Consciousness is not the brain

Jul 15, 2021


If it’s the mind, our consciousness, that gets enlightened, we’d better know what Buddha means by it! What is the mind? Well, “mind” in Buddhism is used in a much broader way than we tend to use it in our own culture. It is used synonymously with the word “consciousness,” for a start.


Mind isn’t physical. If you’re a Christian or a Muslim, or you talk about some non-physical part of you, it’s known as the soul or spirit; the Hindus call it an atman, a self; the Greeks call it an essence.


But Buddha doesn’t use that term at all. He uses the term mind, but it incorporates concepts, feelings, thoughts, emotions, unconscious, whatever you want to call it. All of this is your mind. The whole spectrum of your inner experiences is your mind, and in Buddha’s terms it is necessarily non-physical. It isn’t the body. It’s not the brain. From the Buddhist perspective perhaps you could say that what we observe in the brain is an indicator of what’s going on in our mind – at least at the grosser level. 


It’s clear from all this that the Buddhist view asserts far more refined, more subtle levels of conscious awareness than we would ever posit as possible according to the philosophical materialist models. 


And in the long-term, by using the sophisticated psychological skill called single-pointed concentration meditation, we will be able to plumb the depths of our mind and access the more refined levels of our own capacity for cognition, sort of like accessing the microscope of your mind.


As His Holiness the Dalai says, it was these amazing Indian more than three thousand years ago who began the investigation into the nature of self. They’re the ones, before the Buddha, who discovered these subtler levels of cognition with their ingenious technique called shamata in Sanskrit, calm abiding, a method for achieving this single-pointed concentration.


Why do we need to access the subtler levels of our own mind? In order to completely deconstruct all of the nonsense and get in touch with how things exist, thus removing one’s own suffering, thus enabling us to benefit others. This is the entire point.


Years ago in New York, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was participating in one of those many Mind and Life conferences. Over these forty years he’s been meeting with all the best brains in the West on these scientific topics about the nature of the universe and the mind. Most of their discussions have been published; they’re excellent books to read. 


The main topic was the capacity of the human mind to concentrate. The Western scientists were coming up with their findings that probably six seconds was the maximum; I don’t know what their definition of concentration was.


Well, there’s the Dalai Lama and the other Buddhists presenting the Buddhist case from their own experience: the human mind has the capacity to concentrate for hours, days, months – depending on the skill of the yogi.


This is based on the experience of the meditators who’ve practiced single-pointed concentration. For us, six seconds is the best we can do because we don’t have such skills in the West and we don’t posit subtler levels of consciousness. 


For us, our conceptuality is very limited in its capacity for memory as well. But for the Buddha, we can refine our minds to an incredible degree of subtlety and clarity. Because these levels are more subtle, what they can cognize is more subtle, such as the past, the future, the minds of others.


We would say, “Oh, come on, past lives? I don’t remember a past life. Don’t be ridiculous!” Well, I’m sorry to tell you, you don’t remember most of today! The fact is, our gross level of conceptuality is simply not capable.


Now this is a whole realm that we don’t even touch upon in the West because we don’t assert it as a possibility. It’s the subtler consciousness that enables people to have what they refer to as out-of-body experiences; people have near-death experiences. There must be countless people who’ve had a similar kind of experience, but, of course, we can’t accept it in the Western model because it’s not a function of the brain. How can your brain leave itself, you know? How can your brain sit on the ceiling watching the body down there? We know that’s not possible. We hear these people have these experiences, but because it doesn’t fit with our very strong conviction that mind is the brain, we think it’s nonsense.


In a book called The Undead – it’s not about zombies! – by an American medical journalist called Dick Teresi all about the obstacles and problems in the medical profession in relation to people offering their organs after death – people they think are dead coming back to life, etc. – he quoted one doctor saying that he can now say with certainty that consciousness is not a function of the brain; “I don’t know what it is,” he said – but that much he could say.


According to the Vajrayana model of the mind, after you’ve stopped breathing at death, that’s just the ceasing of your gross consciousness; it can be up to three days before the subtler consciousness leaves the body.


As I said, we can achieve these subtler levels through these concentration meditation techniques. And these are around for thousands of years. 


In order to get the job done of deconstructing all the elaborate misconceptions in the mind that Buddha says have been there a long, long time, which is the way we see the world now – which he says is completely phony, a complete misconception, completely mistaken – we can only really do that properly at a more refined level. We must necessarily in our progress on this path – whether it’s this life or the next – learn to access this more refined level where we can really do the work radically. 


Even though we must access these subtler levels eventually, it’s okay; there’s masses we can still do at the gross level. Don’t think there’s not. 


But we can aspire to do so in the future.

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