The other night I woke up from a nightmare that was so prolonged and so vivid that it took me minutes on end to reassure myself I was still awake. Even walking outside and looking at the morning sky (see? you're back in the real world!) wasn't enough at first.
A lot of the nightmares I've had aren't in the vein of horror movies; they're more about irreversible social embarrassments or long-buried fears like missing a class. (Is there anyone here who doesn't have some kind of nightmare about school?) What made this one all the more traumatic was how it didn't feel like a nightmare, but more like me remembering some great transgression that was going to boil back up and wreck my life later on. That's also probably why it took so long to come up out of it, because I wasn't sure at first if I was indeed dealing with memory or fabrication.
You see why stuff like this is so horrifying, right? You can't even trust your own mind to tell you what's what. Small wonder diseases that affect the brain have such a specific ghastliness to them.
Much of my original wave of study in Buddhism did not use material that was written from an of-the-moment perspective. It was all stuff like D.T. Suzuki and Walpola Rahula (What The Buddha Taught), and so there was little to no discussion of it by way of modern concepts like neurology or brain science. Some of it involved psychology, but of the proto-scientific variety that has since been shown to be wanting.
Later on, I did encounter material that examined Buddhist concepts through more modern notions — again, neurology and brain science — and a lot more of what was being proposed stuck with me because it was being pitched in terms I had already come to understand and trust.
This, by the way, is a standard pattern not just for Buddhism but pretty much any belief system or practice path: it has to be brought to the audience in terms that are immediately familiar. Hence the Buddha using the Brahmanic spiritual universe as a source of ready-made metaphors and analogies for how to communicate his ideas to his original audience. Those ideas ultimately transcended its originating container, and wherever they went they took on some local form.
In our world, the local form is the language of workaday pragmatism and neuroscience. I have my misgivings on how those things can be abused or commodified, but there's no question they find an audience in that form. They found an audience when they were expressed in ways that were deeply mystical as well, but we forget that those "mystical" forms were what constituted a practical incarnation in another place.
What I'm saying is that a lot of the things Buddhism made clear to me about how the mind works only started to sink in and become useful to me — useful in the sense of serving as a bulwark against things like the above nightmare sequence — when they were expressed in scientific terms and shown to have consistence with them. Thoughts don't really exist, but the brain does a bang-up job of convincing us they do, because that's a survival mechanism. Our ability to take abstract thought and render it concrete, or feel like ideas are real things, motivates us to do something about situations that would otherwise overwhelm a life form without that capacity. If we can imagine something, we are that much closer to finding a way to act on it, because we can visualize the steps involved.
Now the bad news: the brain is also really good at taking this stuff a step too far. Again, it's a survival mechanism; maybe better too much than too little. But too much means staying awake at 4 a.m. spinning out one paranoid strand of thought after another about what's going to happen tomorrow, or in the next five minutes. At one point in my life, I am not proud to say, I was being eaten alive by this kind of thing. It took a few years of consistent practice to get a foot in the door, and to be able to get into the habit of looking at my own mind and saying, "Well, that's just what's in your head, now, isn't it?"
The common comeback to this sort of thing is, "Yeah, but it sure feels real." That was exactly my own comeback — it didn't feel like something I could beat back because it felt like it was inseparable from the rest of my image of the world, and from myself.
What I found out over time, though, was that by sitting with it non-judgmentally I could see that it was in fact different, in the same way two subtly dissimilar shades of green look indistinguishable at first but can in time be told apart with enough observation (and proper lighting). It seemed at first like it was the product of my brain trying to do all the things my brain does — warn me of danger, prepare scenarios for future disaster, etc. — but that didn't mean I had to take any of it seriously every single second of every single day. With time, the "colors of the mind" (as Dogen put it) began to separate themselves out and become distinct.
Another thing that had to sink in for me was that taking this attitude wasn't an attempt to deny danger. Bad things happen, and sometimes our brain gives us good early warnings about them. But if your brain's flooding itself with bogus early warning messages, that doesn't sharpen us up for the real thing; it just drowns out the real thing, or provides us with too much irrelevant information to deal with the real thing. It may feel like it's supposed to be helping, but it's really not. It's like someone drinking too much water as preparation for swimming the English Channel.
The other thing — and this is another Brad Warner-ism that I'm coming to appreciate more and more — is that the real thing, when it does come, typically comes in a way that doesn't match our projections. It might match some of the rough details of it, but the exact details of the future are often nothing like what we had in mind. I know that at some point Guardians of the Galaxy Pt. 2 is going to come out, and that I'm going to buy a ticket for it, go into the theater, sit down and watch it, eat popcorn. I don't know who else is going to be in the theater, or what the drive to the theater will be like, or what my wife will be wearing, or what the conversation we'll have on the way out will be like. All fine.
Neuroscience also shows that we tend to overestimate the future impact of bad things on our lives; because we have such a free hand in imagining what will happen, it's easy to let that run wild, like a kid scribbling all over the entire room with his crayon.
People in modern (and I guess you could also say postmodern) societies are accustomed to the idea of control, and the one form of control they most cherish is control over themselves. By itself this isn't bad; it's nice to do something about things that a hundred years ago wouldn't have had any solution at all. But it also becomes too easy to invest yourself in it as an ultimate ideal, and to feel all the more hurt and betrayed by it — and yourself — when control fails.
One of the things I picked up from another relatively modern introduction to Buddhism, Rebel Buddha, was the idea that you need to make friends with your mind in order to provide it with discipline — that we listen to and take more readily advice from a friend, someone close to our heart in some form, than we do from a total stranger or someone who just embodies authority in the abstract. The book links this up with the idea of how engaging in a non-judgmental way with your own mind — zazen, sitting meditation, what have you — can work like this. You're the one best equipped to make friends with your own mind, and even if you don't know everything about it yet, you of all people are in the best possible position to learn and act on it.
I don't claim to have all this stuff tamed perfectly. I still wake up sometimes and feel rattled. But I spend a lot less time being rattled, and the net effects are all the less profound. Any progress is worth it.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind