BG 120: The Mystery of the Mind: Ten Zen Questions

Episode Description:

Dr. Susan Blackmore–a psychologist and long-time Zen practitioner–shares with us the discoveries that she made while writing her latest book, Ten Zen Questions. Listen in to find out what she discovered after many, many hours of asking questions, such as: “Am I conscious now?”, “What was I conscious of a moment ago?”, & “There is no time. What is memory?”

Also, listen in to hear how she feels this type of exploration, often called Koan training in the Zen Buddhist tradition, can illuminate and inform the traditional scientific study of consciousness.

Episode Links:


Ryan: Hello Buddhist Geeks listeners. We are back with another episode and I’m in the studio with Vincent Horn, my buddy.

Vince: Yeah we’re here today, over the phone, with Susan Blackmore she’s in the United Kingdom and we are going to be talking to her today about her newest book, it’s called Ten Zen Questions. And a little background for Susan, she is the author of a couple books her first was called The Meme Machine quite popular in the field that she’s writing and she has been a Zen practitioner for well over two decades she’s a psychologist a writer and a consciousness researcher so thank you so much Susan for joining us and we look forward to hearing your unique perspective on Zen and the Buddhist tradition and consciousness.

Susan: Not at all. But, actually the mean machine was far from my first book.

Vince: Oh really?

Susan: My first book was on out of the body experiences in 1982. I’m pretty old. [laughter] Then I wrote a book on near-death experiences I did research for ages on paranormal which I never found any evidence of the paranormal. I then wrote an autobiography called In Search of the Light, which described all my failed attempts to find any paranormal phenomenon and then I thought you know I have enough of all this paranormal stuff and then I turned to memes and I wrote The Meme Machine and several more books on consciousness since then.

Vince: On consciousness since then… Would you say your current main interests are on consciousness research?

Susan: Oh I find myself interested in all kinds of things, but they all have to do with the mystery of the mind in some way. And to do this how we got here and why our minds are the way they are so it’s always somewhere around evolution and consciousness, those are the main themes. The means work is because it tells us how we evolve and how we got here this wonderful kind of mechanism, bottom-up, creation of design of the living world and of our minds, which I think fits wonderfully with codependents origination and the way the Buddha saw it such a long time ago. And then consciousness, the nature of mind itself, what is it mean to be aware of anything. So all of my work somehow kind of meanders around in these great mysteries.

Vince: So you have this really interesting perspective that many people in your field probably don’t, in the field of psychology and consciousness research, that you’ve actually explored a discipline, a practice, a methodology even, that explores consciousness from a whole new angle, from within. Instead of just exploring sort of the neurocorrelates, or the outside and I’m wondering how you see currently those two fittings… and this is a big question will get more than specific with some of things you wrote in your book… but why you’ve taken both of these approaches together and how you see them fitting together?

Susan: Well first I should say I’m not the only person doing it. Francisco Verela, who now sadly died, was doing that and there have been other people, Evan Thompson as well, there are a few other people trying but you’re right, it’s rare. To me what would happen was I began Zen practice nearly 30 years ago now, sort of spasmodically at first, but eventually settling down into daily practice about 25 years ago. And I thought it was really separate from my science. I mean I was studying you know, as I told you, psychology trying to find the paranormal trying to find the neurocorrelates of consciousness, and so on. And I thought of those things was pretty separate but over the past few years it seems more and more obvious to me that the scientists and philosophers trying to understand consciousness keep making assumptions about what consciousness is like. They keep saying things about their own minds, their own consciousness, They assume it like it’s obvious that was a stream of consciousness or that consciousness has contents and we’ve got to find the neural mechanisms underlying the contents of consciousness, and I’m thinking we’ll hang on a minute when I see it every morning in meditation it doesn’t look that way to me. If they’re making the wrong assumption without consciousness than they’re looking for the wrong things. No wonder the science of consciousness seems to be banging its head against the brick wall and not getting anywhere very fast. So that’s really why I decided to have a systematic look at some questions that really bridged those two domains. And I think they do fit rather well together.

Vince: Very cool. And before we jump into what those questions were and what you found I wanted to kind of go in to the philosophical distinction you make in the beginning of the book between these two common approaches to reality. And on the one hand there’s Idealism and on the other hand Materialism. And you mention in your book problems inherent in each of these approaches. And I’m wondering if you could say a little more about those approaches and what the problems are in them, and you’ve already kind of hinted at this.

Susan: Well Dualism is the natural way that people seem to think about the world. It’s not only the way Descartes described it. We have the sort of, mental world and physical world, and according to Descartes, they met in the pineal gland in the brain. It has not only been philosophically important; little children seem to begin very early on being natural Dualists. There’s a lot of research now showing that from the age of even two or three, children kind of imagine that people are physical bodies inhabited by minds that sort of push them around. It seems to be the natural way of thinking. But for centuries, philosophers and scientists have recognized that Dualism doesn’t work. There can’t be two kinds of stuff in the world. It seems to be that I am a conscious being inside my head, looking out through my eyes, but if you look in the brain, you just find neurons, all connected up in million of ways. Where is the “me”? Where is the mind? And if mind and brain are separate things, how can they interact? If they interact, they can’t be separate things. So dualism is generally thought by nearly everybody to be hopeless.

So the alternatives are, you’ve got to have some kind of Monism, you’ve got to say the world is made of one kind of stuff, not two completely different kinds of stuff. And there your options, crudely speaking, your options are either to plump for materialism, which a lot of scientists do, and say that everything, the whole world is made of material stuff. You know, atoms and molecules, and whatever. And there’s nothing else, there’s no mind, or, you know, spirit or whatever. It’s all material. Then you have real trouble accounting for consciousness. How come there can be the blueness of the blue sky I’m looking at now, or the greeness of those trees over there, or the feeling of my feet on my desk as they are at the moment. How can these feelings and experiences arise from a material world? On the other hand, if you take the other extreme and say, well, the world is all made of thought, or the world is all, you know… It’s all mind. Then you have trouble explaining the existence of a physical world. Because everybody’s mind is different, everybody experiences things in a different way. And yet, we can all agree that there is a desk here, and it’s holding up my feet, and this chair that I’m sitting on is solid, and so on. So, philosophically, there is an enormous problem. As soon as you allow consciousness and experiences into the picture of science, you have a problem. And nobody has solved this problem. I mean, lots of people say they have, and other people disagree. Basically, there is no agreed solution to this fundamental problem about how we fit together, a physical universe and our own private, subjective, conscious experiences.

Vince: And when you’re describing the Monism approach of idealism, I can already think back to different Buddhist schools taking that same approach, and it seems like…

Susan: Yeah.

Vince: ..this has been a problem even in the Buddhist tradition for thousands of years.

Susan: Indeed it has. And they have had remarkably sophisticated arguments about these things, just as we have in Western science and philosophy. And I would say that they too have not solved this it, in a kind of intellectual way. You can’t look at Buddhist literature and find, as far as I can tell, and find the solution that we can then adopt. They’ve argued all about this. Now, you could say that people who have realized oneness, who have overcome duality. Have seen it experientially, ave seen directly how not to be dualists, how not to divide the world up. And that that is what enlightenment is about. You might want to say that, but it’s tricky.

Then arises the question that fascinates me. If you were enlightened… If you were able to perceive the world without delusion, without self getting in the way, without dividing things up into this and that, and mind and matter, and whatever. You wouldn’t necessarily, I think, be able to say what it was that you had seen, or solve the problem in a way that would satisfy Western scientist or philosophers.

Vince: Yeah, it seems that just on a common sense level, that wouldn’t give you any specific knowledge, or any technical knowledge about the field or neuroscience, for instance.

Susan: No, indeed, indeed. But you see, it’s really an interesting question. The way I put the question to myself is this: If you had a really, really fantastic neuroscientist who really understood the brain and knew everything about the brain. If that person then became enlightened, would they then be able to describe what was happening in the brain? And similarly, if you took some great Zen master, whose really seen the nature. Really, properly. And then trained that person in neuroscience, would they be able to say the answer in neuroscientists terms? I don’t know.

But in a way, that’s what, I’m just making little creepy steps towards. Little tiny steps toward trying to get at that sort of question. Because it seems to me… The way I describe it then is extreme and fast-fetched, but we can at least, those of us who know a bit of neuroscience and have done some Zen training, can at least begin to try to see if one can illuminate the other.

Vince: And it seems like from having a little bit of experience in both, or even significant experience in both, at least it seems to me that that person would then be able to, or those people would be able to ask maybe better questions about the thing.

Susan: Exactly. Exactly. I think that is the best that I want to hope for from my book, is that it might inspire people to be able to ask better questions and therefore and go off and hunt for answers in more productive ways.

Vince: Well, thanks for giving me a perfect segue because we do want to talk about your book and I do want to talk about the questions that you ask in there. And obviously, Ten Zen Questions, kind of tells you a little bit about how many you asked. But tell us a little bit about the questions you asked and the methodology that was behind it.

Susan: All the questions are ones that somehow get at the mystery of consciousness. Some of them are well-known Buddhist koans, others are just questions that I set myself because I wanted to have a go at them. They’re all questions that… Sometimes I sit around and I’m trying to think about something, trying to understand something and I think “oh, if only I could sit down quietly and really have a clear mind and really answer this question, instead of being distracted all the time,” then I thought that’s what meditation is it’s being able to sit down with a still quiet mind then ask a question for hours on end. So that was the motivation, and I used my years of Zen training and what I did was… for some of the questions what’s in the book is a report of retreats that I went, koan retreats which were deliberately set up week long retreats in which all the people on the retreat tackle the question for a whole week. So I think three of the chapters are descriptions of those retreats. The rest are questions I set myself, and I did on solitary retreats. I did several solitary retreats in the mountains in Whales in a little old farmhouse miles from anywhere, no gas or electricity or phone or anything, and it was quite interesting being up in the mountains by yourself. Nothing like being a real monk up in the Himalayas, but still at least, same idea if a bit little more down to earth. Others I actually did in my own garden. I’ve got a garden shed down at the end of the garden and I would set myself, depending on the time I had available, four days, five days in which I slept in the house but I went out to my garden shed and spent all day there doing traditional Zen practice. Half-an-hour of sitting and 10 minutes of slow walking, half an hour sitting, 10 minutes of maybe weeding the garden, half an hour sitting and so on most of the day. And what I would do on a typical day would be to spend the first couple of half hours sessions just calming the mind, and then perhaps in the third or fourth session I would take whatever that days question was and sit with that question. And then at the end of the day I went indoors didn’t look at the e-mails, didn’t look at the post, didn’t do anything else, just went straight to my computer and just splurged out what I felt I had learned about that question, and then dropped it and went back to the meditation. And then I kind of tidied it up, I hope, to make more sense for the book. But all of these questions I’ve been asking for years before I did that sort of final practice for writing the book

Vince: And what were some of the things that you discovered through this investigation that you think would be really interesting for people to hear about, or that were really surprising to you?

Susan: Some of them were not surprising at all and won’t surprise all of you listening out there. And some of them are a traditional hunt for the self, and we all know that when you hunt for the self you don’t find it. But the attempt to hunt for the self is always very interesting because you keep kind of jumping on things and thinking “Ah, Hang on a minute, I’ve now created another one. And which is one is super-ordinate to another. And let the whole lot collapse,” and all of these things. They’re very interesting to do and I don’t get bored of doing those kind of things, but they’re not they’re not very surprising. Similarly this sort of you know Douglas Harding headless view sometimes I found myself just rediscovering the headless way by really concentrating on who’s looking and from where are they looking and what is being seen and finding that I am what is seen. And I think that is really very similar to the headless way, because what you see is part of your body and you look from your knees and then you see is your tummy and then you see it all disappears and you think, “well, there should be a head down there, well, what is there? Oh, it’s the world again.” That kind of flip… Many of the questions, kind, of, pushed me into that flip. And that is a way, I think, of simply sitting with no one sitting.

But, when you ask about something surprising, I think the most surprising thing was a little difficult, perhaps, to explain, but, it comes out of these first two questions. The first question is, Am I conscious now? And this is the question I’ve used for years with my students. I’ve taught consciousness courses at different universities in Bristol, and I’ve always got my students to spend as much time as they can in the week between lectures asking themselves questions like this. And the first question is always, Am I conscious now? It seems such an obvious question, doesn’t it? But the weird thing about that question is, the answer is always yes. At least unless you’ve done an awful lot of practice when it disintegrates. But basically the question is always, yes. And, yet, when I would go up to my students and tap them unawares and go, now? “Oh, damn”, you get, because they get the kind of sense of, “Of course, I wasn’t, I was somewhere else, I was distracted.” There’s a sense of, when you ask yourself the question, Am I conscious now? It’s like coming awake. It’s like waking up. Oh, of course I’m conscious now. But hang on a minute. Was I a moment ago? Now I think this is very closely related to the whole Buddhist practice of mindfulness.

Vince: Right. Right.

Susan: And I’ve done a lot of mindfulness practice and had this infuriating thing where you set out to be mindful all day, this is silly, really, but, you know, have a go at it anyway, and then you find, you’ve gone off into distraction and you pull yourself back and go “Oh, of course, I’m here, now.” So the question, Am I conscious now?, is similar to practicing mindfulness. But it provokes this other question, “Well, what was happening before I woke up and became mindful?” Because most of my life and most of ordinary life until you practice mindfulness, is this kind of darkness or sleep or whatever it is, That is what you’ve woken up from when you ask the question. So my second question was to investigate as deeply as I possibly could, What was I conscious of a moment ago? To try to see whether I could, as it were, look backwards into the darkness that was there before I woke up in asking, Am I conscious now?

Now, this is interesting to me from the neuroscience point of view, because the neuroscientists are assuming that all of the time in any body’s life there must be an answer to the question, What is that person conscious of at the moment? And they go and look for the neurocorrelates of consciousness. They look for what’s happening in the brain that corresponds to what the person is conscious of. But if most of the time people are going around, like, not awake, as it were, then, what’s going on? The curious thing that I’ve discovered was that the more I practiced asking, What was I conscious of a moment ago?, the more I discovered that there were lots and lots of backwards threads. Right now, at this moment, I could say to you, if I do now what I was doing then, all with all those many, many hours and days of practice… I could say, oh, well, I can remember that bird singing out there, I must have been listening to that; oh, but hang on a minute, also I could hear the clock ticking and I could sort of remember that as I went backward in time. So, was I conscious of that? Well, they didn’t have anything to do with each other. Oh, and I’ve been waving my arms in front of me, you can’t see, but I talking to you as though you were here and I’m waving my arms. And I was visually aware of that but that had nothing to do with the blackbird. There were all these different multiple of things going backwards. Which ones was I conscious of? Well, I don’t know. And the more I sat there in meditation and asked, What was I conscious of a moment ago? The more I realized that I didn’t know. There were all sorts of choices, I could choose one of a dozen or more threads of what was, kind of, there, as a past moment. Now if I don’t know what I was conscious of, for sure no scientist can find out. Because there’s nothing in the brain that tags what it’s conscious scientists are looking for. So if they’re looking for what I was conscious of when I wasn’t asking the question they’re never going to find it. That was a surprising discovery.

Vince: And that gets into this whole issue of memory, right? I remember one of your questions… I remember one of your questions being about memory and time….

Susan: [Laughter] “There is no time; what is memory?” My teacher, John Crook, saw this written over in a kind of metalwork kind of arch over a door in Lantau Island in Hong Kong, where he first began his Buddhist training. And he used this as one of the questions on the koan retreats. And what he did at the beginning of these week-long retreats was give us all a sheet of paper with, I don’t know, a dozen simple questions or koan stories on it. And we had to choose one that we would then work on for the entire week. And that one just leapt out at me: “There is no time; what is memory?”

It’s really interesting “question, statement; statement, question.” You can agree there is no time, and then say, “What is memory?” or you can say, “Well, of course there’s time!” And you can go into time and say, “yes, here it is, I’ll find it,” and then, “what’s memory?” or “There isn’t time” And then you can say, “Well, there really isn’t any memory if there isn’t any time,” and there’s all sorts of ways of exploring that one.

Vince: Yeah. I mean, there’s just so much juicy stuff in here, and it seems like you really have…

Susan: It’s a bit too much…

Vince: Yeah, there’s a lot, and it seems like you’d really have to…I mean, I could read this book, in some ways I’d almost have to replicate the experiment to really see some of the answers that you’re coming to in this.

Susan: Ah!

Vince: Or would I?

Susan: That’s exactly the point of the book. I’m glad you say that, because that’s what I would love… if my book inspired other people to sit… other people have some practice already, and can sit and ask these questions and see do they find out, some of the things that they find out, different things; in fact, I’ve set up a blog, and there’s lots of people commenting about what they found or what they haven’t found, or what they agree or disagree about, or whatever, and I hope it’s an interesting discussion. Because from a scientific point of view, if everybody finds something different, then we’re not going to get anywhere. And so, it’s kind of important that it’s not just me asking these questions. But also, from the pleasure point of view. I hope…I tried to keep the book short, it’s really — it’s way, way shorter than any book that I’ve written before, and it’s got these little pictures which I painted to go in between, there’s a short section and a little picture, and that’s supposed to sort of say to you, “Just stop reading a minute, and just explore in your own mind this, whatever it is.”

Vince: And we talked a little bit about the possibility of a neuroscientist asking these sorts of questions, and the possibility that they would come up, perhaps, with interesting answers. And I want to talk a little bit about that, because one of the guests we interviewed recently, named Shinzen Young– you may know of him…

Susan: Mm-hmm, I don’t know him personally.

Vince: Yeah, he was talking to us about a similar thing, that he’s interested in training neuroscientists in an understanding of classic enlightenment, so that they could then bring that understanding into their trade, into neuroscience. And that he’s really interested in this neuroscientific paradigm for enlightenment. And I’m wondering how these kind of questions would contribute to that, potentially?

Susan: Oh, I’d love to be one of his trainees(laughs)…do tell him I’m a willing trainee here with plenty of scope for more training there. But I think these questions would contribute… I think that what he’s trying to do has a similar motivation to what I’m trying to do: to bring together a tradition that says, “If you want to understand the mind, here is a practice that helps you: sit down, look at a white wall, calm your mind, and you’ll find out,” and another tradition that says, “Here is the brain, here are scientific instruments, here’s the whole history of science,” and we can find out that way. I think both he and I in different ways are trying to bring those two together.

Vince: And here’s the interesting question to me: What do you think might happen if they are brought together?

Susan: I would like to think that if they really came together, that it would make…. On the one hand, it would make it easier for people to see clearly, to see through delusion, to drop clinging to self, and so on. And on the other, it would help us understand how a brain works, how it evolved the way it did, why we get into these delusions, and why we suffer.


Susan Blackmore