Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Liberation: jumping out of the loop, stepping out of the system and transcendence.

The concept of liberation from delusions by 'stepping outside the system', or ‘jumping outside the loop’ occurs repeatedly in different contexts within Buddhist philosophy and practice.  The archetypical example is, of course, the Buddha himself, who escaped from the endless loop of Samsara (cyclic existence) when he became enlightened.

In a philosophical and religious context, this stepping outside a system is known as transcendence, but there are also more mundane examples that serve as useful analogies, which I’ll also be considering in this article.

'Transcendence' means that a lower level of existence or activity is viewed from a higher level:   "In philosophy, the adjective transcendental and the noun transcendence convey the basic ground concept from the word's literal meaning (from Latin), of climbing or going beyond, albeit with varying connotations in its different historical and cultural stages... ... In everyday language, "transcendence" means "going beyond", and "self-transcendence" means going beyond a prior form or state of oneself. Mystical experience is thought of as a particularly advanced state of self-transcendence, in which the sense of a separate self is abandoned."   - Wiki

Once you’ve jumped out the system there are several courses of action you can take:

(i) You can reject the system altogether, as did the victims of the Emperor’s New Clothes confidence trick, or would-be jihadists who have seen through the workings of the memeplex.


(ii) You can jump back into the system, though holding a different point of view, as with Lucid Dreaming, or a Bodhisattva returning to Samsara.


(iii) You can subsume the system by incorporating it into a new larger system, rather than regarding it as a system complete in itself, as with Keats' poetry or the nested mathematical systems resulting from Godel’s theorem.

Here are a few examples of stepping outside various systems, some of them profound, and some of them mundane.

Jumping out of the web of interlinked thoughts.
In Mindfulness meditation we are often plagued by the web of trivialities in our mind. Each thought is like a webpage with hyperlinks which lead on to another thought, and so on round and round ad infinitum. As we step back from our thoughts, we become aware of the webcrawler in our mind  - the process that follows all these associations and presents them to our awareness. We don't (at present) control this webcrawler. It seems to be able to click the links in our thoughts without, or even in spite of, our attempting to exercise some control.  And the webcrawler has certain preferred types of links, those that lead to objects of anger, fear or desire. It doesn't pay too much attention to bland associations, and there's no family filter on what it dredges up.

Occasionally the stream of thoughts will subside into the root mind, and a moment or two of clarity will occur before a new thread of associations emerges. When this happens, we can attempt to catch a glimpse of the calm, space-like and empty nature of the root mind - like a blue sky rather than one constantly obstructed by a passing procession of clouds. For a moment our mind has stepped outside the system, outside the normal loops and webs of compulsive, self-referential, uncontrolled thoughts.  More here 

Stepping outside biological constraints. 
What does stepping outside of biological existence entail?  If we are nothing but biological machines, then escaping the system will be impossible. Either that or the escape will be into total nothingness.

But no less an authority than Richard Dawkins believes that humans are capable of escaping from their biological and memetic (to which I'll return later) constraints, and improving their mind as they do so:  

''We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators." - Richard Dawkins 'The Selfish Gene'    More here  

Stepping outside the Darwinian mind
We can also liberate ourselves from the tyranny of our genes at a deeper cognitive level, in addition to freeing ourselves from their selfishness. But first we’ve got to ask whether we can trust our mind.  How do we know it's giving us a true picture of the world and not some sort of delusion we need to break out of?

If the mind is nothing more than the brain, and the brain has evolved solely to ensure the survival of our hunter-gatherer and neolithic farmer ancestors, then how do we know that it can reliably do anything beyond the range of competence for which evolution selected it?  Natural selection cannot select directly for true beliefs, but only for advantageous behaviors.

Perhaps we are deluded into seeing the world in terms of 'things' because our genes are telling us to grab resources. But if we take a step back and view the universe in terms of geological and cosmic timescales, it's apparent that there are no inherently existent things, only processes of continual change.   

Individuals, buildings, artefacts, species, continents, planets and stars are transient phenomena caused by the coming together of parts. All compounded things are impermanent and eventually disintegrate. It is the deluded grasping at things as if they were permanent, or desirable in themselves, that is one of the principal causes of dukkha - the sensation of unsatisfactoriness due the transience of all biological pleasures.

But who or what is being deluded by this biological scam? 

If we aren't just the products of our genes, then what are we?  How is it possible for us to step out of this delusory system  and become  non-deluded, non-mechanistic, non-biological free agents?  More here



Stepping outside a dream (then stepping back in again). 
Sometimes dreams can be nested within dreams. Often when troubled with problems we dream that we are dreaming. Typically we dream that our problems have taken a nasty turn for the worse. Then we wake up and realise that our problems don't exist - they were just a dream. Then we really wake up and are confronted with our problems again.

So there are dreams within dreams. Maybe several levels deep.

We often abide in dreams unaware of their logical contradictions, but if we do become aware, our mind usually does a 'pinch me' and forces us to wake up (unless we are skilled in lucid dreaming and can manipulate the storyline and dive back in to the dream after the 'pinch').

A lucid dream is when we realise that we are dreaming, but instead of waking up we decide to remain in the dream and take control of its progress. Some people use lucid dreaming just for fun, but the lucid state can also be used to communicate with aspects of our subconscious that are normally inaccessible.

Tibetan Buddhists have developed the practice of lucid dreaming to explore the nature of the mind, including the 'substrate consciousness' that goes on from life to life. 

Reflecting on dreaming, and dreaming about dreaming, inevitably begs the questions:

Are we still dreaming right now?

Can we wake up to a higher level than our daytime experience?

Buddhists claim there are higher levels of consciousness than our everday life. The word 'Buddha' literally means 'Awakened One'.  More here

Stepping outside the liar paradox loop.
The Liar Paradox is a statement of the type "this sentence is false."

If "this sentence is false" is true, then the sentence is false, which would in turn mean that it is actually true, but this would mean that it is false, and so on in an endless loop.

Similarly, if "this sentence is false" is false, then the sentence is true, which would in turn mean that it is actually false, but this would mean that it is true, and so on in an endless loop.

So trying to assign a classical binary truth value (0 = FALSE, 1 = TRUE) to this statement leads to a contradiction. 

Intermediate 'probabilistic' values like 0.5 don't work either.

The only way to deal with this problem is for the mind to jump out of the computer-like endless logical loop.  More here

Negative capability in the arts - stepping outside the context
‘Negative capability’ resembles stepping outside the contradictions of the Liar Paradox, in that it requires the observer to stand back from apparently contradictory truth claims in order to see the bigger picture.

‘Negative Capability’ is a phrase coined by the poet John Keats to describe his conception of the receptivity necessary to the process of poetic creativity, which draws on Coleridge's formulation of ‘Negative Belief’ or ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Keats defined his new concept in a letter (22 Dec. 1817); ‘Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—.’ Keats regarded Shakespeare as the prime example of negative capability, attributing to him the ability to identify completely with his characters, and to write about them with empathy and understanding; he contrasted this with the partisan approach of Milton.

Negative capability describes the capacity of human beings to transcend and revise their contexts. The term has been used by poets and philosophers to describe the ability of the individual to perceive, think, and operate beyond any presupposition of a predetermined capacity of the human being. It further captures the rejection of the constraints of any context, and the ability to experience phenomena free from epistemological bounds, as well as to assert one's own will and individuality upon their activity. The term was used by Keats to critique those who sought to categorize all experience and phenomena and turn them into a theory of knowledge."  - Wiki    

‘Triggered by Keats’s disagreement with English poet and philosopher Coleridge, whose quest for definitive answers over beauty laid the foundations for modern-day reductionism, the concept is a beautiful articulation of a familiar sentiment — that life is about living the questions, that the unknown is what drives science, that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  
See also Why Beauty Matters

Stepping outside physics into metaphysics
Asking how mathematical functions describe the motions of  elementary particles or planets are questions about physics.  Asking why mathematics is so unreasonably effective in describing all physical systems is to step outside physics into the realm of metaphysics.


Stepping outside a meme into the metameme.
Returning to the second of Richard Dawkins' selfish replicators: mind-viruses (otherwise known as malignant memes and memeplexes) are contagious religious delusions, which harness the three poisons of the mind to spread like infectious diseases -  'as dangerous in a man as rabies in a dog', to quote Winston Churchill.

The study of memes, memeplexes and their mechanisms of infection is known as memetics.

One interesting question is whether memetics is itself a meme about memes  ('The Metameme') and whether its spread could block and give immunity to more pernicious memes, much like the harmless cowpox virus can block out the lethal smallpox virus.  Once you know how memes work, you can see through their psychological tricks.

In other words, the diagnosis is also the treatment! If you understand meme theory you will be able to step outside the parasitic memeplexes (networks of mutually reinforcing memes) that seek to control your mind.  More here


Stepping outside a confidence trick
Closely related to stepping outside a memeplex is the Emperor’s New Clothes effect. The little boy was already outside the system, and by stating the obvious he allowed everybody else to step outside.

Gödel's theorem, stepping outside mathematical systems.
"Gödel's proof suggests that there are high-level way of viewing the mind/brain, involving concepts which do not appear on lower levels, and that this level might have explanatory power that does not exist – not even in principle – on lower levels. It would mean that some facts could be explained on the high level quite easily, but not on lower levels at all. It has been proposed for eons, by various holistically or "soulistically" inclined scientists and humanists that consciousness is a phenomenon that escapes explanation in terms of brain components; so here is a candidate at least. There is also the ever-puzzling notion of free will"  Abridged from Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter p. 708.  

Mind returns to Mind - by The Zennist

"It seems true that the element of water and its manifestation in the form of waves are one and undivided.  But we would be wrong to assume that the element of water depends upon waves.  It is only true that waves depend upon water.  If the water doesn’t move, which is to say it is wave-less, it is still present. 

This is somewhat related to the problem of realizing our true Mind or our original nature (or substance).  What we are always facing are manifestations of Mind, or the same, Mind phenomena.  All phenomena are, in fact, Mind dependent whereas Mind is independent.  How many things arise or do not arise does not affect Mind.  Mind, itself, is always unmanifest as a phenomenon.  

No matter how hard the Zen adept tries to will Mind to appear, it will not appear.  On the same track, no matter how hard this same Zen adept tries to see his own nature which is immediate and hidden, he cannot.  It cannot be turned into a phenomenon.  Yet, intrinsically we are the noumenon or Mind.  This is our nature—our original nature.

It is not necessary for us to know Mind as a phenomenal thing.  It is only necessary for us to penetrate through the seemingly impenetrable veil of Mind phenomena—the end of which is Mind.  This is the so-called Mind to Mind transmission.  Mind, in other words, returns to itself through its phenomena and beholds itself, directly.  For the first time we enter the mystery of Mind which still cannot be phenomenalized or made any clearer.  It is only enough for us to enter into this mystery.  We need not know it as a determinate thing. 

When Mind beholds itself, directly, we discover that Mind is really clear light or luminous.  This luminosity is also extremely blissful, so much so that our normal perception of the mundane world radically changes.  We eventually see that the world is a dependent origination of Mind by which is eternally self-awakens."  - source

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