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Patterns and attachments

I am sorry. There is something very important that I didn’t mention in the last letter. I talked about “mind” as if it is clear or trivial what is meant by it and as if there is no trouble about it. In fact, as you will experience in the next few years, most challenges and conflicts you’ll face originate from mind-related phenomena and complications. Let me try to explain what I mean with that:

First we have to make some definitions:

Mind” is very close to “consciousness”, but it needs an element of “awareness” or “mindfulness”. It is a kind of generic term for the complete chain of perception (of some kind of stimulus), mental processing (interpreting the stimulus, aligning to memories and experiences, understanding, etc.) and reacting to the stimulus (inducing a process of (re-)action or emotion). “Mind” must not be mixed up with “thought” or the process of thinking.

We perceive the world that we live in through six cognitive senses: seeing (light of specific wavelengths (~380-700nm) through the eyes), hearing (sound waves of certain frequencies through the ears), feeling (with sensors and nerves all over the skin), smelling (with receptors in the nose), tasting (with receptors on the tongue) and thinking (with the neural network of brain cells). A cognitive process is the reception of the stimulus, its transportation to the brain and its interpretation. Some don’t agree that “thinking” is a sense like seeing or hearing. However, same as the other five perceptions, a thought can be understood as a “stimulus” for further action: same as a visual perception can induce a mental process (for example, seeing a cake, recalling the memory “cake = delicious”, inducing “appetite” or “the desire to eat it”, followed by saliva production in the mouth), also a thought alone, without outer influence, (for example a logical deduction of a new insight) can bring something to our awareness that can then serve as a trigger for an action or emotion.

Emotion” is a huge topic by itself, but it is fundamentally connected to the “mind”. I understand an emotion as a two step process: First, a stimulus causes a body reaction, then a mental process determines the reaction onto the changed body state. An example: A big aggressive dog comes running towards us. As soon as we notice that through our senses (we see or hear it), and our memory or experience classifies this perception as “harm”, signals are sent to our body that bring it into an appropriate response state: fear. The body heat rises, the heartbeat gets faster because the heart pumps more blood to supply muscles with more oxygen, the neurotransmitter adrenaline is released to increase the efficiency of metabolic processes of cells – all this as a preparation for a possible escape. But this is just the first step. The changed body state is, of course, also recognised by the mind. It will then, again, analyse this stimulus according to memories, experiences and programmed behaviour patterns in order to find an appropriate reaction on it. In our example, the state of “fear” (expressed by heat, heartbeat, adrenaline, etc.) might trigger a channel “escape” and makes us turn around and run. Or, if we made other experiences, it might trigger a channel “attack” and makes us face and threaten the dog. With this understanding it also becomes obvious that only the first step of the emotion, the body reaction, is – for a “normal” healthy human being – somehow “natural”, since we all have the physiognomic preconditions for all kinds of emotions (like fear, anger, sadness, happiness, etc.), but that the reaction on it – the way we express an emotion and what we do or say in response to an emotion – is highly dependent on the condition of our mind which is shaped individually in complex processes by our interaction with the environment and our experiences.

Let’s see how all this goes together and what it means for our lives:

Mankind developed into a species with the ability of introspection, self-recognition and self-awareness. Different from other animate earthly beings we consciously desire to “understand” the world in order to exploit it for our benefits. Driver and motivation for all activity and eagerness is fear: the fear of death that results from our knowledge about the inevitable transience of life. Equipped by evolutionary processes with the abovementioned properties (mind, senses, thoughts, emotions) the modern man has no other choice but perceiving the world, reflecting on it and interpreting it. Last but not least, this leads to fundamental metaphysical questions about the meaning and purpose of life, what is “reality”, and our origins and destinies. However, we have to admit that our biological tools are by far insufficient to get a complete grasp of what the world is. Moreover, as we will see, the mechanisms of recognition and mental processing of information and knowledge are highly corrupt and flawed.

We can be convinced of the fact that our six senses can give us only a very limited and confined fraction of the actual world by understanding how the senses work, that their range of physical or biological abilities is limited, and that other life forms have cognitive abilities that we simply don’t have (for example ultrasonic senses of bats and dolphins, the perception of Earth’s magnetic field by migration birds, or “molecular” communication via pheromones by ants and other insects). However, we have to rely on our six senses since every other source of information is inaccessible for us. Today, thanks to science, we know how cognitive processes work and have to conclude that the “reality” is nothing but a construction in our mind based on the input delivered by the perception senses and our rational reason.  The problem is not the lack of “complete” equipment of sensory organs, but the human ignorance of human insufficiency and a blatant overconfidence in our perception. We often believe we “know” how things really are, and we trust in our perceptions. When you go out into the garden in the twilight and see a snake in the grass you might get scared and run back into the house, shouting “There is a snake in the garden!”. In your mind, the snake is “real” because you have seen it, and your reaction is “the right one” given your “reality”. However, when I go into the garden to check, all I find is a water hose in the grass that I forgot to remove after using it earlier that day. Your perception fooled you. The structure that your eyes perceived and delivered to your brain was interpreted by your mind as a snake because that was the most reasonable conclusion. The interesting part is: This misinterpretation tells us something about your “mindset”: Maybe you are easily scared, or have a general fear of snakes, so that this is the first thing that came to your mind. Maybe you watched a scary movie with a snake before. The point is: we usually “see” what we want to see, or we “see” what we “know” or what we focus on. In this respect, our perception is highly dependent on our mind, and not vice versa (as many people believe). Later I will talk about “confirmation biases”, then we come back to this aspect.

The limited set of perception tools and the confined range of possibilities of the ones we have might be a pity, but we don’t need to waste time and efforts whining about it because we can’t change it anyway (until we talk about trans- and post humanism, but that is another topic). Therefore, we better focus on the mind’s role in processing the information that streams into us. I mentioned one aspect above: When we are not aware of the flaws and limits of our mental processes we are victims of ignorance. This becomes especially unwholesome and unhealthful when it makes us overconfident and “blind”. Again, note that the ignorance has two dimensions: “not knowing” and “not knowing that we don’t know”. But there is more than that: Not only our perception tools are limited, also the strategies and methods that our mind exploits to deal with that input are often inefficient, flawed, corrupt or simply inappropriate. From a certain perspective it is actually good like that: There is so much information streaming into our mind that we have to select what reaches our consciousness. We can’t process every light ray that enters our eyes, or all sound waves that reach the ear. Therefore, we use a filter: we align the incoming information with our experiences and memories to “make sense” of it. When we see three dots within a circle, we immediately associate that with a “face”. These associations are the result of pattern and habit formations that start as soon as our senses start working (when an embryo turns into a fetus, definitely before birth) and solidify and grow in the childhood and teen ages. The first experiences are very rudimentary and related to the “body” sphere (see the body-mind-spirit model of the previous letter): a baby feels hungry, perceives that as “unpleasant” and expresses this uneasiness by crying. Someone comes and brings food. The association “crying à someone brings food” solidifies the more this pattern is repeated, so that the baby will always signal “hunger” by crying. These patterns become especially significant in aspects of emotion. As we have seen before, the physical part of an emotion is the same for all human beings, but the way it is expressed and given power over reactions and behaviour is different from person to person according to pattern formations and manifestations of habits. Imagine 3-year-old children that experience something unfair – let’s say, another child takes away the toy that our child just plays with. Perceiving this as “unfairness” increases the child’s pulse, triggers the release of adrenaline and produces body heat – the child feels uneasy. What happens next strongly depends on what the children have “learned”: One child might get aggressive: yelling at the “thief” and hitting him. It is very likely that this child made a previous experience that this behaviour leads to “success” in terms of “fulfilling the child’s desires” (here: it might get back the toy). Maybe the child’s parents are aggressive, or impatient or insecure, and – by this – support the manifestation of aggression in the child. Another child “recalls” another behaviour in the same situation, for example “diplomacy”, talking to the child, trying to convince it to return the toy. A third child might not even express any form of “uneasiness” (aggression, anger, envy, etc.) but just “let go” of the toy and look for another one. We can regard emotions and their associations with behaviour patterns as “seeds” that grow when they are constantly “watered”. When a child’s desire is fulfilled and satisfied by a certain strategy, when it feels it can help reaching its goal, then the child will repeat it whenever possible. This also corresponds to what I tried to explain in the previous letters: no child is born like anything (for example “a calm child” or “impatient child” or “aggressive child” or “anxious child”, or whatever), but all these properties are solidified patterns and habits formed by experiences and “reward or punishment situations”. I call these patterns “attachment”. The good thing is: same as a plant dies when it is not watered anymore, a “pattern” (as the manifestation of an often watered “seed”) can be changed by cutting of “the water supply” and watering other seeds instead. However, once a pattern is formed, it is very hard to change it!

I used another small but important word: desire. In general, we can state that our desires determine our will and what we actually decide to do and say. Again, you may relate this to the body-mind-spirit model of the previous letter: at early age, our desires are dominated by the body sphere, then mental and finally spiritual desires take control. The mental desires, however, are highly corrupt when we are not aware of the origins of desires and the mechanisms that let some desires grow and others decay. Most of our desires are the result of attachments. There are the “behaviour pattern attachments” I just mentioned (for example the way we react on emotions), but also attachments to things that mean something to us (material things, but also abstract entities like love, fame, health or “our life”) which is expressed in fears (of losing these things), or attachment to the “self” or “ego”, the  illusion that there is a “self” that is separate from the rest of the world. Most of these influences occur subconsciously, and all these attachments are fed and nourished by our environment and our activities in it – the “Matrix”. Let me give you an example: You feel the desire to go to McDonald’s and eat a chicken burger. You can, of course, just go and get one, following your desire or understanding it as “your free will” to have one. But you can also ask yourself what makes you decide to voluntarily choose this kind of crappy low-quality unhealthy food! Maybe you saw the McDonald’s advertisement somewhere, with a colourful delicious juicy burger on it, that gives you the (wrong and misleading) impression that eating a McDonald’s Burger is a good idea. Or your friends give you the impression that you appear more “cool” when you go to McDonald’s with them. Maybe you like the colours red and yellow (another attachment formed by impressions in the childhood) and, therefore, feel attracted to the McDonald’s logo design, so that it comes to your mind first when you wonder what and where to eat. “Living mindfully” means to pull all these factors into our awareness, to understand what “controls” our desire and will, and to start turning it around: to control these factors. The experience shows that we do many “unhealthy”, “unwholesome” and “unsustainable” things when we just live mindlessly and let the “Matrix” control our decisions and choices. Instead, when we open our mind and realise as many attachments and control mechanisms as possible, we gain power over them and can “dissolve” them, making our will and our decisions truly “free” – or with other words: exit the Matrix. The McDonald’s example is a simple and obvious one (pseudo-desires formed by manipulation, group dynamics, etc.), but there is many more that have a big impact on our life, for example how to choose the right boyfriend or the major to study, how to identify the difference between dogmatic religion and wholesome spirituality as source for inner peace, or the emotional stability to deal with all the difficulties and obstacles of daily life. An important remark has to be made concerning the “freedom” that I mentioned. It is not about being free “from” emotions, desires, preferences or patterns and habits. It is almost impossible to be free from these, and it would even be terrible to have no emotions or preferences! Instead, the worthwhile approach is to be free “in” the emotion, “in” the choices and desires, and “in” our patterns and habits! That means, we are able to disconnect the link between the trigger (for example the physical occurrence of an emotion in the body, or the stimulus of an advertisement) and the associated reaction pattern (for example “yelling” as response to the feeling “anger”, or “buying something we don’t need” as response to manipulating advertising). At least, we can try to increase the time between trigger and response so that with a mindful awareness we are able to intervene and reflect what would be the best reaction, conclusion, decision, etc.

Now we can understand better what I mean when I write in the previous letter about the “mind sphere” and “physical and psychological needs”. What these needs are and how they determine our well-being or non-well-being is highly dependent on what I call “mindset”. When we are “slaves” of our desires and needs and don’t spend considerable mental capacities on reflecting our life, it is more likely that our attachments drive us into a direction that we won’t find fulfilling or satisfying later. A more “sustainable” lifestyle would be to practice our mindfulness and awareness so that we are able to identify our attachments and the elements of the “Matrix” that is constructed around us, and ultimately set ourselves free in it.

Do you think all this makes sense? Is it convincing? I tell you something: This is the heart of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha from India 2600 years ago. His insights into human psychology and the mechanisms of our minds are astonishingly precise. He used different terminology and often communicated his ideas by stories and narratives rather than by analytical or scientific language, but today, with modern psychological research and a Philosophy of mind, his teachings are confirmed and supported surprisingly well! In the “12 links of interdependent co-arising” the theory of mind that I described here is well reflected:

12-links-of-interdependent-co-arising

The 12 links of interdependent co-arising constituting the wheel of life (samsara), with the three mind poisons (ignorance, attachment/greed, resistance/hatred) depicted in the center.

There is birth (jati), but it inevitably leads to death (jara-marana). We are born “blank” with a high degree of ignorance (“not-knowing”, avijja). Out of this ignorance we become victim of the formation of patterns, habits, of “will” and the drivers of all we do, say and think (sanskara). This is the basic idea of “Karma”: We are “forced” to act in this world and, by this, are exposed to the cause-effect-laws that form the world fabric. In this process we realise and recognise ourselves (or “our selfs”) with our consciousness (vinnana) and start sticking to our “identity”. The self is manifested in body and mind (the spiritual self comes later) (namarupa). We feed our consciousness through the six sense organs (salayatana), that Buddha understood as mediator between sense object (that what is to see, to hear, etc.) and our awareness. The mental process is, therefore, a “contact” between object and our consciousness (phassa). These contacts go along with “feelings” (vedana) that can be either “pleasant”, “unpleasant” or “neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant” (some kind of neutral). This differentiation of emotional states causes our desires (tanha) – longing for “pleasant” states or for “being” and “becoming” (attachments) and avoiding unpleasant ones or “ceasing” (the counterpart of attachment – resistance, an aspect that I left out in this letter). Attachments and resistances (upadana) are the basis of our thoughts, ideas, concepts and imaginations. These need to be expressed and realised and, therefore, lead to constant “becoming” (or manifestation) of our self (bhava). Here the cycle is closed, arriving at “birth” again. This is the Buddhist idea of “reincarnation”: Our desires cause attachments which drive us to manifest our self constantly. As long as we have ignorance we are not able to escape this cycle, because we will always stick to the idea of a self with our cognitive tools feeding our unfree consciousness. The cycle can be broken at any of the twelve elements, but with different degree of difficulty: we can overcome ignorance by acquiring wisdom. We can identify the flaws of our sense organs. We can reflect and “dissolve” our desires. All are attempts to get out of the “samsara“, the eternal circle of life, and enter “nirvana“.

Ignorance, attachment (or greed) and resistance (or hatred) are often called the “three mind poisons” by Buddha (depicted as snake, pig and rooster in the center of the wheel). They blur our mind and lead to what is unluckily translated as “suffering”. This is the first “Noble Truth”: Life is suffering. This is neither pessimistic nor nihilistic, but just the objective observation of the mind phenomena that I described above. When our mind is not free but victim of pattern and habit formations, our choices and decisions (our will) are not trustworthy and most likely leading to unhealthy and unwholesome states. Going to McDonald’s to eat a chicken burger is “suffering” when this choice is motivated by “Matrix” elements and not by the output of your free mind. The second Noble Truth simply tells that “There is a reason for suffering.”. In Buddhist Philosophy (or Psychology) this is described in the abovementioned “12 links of interdependent co-arising”. The essence of this important insight is: The suffering is not a divine law, a heavenly punishment or a reason for hopelessness and depression. When there is a reason, it means we are able to discover and understand that “reason” (for example through insights from that cycle of dependent becoming, or with any other “modern” psychological method). The third Noble Truth is the claim that “The reason for suffering can be overcome.” or, with other words, “The cycle of Samsara can be broken.”. The realisation of ignorance or the understanding of our attachments are the first step to weaken them and decrease their power and impact. This “Truth” sounds as trivial as the second one, but for many people it is, actually, not self-understanding that it is in our own hands to “lead a good life”. Some believe in “destiny” or “fortune”, but from Buddha we can learn that the state of our well-being and satisfaction is determined by our own choices and actions – he called it “Karma”. The fourth Nobel Truth, then, says that there is “a particular way” to overcome suffering, and that is “the eight-fold path”, a model of Buddhist Ethics that suggests concrete guidelines for life conduct. I think, we can insert here any “good”, “helpful” and “healthy” approach that we find and approve. The most important Buddhist practices are meditation and active mindfulness training in order to gain knowledge, wisdom and inner peacefulness. Very helpful advices are the “Middle Way” (avoiding extremes) and the “here-and-now” philosophy (that I will certainly write more about in a later letter). Ultimate goal is to realise that there is no “self”, no element in us that is specifically and only “ours”. This is called “emptiness” in Buddhism, one of its most sophisticated and difficult aspects. You see, the whole Dharma is reflected in this model of the human mind. That’s why I find it so much more helpful for my daily life than other (especially Western) worldviews. I will probably always come back to this when we talk about aspects of your life: when you break up with your first boyfriend, when you are nervous before a stage performance or sports competition, when you are desperate about a bad teacher at school, when you don’t know what to do with your life after school – I will try to help you freeing your mind and seeing clearly, here and now, in this moment, peaceful and balanced, fearless and full of love. And you help me…

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