BG 141: The Mechanisms of Kensho

Episode Description:

“A perception, sudden as blinking, that subject and object are one, will lead to a deeply mysterious wordless understanding; and by this understanding will you awaken to the truth of Zen.” – Zen Master Huang-po

The above quote, taken from James Austin’s newest book Selfless Insight, is a description of kensho, an “initial awakening” to the true nature of things. We continue our discussion, this week, with James Austin about the importance of both kensho and satori in the Zen tradition, and his hypothesis as to what is happening in the brain, leading up to and during these events. We also discuss the vast importance of the thalamus, which Austin describes as a type of gateway of perceptual experience.

Finally, Austin makes a strong distinction between both the absorptions and various types of quickenings that can precede kensho or satori, but that are not the same as them.

This is part 2 of a two-part series. Listen to part 1, This is Your Brain on Meditation.

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Vince: So, taking those three things that you talked about. First, the two different kinds of attention, and second, how meditation relates to both top-down and bottom-up attention. Then thirdly, the different ways of processing both self-centered processing and other centered processing, or what you call egocentric and allocentric.

I’m interested in getting into more specifically, in the Zen tradition, what’s often described as kensho or satori. This kind of significant spiritual openings and how some of the stuff that we’re talking about is related to that. But first, I thought, maybe it’d be good to just explore what’s normally meant by kensho and satori, from more of a traditional Zen perspective. That way, we get clear about what’s usually meant by it, and then, we can get in to the ways that you understand it working.

James: Well, these two words are referred to both an earlier and then a later state of development on a long spiritual path. One usually needs to be on such a path for years before one drops into, first, kensho and then satori. I think, most people will regard kensho as an initial or preliminary state of awakening and reserve the term satori for a later and more advanced state of awakening. But then, what do we mean by awakening?

I think, one of the crucial elements in the state of awakening is the realization that there is no central self that is in charge of consciousness at that moment. That there is neither a sense of the physical self back in the center of awareness, nor any sense of an individual with a long history of psychic concerns back in the center of awareness.

You might say, well, if there isn’t any physical self in the center of awareness during this alternate state consciousness and there isn’t any psychic sense of awareness back in the center, then the individual must be unconscious. Not so. Basically, consciousness goes on – very well, thank you – without any sense of the physical or the psychic sense of self back in the center.

What kind of consciousness is capable then, of being conscious of a single state of consciousness? By definition, thus far, it needs to be an allocentric state of consciousness because there isn’t any self-centered consciousness back in the center doing it. This is where the difference, that we’ve outlined in terms of egocentric and allocentric processing become so crucial for meditators and for Zen meditators, in particular. Because Zen, traditionally, concentrates on the nature of what it is back in the center that is conscious.

It’s throughout the long history of Zen, the word “self” and “selfless” are very important. Zen doesn’t pay very much attention to bliss or to scholastic concepts. It really concentrates on what you learned about consciousness as a result of engaging in attentive processing while you’re on the mat or, equally important, while you’re out in the outside world. What you’ll learn when you’re on the cushion is that you’re engaged in what we might call “attentive processing.” The art of attention begins with really the important part of the order of these two words – attentive processing.

Let’s back up and look at these two words first in order to get further into this topic.

Attentive processing — those two words place attention. First, attention is a vanguard function. Attention is the sharp point at the tip of our mental functioning that pinpoints the target object and holds it so that the rest of brain processing can get in there, adapt it, massage it, and work with it, and interpret it. And that makes attention both top-down and bottom-up very important for our understanding what meditation is all about.

Now, getting back to kensho and satori. The thesis that we’re talking about here puts bottom-up attention through the temporal parietal junction and the inferior frontal cortex particularly on the right side. It’s very important preserved modes of attentiveness that help to point allocentric processing in the direction of perceiving the outside world as it really is. This is sort of Zen definition of suchness. It also implies that there is, at the same time, an emptiness of self back in the center. At the same time that suchness, the sense of the inherent things are as they really are out in the outside world without you back in the center experiencing them. We’re trying then to put in words a dual shift in consciousness that drops out the sense of the psyche and the somatic self back in the center and that at the same time enables other referential allocentric processing to proceed in a liberated manner.

So this is what I believe is sort of the essence of what the state of kensho is. Which is a state that one drops into, you can’t get there by any will power. You drop into it and if you’re fortunate and have had a long background in meditative practices before then, such a state has transformative potentials in the sense that once you’ve lost that self centered I, me, mine, hyper self-centered state, once you’ve lost that once you see what that feels like the relief that attends getting rid of all that limbic baggage. Once you’ve had that experience then you have a rather different perspective on how important you are, and are better prepared to value what’s going on in the world outside of your very own skin. Does that help?

Vince: Yeah, no that’s great. So it sounds that kind of both a description from the Zen perspective on kensho and then also your hypothesis about what’s actually going on in the brain. The mechanisms leading up to and then the actual event itself. And then you say in your books that you present a lot of testable hypothesis… hypotheses. I’m wondering is this something you think is testable?

James: People are putting a lot of weight and emphasis now-a-days on functional MRI imaging and on simultaneous electroencephalography or magneto encephalography. If people who meditate are studied longitudinally by well established and careful investigators, it should be possible if suitable funding can arise, it should be possible to get a sufficient number of baseline observations on meditators over the years, and then be poised literally, like physicians are poised in an emergency ward, to attend to emergency situations and their patients. It should be possible to have the technologies poised to study a mediator who happens during, let’s say a meditative retreat to undergo an episode of kensho or satori. And with the suitable instrumentation, and the suitable technology, and the suitable experimental design, and the suitable human researchers on hand.

Because kensho has an immediate residual that will last for many minutes not hours. It should be possible to define what changes they just taken place in that subjects brain. To do that of course, you need to have a new baseline, so let’s say at the start of a one-week retreat. So if during the retreat, the meditator dropped into kensho, you should be Johnny-on-the-spot and able to tell whatever changes that might have occurred in the brain, in the interim. So I think this is feasible and I think sooner or later, maybe not in this decade, which were almost out of, but in subsequent decades… I think it should be possible, theoretically, to determine more about the underpinnings of kensho and satori.

It would be my thought that when this happy event occurs, the researchers will discover that the self-referential regions have dropped out of the picture, to a substantial degree. And that the bottom-up, allocentric attentive processing, will be more or less in the foreground. This is not, by the way, the impression that we have when we’re usually conscious. We don’t have that no-self perspective. What we do have is an entirely self-centered perspective that keeps us thoroughly convinced that we’re in charge of all of our perceptions. Well, that’s not the way the brain is set up to operate in its lower right side. That’s one of the reasons why when can kensho does occur, it’s so startling and so novel and so fresh and so unexpected. Because when allocentric perception is liberated and no-self isn’t around there to take credit for it, it’s a very startling experience for the person who is undergoing that experience impersonally.

Vince: So the way I am understanding is that, there these, kind of, non-event, events. There is no one there to observe or experience them because like you’re saying allocentric processing has been liberated.

James: It’s basically… it’s not self-centered.

Vince: Gotcha! And so given that it sounds like what you’re describing is something of a temporary realization that has larger implications. I’m wondering if you have any hypothesis for how the brain or the system of someone who has been meditating for a long time, and who has undergone a few of these shifts. Would there be a long-term way in which their brain is kind of, for lack of a better word, rewiring itself or changing in some way?

James: It’s not a very bad word that you’re putting into a phrase because the evidence, I think, is consistent with the fact that the brain is rewiring itself. The brain of a sage person I say certainly is pursuing impulses through rather different pathways and experiencing the world phenomenologically, in a rather different way from how they started out, many decades before. So rewiring I think is an apt phrase.

Your question was, how does it come about? In advanced, rare sage person does see the world differently and does respond differently. I think we have a few clues theoretically at least, and they’re again based on some of the functional anatomy of the brain that has been unveiled just in the last decade or so. An important way to look at this, I think, is to take a look farther away from the cortex and drop down and see what things are like at the level of the thalamus.

The thalamus is a paired structure in the center of the brain. And it’s a weigh station if you will, a gateway if you will, through which all of our perception, with the exception of smell, must proceed on the way from our basic sensory nerves up to the cortical level of the brain.

So, the thalamus, as the gatekeeper and as the weigh station to our more sophisticated cortical processing, exercises a crucial influence in consciousness. It basically is organized in two major layers, which we’ll call the dorsal tier or thalamic nuclei, and the ventral tier or the thalamic nuclei. Don’t be afraid of these two words, dorsal and ventral, because as we’ve just explained earlier, there is the dorsal part of the cortex as well as the ventral part of the cortex. And, it turns out that the dorsal part of the thalamus interacts with the dorsal part of the cortex and in ways that are very illuminating.

Let’s start with the back of the dorsal thalamus, a very big nucleus called the dorsal pulvinar. It’s our major association nucleus for much of what we hear and see and perceive in the back of our brain. What does it do? Well, here we are looking at this outside world with a blizzard of potential stimuli out there. And, based on all of it’s associations with the cortex, and all of the information that it receives from lower down. The pulvinar assigns salience that is instant meaning to a certain target that it detects in the stimulus array in the outside world. And, that assignment of salience allows attention to focus on it and put that sensory target in the foreground of perception. And, at the same time, it relegates all of the surrounding stuff out there that would be confused with that target, into the background. So, this is how you recognize a friend’s face when you’re out in a crowd, pick it out automatically, it pops out at you. That’s what the dorsal pulvinar helps you do.

Well, right in front on the dorsal pulvinar is another dorsal nucleus called the lateral posterior nucleus. What does that do? It’s nicely interconnected with the superior parietal lobule. The superior parietal lobule is our major somato-sensory association nucleus. It’s responsible for putting together our senses of arms and legs and backs and heads and everything into an organized body schema. In other words, it’s the cortical association center for our physical sense of self, our soma.

Not surprisingly, the superior parietal lobule is right up there in the parietal lobe, which is in the center of the egocentric processing stream. So, here’s the anchor that helps us have the feeling that we’re a physical, experiencing object back in the center of all of our perceptions. So much for our somatic sense of self and it’s perceptions.

But, even more important, because we’re psychic beings, are the three nuclei in the dorsal part of the thalamus that lie in front of these two nuclei. Each of these is a limbic nucleus of the thalamus, so called. What does that mean? A limbic nucleus of the thalamus funnels all the information from our limbic system, and processes it on its way, and exports it up to the cortex. These three limbic nuclei of the thalamus are all there in the dorsal part of the thalamus, ready to export all of our fears and our limbic-oriented over-conditioned histories up to the cortex to cause us untold suffering.

Okay, so if the thalamus and its dorsal aspect has so much self going on, and so much subjective self and suffering going on, and exporting it up to the cortex, how do you get rid of all that? What does meditative practice do? What does kensho or satori do?

Part of the answer, I think, depends on how we interpret something called “triggers”. We haven’t used the word trigger thus far Vince, but triggers are fairly important. Zen history puts a great stock on triggers. It turns out that a triggering stimulus is so effective that it can cause the dorsal thalamus to become deactivated. And when the dorsal thalamus is deactivated by the inhibitory nucleus that caps it, then the corresponding dorsal parts of the cortex are also deactivated.

If you’ve been able to follow the foregoing description of what goes on in the parietal and frontal lobes in the dorsal part, you may recall that these are the part of our egocentric self-processing pathway. So what we’re talking about here is an inhibition of the dorsal thalamus caused by an overlying inhibitory nucleus, a reticular nucleus, that is then manifest as a deactivation of the self-referential parts of the brain up in the cortex, dorsally.

This, I believe, is the explanation for why a trigger can be so important as a catalyst that successively sets in motion the sequence of changes that can deactivate the physiological core of our egocentric self and spare, by the way, the ventral parts of the thalamus, through which allocentric processing can still proceed through the lower parts of the temporal lobe and the lower parts of the frontal lobe.

Vince: Okay, very cool. Thank you. Appreciate that explanation. That’s interesting.

James: It’s complicated, but we are talking about the brain…

Vince: Yeah.

James: …and there isn’t anything simple about the brain…

Vince: Right.

James: …normally, and therefore there isn’t anything simple that’s going to explain either Zen, or the alternate states of consciousness that can occur in Zen training.

Vince: Just to backtrack a little bit before we kind of wrap up the discussion…

James: Uh-huh.

Vince: …you and I were talking before the interview and discussing, some of the questions, and you mentioned that it’d be really important to make a distinction between what you’d call quickenings or absorptions, and kensho or satori. That these are two different things, and it’s important to make the distinction, especially for practitioners.

James: Yes, it is. When we’re talking about kensho and satori, we’re really talking about states of consciousness that are advanced and that generally require, at least on the meditative path, years of practice for them to happen. Much more commonly experienced, are lesser states of consciousness — little quickenings which may be hallucinatory, little states of elevated mood that may occur during retreats, little states of epiphanies where minor insightful, more intuitive, grasping of ideas coming in. These are all very common on the meditative path and many people experience one or another level of these quickening after they have been on a retreat or two or while they are actually on the retreat.

Often, however, the episodes of kensho or satori that we are talking referring to not occur during the retreat they occur after the retreat. Meanwhile, to the uninitiated, people all over of world, are naturally interested in being awakened or enlightened. Meanwhile there is a lot of confusion about the lesser alternate states of consciousness, the quickening or the absorption.

The internal absorption that I mentioned at the start of this interview, the one where vision and hearing dropped out and my physical sense of self dropped out… It is possible, I think, to interpret these as due to inhibitory effects of the reticular nucleus. On certain nuclei in the lower back of the thalamus, not the dorsal part, but down in the much more ventral parts and most posterior parts of the thalamus, because there are two falamic nuclei called the lateral janiculet, which is important for vision, and the medial janiculet, which is important for hearing. And just a little gabo inspired inhibitory effects of the reticular nucleus can deactivate these to relay nuclei in the lower back of the thalamus and temporarily disconnect visual processing and auditory hearing processing.

Moreover, just in front of the ventral posterior lateral and medial nuclei and these nuclei and these on each side are responsible for sensations from one’s body and one’s head. The thalamus is set up to be able to block sensory transmission in ways that are very relevant to the absorptions. But these are preliminary, and the absorptions don’t have the potential of changing traits of consciousness and performance. The absorptions do, on the other hand, inspire one’s curiosity; it certainly inspired mine to go further and to inquire what is going on during these meditative changes.

So let’s not down play the absorptions and let’s not downplay the more concentrated modes of attention or meditation, because these do help the amplitude of conscious awareness and the vividness of it and the sustainability of attentive processing in ways that are very important.

On the other hand let’s not minimize the receptive kinds of open awareness that one can practice when you are off the mat, out of cushion, in the outdoors, being on bird walking expeditions, keeping your eyes and ears wide open for the next bird that might happen to come along unexpectedly and in particularly if you are out at night looking up into the dark sky to see the rising of the moon which was a important part of the Zen cultural traditions in the old days.

Also, let’s not look over either the fact that 2500 years ago or so, it was when Siddhartha looked up and saw the planet Venus as the morning star that the legends tells us that he was enlightened. So looking up may be one of the important ways that a trigger can catalyze states of consciousness.


James Austin