Subjects and Objects: A Neuroscientific View

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Extract from The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness – Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

Dualistic thought is the dynamic energy of mind.
-Jamgon Kongtrul, Creation and Completion, translated by Sarah Harding

Armed with a bit more information about physics and biology, we can ask some deeper questions about the absolute reality of emptiness and the relative reality of daily experience. For example, if what we perceive is just an image of an object, and the object itself, from the point of view of a physicist, is a whirling mass of tiny particles, then why do we experience something like a table in front of us as solid? How can we see and feel a glass of water on the table? If we drink the water, it seems real and tangible enough. How can that be? If we don’t drink water, we’ll be thirsty. Why?

To begin with, the mind engages in many ways in a process that is known as dzinpa, a Tibetan word that means “grasping.” Dzinpa is the tendency of mind to fixate on objects as inherently real. Buddhist training offers an alternative approach to experiencing life from an essentially fear-based perspective of survival in favor of experiencing it as a parade of odd and wonderful events. The difference can be demonstrated through a simple example. Imagine that I’m holding my mala (a string of prayer beads similar to a rosary) in my hand with m palm turned downward. For this example, the mala represents all the possessions people usually feel they need: a nice car, fine clothes, good food, a well-paying job, a comfortable home, and so on. If I hold my mala tightly, some part of it always seems to escape my grasp and hang outside my hand. If I try to grasp the loose part, a longer bit of the mala falls through my fingers; and if I try to grasp that, an even longer piece slips through. If I continue this process, I’ll eventually lose my grasp on the entire mala. If, however, I turn my palm upward, and allow the mala to simply rest in my open palm, nothing falls through. The beads sit in my hand loosely.

To use another example, imagine you’re sitting in a room full of people looking at a table at the front of the room. Your tendency is to relate to the table as a thing in itself, a completely whole, self-contained object, independent of subjective observation. But a table has a top, legs, sides, a back, and a front. If you remember that it’s made up of these different parts, can you really define it as a singular object?

In their exploration of the “conductor-less” brain, neuroscientists have discovered that the brains of sentient beings have evolved specifically to recognize and respond to patterns. Among the billions of neurons that make up the human brain, some neurons are specifically adapted to detect shapes, while others are dedicated to detecting colors, smells, sounds, movements, and so on. At the same time, our brains are endowed with mechanisms that enable us to extract what neuroscientists call “global,” or pattern like, relationships.

Consider the familiar example of a little group of visual symbols, called emoticons, often used in e-mail messages ::-).This group is easily recognized as a “smiley face,” with two eyes “:,” a nose “-,” and a mouth “).” If, however, these three objects were rearranged as ) – :, the brain wouldn’t recognize a pattern and would merely interpret the shapes as random dots, lines, and curves.

Neuroscientists I’ve spoken with have explained that these pattern recognition mechanisms operate almost simultaneously with the neuronal recognition of shapes, colors, and so on through neuronal synchrony-which, in very simple terms, may be described as a process in which neurons across widely separated areas of the brain spontaneously and instantaneously communicate with one another. For instance, when the shapes ::-) are perceived in this precise formation, the corresponding neurons signal one another in a spontaneous yet precisely coordinated fashion that represents recognition of a specific pattern. When no pattern is perceived, the corresponding neurons signal one another randomly.

This tendency to identify patterns or objects is the clearest biological illustration of dzinpa I have so far encountered. I suspect it evolved as some sort of survival function, since the ability to discriminate among harmful, beneficial, and neutral objects or events would be quite handy! As I’ll explain later on, clinical studies indicate that the practice of meditation extends the mechanism of neuronal synchrony to a point where the perceiver can begin to recognize consciously that his or her mind and the experiences or objects that his or her mind perceives are one and the same. In other words, the practice of meditation over a long period dissolves artificial distinctions between subject and object-which in turn offers the perceiver the freedom to determine the quality of his or her own experience, the freedom to distinguish between what is real and what is merely an appearance.

Dissolving the distinction between subject and object, however, doesn’t mean that perception becomes a great big blur. You still continue to perceive experience in terms of subject and object, while at the same time recognizing that the distinction is essentially conceptual. In other words, the perception of an object is not different from the mind that perceives it.

Because this shift is difficult to grasp intellectually, in order to develop some understanding, it’s necessary to resort once again to the analogy of a dream. In a dream, if you recognize that what you’re experiencing is just a dream, then you also recognize that whatever you experience in the dream is merely occurring in your own mind. Recognizing this, in turn, frees you from the limitations of “dream problems:’ “dream suffering,” or “dream limitations.” The dream still continues, but recognition liberates you from whatever pain or unpleasantness your dream scenarios present. Fear, pain, and suffering are replaced by a sense of almost childlike wonder: “Wow, look what my mind is capable of producing!”

In the same way, in waking life, transcending the distinction between subject and object is equivalent to recognizing that whatever you experience is not separate from the mind that experiences it. Waking life doesn’t stop, but your experience or perception of it shifts from one of limitation to one of wonder and amazement.

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