Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Natural Unnaturalness

Somewhere or other, Brad Warner's going to mention to this post.  I mean, he'll want to, because I could see Warner  could use the words "central" and "autonomous" nervous systems here, and say "See! Nishijima roshi meant this."

Well, he probably did; it's just that the medical terms don't actually convey what I think is referred to here.

Via Buddhist Geeks on Twitter, I came across this article on "Freedom and Choic."  which is  by Ken McLeod. McLeod writes:

Most people equate choice and freedom. It seems so reasonable. Freedom means you are free to choose, right? It means you are free from restrictions. If you can't choose, then you are not free. And it would seem to follow that the more choice you have, the more freedom you have.

But it doesn't work out that way....

What does choice give you? One answer is that choice makes it possible for you to shape your world according to your preferences. All this does is to enable you to fashion a world that is an extension of your own patterns...

Choice is a dubious blessing when it comes to spiritual practice, in fact, when it comes to any creative endeavor. Great art is often the result of restriction, in form, in materials, in themes, etc. The restrictions concentrate attention and spur creativity. It is the same in practice. How do you increase your capacity in attention? By eliminating all choice. One posture. One object. Rest right there. No choice. And, as all of us know, it's not easy...

What is freedom? It is the moment by moment experience of not being run by one's own reactive mechanisms. Does that give you more choice? Usually not. When you aren't run by reactions, you see things more clearly, and there is usually only one, possibly two courses of action that are actually viable. Freedom from the tyranny of reaction leads to a way of experiencing life that leaves you with little else to do but take the direction that life offers you in each moment. Hence, the illusion of choice is an indication of a lack of freedom.
I really don't follow as many of these "modern" teachers as others but here's Mr. McLeod's bio on Huffington Post. I hadn't known my world was roiled by him.  Based on the blurb written there I can guess why, but that's the subject for a whole other blog post. This post is about that section just quoted.

Mr. McLeod's incorrect, or at least very poorly phrasing what he's trying to convey. Freedom in the restricted sense of being the result of training is not the experience of "not being run by one's own reactive mechanisms."  It's something else.  I'll let another teacher explain it for you:

Bruce Lee could have made a comfortable living, I suppose, as a "spiritual" teacher, but he was simply in this clip trying to explain the point of martial arts training.  But then this is a metaphor for life: to have the instinctual in harmony with the consciously controlled should be the goal of practice.  That's what I mean: Brad Warner can use this quote whenever he talks about Nishijima and the autonomous nervous system.  It's just that a lot of this instinct I think arises and coexists in the central nervous system, and that's why I still find Nishijima's terminology unfortunate.

You're not going to get rid of a reactive mind, of instincts, of emotions, it doesn't matter how much training you do, whatever type of training you call it.  And it's not the point of such training either. Eventually it's not a point of being run by the conscious mind or by the instinctual mind, but of them working together in harmony.

Somebody trips you up. You do not want to rely on anything other than where the instinctual mind has chosen, that is, the choice made by  that stuff wired into the cerebellum.  You learned that stuff likely before you were 3 years old, and your instinct has it right!  Similarly with jumping in a pool.

At least part of the point of training is eventually to have different reactions when otherwise "buttons would be pushed," to use a phrase I detest, but which I use here to convey instinctual reaction that would have adverse consequences.  And part of that of course is not to be too upset about being upset that one will suck for a long time before getting to that point. Where one is right now is that harmony between the consciously controlled and the instinctual. It's just that practice/training should make that harmony more effective, whether it's in the Buddhist sense of being able to effectively practice the Way or in the martial arts sense of effectively extinguishing a dangerous situation.


Petteri Sulonen said...

You're more charitable than I am with Nishijima Roshi's terminology. His use of "autonomous nervous system," "sympathetic," and "parasympathetic" irritates the bejeezus out of me, because they're perfectly good medical terms that do not mean what Nishijima Roshi implies they mean. Your autonomous nervous system has fuck all to do with your tendency to engage in metaphysical speculation, dammit!

Anyway, I have a low tolerance for pseudoscientific gibberish, and Nishijima Roshi's terminology is just that, even if there's a non-gibberish idea he's attempting to express with it.

(And yeah, I think there probably is. But, as you said, unfortunate.)

Mumon said...

I guess I woke up in a kind mood today, because of course I completely agree with you.

Then again, in the grand scheme of things, I think that folks paying Ken McLeod as some kind of "consultant" to teach Buddhism is probably a grander wrongful condition than anything that junk Nishijima dispenses on medical information, especially that otherwise, at least from my readings of Warner, it's pretty straight-up Soto.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Yeah. Buddhism consultants. Definitely worse than the occasional gibberish. Can't argue with that.

Barbara O'Brien said...

I'm not sure you and McLeod are talking about the same "reactive mechanisms." I read "the moment by moment experience of not being run by one's own reactive mechanisms" as being about equanimity; non-attachment. But I can't say I get McLeod's point about "choice," though.

Mumon said...

Thanks for the comment. My first thought in response (my reaction) was, well, "It's kind of hard to explain."

The equanimity sought is the harmony of the reaction with the conscious - or absolute and relative in identity with each other, to put it another way.

I don't think McLeod makes the point well that it's not a tyranny of reaction or a tyranny of the conscious mind, but rather their cooperation. And sometimes, when you're about to fall, e.g., you better well let the reactive part of you run with it, because it knows what to do better than the "thinking" part of you.

You also have a point about his use of the word "choice," and the same could be said about "freedom." Both of these words are shibboleths in Western culture; good in and of themselves. I would say freedom is, in this case, the ability to effect the harmony of the dual (absolute, relative, etc.) to benefit all beings. It's not one versus the other.

Mumon said...


Amazing what you can get paid to do as a "consultant."