THE BUDDHIST MIND SCIENCE OF MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE

A stupa and a man at a distance on a plane within a mountain range
Henry M. Vyner, M.D., M.A.
Henry M. Vyner, M.D., M.A.

Physician, psychiatrist, cultural anthropologist and writer

Sometimes the solution to an enduring problem is so simple and obvious that we fail to recognize it for what it is. Perhaps we might overlook an evident solution to an important set of issues because we believe that it would be impossible to accomplish that solution. Or then again, we might fail to pursue an obvious answer to a question because that answer is incompatible with the larger scientific paradigms of our time. Or perhaps we might pursue and belabor an option that is not working simply because it is doable. Certainly, conventional wisdom would have us believe that if there is such a thing as human nature, that it is nothing but folly to try and change it.

The world is in a horrible mess right now. There are, at present, two wars raging that are threatening to engulf both a continent and a subcontinent. Reactionary and authoritarian political movements are alive and well and gaining dominance in previously democratic countries. Strident and unapologetic racism is returning. The planet is warming. And this is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. Nonetheless, we can do something about all of this. We can find our way out of this mess by recognizing that its causes lie within the mind. This is the fundamental truth and obvious solution that we are failing to address when it comes to the worlds problems, and we are doing so even though many of us already know intuitively that the mind is the ultimate cause of our many malaises. There is something about the mind that causes humanity to constantly get itself into trouble. How then, do we know that the mind is the cause of our personal and sociopolitical problems?

For one, the mind is the cause of everything we do; with the exception of the spinal reflexes. The patellar reflex, for example, is mediated by a simple two neuron chain that travels to and from the spinal cord. However, just about everything else we do is caused by the higher psychological processes that are mediated by the brain. Bach’s Cello Suites and Hamlet are creations of the mind. Getting up and going to work in the morning is a series of actions that are brought to life by the mind. War, racism and misogyny are also produced by the mind.
We can, however, be more precise than this. Indeed, it is not the entire mind that causes human suffering. Buddhist mind science – a science of the mind that is more advanced in many ways than our modern scientific psychology – shows us that the Ego of the Egocentric Mind is the cause of a great portion of the personal and sociopolitical mischief that occurs in our world. More importantly, Buddhist mind science also shows us that it is possible to cultivate a state of mind – the Natural Mind – that will not generate the personal and sociopolitical problems that are routinely created by the Ego.

We are at present living through a scientific era in which we are being told that brain processes are the cause of mental illness and of just about everything else that we do. I want to quickly address this paradigm because if it is true, it would mean that the Ego is not the cause of unhappiness and mental illness. This paradigm is not true. In the future, science wil show that for the most part, brain processes are not the cause of mental illness. Failures and further research will establish that neurobiological processes mediate mental illness, but that they do not cause it. To use a more technical medical term, brain processes are the pathogenetic processes of mental illness, as opposed to its causes.
The easiest way to illustrate what exactly the pathogenesis of a disease is, is to take a quick look at an illustration from a physical illness. Streptococcus pneumoniae is the name of a bacteria that causes pneumonia. It is the most common cause of pneumonia in both children and the elderly.
When Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria enter the lungs, they set off an inflammatory response. The purpose of inflammation is to remove the bacteria from the lungs. The inflammatory process sends a bath of chemicals, fluid and white blood cells to the lungs to destroy and eliminate the bacteria. These inflammatory processes are also the pathogenetic processes of pneumonia. As such, they bring the pneumonia to life and create its symptoms: the cough, the blood tinged sputum and the shortness of breath. In much the same way, neurotransmitter imbalances and other brain processes are the pathogenetic, or physiological, processes that mediate the creation of the symptoms of mental illness. They translate the psychological processes that cause mental illness into neurobiological processes that create the depressions and delusions that are the symptoms of a mental illness.

What then is the cause of mental illness? This article is going to be the first in a series of articles that will make the clear case that the Ego of the Egocentric Mind is the ultimate cause of humanity’s personal and sociopolitical suffering. These articles will begin by first introducing you to a modern rendering of the traditional Buddhist mind science that has emerged out of our research on the Natural Mind amongst Tibetan Buddhist lamas living in the Himalayan region. Our research has empirically established that the Ego is the cause of everyday unhappiness, mental illness and humanity’s identity-based sociopolitical conflict: racism, misogyny, terrorism, culture war, war between nation states and the like. In making our case, we will be looking at the actual findings of this traditional Buddhist mind science, as opposed to looking at cognitive or neuroscientific evaluations of that traditional science. Buddhist mind science is, in essence, a science of the stream of consciousness. To be more precise, it is a science of the phenomena that appear in the stream of consciousness. As of this writing, our research has already identified the presence of 72 different types of phenomena in the stream of consciousness. To give you a first idea of the type of phenomena that are studied by this science, here is a list of just a few of them: individual moments of consciousness, primordial meanings, the involuntary stream of thoughts, emotions, mind films, repression, attachment, nondual awareness, realizations, dissolutions, goodness, compassion and more. There is much to be learned from this Buddhist science of the mind, and there is much that it knows that modern scientific psychology does not know.

EGO & SELF

It would be easy to imagine that the reason that the Ego is the source of our suffering is that it asks a human being to strive to be great. The Ego asks us, after all, to think of ourselves as being better than the other human beings amongst who we live. I am richer and more powerful than you. I am stronger than you. I am more beautiful than you. My religion is better than yours. My country is better than yours. This is certainly a problematic aspect of the Ego.
However, this is not the primary reason that the Ego causes everyday unhappiness, mental illness and sociopolitical conflicts that are based on differences in identity. The fundamental problem with the Ego is this: having an Ego causes each of us to have two selves: an Ego and a True Self, which is the fruit of the Natural Mind.
The problem with having two selves is that they fight a perpetual battle with one another to determine who we are going to be. Your Ego wants you to be the social identity that your well meaning family and society have pressed upon you. The True Self of your Natural Mind wants you to be the person you really are.
Whereas the Ego is a complicated and plodding mechanism that is composed of a constant cascade of stories, complexes and moods whose purpose is to preserve its sense of your identity, the true self is a simple thing. It has but two constituents: (1) a mandala – an inner cosmology if you will, that is a person’s way of seeing life and the universe and (2) the empty awareness that is able to know and express that mandala in the moment. Egocentric awareness, in contrast to empty awareness, is virtually unable to know your inner cosmology and the meanings that it gives to your experience. I promise to explain all of this at greater length in due time.

Humanity has been aware of this battle between the Ego and the Self for a long time now. It has been described – under different names – by Plato, St. Augustine, Hegel, Freud, Jung and many many more. In its battle for supremacy, the Ego creates specific weapons that it uses to try to establish its dominance over the True Self. It is the weapons created by the Ego to win this battle that cause us to suffer as both individual human beings and as societies.
In contrast, this conflict between the Ego and Self is either minimized or eliminate altogether within the Natural Mind. As a result, much of the suffering caused by the Ego literally dissolves into awareness, if you will, in the moment that it arises. One more detail for now: the Natural Mind has an egoless ego. Once again, I promise to come back to and explain all of this in future articles.

All societies of which we are aware teach their young to have an Ego. The French are brought up to have Egos. Americans are certainly brought up to have egos. Chinese and Indian people are brought into the fold of having an Ego. The Tukano of the Amazonian rainforest are brought up to have Egos.
In essence, this means that we have, as a species, incorrectly assumed that the Ego Mind is a healthy mind, and herein lies the obvious problem to which I was referring at the beginning of this article. By raising our children and ourselves to have Egocentric Minds, we are chaining ourselves to lives of unhappiness and identity-based sociopolitical conflict; conflicts that are waged between peoples who have different identities. Jews fight Muslims. Russians fight Ukrainians. White folk suppress Black folk.

To be brief for now, the Ego causes personal suffering by producing the building blocks of unhappiness and mental illness: an endless array of emotions, moods, identities and stories that keep us from realizing the simple happiness and integrity of being our true selves. The Ego also gives birth, in turn, to much of our sociopolitical conflict. It causes sociopolitical conflict by recreating in its social world the inner conflicts it has with its own True Self. The Ego reincarnates that conflict in the relationships it has with people who have identities that are different than its own. It is that simple, and as a result we trod from one conflict to the next. Future articles will spell out exactly how all of this happens.

The solution to the massive and enduring problems caused by the Ego is to: (1) stop raising ourselves and our progeny to have Egos and (2) to raise future generations to have Natural Minds instead. Another way to say the same thing, is this: we will need, as a species, to first change our notion of what the healthy mind is, and then we will need to act upon it. This will take a while, but it is doable.
The first step will be for all of us to recognize that the Egocentric Mind is a profoundly unhealthy mind. The second step will be to establish and spread the word that the Natural Mind does not cause the personal and societal pathologies created by the Ego. Both of these ends can be accomplished by developing a systematic and compelling body of science that establishes that these ideas are correct. The third step will be to take up the cultivation of the Natural Mind en masse. This will be a public health effort.

BUDDHIST MIND SCIENCE

It has become fashionable over the last decades to contend that the Buddhist tradition contains a science of the mind. Conferences abound in which it is declared that Buddhist philosophy and modern science have much in common. Sometimes it seems as though the functional MRI was invented for the sole purpose of proving that meditation is good for the brain. Fifty years have now passed since we were first told by Fritjof Capra that quantum mechanics and Buddhism have similar world-views. The vogue of this trend has gathered so much momentum that it has become part of popular culture, which in and of itself is enough to make any serious scientist or scholar skeptical of the merits of the idea. Nonetheless, it is true that there lies, within the history of Buddhist ideas, a vital science of the mind. Once agin, this Buddhist mind-science is both a basic and applied science of the phenomena that appear in the stream of consciousness.
The Buddhist science of the stream of consciousness is rooted in the experience of meditation. Meditation is, first and foremost, a mind ritual that is practiced to change the way the mind works. Its ultimate use is for the cultivation of the Natural Mind. Nonetheless, meditation has also been used, in the Buddhist tradition, to make scientific observations of the stream of consciousness, and that is where we will now begin our introduction to the findings of Buddhist mind science.

The basic structure of the mind’s experience of itself in meditation is one in which two separate entities seem to be present: (1) the stream of consciousness itself and (2) the awareness, or watcher, that knows the stream of consciousness.
The stream of consciousness is a flow of thoughts, feelings, emotions, stories, grand realizations, moments of goodness and joy and much more. The watcher is the awareness that seems to stand apart from and know everything that happens in the stream of consciousness. Close your eyes for a moment, and you will see what I mean.
The Buddhist science of the stream of consciousness is a science of the phenomena that the watcher observes in the stream of consciousness. Plain and simple. Just as astronomy is the science of the observations it makes of the planetary systems, star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies that appear in our universe.
This science of the stream of consciousness makes it possible to describe and map out the structure and dynamics of both the Ego Mind and the Natural Mind. It also makes it possible to determine which of these two states of mind is healthier. These maps of the workings of the Ego Mind and the Natural Mind are actually derived from observations of the stream of consciousness that have been made for centuries by Buddhist scholarpractitioners – which are observations that the watcher has made of the stream of consciousness.

In the next two articles in this series, we will bring together in one place the findings of Buddhist mind science that will: (1) describe the workings of the Ego Mind and (2) explain how they produce everyday unhappiness. We will then move onto an article that will explain how the Ego generates mental illness and humanity’s identity based sociopolitical conflicts. Finally, we will present a series of articles that will describe the workings and virtues of the Natural Mind. I have, for three decades now, been doing a body of research on the nature of the healthy mind amongst Tibetan Buddhist and Bön lamas living in the Himalayan region. In my interviews with the lamas, I have asked them to describe their experiences of their own minds. Our articles on the Natural Mind will include many excerpts from these interviews, and in so doing, they will both bring to life the natural state of mind, and show you that the Natural Mind does not produce the pathologies created by the Ego Mind. We can make the world a better place.

Henry M. Vyner, M.D., M.A.

Henry M. Vyner, is a physician, psychiatrist, cultural anthropologist and writer who has dedicated thirty years of his career to doing in-depth research on the nature of a healthy human mind.  As the son of an academic psychiatrist, Dr. Vyner grew up in an environment where dinner table talk was often about Freud and the nature of the mind.

As a young man, while looking for a way to do research on what would become his life’s work – the nature of the healthy mind, he went on to also get a degree in cultural anthropology and completed a body of research on the psychological effects of ionizing radiation. During this period, Dr. Vyner served as Director of Research at the Radiation Research Institute in Berkeley, California.

While working at the Research Institute in Berkeley, Dr. Vyner came across the book Buddha Mind, which is a collection of writings by the 14th-century Dzogchen master Longchenpa, compiled by Tulku Thondup. Upon reading Buddha Mind, Henry M. Vyner found that this great Yogi-Scholar-Poet was actually describing many of the same phenomena that he himself had found crucial to understanding the healthy mind.

At the age of 42, Dr. Vyner left for Asia where he still serves as an adjunct professor at the national university of Nepal. It was the beginning of a long journey interviewing Tibetan lamas in villages and monasteries all over Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, Sikkim and India. During this period, Dr. Vyner was a visiting scholar twice at the University of California at Berkeley.

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