TA Barnhart
a progressive voice from the Pacific Northwest
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carpe bucko

your brain ain't shit

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So humans have consciousness? Big deal. That proves nothing about the universe other than consciousness can evolve, like winged flight and gills and echolocation. Unique but not special. Certainly not proof of god or spirit or anything that transcends the laws of physics.

I, for one, am tired of hearing from my consciousness what a failure I am.

You are already everything you may hope to attain … You are already it.

Those words are from Jon Kabatt-Zinn, the person most responsible for mindfulness becoming a standard, and effective, treatment for mental health care. Kabatt-Zinn is a medical doctor, a longtime meditator, but not a Buddhist. (Nor am I.) But the wisdom of the dharma is not limited to the religion we call Buddhism; it’s universal and timeless.

And amazingly accurate when it comes to the human brain, consciousness, and self.

Consciousness, in both science and the dharma, is a result of the human brain’s evolution.  With trillions of synaptic interchanges happening moment-to-moment in a cerebral cortex loaded with special tools for interpreting our physical interactions with the world, it’s not surprising that we humans “became” conscious in a way no other creature has.

On the other hand, we cannot breathe underwater, fly under our own power, or many of the remarkable and amazing things other “lesser” creatures can. We think, and it’s both wonderful and horrible.

But because we humans alone, at least on this planet, have consciousness, somewhere along the way our ancestors decided that made us the greatest creatures on the planet. We were so great it was necessary to create an even greater being, an all-powerful, all knowing god (or set of gods) who alone had the ability to create something as amazing as the human race.

Sheesh. No wonder the Greeks wrote so many plays about hubris.

The results of the arrogance have not been good. Sure, humans have done a lot of good things, but the cost has been billions of cruel, violent deaths; lives lived in misery, fear, and servitude; a planet we are making unfit for most life forms, in particular our own; and above all, a universal belief that we are indeed special and the things we choose to believe are Truth and, therefore, an excuse to destroy whoever does not bow to our Truth.

Yup. Our big brains hard at work making live nasty, brutish, and short.

But the truth is much simpler, less grand, and very humbling. We humans and our beloved consciousness are just one creature to emerge from the machinations of evolution, physics, and chemistry. Fish swim, birds fly, bears poop in the woods, and humans think. That’s it.

The biggest problem we face in bringing our consciousness under conscious control (and you know without much instruction that your consciousness is rarely under your control in any way) is that before the human brain developed its outer layer where consciousness happens, we first evolved a brain that learned about danger, opportunity, group care, reproduction, etc. This part of the brain evolved on an even earlier layer, the “lizard” brain that directs our body to move, react, etc.

So when we speak of consciousness, we need to recognize these other parts of our brain because therein lies the real problem: Most of what we think we are doing by choice is actually a response to stimuli based on both instinct and experience. This is why trauma is so devastating: the brain’s automatic functions overwhelm the ability to think through a circumstance. A slight cue that “reminds” the brain of the original danger sets off a chain of reactions that are faster and more powerful than mere thought.

Which is how most of us live our lives every day. We do not choose an action; we react to the stimuli of the moment. To control such actions takes a shit-ton of work, either beating your brain into submission (so-called “self-discipline” but the wrong kind) or diligent meditative practice. 

Owning and controlling your own thoughts is perhaps the hardest thing any human can do. Most fail.

This is where the quote above gives me such hope. Instead of a false belief that I must become better, that I must attain a level of thoughtfulness or mental clarity, instead of believing that through effort and work I can become a better person, Jon Kabatt-Zinn says, No. The Buddha said, No.

We are, at any given moment, the entirety of all we ever can or will be. We can make that entire being healthier; we can do things better. But we are who we are regardless. There is nothing missing other than wisdom.

I have spent my life hating myself and wishing I were someone else, someone better. Welp, too bad, Bucko. I am me, and I always have been me. I’m this meat sack with a particular history, and that’s about it. What I can do is to follow the Buddha’s very simple advice: Wake up. Pay attention, even if it’s to nothing more than my breath. People with depression are overwhelmed by a brain that has almost no perspective on reality (which is why we perplex those who have never suffered this malady). So the ultimate “cure” for depression, for most of us, is to get out of our heads and just abide, to the best of our abilty, in the present moment.

Not the broken past or endlessly disappointing future. The present, this very moment. As I sit and do nothing more than be aware of my breath, I am as complete as I ever will be. I have nothing to hate or fear, just an opportunity to learn how to remain “here and now” regardless of what I am doing.

I see the light at the end of this tunnel, and it’s the soft glow of me doing absolutely nothing.

T.A. Barnhart