Sunday, February 05, 2006

The body brain

This morning at zazen, a practitioner asked the master about the importance of the precepts that every ordained Zen practitioner vows to practice (I'm not ordained, so I suppose I can be a hedonistic, greedy, exploitative bastard, right?). The master responded that the precepts are guidelines, but that the development of the "body brain" is far more important. That is why he does not discuss the precepts, and, presumably, why we don't work with koans. He explained that once the "body brain" is developed through the frequent, repetitive practice of zazen, that the entire body can think and make correct decisions, whether or not they technically comply with precepts or laws.

Here is a somewhat detailed explanation of the "body brain" concept that I cribbed from a Zen website:

The correct attitude of mind comes naturally from a deep concentration during zazen on the posture and the breathing.

During zazen the conscious flow of thought from the cerebral cortex is greatly diminished and the thinking brain becomes calm and cool. Blood flows toward the deeper layers of the brain, the thalamus and the hypo-thalamus, and this body-brain becomes more active and developed. The nervous system becomes relaxed while our deeper brain becomes more active. Receptive and attentive in every cell of the body, you learn to think with the body, unconsciously.

During zazen, thoughts, conscious and subconscious, naturally and continuously rise to the surface of our mind. Don't try to stop these thoughts from arising. But at the same time, don't get involved with the thoughts or let them take you away from concentration on posture and breathing. Just let the thoughts pass, like clouds in the sky, neither opposing them nor attaching to them. Shadows pass and vanish. Images arise from the subconscious, then disappear. The brain becomes deeply calm. One arrives at the deep unconscious, beyond thought, to hishiryo consciousness, true purity.

Hishiryo is the unconscious of Zen--universal mind. In Japanese, shiryo is thinking, fushiryo non-thinking. But hishiryo is absolute thinking, beyond thinking and non-thinking. Beyond categories, opposites, contradictions. Beyond all problems of personal consciousness. Our original nature, Buddha nature, the Cosmic unconscious.

A few questions come to mind. First, is it possible to create and develop instincts? Or is the body brain a more conscious type of instinct? Second, does this concept collapse Freud's model of super-ego, ego, and id, merging all three of those together? Like many who grew up in conservative families, I personally have always been skittish about my id, so it's interesting to think about a thought process that perhaps elevates the role of that mysterious part of my psychology. Conceptually, I can see how the spirit of the precepts (super-ego) could be absorbed into the "body brain" (which would seem to combine the self-imposed internal restraints of the ego with the internal desires and yearnings of the id), thus resulting in essentially instinctual decisions that are moral, whether or not they comply with the letter of the precepts. Or is this just another one of those wonderful Zen paradoxes? Talk to me, people!

Edited to add some excellent insight from Shannon W. in another corner of cyberspace, in a completely different context. When I read her comment, it occurred to me that the Zen notion of the body brain may relate to what we think of as simple intuition:

When I first commited to trying out following my intuition, it took some time to pay attention to what was intuition vs. what was stereotypes vs. what was fear. But with practice I got more confident about following what felt/feels right in my gut. And as an internal trade off for following the intuition that set off a negative vibe, I committed to myself to follow the positive intuition that I feel. So, when I get a gut feeling that I should go and ask someone how they are really feeling, or that I should offer to help someone I try to follow that, too. Because I'd spent so many years trying to unlearn stereotypes and clarify my values, initially I wanted to dismiss the intuition of a negative nature. But it seems to have balanced itself out, at least for me.


doug said...

What do I know? I can be a hedonistic, greedy, exploitative bastard too.

I dunno man, I don't feel like I have a firm understanding of Freud or "body brain" to make an intelligent comment. So I will make some dumb comments.

My impression from Joseph Campbell is that you can't really mix a Westerners head (id, ego, and superego) with an Eastern philosophy.

"First, is it possible to create and develop instincts? "

I think so. I have personal examples I could share, but lets not go there.

I personally have always been skittish about my id, so it's interesting to think about a thought process that perhaps elevates the role of that mysterious part of my psychology.

This is what I think is meant by the scripture, "resist not evil".

I don't know if it supposed to be paradoxical, what did you have in mind more specifically?

Randy said...

I really don't know what I have in mind re. paradoxes. I may just be trying to impose a Western frame of reference onto something that is just doesn't apply to.

Andrew said...

It seems that we've already strayed from Zazen. Do you know what I mean?

Randy said...

Yes, I do, and you're right.

Thinking about zazen as something that should be thought about puts us outside the realm of thought/nonthought. Another fun zen paradox.