Investigating the skull of Prince Siddhartha
“Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it”. — The Dhammapada.
What if I told you that we are all actually mentally ill? Some would dismiss this statement as absurd or the work of a charlatan. However, in the eyes of close to 520 million followers of buddhism, this sentence would make complete sense.
In buddhist philosophy a human being is simply not considered sane until he or she has become fully enlightened. Buddhists believe that the mechanism of the human mind is faulty, like a clock running too fast or too slow. Even the apparently mentally fit spend a majority of their lives obsessing about their social and professional standing, getting sick, yearning for more of this and less of that.
Buddhist’s believe that our own minds are the cause for our suffering, that our brain is the sole cause for the feeling of “unsatisfactoriness” that has become a default setting in modern human existence.
Let’s consider this, Denmark which for years has rejoiced under the title of the “happiest nation on earth” thanks to its high GDP per capita, low income inequality, personal freedoms, good nutrition, excellent public health care, long life expectancy. Despite all this the nations has a surprisingly high number of Danes that require psychiatric treatment for serious mental illness at some point in their life. Some 38% of danish women and 32% of danish men will receive therapy in a psychiatric hospital some time in their life.
The high prevalence of psychiatric illnesses and the fact that their symptoms exist, on a continuum of severity, throughout the general population suggests they are not discrete condition like diabetes or asthma but an extreme manifestation of the ordinary human condition.
So what can we do about it? Attempts to fix our wonky brains are as old as civilisation. we could even argue that the only common ground between the world’s great religions is that they have been doing their level best for millennia to bring the wayward mind to heel.
Buddhist philosophy doesn’t have a concept of sin.
Lust, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy, pride and so forth are simply termed as “unskillful behaviour”. The art of fixing our unskillful behavioural patterns through mindfulness meditation can be seen as the path to skilled enlightenment.
Scientists as usual are about 1500 years late to the party. Some of the world’s most respected clinical psychologists and neuroscientists are now involved and their papers have been published in mainstream journals such as Nature, proceedings of the natural academy of sciences and the Lancet. The credibility of this field has skyrocketed since the use of brain scanning technology such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) which has unequivocally in study after study proved that meditation produces a discernible change in brain activity.
Many of us can empathise with the spoiled young Siddhartha’s plight. Like him many of us have been raised in a fools paradise. Like Siddhartha many grow up without ever having seen a dead body with their own eyes. Death is a staple of movies, television, dramas and the news but our own demise is a profoundly taboo topic of conversation. Until comparatively recently in human history, encounters with death were commonplace, but young people nowadays find it impossible to even imagine that one day they will die too. In most advanced countries, people have enjoyed steadily rising standards of living since the 1950’s and take advantage of increasingly sophisticated social support and health care systems and yet self-reported levels of life satisfaction have scarcely budged in more than half a century. We are in the grip of what epidemiologists are calling the “happiness paradox”.
The story goes that on one fine day, a 29 year old Siddhartha came to face to face with a dying man in the outskirts Kapilavatsu palace. The sight held Siddhartha spell bounded. A certain something had been sparked in him, It dawned on Siddhartha that sooner or later even the most beautiful and wonderful things in his life — the most sensual of pleasures-would fade. Nothing would be perfect, nothing permanent, everything he had come to love was subject to change, death and decay.
His father noticed a change in his son’s demeanour. He seemed distracted, depressed. To cheer him up, that evening a palace apprentice sent dancers and musicians to entertain him. But Siddhartha would later recall, when he awoke on his couch in the middle of the night the performers had all fallen asleep. Siddhartha would go on to renounce his titles, a wife and a new born baby boy and walk away to follow the path of extreme ascetic self denial for 6 years before he was able to come to a state of mind that let him metacognise that our minds are in its essence as pure as rain but are essentially poisoned with craving, aversion and delusion which are said to be the root cause of suffering, these modes of energy fluctuations have also been recorded in yogic tradition as sattva, rajas and tamas.
For some like Siddhartha Gautama, it wasn’t enough to be engulfed by what he called “the cloud of unknowing”, so he sat ; patiently waiting in darkness under the Bodhi tree for his soul to be united with the spirit of universal consciousness.
“The body: feeling, perception, thoughts, consciousness, is not permanent” he began, If this body were the permanent— the eternal essence of a person, their soul- would it be subject to so much disease and change? Would it be the cause of so much suffering and unsatisfactoriness, just like everything else that is impermanent by nature?
So if there is no refuge of stability in any of these, where could the supposedly eternal unchanging self reside within a human being? Everywhere one looks, whether in the body or the mind, one sees only change and instability. The self is nowhere to be found.
For thousand of years, the central tenet of Vedic religion of an ancient India had remained unchallenged: inside every human dwells Brahman. This “inner controller” sitting in the middle of our skulls is indistinguishable from the ultimate reality. In the deepest most ecstatic state of meditation a yogin was said to discard his mundane, illusory self and unite with his true self that was absolutely non different from every other sentient and non sentient being on earth and in the heavenly realms.
For the remaining 40 or 45 years of his life, the Buddha is said to have traveled in the Gangetic Plain, in what is now Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and southern Nepal, teaching a diverse range of people: from nobles to servants, ascetics, householders, murderers, and cannibals. His sangha also enjoyed the patronage of the kings of Kosala and Magadha and he thus spent a lot of time in their respective capitals, Savatthi and Rajagaha.
Vedic revelation agreed that if a human being managed to adhere to the strict disciplines of mantra and hatha yoga, they could strip away their selfish identity identity driven desires and their crude illusory soul would be left with nothing but the reflection of the entire cosmic manifestation. This maxim was translated to “know thyself” which was inscribed in the Temple of Apollo Delphi In Greece.
In people who practice transcendental meditation, distinctive changes have been identified in a matchbox size region of the orbitofrontal cortex known as Brodmann area 10, this area has been proved to allow humans to metacognise by observing one’s own thoughts and emotions with detachement (vairagya).
Multitasking is a myth, any impression of multitasking is simply a result of his or her brain rapidly toggling between different tasks without messing up. Studies have revealed that different part of our brain are creating different streams of consciousness. This is why people who smoke have one voice in their heads that tell them they like to smoke while they have another voice saying they hate smoking.
A neighbouring executive control region, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, may work in concert with Area 10 to facilitate efficient metacognition, which helps in suppressing the self-referential thinking that is the speciality of the default mode network (DMN). The DMN which turns on when we are not focussed on a task is responsible for your dopamine driven subconscious desires and urges, which was also termed as vasanas in the yogic tradition. Area 10 essentially controls the unskillful behavioural pattern and urges that arise from the DMN.
The studies on meditators have revealed not only increased cortical thickness in area 10 but also greater density of grey matter (nerve cell bodies) and enhanced structural integrity of white matter (long, connective nerve fibres or “axons”).
Yet this pristine meditative mind is still like any other thing: impermanent. One day an 80 year old Siddhartha would wake up to the sun and earth one last time. He spent his last day advising the heads of the sangha to pass on the light of wisdom from the lamps of their minds to the lamps of every other sentient and insentient creature on earth and in the heavenly realms.
Siddhartha is said to have shed his body at Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, his still poisoned soul proceeded to travel the archiradi marga (the lightning way to paramapadam)— at sunset on a full moon night.
“Fear does not prevent death, it prevents life”.