Annie Murphy Paul

‘Actually the brain evolved in particular settings, mostly outside. It evolved to do things like sense and move the body to find its way through three dimensional landscapes, to engage in encounters in small groups of people. These are the things that the brain does effortlessly, naturally. The brain is not a computer. It never was.

The thing about the outdoors and the way that the human species evolved in the outdoors, all the information that we encounter, the sensory information that we encounter in nature, is processed really easily and effortlessly and efficiently by the brain. Our sensory faculties are kind of tuned to the kind of information and stimuli that we encounter in nature.’ (from the New York Times)

This is where I put in a plug for the roam on Saturday…

Lisa Feldman Barrett

‘In the lectures Barrett gives to explain this model, she talks of the brain as a prisoner in a dark, silent box: the skull. The only information it gets about the outside world comes via changes in light (sight), air pressure (sound) exposure to chemicals (taste and smell), and so on. It doesn’t know the causes of these changes, and so it has to guess at them in order to decide what to do next.

How does it do that? It compares those changes to similar changes in the past, and makes predictions about the current causes based on experience. Imagine you are walking through a forest. A dappled pattern of light forms a wavy black shape in front of you. You’ve seen many thousands of images of snakes in the past, you know that snakes live in the forest. Your brain has already set in train an array of predictions.

The point is that this prediction-making is consciousness, which you can think of as a constant rolling process of guesses about the world being either confirmed or proved wrong by fresh sensory inputs. In the case of the dappled light, as you step forward you get information that confirms a competing prediction that it’s just a stick: the prediction of a snake was ultimately disproved, but not before it grew so strong that neurons in your visual cortex fired as though one was actually there, meaning that for a split second you “saw” it. So we are all creating our world from moment to moment. If you didn’t, your brain wouldn’t be able make the changes necessary for your survival quickly enough. If the prediction “snake” wasn’t already in train, then the shot of adrenaline you might need in order to jump out of its way would come too late.

The brain also receives information about heart rate, what the lungs are doing, the immune system, hormone levels and much more. “Interoception”, the constant monitoring of the state of the body, carries on largely below the level of conscious awareness. But it is absolutely crucial, because it determines affect – those feelings of pleasantness or unpleasantness, arousal or non-arousal that are always present, and which feed into our emotions.

The brain deals with inputs from the inside the same way it deals with ones from the outside – it makes predictions about what’s causing these changes based on what it has learned, assigning them meaning in the process. In How Emotions Are Made, Barrett tells the story of a date she reluctantly agreed to go on, which took an unexpected turn as her stomach flipped while she was having coffee with the guy. “OK, I realised, I was wrong,” she writes. “I must be attracted to him.” A few hours later she found herself in bed with … the flu. What had happened over coffee was that her brain had made a prediction of “infatuation” based on sensory information from her gut combined with her culture’s understanding of that emotion and how it is supposed to unfold.

The brain, Barrett argues, is constantly trying to balance a “body budget”, her translation of the “fancy scientific term” allostasis. An imbalanced body budget – too much stress on bodily systems, not enough opportunity for rest and repair – intrudes into consciousness as negative affect. That in turn might get interpreted as “coming down with something” or “feeling depressed”, depending on how bad it is, your past experiences and the cultural context.’ (from the Guardian)

George Saunders

‘If we look at ourselves, we’re kind of set up to be these little Darwinian survivors. So we’re given this really cool sensory apparatus, and a brain, and everything. And you know, that stuff is there to help us propagate the species. And the intersection between our perceptions, and understanding, and what’s actually true are pretty small and pretty occasional. There’s a whole bunch of stuff out there that is beyond our grasp.’ (from the New York Times)

Suzuki Roshi

‘We have no existentialism, but in our Buddhist philosophy we this kind of interpretation of our mental functioning. We Buddhists suffered a lot (laughs) about our mind, so Buddhism is study of our mind (laughs). Our mind is very troublesome existence, (laughs) we don’t know what to do with it. So at last we find out that it is impossible to study our mind (laughs). Something impossible to study is our mind, but you cannot deny the existence of mind.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I realised that I had stacked up a number of little quotes about the mind, the brain, and consciousness, and for a moment was going to add them all into one giant post, but instead, they will form this week’s content. I think each has a slightly different angle, and it should build to an intriguing composite.

Li Po

The birds have vanished from the sky.  
Now the last clouds drain away.   
We sit together, the mountain and me,  
Until only the mountain remains. 

Mountains and Waters Sutras

When I lived at Zen Center, I would eat lunch out in the courtyard every day it felt feasible to do so. Over the course of the year, you could observe the shadow cast by the roof advance and retreat, roughly from the middle of the courtyard at the height of summer, to almost the top of the dining room windows in the winter. At this time of year, around the autumn equinox, it felt like the shadow moved faster.

Talking to people in different locations, as I do on some of my meditations, I hear – and encourage – an awareness of the light starting to draw in; the body notices, and responds to this natural cycle, even if we are not consciously paying attention.

In San Francisco, we have nevertheless been edging, a little uncertainly, towards the second half of our summer, which can often be the finest time of year. In the past week we have had another smattering of early rain, some interludes of fog, and also some warm sunny days. During this time I have been in and around mountains and water more than I might usually manage. 

I got a little wet riding on Saturday morning; I went out that day partly as the forecast had rain arriving early on Sunday. I was also not wanting to be too tired for the roam on Sunday afternoon, where we climbed into the fog on Golden Gate Heights, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t Sutro Tower offering lessons in impermanence (I don’t think the Heights qualify as mountains, but they are a substantial climb, with wonderful views when you get them).

On Monday, it was clear and sunny, and I started the day riding my bike to the top of San Bruno Mountain. I was actually on a quest to check out some trails in Brisbane, but the day was so nice I could not resist a little detour. Our lunchtime sitting was definitely better in the shade.

The following day I rented a car and drove up the coast, from Point Reyes to Sea Ranch – the first few miles were familiar from many bike rides, and then I was on roads I have only driven once, a few years ago now, on a short holiday from Zen Center. It was warm and bright, and Sea Ranch itself, the setting for an end-of-afternoon wedding I was officiating, looked amazing. I got to linger by the ocean a few times on the way up, and then hang out with a family of deer and a hummingbird before the couple showed up.

After the ceremony itself, I left just as the sun was setting into the ocean, and opted for the direct route inland to the 101, which was a narrow, crazily winding, and almost entirely deserted  road, the light fading all the while. As I crested one ridge, I could see the last rich colours of twilight behind me. At the next, a gorgeous orange moon – one day past full – in front. I was extremely tired from all the driving, but also energised by the beauty.

On Wednesday afternoon, having dropped off the rental car and lead a couple of teaching sessions, I returned on my bike to Brisbane, where my student’s company was having an off-site day. The location was high on the hillside already. I wasn’t sure how much the group would be up for in terms of hiking, but the majority were keen to try taking the fire road that run almost straight up to the ridge line of San Bruno Mountain. I had seen that from afar, and had plans for less challenging hikes as well. It was quite a workout, and hot with it, with new-to-me views over the airport (since we were a couple of miles closer than where the road takes you to the summit). The way down required complete attention, also steep and straight down on loose rocks and dirt. It seemed that everyone managed to clear their heads from the day of strategising.

I was quite exhausted by all of that, and some unpleasant near-misses with cars while riding this week, but on Friday afternoon I had some time to ride to the foot of Mount Sutro and hike up some of the trails ahead of next weekend’s roam. I haven’t been around there in at least a year, and much work has been done – and a couple of my favourite little trails are currently closed off.  The east side was nice and sunny, but the west-facing slopes were catching the fog. I am looking forward to circumambulating the mountain.

Oyster Point on my Saturday bike ride. It started raining an hour or so after that.
On top of Grand View, catching a glimpse of the Sutro Tower during Sunday’s roam.
Looking back at the city from San Bruno Mountain on Monday morning.
The coast line near Bodega Bay on Tuesday.
Pelicans at the mouth of the Russian River at Jenner.
The couple and the photographer making the most of the golden hour.
Looking back towards the coast from the road inland.
The moon was clear and orange, and beyond the limitations of the phone camera.
Some of the hikers looking towards the airport from San Bruno Mountain.
The light approaching Alameda on the Thursday ferry.
Just a few moments later.
The foggy side of Mount Sutro on Friday.


‘Some people think that buddha nature is like seeds of grass and trees: when dharma rain is abundant, sprouts and stems grow; branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit mature; and their fruit contains seeds. Such a view is an assumption of ordinary people. If you come up with such an assumption, investigate thoroughly that each and every seed, flower, and fruit is itself pure mind.

A fruit has seeds that are not visible but develop roots, stems, and so forth. The elements of the plants are not assembled from outside, but branches and twigs grow. Not limited to inside or outside, the growth of plants is not in vain, past and present. Thus, even if you take up the view of ordinary people, the roots, stems, branches, and leaves are the all are of buddha nature that rises and perishes simultaneously with all things.’ (Shobogenzo Bussho)

Shohaku Okumura

‘In the reality of Buddha’s life, we are connected with and supported by all things. The self is not the subject of reality and other things are not its objects; we are in fact one with all things in the entire universe, and this reality is itself enlightenment. Enlightenment is not something that we can possess or experience. We cannot, because of a certain experience that happened under certain circumstances, say, “I am an enlightened person.” If we judge and experience and say “I had an enlightenment experience,” we have already separated “I” from the reality of all things, when in fact there is no “enlightenment” that is separate from this reality. Rather than striving for a particular experience or goal, we should simply keep practicing without judgment or evaluation. This means approaching all that we do without selfish desire, without even the desire for enlightenment; to practise in this way is to manifest universal reality. This is difficult, of course, because even when we are helping others or making sacrifices for them, we can usually find, if we search our hearts and minds deeply enough, an ego-centered motivation for our activity. This is true even in our zazen practice.

What complicated beings we are! It is impossible to make simple judgments about the egocentricity of our actions. Yet as the Buddha’s children practicing with our bodhisattva vows, we must keep trying to help others and free ourselves of selfishness. Try as we may, however, we will never be able to declare, “Now I am completely free from selfish desires.” All we can do is to try in each moment, to practice the Buddha Way; we just keep opening the hand of thought and continuing to practice. There is no time when one can say, “I’m finished – now I have finally reached the level of an enlightened person.” As Dogen Zenji says, our practice is endless.’ (Realizing Genjokoan)

Willa Blythe Baker

‘If you sit still and watch your mind, everything that sleeps in your psyche and your memory will come to visit. To meditate will—sooner or later—require us to encounter and deal with every part of the self, and that might not be what we have in mind when we first stumble into a zendo or take our first mindfulness class. In the early days of practice, we seek meditation as a refuge, an island away from trouble, a place where we can escape our outer distractions and inner afflictions.

For a while, for months or years even, practice might seem to work this way. It might come to represent a world apart from our daily life, a kind of sanctuary. But eventually, the moment arrives when you look down at the island of kapok (our meditation cushion, that is) and realize this is not where you get away from your inner demons. It is where you face them.

If meditation is doing its job, space opens within, and in that space every memory and trauma will revisit us, every fear will surface. Our shadow will come out to play. This is not a sign of backsliding. It is a sign the work is beginning.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

This was a great article; look out for another extract soon.

Norman Fischer

‘If the bodhisattva realizes she or he could give up anything and everything because there is nothing to give up, and this realization makes her or him happy, not afraid, not dejected, not cowed, then she or he is a true bodhisattva. This teaching wisely and surprisingly acknowledes fear as an essential ingredient of our personalities. We identify with the vulnerable self: we think we are and possess what we are not and do not possess. Hence fear of loss of self and possession is essential in us. When basic identity is challenged, fear arises, often masked by anger. To practice the perfection of giving, we have to overcome this fear, realizing that there really is nothing to fear. Everything is empty in the first place.’ (The World Could Be Otherwise)