The hard problem of fundamental being

A few weeks ago I was enjoying a Sunday morning breakfast in bed. Cup of tea in hand, a great book, cat curled up on my lap, and beautiful blue sky that beckoned me for a morning walk with my wife. Idyllic…

So, it was puzzling for me to be experiencing an upswell of anxiety; in my chest the all familiar pounding of my heart. I put down my book and moved my attention to my chest, giving my heart the space to pound as it needed to. I am fortunate in my journey with anxiety to have befriended it. I no longer get anxious that I am anxious. However, I was curious…

What is it to feel threat when there is no apparent threat?

What makes it so hard to be when there is no-thing making being hard?

The book I was reading was Annaka Harris’ “Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind“; my mind was therefore receptive to turning toward that experience and what might be going on in order for me to be experiencing that paradox of ‘being safe yet not feeling safe’. I explained a couple of weeks back that my reading has been dominated by books addressing brain, mind, consciousness, so I am becoming familiar with terminology such as predictive coding, priors, default mode network; and as a Vajrayana Buddhist practitioner, I am fascinated by ‘nature of mind’. Top down intellectual understanding of science meets bottom up experience in meditation. This Sunday morning was a chance to bring these together off the meditation cushion.

As I understand it*, whilst sitting up in bed my subjective experience was being based upon two inputs – the actual sensory input from the environment, and the brain’s prediction and therefore model of the environment. The latter, called ‘predictive coding’ is based on the thousands and thousands of experiences collated over time – and this saves our organism a lot of energy: what we take to be reality ‘out there’ is basically a shortcut based on what the brain predicts. Through a version of ‘Bayesian inference’, the brain is continually comparing predictions (priors) and sensory input (likelihood) – the difference between the two is prediction error. 

What is really interesting to note here is that Cognitive neuroscience is beginning to confirm what Eastern traditions have pointed to for centuries: we do not experience a real ‘out there’. The brain is not a co-ordinator of sensory input but rather a predictor of our environment. As Anil Seth calls it, we live a ‘controlled hallucination’. Recently, one of my meditation teachers provided me with the following instruction from the Vajrayana Buddhist view: “Notice what it is like to be experiencing a re-creation of the external space performed by our internal sensory organs in our head, and projected into the so-called screen of the mind”. Not too dissimilar, right? You and I will take in the same sensory input yet in all probability we will perceive our environment differently. That Sunday morning, neither my wife nor my cat were experiencing threat! In Gestalt psychology, the example of optical illusion that can appear as either a silhouette of two people facing or as the contours of a vase is often presented to convey subjective perception. What we see in the world comes from our history and narrative: what is stored in consciousness is projected onto the world.

As I sat in bed, I was talking myself through this controlled hallucination: reality as prediction, reality ‘as it is’; feeling unsafe with being safe. I see this akin to Carl Jung’s union of opposites, an alchemical marriage through which a third possibility emerges. If I was to address this challenge in my ability to be, my ‘task’ was to hold both in the space and equanimity of consciousness.

In my experience, addressing any block to fundamental being is undoubtedly aided by meditation practice. And I was delighted to come across a recent research paper on “Meditation and the plasticity of the predictive mind” by Ruben Laukkonen. I encourage anyone with an interest in bringing science and meditation together to take a look at his work, and especially this paper. For me it gave a powerful frame through which we can understand the mechanisms through which ancient practices can modulate our experience. Laukkonen explains how the three types of meditation practice offered by wisdom traditions such as Buddhism change the prediction processes we have explored a little in this post: the practices of 1) focused attention (e.g. mindfulness of an object like the breath), 2) open monitoring (open awareness with no object), and 3) non-dual meditation (resting in awareness itself). Laukkonen explains:

  • Focused attention brings a shift from thinking to sensing thus increasing the expected precision of present sensory experience and reducing engagement with ‘counterfactual’ predictions (e.g. planning, narratives about the future). Some of you might have heard about the default mode network: a set of brain regions associated with self-referential processing and autobiographical memory. Focused attention practices have been shown to decrease DMN activity – the narrative of self (and what is needed to keep that ‘self’ in existence, in survival).
  • Open monitoring brings a kind of equalisation, reducing priority to any one phenomenon and allowing a more even, non-judgement experiencing. In other words, possible factors in any prediction are given more equal weighting. This makes me think how our attention shifts towards what we know – like if we buy a new car, we suddenly start seeing ‘more’ cars of the same make, model or colour (attention has been focused) than when we weren’t looking for any make, model or colour and our attention is more open to all the cars on the motorway. Likewise, after a period of retreat, I can feel all my sense gates open and an increased sensitivity to sound, colours, taste, temperature. I am more open to my world.
  • Finally, in non-dual practice there is a gradual release of perceptual categorisation, including even the deeply engrained sense of self. Laukkonen talks of meditation ‘pruning the counterfactual tree’ and this includes the cutting back of the narrative form of self-hood. This brings about the cutting through of subject-object, leading to no separation between self and other, self and world (non-duality).

As these technologies are encountered along the path, the meditator becomes more able to be in the here and now. In other words, predictive processing is reduced and experience is more in line with reality ‘as it is’. And this is what happened on that Sunday morning. As I rested in the ground of being, or awareness itself, slowly the knot of anxiety unravelled. 

This is a capacity we all have, but resting in our fundamental being is NOT easy – we need help to experience who we really are. Meditation is one path; but another recruits the help of a benevolent other: psychotherapy. And this is what I would like to explore next week in what (I predict?) to be the final in this series on why psychotherapists need to think about the art and science of the profession.

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*This description is based on what I have taken from reading texts such as Harris’ and also Anil Seth’s “Being You”.

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