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Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness


Winner of the Scientific and Medical Network 1998 Book Prize Aldous Huxley called humankind's basic trend toward spiritual growth the "perennial philosophy." According to James Austin, the trend implies a "perennial psychophysiology"--for awakening, or enlightenment, occurs only because the human brain undergoes substantial changes. What are the peak experiences of enlightenment? How could they profoundly enhance, and yet simplify, the workings of the brain? Zen and the Brain summarizes the latest evidence. The ...
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Winner of the Scientific and Medical Network 1998 Book Prize Aldous Huxley called humankind's basic trend toward spiritual growth the "perennial philosophy." According to James Austin, the trend implies a "perennial psychophysiology"--for awakening, or enlightenment, occurs only because the human brain undergoes substantial changes. What are the peak experiences of enlightenment? How could they profoundly enhance, and yet simplify, the workings of the brain? Zen and the Brain summarizes the latest evidence. The book uses Zen Buddhism as the opening wedge for an extraordinarily wide-ranging exploration of consciousness. In order to understand the brain mechanisms that produce Zen states, one needs some understanding of the anatomy, physiology, and chemistry of the brain. Austin, a neuroscientist and Zen practitioner, interweaves his teachings of the brain with his teachings/personal narrative of Zen. The science, which contains the latest relevant developments in brain research, is both inclusive and rigorous; the Zen sections are clear and evocative. Along the way, Austin covers such topics as similar states in other disciplines and religions, sleep and dreams, mental illness, consciousness-altering drugs, and the social consequences of advanced stages of enlightenment.

Disc. "secular" Zen, basic physiological mechanisms of medi- tation, states of consciousness, recent research findings.

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Editorial Reviews

Psychoanalytic Books
"This is a book written with passion and seriousness."
Bodhi Tree Book
". . . remarkable in its synthesis of the mystical point of view with the scientific."
Journal of the American Medical Association
Although the ultimate question of the neural bases of consciousness remains unresolved, Austin offers new hypotheses and an extensive review of current scientific knowledge mixed with philosophy and personal experiences. Zen and the Brain is well worth reading by those interested in cognitive brain function, especially the mechanisms of consciousness. However, it is far from a dry scientific text and would be enjoyable to someone more interested in the philosophical implications.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262011648
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 2/6/1998
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 868
  • Product dimensions: 7.43 (w) x 10.36 (h) x 1.81 (d)

Meet the Author

James H. Austin, a clinical neurologist, researcher, and Zen practitioner for more than three decades, is Professor Emeritus of Neurology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and Courtesy Professor of Neurology at the University of Florida College of Medicine. He is the author of Zen and the Brain, Chase,Chance, and Creativity, Zen-Brain Reflections, Selfless Insight, and Meditating Selflessly, all published by the MIT Press.

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Read an Excerpt

The Semantics of Self

The central problem of understanding states of consciousness is understanding who or what experiences the state. Our theories evolve with the center missing; mainly the "I," the Witnesser.
--Arthur Deikman

For centuries, Zen training has been transforming the maladaptive self. Some changes occur in rare dramatic moments. Others, equally impressive, evolve slowly incrementally. But what could cause a growing brain to develop a dysfunctional self in the first place? And by what means could it later become constructively transformed? In several following sections we will be asking, Which words stand in the way of our understanding? How does one go about constructing a self? What are its unfruitful aspects? Finally, in part II we consider how the meditative dynamic fruitfully restructures the self.

Obviously, a self must exist. What else could make us consciously aware of events arising outside or within us, of factual knowledge, and of the way we act within the external world? Turn to the dictionary definitions of consciousness, and they will all refer back to that core of self in the center. Never do the definitions acknowledge a striking fact: some extraordinary forms of consciousness retain no subjective I inside them. Still they are witnessed. Dictionaries use the term experient to stand for the person who undergoes an experience. Herein, we will employ a variant spelling, whose sole purpose is to alert the reader to a key distinction. Let experiant--now spelled with an a--serve to convey whatever still goes on experiencing when this usual personal self is absent.

Yet, the very notion of an experiant invites disbelief. How could any brain modify its awareness so remarkably that it leaves no subjective I inside which does the attending? We struggle to comprehend. Meanwhile, common sense dictates both our premise and our biased conclusion: if someone who aspires is to be called an aspirant, then behind any experience must be some kind of egocentric experiant; something still in there having it, attending to it, and being the source responsible for it. Accordingly we in the West adhere to Jung's interpretation: "If there is no ego, there is nobody to be conscious of anything. The ego is therefore indispensable to the conscious process ... I cannot imagine a conscious mental state that does not relate to a subject, that is, to an ego." Many familiar words like ego and id have now become a part of our doctrinaire Western psychological interpretations of self. Accepted uncritically they leave us unprepared semantically to understand the dynamics both of ordinary everyday states of consciousness and of various extraordinary kinds of Zen experience. Let us now examine a small series of troublesome words, starting with ego and id.

Freud's notion of the ego served a useful purpose. Lending further support to it were the two other abstract domains which he built nearby. They formed the interlocking, complementary triad: superego, id, and ego. They are so interdependent that it would be perilous to try to extract or modify any of them. To Freud, the three were not mere conceptual abstractions-they were personality constructs based on the anatomy of the brain. The superego, for example, was a "genuine structural entity" Functioning as an overall observer, the superego acted as the keeper of our conscience. It was the upholder of societal ideals, and seemed the least ambiguous of the three. Why? Because it took on and acted out all the familiar, straightforward roles of our parental authorities.

Borrowing the word id from Nietzsche, via Groddeck, Freud regarded it as the repository of the passionate instincts. Therefore, to Freud, the id held to no laws of logic. It lived with sharp contradictions, had no concept of time, and did not deal in negations. "Naturally the id knows no values, no good and evil, no morality ... Instinctual cathexes seeking discharge-that, in our view, is all that the id contains!

Finally then, to Freud, the ego was the pragmatic executor. It was the agency needed to strike a workaday balance between the other two. "In popular language, we may say that the ego stands for reason and circumspection, while the id stands for the untamed passions .114 The ego, modified from the id, organized our behavior along rationally effective lines. It drew on hard-won lessons of personal experience, constantly reminding the id: the real world has consequences. Freud viewed the ego, in a sense, as a rider who guided a horse, not yet tamed, toward a destination.

But later, in common parlance, the term ego came to imply something quite different. Then it was diluted to imply only the selfish pejorative self. It referred to someone we didn't like, someone who we said had an "inflated ego" and was egocentric. Unfortunately the word ego then came to have two quite different meanings. This situation is a barrier to our understanding Zen. For Zen strengthens the first, weakens the second.

Can Zen be in two places at the same time? Zen regards the ego as holding to its original meaning. The term still refers to each person's capacity to deal confidently with life in a mature, realistic, matter-of-fact way. The I that Zen diminishes is not the pragmatic ego. If Zen were to remove such an ego, it would leave its adherents in a helpless "identity crisis." Rather, Zen training aims to strengthen the ego in its original Freudian sense.

This means that Zen training is targeted at the other, negative, distorted self: the selfish 1. Note that this selfish self was not something that Freud attributed to the ego portion of his original triad. Instead, it would have been derived from the id-ridden self and would be driven by its ignorant, passionate instinctual desires and aversions. So it is this selfish self that Zen trainees first need to define, identify, and then work through. Not in ways that crush or deny their essential natural selves, but in ways that will simultaneously encourage the flow of their basic ethical, compassionate impulses.

Long before Freud put forth his theories about the id, Taoists and early Buddhists had developed an original "big picture." It was a perspective that, to the reader, may now begin to sound vaguely familiar. All around and interpenetrating us, said their teachings, was a natural open domain. Surprisingly it unfolded into full view only when the person's natural self awakened. It, too, was governed by no laws of logic except its own. It, too, encompassed every possible sharp contradiction. Indeed, it knew neither good nor evil. It was even outside time. It had no function. It existed in its suchness or thusness. It was. It was so universal that it went far beyond the ken of earthlings. We could only guess about it within the limitations set by our newly acquired systems of human values and factual knowledge. Moreover, even when someone did "awaken" to the presence of this Ultimate Reality it was not a very special event. It meant merely that he or she had reestablished the original connectedness with what had always been present anyway.

No, said Freud. This was not reality. It was unreality Still, he acknowledged that mysticism had anticipated some of his own formulations. He admitted that "certain practices of mystics" could enable the "perceptual system ... to grasp relations in the deeper layers in the ego and in the id which would otherwise be inaccessible to it." But, no person could grasp these deep relationships, he stated, unless their mystical practices (which he downgraded) had first upset "the normal relations between the different regions of the mind." Freud doubted that such abnormal procedures could ever put that person "in possession of ultimate truths, from which all good will flow." Yet, he continued, "All the same, we must admit that the therapeutic efforts of psychoanalysis have chosen much the same method of approach. For their object is to strengthen the ego, to make it more independent of the superego, to widen its field of vision, and so to extend its organization that it can take over new portions of the id. Where id was, there shall ego be. It is like reclamation work, like the draining of the Zuider Zee."

Freud's psychoanalytical goals, if not his methods, came closer to Zen than is sometimes appreciated. Indeed, long before Freud, Zen training methods also encouraged the practical self to mature, to shed its excess psychic baggage and widen its field of vision. The training also helped to reclaim the passions from inappropriate conditioning, and to do so in a way that would rechannel their energies along other lines. To understand how such complex processes might unfold, we need to find a fresh conceptual framework. If it is to be a useful model, it should begin by returning us to our simpler origins, to the way our infant brains first built up our notion of self.

Is our society ready today, to become familiar with some basic landmarks and vital functions of the young and growing human brain? Can we appreciate its functional anatomy as eagerly as we look forward to seeing the faces and hearing about the dysfunctions of the latest media personalities? ...

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Table of Contents

Chapters Containing Testable Hypotheses
List of Figures
List of Tables
By Way of Introduction
Pt. I Starting to Point toward Zen 1
Pt. II Meditating 55
Pt. III Neurologizing 147
Pt. IV Exploring States of Consciousness 291
Pt. V Quickening 371
Pt. VI Turning In: The Absorptions 467
Pt. VII Turning Out: The Awakenings 519
Pt. VIII Being and Beyond: To the Stage of Ongoing Enlightenment 625
In Closing 695
App. A Introduction to The Heart Sutra 698
App. B Selections from Affirmation of Faith in Mind 700
App. C: Suggested Further Reading 702
Glossary 704
References and Notes 712
Source Notes 825
Index 827
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2003

    Heavy reading but very worthwhile!

    This book is very heavy reading but is full of interesting observations. I would highly recommend it to people who are somewhat familar with scientific research in the brain. If you are not familiar with it and are interested in these types of experiences from a theoretical perspective, I suggest you read an absolutely amazing book called 'The Ever-Transcending Spirit' by Toru Sato. This one requires very little background knowledge and is accessible to anyone. Although I do not question the pure brilliance of this book, I think I must disagree with the basic assumption that spiritual experience is caused by the mind. This is often a confusing thing because the mind-body dualism problem is something that we have not completely overcome as a culture. Certain states in the brain reflect the spiritual experience but they are not causes of it. They are one and the same thing. But overall, an excellent read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2010

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