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

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

by James H. Austin

Hardcover(First Edition)

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262011648
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 02/06/1998
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 868
Product dimensions: 7.43(w) x 10.36(h) x 1.81(d)

About 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,Meditating Selflessly,and Zen-Brain Horizons, all published by the MIT Press. For more information, please visit www.zenandthebrain.com.

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? ...

Table of Contents

Chapters Containing Testable Hypotheses
List of Figures
List of Tables
By Way of Introduction
Part I Starting to Point toward Zen
1 Is There Any Common Ground between Zen and the Brain?
2 A Brief Outline of Zen History
3 But What Is Zen?
4 Mysticism, Zen, Religion, and Neuroscience
5 Western Perspectives on Mystical EXperiences
6 Is Mysticism a Kind of Schizophrenia in Disguise?
7 The Semantics of Self
8 Constructing Our Self
9 Some ABCs of the IMeMine
10 The Zen Mirror: Beyond Narcissism and Depersonalization
11 Where Does Zen Think It's Coming From?
Part II Meditating
12 What Is Meditation?
13 Ryokoin, Kyoto, 1974
14 Zazen at Ryokoin
15 Attention
16 The Attentive Art of Meditation
17 Restraint and Renunciation
18 Zen Meditative Techniques and Skills
19 Physiological Changes during Meditation
20 Brain Waves and Their Limitations
21 The EEG in Meditation
22 Breathing In; Breathing Out
23 The Effects of Sensorimotor Deprivation
24 Monks and Clicks: Habituation
25 The Koan and Sanzen: Kyoto, 1974
26 A Quest for NonAnswers: Mondo and Koan
27 The Roshi
28 The Mindful, Introspective Path toward Insight
29 Inkblots, Blind Spots, and High Spots
30 Sesshin and Teisho at Ryokoin, 1974
31 Sesshin
32 The Meditative Approach to the Dissolution of the Self
Part III Neurologizing
33 Brain in Overview: The Large of It
34 Brain in Overview: The Small of It
35 Brain in Overview: Coordinated Networks Synthesizing
Higher Functions
36 The Orienting RefleX and Activation
37 Arousal Pathways in the Reticular Formation and Beyond
38Acetylcholine Systems
39 The Septum and Pleasure
40 The Attachments of the Cingulate Gyrus
41 The Amygdala and Fear
42 Remembrances and the Hippocampus
43 Visceral Drives and the Hypothalamus
44 Biogenic Amines: Three Systems
45 GABA and Inhibition
46 Peptides
47 The Brain's Own Opioids
48 Ripples in the NeXt Cell: Second and Third Messengers
49 The Aplysia Withdraws
50 Matters of Taste
51 The Mouse in Victory and Defeat
52 The Central Gray: Offense, Defense, and Loss of Pain
53 The Third Route: Stress Responses within the Brain
54 The Large Visual Brain
55 Where Is It? The Parietal Lobe Pathway
56 What Is It? The Temporal Lobe Pathway
57 What Should I Do About It? The Frontal Lobes
58 Ripples in Larger Systems: Laying Down and Retrieving
59 The Thalamus
60 The Reticular Nucleus
61 The Pulvinar
62 Higher Mechanisms of Attention
63 Looking, and Seeing Preattentively
64 Laboratory Correlates of Awareness, Attention,
Novelty, and Surprise
65 Biological Theories: What Causes Mystical EXperiences?
How Does Meditation Act?
Part IV EXploring States of Consciousness
66 Problems with Words: "Mind"
67 Ordinary Forms of Conscious Awareness
68 Variations on the Theme of Consciousness
69 Alternate States of Consciousness: Avenues of Entry
70 The Architecture of Sleep
71 Desynchronized Sleep
72 Other Perspectives in Dreams
73 Lucid Dreaming
74 Conditioning: Learning and Unlearning
75 Other Ways to Change Behavior
76 The Awakening from Hibernation
77 Tidal Rhythms and Biological Clocks
78 The Roots of Our Emotions
79 The Spread of Positive Feeling States
80 Pain and the Relief of Pain
81 Suffering and the Relief of Suffering
82 Bridging the Two Hemispheres
83 The Pregnant Meditative Pause
Part V Quickening
84 Side Effects of Meditation: Makyo
85 The Light
86 Bright Lights and Blank Vision
87 Faces in the Fire: Illusions and Hallucinations
88 Stimulating Human Brains
89 The Ins and Outs of Imagery
90 The Tachistoscope
91 The Descent of Charles Darwin: Computer Parallels
92 Bytes of Memory
93 Where Is the Phantom Limb?
94 The Feel of Two Hands
95 The Attentive Cat
96 Emotionalized Awareness without Sensate Loss
97 Seizures, Religious EXperience, and Patterns of Behavior
98 The Fleeting "Truths" of Nitrous OXide
99 The Roots of Laughter
100 How Do Psychedelic and Certain Other Drugs
Affect the Brain?
101 Levels and Sequences of Psychedelic EXperiences
after LSD
102 The Miracle of Marsh Chapel
103 How Do Psychedelic Drugs Affect Amine Receptors?
104 NearDeath EXperiences; FarDeath Attitudes
105 Triggers
106 The Surge
107 First ZenBrain Mondo
Part VI Turning In: The Absorptions
108 Vacuum Plenum: Kyoto, December 1974
109 The Leaf: Coda
110 The Semantics of Samadhi
111 The Vacuum Plenum of Absorption: An Agenda
of Events to Be EXplained
112 The Plunge: Blankness, Then Blackness
113 The Hallucinated Leaf
114 Space
115 The Ascent of Charles Lindbergh: Ambient Vision
116 The Ambient Vision of Meditative Absorption
117 The Sound of Silence
118 The Loss of the Self in Clear, Held Awareness
119 The Warm Affective Tone
120 Motor and Other Residues of Internal Absorption
121 The When and Where of Time
122 Gateway to ParadoX
123 Second ZenBrain Mondo
Part VII Turning Out: The Awakenings
124 Dimensions of Meaning
125 Authentic Meanings within WideOpen Boundaries
126 Word Problems: "Oneness" and "Unity"
127 How Often Does Enlightenment Occur?
128 A Taste of Kensho: London, 1982
129 What Is My Original Face?
130 Major Characteristics of InsightWisdom in Kensho
131 Prajna: InsightWisdom
132 Suchness
133 Direct Perception of the Eternally Perfect World
134 The Construction of Time
135 The Dissolution of Time
136 The Death of Fear
137 Emptiness
138 Objective Vision: The Lunar View
139 Are There Levels and Sequences of "Nonattainment"?
140 Preludes with Potential: Dark Nights and Depressions
141 Operational Differences between Absorption
and InsightWisdom
142 Reflections on Kensho, Personal and Neurological
143 Selective Mechanisms Underlying Kensho
144 Third ZenBrain Mondo
Part VIII Being and Beyond: To the Stage of Ongoing Enlightenment
145 The State of Ultimate Pure Being
146 The Power of Silence
147 Beyond Sudden States of Enlightenment
148 The EXceptional Stage of Ongoing Enlightened Traits
149 Simplicity and Stability
150 An Ethical Base of Zen?
151 Compassion, the Native Virtue
152 Etching In and Out
153 Aging in the Brain
154 The Celebration of Nature
155 EXpressing Zen in Action
156 The Other Side of Zen
157 StillEvolving Brains in StillEvolving Societies
158 Commentary on the Trait Change of Ongoing Enlightenment
In Closing
AppendiX A Introduction to the Heart Sutra
AppendiX B Selections from Affirmation of Faith in Mind
AppendiX C Suggested Further Reading
References and Notes
Source Notes

What People are Saying About This

George Adelman

In this monumental work, the author marshals the evidence fromneuroscience to help clarify which brain mechanisms underlie the subjectivestates of Zen, and employs Zen to 'illuminate' how the brain 'works' invarious states of consciousness. By 'monumental' I refer not merely to thesize but to the breadth and depth of coverage of the book.

Psychoanalytic Books

This is a book written with passion and seriousness.

Kenneth M. Heilman M.D.

Currently, to many scientists reductionism means fractionization rather than synthesis. In the last several decades, neuroscientists have increasingly fractionated the brain, but the mind-brain dichotomy remains to be resolved. James H. Austin's book Zen and the Brain attempts such a synthesis. Although he has not reduced this dichotomy to a unity, he has courageously started us on the road.


... remarkable in its synthesis of the mystical point of view with the scientific.—Bodhi Tree Book Review

From the Publisher

"This is a book written with passion and seriousness." PsychoanalyticBooks

"In this monumental work, the author marshals the evidence fromneuroscience to help clarify which brain mechanisms underlie the subjectivestates of Zen, and employs Zen to 'illuminate'how the brain 'works' invarious states of consciousness. By 'monumental' I refer not merely to thesize but to the breadth and depth of coverage of the book." George Adelman ,Editor of The Encyclopedia of Neuroscience

"... remarkable in its synthesis of the mystical point of view withthe scientific."Bodhi Tree Book Review

Francois Boller

Thanks to the unprecedented developments of the Neurosciences in recent years, we now possess (and in most cases enjoy) an enormous amount of new information about the nervious system and the human brain. However the progress of science would be sterile without an effort of synthesis aimed at putting together the results of previous work in order to understand the crucial element of the puzzle: the nature of consciousness. This is what Austin has done in his remarkable book and we should be all grateful to him for this demanding achievement.

Bodhi Tree Book Review

... remarkable in its synthesis of the mystical point of view with the scientific.

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