Which I Can’t Change?

A devil is anything that obstructs the achievement of freedom…Most of all, there is no greater devil than this fixation to a self. So until this ego-fixation is cut off, all the devils wait with open mouths.

Machig Labdron

Let’s start with a few questions, questions about identity.

What does it mean to say we are a certain way? When we claim that we are like this or that, what are we really expressing? Who is making such a statement? Why?

What kind of statements am I talking about? Statements like “that’s who I am,” or “it’s a me thing,” or “you know, I’ve always been like this.”

These sort of expressions are commonplace, part of everyday conversation. They serve a key role in identity formulation, both individually and as a group. What’s the big deal about them?

Well…

Their frequent use is correlated with serious health issues, from depression to heart attacks. On an absolute level, they are pernicious falsehoods, the root of all suffering.

How can this be? How can such a seemingly innocuous phrase lie at the heart of all our pain?

Like all inquiries around our true nature, these are difficult questions, and must be examined carefully. Let’s start with the absolute.

Scientifically speaking, from the smallest unit of existence to the largest, there is no permanence in anything, anywhere, ever. Particles are just vibrations, energy.  The majority of cells in your body are replaced throughout your life, and even those that are with you from birth to death will eventually be ash or wormfood. The universe is gonna die at some point.

The same is true in terms of human identity, both on a societal and individual level. Culture, contrary to what champions of identity politics would have you believe, is not and has never been a fixed thing. No one really owns it, because it is never the same. It is continually reinterpreted and reformulated to provide a sense of continuity and meaning in a world constantly in flux.

The mind is like this as well. What we consider to be a coherent whole is, in fact, a dynamic dance of interconnected neural subsystems that mesh together into a cascade of momentary experiences. Something as simple as happiness or pain is, in fact, a very complex and fluid thing.

This phenomenon extends beyond our emotions, encompassing literally every aspect of our cognitive experience. Indeed, our very self-identity – the thing we refer to when we speak of being ‘like this’ or ‘like that’ – is actually a series of subpersonalities that emerge based on specific, moment-to-moment conditions. For example, in dramatic situations, we can behave as either a victim, a persecutor, or a protector – and change our character at a moment’s notice.

This is not to say that there isn’t a certain continuity to our lived experience. On an experiential level, every moment emerges out of the previous one*, while on a neurological level, our synapses serve as well-trodden paths for our sensory experiences to coarse through (though we can certainly change them dramatically!). Evolutionarily, the ability to pick continuity out of constantly shifting circumstances helped us survive the savannah, which is why it’s such a strongly ingrained tendency.

It is to say, though, that any conceptual notions we hold with regard to ourselves as permanently possessing any subjective characteristic whatsoever are false, and, indeed, delusional.

In fact, it’s fair to say that when a person says “I’m just like that,” it is not a ontologically true statement about one’s deepest identity, but rather a momentary expression of certain characteristics in an attempt to find continuity amidst the chaos.

It is also fair to say that delusions make us unhappy, either by blinding us to reality or hurting us when they are proven illusory.

Okay, so saying we’re permanently a certain way is harmful because it is ontologically false. Who, then, is saying such harmful things?

It is in the context of this question that we come to the great Tibetan yogini, Machig Labdron, and her concept of demons.

Machig Labdron

Machig Labdron was, in many ways, a singular figure in Tibetan Buddhism; she was a visionary practitioner who is widely recognized as the originator of Chöd, a powerful, shamanistic practice and the only Vajrayana technique to come back from Tibet into India.

To Machig, the root of suffering was the notion of the self, and all things that caused the self to strengthen were to be viewed as poison, as demons or devils.

Wait! You might say. You were just talking about neurological circuitry and now you’re discussing devils, make-believe spirits. What gives?

In much of the modern West, the notion of demons and devils is considered preposterous, an outdated narrative designed to scare the masses into submission. However, this understanding of the demonic is simplistic and misguided, as it assumes that the existence such creatures are to be taken literally, and externally.

Machig saw it very differently. To her, demons exist only within the human mind. That which torments us, condemns us, possesses us are to be found within our own mental continuum.

When considered neurologically, this is a scientific fact; for example, when someone who was neglected as a child displays attachment issues and insecurities, the cause is not the external circumstances, but rather a disconnect between their prefrontal cortex and their limbic system. Behind every negative tendency lies a particular configuration of neurological systems.

However, most of us are not neuroscientists, and terms like ‘amygdala activation’ and ‘serotonin depletion’ are not overly useful for understanding our lived experiences. The concept of a devil or demon or negative entity, metaphorically speaking, is.

See, a demon isn’t us. It’s separate, removed from our endless narratives of self-judgement and self-aggrandizement. It’s a negative entity, with one mission only: to feed off our energy and replicate itself. This is done by diverting the attention of the host, causing them to fixate on an external phenomenon instead of on the internal process at work.

Pictured: a demon and/or your brain.

When people say ‘misery loves company,’ it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a demon named Misery, living inside one person’s brain, trying to summon more Miseries into the world by infecting the brains of others.

Herein we find the answer to our questions: when someone says they are ‘just like that,’ or that they’ve ‘always been this way,’ it’s actually an internal negative entity, trying to prolong its own existence by avoiding being scrutinized.

This may seem extreme, especially if you’re not actively seeking on the spiritual path. However, even if you just want to be happy in your day-to-day life, getting rid of your demons is a pretty good place to start.

So, the next time you hear yourself saying ‘I’m like this,’ or ‘I don’t want to change this,’ or ‘this is who I am,’ ask yourself: who is saying that? What do they – ‘I’ – want here? Is that what I really want?

It’s worth doing this, because if you don’t come to understand your demons, they’ll come to understand you.

 


* This is true on the coarse level of mind. On the more subtle levels of perception, there is no linearity.

Superpowers Must Be Earned

Any attempt to reconcile the more advanced and esoteric – some might say supernatural – aspects of the spiritual path with hard scientific data is faced with a conundrum.

On the one hand, what few studies exist of highly advanced practitioners (like Tibetan Yogis) reveal seemingly extraordinary mental and physical abilities. For example, highly realized Vajrayana monks are able to do things like raise their bodily temperatures by 15 degrees Fahrenheit via visualizing a ball of energy in their navel or experience a constant state of mental hyperawareness that is inaccessible to the average person. These talents are just a small subset of mystical powers described in ancient texts.

Given the unprecedented results of these studies, either claiming that you can’t rewire your brain to have what can be credibly called superpowers or categorically ruling out the possibility of further abilities seems foolhardy. This is without examining a literal mountain of anecdotal evidence, which points towards even more magical powers, like clairvoyance, levitation, bilocation, and the ability to take eight hits of acid and have nothing happen.

On the other hand, these studies are far and few between, very difficult to replicate, do not offer any clear causal mechanism for these abilities, and are vastly outnumbered by volumes of literature debunking all sorts of pseudoscientific nonsense. This makes it very difficult to assert that the abilities demonstrated are accessible to the average person.

For example, there is credible evidence (from the study linked above) that senior monks and nuns at Nepalese monasteries can actually work with their ‘energy’ or ‘subtle’ bodies – via a practice called g’tummo – to both produce physical heat and create genuine health benefits:

Traditional illustration of g’tummo – note the short A above the practitioner’s head

However, the results of Studies 1 and 2 also suggest that the neurocognitive component (“internalized attention” on visual images) of the..practice may facilitate elevation in [core body temperature] beyond the range of normal body temperature (into the fever zone), whereas the [core body temperature] increases during [the practice without visualization] were limited, and did not exceed the range of normal body temperature.

This would appear to offer convincing proof that the ‘subtle body’ is real and has tangible health benefits, an idea that would revolutionize much of modern medicine. However, drawing this conclusion is not so easy.

Before we explore why, there are few things to note here:

  • The ‘internalized attention’ described here refers to literally imagining your body as a completely clear deity with various channels, chakras, and seed syllables. This sort of notion is the textbook definition of the subtle body in Tibetan Buddhism (and many other esoteric schools).
  • All monks and nuns being studied had at least 6 years experience with this practice, including a three-year retreat that would likely include ~10,000 hours of practice.
  • The study offers no concrete causal mechanism for why such a visualization would create profound changes in temperature.
  • Voluntarily being able to place the body into a fever state would offer a wide array of health benefits and would serve as effective treatment to a variety of ailments that currently require allopathic medicine.

Given all of this, why is the notion of a subtle body (containing things like chakras) considered fringe or pseudoscience (especially in light of these stark and, arguably, revolutionary findings)? If the nuns tell you they’re concentrating on the short A syllable in their navel chakra and the scientists have nothing better to go on than ‘something something biofeedback brainwaves’, why do we completely disregard the nuns explanation?

This guy isn’t exactly in it for the fame

You can blame the New Age pseudo-gurus for this: the vast majority of people running around making claims about their subtle bodies can demonstrate next to nothing beyond the standard placebo effect (which, as an aside, is actually very powerful). More specifically, it is only in studies of people who have dedicated decades to meditation and practice that we find much evidence of things far beyond ‘the power of wishful thinking.’ These people are very few in number, usually don’t care to be studied, and often actively eschew any kind of publicity (they tend to see it as an obstacle to their practice). Their remarkability makes an intuitive sense; if you think of the brain as a trainable muscle, these folks have spent a long time in the mental gym.

It’s a little like if you were conducting a study about whether a human being is capable of a 55″ vertical (answer: yes), and your entire population sample was made of aging 9-to-5ers who hit the gym once a week. You can perform your study rigorously, repeatedly, and objectively, but unless you go add some NBA players into the mix, you’re always going to get the wrong results.

On a more personal level, throughout my own journey I’ve met a handful of people (Hindu saints, nomadic Qi gong healers, etc) who appear to have abilities that the average person does not. The one thing these people have in common? A profound and life-encompassing dedication to their practice. They devote hours every day to it, and, equally importantly, weave it into every moment of their life. It defines how they get up, how they go to bed, how they eat, how they work, how they date. In many ways, their practice is their entire life.

In short: Gaining superpowers takes a ton of work.

(But that doesn’t mean they’re not real).