort to understand, conceptualize or feel your way through it.  Ignore visions and miraculous works.  Do not even hold your own self dearly but be ready to drop off mind and body.

If you let go of everything and hold onto nothing the search will stop.  You will discover that all along there was nothing to attain.