The feeling tone is a good example of where the Dharma maps well to neuropsychology. In the Dharma, there’s this notion of the chain of Dependent Origination. One part of that chain that contains great opportunities to reduce or eliminate suffering is the sequence of contact > feeling tone > craving > clinging > suffering.
Contact is the meeting of three things: an object, the sense organ that apprehends that particular kind of object, and the consciousness that goes with that particular sense organ. Following contact, the brain produces a feeling tone that is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral to help you know what to do: approach the pleasant, avoid the unpleasant, and move on from the neutral.
This mechanism is a very effective way to promote survival in the wild and the passing on of genes. Feeling tones are important in evolution and they are a central theme in the Dharma: for example, they are one of the Five Aggregates, and also one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
Say the phone rings. Depending on whether you’re waiting for a call from a dear friend, or doing something really important and don’t want interruptions, you’ll get a different feeling tone: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
In the brain, the amygdala and hippocampus register pleasant/unpleasant and then broadcast a signal widely.
In Dependent Origination, what follows feeling tone is craving. We crave the pleasant and the ending of the unpleasant. Either way, it’s a kind of craving. After craving comes clinging, a sort of a more congealed, substantiated, enacted, “you’re in it” form of craving. And then, what follows clinging? Suffering.
Equanimity can break the chain right between feeling tone and craving, like jumbo scissors. You let the feeling tone be. It gets into the “mudroom” of your mind—that outer room where the muddy boots and wet jackets get left— but it doesn’t enter the central “living room” of your mind. Equanimity increasingly allows us to just be present with the pleasant, the unpleasant and the neutral, alike, without getting reactivated around them.
Equanimity is a very deep matter in Buddhism. It is one of the Seven Factors of Awakening, and one of the hallmark characteristics of the jhānas (states of concentration). Notice, for example, the difference between calm and equanimity. Calm is when you don’t have reactions. You’re chilled out. But with equanimity, you’re not reacting to your reactions; they stay in the mudroom.
It’s as if the reactions are surrounded by a lot of spaciousness. You prefer the pleasant to continue and the unpleasant to end—that’s OK. But you don’t even react to not getting that preference. You just surround it with space, and that’s where freedom is. I think that’s how people like the Dalai Lama can be sorrowful about what’s happening in Tibet, and yet simultaneously have enormous equanimity around it.
Calm is based on conditions, and thus not that reliable. But equanimity is based on insight, wisdom, and is thus much more dependable.
For example, disenchantment is a key factor of equanimity. We start to realize, “Won’t get fooled again.” Ice cream tastes like ice cream, orgasms are orgasms, being angry is being angry. Winning an argument, being right and showing them the error of their ways is just that. After a while you go, “So what?” Wisdom allows you to let go of the lesser pleasure, chasing the pleasant or resisting the unpleasant, for the greater pleasure of equanimity.
What happens in the brain when people become equanimous?
In a sense, equanimity is unnatural, since we evolved to get really good a reacting to the feeling tone. Our ancestors that were all blissed out, and not driven to find food and mates, and not driven to avoid predators and other hazards… CHOMP, did not pass on their genes.
The ancestors who lived were extremely easy to activate into states of “greed” and “hatred,” realizing this helps bring self- compassion to a path of practice that involves, in part, moving upstream against evolutionary currents. And it is important to remember that when we are not activated, our natural resting state is characterized by the Five C”s: Conscious, Calm, Contented, Caring, and Creative.
It’s just that we are very vulnerable to signals of opportunity and threat—and especially to signals of threat, since in evolution it is more important to dodge sticks than to get carrots: if you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll probably get another chance at them tomorrow, but if you fail to duck the stick today—POW—you won’t have any chance for carrots tomorrow. I think this is the evolutionary reason for the Buddha’s emphasis on dealing with aversion, since aversion to threats is so central to human existence.
In your brain, equanimity entails insights and intentions centered in the prefrontal cortex as well as prefrontal buffering of the feeling tone signals pulsed by the amygdala. It also entails the stable spaciousness of mind characterized by increased gamma wave activity of the brain. These neural developments are the fruits of sustained practice.
Seeing the Origins of Mental Activity
One of the possibilities of meditation, or practice broadly, is to get us closer to the bare processing of “this moment, this moment, this moment.” The brain takes the noisy, fertile chaos of billions of neurons networked together in intricate and transient circuits, and then it forms assemblies which may last a few tenths of a second, or a few seconds at most. When you observe your mind, you can see the outer signs of this neural activity by watching your thoughts merge into solidity and then crumble and disperse.
Just before a new neural assembly forms, there’s a space of fertile emptiness, where structure hasn’t yet congealed. Once a representation becomes fully established—an image, an emotion, a view, a thought—it is no longer free. You can have freedom around it, but whatever it is, that representation is set until it disperses.
So abiding increasingly in that fertile, generative space, in which neural assemblies take form, is a central process along the path of awakening. I think the people who are really far along in the practice are increasingly abiding in that territory. Thought is occurring, but they’re living more in that space of fertile freedom.
Self is Like a Unicorn
Components and functions of the apparent self— “Me! My Precious! I want! How’m I doin?”—are widely distributed in the brain. Take just three kinds of self-related activities. One is recognizing yourself, distinct from other people, or noticing an “x” on your forehead someone put there without you realizing it. Only a few animals can do that, including humans, other “great apes” such as monkeys and gorillas, whales and dolphins, and elephants. Another aspect is personal history, your memories. The third aspect is making decisions; I want chocolate, not vanilla, for example.
Studies have shown that those self-related activities are spread out throughout your brain. There’s no homunculus looking out from your eyes. Self in the brain is just like the Buddha says in the Dharma: compounded (made of many parts), variable and transient, and interdependently arising. It has no inherent, underlying self-arising on its own; therefore it’s empty of absolute existence.
Much of the time there’s not much selfing present; there is presence and mental activity without much activation of “I” or “mine.” For example, if you shift your body in your seat because it’s gotten tight somewhere: probably there’s not a lot of self present. But suddenly someone says something to you, or you notice, hum, their chair is crowding into mine: “Hey, don’t you respect my space?!” Then the self really activates.
There is a process of varying self-related activities; self is not a noun but a verb: there is selfing. Selfing developed in evolution to help us survive, and so it shows up particularly under three conditions: pursuing opportunities (often associated with greed), avoiding threats (often associated with hatred), and interactions with others (since we evolved to be the most social animal of all).
Aspects of self arise as impermanent but existent patterns of mental, and therefore, neural activity.
These patterns exist in the sense that the patterns which correspond to a thought of a butterfly or the knowledge that 2+2=4 exist. Patterns exist, but they’re impermanent and dependently arisen: they’re empty.
Mental/neural patterns related to self are just more patterns in the mind and brain, not categorically different from other mental/neural patterns. The problem is that we privilege those particular patterns above all others. They are the ones we most identify with, and the trickiest ones to disidentify with as we proceed along the path of practice.
The mental/neural activity of selfing is designed by evolution to continually claim ownership of experiences, claim agency of actions, and claim identification with both internal states and external objects (like political groups or sports teams we like): it’s very powerful! Watch your mind: a strong reaction will arise, let’s say, and for the first second or two there is not much self entwined with it, but quickly self jumps on the bandwagon and then claims the reaction as its own.
Self does give rise to desire, but much of the time, it is desire that gives rise to self.
But actually, much of the time self is truly superfluous to functioning well in the world and feeling good inside. Without much, if any, selfing present, there can be executive functions at work, such as organizing and planning or the will. There can be wholesome desire, Chanda, present—which is distinct from tanhā, thirst or craving, which the Buddha said caused suffering. Walk across the room: does there need to be self present? Lift the cup to your lips: is self needed?
The patterns of selfing in the mind and brain are real; they exist in the way that memory or an emotion exists. Their existence is transient and empty, to be sure, and thus not worth clinging to. But even more to the point: does what they point to, what they represent, actually exist? In other words, is there actually a coherent, unified, stable, enduring being somewhere, somehow, in the brain? Actually, no such being exists.
Whatever of self there is in the brain, it is compounded and distributed, not coherent and unified; it is variable and transient, not stable and enduring.
In other words, the conventional notion of self is a mythical creature.
Representations of a horse in the mind/brain are real representations of a real thing. But representations of the self in the brain are like representations of a unicorn: real representations of an unreal thing.
In sum, when you appreciate that the representations of self in the brain are empty, that what they represent does not exist, you start taking your own “self” much less seriously.
The more we study how the mind and brain intertwine, the more we find how well it maps with Dharma. The Buddha clearly understood this cycle of using the mind to change the brain, which then changes the future mind. If this is done well, it reduces suffering. He showed us ways to examine our experience, see how this works, and use that intuitive, direct understanding to free ourselves from suffering—completely free ourselves, in this very life, potentially. Just about everything we have found in neuropsychology supports the idea that he was right. This should give us a lot more conviction in our practice, along with a continuing source of practical tools to make it a reality.
This is Part Three of a three-part series. Part One – Mind Changing Brain Changing Mind,
Part Two – Amazing Brain Facts and Meditation
© Rick Hanson, PhD