introspection + expression = art

I could easily repost at least half of what jonah lehrer blogs about, he is so darn entertaining, but this one is especially resonant as it creeps towards a discussion of that potential value of teaching introspection and expression.

embodied scrum – a paper

I wrote this paper for school. My adviser liked it, despite not being familiar with either scrum or complex adaptive systems.

In a talk delivered at Google, one of the early collaborators responsible for the development of the scrum process, Jeff Sutherland described the basics of scrum, and some tips for creating hyper-performing scrum teams. Sutherland states that the most important thing a scrum master can do to increase the performance of a team is to learn the principles of complex adaptive systems. The basic principles underlying complex system are straight forward, and though they are easy to grasp, it’s not always apparent to see how they are relevant to the social and professional interactions of daily life. When applied to a professional team with goals and deadlines, the principles of complex systems run counter to much of what we believe to be true about how things get done. Most of us come to believe that organization and management generally work best when controlled from the top down. We have a strong perception that, in both individuals and groups, there is a central planner that holds the vision and makes it happen according to some plan. The interesting thing about this perception is that it persists despite the ubiquity of evidence to the contrary. In this paper I’ll provide a basic introduction to complex adaptive systems, providing examples of the ways in which bottom-up organization seems to work to well. I’ll also describe the ways in which we ourselves are embodied complex systems, and suggest some tools that you, as a scrum master, can introduce to take advantage of this fact, and make your team happier, more cohesive, and higher-functioning.

Read the rest of the paper…

your body helps you solve problems

new research on embodied cognition
“The results are interesting both because body motion can affect higher order thought, the complex thinking needed to solve complicated problems, and because this effect occurs even when someone else is directing the movements of the person trying to solve the problem.”

full article

self-organization, emergence, and adaptation, in other words… complexity

Since discovering the science of complex systems, I’ve been enchanted by the ways in which contemplative practices affect people (we are self-organizing, complex systems) from the bottom up. This is a heady topic to be sure (my Master’s program adviser described my paper on this topic as a heady salad), but it’s well worth investing the time needed to internalize these concepts as they beautifully illuminate so much about how our external and internal worlds assemble and operate. Here’s my take on self-organizing, adaptive, complex systems exhibiting emergent behavior and what this might have to do with meditation and intention.

self-organization, emergence, and adaptation (a pdf)

Jon Kabat-Zinn on Speaking of Faith

Every once in a while I stumble on the NPR interview show, Speaking of Faith, often during early morning road trip departures from my Dad’s house in Michigan. The show’s name might lead you to believe that the guests would be primarily theologians. Not so. Past guests include theoretical physicist Janna Levin and philosopher Eckart Tolle (both of whom blew me away). I’ve enjoyed these happy accidents so much that I’ve tried to cultivate a habit of listening, seeking out the show on their website or trying to remember to turn on the radio at home on Sunday mornings. It usually dawns on me that it’s speaking-of-faith-day at about 8 a.m., just as the program is ending. I’ve tried setting my alarm to make sure to listen, but these attempts at orchestrating illumination experiences seem to be missing something, so I have reverted to allowing the program to find me.

This morning, I was up early making cornbread when I realized the show was just about to start Today’s interview was a lucid dialog on the science of mindfulness with Jon Kabat-Zinn. Score! It’s a gem.

You can listen to the this morning’s interview as well as the earlier ones mentioned on Speaking of Faith’s website:

Janna Levin: Mathematics + Truth = Purpose

The Power of Eckart Tolle’s Now

Jon Kabat-Zinn on the Science of Mindfulness

Perfect Zen Brain Storm

As luck would have it, the last spot available for a program on Meditation, Neuroscience, and Complexity Theory was snagged by contemplate this‘s own Sue Borchardt. This program brings together scientists and philosophers whose books have figured prominently in Sue’s readings for her graduate program on contemplative practices including Evan Thompson (Mind in Life) and James Austin (Zen and the Brain). (see embodied cognition for an essay on Thompson’s book, Mind in Life). Also in attendance will be Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist who uses EEG to study the brains of long-time meditators and organizer of the Emotions and Cognition Symposium at University of Wisconsin which Sue attended in the spring of 2008.

A complete list of instructors is as follows: Roshi Joan Halifax, PhD, James Austin, PhD, Sandra Blakeslee, Richard Davidson, PhD, John Dunne, PhD, Al Kaszniak, PhD, Neil Theise, MD, Evan Thompson, PhD.

Though having an intellectual focus, the program incorporates daily zen meditation sessions (zazen). A brief description of the program follows:

ZEN BRAIN: Open Presence, Selflessness, and Compassion: Perspectives from Buddhism, Neuroscience, and Complexity Theory

Upaya’s 2009 program on neuroscience and meditation explores two core Buddhist practices: compassion and open presence (shikantaza in Zen, dzogchen in Vajrayana, choiceless awareness in Theravada). In recent years, neuroscientific studies of Buddhist meditators who practice the cultivation of compassion and non-referential presence, and the application of mathematical complexity theory in biology and neuroscience, have provided interesting perspectives on the Buddhist concepts of emptiness, impermanence, codependent arising, selflessness, and nonduality. In this retreat/seminar, Zen teachers, leading scientists who have contributed to this growing field of research (and are each long-term meditation practitioners), a Buddhist scholar, a philosopher, and a neuroscience writer, interactively share their perspectives on the relationships between Zen practice, Buddhist philosophy, neuroscience, and complex systems theory. Talks and discussion examine how these areas of scientific research are relevant for practice, and how experienced meditation practitioners can help sharpen the research questions being asked. Talks and discussion will be embedded with Zazen practice throughout each day.

For a full description of the program a well as downloadable articles on neuroscience and meditative practice, visit the Upaya Zen Center‘s website. Check back here at contemplate this in January for an update following the program.

embodied cognition

Evan Thompson’s book Mind In Life is an illuminating followup to his earlier book, The Embodied Mind, co-written with the late Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch. Thompson’s first book introduced me to a uniquely framed model of cognition summarized here in Thompson’s own words:

Sensory stimulation does not cause experience in us, which in term causes our behavior…

…perceptual experience emerges from the continuous and reciprocal interactions of sensory, motor, and cognitive processing, and is thereby constituted by motor behaviors, sensory stimulation, and practical knowledge.

This sensorimotor way of being, in its full extent, comprises locomotion, perception, emotion, feeling, and a sense of agency, in other words sentience.

While Embodied Mind left me intrigued but confused, this latest presentation of ideas informing self-hood and consciousness lays out a clear and increasingly precise way of looking at the world, or more appropriately, being in the world. This way of being is the “enactive approach” introduced in The Embodied Mind, and while it is introduced as an enactive approach to cognitive science, Thompson proposes it as a method for increasing our understanding of the perception of time, emotion, empathy, evolution, and more. Most significantly, Thompson offers the enactive approach as a resource for closing the “explanatory gap,” an expression used to represent the idea that human experience has not yet been fully explained by physical processes. The enactive approach encompasses five ideas, summarized as follows:

  • Living beings are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain themselves.
  • The nervous system is autonomous and dynamic. Meaning is created through its circular and reentrant operation as opposed to being created in an information-processing, computational system.
  • Cognition “is the exercise of skillful know-how in situated and embodied action.”
  • A cognitive being does not move about in a pre-existing world, but instead the world is a “relational domain” revealed by an organism’s autonomous agency and interaction with its environment.
  • Experience “is not an epiphenomenal side issue, but central to any understanding of the mind, and needs to be investigated in a careful phenomenological manner.”

The building blocks and application of these ideas are presented in a variety of contexts and domains including complex systems theory, philosophy of mind, molecular biology, neuroscience, evolution theory, and even artificial intelligence. The concepts presented apply to many levels of systems and organization and Thompson moves quickly between them. As a result, I found myself having to continually reorient myself to the current context. Reading about and integrating these interwoven ideas has, in itself, proved to be a self-organizing activity, dynamic and reentrant, and as such, a bit hard to wrestle with intellectually. As a way to organize these concepts, I will use the ideas of the enactive approach as a framework for both building up and drilling down, and in the end, if all goes well, this essay will coherently present my impressions of Mind in Life, a book I found to be chock full of resonant and world-view shifting ways of representing the dynamics at play in this organism and her environment.

The first idea in the enactive approach is essentially the theory of autopoiesis. Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana and his student, immunologist Francisco Varela, coined the term autopoiesis to describe the process by which biological organisms self-create and sustain themselves. The theory is most simply understood using the cell as model. A cell produces its own components, including the membrane that defines where it ends and the surrounding “molecular soup” begins. A cell produces itself in an “ongoing circular process.” Thompson provides a checklist to use for determining if a system meets the minimal characteristics of autopoiesis as follows:

1. Semipermeable Boundary: Check whether the system is defined by a semipermeable boundary made up of molecular components. Does the boundary enable you to discriminate between the inside and the outside of the system in relation to its relevant components? If yes, proceed to 2.

2. Reaction Network: Check whether the components are being produced by a network of reactions that take place within the boundary. If yes, proceed to 3.

3. Interdependency: Check whether 1 and 2 are interdependent: are the boundary components being produced by the internal network of reactions, and is that network generated by conditions due to the boundary itself? If yes, the system is autopoietic.

Thompson contends that autopoiesis is a concise and unambiguous way in which to define “life”, while other, more commonsense, means would be insufficient or unclear. To illustrate this point, using the above criteria, a bacterium and amoeba are autopoietic (and so living) but a virus and mitochrondia are not. Maturana and Varela claim that “autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize the organization of living systems.” Thompson leaves open the question of whether autopoiesis is sufficient for cognition, which he defines as “behavior or conduct in relation to meaning and norms that the system itself enacts or brings forth on the basis of its autonomy.” Instead, he settles on using the thesis that living systems are both autopoietic and cognitive as the basis for exploring the “deep continuity of life and mind.” This expression summarizes an important idea contained in Mind in Life, that “organizational properties of mind are an enriched version of those fundamental to all life.” At one end of this deep continuity of life (autopoiesis) and mind (cognition) is the single celled organism. As previously mentioned, a single cell is autopoietic: it creates and maintains is parts, including its own boundaries. The most basic elements of mind are evident as well, as illustrated by what happens when it is placed in a sucrose gradient. The cell moves randomly until it happens upon the orientation that increases its exposure to sugar and subsequently swims toward the area of greatest concentration. This example is revisited often and will illuminate later concepts.

The first idea of the enactive approach states that living organisms are autonomous. Autonomy is defined in this context using systems theory which models autonomous organization as one in which constituent processes…

  • recursively depend on one another for their generation and realization as a network,
  • constitute the system as a unity in whatever domain they exist, and
  • determine a domain of possible interactions with the environment.

As previously described, the emergence of autonomy in the biological realm is autopoiesis. The autopoietic organism, once formed, is in no way static as it must continually renew its insides and its boundaries to remain an entity. Organisms must change to go on being, hence autonomy is inexorably dynamic. As Thompson writes “…stasis is impossible. The organism must eat and excrete; otherwise it dies. Without incessant metabolic exchange with the world there can be no emancipation of dynamic selfhood from mere material persistence.” But the system is not merely dynamic, it is complex. Described in the language of the nonlinear dynamic-systems approach, the self-organizing behavior of autopoietic organisms is “neither random nor ordered and predictable; rather it is in between, exhibiting changing and unstable patterns.” As Thompson points out, this kind of complexity is found “from the molecular and organismic to the ecological and evolutionary, as well as the neural and behavioral.”

In the context of cognitive science, the enactive approach applies the elements of autonomy and dynamism to the nervous system. The second idea of the enactive approach is elaborated by Thompson here:

The second idea is that the nervous system is an autonomous dynamic system: It actively generates and maintains its own coherent and meaningful patterns of activity, according to its operation as a circular and reentrant network of interacting neurons. The nervous system does not process information in the computational sense, but creates meaning.

While Thompson alludes to the analysis contained in Mind in Life regarding various approaches to cognitive science in the previous quotation (for instance, viewing the mind as computational), more interesting to me the explanation of how meaning emerges. The phrase he uses is “meaningful patterns of activity” and, as often happens for me when questioning the bedrock of my worldview, even this basic phrase, the constituent words of which could so easily be taken for granted, needs to be carefully examined. In this case it’s somewhat amusing since it led me to look up the meaning of meaning, that is, the linguistic meaning of the word “meaning.” In my understanding, in this context, meaning refers to the value or worth of an experience to an organism. So how does this value arise? Up until now, we know only that the autopoietic organism is autonomous and dynamic and that it must be so to maintain its existence. It does this is by sensing and moving. Maturana and Varela describe this sensorimotor interplay as “living is a process of cognition,” and “living is sense-making,” respectively. Thompson returns to our single cell bacterium moving through a sucrose gradient to illustrate this most basic example of the concept of sense-making:

The cells tumble about until they hit upon an orientation that increases their exposure to sugar, at which point they swim forward, up-gradient, toward the zone of greatest sugar concentration. This behavior occurs because the bacteria are able to sense chemically the concentration of sugar in their local environment through molecular receptors in their membranes. They are able to move forward by rotating their flagella in coordination like a propeller. These bacteria are, of course, autopoietic. They also embody a dynamic sensorimotor loop: the way they move (tumbling or swimming forward) depends on what they sense, and what they sense depends on how they move.

The meaning of sucrose as food is revealed only in relation to the cell. In and of itself, the sucrose molecule has no foodness. It is in this process of sense-making, of living, that meaning and value are are revealed. As Thompson puts it, “Sense-making changes the physicochemical world into an environment of significance and valence…” This sense-making is cognition as described in ideas three and four, the summaries of which are reiterated here:

Cognition “is the exercise of skillful know-how in situated and embodied action.”
A cognitive being does not move about in a pre-existing world, but instead the world is a “relational domain” revealed by an organism’s autonomous agency and interaction with its environment.

Thompson points out that the term cognition could be said to be conflated with adaptation and notes that the distinction in this context is that “adaptation is a condition,” and “cognition is an activity.” It’s worth taking a tangential foray into evolutionary theory with Thompson before returning to the subject of cognition. When addressing the conventionally held view of organisms adapting to external environmental pressures, Thompson offers up a different perspective that more accurately reflects the process of “dynamic stabilization.” Organisms do not evolve towards an optimal fit for a given set of environmental conditions, but persist so long as they are viable. Thompson writes, “Natural selection is actually a process that emerges out of autopoiesis…” and later, “Self-organization and natural selection (dynamic stabilization) are not opposed but actually two interwoven aspects of a single process of enactive evolution.”

He spends considerable time addressing the ways in which organisms and their environment co-evolve, and despite the fact that evolutionary theory is well outside my understanding, his treatment of the subject, like his writing in general, is accessible and engaging. In his chapter on development and evolution, he challenges the metaphor of DNA is a set of intrinsically meaningful instructions, a view he refers to as “informational dualism.” A more appropriate metaphor is offered in the expression, borrowed from Varela, of “laying down a path in walking.” In this view, there is no distinction between a plan of action and its execution. Though he cites often used language of genes “coding for” a protein or phenotypic characteristic, he points out that there is not a one-to-one relationship between DNA and proteins. Enzymatic processes inside the cell control a multi-step process that can use an identical sequence of DNA to produce different proteins depending on the chemical or environmental state of the cell. It’s interesting to note that DNA is, itself, produced by the cell’s own autopoietic system.

I return now to the topic of cognition in autopoietic organisms. Thompson never assumes we have fully integrated the novel ways in which he is using familiar terms, and thankfully helps us along by periodically reinforcing them for us, as he does here: “Cognition is behavior or conduct in relation to meaning and norms that the systems itself enacts or brings forth on the basis of its autonomy.” (emphasis mine).

Figure 1. presents the relationship of autopoietic organization, cognition, and the deep continuity of life and mind. From single cell to higher order organisms, living systems are both autopoietic and cognitive. Cognition, enaction, and sense-making are descriptors for the processes by which autopoietic organisms sustain themselves through sensorimotor interaction with their surroundings.

Figure 1. Autopoiesis, cognition, and the deep continuity of life and mind

Figure 1. Autopoiesis, cognition, and the deep continuity of life and mind

Where the first four ideas laid the groundwork for our understanding of the enactive approach, the final idea is one of application.

Experience “is not an epiphenomenal side issue, but central to any understanding of the mind, and needs to be investigated in a careful phenomenological manner.”

As conscious humans, we take ourselves as inhabiting the most extreme end of the continuity of life and mind, and Thompson proposes that our best methods for investigating the nature of consciousness is through first-person methods. Towards this end, Thompson brings in and expands upon the philosophy of phenomenology as developed by Edmund Husserl, and later, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The motivation being that if the enactive approach is to be applied to the explanatory gap, a first-person method of skilled inquiry will need to be developed and employed, and phenomenology could form the basis for such a method. Viewed phenomenologically, there is no reality apart from that which is disclosed to us by way of the intentional activity of consciousness. The word intention, in this context, does not denote having a purpose in mind when acting, but instead is used to describe consciousness as “aiming toward” something beyond itself. It is in this context in which phenomenology contends that consciousness is intentional. Intentional experiences are described as “mental acts” which include “perceiving, remembering, imagining, empathizing, and so on.” This intentionality or aiming beyond may or may not be object-directed. For instance, perceiving is a mental act, or intention, that is object-directed while elation need not be directed toward, or about, any object. In attempting to grasp this concept of intentionality, it seems important to understand that mental acts cannot be understood independently from that which they intend, but rather the relationship between subject and object is what’s being described.

If this first level of investigation described by the phenomenological method is focused on the relationship between subject and object, the next step in its evolution, as developed by Husserl, is the inquiry into the “genesis of intentional experience in time,” termed genetic phenomenology. Returning once again to our most basic of autopoietic organisms, the cell, we have seen that it cannot continue to exist in a static state but must continually maintain its own existence. Thompson writes, “If the organism must change its matter in order to maintain its identity, then the organism must aim beyond itself in the here and now.” He later continues, “This necessity propels the organism both forward and outward. An organism must project beyond itself, opening into the temporal horizon of its own life cycle or lifeline and the spatial horizon of the outer world. In this way, autopoiesis and sense-making enact or bring forth biological time and space…” (emphasis mine).

Need propels the cell outward and forward in time. Thompson quotes Merleau-Ponty who writes, “perceptual synthesis is a temporal synthesis” to make the point that one must take up the analysis of time-consciousness as it relates to experience of intentional objects. Thompson devotes an entire chapter of Mind in Life to relating the enactive approach to the relationship between time and experience, and, in the process, introduces neurophenomenology, a scientific methodology that brings the first-person methods of phenomenology to the study of consciousness in the context of experimental psychology and cognitive science. An interesting hypothesis is presented, based on experimental studies conducted by Varela and others, that perceived time is not based on any ticking clock, either internal or external, but instead arises from neural coherence. Also called phase synchrony, neural coherence refers to synaptic firing patterns that are synchronized across disparate populations of neurons. Further, Varela proposed that the perceived present moment, or “now” has a measurable and variable duration defined by transient patterns of synchronous neural firing. In other words, “now” is actually a brief block of time.

The analysis of the first-person experience of the present moment logically flows into the study of consciousness itself. In contrast to theories that postulate representative neural states that correlate with conscious experience (NCC or neural correlates of consciousness), Thompson writes that neurophenomenological studies show that “ongoing patterns of cortical synchronization and desynchronization correlate with fluctuations of conscious perception.” Put another way, consciousness is not a function located in some region of the brain but instead, it emerges out of changing patterns of the firing of neurons widely distributed throughout the brain. He quotes J.A.S. Kelso who writes, “Mind itself is a spatiotemporal pattern that molds the metastable dynamic patterns of the brain.”

Thompson elaborates on the ways in which neurophenomenology is developing into an experimental methodology in which first-person reports of subjective experience are correlated with brain activity. He describes neurophenomenology as requiring three nonreducable components of analysis: phenomenological, biological, and dynamic. He points out that the inclusion phenomenology reveals the elements of “selfhood, purposiveness, normativity, subjectivity, intentionality, temporality, and so on– that would otherwise remain invisible to science. Put another way, phenomenology offers a way of seeing the inner life of biological systems.”

Thompson expands the subject of time-consciousness, relating it to emotion and in doing so, illuminates the strong connection between the affective valence of experience and actions alluded to in the earlier cell example. The cell’s movement through the surrounding environment of a sucrose gradient can be viewed as being guided by the attractive/repulsive valence of experience. Returning to the groundwork laid by Husserl, Thompson introduces his three intentional aspects of time-consciousness: primal impression (each “now phase”), retention (the just passed now), and protention (the now about to occur). Thompson cites Husserl’s example of listening to a melody to illustrate the interdependence of these aspects of time-consciousness:

For each now-phase of the melody, each currently sounding note, there is a corresponding primal impression directed exclusively toward it. (There are also, of course, primal impressions of the now-phases prior to and after the completion of the melody.) Primal impression involves no reference to either the past or future, and so by itself is insufficient for the perception of the melody (and for the experience of any temporal object, no matter how brief its duration). Primal impression must be accompanied by retention and protention.

One might be tempted to think that protention is unnecessary to the experience of melody, but it is noted that if the music were to suddenly stop, it would be startling. Our consciousness of the coming now-phase “always involves an open and forward looking horizon.” It is evident that retention and protention are qualitatively different as one is filled with a just-passed experience, and the other has contents yet unknown. This all gets quite confusing when Thompson points out the recursive nature of the flow. Retention is not only retention of what just occurred but also retention of the protention of the previous now. It is by virtue of this fact that Thompson is able to introduce motivation and emotional valence into the perception of every moment. He writes, “Retention always includes retention of protention and the way protention is fulfilled or unfulfilled…” Instead of being linked together, the present now’s retention pointing to the previous now, etc… as in the top half of Figure 2., now’s are nested recursively as shown in the bottom half of Figure 2.
Figure 2. Merleau-Ponty’s three phase model of the present moment. Shown as linked (top) and recursively nested (below)

If I were to apply Merleau-Ponty’s three-phase model of time-conscious to the cell in sucrose example, I imagine it would proceed something like this: the cell senses the presence of sucrose in the current “now-phase” and protends/anticipates its continuation in the next moment. If it encounters less sucrose it will be received as negatively valanced and alter course. If it encounters more sucrose it will be received positively and continue forward. The past, present, and anticipated nows are all necessary to effectively guide the cell.

Applying the enactive approach to emotion and cognition, neural processes can be viewed as having cyclic components of action-perception and sensation-movement. Thompson writes that “Emotion is embodied in the closed dynamics of the sensorimotor loop, orchestrated endogenously by processes up and down the neuraxis, especially the limbic system.” A “neurodynamical model” of emotion and cognition, developed by Walter Freeman, is presented by Thompson to address the question of how unconscious and conscious emotive behavior emerge out of neural activity. I can’t begin to make sense of this model which includes feedback and feedforward sensory, proprioceptive, motor, and time-space loops. Nonetheless, I am fascinated by Thompson’s observations of how Freeman relates his model to consciousness. Freeman proposes that global, coherent patterns of neuronal activity correlate to awareness, and as Thompson describes it, that “consciousness consists of a sequence of such states.” He continues to describe the implications of Freeman’s model, writing that, “Awareness, according to this model, far from being epiphenomenal, plays an important causal role…” regulating dynamic activity. He summarizes that, “…according to the enactive approach, sensorimotor processes modulate but do not determine, an ongoing endogenous activity, which in turn infuses sensorimotor activity with emotional meaning and value for the organism.”

Thompson proposes first-person methods, like those offered by phenomenology, could be developed to hone one’s attentional skills and provide a rich source of data to compliment conventional science’s third-person observations. The positive feedback loop created in the process of cultivating awareness opens up intriguing possibilities in the study of consciousness.

When viewing one’s self as an autopoietic organism, quotes like this one from J.A.S Kelso are intriguing. Referring to collective self-organization and dynamic systems he writes, “the system organizes itself, but there is no ‘self’, no agent inside the system doing the organizing.” It’s no surprise that, in his earlier writings with Varela, Thompson delves into buddhist mindfulness practices. The absence of an agent in autopoietic organisms, ourselves included, is consistent with experiences of “no-self” that emerge from countless contemplative traditions that hone attentional skills. Though commonly viewed as two sides of an unbridgeable gap, the inner and outer worlds of subject and object are integrated in the enactive approach that takes us from the most basic forms of biological life to the most vexing and long-standing questions of human existence: questions of consciousness, identity, and even free will.

A personal interest in the science behind yoga nidra

My interest in yoga nidra expanded in parallel with many others including neuroscience, eastern philosophy, religious studies, and psychology. Teasing out the aspects of each of these broad disciplines that are relevant to me personally is an ongoing occupation. One common thread that has emerged for me is a desire to understand the process of self-actualization.

As it’s been described to me by a western scientist who is also a student of nondual Kashmir Shaivism, we arrive in our bodies with the ability to sense, thus beginning the rapid ongoing process of “separating to understand.” Taking vision as an example, we learn to perceive color, form, and depth through interacting bodily with our environment. As we realize what’s green and what’s red simultaneously with where “I” end and the world begins, we rapidly arrive at our sense of self as a separate being. Bolstered by the ability to label things as language arises, we continue to categorize the world in smaller and smaller chunks. “I like beans. I don’t like tomatoes. Lightwaves are made of photons. Living organisms are made of cells.” As our experiences blend with our unique predispositions, we develop elaborate ideas of self, what James Austin calls the I-Me-Mine complex.

This process of forming is common to us all though uniquely personal, a fact that has sparked my curiosity in personality typing systems, both mainstream (Myers Briggs) and esoteric (enneagrams, astrology, ayurveda). Abraham Maslow, Carl Jung, and Viktor Frankl, among others have provided us with ways of understanding how, once our basic needs of food, shelter, community, and self-esteem are met and we might move on to a process in which we put it all back together again. This is the process of reintegration, of self realization, individuation, and man’s search for meaning. Is this different from enlightenment? awakening?

The eastern nondual traditions of taoism, Zen, Advaita, and Kashmir Shaivism are, at their core, schools of reintegration, or in other words, waking up to true nature. Collectively, they present a rich and varied selection of techniques that include silent meditation, breathing techniques, chanting, walking, movement, dish-washing, and wood-chopping. Though varied, they are all present-moment attentional exercises. There is an emphasis on carrying this present-moment attention into an engaged life of interaction, not one of monastic seclusion. The understanding of their respective cosmologies is only of interest so far as it supports my own process of reintegration. I can embrace a mythology only in so far as it resonates with my scientific understanding of the world. For instance, the cosmology of Kashmir Shaivism is one in which the world came into being as an act of play by pure consciousness. Just for fun, consciousness coalesced into dense blobs of manifestation and found sensation! Sensation provided a mechanism for experiencing other blobs in the glorious fabric of consciousness. I have much to learn yet in the realm of science, but what I know so far presents no contradictions to this view of the material/non-material universe being condensed/rarefied areas of one primary stuff, however elusive that stuff might be to get a handle on.

Wrestling with my own process of individuation I have repeatedly come face to face with some recurrent themes that I’d like to delve deeper into. Each, in turn, has led me back into the present-moment attentional practices. They are as follows:

free will
Do we have it? Clearly, if there was a yes or no answer we’d have arrived at it by now and for this reason, I am not the least bit interested in having abstract philosophical or theological discussions about free will, nor am I concerned with questions of responsibility and morality. Whether one has the ability to do otherwise in any given situation is confounded by conflicting desires, external pressures, beliefs, conditioned responses and who knows what else. The more aware we are of the forces acting in any given moment, the more clarity we can have regarding the freedom/limits of our actions. My own experience with attentional practices is that they illuminate what’s present. Sometimes they illuminate preconceptions, desires, and/or agendas I didn’t know I had. My actions may precede in the same way but the illumination allows for a re-crafting of my personal narrative that incorporates far more humility.
My fascination with free will has led me to an area of neuroscientific study in which the origins of thought and volition are examined in relation higher processes of conscious cognition, one I hope to explore.

Though we are learning machines, a distinguishing feature of those who have reached the full expressions of their individuality is their ability to unlearn. In countless domains that include music, writing, fine art, psychotherapy, design, engineering, and cooking, to name a few, are examples of people who have spent substantial time learning their craft only to realize that they had to abandon what they had so painstakingly learned. This experience is so widely recounted that I believe that this unlearning process is necessary in the process of individuation. This is not just a conceptual process, it is physical, and it can occur either spontaneously or as the result of hard work.

Unlearning leads us back to an ability to respond authentically to the present situation, not using yesterday’s experience or data though, clearly, that earlier process of learning was an essential antecedent. Given my focus, it’s not surprising that I link this back to present-moment attentional practices. Unlearning is at the heart of the practice of yoga asana and the cultivation of Zen’s beginner mind. But I am also intrigued by the ways in which those outside of contemplative traditions cultivate this beginner mind. For instance, I heard a talk given by a conductor who described his spontaneous attempts to jar his orchestra into presence, to transcend their conditioned playing, which included rehearsing in the dark, or switching everyone’s position in the room. To me, discovering pockets of transcendence in non-contemplatives gives me hope that there are many roads that lead to Rome. Teasing out what it is about the myriad of roads that make them work fascinates me. Do all dedicated intentional practices, even artistic, scientific, and academic ones, lead to self-actualization?

Related to the questions free will and unlearning is our ability to act as we chose. These questions start to get interesting when we look at the aspects of self and action that we wish to change. Personally, I wish I was more organized, that I had a specific place to put my keys so I wouldn’t be running around the house looking for them when I need to be on my way already. I wish I would put things away instead of letting them pile up until I’m walking around in a big mess of an apartment. I wish I could be patient and kind even when totally spent. My particular desires for personal change are not new. I’ve been arguing with myself over them for years now. I assume everyone has similar desires though they are often directed outwardly as attempts to change someone else’s behavior, an even more ludicrous proposition than the internal variety.

I believe that changes are possible, at least some of them, though which ones and with how much effort are unknown. The changes require unlearning. The new behavior would demonstrate free will. At the extreme, the actions to be changed are pathological as in the case of addiction or compulsive disorders, but that’s only the extreme. None of us escape this life without experiences that prod us towards unlearning. Whether we label the activity as an illness or an inconvenience, the cure is tricky. Western medicine has not come up with a single reliable “cure” for nicotine addition or alcoholism much less heroin addiction. Could this be, in part, due to the reductionist view of patients as metabolic processes? If there is an attentional, spiritual, or cognitive component that is essential for the modifying of all behaviors including addictive ones, viewing an addict as broken machine will always fall short.

While several eastern traditions provide practices that support the process of coming into full realization, becoming the best you you can be, western civilization is limited in its dissemination of tools to work with individually. Christianity gives us weekly worship, prayer, and the advocation of selfless acts of service. While we’ve got cognitive behavioral therapy, and various forms of psycho analysis, most people think of these as tools for handling dysfunctionality, not as practices to help one thrive.

These themes of free will, unlearning, change, and self-realization have, if not emerged from, most certainly fed back into my interest in yoga nidra which I now teach. While I’ve been introduced to many forms of contemplation, yoga nidra appears to be unique in the structure it provides for unlearning. Its hierarchy of attentional exercises move through successive realms of experience: sensory, feeling (such as hot/cold, heavy/light), emotional, cognitive (in constructs of identity and beliefs), and the abstract. In an effort to understand the common aspects of all present-moment attentional practices, I have increased my scope of study to include a broad range of contemplative practices. Whether one reads the texts of yoga & buddhism in all their flavors, or western religious text, there is a common advocation to actively grapple with the paradox of transcending one’s individual self.

By deepening my understanding of yoga nidra and other meditative practices I hope to get a sense of whether yoga nidra holds promise for expediting the process of individuation, especially in our western culture where discomfort is to be avoided if at all possible. Yoga nidra has some salient features in this regard: it is conducted lying down (though it can be adapted to a variety of positions if necessary, for instance, a friend with chronic pain due to advanced MS practices standing up), it requires no special (or even normal) physical abilities, and it often has significant observable affects after a single practice session. These features combine to make it uniquely accessible to the novice, so much so that I describe it as meditation with a toy box. In addition to its potential for supporting personal growth, I have heard enough anecdotal reports of its amelioration of chronic pain to be encouraged regarding its use in palliative care. And finally, if in fact, meditative practices can be shown to assist in unlearning, they could be quite effective therapeutically for post traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and compulsive behaviors.

While I frequently waffle on how deeply I want to get into the science of yoga nidra’s efficacy, for now, I continue to be fascinated by learning more about the neural mechanisms of meditation and the practice of yoga nidra itself.

sue borchardt

the search for a contemplative studies graduate program

It looks as if I have finally found an academic home, at least for the next two years. If all goes well, I’ll be starting a Master’s Program at Goddard College in August ’08. My search for a graduate program began in December 2006, almost 4 years into a hiatus that began when I heeded a persistent call to leave my job as a research programmer in the field of bioinformatics. Without having a clear idea of why my work in software was no longer fulfilling me, I began what might be described as a gestational period during which I became an avid armchair student of Buddhism, yogic philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. Since then, I have taken two extended solo photo-expeditions to Asia, visiting Nepal, Thailand, India, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, continued to deepen my study of yoga and meditation, and began formal academic coursework at the University of Maryland. During this period, the idea of pursuing graduate studies further germinated, giving me a deeper and increasingly coherent understanding of what ignites my passion to learn.

At the core of my calling is a commitment to gain a comprehensive view of how we as individuals learn about ourselves and our gifts, and thus become increasingly able to place these gifts into service. To understand the formation of individual identity and its subsequent transcendence, one must grasp a wide spectrum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual processes.

In pursuit of this end, I began augmenting my formal education in January 2008 through undergraduate courses in psychology, organic chemistry, and writing while researching graduate programs in philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and religious studies. While these areas of interest initially appeared to me to be unrelated, they are each pivotal to the focused field of inquiry I envision centered on contemplative practices, specifically how they can be used as tools for intellectual, psychological and spiritual growth, development, and fulfillment. In designing a proposed program of study, I have incorporated elements of the undergraduate Contemplative Studies curriculum created by the faculty of Brown University. That program clearly articulates the ways in which the study of contemplative practices lies in the area of overlap of these seemingly disparate fields. A more detailed description of my interests in contemplative studies is as follows:

  • Attention: the neurophysiology of states of attention and the ways in which contemplative practices direct and, in some cases, manipulate attentional focus. I am interested models of attention including wide-angle vs. narrow focus and narrative experience vs. global focus.
  • Embodied Cognition: the means by which the experience of sensation shapes our understanding of self and our environment and our continued revision of these views. I am interested in traditions that explicitly employ sensation in mediative practice such as the tantric branches of yoga and Buddhism.
  • Emotion and Cognition: the relationship between somatic experience of emotional states and language. I am interested in meditation techniques that address the implicit learning and explicit revision of emotional patterning in addition to the underlying mechanisms by which these patterns are established and revised.
  • Milestones of Meditative Experience: the common experiences encountered after continued meditative practice as described in the teaching texts of Eastern philosophical traditions such yoga, Kasmir Saiivism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism. Specifically, I am interested in studying the neural mechanisms underlying the perceived dilation of time and its possible relationship to increased sensory sampling as the result of directed attention.
  • Scientific Study Design: the special challenges faced when designing scientific studies examining the mechanisms and/or effects of contemplative practices. I am interested in techniques such as electroencephalography, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and diffusion tensor imaging, as well as in understanding the challenges of studying subjective experience using such techniques as compared to self-report methods.

In an effort to address the physiological mechanisms underlying several of my areas of interest, I’m working to build a foundation in psychophysics, biochemistry, and functional neuroanatomy and I continue to broaden my exposure to contemplative practices of all kinds.

While my graduate program reading list is sure to evolve, here is my preliminary best guess at the texts I’ll be working with as part of my self-designed Goddard Program:

  • Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. L. S. Vygotsky , Michael Cole , Vera John-Steiner , Sylvia Scribner , Ellen Souberman. Harvard University Press, 1978
  • Experience And Education. John Dewey. Free Press, 1997
  • The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding. Kieran Egan. University Of Chicago Press, 1998
  • The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Antonio Damasio. Harvest Books, 2000
  • Memory, Brain, and Belief (Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative). Daniel L. Schacter , Elaine Scarry. Harvard University Press, 2002
  • The Mind’s Past. Michael S. Gazzaniga. University of California Press, 1998
  • The Relaxation Response. M.D. Herbert Benson , Miriam Z. Klipper, HarperTorch, 1976
  • Neuroanatomy Through Clinical Cases. Hal Blumenfeld. Sinauer Associates, 2002
  • The Meditative Mind. Daniel Goleman. Tarcher, 1996
  • Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Farb et al. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience. Volume 2, Number 4, Pp. 313-322
  • Parietal cortex and representation of the mental Self. Hans C. Lou et al. PNAS April 27, 2004 vol. 101 no. 17 6827-6832
  • Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain. Mark F. Bear, Barry W. Connors, Michael A. Paradiso. Lippincott Williams & Wilkin, 2001
  • Neuroanatomy: An Atlas of Structures, Sections, and Systems Duane E Haines. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2008
  • Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps : Interdisciplinary Explorations of Religious Experience (Journal of Consciousness Studies). Jensine Andresen , Robert K C Forman. Imprint Academic, 2000
  • Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. Francis Crick. Scribner, 1995
  • The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Christof Koch. Roberts & Company Publishers, 2004
  • The Boundaries of Consciousness: Neurobiology and Neuropathology (Progress in Brain Research). Steven Laureys. Elsevier Science, 2006
  • Emotion and Consciousness. Lisa Feldman Barrett, Paula M. Niedenthal, Piotr Winkielman. The Guilford Press, 2007
  • A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers. V. S. Ramachandran. Pi Press, 2004
  • The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.
  • The View from Within: First-person approaches to the study of consciousness. Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear. T Imprint, 1999.
  • Hemispheric Asymmetry: What’s Right and What’s Left (Perspectives in Cognitive Neuroscience). Joseph B. Hellige. Harvard University Press, 2001
  • Medicine, Mind, and the Double Brain. Anne Harrington. Princeton University Press, 1989
  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Harper Perennial, 1991
  • The Varieties of Religious Experience. William James. Barns & Noble Books, 2004
  • Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development. James W. Fowler. HarperOne, 1995
  • Buddhism and neuroscience. Studying the well-trained mind. Barinaga, M.(2003). Science 302, 44–46.
  • Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge (Columbia Series in Science and Religion). B. Alan Wallace. Columbia University Press , 2006
  • Buddhism and Science. B. Allan Wallace. Columbia, 2003.
  • The Taboo of Subjectivity: Towards a New Science of Consciousness. B. Allan Wallace. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind. B. Alan Wallace. Wisdom Publications, 2006
  • Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. James H. Austin. The MIT Press , 1999
  • Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. Joseph Campbell. New World Library, 2004
  • Sadhana The Realization of Life. Rabindranath Tagore. Filiquarian Publishing, LLC, 2006
  • Why Lazarus Laughed: The Essential Doctrine, Zen–Advaita–Tantra. Wei Wu Wei. Sentient Publications, 2004
  • Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying. The Dalai Lama. Wisdom Publications, 1997