Are you a brain?
The biggest problem with looking to articles and statements about brain science and meditation, and there a host of them, is the constant beckoning to identify yourself with the body.
Change your brain, the right brain states of meditation, the damage to the brain that chronic pain does, etc. might have some applications, and some findings might be useful to certain individuals, but the number one “side-effect” is identification with the body.
I am my body– solidifying that means solidifying the casting in of our lot with something unreliable, decaying, breakable and breaking, and that will perish.
And a lot of suffering ensues.
Now perhaps that would be okay if it were true. If we are the body, and that’s all, then this truth would tell us not to look any further, and don’t delude ourselves. Suck it up and deal.
But is it true?
Before we just assume that it is so, have we really looked into it? And how would we do that?
This is an entry way into spiritual self-inquiry. It’s all about not jumping to conclusions, but it’s also a different kind of truth than what science pursues.
That’s why all this brain science and all this identifying ourselves with the brain, if one’s attention is captured by it, is important to disentangle from if there is any interest in self-inquiry because it’s taking the attention toward seeking certainty in the wrong direction. Now, science itself or scientists themselves might not be seeking certainty, but the humans who consume it may be, and they are looking in the wrong direction.
So let’s look at one example for now, about the idea that in spending a lot of time in chronic pain, a person has damaged their brain, based on some study out lately.
That’s a daunting thought– my pain has damaged my brain, and now things are going to be sucky for me in the future with this even bigger and more entrenched thing about me.
From the standpoint of spiritual inquiry, we could simply say that is a thought happening in awareness.
And that would be enough for someone firmly established in the spirit.
Recognizing that this is nothing but a thought appearing in awareness is consistent with the attitude that serves your freedom and peace, and makes the awareness that you truly are clearer and clearer, which is the truth. The best thing that can happen is to live in truth rather than speculation and thoughts.
But if we’re not fully clear on that, or committed, there may still be a role to play in disentangling our thoughts from other thoughts, and getting better thoughts.
One caveat– that will be endless by itself. After one tangle is addressed, the thinking mind will produce another one, and so on, endlessly.
But if we are also pursuing self inquiry that may buy us some time to put down the fire of the thinking mind and take a good look into what you truly are.
So on that level, only saying it’s a thought happening in awareness is not enough to create space for us, if we don’t have a foothold in spiritual inquiry. It’s enough for those who already have put their lot in with the spirit, but maybe not for anyone on a tipping point.
So let’s look at this from the standpoint of disentangling the thoughts…
Is My Brain Changed for the Worse?
Let’s think back at this thought and see if we can’t disarm it (keeping in mind that another distracting issue about something completely different may pop up in it’s place)
Chronic pain may alter the brain (everything alters the brain), whatever that sentence means.
Pain is a non-physical entity that cannot be measured, it is only experienced by consciousness. Pain only exists in awareness. Pain cannot touch or alter anything in the physical world in any way that can be scientifically proven, just as likewise there is no physical instrument that can ever touch pain and measure it.
A study that “proved” that pain changes the brain would have the same task as trying to prove that ghosts somehow can touch physical objects, and let’s say, slam doors in haunted houses. Maybe they do, but we won’t be seeing any scientific studies that show that any time soon. The best we might see is that some definition of what is a ghost appears at the same time as slammed doors with a very high rate of frequency.
So whatever counts as “pain,” and whatever counts as a “brain change,” when a human researcher decides to choose a definition of “objects” in their constructed scientific study, there is some relationship between the two “things” that the researcher defined.
Does the “brain change,” which is almost certainly a reading of some kind of data painted on a screen– what is that splotch a measurement of? Is it a measurement of the life wisdom and ability to cope that has been acquired by the subject over the time spent with “pain’? Is it a measurement of the future proclivity of the subject to interpret intense sensations as pain rather than some other thing? Is it “damage”?
It could be any of those things, but it might array it’s splotch pattern in a way that looks like the splotch that happens when, say, researchers poke test subjects with hot irons. So that’s the relationship that they were looking for. They weren’t looking for other things.
Maybe a life wisdom splotch (not that I’m buying these scans, but just for example) would show up with another data gathering instrument (say, using sonic waves like radar into the brain vs. electrical impulses measured on the skin vs. heat scans etc.) and not this one, if there ever could be a splotch that “IS” life wisdom, or that “IS” a proclivity to feel pain in the future, etc.
The association of reports of pain (not pain itself, which can’t be measured or detected in the physical world) with certain patterned splotches on a screen of data may indeed be strong. But there is no cause link shown in the fact that splotches look similar, and that’s important.
It could be that we have repetitive habits of reacting badly to pain and that is somehow influencing things in a certain pattern. But that’s not pain, then, causing that, it’s the reaction. But even that’s just speculation. We don’t really know what the cause is or what it means. We can take a guess, and it might be a good guess, and act on that, and it might prove beneficial, giving more substantiation that we are onto something. But it’s not truth– it’s just a working hypothesis that happens to be a hypothesis that works.
At least, we can say that pain itself cannot directly influence the brain because the brain is in the physical world and pain is not. So right there we can already actually do an about face and say, pain is not directly the problem. What else could it be and what my role in that could possibly be– that’s all up in the air.
It might be the reactivity, so if there is any actionable information there we are at least seeing that “pain” itself is not it, but it might be something else.
It’s really our meaning-seeking mind that is finding meaning in all this and find what is the significant finding for us to act on. If there is “damage” in the brain as suggested by splotch, who is to say that there isn’t also wisdom in the brain, but it’s just not being looked for, or measured? And how to define and compare the two in a way to evaluate whether or not it’s a good thing overall?
That paragraph was meant to be somewhat absurd and logical at the same time, (wisdom splotch?) just to show that there isn’t a meaning or interpretation that is absolutely true about any of these things. They are just very partial and slanted guesses inside a limited viewpoint to begin with (for instance, the operational definitions of the researcher).
Meanwhile, we can take look at “I’m damaged.” We know that has a slanted meaning. We know that there are all kinds of motivations and outlooks on ourselves and ways we handle life’s difficulties is woven into that thought. It might try to lean on science to say “I’m true!” but we know that’s not the whole story behind it, don’t we? That tricky, tricky mind, thinks it’s fooling you!
And because we do spiritual inquiry we can look at something here that immediately pulls the rug out from under every single bit of it: the “I am” in “I am damaged.” That is the thing. We skip over that so quickly.
What is “I”?
It’s skipped over like that is self-evident and doesn’t need any investigation.
What is your true position here? Are you any symptom? Are you the body, so that what happens to the body happens to “me?”
Is this the way it really is? We assume that we know what we are, and just proceed from there.
Wait a sec… What am I?
So spiritual inquiry is a different kind of look and a different kind of truth. However, it really matters for other questions because if we believe that all we are is the body, and mostly the brain, then any signal about that is immediately the only thing that matters, our fate is sealed, and moreover all we are is something that will die in the end anyway.
Fortunately, we don’t live completely that way no matter how asleep we are to the question “Wait a sec, but what am I?” Things happen to our body and we don’t become totally frail and a basket case. We have strength to carry on, because we are, despite our beliefs, rooted in something beyond the body.
And while part of us might be intellectually denying death, part of us is also secure in the fact that this death of the body seems so unreal because something in us knows it is not.
It is to that which we look in inquiry.
Is there anything that can ever damage or touch or hurt you, or are You completely fine, safe? Is there anything about you in which “damage to the brain” is of no real concern to You?
The question of inquiry is not which do you think you are or believe you are. The question is what are you, really.
Whatever you are, you are that now. Despite what you or I think one way or another, we are that.
So which is it really?
Self-inquiry is looking to this truth, and confirming it for yourself.
Which is different than science. Science never finds a real truth, as almost every scientist knows.
In fact in all this life and all this universe what you are is the only kind of truth that can ever be found. Everything else we know is only sort of true, depending on how you look at it and define it and attempt to show it.
So maybe, to the degree we are clear and committed (and that is whatever it is, we can’t pretend it) we should emphasize in our life which sort of truth we are using as our compass, depending on the situation and where we are at.
You can throw you whole lot in with the body, but is that well, and is it even true, really true? Find out!