Lalith Ananda Gunaratne CACOR member explores Mindful Balance.
“Over the last century as scientists opened up the Sapiens blackbox, they discovered neither soul, nor free will, nor ‘self’ – but only genes, hormones and neurons that obey the same physical and chemical laws governing the rest of reality”. Yuval Noah Hariri – Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow – pp 328
In Buddha’s teachings, one of the three characteristics of life is Anatta – ‘non-self’, where the mental-physical ego-self is a deluded view based on our conditioned ego-personality which arises out of ignorance. This is the ignorance that has been exploited in the name of ‘self’ in the consumerist capitalist world.
Now, we witness the ultimate manipulation of the ‘self’ by Cambridge Analytica (CA), the UK based political consulting company on how they exploited deep seated fears in people to even elect governments they normally may have not. CA would profile and target undecided people by subliminally coercing them to vote in a certain way, giving them a false hope of salvation to meet the ends of a powerful few.
Psychology of Mass Deception
The use of psychology for mass marketing started in the late 19thcenturyto enable the consumerist world by Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud.
Bernays, known as the father of Public Relations (PR) in the USA played a pivotal role in politics and business using techniques to create desires in individuals. With that, the power of PR to control the masses was discovered.
Edward Bernays wrote in his 1928 bookPropaganda;
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.
As science and technology evolved, as wealth was created, the corporation slowly took over, installing and sustaining politicians in our modern democracy. The limited liability laws gave corporations the license to operate as an ‘individual’ and a ‘person’, to make financial contributions to political parties, to lobby and influence governments to suit their business ends.
Wealth of the USA grew with an economy driven by the corporation, where the individual self’s desire to become somebody – the material self – was driven using tools of mass persuasion via media advertising.
Bernays’s work pioneered the concept of mass consumption by creating emotional desires for things people did not really need. The result was a new psychology of conspicuous consumption perpetuated from his office on Madison Avenue in New York. Bernays found his allies in the media business and Madison Avenue became the hub for communications empires built by the likes of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate and the publisher of Time magazine, Henry Luce and others.
This empire controlled the message focused on ‘self’, to create desire using a mythological system of symbolic meaning with marketing techniques to promote styles and ideas. The corporate world fulfills these desires through brand names and marketing.
The media campaigns were designed to massage the ego’s of fragile selves, who were subliminally coerced to find their salvation and anchor in material possessions. This came with Hollywood, Disney and celebrity sports which spread around the world – a kind of American populism that the globe enjoys yet fallen prey to at the risk of its sustainability and resilience.
It is a deluded ‘self’ – mine included – that attaches to a false permanence aiding and abetting the mass marketers who promise happiness and eternal life, where people like Google’s Futurist Ray Kurzweil thrives.
Even though Kurzweil thinks we can extend life span with human-machine coming together, if we inquire mindfully and critically, eternal life in this human form maybe a pipe dream in a universe governed by laws of thermodynamics and entropy.
The Dream of Eternal Youth and Hollywood
It has been a human ego based one-sided development, without thinking about the balance which the homeostatic nature operates in. At a basic level, the First Law of Thermodynamics states: Energy cannot be created or destroyed the total quantity of energy in the universe stays the same. When we break fundamental laws of nature, there are consequences, and at the heart of that is ‘self’. No other civilization was able to proliferate this entire globe with science and technology leading to consumerism, as the United States of America has in the last two centuries.
It has provided a platform for intellectual freedom to explore territories and inquire into vast areas from outer-space to our own human mind and body – from the esoteric to physical matter. Yet the underlying premise is based on money, business and markets.
This has conditioned most of us on this interconnected earth to have, materialistic aspirations gratified externally through our six senses.
This feeds consumerism and denigrates anything that takes us back to nature and our own spirituality – so tree huggers get laughed at and indigenous communities are marginalized.
This is especially interesting in light of Kurzweil’s prediction of Singularity when artificial intelligence (AI) will lead to machines that are smarter than human beings. According to Kurzweil, “That leads to computers having human intelligence and putting them inside our brains, connecting them to the cloud, expands who we are”.
At a material and technology level, it is possible to interfere with our brain. However, Kurzweil’s grandiose project for human-machine synthesis maybe the end of the human being as we are. What would that mean to ‘self’ as we know it?.
It makes it even more interesting with author Yuval Hariri’s assertions in his book Home Deus that science is proving there is no ‘self’, no free will nor soul, which may make the earlier question a mute point.
The Basics of Buddhist Teachings
I realized at a young age that Buddhism does not come from a theistic, doctrinal position where I have to follow or obey a higher power, but it is a way of life learned to live well through insight and wisdom – to take responsibility for myself based on mindfulness, reflection and contemplation on our common human experience of suffering.
As a child I was first exposed to three Pali words – Dukkha-Suffering, Anicca – Impermanence and Anatta-Non-Self through the Jataka tale of the Prince Siddhartha at age 29.
Story relates his encounter with an old man, a sick person and a corpse – as he ventured out of his sheltered palace life for the first time – and to finally see an ascetic. He was mystified and when he inquired about the ascetic, he was told that the monk in robes was seeking salvation from life’s suffering. The prince was intrigued and thus began his journey of inquiry to finally attain Nirvana.
I was able to relate to Dukkha, as I knew suffering from being ill, not getting the dinky toy cars I loved, the suffering of others who were poor and now, as I have grown older, the general un-satisfactoriness of life, which is palpable.
The second truth of Anicca – impermanence was also drummed into me at an intellectual level, validated through my experience of everything changing around me, life’s uncertainties as people got sick, old and died – so that was clear.
It was the third truth that I had a hard time grasping. Anatta – Non Self, has taken a life time of inquiry and a mindfulness practice to finally get a glimpse of that truth through intelligent insight.
This is a direct contrast to life as we live now with our conditioned ‘self’ as the prime mover – the subject that is separate from the object of the physical universe, so we humans can subjugate the universe without realizing any consequence, as life revolves around the individual ‘self’.
Self, Descarte and Individualism
The importance of ‘self’ in this age arose from the individualism that evolved from the work of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) – the father of modern philosophy.
Descarte’s time saw four major developments: the Renaissance, Reformation, change from agrarian Feudalism to urban Capitalism, and the discovery and conquest of overseas territories and peoples.
In the reformation, Martin Luther’s Protestantism imbued a culture of individualistic self-reliance by setting the individual free, defying the spiritual authority of the church, which encouraged the notion of modern individualism.
The evolution of capitalism depended on individual initiative to build personal wealth. This was intrinsic for an economic system complementing Protestantism to breed the kind of individualism that is the hallmark of western culture.
Therefore, it is this focus on the individual ‘self’, which has defined the character of our present civilization as capitalism, materialism, technology and global expansion.
All this has happened in one dimension of the duality that Descarte created in separating the mind, which he said was his essential ‘self’, from the body and the physical world. He expanded on this with his statement – “I think therefore I am”. Descarte gave precedence to the ‘thinking matter’ and relegated ‘physical matter’ to be subjugated by the mind.
This separated the mind from the physical world as the “Cartesian Dualism”, which drives materialism, technology and global expansion, especially inspiring the 19th century westward movement to create the United States of America.
As the USA systematically took over as the world’s superpower, it spread a popular culture, which thrives on individualism and this duality with most of the rest of the world.
This consumer driven material world dominated by the human mind seeking a ‘super happiness’ has impacted on the environment and the balance of nature, divided and separated societies in ways that are not sustainable anymore.
North America and Manifest Destiny of the Self
North America received hundreds of thousands of European settlers getting away from religious and social subjugation from the mid 1600s. These ‘free people’ wanted to create a society based on that very ‘liberty’ they had acquired from venturing across the Atlantic ocean. This liberty based on individualism, bred self-esteem and a contentiousness that fueled an ambition to succeed over the overbearing motherlands of Europe.
He expounded on the Anglo-American settlement – from hunters and trappers in the East to farmers clearing land for agriculture to the village-dweller and finally to the city-building ‘men of enterprise’ in the West, marking the progress of civilization. Cities, became Turner’s final frontier marking the triumph of civility over the wilderness – institutionalizing individualism and the notion of ‘self’. This enabled the formation of a consumerist liberal democracy where business began to rule politics. Their ingenuity improved upon the industrial age developments of Europe, especially in significant areas of steel production, electric power generation and industrialized farming, was showcased to the world at the Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 along with what was emerging as a distinct, swashbuckling free spirited American culture. It was exciting and contagious.
At the Chicago Expo, an academic and ideologue Frederick Jackson Turner gave a seminal talk based on his essay on the American frontier entitled The Significance of the Frontier in American History.
When one reflects on the virtues of individualism as self reliance, personal responsibility, independence and consequent blameworthiness and credit, the world’s super power USA founded on individualism carries the burden of this responsibility to live it – to walk the talk. The ego of that is what keeps the USA trying to fix the rest of the world in its own image of ‘self’.
The Paradox of Non-Self
The modern world mindset focused on ‘self’ promotes obsessive behaviour as desire and ambition. Setting goals for a material future of accumulation is what is touted as success.
That compulsive behaviour of seeking success by accumulating leaves no room for spiritual growth, because we are too busy to stop, reflect, contemplate, meditate and inquire. These are not productive pursuits in a material world. Yet, finding the space in our mind for insights and wisdom to arise is to find that balance, which lends to the ‘power of balance’. Power of balance can lead to a more contented and happy life.
Yuval Hariri’s assertions in his book that there is no soul, no free will and no self, but only an electro-chemical process may mean that it is shaped by our genetic makeup, which in turn reflect the ancient evolutionary pressures and chance mutations.
If that is correct, when I take action or react to something, it is deterministic or a random process driven by a chain reaction of a bio-chemical process. Hariri goes onto state that the Theory of Evolution supports this notion of no free will and no self, as all the basic reptilian survival choices we make – habitat, mates and food – are based on a genetic code. If that is the case, why not become more mindful and aware about how we live and love?.
Mindfulness and Perspective
This awareness is what gives us the space to take our leaders or the media with a pinch of salt. Critical thinking require us to pause and check where the message originates, who’s agenda is it promoting and what is in it for them? The practice of mindfulness is fast becoming a way for people to find some space in a cluttered mind bombarded by the media giving mixed messages.
A meditation practice helps to stop our thought process and reflect on ’self’ in a natural way. A long term practice leads to a realization – an awareness, that this physical body which belongs to the physical universe is not ours to own. It has a life of its own as it rises at birth and disappears at death in a bio-chemical process.
The delusion of ‘self’ is conditioned into us through nurture and now more than ever the consumerist media. The assumption is that we are the same person from one moment to the next.
Buddha teaches that there is no consistent self, which to the cluttered conditioned mind, is hard to grasp. Our physical body, which includes the brain and the mind are in constant flux. When we know this intelligently and wisely, there is nothing to fear the notion of ‘non-self’.
‘Non self’ combined with impermanence, gives us freedom as we do not have to attach ourselves to our thoughts and things as they do not define us. That way we can let go of those obsessions and self limiting beliefs driven by the notion of the consistent ‘self’ – to own things, build things, to grow and expand – needed or not – for the sake of our deluded and conditioned mind massaging the ego of self-importance.
That is how the media or a demagogue manipulates us.
By letting go we gain our power to be objective, critical and become truly aware.
Conditioned to the Unconditioned – Self to Non-Self
I have no idea where the latest developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) – the use of big data and algorithms to manipulate us to an institutional agenda promoted by the affluent – will end.
If we pause in mindfulness, we will be open to learning from saner, wiser minds like Cathy O’Neil who wrote in her book Weapons of Math Destructionhow at the end of the day a human being will be biased in whatever we do – whether to weed out bad teachers from a school system or to sell products to us – there will be some ideology that is driving the algorithm.
Our ideology is driven by our thoughts, values and desires and they arise out of a conditioned place.
A mindfulness practice enables us to reflect on what has conditioned us to move towards bare attention and awareness of life in the unconditioned.
American born Buddhist monk, Ajahn Sumedho paraphrases the Buddha;
There is the Unborn, Uncreated, Unoriginated
- If there was not the Unborn, Uncreated, Unoriginated, there would be no escape from the born, the created, the originated.
- But because there is the Unborn, the Uncreated, the Unoriginated, therefore there is an escape from the created, the born, the originated.
This kind of escape is encouraged to free oneself from being bound and caught up in the ‘deathbound’ state.
He calls it ‘deathbound’ because, when you really contemplate it, everything – thoughts, memories, feelings, the body, which are conditioned in ideology – will die.
He points that being attached to these, you are attached to death. When we desire perfection – ‘when I meet the right person, I will live happily ever after’ or ‘when I make money everything will be fine and will not desire anymore’ – and when these expectations are not met, we suffer.
Yet we know that desire perpetuates itself and that is what Edward Bernays built his empire on, stoking it with the promise of eternal happiness in the consumer world.
This is what the conditioned mind gets caught up in, as our gratifications are impermanent, as we get bored with what we have and seek more gratification – it goes on and on in a cycle of suffering, joy and suffering. The reality is that, it is difficult to hold onto the happiness these gratifications bring.
Buddha said there is the unconditioned and timeless here and now. With mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we may realize thatthoughts, memories, feelings, the body are not me or mine.
These insights come to us as we focus on our breath rising and falling in our meditation. We realize our thoughts will rise and ebb away, as will our memories, feelings and then we realize our body too has risen at birth and will cease to exist at death.
This way we realize ‘non-self’ – as everything that rises will cease in the natural cycle of this universe. This is the unconditioned.
Realizing this simple truth, can be liberating. We can then take personal responsibility to not get caught up in dreams of eternal life in this human form. If they want to alter my brain with chemicals and computer chips, that changes the game entirely as that is not ‘self’ anymore anyway.
The moral of the story is not to get caught up in all this hype about everything. I keep reminding myself that this notion of ‘self’ in an illusion. That way, I can put things in perspective to let go and live my life in abundance – abundance of love, compassion, empathy, become generous and vulnerable to wade through the roller coaster of ups and downs with equanimity.
May you be well and may you be happy…..