We conclude our uber-geeky conversation with neuropsychologist and dharma teacher Rick Hanson this week, exploring what might be happening in the run-up to the transforming moment of nirvana. In the Theravada tradition of Buddhism the moment or nirvana (or nibbana as it’s called in that tradition), and even the period leading up to it, is spiritually transformative. Using one common map of the experiences leading up to nirvana–the 8 jhanas–Rick explains what he thinks might be happening in the brain as it approaches the “event horizon” of nibbana.
He also uses the metaphor of eddies in a stream to explain the way that experience arises on a moment-by-moment basis, through the firing of neural coalitions in the brain. He also explores the parallels between the eddies of experience and self in our subjective experience with the material world.
Vince: Taking that a next step, you also mentioned in this article that you wrote called “Eddies in the Stream,” you describe a little bit of the moments leading up to Nibbana, or Nirvana, this kind of transforming moment in deep meditation, or perhaps not in deep meditation, where something is irrevocably changed. And I find it really interesting that you explored that from the perspective, the neurological perspective, of what do we think is actually happening in the brain leading up to this moment, perhaps even during this moment. I was wondering if you could maybe summarize a little bit of what you talked about there in that article, “Eddies in the Stream”
Rick: Yeah. Obviously there’s a lot of interest in the run up to Nirvana, like what in the world could be going on inside the brain as people go into these absolutely not ordinary states of awareness. Because organismic creatures in evolution who hung out in Nibbana, or the run up to it, I mean to the point that you lose sense awareness, let’s say of your immediate surround, you’re amazingly vulnerable in the Serengeti how in the world are they doing it, right? That’s the cool thing, I mean it’s a really dumb metaphor here for me but it would be like asking my friends who are into martial arts, “So who would win, Mohammed Ali or Chuck Norris in a street brawl?” Or something like that. You know like, what’s going on at the absolute pinnacle, really of, within one frame I think, the possibilities of human experience and existence. What in the world is going on there? So I have some notions about that and a couple definitions.
Mind as I define it is the flow of information moving through the nervous system. That’s what the nervous system does. It moves information around. It moves meaning around. Much like the heart moves blood around, the nervous system moves information around. Information is immaterial. It is a reduction of uncertainty, it is a reduction of entropy, and what the nervous system does is much like what a computer hard drive does, or people are listening to this right now, modulated with patterns of meaning essentially, maintained and carried by patterns of modulation of sound waves between whatever is producing this, headphones or a speaker or whatever, and their eardrums, et cetera, et cetera. So it’s a familiar notion that immaterial information is carried by a material substrate. Okay. Most of mind is forever unconscious, it’s outside of awareness, it’s either outside of awareness right here and now, or it’s just always outside of awareness and there’s nothing we can do about it.
So when you think about operationalizing the four jhanas and then the four formless states, I’ll just call them the eight jhanas, if you will. If you think about operationalizing that very recurring description of the steps leading to Nirvana, you’re focusing at that point on conscious awareness, because they’re a description of what one experiences, which by definition is in the field of conscious awareness.
Quick sidebar: there are other paths to Nirvana that the Buddha talks about and there are many examples of people who have sudden awakenings, kind of out of the blue. I love the saying from a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, sudden awakening / gradual cultivation, in a wonderful circle for the benefit of the individual as well as other beings. But when you get a recurring description from this great teacher, and great yogi, and a very precise roadmap the Buddha keep laying out, over and over and over again, it makes a lot of sense to pay attention to that one at least.
So what’s going on in the brain? When people move into the jhanas and then move through the jhanas all the way out, all kinds of stuff is going on, and I operationalize a fair amount of that in the later chapters of the book Buddha’s Brain because it’s really quite interesting, but for our purposes right here, let’s talk about the very end of the road. You know, what’s happening as you move through the fourth jhana, all the way out to cessation. And in some sense cessation is the pinnacle of the third noble truth. The third noble truth obviously says the reduction of clinging, the end of clinging is the end of suffering, or the reduction of suffering at least, the absolute end of clinging is cessation, achieved at the very end of the eight jhanas. So what is happening when there is cessation, what could that be? Well so let’s think about this. All this information is swirling through the nervous system, and let’s just say now within the field of conscious awareness, so whatever those neural substrates are that promote consciousness. And they seem to be based on a set of networks inside the brain that vary depending on the nature of the conscious experience.
By the way when I talk about consciousness here, it’s synonymous for me with conventional awareness, I think I’m aware of the 49’ers finally winning a football game because I’m a Bay Area guy. I think there’s awareness, that’s what I mean by consciousness, not some kind of capital C cosmic consciousness. So signals are moving through the field of awareness. These neural substrates are generally centered in the midline of the cortex, and also supported very much by sub-cortical structures, even brain stem structures.
Interestingly if you knock out cortical structures, say through a catastrophic stroke or head injury, the person can still remain conscious, but it’s a consciousness that’s very primitive in a sense. I don’t mean that pejoratively, I just mean in an evolutionary sense it’s a very rudimentary consciousness. It’s very here and now. There’s little sense of the past, there’s little sense of the future, there’s little sense of expanse or reach or breadth in it. It’s what some people call core consciousness. On the other hand, that core consciousness sounds very much like what people talk about or experience when the mind gets extremely quiet. It’s very present, very little sense of I, if any sense of I whatsoever, there’s a very bare subjectivity. It’s very boiled down to its essence.
So that suggests to me first of all, is you move through the jhanas, and you move through particularly the third and the fourth, and you tip into things that are described like the base of infinite space, the base of infinite consciousness, and then ultimately neither perception nor non-perception. Most likely I think what’s happening is that cortical activity, which is involved with what is often called autobiographical consciousness or narrative consciousness. I’ll just call it higher order, I don’t mean higher better, I just mean higher order because it’s more complicated or it has many more capabilities. But it also has many more… produces consequences if you will, in terms of creating the causes of suffering or enacting them. In any case, those cortical circuits probably go increasingly offline.
And the way the brain works–this is an important point–is that it’s a noisy network. Great neuro stuff, geeky maybe. I don’t know, I love big numbers, right? “Billions and billions,” like Google, right? One to the hundreth, like google, right? Anyway, so the brain has a hundred billion neurons, supported by a trillion support cells, and about three pounds of tofu-like tissue wrapped between the ears. It’s the most complex object known to science. Those hundred billion neurons, on average, make about five thousand connections with other neurons. Those connections are called synapses, that gives you five hundred trillion synapses in your brain. Each of those synapses can be on or off in effect. Therefore it can carry a bit of information in principle.
Typical neurons are firing five to fifty times a second, so they’re constantly sending–they’re constantly activating. A lot of those activations are meaningless. They’re just noise. But network studies in modeling, in computer modeling, studies have shown–in mathematical models as well–and by the way sidebar: there’s a lot of very cool stuff going on here about the mathematical operationalization of consciousness as a combination of complexity and integration in built-out networks. Which in principle could apply to sufficiently complex, mechanical substantiations of these networks, in the forms of robots, or God help us, the internet.
Anyway, the point is that in neural networks, or any kind of network, noisy networks are actually more facilitative of signaling. Because if you have a network that has a moderate amount of noise, then you can actually have a reduction of uncertainty either way. In other words, you can really reduce signaling. And that’s a signal. Or you can increase the rate of fire. In other words if you have a system that’s kind of in the mid-range of it’s firing rate, it’s potentially much more informative than a system that’s at the high end of its possible firing rate, or at the low end of its possible firing rate. Because then you reduce flexibility. You reduce the amount of information it can carry.
So we have a noisy network here. In Gregory Bateson’s definition of information: A difference that makes a difference. It’s anti-entropic, right? In other words, it reduces uncertainty. So we have this noisy network, in the neuro substrain of awareness, as people describe the experience of moving through the jhanas, or as you read the Buddha’s description, or as people report from their own experience, signals start dropping out. There’s less and less mental chatter. Verbal activity fals away. After the mind steadies, it grows very quiet.
In the fifth jhana factor, which is a cognitive or singleness reunification, there’s very little verbal activity. There’s not much thought, even not much visual activity. Sidebar: there’s a lot of visual activity in the brain. Most of the brain is not about language, even though we’re using language right now. It’s preferential. The amount of neural tissue, 12-1300 ccs of brain volume, ballpark, especially for men. The amount of neural tissue that’s devoted to speech is maybe, ballpark, the volume of your index finger. Compared to the whole of all the tissue. So the point being, there’s a lot of visual activity going on. Even that falls away. Very quiet. There’s not much sensation of the body. Just maybe the bare sensation of breathing, let’s say, if that’s what you’re doing. Even that may fall away, as people lose sense awareness. So it’s getting very quiet.
What does that mean? It means there are very few signals moving through the neural substrate of conscious awareness. And that means there’s just kind of noise, fertile noise, ongoing there. And then if you follow it all the way out, applied and sustained attention falls away. Rapture and bliss in the body, which is very informative, there’s a lot of information travelling in bodily bliss. Rapture falls away. Happiness falls away, becomes increasingly subtle and sublime. There’s tranquility, great equanimity. When you’re equanimous, by definition, you’re not reacting to the feelings of an experience. You’re not responding to pleasant or unpleasant. Also probably, there’s very little pleasant or unpleasant. Most of the feeling tones moving through the mind are neutral. Neutral feeling tones are not very informative.
And then you start dropping into the base of infinite space, where presumably, at that point, you’ve pretty much lost all external sense awareness, if you haven’t already lost it. The informations falling out. Infinite space. That’s what’s there. It’s not that informative. And then, infinite consciousness, right? And then moving into either perception nor non-perception. Almost no signaling. It’s incredibly quiet. And yet, in mysterious ways, there is some persistence of awareness. Including some subtle sense that there’s a knowing, if you will, there’s an ongoingness of awaring–that’s a gerund, if you will, not a noun. At that point, so few signals are moving through the field. Even then to the point of cessation.
To me, it’s quite possible that at the point of cessation, all the signals drop out. It’s all noise and what happens at that threshold and on the other side? It’s like the event horizon for a black hole. We can’t know by definition cause there’s no information transfer, right. Yet, people somehow when they come back, they report… there are hundreds of reports and probably tens of thousands of individuals over thousands of years including hundreds of thousands of years if you really extend back before the literate tradition that we’re aware of the beginning of something like the Upanashads, say in the Vedic traditions in Hinduism. When people come back from that experience, even the non-experience experience, if you will, whatever, transcends experience, the run up to it is experience. After that, who knows… I’m not trying to presume but I will say in the boundary zone as one enters into, edges into the tipping point into Nibanna, and then reports back out. What do people talk about? They talk about a profound and irrevocably transformative insight, which transcends language, of the nature of mind and the nature of existence, alright.
And my speculation, which to me is plausible, is that if you think about it, normal mental activity is, and also activity and materiality, is like an eddy in a stream. In other words, it’s a transient pattern coming together of elements that persist, and it may persist a long time like a sun persists for a really long time, nut, ultimately, all patterns disperse eventually.
I had a surgeon client once , “Rick, we have a saying in the OR: all bleeding stops eventually, one way or another.’” [laughs] All eddies disperse eventually one way or another, including the eddy that is your body, or the eddy that is the thought of this moment, or the eddy that is alas, your own children. All eddies disperse eventually.
Then we have the internalized eddies of thought and we have the externalized eddies of material phenomena which have the same common nature. Isn’t that interesting? They have the same nature. Much as the Buddha said, it’s the marks of existence right there. They are compounded and they are impermanent. And to the extent that we cling to them, we suffer and great harms for others right there, three marks of existence.
So, in the mind as we move right up to the edge of Nibbana and then tip in, all eddies have dispersed. There’s no more signaling. An eddy is a signal, in other words, it’s meaningful, it’s coherent pattern that anti-entropic. It’s not chaotic. It’s a reduction of chaos that persists over time. By definition, I think, eddies are dispersed. The mind is totally quiet. And at that edge, and even in the run-up, cause people get a lot of value even without going all the way into the “twilight zone” without tipping all the way over into Nibbana. I think what’s happening a lot is that people are getting a deepening insight into the eddying nature of existence and into the underlying causes and conditions of eddying itself, which is a key point.
In other words, as the eddies fall away and you’re increasingly not distracted by content and you become increasingly aware of noise, and how noise operates, and how content emerges and then disperses inside a fertile field of noise, you begin to see more exactly that all patterns, all eddies have this fundamental nature, which I think ultimately is what’s meant by Buddha-nature. They have this fundamental nature as emergent and transient, non-binding and in a sense, not that important. In other words, not really worth clinging to. They’re going to come and they’re going to go. And they’re emergent at the immediate edge of now.
In other words, existence is about “now,” which is still an incredible mystery in science. People don’t know what now is, right? Isn’t that amazing that we don’t know what now is, yet we’re in now all the time. And even just to say it, “Like what do you mean ‘time’?” cause it’s always now. And how in the world, in this vanishingly thin slice, razor thin slice of now, do the causes and conditions from then transfer into next which then is now? Like no one knows. It’s so interesting.
But at the emergent edge of now in the mind, one sees these neural coalitions coming into being, these assemblies emerging. In other words, eddies forming and then lasting a few seconds and then dispersing. I think as the mind gets increasingly quiet, you just live in an ongoingly clear experience of the emergence of eddying, and as you feel and see through experience again and again, this emerging transient, empty–in the technical Buddhist sense–nature of the eddying of your own thoughts and feelings, you get so much less attached to them. You allow them. They’re there. You wish them well. You prefer happy eddies than sad eddies [laughs]. You know, have some ice cream than a stick in the eye, right? Okay, … your friends and your kids. “I want the 49er’s to win, not lose.” Okay. Sure. But as you get clearer and clearer about the endlessness of the emergence of these eddies and the emergingness of these eddies, you get increasingly disenchanted. And I think that quintessence of that, that piercingly powerful transformative experience of that is in this run-up to Nibbana.
Interestingly as well, the nature of materiality is the same as the nature of mind in its deep nature. In other words, at the edge of now, think of a river with all these eddies forming in it. Let’s use that example. And twigs and leaves being kind of swirled into an eddy for a time and then dispersing again, right? Now, now, now, now, now, in terms of those eddies, moving through materiality, they, too, are emergent, transient, compounded, interdependent, fundamentally empty. And, even if you take it more deeply, down into the quantum level, which is so interesting to take it down into the quantum level of the emergence into now, of physical reality, moment by moment by moment, at that emergent edge of now, as we know from quantum physics, at that deep level, quantum particles have crazy capacities. You know, people talk about quantum weirdness down at the level of quantum foam, and at that emergent edge of now, particles can do all kinds of stuff. There’s innate uncertainty in what they do. And it’s not just the uncertainty in the mind of the observer. It’s an actual innate chaotic statistical cloud of possibility that congeals at the emergent edge of now into fixity, into certainty.
But at that emergent edge of now, there’s extraordinary possibility. Same at the emergent edge of mind. As these neural coalitions start to form, they’re quite unstable. They can become almost anything, I mean, within reason, you know. And so, there is as well, that aspect of possibility at the emergent edge of mind, mental eddies, as well as at the emergent edge of material eddies. So, the nature of mental eddies and their emergence is exactly the same as the nature of material eddies in that they’re compounded, interdependent, and fraught with possibility, full of fertile possibility at the emergent edge of now. And so at that edge, there is, in principle, a limited unconditionality. In other words, the Buddha used the term, “the unconditioned” a lot. I’ve often thought, what in the world could he have meant by that?
In an ultimate sense… this is where Buddhists differ here. I’m more of a traditionalist in that sense. In the ultimate sense, materiality is conditioned by the physical nature of the universe. The Big Bang has conditioned the emergent properties of the universe, the fundamental constants, the Planck constant, you know, things like that condition the nature of quantum foam, if you will. Similarly, mental phenomena are conditioned by human evolution, our bodies, our possibilities and all the rest of that, so be it. But, that said, even though their conditioned, at any moment of emergence the mind can in principle hold an infinite number of thoughts. Well, if it can hold an infinite number of thoughts, in a sense, there is an effectively infinite field of possibility. Similarly, at the emergent edge of now, the universe, or as it perceives materiality, can hold an infinite variety of forms. Those forms are constrained, but even within that set of constraints, there’s an infinite range of possibility. See the combination of the two? So, it’s very interesting to think about how you can have both constraint, but inside the field of constraint, you can have infinite possibility.
So, intellectually, we can understand conceptually in ways that are consistent with the nature of neural structure in terms of the emergence of neural assemblies, that are meaningful rather than simply noisy, in other words, coherent. They’re called assemblies or coalitions that last typically only a few seconds before they, as eddies, if you will, of neural patterning which support informational patterning of mind, or thought, or experience, before those eddies in the brain disperse. Similarly, we know intellectually that eddies in materiality have the same nature, which to summarize is emergent, compounded, interdependent–therefore, empty–does not have self, absolute self-arising existence, and last, fraught with possibility. All right.
I think that people who practice a lot just hang out more, more and more deeply, at an experiential level. They feel it. They get it more and more what the actual nature of the emergent edge of materiality and mentality is, which is fraught with possibility. They describe a kind of freedom. The Buddha used the language of liberation, freedom. Even I, as one of those eddies–“I” meant as the person, not the ego itself–I, as one of those eddies, is also emergent, and at the edge has an innate kind of freedom to it, in terms of conditioned, yet nonetheless effectively infinite possibility. And through the deepening, deepening and repeated and repeated experience of that, with the epitome being the ultimate tipping through cessation into Nibbana and then coming back, I think at that point, someone has an irrevocable insight into, and experience of the absolute deep nature of mind and materiality, and I think that’s what enlightenment is.