Evolution, Karma, and the Pursuit of Happiness

(Note: This is an attempt to pair the concept of karma with a purely scientific worldview. Many topics here – like the definition of biological essentialism – are difficult to pin down. I have done my best to explore the nuance in these broad ideas, but they are, well, broad.)

In the Western world, few things are as cherished as our animal instincts. Food, shelter, pleasure, sex, kin and procreation; these animal pursuits are often thought of as the goal of our lives, the ultimate objects for which we toil, earn and strive for.

However, such a materialistic outlook often turns out to be profoundly unsatisfying. We run from one instinct, one pleasure, to the next, expecting a transcendental taste of life’s bounty (this is what we mean when we say that a certain dish is ’to die for,’ for example). Invariably, though, we are unable to find lasting, permanent satisfaction in anything, ending up proverbially fat and sunburned.

How can we escape this loop? What can we do differently?

I believe that we can find an excellent answer in that most ancient of concepts, karma. However, in order to bring karma into the 21st century, we need to understand it from a scientific perspective. Before exploring what we can do differently, though, we must understand how we got here.

More than Molecules

Underlying much of modern-day discourse about man’s nature and purpose is an unquestioned biological essentialism, an understanding of the human condition as simply a byproduct of a series of evolutionary mechanisms. This belief system, which emerged the second half of the 20th century and is often associated with Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, concludes that everything we think, feel, do, and want is simply a product of our genetic, Darwinian journey from amoeba to ape.

Such an approach is intuitive when it comes to behaviors like eating and sex, but biological essentialism views all behaviors as having a purely evolutionary and material cause. Altruism, for example, is conceived of as merely a mechanism for replicating genes that are similar to our own, or an ‘honest signal’ to prospective mates that we have enough resources to provide for any offspring.

It is important to understand that this form of biological/material essentialism is not a hard, scientific fact. It is, like every other interpretation of that most mysterious phenomenon, the human experience, a belief system, replete with unprovable statements like ‘everything that exists is simply a product of the material world.’ While such a statement possesses a certain logic insofar as it grows out of – but is not proved by! – concrete scientific findings, it is not ultimately provable or disprovable via conventional analysis. For example, this view dismisses the possibility that consciousness is a key component of existence as we define it.

In fact, it can be readily argued that biological essentialism, as a belief system, trends towards a fundamentally limited understanding of the human experience. The argument goes something like this: because there’s nothing greater out there than the impulses hardcoded in our DNA, we should just enjoy those impulses as much as we can, and (if we decide to have them) leave something behind for our kids. This school of thought, when followed on a societal level, promotes a lifestyle and practice that encourage the fulfillment of our most stimulating biological desires above other aspects of life.

This worldview, while pleasurable in a material sense, leaves little room for art or wonder, to say nothing of the inner journey that is at the heart of every mystical tradition on the planet. As Donald Symons puts it, “the anthropomorphism of genes…obscures the deepest mystery in the life sciences: the origin and nature of mind.”

On a much more immediate level, though, it’s a boring way to go through life.

How is it boring? Take the example of our sense of sight: our eyes are these amazing organs that are constantly processing an uncountable number of minute sensations in every given moment. When we still our minds and look without focusing or discriminating, we are capable of non-conceptually seeing ten thousand things at once, experiencing a marvelous display of light and movement in every moment we live.

However, chasing after whatever instinctive desire currently possesses our mind, our field of focus narrows, and we only perceive one or two things at once, like the cake we are eating or the painting on the wall. Transcendental wonder – the one thing that truly separates man from other animals – is traded for our next dopamine hit.

Don’t Blame the Genes

Why has modern Western society embraced a worldview, an ideology, that is clearly limiting in terms of an individual’s cognitive and experiential potential? More importantly, how can we understand our biological hardwiring in more liberating terms?

We cannot blame our evolutionary, genetic tendencies for this, per se. Many, many civilizations, both past and present, do not think of man’s animal proclivities in terms of impossible-to-overcome tendencies, or as the highest aim in life. A priest in medieval England, for example, would have considered such tendencies as part of the innate sinfulness of man, and may have dedicated his life to transcending them in the pursuit of God. While such a worldview can seem overly pessimistic in today’s society, it certainly demonstrates that we don’t have to think of our instinctive programming solely through the lens of scientific analysis.

To no small extent, it is actually science’s specific inability to offer an actionable path to cognitive growth and the eradication of our unhappiness that lies at the heart of our obsession with our baser impulses. We have split the atom and glimpsed the edge of the universe, but all the studies and scientists on the planet have yet to deliver a comprehensive account of how to just be happy all the time. In many ways, science has become too widespread and ill-defined to be a truly prescriptive force in our individual lives, leaving the organization of our worldview and wants to the capitalist. This has caused some serious problems, to put it mildly.

Karma for Scientists

Where to turn to, then, if not the scientists or the marketers? How do we come to a more productive understanding of our biological heritage, without rejecting the undeniable scientific findings (like DNA) that have revolutionized every aspect of our understanding?

On the face of it, turning to religious or spiritual sources – like the aforementioned English priest – seems doomed to failure, as science offers a much more verifiable and detailed explanation for our biological heritage than the ancient texts. There can be little doubt that our tendency to reproduce, for example, came from the primordial soup of early Earth, and not from the Garden of Eden.

On top of this, the two belief systems have been at war ever since the first distinction between theology and science was drawn. A careful examination of the conflict between science and religion reveals three primary dynamics:

What is missing here? Science co-opting religion. While there are a few promising examples, this hasn’t happened on a large scale for several reasons, chief among them science’s blanket dismissal of anything not peer reviewed, as well as the tendency of modern-day scientists to view themselves as not responsible for questions of morality. However, a religious understanding of scientific concepts has much to offer humanity; it acknowledges the astounding amount we’ve learned about the universe via the scientific method, while offering a path in life that goes beyond transitory material satisfaction and towards a deeper form of happiness.

It is in this framework that we come to the Vedic concept of karma.

Karma, in popular parlance, is a frequently misunderstood concept. Westerners often think of it as a kind of ‘cosmic justice,’ speaking of ‘good karma,’ and ‘bad karma.’ This is often paired with the concept of reincarnation, with the assumption being that ‘good karma’ will lead to a rebirth as, say, a prince, while people with ‘bad karma’ come back as cockroaches. While this is not technically wrong, it is fundamentally misleading and obscures the beauty of the concept of karma.

So, what is karma? Karma (at least to Hindus and Buddhists) can best be thought of as a version of the law of cause and effect that only applies to conscious actions. These actions are intentional, in that the actor is consciously looking to do something. If we act with a certain intention in mind (to help another person, for example), we create a cause that will eventually, through some mechanism or another, lead to a given effect (in this case, it may be someone helping us). This process has nothing to do with ‘good,’ or ‘bad’ – it is to be considered a natural law like any other.

What does this have to offer science? First, let us dig a little deeper into a few additional dynamics of karma:

  1. Karma is not an external agent; because it requires intentional consciousness, all karmic causes and effect are intrinsic to the conscious being creating the karma. Karma is not done to us; we create and are subject to our own karma. In the words of Jung, ‘when an inner situation is not made conscious, it manifests as fate.’
  2. In Buddhism, karma is caused by the Three Poisons, which are Ignorance, Anger, and Desire. These three dynamics, located at the center of the Wheel of Life, are considered the product of all our karmic tendencies. Ignorance of our true, nondual nature is the first cause, which leads to attraction (Desire) and aversion (Anger) to various phenomena we interact with, as we mistake them for being separate from ourselves.
  3. The ignorance at the heart of karma is not caused by our rebirth and past lives. It’s a far deeper aspect of our being; in the words of the Lanka Sutra, it is ‘the habit-energy of erroneous discrimination and false reasoning that has been going on since beginningless time’.
  4. The path to happiness lies in getting rid of our karma.

How, exactly, can we frame these dynamics in a way that matches the tenants of biological essentialism? Like this:

Karma is any biochemical or psychological tendency that leads us to act as if there is any difference between ourselves and anything else. The highest happiness in life belongs to those who have transcended these tendencies.

None of these dynamics require any belief in the supernatural or reincarnation. Instead, they can be viewed as purely material phenomena occurring within one lifetime, as they are, in many ways, definitional aspects of all living beings. From the emergence of the first organisms all the way to the present day, every creature that has ever existed has sought out certain things and avoided others. These behaviors occur because life, unlike every other other phenomenon in the universe, is something that preserves, further, or reinforces its existence in a given situation.

In a nutshell, every living organism acts like it is separate from its environment, and is attracted and repelled to various things as a result. This can be considered a biological definition of karma. The unique gift that humans possess is the ability to overcome these dynamics.

Transcending the Instincts

Armed with this definition, we are now able to look at our modern, materialistic world afresh, and re-evaluate what, exactly, we should do the next time we find ourselves unsatisfied.

If we do decide we want a more lasting form of satisfaction and meaning in life, the answer is more or less the same as it was 4000 years ago: get rid of your karma. In terms of the above definition, this means that we seek to transcend our biological hardwiring that leads us to chase after cake and avoid brussel sprouts (assuming you like cake and don’t like brussel sprouts).

However, we should not jump to extremes and attempt to immediately jettison all of our instinctual programming. This is not just extremely difficult to do, but actually counterproductive. As Sadhguru puts it, “the desire to not want karma is in itself a big karma.” Westerners live in a world so full of pleasure and stimuli that, were we to leave all our instincts behind right away, we would irrevocably isolate ourselves. On top of that, we will have not learned how to actually overcome these tendencies in a sustainable and enjoyable way.

Instead, if we truly want to move towards a more contented, blissful state of mind – and life – we should simply, progressively learn to watch what our mind does: when our instinctual urges arise, how they cause us to act, and what happens after their completion. We will not be transformed in a day, or a week, but over time, we will come to understand how our biological wiring compels us to act, and how it ultimately leaves us always, always, wanting more.

This is not to say that we must renounce all of our material enjoyments and retreat to a cave in the mountains. Rather, it’s that we should gain a moment-to-moment awareness of our biological programming and understand it for the limited phenomenon it is. We can still eat ice cream (or pursue any other pleasurable activity), but we should be aware that eating ice cream will only bring a temporary reprieve and that chasing that feeling will ultimately be unfulfilling. In the words of the great Tibetan yogi Tilopa, “the problem is not enjoyment. The problem is attachment.”

It is very important to state that there is no one right way to develop this awareness. Humanity, throughout its long history, has come up with thousands of techniques to turn inward, and one of the blessings of the modern age is that we have access to (almost) all of them. In order to cultivate awareness of the mind and transcend our biological karma, we can:

Whatever technique we choose, though, we must keep our goal in mind, which is to ultimately free ourselves from the bondage of our biological hardwiring, which keeps us chasing after temporary pleasures in a never-ending dualistic cycle. Even if the materialists are right and we, as humans, are nothing more than an aggregate of particles, we can still aspire to something higher than our next dopamine hit.

Rules of the Game: Part Two

(You can find Part One here)

The man stops speaking. He looks at the skull crown, which disappears. You sit, trying to process this information, your brain desperately trying to disprove the empty portrait of yourself that has just been painted. You run through possibility after possibility, but only one stands out.

“What about the soul?” you ask.

The man chuckles.

“What about it?” he replies.

“Isn’t it permanent? Isn’t that the part of me that never changes?”

“That,” he says, “is a very complicated question, and not what you need to focus on right now. At the higher levels of the game, you will find the answer to this question. All I can say at the moment is that what you’re referring to as a soul can only be found in the space between your thoughts. Right now, though, you need to focus on defeating Mara.”

Annoyance creeps back into your mind, a feeling of frustration at being told what to do and not getting enough answers. Snappily, you ask “Why should I listen to you? I feel like all this is a dream anyway, and I’ll just wake up and you’ll have never existed.”

The man chuckles again.

“The only difference between a dream and your normal life is that you keep waking up in your normal life.” Again, the power of these words and the profundity of his calmness deflate your own anger. He pauses, then continues.

“I understand that all this seems strange and nonsensical to you right now. But, please, listen to what I’m telling you. If you don’t defeat Mara, you will suffer again and again and again. Even if you make a billion dollars and buy your own island, Mara will find you there. As long as you ignore the rules of his game, you will never know true peace.”

“Okay, okay, okay,” you repeat, processing everything he’s told you, “so life is a never-ending game run by some devil-creature called Mara, the goal is to get out of the game, I don’t really exist, and I’ve been ignorant of these facts. Now what? What do I do? How do I play this game, anyway?”

A deep smile crosses the man’s face, an elated grin that says I thought you’d never ask. In the distance, across the great void, a faint light begins to glimmer.

“At this point, all you have to do,” he replies, “is watch your mind, every moment of every day, and, eventually, make it stop.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“How?”

The man starts to speak more and more rapidly. He remains calm, but there is an increasing urgency in his words.

“It works like this. Every single choice, every conscious action you make, is laying the seeds for your future choices and actions. Nothing you do is by accident, really; when you look deep inside your own mind, you will find the seeds of everything you’ve ever done. For example, when you make an impulsively bad choice on a Friday afternoon, it wasn’t created in that moment, but earlier, when, say, you had a miserable commute to the office. This is why you often feel not in control of yourself, because you’re not fully aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is how Mara operates – he wants you to not go looking into the cause and effect that takes place in your own head.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” you interject. “I have a few questions about this Mara thing. Is he real? You said he’s like the Devil – is there a hell, then? Does he want me to go to hell? How does he operate?”

The light in the distance is getting brighter and brighter.

“I’m sorry,” the man says, speaking with real urgency now. “There isn’t much time left. Mara is your bad thoughts, your ignorance, your greed and hatred; above all, he is your tendency to grasp to yourself, your problems, your sense of being a real, existing being instead of a collection of impermanent phenomenon that come and go. Whether he’s real or not, whether there’s a hell or not – that’s not important right now.”

“What is important is that you understand your own mind, and how it works. You must watch the aggregates I’ve described to you, watch how they interact, and, most importantly, understand what makes you want some things and not want others. This understanding is essential, because until you get to the bottom of your own momentary motivations, you will continue to act mindlessly and not make any progress in the game. I wish I could explain more, but we’re almost out of time. ”

The light is quite bright now. As it intensifies, you can feel this reality becoming less tangible, less clearly defined. One look in the man’s eyes confirms what you’re thinking: This place is about to disappear. You are about to wake up in your normal life. Anything you want to know, ask now.

Three questions come to the forefront of your mind.

“I have three questions.”

“Tell me.”

“How do I watch my mind? What do you mean by making it stop? And who are you?”

The light is very bright, as bright as the sun on a desert horizon. The man becomes vague, indistinct, and his answer sounds distant, like voices drifting over water.

“Start with two things: analyzing the impermanence of your thoughts, and watching your breath. As for your second question, it will feel a little like -”

The light suddenly becomes brighter than an exploding star, engulfing the man, the disc, petals, and the void. His words cut out mid-sentence, merged in a roaring multisensory vibration that envelops your entire body, dissolving it into clear white light. Your brain becomes electricity, a blinding brilliance filling the space where your thoughts normally reside. Everything begins to meld into one frequency, one wavelength, one phenomenal taste.

HUUMMMMMMM.
HUUMMMMMMM.
HUUMMMMMMM.

You wake up with your head face-down on your desk at work, the keys of your laptop pressing into your forehead. A soft poke in your side is revealed to be the coworker who sits behind you, a look of concern on their face.

“Hey, you alright?” they ask. “You just kinda passed out for a minute there. We were wondering when you were going to wake up.”

You give them a big smile.

“Right now.”

Rules of the Game: Part One

HUUMMMMMMM.
HUUMMMMMMM.
HUUMMMMMMM.

A vibration not unlike the sound of an engine starting echoes through your mind, waking you from your slumber. Groggily, you open your eyes, yet the advent of vision does little to dispel your confusion. This is not my room, you think. Where am I? 

Looking around, you appear to be in a vast yet vibrant void, seated upon a bright white disc. At the fringes of the disc, brilliantly colored petals hang down into the ether that surrounds you. In front of you is a man, wearing the robe of a monk and seated in the lotus position. His entire being radiates calmness and presence, like a punctuation mark on each moment.

He looks directly into your eyes. “It is time you learned the rules of the game,” he says.

“What game? Who are you? Am I dreaming?” you reply, unsure of pretty much anything at the moment.

“No time for that,” the man answers. “Soon, you will leave here, and there is much to explain before you go. Please, for your sake, pay attention to what I am about to say.”

Typically, such a cryptic and evasive answer would frustrate you, but the combination of the endless void surrounding you and the aura of the man arouse your curiosity. “Alright,” you ask, “what game are you talking about? Is this like a VR thing?”

“The game has many names, and none. It is the ultimate game, the only game that matters, the game of life itself,” the man replies, his tone somehow full of urgency and warmth at the same time. “You have no choice but to play.”

“Okay…” you respond. “Isn’t that just life? What do you mean by a game? How can life be a game?”

“It is a game,” he answers, with finality, “because you can win.”

“Win? How?”

“You get out of the game.”

“Get out of the game? You mean like when you die?”

The man smiles slightly, a hint of something in his eyes. “Not exactly,” he says.

A shape materializes in front of you, a horrifying apparition – a demon. Wreathed in flames and smoke, it has a human shape, with claws, fangs, and three baleful eyes. It wears a crown of five human skulls, and seems to somehow crawl with a malevolence that distorts the space around it.

You jump back, terrified. “What is that?!” you yell, unable to look away from the creature’s eyes. They seem to suck you in, while your worst thoughts begin to whisper from the back of your mind.

From his robe, the man pulls out and rings a brass bell. At the sound of the bell, the creature vanishes, leaving behind a faint odor of ozone.

“That was Mara,” the man says, matter-of-factly. “He goes by many other names, too: Lucifer, Satan, the Devil – too many to count. It is his game you are playing. You win when you conquer him. However, if you cannot do so, you will not escape him even when you die.”

“You’re talking about reincarnation?”

“I’m talking about getting out of the game. What you consider death to be is merely just another part of the game. You’ve had many characters, all of which have died. This body, this you, that won’t come back again, but the thing at the base of it – the player of the game – that’s been here a long time.”

At this point, you’re confused, disoriented, and a little shaken from the appearance of whatever that Mara thing was. Unbidden, annoyance rises within you – annoyance at not knowing where you are, annoyance at the cryptic answers you’ve been getting, annoyance at the perpetual calmness of the man seated across from you.

You get up and begin pacing. The man watches you, the same glint in his eye. You open your mouth, ten thousand agitated questions on your tongue – but he cuts you off.

“Ignorance is the cause,” he says.

You explode at this latest cypher, unable to take it any more. “Ignorance is the cause? Excuse me? Cause of what? What are you talking about? Where the hell am I? Is this a dream? What WAS that thing? How do you conquer him? Why can’t you give me any straight answers? Oh, and who on earth are you?”

During your tirade, the man closes his eyes, as if resting. When you finish, he lets out a deep breath, opens them, and looks directly into your eyes. “Ignorance,” he intones “is the cause of your suffering. Please, sit down.”

You sit down.

“As long as you play this game,” he begins, “you are given a character – what you call your body and mind. In reality, this character is as fluid, transient, and impermanent as anything else in this universe, yet you maintain a firm belief that this is YOU, an unchanging, permanent thing. Instead of examining it critically, you unquestioningly accept it, and run around doing all sorts of things to maintain this fiction. Inevitably, though, the holes in the story you create for yourself shine through, whether it’s when you don’t get what you think you want or when you get what you think you don’t want, and this causes you pain. You are ignorant about the true nature of this game, and your resultant attempts to get certain things and avoid others make you suffer, again and again. Thus, ignorance is the cause of your suffering – like the annoyance you feel right now.”

These words shake you, quelling your anger. There is a ring of truth to this, although a part of you finds it ridiculous. Thoughts race through your mind: How can I not be real? What does this mean about the things I like? Should I not want them? After about ten seconds, you settle on a question.

“If I am ignorant about the true nature of my character in this game, then what is the truth? What am I, if not me?”

The man closes his eyes, nods, and smiles. A crown of five skulls, similar to the one worn by the Mara creature, materialize in front of him.

“Your character is made up of five parts, or aggregates,” the man says, eyes closed. “These parts are your physical form, the sensations you experience, the perceptions and thoughts that define these experiences, the actions and decisions you make, and a confused consciousness that is made up of the other four. There is nothing to you besides these five things, and none of them are you.” His voice is sonorous and solemn, as if there is great weight behind his words.

“None of them are me? What do you mean? How can I not be my body? Or my thoughts?”

The man takes a deep breath, and opens his eyes.

“Each one of the five aggregates is transitory, and ultimately empty of any permanent self. Your body is made of atoms that constantly float in and out. Your sensations and feelings are temporary. Your thoughts, even the most deeply ingrained ones, all eventually cease – are you not you when you’re asleep? Your actions start and stop. Your consciousness, being comprised of the other four, is equally insubstantial. These aggregates are all you are, and there is no you in any of them.”

Rolling in the Weeds

“In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing.”

– Mother Theresa

One of the greatest confusions you see in people these days is regarding their relationship to words. This modern world of ours is filled with words, symbols, numbers, sentences, data, and so on, all cascading around in a giant flood that snuffs out every moment. Under such an onslaught, it is unsurprising that most people find themselves confused and agitated by words and language, supposedly humanity’s greatest gift.

It is as if they have forgotten what words are.

What is a word, anyway? It’s a vibration, information, meaning – but all of these are just more words. On your screen they’re pixels, on paper they’re ink. Useful tools, if you need them – but do you need them? All the time? For what?

At the ultimate level, a word is merely a reduction, an attempt to capture the uncapturable. As Mother Theresa says, God speaks in silence. The religions of humanity debate over the right word for ultimate truth: God, Allah, Yahweh, Brahma, Shiva, Buddha, nirvana, moksha, and so on – but none of these are accurate, none of them are more than a shadow.

Coming back to the confusion: this flood of words has made us believe that words are the ultimate, can express the ultimate, and that that’s that. This, of course, cannot be the case.

After all, if words are the ultimate, if ‘I think, therefore I am,’ is the highest holy truth, what exists when the mind goes blank?

A Short Technique for Quieting the Mind

1. Pick something about yourself that you dislike, like anger or laziness.
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2. Through conceptual reasoning, understand that the object of your displeasure is not permanent and not you. It will pass and cease to be. This is called the wisdom of emptiness.
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3. Expand the application of wisdom to realize that anything going through your mind – thoughts, objects, feelings, desires, sensations – are also not permanent and not you.
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4. Realize that your awareness of wisdom – all these negating statements you’re thinking – are also not real and not you.
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5. …

Deity Visualization and the Placebo Effect

Quick, think of how to meditate!

….

….

….

What came to mind? Watching the breath? Letting thoughts come and go? Maybe dwelling on compassion?

What about something like this?

In the sky there appears a dark blue lotus
With mats of sun and moon.
Standing proudly on the sun mat
Is the wrathful figure of Vajrapani.

His immensely powerful body is dark blue in colour
And stepping to the right he stands with legs astride.
His expression is intensely wrathful
As he looks in all directions of space.

His right hand brandishes aloft a golden vajra
With which he overcomes the obstacles of all beings.
With his left hand he makes the demon-defying mudra
Whereby he subdues the spirits and demons of the six realms.

These lines, which seemingly out of a fantasy novel, actually are part of a meditation on Vajrapani, the Buddha of Spiritual Power* in esoteric Buddhism (pictured at the start of this article). They represent a type of meditation prominent in Tibetan Buddhism: visualization practice, especially on deities (called yidams). When you see a Tibetan Lama sitting in meditation, it’s likely that, rather than ‘thinking about nothing,’ they are perceiving a hallucinatory array of lights, syllablesobjects, palaces and deities parading through their mind.

As an example (and this is quite technical), in one of the the preliminary practices of ngondro, you imagine a specific Buddha, Vajrasattva, above your head in union with his consort. You then chant a mantra and imagine that the mantra activates the seed syllable ‘hum’, which causes the clear white light of enlightenment to shoot down from Vajrasattva into your head, purifying your body, speech and mind. At the end of the practice, you visualize Vajrasattva and his consort dissolving into that same clear light, merging with you, and instantaneously transforming you into a fully enlightened Buddha. In essence, you are trying to become enlightened by imagining you already are. This is a preliminary practice, mind you – full-blow deity yoga can get much more complicated.

Not exactly watching the breath.

These psychedelic and seemingly supernatural practices seem to be in direct contradiction to the common perception of Buddhism as a ‘scientific religion,’ that avoids the gods of Hinduism and the God of Abraham. However, to write off these meditative techniques as outdated, superstitious, or ineffective is quite close-minded. Indeed, there is a profound philosophical and psychological rationale behind visualization practice, which boils down to maximizing our ability to intrinsically manipulate our own neurochemical and somatic states through the power of belief. In essence, the visualization of the deity can be thought of as riding the placebo effect all the way to enlightenment.

What, what? Isn’t the placebo effect when something doesn’t work?

Technically, no. A placebo, in the strictest definition, is actually something that works in spite of having no active therapeutic ingredients.

In modern medical parlance, though, the term ‘placebo effect’ is indeed almost always used with a negative connotation. A placebo is considered something ineffective, faulty, a false prescription to be contrasted with ‘real’ treatments that ‘actually work.’

This definition makes perfect sense within the confines of a pharmaceutical trial. From a holistic perspective, however, it is ultimately self-limiting, as it essentially deems anything the body or mind does its own as ‘fake’ or ‘not effective.’

The irony is that modern medicine itself readily admits the effectiveness of the placebo as a healing method, especially if a patent has faith in the treatment. Placebos have been shown to substantially affect dopamine and mu-opiod levels, and have been clinically shown to reduce lower back pain, as well as relieve a large number of other conditions. In fact, within medicine, there is a term for this: the placebo paradox, where a doctor must choose between prescribing that doesn’t meet modern medical notions and not using a form of treatment that could help somebody.

Such an ethical bind assumes that the placebo is a sugar pill, something clearly false that nonetheless works because people have faith in it. In our secular world, this tends to be anything that isn’t an external allopathic treatment (i.e. medication or surgery). While there is no denying the ethical imperative to prevent people from following treatments that don’t work, our working definition of ‘legitimate medicine’ often writes off anything that doesn’t come in the form of a pill or a scalpel. Even demonstrating a statistically significant positive outcome in scientific studies isn’t sufficient to be viewed as reliable; if it were, the placebo itself, with a plethora of studies in its favor, would be considered a valid method of treatment.

But what does this have to do with Buddhist deities? Isn’t the notion of an external supernatural entity exactly the kind of thing we should be avoiding?

It is – but that’s not what a deity is in Tantric Buddhism. These deities, or yidams, are not magical beings that we summon or invoke to help us. They, on the most fundamental level, are us; they are aspects of our own inherent Buddhahood, of our own enlightened mind.

Vajrasattva: more real than your insecurities.

Indeed, yidams are considered a mechanism to discover ‘one’s own intrinsically pure awareness.’ This points to one of Buddhism’s fundamental truths, that of emptiness.  Buddhism views everything in existence as being transient and unreal, as having the nature of ‘a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.‘ To believe anything exists on any ultimate level is to be profoundly deluded. As Dr. Alexander Berzin puts it, “an impure appearance is an appearance of things as if existing in a solid manner – in other words, a crazy projection of something impossible.

As a result, in deity meditation practice, neither the deity and the practitioner are considered to have any inherent existence to themselves. In terms of ultimate truth, this is actually a more accurate view than the idea that you are so-and-so who lives in such and such place and so on. Even from a strictly scientific perspective, it is more accurate to describe your existence in terms of countless elementary particles in perpetual flux than as a specific person.

Okay, but how does this relate to the placebo effect? What’s the connection?

To put it simply, the practice of visualizing the deity during meditation is the perfect mechanism to make use of the placebo effect.

One key element of the placebo effect is that its effectiveness is, in a large way, based on the expectations that are attached to it. Believing that a placebo can cause a complete remission of back pain, for example, produces a stronger effect than just believing it will make the patient feel a little better. This is where much of the ethical dilemma stems from, as a doctor who passionately sells a placebo will give the patient greater relief than one who halfheartedly prescribes it.

In this regard, the visualization of deities represents a perfect vehicle for the placebo effect. Why? According to Vajrayana, successful deity practice results in nothing less than the purification of all obstacles, the attainment of omniscience, a series of magical powers, and complete enlightenment. According to the dynamics that undergird the placebo effect, such a profound expectation and goal will maximize the placebo’s potential benefits – that is, it will maximize your mind’s ability to intrinsically transform your body and mind. It is worth mentioning that while much of meditation focuses on mental transformation, deity visualization – such as the purifying light of Vajrasattva – also involves what can be considered energy healing, which affects the body directly and brings these techniques into the realm of physical medicine.

The instructions around deity practice continually encourage this level of trust in the effectiveness of the teachings. This is not blind faith by any means – Buddhism clearly rejects believing something simply because you were to believe it – but rather a sense of truth created by a profound understanding of Buddhist philosophy and the emptiness of all things. For the scientifically minded, who are skeptical of the more supramundane aspects of esoteric Buddhism, the empirical neurological results of intensive practice ought to speak volumes.

Regardless of how one comes to trust the techniques, that trust – and the transcendental expectations that go with it – is essential for the practice to work. Simply playing make believe won’t cut it. When you visualize a yidam above your head, for example, it’s extremely important to actually feel the deity there, even if it’s not a very clear visualization in terms of detail.

On a deeper level, you must actually believe that these practices have to power to radically heal and transform your body, speech, and mind. In the words of the great Lama Yeshe, ‘if you continue to hold on to the idea that you are basically confused and angry, [when you arise from the meditation after merging with the deity] you will manifest as a confused and angry person, not as a blissful deity.’

Where is the science behind all this? In many ways, there isn’t any – yet. As properly practiced deity yoga is an advanced and esoteric technique, it hasn’t been comprehensively studies to the extent of, say, mindfulness meditation or Vipassana. However, all studies that have been done demonstrate an extraordinary transformation in the minds of senior practitioners, right up to and including what can reasonably be considered superpowers.

One hypothesis I have is that the practice’s effectiveness stems from activating multiple neural networks at once: you’re working with your posture, your breath, your visual network, your auditory network, and your (imagined) somatic network as well. I would not be surprised if future studies show that cultivating all of these pathways through rigorous practice is sort of the meditational equivalent of rigorous physical cross-conditioning.

So that’s it? I just visualize one of these Buddhas and believe that it will make me enlightened and it will fix all my problems?

In a nutshell, yes. However, it’s incredibly important to have a comprehensive understanding of Buddhist philosophy, particularly the notions of emptiness and universal compassion. If we believe that these deities – or ourselves, for that matter – are real, self-existent entities, and that we’ve actually become some sort of divine being, we’ve completely missed the point. Similarly, if we engage in these practices with just our own problems in mind, we run the risk of simply reinforcing our own selfishness by making us think it’s divine. Even the preliminary ngondro is to be done alongside a thorough study of traditional Buddhist sutras.

If deity visualization are practiced with the right intention and concentration, however, it represents one of the most remarkable and effective meditation techniques Buddhism – or any spiritual practice – has to offer. Indeed, I believe that deity visualization holds within it a seed to transform both our modern understanding of the placebo effect and, more broadly, the mind-body connection as a whole.

Plus, it’s just kind of awesome.

*For those new to Mahayana Buddhism, there are considered to be as many different Buddhas as there are grains of sand in the Ganga, of which Gautama Buddha is just one.

Words Are Wind

When you arrive at the edge of language, the place where the gods live, your ability to accurately state the fundamental nature of anything dissolves into itself. Paragraphs become sentences become single words, a koan breaking through to its original face. Of course, it broke through (to) nothing. If you understand, the thousand sages are as one with you. 

‘Nothing.’ What is nothing? If it is nothing, why speak about it? It is the same with the state between thoughts – if you could tell what it is, it wouldn’t be whatever you said anymore. Schrodinger’s Cat has never died once, but you’ve run his death through your mind a thousand thousand times. 

The more you speak about it, the sillier you sound. ‘In the space between thoughts, there is a stillness that is active and moving, there is no distinction between yourself and others.’ If there is stillness, how does it move? If there is no you, how can you speak of others? 

Yet when you see sparks flash and lightening strike, you have seen it. How do I describe the edge of language to you? I stop talking.

In Defense of Good Vibes

‘Good vibes, man.’

When you read those three words, what do you think of? Is it some surfer on a beach, freshly stoned, getting ready for a day of beach bumming? Or is it a fundamental description of the universe, entrenched in both the teachings of Gautama Buddha and the smashing of protons beneath the Swiss countryside?

Is it possible that one of the simplest, most basic concepts in New Age thought — that of a universe where everything is energy, is vibrations — is actually backed by both the most rigorous spiritual paths and the most rigorous scientific experiments?

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Is this guy onto something? Probably.

One of the ironies of modern society is that we needed to build giant particle accelerators and derive incredibly complex theories to discover things that the average mystic/Yogi/Buddhist monk has known for thousands of years. While the parallels between quantum mechanics and spirituality have been trumpeted since the 70’s, most people have never bothered to critically examine the technical aspects of them, and, as a result, have dismissed the comparisons, or used them to make vague and unscientific arguments. This is a shame, as one needn’t be a particle physicist to see concrete, describable similarities.

An example:

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Electrons behaving as waves over time. All elementary particles exhibit wave-particle duality.

Everybody knows that people — and the universe — are made up of atoms. Atoms, in turn, are made up of electrons orbiting a nucleus. The nucleus, which represents 99.95% of the mass in an atom, are comprised of protons and neutrons, held together by the strong nuclear force. These particles — called nucleons — are, in turn, comprised of three quarks each, which are held together by the transmission of gluons (this is analogous to the transmission of photons between charged particles).

Within a neutron or proton, the quarks themselves represent maybe 1% of the mass. The gluons — like photons — are massless.

Where is all the mass, then? It’s actually in a field of a certain type of energy, called quantum chromodynamics binding energy. As mass and energy are equivalent, the energy here — specifically, the kinetic energy of these particles, moving at near the speed of light — is responsible for 99% of the nucleon’s mass.

So, to put it simply, you (and everything you’ve ever known) is literally comprised almost entirely of energy, of waves, of — if you will forgive a slight linguistic liberty — vibrations.

This is a notion intimately familiar to Eastern religions, from the Chinese belief in qi to the Vedic notion of Prana. There’s even an entire lineage of Tibetan Buddhism that uses the notion that we are made of light to achieve remarkable meditative practices, like generating immense heat in the midst of the Himalayan snows.

Yet, in most conversations in the West, people dismiss this idea out of hand.

Tell the average American that there are Buddhist monks who can dry sheets dipped in ice water with their body heat, and they might express mild interest. Tell them that a comprehensive study has been done by Harvard scientists into the same phenomenon, and they’ll accept that it’s true. Tell them that the monks achieve feats like this by visualizing their entire body as being made of clear white light, and they’ll go ‘huh’ and forget about it.

Much of this dismissal has to do with the superficiality of New Age spirituality, which substitutes the tremendously arduous dissolution of the self that undergirds all true mystical paths for platitudes about ‘consciousness’ and deriving happiness from purchasing overpriced crystals. The ignorance of true mysticism — and the scientific method at the heart of it — is so strong in our ‘spiritual’ cultures that mainstream particle physicists have gone from being open-minded spiritualists to materialistic skeptics over the past forty years.

Still, the extent of close-mindedness in mainstream Western society is breathtaking. The average person is so entrenched in (hedonistic) materialism that, even when confronted with dramatic evidence, they actively ignore it. Tell someone about these heat-generating monks, or how observation of a quantum system irrevocably reduces it (a physical phenomenon that, because your brain is very possibly a quantum system, poses serious questions for the notion of the objective, detached self), and, 99 times out of 100, you’ll get a disinterested ‘that’s deep,’ or ‘that’s trippy,’ as a response.

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This phrase is probably not going to remake someone’s life.

No contemplative silence, no openness, no attempt to understand it or examine how such notions can radically remake the self and our society. This doesn’t just go for monks and particles, either — people, by and large, brush off just about anything that doesn’t help them get their next dopamine hit.

This is no one’s fault, per se. The effect of centuries of rationality, materialist worldviews, and ever-intensifying sensory pleasures on seven billion people cannot be laid at the foot of any person, or group of people. And yet…

And yet it’s destroying our planet, our culture, our mental health. We have both empirical evidence of a worldview that teaches us we are more than material bodies and dozens of millennia-old, tried and tested techniques to access this deeper level, and yet we remain asleep, engrossed in our smartphones and bank account balances.

As we rush headlong into 2018, each of us is confronted with a choice. We can stay in our loops, our mindstreams, repeating the same patterns that have caused one in five Americans to suffer from a mental health disorder on a yearly basis and 200 species to vanish from the earth every day. Or, we can change.

The good vibes are here, all around us, inside us. We just need to wake up and see them.