Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of conversations with spiritually awakening people. We’ve done nearly 700 of them now, and if this is new to you, and you’d like to check out previous ones, please go to batgap.com, B-A-T-G-A-P, and look under the past interviews menu. This program is made possible through the support of appreciative listeners and viewers. So if you appreciate it and would like to help support it, there are PayPal buttons on the site, and there’s a page explaining alternatives to PayPal. Another thing that I’ve been announcing lately with good results is that I’m on a project to get properly proofread transcripts of all the BATGAP interviews. And I’ve got a growing team of volunteers who’ve been helping with this, and I’m using some AI-based software that’s really accurate called Whisper. It’s made by the same people who make ChatGPT, but it still needs a little proofreading after Whisper generates the transcript. And one of the main motivations for doing this is that YouTube now translates subtitles into over 100 languages. If you have subtitles, then obviously it would need accurate subtitles to do a good job. So if you feel like helping with that, get in touch. And it’s kind of fun, people say. All right. My guest today is Chris Niebauer. Chris earned his PhD in cognitive neuropsychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in the differences between the left and right sides of the human brain. He is the author of No Self, No Problem, How Neuropsychology is Catching Up to Buddhism, and the No Self, No Problem workbook, Exercises and Practices from Neuropsychology and Buddhism to Help You Lose Your Mind. So I read, or rather listened to both books in the last couple of weeks, and obviously I’ve lost my mind. He was a professor at a state university in Pennsylvania for 22 years, where he taught courses on consciousness, mindfulness, left and right brain differences, and artificial intelligence. And his website is chrisneibauerphd.com, and don’t worry about the spelling of that. I’ll put a link to it on his page on batgap.com. Oh, and one other little housekeeping point. My video editor, who is a lot younger than me, reminds me that it’s really good for the popularity of one’s YouTube channel if people like and subscribe. So if you like these videos, like them. Click the little thumbs up button. And if you like the channel in general, please subscribe. We reached 100,000 subscribers a few weeks ago, or maybe a month ago. So that was nice. Google sent me a little plaque. Okay, so here we go. So Chris, welcome.
Chris: Hey Rick, nice to be here, thanks.
Rick: Yeah, I very much enjoyed listening to your books, and also you have hundreds of short videos on your YouTube channel, sometimes 2-3 minutes, sometimes 10 minutes, and I listened to many of those. And, as is my habit, I was listening while riding my bike, washing the dishes, walking in the woods, cutting the grass, so I didn’t take a lot of notes. But I have a feeling that we’re just going to fill up two hours very easily with an interesting conversation. And you were telling me before we started recording that your style is very impromptu as well, and you just kind of like to wing it, and good things come out. So let’s wing it.
Chris: Sounds good.
Rick: Okay. So why don’t you just start by giving us a synopsis of what lights your fire, you know, what interests you based upon everything you’ve learned over the years, and the kinds of things you talk about on your YouTube channel, and so on, and then we’ll use that as a springboard.
Chris: Sure. So I’ve always been interested in consciousness, even as an undergrad. Before consciousness was really popular, I don’t know if you might remember, And consciousness would get maybe one chapter. If you find the right introduction to a psychology book, the right one, you’d have to search, and then it would have one chapter on consciousness. And one of the things I think that is probably the main confusion in this area is confusing thinking, so the thinking mind, which is so dependent on language, with raw consciousness, just simple consciousness, that can’t avoid a thought. And so that’s been something I’ve been pursuing, and I’m actually working on another book right now that talks about these two worlds we live in. One is the abstract world of thinking, and it creates all kinds of interesting abstractions that we often mistake for being real, things like governments and workplaces and universities, and all these are just abstract concepts. And then there’s what I would call the real world, which is very simple conscious experiences. And one of the reasons [inaudible] and mindfulness are so powerful is they get us out of the thinking abstract world and bring us back to something that is so powerful and joyful, and that is these simple conscious experiences. And so many of us, we start our day having a sip of tea, and that gets us set up so we can go into these abstract worlds of work politics and sort of deal with them. So that’s what I’ve been working on pretty recently.
Rick: Yeah, I’ve been interested in consciousness most of my life, too, and meditating for a long time, as you have. And I remember in one of your books, or maybe it was one of your YouTube videos, you mentioned a book by Daniel Dennett, which was supposed to be all about consciousness. And as I think you said, it turned out to be a bit disappointing because it was really all about thinking and really nothing much about consciousness. In fact, I don’t even know if he would regard consciousness even remotely as what I think you and I would agree that it probably is, which is fundamental, not merely a product of the brain.
Chris: And I used to bring that into my class, and this is going all the way back to the ’90s when I was still in grad school. We had a seminar on his book, and it was what a wonderful title, “Consciousness Explained.” I remember being a kid at Christmas morning, I was like, “This has got to be the best.” I couldn’t wait to get into it. And then I was met with one disappointment after another, because if he had called it “Thinking Explained,” it would have been a perfect book, because it really got into psychology, neuropsych, and it really did take thinking apart as about, you know, the best you could do at the time. But again, he dismissed consciousness, and I think what he really wanted to dismiss was thinking. And you could see it, and I think you’ve got the most profound example of confusing thinking and consciousness, and we see that so often in Western science. And so, I use that often as the most profound example of confusing thinking and consciousness. And if you dismiss the consciousness, that, like you just said, it’s so fundamental, it’s so simple in some ways, that that’s where we’re going when we meditate. That’s where we’re going when we practice mindfulness. I mean, mindfulness and meditation overlap if they’re not the exact same thing, because they’re getting us out of that thinking mind and into what we might call simple conscious experiences, often sensory experiences.
Rick: I think Daniel Dennett is considered one of the so-called “four horsemen,” along with Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and who was the other guy? I don’t know. One other. But they’re all these sort of neo-atheists, and, you know, they think that basically when your body dies, that’s it. You know, kaput, there’s nothing which outlasts it. Therefore, consciousness, they would assume, is not a foundational thing in the universe, but rather a product of, you know, the brain. But anyway, that’s a bit of a tangent. So, I think one really good way of understanding how, you know, or commenting on Daniel Dennett’s point is that obviously thinking and all things we perceive are things we are conscious of. They are not consciousness itself. And without consciousness, we wouldn’t be aware of them. You make a good point here and there in your books. That is, you know, you said to your students, if you could be given a choice between being a multi-millionaire or being conscious, but you can’t have both, which would you choose?
Chris: Yeah, 20 years now. And it’s one of those questions I could ask students and comes up on podcasts, and it’s a great thing to ponder because it helps us become grateful for something we already have. We are already conscious, and we recognize that there’s nothing you could tempt me with. You could give me all the money, all the power, and I still wouldn’t trade my consciousness for it. I wouldn’t become a zombie. I was a billionaire zombie because I realized that consciousness is the most valuable thing. And it’s a question that gets people to reevaluate how important thinking is versus consciousness. How consciousness is at the base of what it means not just to be human because I think plenty of other species are conscious, but it actually does define the human experience.
Rick: And the mosquito experience. I mean, any experience.
Chris: But we’ve trivialized consciousness. And, you know, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that neuroscientists became obsessed with zombies. You know, every consciousness book pondered the zombie question because it helped shine a light on what was really valuable. But there’s still this kind of conflict between, you know, what if I could be a genius? You know, we still, particularly in Western society, we value intelligence so much. And so, it gets a little bit trickier when you’re like, okay, well, what if I made you, you know, an Einstein? And you had this ability to think at the highest level of thought. And then you could see people getting tempted because, you know, we’ve been taught to value thinking, you know, the classic Descartes, “I think, therefore I am,” where our existence itself was defined by thinking. And so, we still, at the core, we still value that so much that it becomes very tempting to become a genius, even if it’s at the cost of our own happiness. So, it’s kind of an old TV show. Your listeners might be familiar with House. I always liked House because it’s such an interesting…
Rick: Yeah. Hugh Laurie, that was great.
Chris: Yeah, because he was a genius, but he was addicted to drugs. He was miserable.
Rick: Yeah, he was kind of a dick.
Chris: He was. But, you know, over the years, when I would ask students, it was very easy to tempt them. They would much rather be House than someone who was intellectually average but very happy. And that puts a very interesting question on the table. So, you know, what do we really value? Would we rather be happy but…or intelligent but miserable, or maybe just average intelligence but really at peace?
Rick: Okay, a couple of thoughts in there. One is, I mean, I don’t think, obviously, they’re not actual zombies. But if they were, even the zombies you see in zombie movies, they’ve got to be conscious because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to perceive. Well, I don’t know. That’s a good question. There’s these robots, you know, that Boston…what is it? Boston Analytics? They can dance and they can do backflips and all this stuff. But I guess you could argue they are not conscious, obviously. So is that what a zombie would be? Would be a human body which is dead and therefore not conscious, but it’s somehow functioning the way a robot functions?
Chris: I think that’s an amazing question that we really need to ponder right now because humans have dominated the thinking sphere of the planet for 50,000 years. We’ve been at the top of the thinking chain. And suddenly AI comes along and now it can outthink us. But the question is, is it conscious? So I mean, AI, it was actually beating us at strategy games like chess back in the ’80s. And so, you know, we just can’t compete in terms of thinking anymore. So now we’ve got to reach a little deeper. Maybe that puts the spotlight back on consciousness. So are we consciousness, AI conscious? And I don’t really know if AI…I think that’s a really good question. And if you go back to Turing, it’s Alan Turing’s original paper on computer machinery and intelligence. He was so far ahead of his time. And you can find the paper online. It’s free. You can download it. And it’s… the question he asked is, is a machine…can a machine think? And there’s a place where he talks about objections. And he even made the distinction between thinking and consciousness back in the ’50s. And he said, the question he’s asking is, can a machine think? And he said, well, is a machine conscious? And he said, that’s a whole different question. And he sort of avoided it. But he recognized…he avoided answering it, but he recognized that it was a completely different question to ask. And I think that’s where we’re at right now. Because if we lose the thinking challenge, then where does consciousness come up? And if you look, what do I do with my books? What is “No Self, No Problem” really about? What is the workbook really about? They’re about us going beyond our obsession with thinking and recognizing that our human existence is so much richer, so much more fuller than simply thinking all the time.
Rick: I think what might be useful at this point is to throw in a little Advaita Vedanta. And obviously, Advaita Vedanta has been around for a long time, but these days, exponents of it often use the movie screen analogy, that, you know, the consciousness is like the movie screen, and then all the experiences we have are like the images that are projected onto the screen. And you can have the screen without the images, but you can’t have the images without the screen. So, with regard to robots and machines and so on, I guess the question, and you know, Advaita would add that consciousness is fundamental. Brahman, existence, consciousness, bliss, which gets into the happiness question that we’ll talk more about, is this totality, really. But if we want to think of it that way, it’s the substratum or basis or foundation of the universe, and everything else is an appearance. So, if we want to ask if a machine can be conscious, what we’re asking, essentially, I think, is, we would say that a machine is consciousness because everything is consciousness. A rock is consciousness, which probably doesn’t know that it’s conscious. And so, you have to have a sophisticated instrument for self-referral, for recognition of one’s being conscious. And even an amoeba behaves that way. Maybe the amoeba doesn’t know it’s conscious, but it is conscious because it can avoid unpleasant things and seek out food and so on. Well, I’m talking a little bit too long, and you might say, “Well, we could train a machine to do that, too.” And so, what would be the difference between an amoeba and a machine, which can seek out and avoid things? But I guess I’ll wrap this up. What I’m trying to get at is that everything is consciousness, but as things evolve, they become more and more capable of reflecting consciousness, of being a sense organ of the infinite, if you will. And at a certain stage, particularly the human stage, one can realize one’s essential nature and live in that realization while still functioning as an individual. And that would be sort of the apex of evolution in a way, or at least a very significant milestone. Anyway, a bunch of thoughts in there, and I could say more, but I better stop and let you respond.
Chris: Well, so really what separates us, and again, if you look at the human species, Homo sapiens, I mean, we’ve been on the planet for what, 200,000, 300,000 years? There’s all kinds of different forms of humans. I mean, Polorectis, Neanderthal, and then people who’ve had DNA tests, they’re surprised. They’re like, “Wow, planet at the same time, maybe eight different forms of humanity. And then Homo sapiens won out. No one’s really sure why. One hypothesis is that we started to think. So, what we typically engage in, this linguistic problem solving, what I associate with the left side of the brain, kicked in about 50,000 years ago and really set us on a different path. And I really enjoyed that, if you’ve ever seen 2001, A Space Odyssey, I think it fits so well with our ancestors and they’re at a water source and some other group comes along and kicks them out of the area. And the one is sort of sitting there and thinking for the very first time. And what the very first thought was, was that’s a bone, but maybe I could use that bone as a weapon. And that’s exactly what he did. And he took that bone and got the water source back. But then he throws the bone in the space and all of a sudden it becomes the satellite. And I thought that was a brilliant way of showing that the same thing that our ancestors did, we’re taking the world and we’re able to use thought to create something that it wasn’t even intended to be. And that’s, in a way, it’s a very interesting form of creativity. But in another way, it’s taking reality and changing it into something it isn’t. And that’s what the left side of the brain seems to excel at. That’s what thinking seems to be, well, its primary goal is to take the world and it changes it into something it isn’t. And so we’ve got language. And it’s a wonderful tool because we’re using it right now to communicate. And that’s something we wouldn’t want to get rid of. But then we’ve got, there’s a tipping point somewhere. And it may have been about 200 years ago when we weren’t using thinking as a tool anymore. Thinking became an end unto itself. And all of a sudden language started to replace reality itself. And so right now, I would say that our left brain culture embraces language over reality. And then, of course, we’ve got the whole Zen movement that has reminded us over and over again that a finger pointing to the moon isn’t the moon. And so you can see how we’ve gone so far that language has become dominant and even overtaking reality itself. But then we’ve also observed the countermeasures, practices of meditation, mindfulness, to help bring us back to the real world rather than thinking about it. And when I do videos or when I would do my mindfulness class, one of the main problems that I really have watched this escalate over the last 20 years is that inner voice, that voice in the head. And they’re not using it as a tool any longer. Instead of being a tool that you can use for maybe an hour a day to solve specific problems, it keeps you up at night. And all of a sudden you can’t sleep because it just keeps doing this rumination over something that might happen. And so when I would do a video on something about intrusive thoughts, I would watch it would like double in terms of how many people would view it. Because if you look at how many books are out right now, so, and they’re all on, how do we deal with intrusive thoughts? And so this wonderful tool that we invented about to it. But now it’s become a tool that’s using us. And we’re getting lost in words and valuing words over reality itself. And so in the work, what I try to do is kind of bring back a little bit of balance. And, you know, if you can get out of your, you know, it was a wonderful line, Alan Watts was very influential with me. And I think he summed up the dilemma of Western society when he said, “A person who thinks all the time thinks nothing but thoughts. They live in a world of illusion.” And that captures our existence, our modern existence where we live more in this left brain loop of repetitive thoughts than we do in reality. And I think that explains the interest in mindfulness and meditation now.
Rick: Yeah. You may be aware that the Yoga Sutras define thinking as sort of an excitation of consciousness, the chitta vrittis. Chitta meaning mind and vrittis are like excitations or fluctuations. And the second verse of the Yoga Sutras says that yoga or union or samadhi is the cessation of these fluctuations. So, in other words, the mind settles down, becomes less excited. But, you know, why is the mind excited all the time to begin with? And, you know, obviously in today’s society we’re bombarded. There’s a lot coming at us all the time, all sorts of stimulation that, you know, even a couple hundred years ago people couldn’t have dreamed of. And it gets very deeply ingrained, which is another sort of ancient concept that we have impressions or samskaras that have been created by our experiences and that get lodged in the nervous system and result in a sort of an action impression desire cycle that just keeps us spinning on the hamster wheel of mental excitation, chasing after things, reinforcing those impressions, and so on and so on. But what you’re getting at with mindfulness and which other meditation-type techniques attempt to do is to break that cycle and to allow the mind to settle down to a state of quiescence where there aren’t inappropriate or unnecessary fluctuations or excitations, and then to integrate and stabilize such a state so that you can be engaged in activity while yet maintaining inner silence and there’s no conflict there once the integration has been accomplished.
Chris: And most people ask, “Well, how do you get this going? What’s the starting point?” And so, in the workbook I was very specific about, and, you know, we hear so many stories of this instantaneous enlightenment and I think that probably isn’t very useful.
Rick: It’s not very common.
Chris: Yeah, it isn’t very common, but, you know, I remember when The Power Now became popular, and of course it puts this amazing spiritual carrot in front of everyone because, you know, he really transformed. It was an overnight transformation, and then that becomes very desirable. And so, it actually influenced, I actually did a self-published first book, and it was very much all about forgetting, just forgetting enlightenment altogether. I called it the “The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment” So, it was this idea of, like, you know, if you’re in the spiritual class, and what it reflected was my own mistakes. And so, I often tell people that my early 20s, I was just an absolute neurotic mess, and that voice in the head was torturous. It created so much suffering, and the harder I tried to get out of it, the more I actually got deeper into it. And that was really my first insight about how the mind works. It’s nothing that you would find in many intro to psych books, or even advanced psych books. And I stumbled across a very few people who talked about this kind of oppositional force that the mind operates on. Alan Watts talked about it, all of the talks we talked about it, but, you know, it really wasn’t very much. And Victor Frankl mentioned it, something about our pursuit of happiness towards happiness itself. And suddenly, it was a very important mechanism of mind that I wanted to get people to recognize. That if I say, “Don’t think of the number 13,” and then the number 13, but this happens to us so often, where you have to get up early in the morning, a big important interview, and you’re laying in bed, and all of a sudden, you can’t sleep. And it’s like, the harder you try to sleep, the more you’re up all night. And then it’s New Year’s, and you’re trying to stay up till midnight, and you fall asleep at 10. At least I do. But this is this kind of way the mind works, a very important architecture of how the mind operates. And so, when you get this inner conflict of people pushing the mind around with the mind, and trying to meditate, and you must be calm, you must, and my students know this, that when I was, you know, we were always telling each other to have a good day. And I was sort of like, “Well, you know, let’s not put any pressure on it. Let’s just have the day we’re going to have.” And so, my students would start saying that, like, you know, “Have a day. The day you have is the day you’re going to have.” And you can see this was all tied into that kind of happiness movement that started in the ’60s in psychology, where, you know, there’s this quest to really embrace the positive emotions, but somehow, we’re going to trick the system. We’re going to somehow get rid of all emotions and just experience the positives. And the harder I tried to make that happen, the deeper I suffered, the more I got into my neurosis. And when I discovered that, and I can remember this, it was just an epiphany, where I discovered that it was my not wanting to be neurotic that literally was my neuroticism. Me not wanting to be anxious was my anxiety. And that just absolutely floored me when I realized that the best thing I could possibly do was give up on it.
Rick: Yeah. I think you were quoting Alan Watts or somebody, but maybe you made up this analogy, but I think you used the analogy of if there’s, like, water that’s wavy, you’re not going to get the waves to settle down by pushing on them. That’s just going to create more waves. And I think it works that way with the mind too. I think the mind moves around for a reason. It’s seeking happiness. And if, you know, all the ancient scriptures say that there’s a great reservoir of happiness deep within us, if we could somehow allow the mind to turn in that direction, it could effortlessly move inward and, you know, and settle down. But there’s a trick to that. You can’t force it.
Chris: And this is the situation so many of us find ourselves in Western culture where we’re trying to fix a thinking problem with more thinking.
Chris: And you can’t fix a thinking problem with more thinking. And so, in the books, what I try to do is I throw so many different non-thinking forms of consciousness at people. And this is what we do in class, in the mindfulness class, you explore. And I always thought of it as a buffet. Here’s all these different modes of consciousness that are not based on thinking. And find one that you really enjoy. Because if you’re doing yoga, but you’re running some mental movie about what you’re going to do over the weekend, well, that’s not yoga. I mean, it doesn’t matter what form you’re doing. It doesn’t matter what position your body’s in. Yoga is the awareness of being in the body at that moment without thought. And then that’s where the union comes in. Because that connects you to the consciousness. And so, that’s really what I’ve been doing. Because once I discovered that you can’t fix a thinking problem with more thinking, it instantly unplugged the whole loop. It just unplugged the whole thing. And I think I had a moment of peace for the first time in years. And I thought, “Well, this is very interesting. This seemed to be a very interesting trick that I had discovered.” And of course, lots of people had discovered it. But that was the problem I was having with meditation. When I would start meditating, I kept thinking, “How am I going to stop myself from thinking? How am I going to…”
Rick: Yeah. I mean, if that’s how you’ve been instructed to meditate, or if you cooked up your own kind of meditation, and you have this bias against having thoughts, you’re going to be frustrated, because thoughts will arise. But there are ways of meditating where that’s not a problem. And I’m thinking also of examples of athletes who aren’t doing a whole lot of thinking. LeBron James or Michaela Shiffrin or somebody else at the top of their game. They’re not intellectualizing their way around the basketball court or down the ski slope. I mean, I think…this is an interesting question. Comment on that, and then I’ll throw something back at you, if you wish.
Chris: Yeah, it just reminded me of my son, who’s been…in fact, he’s at a soccer game right now. He’s obsessed with soccer. And it’s all good. He knows, we’ve talked, the best game he plays is when he’s not thinking about it. And I remember the coach’s very passionate little speech he gave before the game, and he ended it with, “No mental mistakes.” And I thought, “Oh my goodness, they’re doomed now.” Because the more you’re focused on not making a mental mistake, you’re less on the actual game. And so, you know, one of the things I would do with my class is the body scanning. And the students, they love…so many of them love the body scanning. And it’s just obviously simple body awareness. But we don’t do it very often because that person is mostly caught up here in that left brain voice in the head. But of course, that’s essential to sports, to stop thinking about it. And you can’t…if you’re caught up in thinking about it, you’re not doing it. And so many of the brilliant people in sports, they’re just simply not thinking. And they call it in the zone. And, you know, that’s why the saying is, “Just do it. Don’t think about it.” But it’s a tricky thing, because if you go out there and think you can stop thinking by thinking how to stop thinking, then it gets you caught in a whole different loop. And then, you know, I studied martial arts my whole life. And so many times, you know, I was confronted with a situation where, you know, how do I stop thinking? If I could just be here instead…and it’s a lot more difficult when people are throwing kicks at you. And you’re trying to avoid the kicks. And you know that the best moves you’ve ever had are the ones that came from a greater source of intelligence, rather than this thinking mind. But the trick is, the thinking…you know, there was this old…I was lost one time, and I stopped to get directions, and the person said, “You can’t get there from here.” And I just started laughing. But there’s a certain sense of truth to that. When we talk about how do we get out of the thinking mind, you can’t get out of thinking with more thinking. And I think that for so many of us, particularly in Western culture, because if you do study…and I became particularly interested in the Pita Han, a very small group in an Amazon rainforest that lives almost as close to our ancestors as we could possibly imagine. So, they’re hunter-gatherers. And they have so many remarkable things about them. Because one, when Westerners observe them, they’re by far the happiest people on the planet, in terms of just smiling and laughing, which is very fascinating, because they’re confronted with horrific things that most of us couldn’t tolerate. Disease, death, people around them are dying. You know, it’s just a commonplace thing for someone to die early. And yet, they’re the happiest people on the planet. So, in a way, it almost became, like, why aren’t we studying these people more? Because they seem to hold some secret. And if they hold any secret, it’s that they simply are not obsessed with thought. They’re not obsessed…in fact, so much of our culture in Western society, we couldn’t even imagine a world without numbers. And so, numbers, everything, you know, you go to work, and there’s numbers, and, you know, we have numbers of time, and, you know, house has numbers, and, you know, we’re looking at our phone, and it’s filled with numbers. And the interesting thing about them is they don’t have numbers. And so, they are so resistant to thinking that all the abstract things in our world, they simply don’t exist. And the person, one of the people who studied them, Dan Everett, he tried to get them to count to 10. And so, the adults in the village, just very simple task, like count to 10, something that we just literally would take for granted as one of the things that we could learn, they couldn’t learn it after like eight months of trying to think just numbers. The idea of thinking was so unusual to them, to these abstractions. And we don’t really get how, like, numbers are incredible abstractions, you know, like even something like three, I can’t become conscious, I can become conscious of examples of three, but three in its abstract sense, I can’t become conscious of. And yet, these abstractions pervade our culture. I mean, if a workplace had to not use numbers for a day, the whole place would probably, and when I was a professor, it was always like everything was numbers, you know, student ratings, that’s how we judge things. And, you know, you can go on Amazon and we, what’s your rating of the book? Is it 4.7? Is it 4, you know, so our obsession with this abstraction has taken us away, I think, from the real world. And then when you see examples of this in cultures like the Pita Han, the trick is using the mind sparingly, thinking when you need to. You’ll probably only need to think a couple hours a day, I would guess, at best. I think a couple hours a day would be fine for the average Westerner.
Rick: Well, some interesting points here. I remember you talking about that tribe in the book, and originally some Christian missionary discovered them or something and went in there to try to convert them to Christianity, and they asked him, “Well, have you met Jesus?” And he said, “No.” “Do you know anybody who has met Jesus?” He said, “No.” And I don’t suppose they even could conceive of 2,000 years ago because they lived so much in the present, and then he ended up leaving Christianity because of the impression they had made upon him. But, you know, obviously we live in a very complex world, and most of us aren’t going to run off and live in the rainforest, and we are not, hopefully, going to dismantle our society to the point where it becomes that “primitive.” Again, I don’t mean to use that as a pejorative term, but, you know, Pandora’s box has been opened, and we know so much, and we have all these technologies, and I don’t think we’re going to abandon them. So, the trick is, you know, how can we become as innocent as babes or to, you know, quote Jesus about, you know, “Except ye be as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” How can we do that while living in such a complex, demanding world? I think it can be done. I’m just asking the question here.
Chris: Yeah, I mean, that’s the trick. I mean, we’re not going to, okay, I’m sitting in this, you know, structure, so protected, and I’ve got food, I could walk 10 feet and a refrigerator filled with food, so I don’t have to go out into the woods and hunt. And so, you know, clearly we can’t go back to this state. So, the real trick is how do we find some middle path? And to me, again, anytime I do a long lecture, I always start off with the recognition of all the tricks of the left brain. And the trick of the left brain is confusing the map for the territory. That’s what the, that’s how the left brain works. It gets us to confuse the word with the actual thing, and that’s why words can be so powerful. But words are only powerful if you mistake them as something real. And so, of course, the left brain, and I go into this about this split brain patients, and there’s a number of other types of patients, particularly people with right brain strokes, and it just shows like the left brain’s capacity to tell stories. And so, we are such a storytelling society. It’s such a facet of our culture. It’s like the fish in the ocean, like we don’t even see the ocean. And yet, stories permeate every aspect of our existence in this particular society. And again, to contrast that with the Pita Han, they don’t have, they don’t tell stories, they’re not storytellers, they don’t tell their kids stories, they have no creation myths. They’re so in the here and now, that they don’t get distracted by this kind of seductive storytelling ability of the left brain. And so, what do we do? And one of the things you can, you can try to do, and so I have a bunch of different exercises, because I think it’s much more important to experience these things than to philosophize about them. And one of the things is just recognizing this, sometimes I call it Mind 1.0, this left hemisphere program that we’ve got running, and recognizing its infinite capacity to storytelling. I mean, if you just go out in public, and you just walk around the grocery store, you can start observing that voice in the head, reading all these stories about everyone around you. Like, a person, you know, is poor, you know, that person looks like they’re rich, that person looks happy, that person looks like they might be mad at me. And it just, it goes on. And so, the trick, and really the goal of what I do, and a lot of other people, and I think it’s actually very, very close to what we might call spirituality, is become the watchers, become the observer of these stories. And Michael Gazzaniga, he did all the split brain research, he called the left brain the interpreter. And this interpretive device, it’s always linguistic, so that’s the voice in the head. It’s on from morning to night, and it’s trying to predict the future. It’s really a survival mechanism. It’s very effective, at least, you know, it was right just enough to keep our species, to allow us to survive. But it’s also wrong. It’s wrong so often. And for a lot of us, we forget the misses, and we only remember the hits. And so, I have students, as a very first practice, we would, over the entire semester, and the journal would be, any time you have some intrusive thought, and it’s this interpreter saying, okay, here’s what’s going to happen tomorrow at work. And I know that email I sent upset my boss, and, you know, he’s going to be so mad at me. And, you know, and that’s what, that’s the world that so many of us live in. And we take those so seriously. And over the course of the semester, we would give those all a confidence rating. How sure are you about this? You’ve got these medical tests, and you’re worried about them. How sure are you that those thoughts are accurate? And by the end of the semester, we would look at the accuracy of these. And the highest accuracy was about 50%. And most, some people were at 20%. So, these thoughts, this predictive mechanism in our left brain, it’s wrong far more often than it’s right. And so, you know, when you go to a doctor, and you say, oh, that person is rich. And no, they could be poor. You don’t know. And that Mercedes could be, they’re in debt, and they’re, you just never know. And so, in becoming the observer of this left brain interpreter, you become more of what they are on the East, like the I don’t know mind, the I don’t know consciousness. And so, to me, that was a really important first step, particularly for students who, again, 20-year-olds seem to be experiencing perhaps an unprecedented level of anxiety. And it could be related to things like COVID and the pandemic and all this. But it could be other factors. And it could be the seriousness on which we take these left brain interpretations. And even after all these years, meditating and exploring, left brain interpreter hasn’t changed very much. It still does its thing. It’s just, I don’t take it seriously at all. I mean, I rarely listen to it. I find myself laughing at it more often than anything, because it’s so simplistic. The left brain is usually, it’s one variable. And when you really, when you get into particularly how the left and right brain, how it’s been characterized, the left brain is a serial processor. So, this is so characteristic language, you know, serial one thing at a time. And that’s the way we talk. I can’t talk, you know, if I said 10 words all at once, it would be confusing. So, it’s really useful that language is organized around one thing, one thought at a time. And so, this is the way the left brain works. The right brain is a parallel processor. And it’s doing multiple, it’s doing, its attention is far more vast and capable of processing multiple things at once. And so, when we get into these interpretations, they’re often so simplistic, and they don’t capture reality at all. They’re like cartoon versions of reality. And so, the more you start to see that, the more absurd these interpretations become. And then it becomes very natural to just take them less seriously. And so, that’s the program I have in these books. It’s all about coming up with ways to recognize this. Again, I liken it to a computer program because it’s so automatic. And so, and again, you could do really simple ways to prove this. You could say, I’m going to say a pattern, but in your head, don’t complete it. And I say, three, two, you know, and people just heard one. And it’s like, you know, that automatic aspect of it is tied in with our automatic judgments of people. And so, we go in and, you know, that person looks very confident, or that person looks insecure, or they seem like an extrovert or an introvert. And it’s always this cartoon-like simplistic judgment. And some people claim that that has stopped. And I think it was Gary Weber, maybe has a couple of really nice videos where the whole voice just quit. No voice in the head at all. And he just uses it whenever it’s appropriate. And he was worried, you know, how is this going to work? Because we’re so used to having it go in 24/7. And but, you know, people like that are evidence. You know, Jo Volta-Taylor was just a wonderful example. Even though she had to go through a stroke to show the world what happens when the left brain goes down. You know, everything changed. It was a radical shift from left brain chatter in the head, judgment, worry, to this state of nirvana, where she saw the connections, felt the peace, and everything seemed to be right. And that shift from left to right hemisphere, if we could, it doesn’t have to be huge, it doesn’t have to be dramatic. It can be really, really just a tiny little shift, I think, and would be in far better shape.
Rick: Yeah, I interviewed Gary about 10 years ago. I think he lives in Pennsylvania, actually, somewhere, Hershey or someplace. And we hung out a little bit at one of the S.A.N.D. conferences. And my sticking point with him is he was emphatic that he hadn’t really had a thought ever since the day he was doing a shoulder stand or something, asana, and his mind stopped. And I said, “Gary, you’re talking to me. You must be having thoughts that precede your words.” And it links back to something I was going to suggest about 10 minutes ago, which is that, you know, if I raise my arm, there was a thought that preceded that. Now, it’s not an intellectual thought. I think I’ll raise my arm now. Okay, here we go. Up it goes. You know, you don’t do all that, but there is some kind of mental impulse that gives rise to the physical action. And I think what happens to people is there’s way too much of the mental machinations going on all the time unnecessarily. Like we were referring to the athletes, you can do most things quite spontaneously without a whole lot of cogitation. And the mind can be cultured to function that way, to do, we can say, to do more, do less and accomplish more, perhaps, or to kind of abide by nature’s principle of least action. People’s minds are too excited, and there can be a culturing where the mind becomes very still, and you feel like you’re just resting in silence, and yet you might be dynamically active, driving, talking to people, running through a busy airport, or whatever. So, okay, there’s that point. And I forget, there’s some other points, but I’ll let you comment on that.
Chris: Well, another issue with the left brain, and this comes about through a couple different observations with the split-brain patients, but also patients with right brain damage, is the left brains need to be right. And so this need to be right is that it’s not even questioning if it’s right, it just absolutely assumes. And so when the left brain created these stories, so just to go back to the split-brain patients, again, this is a condition where, you know, most of us, we have two very different sides to the brain, but they’re interconnected by 100 million nerve fibers. And in these split-brain patients, they had severed that, disconnecting the two sides. And that may sound really strange that we have two really different mental processing centers, but on the other hand, a lot of us do make comments that seem like this, like they say, “Well, part of me wants this new job, but part of me doesn’t.” And so that sounds kind of strange. But when you think about it, well, you know, we have two, really two brains, and they’re very different anatomically, and they process the world in really different ways. And so maybe it doesn’t seem that strange that we may say part of me, you know, likes this relationship, and another part of me doesn’t. But when they isolated the two sides of the brain, again, the left brain is responsible for most of language, certainly the generation of speech. And they would give commands to the right brain, and the left brain, well, look, they’d give a command to the right brain, something simple like “stand,” and the patient would stand. Now, the left brain’s totally in the dark about why we just got up right now. But it made the story up. And it was the ease upon which the left brain created these stories and the believability of the story that left brain was totally confident that I stood up because, you know, my leg fell asleep, and I needed to stretch, and that was totally wrong. But, and the real reason was that a command went to the right brain to stand. That’s the real reason. And at best, the left brain should have said, “I don’t know. I just, I’m clueless.” But you don’t see us humans doing that. We don’t. We rarely get into that “I don’t know” mind, and “I don’t know” state. The left brain creates a story, and we believe it. Now, it’s even more radical in a different group of patients who the right brain, which usually keeps us, keeps the left brain stories in line, and it’s been referred to as the devil’s advocate or the anomaly detector. And so, these left brain stories are kept in reality check to some extent by the right brain. But in patients who have right brain damage, now the left brain is just free to create story after story, but the point I’m trying to make is it’s absolutely confident in it, and then it’s absolutely certain that it’s right. And so, when people have right brain damage, particularly to this level, and remember the brain is cross-wired to the body, so the right brain processes and monitors and controls the left half of the body, so they’ve had right brain injury. Now, the whole left side of their body is paralyzed. And you can ask these patients questions like, “Well, can you raise your left hand?” And they’ll say, “Well, I could, but I don’t feel like it.” And so, the left brain is making up a story, totally confident, not in touch with reality at all. The real reason is they can’t, or the real explanation is, “No, I can’t. I’m paralyzed.” But it went so far, and it’s actually, this is coming from a well-known neuroscientist, V.S. Ramachandran, who documented these cases. And in one case, he said, “Well, point to me using your left hand. Point to my face.” And the patient hallucinated. She actually had a hallucination. She said, “Dr. Ramachandran, my finger, can’t you see it? I’m pointing to your face right now.” And of course, the whole time, her paralyzed hand is there. But her story was so inventive, and she believed it to such a profound level that she hallucinated to corroborate the story. And so, when we get back to dealing with kind of a day-to-day life, and how do we get along with others, which is obviously an issue, the recognition that there is a part of you in the left brain that makes up stories, and is absolutely convinced that it’s right, and it never questions them, can be incredibly liberating. And because, how do we deal with differences of beliefs? And so, we all have these left brain beliefs, but we’re not all in agreement. And how do we coexist? And one of the ways, of course, is you can get into these fascinating debates, but again, to go back to a point of these stories, you simply don’t take them too seriously. And so, you know, my daughter’s in college right now, and we go through some wonderful debates, and I always think it’s important to debate someone that you love, because, you know, it’s going to keep that connection, and it helps you realize, like, look, these are just stories my left brain is telling. I’m not going to take them too seriously. And so, we can have some really fun discussions, and it looks on the surface like maybe we’re getting in a deep sense of argument, but it’s never met with that left brain seriousness. It’s always a playful. And I think if you were going to really characterize the left and right side of the brain, the left brain takes things seriously, and that’s why the language works so well, because we take it seriously. The right brain is so much more playful. It’s so less literal. And so, it may, and of course, this is why it has metaphor and sarcasm. And so far, sarcasm is such a great example of, like, yes, there’s this thing happening, but I’m not taking that seriously. I’m not taking that literally. And so, how do we coexist when we have this tendency to be all captivated in this left brain loop? And again, small steps, observe the interpreter, recognize that it’s not who you are. And the biggest mistake we can make is to think that we are our thoughts. And when I talk to people who are suffering from intrusive thoughts, the first thing I’ll tell them is, well, stop your intrusive thoughts, and they get a little upset with you. But I’m like, isn’t that the best piece of evidence that it’s not who you are? If it was, the Buddha made a similar argument, you know, 2,500 years ago. Like, if you could control all these things, then maybe that would be who you, but the very fact that you can’t control them shows pretty explicitly they’re not who you are. And so, that insight alone creates a little bit of space between the thoughts themselves and the consciousness. And so, consciousness for so many is tied up so much with that left brain interpreter, then you have these little practices where, okay, there’s another intrusive thought, and you know, you’ve probably heard the old Zen story of someone who had an anger problem, and he goes to the teacher, and the teacher says, “Well, show me your anger problem.” And he said something like, “Well, I can’t control it.” And it was like, well, if you can’t control it, why are you worried about it? It’s not who you are. And so, little lessons like that I found really helpful to take these little lessons from the East and apply them in a neuropsychological framework from shifting consciousness from the left brain to the right brain, and it seems like it’s been pretty successful.
Rick: Yeah, the first time I did LSD when I was 17, the main takeaway from the experience, and there were many, but the main takeaway was that I had always assumed prior to that that everybody saw the same world. And all of a sudden I realized, whoa, you can radically alter the way you see the world, and everybody’s seeing it quite differently. And so, you know, I kind of realized that what I want to accomplish in life is to see the world as it actually is and not through some kind of distorted filter. But what you’re saying about the left brain always wanting to be right, you know, society these days seems to be more deeply entrenched than ever in, you know, polarized camps that are convinced that their particular perspective is right and the other guys are horribly wrong. So, I’m not suggesting we put LSD in the water supply, but it would be nice if people could bring in more of this right brain stuff and just chill a little bit and realize that, you know, we’re all feeling different parts of the elephant, and it’s the same elephant, but people are feeling it quite differently. One thing I liked about Jill Bolte-Taylor’s work, whom I interviewed a few weeks ago, her book was called “Whole Brain Living,” is the idea that there are different parts of the brain, four of them that she identifies, that each serve very different functions, and we can, most people don’t have them all fully developed and have some sort of lopsided development where one or the other part of the brain predominates. But her contention was that the evolutionary future of humanity will involve the full and holistic and balanced development of all four parts of the brain. So, if that’s achieved, not necessarily for all of humanity, but even for one person, then one could expect to function in a way where, you know, one performs all one’s individual functions, and yet at the same time is grounded in universality, which was character four in her model, you know, the interface with the unbounded awareness. And I think that would be a very harmonious way of living, and one in which one could be comprehensive in one’s perspective so as to harmonize all sorts of paradoxical viewpoints within one’s understanding and experience. Which is not to say that you would be wishy-washy and give everything equal credence. You probably would still have a political preference or philosophical preference or whatever, but you would be more forgiving and flexible with regard to other perspectives.
Chris: Well, you know, a couple of really interesting things with that. Again, when we get to the inflexible part, it’s fascinating that this is such a left hemisphere processing trait, because, you know, when we talk about language and language has rules, and grammar is a really important part of language, and I don’t know what went wrong with me, but that never really developed in my left brain. And so when I did my first book, it was self-published, so I just had so much fun with grammar. I just broke rules of grammar all the time, and instead of having, like, ellipses or three dots, I’d just have five commas or something. And, you know, and it didn’t do that well, but the people who did read it, you could see their left brain reacting like, “You can’t break these rules.” And so one of the things that the left brain does, too, and there’s a whole series of research in the ’80s about the left brain inconsistency, and of course that’s what plays a big role with the self-illusion. We feel like there’s one consistent, coherent self, and that rule is really useful to test and evaluate how authentic it is, because one of the things we can do is, and I actually have this as an exercise, it’s called something like “How many yous in a day?” And if you become observant, particularly of the interpreter, and the interpreter is very whimsical, it changes really radically, and we’re always trying to keep that coherency. So, if we lose our temper, we’ll say things like, “Something came over me,” or “Something got into me.” We come up with these, try to maintain that coherency, and sometimes we can’t. But I would actually encourage people to explore, and it’s very much like Jyotindra Taylor’s model, and other people have, you know, some multiple selves model have been around for a while, that we’re not one coherent self. And even Alan Watts talked about this. He said, “Look, you know, you never made a deal to be some coherent self. You’re free, you can sign a contract that said, ‘I will be a consistent self from morning to night,’ and you can explore how many selves actually come and go.” And so right now, I’ve got some kind of self that’s, you know, podcast self, and, you know, I’m not going to talk like this, you know, two hours from now. My family, they’re used to podcast self. They get some of that. But there’s, you know, dad self, there’s all these social roles that we play, and then the emotions, and when you start observing this, and you dispel the illusion of some kind of consistent, coherent self, it’s really like a river. There’s a flow to it, and there could almost be an infinite number of selves in a very short time. Like, you go to work, and then you’re talking, and someone else enters a room, and all of a sudden, your self, it’s altered a little bit. And there’s a different person who’s talking. And when you become the observer of all these different selves, you start, it almost seems like a mystery. How did I ever buy into this notion that there was some coherent self from morning to night? And so what I’m getting to that is, when that is recognized, and we’re in debate, and maybe you take a very different view, and we’re kind of arguing about it. But you realize that even if we’re on different sides of a debate, it’s not tied in with my identity. And the way I would word it is like, well, look, there’s this self that has an idea that disagrees with some part of you. But tomorrow, that may change. And so I can only hold so much to it. And the same self that, you know, that you could change, you know, it’s much more like a flowing river. And we could be arguing next week, the exact opposite. I could be taking your side, and you could be taking my side. And so there’s a wonderful play of debate that I think we’ve lost. And the reason we’ve lost it is because, again, left hemisphere seriousness. But also, it’s tied in with the idea of a single coherent self that’s identified with all these beliefs. But beliefs can change. And in the same way that we don’t control our thoughts, we don’t control our beliefs either. And so I could tell your audience, like, look, I’ll give you a million dollars if you believe there’s a monster outside. And they’ll be like, I can’t do it. Well, if you can’t do it, then you don’t control your beliefs. And so beliefs are just like, kind of thought bubbles or like, collections of thought that kind of get grouped together. And if you recognize that you don’t control your thoughts, well, you also recognize that you don’t control your beliefs. Therefore, you’re not going to take them too seriously. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun in a debate. And we can, you know, make it a playful, enjoyable. So, you know, if I get into a debate with, say, my daughter or someone, we always end it with something fun, you know, because we always go back to reminding them, like, look, you know, we’re just the whole thing is just fun. We’re just play. And again, to go back to Alan Watts, he reminded us so much that there’s this difference between work, you know, work we take seriously and play. And so that’s why we play music. And so one of the best ways, I think, to get out of left brain seriousness is music. And a lot of us do this already. In fact, I had an assignment I gave my class. And I said, but just it was very spontaneous. And I said, let’s do a paper, what music means to me. And I was completely blown away by the responses, because you could, the responses were such like, music is the meaning of my life. Music was foundational to their sanity. And again, when you get into all the tonality, again, these reflect a lot of right brain processes, not to say the left brain isn’t involved in music. In fact, the whole brain seems to be involved in music. But one thing when you’re when you’re really deep into music, you’re probably not thinking very much. And so music is one of the quick go to ways to get out of the thinking mind. And it brings so much joy and peace to people. And I had students saying, I would marry music if I could. And I get that, you know, I mean, I’ve been a musician, that was my original intent in life is to be a musician. And I don’t do it seriously, in the sense that I expect something out of it. I don’t expect to be a professional musician, and do it absolutely. It’s as close as I can get to meditation. Because in meditation, if you’re doing it for an external purpose, or to go somewhere or to be something that you’re not, in my view, you’re not really doing meditation, meditation should be an end unto itself. And that’s the way music is for me. And so we all have something like that. We just don’t cultivate it. Because in a left brain, goal oriented system, everything has to have some future goals to it. Everything has to it’s like, I’m improving myself, you know, I’m making more money. And again, we recognize that that just, you know, it never ends. And so we can get out of those moments here and there, by getting into music, poetry, all the things that Western culture seems to devalue. If you think of anything you would tell your parents that you want to do this, and they’re disappointed, it’s probably something the right brain is really good at.
Rick: Yeah, I wanted to play drums when I was four years old, and my parents told me I needed to learn piano first to get a foundation in music. And I hated practicing piano, I wanted to play the drums. And finally, when I was 14, 10 years later, I was playing wipeout on the kitchen counter, my father was in the bathroom on the other side of the wall, when he came out, he said, I think we should get you a set of drums. So he got the drums, and I was in a band in about three days. Anyway, you were saying a minute ago, that we don’t choose our beliefs. And you’ve probably seen the social dilemma, that documentary that was on Netflix still is. And obviously, you know, you can’t believe on the spot that there’s a monster outside. But if you spend enough time on YouTube, allowing its algorithms to feed you the things that you seem to be attracted to, you may end up believing the earth is flat, you know, or that Trump won the election, or whatever else it is that you have fixated on with your preferences. So people do, in a sense, choose their beliefs through a million little incremental choices that end up being, you know, more and more deeply ingrained. As you give your attention to those choices, don’t you think?
Chris: Well, that’s a great point. And I think it was Ian McGilchrist, who often talked about the left brain being kind of in a hall of mirrors, in a sense. And it is. So in the book, I encourage people, like, whatever you believe, purposely, because like so many people in the morning, I get up and I listen to a lot of podcasts. And you want to listen to something that is consistent with what you believe. And that reinforces all of your beliefs. But it is interesting that sometimes you can choose the opposite. And it’s a really interesting thing to pick things that are really the exact opposite of what you would normally pick. And I think that’s a good way to keep the hemispheres balanced, so you don’t go too far into this hall of mirrors. And so, again, this way of describing the two sides of the brain, where the left brain forms beliefs, but the right brain is the devil’s advocate, that devil’s advocate is a really important mechanism. And it’s interesting, like, sometimes people think skepticism is kind of a negative quality. But I could find skepticism to be very spiritual. And when people become skeptical of the self, and they realize, “Wow, the self isn’t what I thought it was.” And people, there’s a whole movement of people becoming skeptical of what we would call the physical world. I mean, there’s this movement towards what we would call idealism, where they start thinking, “Well, you know, maybe we live in these conceptual worlds, but we mistake the physical world to be when it’s really just consciousness.” And then, you know, the whole practice of neti neti. So, you know, you’re tearing away, like, “Not this, not that.” And so skepticism, I think, can be, one, I think it’s very much identified with the right brain, because the right brain is always keeping the left brain kind of in this closer situation with reality. But, you know, I encourage people, like, be someone else’s right brain. And so sometimes people can get into these closed systems. And when you get into that kind of left brain closed system, it’s one of those things that, you know, there’s a tipping point, and it can get harder and harder to get out of the more you get into it. And, you know, you do find very interesting. I’ve always been interested in strange beliefs. And so I’ve done a lot of research on strange beliefs. And just was sort of, I guess you could say an academic hobby of mine, because, again, what I found is the best mechanism for that is to surround what you might consider, you know, if your right brain isn’t working, if your right brain isn’t keeping your left brain in check, go to external sources. And this is, of course, why I think debate is so important and conversation. And, you know, remember, that left brain is always going to want to be right over finding truth. And so with the right brain, I think is more interested in truth than being right. And so, and truth is a big word, you know, I mean, it’s, you know, but I think we can use it cautiously here.
Rick: Yeah, you mentioned something called the RTPJ, if I got that acronym right, the part of the right brain that does nothing else but consider things from others’ perspective. And you’re probably aware of the work of Byron Katie, who has this little formula where, you know, do you know that to be true?
Rick: Are you absolutely sure that’s true? You know, and where would you be without that certainty? You know, and then flip it around, try to see it from the other perspective. So it’s a good exercise because, again, like you say, the left brain likes to be right. And I guess maybe we, you know, we live a — you said an interesting, another interesting thing in your book, which was that since the left brain likes — is dominant in most people because most of us are right-handed, 80% of us or something, maybe that correlates with our cultural tendency to be certain of our opinions and perspectives. Is that what you meant to say? And do you want to elaborate on that?
Chris: Yeah, I mean, I think it is. I won’t say our natural tendency to want to be right, but I think in a culture that emphasizes the left brain and depends so much on the left brain that we get these tendencies for us to really, you know, I don’t know why a John Cougar song just came to mind. And it was — I forget the lyrics. It was like a thousand young poets screaming out their words to a world that only wants to be heard, which is to say, you know, we’re so confident in our opinion that we’re all shouting it, and we’ve become talkers rather than listeners. And I think
Rick: I remember that Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth.” Singing songs and carrying signs, mostly say, “Hooray for my side.”
Chris: Yeah, perfect, yeah. And we may not be able to stop that. And again, I think if we tried to stop it, that might even make it worse because of that nature of the left brain and its tendency for opposition. So the way out of that, again, is to play with it more, have a more playful attitude with it, not taking it as seriously. And then, you know, you have a side and I have a side. And we could be in a room with people who are all disagreeing, and as long as it’s not taken really seriously, and it’s kind of the way things were not that long ago. You know, I sort of have this memory of my, you know, family debating politics and stuff. And, you know, they would debate, debate, and get a little intense. But then it was over. And then everyone and it was done. And so, you know, I think that’s absolutely possible to get back to that. But it’s going to, it’s getting the right brain going again. And that’s so many of the exercises I try to get in the books, subtle things, little things. To me, that would be a way of changing our value systems. And so valuing things like poetry. And you can’t just pretend to value it. And all that starts with being the gap between thinking. And it’s such a precious moment for so many people when they first recognize that I can be conscious without thought. And there’s something about that state. I always talk about it as, you know, we’re people who are walking around in an airport with hundreds of pounds of luggage. And we’re carrying it around. We don’t even know why we’re carrying it around. It’s not even ours. And the moment you become the gap between thoughts, it’s like putting the luggage down. And that’s why it’s often described as joyful. And that’s why, you know, like Jill Bolte Taylor, when she shifted immediately from left brain to right brain awareness, it was like putting all that luggage down. And then you, why was I carrying it?
Rick: There’s a nice analogy for that, actually, in spiritual circles. And that is, once you get on the train, put your suitcase down. The train is going to carry it for you. And the reality that tries to explain is that God is the doer, you know? Or, you know, the gunas of nature, or, you know, whatever, you know, cosmic intelligence, or whatever, you’re actually not the doer. And therefore, if you take yourself to be the doer, you’re kind of a thief. You’re attributing something to yourself that doesn’t belong to you. And you’re making life a lot harder than it needs to be.
Chris: Mm-hmm. That’s, you know, people wonder where creativity comes from. And thinking plays a very small role in the creative process. I mean, initially, of course, you might want to focus your thoughts on a particular problem. And certainly, you’re not going to come up with physics solutions unless you think about physics for years. But there’s this almost consensus that once you’ve thought about it, you need to just stop thinking. And then you walk away. And then there’s this intelligence that no one seems to be able to describe. It’s not a thinking type of intelligence. But the answer just comes to you. And for a lot of people, they say, “Well, it’s unconscious.” I’ve never been one to buy into much into unconsciousness in the sense that, to me, the thinking mind is a buy-in that isn’t thought or processed at the level of thinking. The thinking mind has deemed unconscious. But when you stop thinking all the time, the remarkable thing is that you realize that you’ve been, there’s a certain consciousness that’s been in the background, and it’s completely aware. I mean, no one who teaches yoga or meditation would say that you’re becoming conscious in these states. It’s a very focused, alert form of consciousness.
Rick: Yeah. That consciousness can become so lively that it can actually persist during sleep, deep sleep. I know people who haven’t slept in decades. Their bodies sleep. They may snore. But that inner awareness is never lost. And there are degrees of that. I want to just get back to something we were saying a minute ago about beliefs. The attitude I try to culture is to get both with people and ideas is to give them the benefit of the doubt, but to also take them with a grain of salt, and proportions vary. So you can throw any idea at me. Is the earth flat? Okay. Well, I like to hear your arguments, but the evidence is really strong. So, mostly all salt there. Or, have aliens been visiting the earth? Well, now that one I’m more interested in. I think there’s a lot of evidence that that may be the case. But I don’t think I’m almost making an absolute statement here, but I don’t feel like I ever would adamantly say, “No, this can absolutely not exist,” or, “Yes, this absolutely exists.” And that’s a scientific attitude. I mean, a scientist, if he’s really a scientist, and a lot of scientists aren’t these days, will never sort of dig his heels in and insist that his particular understanding of things could not be revised.
Chris: It’s all tentative. But I agree. You know, there are some, you know, it would be in the same way that we don’t control our beliefs. If someone were to really forcibly argue that the earth is flat, I’d have a very difficult time. There’s nothing I could do with it.
Rick: Oh, there’s whole conventions where they all get together and talk about it.
Chris: You know, and I used to bring that up in class because people sort of, it was a sort of a safe place to go because so many people are like, most people, I’ve never actually met a flat earther myself.
Rick: I interviewed a guy. I ended up taking down his interview for that and other reasons. I just didn’t feel he was someone that I could comfortably refer people to anymore. But his Facebook page is all about these little memes of the earth is flat. You know, go ahead. Continue.
Chris: Well, but is that any stranger than, you know, that one patient whose right brain was taken offline and she was hallucinating that her finger was pointing to the doctor? And, you know, that belief is also pretty far out there.
Rick: Yeah, but in most cases, there’s some kind of pathology going on, I guess.
Chris: Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, there was a more overt, and we don’t really know how far the left brain can go. And there could be subtle deficits in people who maybe the right brain is, maybe there’s not as much interaction. We’re not really sure, you know. I mean, there’s the consensus issue. But then, you know, it is interesting that, you know, when you go back and to something like Copernicus or someone who, you know, he had to publish on the revolution of the heavenly spheres, he had to publish it on his deathbed because so many people were so antagonistic to the idea that we may not be the center of the universe.
Rick: Sure. Galileo was faced with house arrest and all kinds of,
Chris: Yeah. So there’s also, so that comes in, you know, like, you know, that comes into mind, too. And so, you know, I just, like you mentioned Byron Katie, and I really do like her work. When I first encountered it, I thought, wow, what she’s doing here is putting the left brain on trial. And she’s just saying, do you know this with absolute certainty? And we will say that. But if we’re hit with it over and over again, we have to admit, no, I don’t know it with absolute certainty. And that cracks things, you know, that hard shell has a tiny crack in it at that point. And that’s really, you know, the very first small step that people can take. The left brain is doing all these things. One of the things it loves to do is categorize. And so, sometimes, I start in all kinds of different places, but categories are, you know, abstractions that really don’t exist in reality, but we act as if they do.
Chris: You talk about strange beliefs, but categories are strange beliefs that so many of us buy into as if they’re a part of actual physical reality, but they’re really not.
Rick: Like, give us an example.
Chris: Okay. You know, let me think how would I, okay, well, let me do something from the research, because this was something — Stephen Coslin, really well-known cognitive neuroscientist in the ’90s.
Rick: What’s the name of the person?
Chris: Stephen Coslin. He’s still maybe at Harvard. He was looking at his career at Harvard. And most of the world didn’t pay attention to this, but being a left-right brain person, I was completely drawn to it, and it was, like, you know, revolutionary in many ways. And so, most people, the left brain does categories and does a whole kind of set of research on this, and the right brain does space, like, coordinate spatial systems. So, if I reach for something, you know, you need a precise distance measurement for that. And this is pretty well established. But Coslin came up with a really interesting task where he would just have a line, and there was a dot, and the dot could be anywhere above or anywhere below. And that was the categorical task. And the coordinate task, the one that required specific detail in terms of spatial location, you’d have to take, respond exactly where the dot was. And so, really, you couldn’t collapse over a bunch of things. You had to be very precise. So, he presented this task to the left and right sides of the brain. Now, again, these are both spatial tasks. The right brain should have just gone absolutely superior. But because this spatial task included categories, and the trick about a category is, this is what makes it such an abstraction. This is what makes it such a mental process instead of being out in reality. Is that in reality, there’s a dot, and it could be here, or here, or here, or here, or here, and these are all considered above. So, categories collapse across individual uniqueness, and it focuses on only one thing they all have in common, which in this case is being above the line. So, it has to ignore all kinds of things and then focus on one thing. And so, in doing so, it’s really — it’s something that exists only in the mind. And so, to everyone’s surprise, this spatial task, which should have been done by the right brain in a very far more effective way, but as long as these were spatial categories, the left brain is so categorical that it can actually beat the right brain at a spatial task as long as it deals with spatial categories. So, the left brain, again, collapses across individual particulars, and it looks at this as a group. In reality, this group only exists in my head. I mean, this dot’s really right here, and this dot’s really right here. The idea of saying that this is all above is a mental concept. It doesn’t exist in reality. And so, one of the researchers at the lab I was in did a really interesting study on stereotyping. And so, again, what are — what’s stereotyping and racism other than categorizing people? You look at a few simple physical features that people have in common, and you group them. This group doesn’t exist in reality. And found that when the left hemisphere — he had subtle ways of measuring left hemisphere arousal. When the left hemisphere was aroused, people engaged in stereotypes to a far greater degree than when their right brain was aroused. And when the right brain was aroused, they would process people individually. And I thought that was a really interesting way to look at how the left brain is viewing the world in a really different way, a cartoon-like way compared to how the right brain — it seems to be so more individualistic.
Rick: Interesting. I mean, there’s obviously a lot of categorization taking place in today’s society. We keep coming back to today’s society, but, you know, racism is a type of categorization, homophobia, so many different things, political categorization. And it seems like if people were more right brain, they would ease up on the tendency to do that and, you know, see people as unique individuals with their own worth and not judge not make these blanket judgments of, you know, stereotypes.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, take something as simple as, you know, I could say we have a Yorkie, and I could categorize that. I could say he’s a Yorkie and put him in this, you know, big category with other — but that’s not true. I mean, it’s relatively true, and it might be useful if I went to the vet and they wanted to know what category this dog was in. But the truth is, the reality is this dog is completely individual. I mean, there really isn’t any other dog like it, and it’s the same with all of us. All consciousness exploring is completely individual paths. And so any way that we categorize ourselves, whether it’s based on our beliefs or some physical characteristic, is we could almost, if we wanted to push it a little further, we could say these are all collective hallucinations of the left brain. They simply don’t exist in reality.
Rick: Yeah. Although I think, like many things, categorization serves its function. It’s valuable. I mean, I think I will buy a car. Okay, car is a category. What kind of car? All right. I think I’ll get a Subaru. Yeah, I like Subarus. That’s a category. All right. What kind of Subaru? I think I’ll get an Outback. And there’s no harm in having these categories so we can kind of identify things. It would be really awkward or impractical to say, “Well, I think I will buy a mode of transportation,” and just kind of leave it at that.
Chris: No, it’s a great example. I mean, again, the goal of at least what I do is never to eliminate the usefulness, the brilliance of what the left brain does.
Chris: And categorization is one of these, when we do it so effectively, and it’s one of the things that, you know, AI is having a tough time competing with our ability to so easily categorize and do it in sometimes sophisticated ways. But yeah, so we keep it when it’s useful. But then when we’re dealing with, like if we’re dealing with you as an individual, you may actually, again, that left hemisphere interpreter may impose some kind of categories on you. And, or, you know, I’ve given an example in a book, maybe you’re a bookstore and you’re looking for an employee, and this, you know, huge muscle person comes in and you think, “Oh, you probably haven’t read a book,” and like, you know, because you’re making some silly stereotype. And that’s just the left brain doing its thing. It’s seeing the world in very simplistic ways. And again, it may not turn off. And as long as you don’t take it seriously, as long as you don’t act on it, you know.
Rick: Yeah. I mean, a contemporary example, that’s very unfortunate, is the extent to which Black people, especially Black men, are subjected to traffic stops, you know. There was some, I think that Republican, Tim Scott, I think his name was, is running for president. He was talking in some talk about how he was, how frequently he is stopped by the police just because he fits a certain category in their minds, a certain stereotype.
Chris: And you can see how useful it would be for people to recognize, you know, that I can be wrong.
Chris: And you get the left brain that can think about what the left brain is doing. Not only does it engage in stereotypes, but it’s the same part of the brain that’s convinced it’s right.
Chris: And so you put those two things together, and it can be, you know, it’s a dangerous combination to put those two things together. But again, people are, I think we’re at a very interesting time. I think we’re, you know, we’ve got this left brain, and I just keep referring to it as the left brain, but you wouldn’t have to. Some people, people like Eckhart Tolle, just call it the ego. And, you know, people like Bartholdi call it the mind. And so, but there’s a sense that waking up is just recognizing that it’s not always right, and it’s not who you are. And those recognitions go a long way.
Rick: Yeah. I think one good sort of conclusion on this particular point, and then I want to get into something else that we haven’t discussed much yet, is that there’s no harm in what the left brain does. We need it. All these specific categorizing, you know, judging, you know, kind of stuff it does, it just needs to be supplemented or counterbalanced with what the right brain does. I’m thinking of Jill’s character four, which is the interface with unbounded awareness. If we can really establish unbounded awareness as our normal experience in life and integrate it with all the specific individual functions that we need in order to live, then we’ll live a balanced life. And the negative aspects of the left brain won’t be there anymore. They’ll be modified or ameliorated by the unboundedness. It’s like, let’s take an example. In work, you have to, routine work is essential for productivity in many professions. You can’t just, like, do something different every day on an assembly line. But that becomes very confining and very stultifying for the people who have to do the same thing over and over again. I mean, at Foxcom and China, they have nets on the building because people go nuts putting together iPhones, you know, for 12 hours a day and they tend to jump off the building. But hopefully there could be some better way of doing that, of making the iPhones. But if the people at least had access to their innermost nature, which is totally liberated, which is freedom, then it wouldn’t be so, they’d have that inner contentment, even if they had to do something repetitive or very specific over and over again.
Chris: Yeah, and you know, it’s interesting the way you worded that too, because this left hemisphere that so many people identify as who they are, it really is like a computer program. There’s no free will with it. It’s inflexible. And it’s more a reflection of the culture, as opposed to something unique or individual. And the recognition of that program as a program, as something that has very little to do with who you are, and then you put the luggage down and all of a sudden, very interesting things happen. And this consciousness, this state of consciousness that was more in the background before, becomes far more center stage. And it absolutely feels like coming home. It feels like this is who I’ve been the whole time. I’ve been wearing this mask of personality, this mask of being Chris, and identified as what I did, and identified as my age, and identified as all these characteristics that were socially imposed. They were not things I chose. And when you get to consciousness, then the freedom of that seems like a whole new experience. It’s like you feel like you’re free. Like I think when James put it, like, my first act of freedom will be to believe in freedom. And it’s like you have that recognition that you’ve never, you know, you could almost liken it to the movie The Matrix. And, you know, that thought created dream world of the left brain isn’t who you are. It’s like a program. It’s restrictive. It’s inflexible. And it’s totally pre-wired. It’s predetermined. And when you put that down and you realize that you are this mystery that thinking mind can’t really put into words, because knowing consciousness, who has been even close to defining it? It’s resisted all intellectual limitations where we can actually nail it down and say, well, here’s my definition of consciousness. It doesn’t stop us from trying. And, you know, I’m perfectly fine with giving definitive definitions of consciousness. But it’s something that is known experientially. And when you get to that, to me, it seems absolutely synonymous with what we would call freedom.
Rick: Yeah, it is. I mean, the reason it’s called liberation is that it is literally unbounded. And it is what you are. So you are free in your essential nature. But the isolated experiences of life impinge upon that, like the movies playing on the movie screen, and identification takes place. The screen gets overshadowed by the movie. So you think you are Superman or, you know, Harry Potter or whatever, you know, individual images that are constantly changing. You think you are constantly changing. But in fact, you are really the foundation upon which all the changing universe exists and in which it resides.
Chris: And it’s always there. It’s always been there. And when those experiences start happening, because, you know, in my 20s, all this kind of got started with the death of my father, which was very surprising. And death just, it was like a shock to the system, what it did to people. And it became this enemy that I thought, well, not only am I terrified of it, but we’ve got to overcome it somehow. And then, of course, that’s the only thing that dies is that thinking mind and that, you know, the interpretive stories that were created through a lifetime. But the consciousness itself is absolutely eternal. And the consciousness itself isn’t going to die. And so when it comes to that, death is just a story. And when you want to talk about freedom, and what greater freedom is there than recognizing that the only thing that dies is a story. And, you know, I mean, I’m 56, I’d be happy to live, you know, as long as my story is going to go, I’m good with that. But there’s absolutely nothing that worries or has some kind of fear of something that’s beyond a story. And so that’s the radical transformative experiences to be identified with the story is really suffering itself.
Rick: Yeah. What do you think about reincarnation?
Chris: That’s a, you know, that’s such a, it’s an interesting one, because particularly when you write about the self being a story, and you say, well, the self is fiction. And what I mean, I don’t, you know, some people say, well, the self doesn’t exist. And I don’t really mean that the self doesn’t exist. In a sense, it doesn’t exist as a real, coherent, solid entity. It exists as a story. So, the simple way to put it is it’s more of a verb than a noun. And so maybe I’m selfing, you know, so because I have some self that I’m creating right now, and then I’ll have some other selfing that I’ll do later, and these selves come and go. And so, we talk about reincarnation, and we say, well, that self, it’s, you know, this thing that I took so seriously, and was so identified with, now it seems rather trivial. So, that’s not going to be reincarnated. But when we get to, okay, well, what is there? And we could actually start talking again, I think we can, about souls. And I think that’s, but then you say, well, what is a soul? And that’s where we get to where the thinking mind, you’re not going to be able to nail it. It’s like consciousness, you’re not going to be able to articulate it, you’re not going to be able to put it into a category and compare it and contrast it. So, it by its definition is something that’s unknown. But I think the notion of a soul, and this is where I’ve come to on this path is that consciousness is fundamental, but also has this love of diversity. While it may be one consciousness, the evidence seems to be that it loves getting lost, and it loves playing hide and seek. And the best way to forget who you are is to hide in all of us individuals, and then get lost in egos. And that’s a very wild ride. But, you know, everything about this reality seems to suggest that this consciousness not only doesn’t love to play who it isn’t, but the diversity, you can’t even find two trees that are alike. And like, you know, if this was some kind of simulation, you could really imagine it being like, just so easy to copy and paste everything. And so, we’d have like, you know, every tree would be, every blade of grass would be the same, and we would probably buy into that world. But the interesting thing about the world, again, is this remarkable, you know, diversity. And so, the consciousness that I’m having right now seems to have a unique perspective. And so, we might call souls, and again, you have to be careful with this, because then, you know, the ego could find a very clever way of hiding in this concept of a soul. But I think that whatever soul is, it’s beyond our thinking mind’s capacity to conceptualize. But it’s not going to stop us from trying. That left brain is insistent on, if anything else. And so, when we get there’s a really interesting, and it comes up in different religions, but the relation between the multiplicity and an individual, sort of like the Trinity, one and the three are the same. And you see this in different places. So, when we talk about the individual soul, and the connection to the greater consciousness, it’s almost like we have to feel our way around instead of think. And for me, personally, this goes all the way back to when I was in church as a kid. And I remember, priest was talking, he was giving a sermon, he was going into God creating, and I just wanted to ask him a question. But you know, as a little kid in church, that’s, you just don’t do stuff, you would never do such a thing. But I wanted to ask him, if God created everything, what did God use except God? And so, in that sense, like, we are a reflection of this eternal. And, but we’re at the same time, very paradoxical, we’re all taking like these individual trips. And all the individual trips are remarkably individual. So, when you take a look at the ego, then it seems like we’re all having the same, like, we all go to the same boring job, we all, you know, we all have the same routine. And then we can categorize people and make it even more simplistic. But when you shift that to getting out of that left brain thinking, the originality of every moment seems so remarkably precious, so amazingly unique, like, we’re having this conversation right now. I mean, this is like the first time the universe has conversation with us. Like, we’re creating something, we’re like artists creating something completely new that’s never happened. And that, to me, is completely connected with that feeling of joy, and that feeling of living life as an artist, rather than living life as, you know, that left brain routine.
Rick: Yeah. That was a very astute question you wanted to ask as a little kid. You know, if God created everything, what did he have to create with other than God? Because God alone is, supposedly. If God is omnipresent, then there can’t be anything other than God. If this pen is anything other than God, then there’s a hole in God, a pen-shaped hole right here. And I find myself, I spend a fair amount of time studying Vedanta, taking classes with Swami Sarvapriyananda and so on, and they’ve really thought this stuff out very nicely. I’ll just riff for a second here. So, on the one hand, there are scriptures like the Mandukya Upanishad and the Ashtavakra Gita, which emphasize that nothing ever happened. There is no universe, you know. The supposed snake was never a snake, it’s always been a rope, and so you don’t need to get rid of the snake because there never was one, and so on. On the other hand, they have this concept of Vyavaharika, which means transactional reality. And so, the whole relative creation with all of its diversity and so on is, you know, it’s not ultimately real, but you can’t just dismiss it as utterly unreal if you want to live. You have to interact with it and take it somewhat seriously. And then, with the idea of reincarnation and all that, there’s the idea of the Jiva, which again is an individuated thing which is not ultimately real, but which has its transactional or relative reality, and which does, in fact, you know, go from life to life, from body to body. So, in a sense, you could say that’s a self, but it’s not ultimately a self. And so, there’s kind of a both/and resolution of this issue of whether or not we have a self. We do and we don’t.
Chris: That’s one of those paradoxes. I love paradoxes.
Rick: Me too. I have a t-shirt, in fact, I’m wearing today, but I took it off for this interview. It says paradox on it.
Chris: Oh, yeah. And that’s the thing to get away with so many ways and tricks to get out of the left brain, and one of them, again, is paradox. And that’s why the koan comes up so often, because, you know, if I say be spontaneous, be natural, and the left brain starts creating ways to be natural, and it starts thinking, well, let’s come up with a list, and here’s five ways to be natural. Of course, you know, I’m just going way, way off the path in doing that, and the right brain seems to have no problem with paradox. And the universe has thrown so many paradoxes. To me, it’s got to be like breadcrumbs to take us home, because, you know, we’ve got matter, and, you know, everything really seems on the surface, like all the stuff around us, like it’s solid matter. And if physicists come along and say, no, it’s not even real, it’s just potentials of energy that may come and go statistically, and, by the way, only 5% of the universe is even made up of what we consider matter, and 95% is like dark matter, dark energy that is beyond our conceptualization. We have no clue what it is.
Rick: Yeah, but don’t take that so seriously that you go stepping in front of buses.
Chris: Yeah, exactly. And time, to me, again, what a great paradox to throw at our existence. We live in the past and the future, but the only thing that really seems real is the present moment. And so, whether you’re looking at time or space, and the universe itself, and not to even mention things like quantum mechanics, but, you know, it seems like, you know, what a strange thing to kind of explore this world and find that, you know, it’s not waves, it’s not particles, it’s like, I think Alan Watts called it “wavicles.” And all of these things, I mean, if you really wanted to, I think in the book I give the idea of an escape room, and this is, you know, if consciousness really wanted to lose itself and become what it is and then find its way back home, you know, it seems like this reality is very close to what we might call an escape room. We’ve left ourselves clues, we get lost in thought, we become these conceptualized selves, which we’re not, but they really feel like they are, and then we get deeper into maybe we’re souls taking individual trips, but it all seems to lead back to this consciousness.
Rick: Yeah. But paradox, key word there. You know, it doesn’t have to be absolutely this or absolutely that, which people sometimes tend to make it. You can, you know, “search” can be a candy mint and a breath mint if you’re old enough to remember those commercials. [Laughter] Okay, I think some, well, another question I want to, if Irene’s sending over some questions that people have sent in, but you said one thing in your book that I found interesting, which is that light actually is really only in your head or in the mind. And, you know, it’s something that we interpret, or that our brain and our eyes and all that stuff interpret based upon the way they interact with the electromagnetic field. But really, it’s only in the mind or in the head. And I’m kind of curious whether you have any reflections on the notion in spiritual circles that, you know, awakening can be like the brilliance of a thousand suns. I have a friend who, I don’t know if she’s still going through this, but she was going through a phase a while back where there was so much inner light that it was almost blinding, and yet it was only coming from within. And yet, as a kind of physiological response, she was actually squinting her eyes, even though it wasn’t coming from outside. So, do you have any thoughts on that?
Chris: Some of that comes from 20 years of teaching sensation perception, and on the surface of it, it looked like I was teaching a class that was very scientific. And it was based on the modern science that we know about light, although photons are kind of mysterious things, not exactly sure what light is. And I would take the whole process from, you know, hitting the back of the eye and then getting transformed into neurological language, and then it goes back to the visual cortex. And so, you know, right now, everything seems illuminated, but the typical explanation from neuroscience is that we’ve got it wrong. You know, it seems like I’m in here, and I’m kind of looking out at the world. But it’s this light that’s actually hitting the eye and is becoming transformed into language that neurons can, that neurological language. And so, there can’t be any light. So, if you looked at my visual cortex, there’s no light there. You know, my visual cortex would be completely dark. And so, the light has to be, and I went through quite a bit of time, and I was in class lecturing on this, and it just hit me like, “Light is consciousness.” I think I even went off on that in the class at the time, and probably lost a lot of students on that one. But it was, “Light is consciousness.” So, again, we always have this metaphor between light and insight, but I think it’s more profound than that. Consciousness illuminates the universe.
Rick: Yeah. Well, there’s some interesting thoughts on that, too. I mean, isn’t that early verse in the Bible, “Let there be light,” and it sort of parallels verses about the emergence of consciousness from the unmanifest. And photons travel, obviously, at the speed of light because they are light, and for photons, there is no time or space because they’re traveling at the speed of light. So, time and space have totally collapsed, and that’s what they say of consciousness. It’s beyond time and space. It’s omnipresent. I mean, a photon from the Andromeda Galaxy, from our perspective, since we’re sitting still, takes 2 million years to get here, but from the photon’s perspective, it’s here instantaneously because it’s traveling at the speed of light and there is no distance or time. And so, that is also true of consciousness. So, in some interesting way that I’d like to understand more, there’s an equivalence, or at least a great similarity, between light and consciousness.
Chris: And that can be used, I think, as a practice. So, that’s what I was doing in class, and it didn’t hit me until that moment where I was really trying to, you know, explain light. And I realized I can’t explain it, and that’s when it hit me that it’s really consciousness. In the same way that we can’t put consciousness into a conceptualization, the reason we can’t put light into a conceptualization is because there’s some interesting connection with the two.
Chris: It’s another breadcrumb we’ve left ourselves, I think.
Rick: It’s a big breadcrumb, yeah. It’s a whole loaf. Okay, a few questions came in. So, Jackie Goffstein in Colorado wants to know, “What excites you about the future of neuroscience?”
Chris: You know, I’m actually going to start off like the opposite and say, “What doesn’t excite me about neuroscience?” And so, neuroscience has been on this quest to find things like the self and to find consciousness. And no, it’s not conclusive. I absolutely think it would be fascinating if we ever had a neuropsychological theory of consciousness. That would just be remarkable. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen because I don’t think that’s the nature of consciousness. But neuroscience has given us, like, so of course I use neuroscience as a foundation of looking at the left and right sides of the brain and how things create different worlds that we live in. So, I think the really exciting thing about neuroscience is that it’s going to reach a point, we’re going to recognize that we are not our brain. And so, we’re going to examine the brain. I mean, what would it even look like?
Rick: In other words, we’re more like a radio transmitter/receiver, but we are not the radio.
Chris: Yeah. We’re going to change the notion of what the brain is there for. So, 90% of neuroscience believes that somehow the brain creates consciousness.
Chris: And so, the wonderful thing that excites neuroscience is that it’s going to take a while, but eventually it’s just going to exhaust itself out of this possibility. And so, we’re going to start looking in different places. And again, we’ll view the brain not as a creator of consciousness, more like a filter, a filtering function that consciousness, and when people have these mystical experiences, I think even Jill Bolte Taylor, I may be confusing her experience with someone else, but the way the mystics typically describe it, they’re like, “How can the vastness of this experience ever fit back into my skull?”
Chris: And so, it seems like the filtering idea is going to take us in a much more interesting direction. But we’re going to have to, neuroscience is going to have to play its hand, it’s going to have to play itself out, because neuroscience has been so successful in some, I mean, we’ve localized so many different functions of thinking, so many different functions of the mind, we can find, you know, this part seems to play a much more important role than this other part. And so, it’s successful in that sense. But it’s lack of success in the big questions of who am I and is consciousness, I just don’t think that’s, I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Rick: Yeah, there are a lot of really brilliant people these days trying to overturn materialism, you know, Bernardo Kastrup and Donald Hoffman, and the whole, all the gang that is part of the Galileo Commission, the Scientific and Medical Network, and all those people. So, it seems to be a groundswell of, you know, really qualified people that are arguing very intelligently that materialism is a deficient paradigm that is going to be overturned.
Chris: Yeah, and I love these 180s, it’s exactly the opposite of what the thinking mind had assumed. And so, we’re just so convinced that, like, well, materialism is just, it’s just the most obvious thing that I don’t have to believe in because I get to experience it. But then you realize, like, and I think Bernardo does a really good job with this, and they explain that, like, no, this stuff takes faith. I mean, there’s a lot of materialism that, you know, you don’t really have to believe in this stuff. And so, you know, it’s the radical consciousness that has immediate experience on its side, and it takes a lot less faith to take that position.
Rick: Yep. Incidentally, all these people we’ve been mentioning in this interview, I’ve interviewed, if people want to look them up, look up my interviews with Bernardo and Donald Hoffman and Ian McGilchrist and many others. Okay, so another question here, this one is from Kanta Dadlani in Bombay. “Despite the exhaustive research done and being done on the human brain, what makes it still so enigmatic that even Christoph Koch, the renowned neurophysiologist, has stated that it can never be understood? What do you attribute this to?”
Chris: I think the initial success of neuroscience almost made it feel, and, you know, I’m going back to the ’90s, and I don’t know if people remember, but I think Congress even said the ’90s was the decade of the brain, so I think it’s some kind of formal recognition that, you know, that was the decade of the brain. I don’t know how meaningful that is, but it reflects how successful neuroscience was actually. And when you think about it, so let me give you just an example. And so, you know, we had Freud, and Freud had these theories, and some of them may have been on track and kind of interesting, but then you’ve got neuroscience that comes along, and just to talk about one kind of really strange theory, and V.S. Ramachandran talks about this, because, you know, Freud had his own ideas about why some people might have foot fetishes, and it was all symbolic and all this stuff that Freud might think of, but then neuroscience started poking around and found that there’s a representation of the body in the brain, and it’s very close to what we looked at as a fetus. So when we were a fetus, you know, the feet, we were curled up so the feet and the genitals were practically on top of one another. And so, in the brain’s mapping of the body, it put those two areas right next to each other. And so, neuroscience would have a completely different explanation for foot fetishes. It would simply say that the boundary between these two parts of the brain are just, you know, they have greater connections, and that’s why some people are turned on by this and some people are not. And so, you see a really interesting, like, neuropsychological explanation come along that seems to be way more believable and way more successful than Freud sort of just coming up with, you know, these stories. And so, neuroscience had so much success with that, that it became like, almost like this is going to be invincible. This is going to explain everything. But no matter how deep you look, you can take the brain apart as much as you want, and you’re going to find neurons, interconnections, neurotransmitters, you know, and that’s what you’re going to find. I mean, you’re not going to, there’s no way to find a consciousness. It’s, you know, the old story, you know, like you’re looking in the parking lot and there’s a light for your keys, but you know you lost them elsewhere. And people are like, “Well, why are you looking over here?” Well, this is where the light is. So, we’re looking in the brain because it seems the most, you know, it just seems to be the place to look.
Rick: Well, by the same token, you don’t find the electromagnetic field by taking a radio apart. You know, you can break it down to as small bits as you wish, and you may never guess that the whole purpose of this thing is to be an interface with an omnipresent field.
Chris: Yeah, and so, its previous success has led us down a path where, you know, again, you can see this. If you say, “Well, I’m a psychologist,” and people are like, “Oh, okay, that’s, well, I’m a neuropsychologist,” it gives you more status, again, you know, because the brain has become this central… Now, again, you know, if you’re getting a transplant, most of the time, you’d want to be the recipient, you know, if you’re getting heart, but if you’re getting a brain transplant, you want to be the person giving the brain, you know. So, there still is that, like, you know, if I was getting a brain transplant tomorrow, like, I don’t know, it would be pretty disturbing, because I would wonder, “Who am I going to wake up as?” So, you know, there’s that to consider, but I’m still convinced that neuroscience… I don’t know if I want to say neuroscience is going to be a fad, because that, I don’t know, that’s a pretty bold statement to make, but I think it’s going to find its place not in answering the really big questions, but in answering more practical questions, you know, things that might be related to, you know, clinical issues, you know, but the big question of consciousness, I just don’t think neuroscience is adequate. They’re looking in the wrong place.
Rick: Well, it won’t be adequate in and of itself, but as one of the tools in the toolkit, you know, I think it’ll be essential, because it’ll be interesting to understand the neurophysiological correlates of higher states of consciousness and things like that, as long as we don’t make the mistake of thinking the brain is creating consciousness, which…
Chris: I mean, all the stuff I talk about with the left brain, that’s been super useful to me and others to help recognize who we’re not.
Chris: I was very careful with the subtitle, like, you know, how neuroscience is catching up to Buddhism.
Chris: You know, kind of particular with that, because, you know, in neuroscience, you know, it is, it’s catching up, but it’s not there yet. I think some of the insights of the people who experientially got there are… we haven’t caught up to neurologically explaining those insights.
Rick: Yeah. On the other hand, you know, neuroscience has its own strength. The Buddha didn’t know that anything such as called a neuron existed, you know, or that there was an amygdala or anything. There’s a lot of things he didn’t know that are useful to know, but obviously what he did know is kind of ultimately useful, and in that sense, neuroscience and all sciences are catching up. Okay, another question here. This one is from Mark Peters in Santa Clara, California. “It seems like social media and cell phone addiction are largely the left brain interpreter or intrusive thoughts made manifest. Can you imagine what an externalized right brain platform might look like?” All right, I guess what he’s saying is, if there were a technological counterpart to these left brain contraptions, what would it be?
Chris: Hmm. Things are just coming to my head, like a drum circle, music, I mean, these are all…
Rick: Yeah, there you go. Those are good examples.
Chris: An instrument is external, but the music that we’re creating is coming from the internal manifesting. And so, I look at a guitar, you know, start to play, it’s a creative moment, and it is, in exactly the same way that the left brain, and I like the question too, because I really do feel like phones, it is the external manifestation of the left brain. I mean, if you look, it’s just a bunch of stories. It’s a bunch of interpretations. And so, yeah, I would say music, I would say nature.
Rick: Yeah, being in love, having a pet, you know, like nature, just sitting and looking at the stars or the Grand Canyon or something like that, those are all kind of right brainy things.
Chris: Even something as simple, like we started off, I was talking about sipping tea.
Chris: So, you know, the simple conscious, you know, you walk outside, and the sun hits your face, and the wind’s blowing, and you just become conscious of that experience. To me, that’s the externalization of the right brain’s processing. And, you know, you’re not caught up in the voice in the head at those moments. And the thing is, when you come back to the interpreter, it devalues those moments. And it comes back, “Oh, we have to get things done. We have to do this.” And there’s a shift in values. And, again, I’m optimistic that the shift in values is already taking place because there’s too much happening with mindfulness, too much happening with meditation, too much happening with, you know, you’ve got billionaires who just give it all up and go back into nature. I mean, these cases are happening, and, you know, it’s kind of like the beginning. It’s like the wave hasn’t formed, maybe, totally, but you can feel the beginnings of it.
Rick: Yeah, good point. I should let you end on that point because that’s such a profound thing you just said. But there’s a quote here that I forgot to read out earlier from your book that I think is worth saying, which is that I don’t know who said this, you can tell us “If the brain were simple enough to understand, we would be too simple to understand it.” Which is great. It’s like this pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps impossibility kind of thing. You know, I mean, if the brain were simple enough to understand, we would be too simple. Our understanding would be too rudimentary to understand the brain.
Chris: I think it was an engineer who actually came up with that. I can’t remember his name. But, you know, it’s a great paradox to kind of use as a koan. And it shows the limitations of understanding. So, you know, we go into the world and, you know, just simple things like waking up in the morning, and we do make choices, you know. Do I want to think today? Do I want to not just ponder on problems, but, you know, thinking mind, it likes to create problems. Do I want to get into that world? Or do I want to get into the world of thoughtless nature? You know, it’s amazing how much happens in the universe without thinking. Like, you know, grass grows. You know, the planet revolves on its axis. I mean, these majestic elements of the universe.
Rick: I mean, you digest lunch. Imagine if you had to think your way through that.
Chris: Yeah, and the universe gets along really well without thinking. Now, again, the thinking mind is going to object and say, “Well, what do you want to get rid of me altogether?” And again, no, that’s not the point. It’s to bring a little bit of balance back into our lives where, you know, the drive to work can be a meditation. And so people ask me a lot about my formal meditation. You know, like I said, I had a hard time with sitting meditation. So I ended up doing Tai Chi for a very long time and Qigong. But even these now, I don’t find myself putting time aside for meditation much. I enjoy the shift from being in my mind to simply living a conscious life. And so anything becomes a meditation.
Rick: Nice. Good. Alrighty. And just to reiterate that point you made a minute ago about there seems to be some kind of wave building, which will enable us to be a more right-brained world. And I think we’ll, as we said earlier, hopefully be a world, a balanced world, in which we don’t throw the baby out with bathwater. We maintain all of our technological sophistication, but we counterbalance it with what is so sorely needed in terms of spirituality, consciousness, heart, compassion, you know, all those beautiful qualities. Any final thoughts?
Chris: I always like to end with something that’s kind of a cliche thing. It’s found its way around. You know, it’s become a meme of sorts, but that’s okay. I mean, I’m glad it’s a meme. And it’s a real simple statement, just don’t believe everything you think. And, you know, that’s kind of a, it’s a great place to start. And it’s a great way to start the day because the thoughts are going to come. And whether you play or take it seriously is all about that. If you buy into the thoughts, it’s going to be a very serious life, and it’s going to be carrying that luggage around. Put the luggage down, enter it with a kind of skepticism of maybe not all my thoughts are necessarily accurate. And then interesting things start to happen where you shift into a state of just simple consciousness. Everyone’s natural state. This is who I was. I was an infant, and this was quite natural to me. And then I had imposed a system of thinking on top of that. And that’s okay that that happened, and it’s okay even if I got pulled into taking things very seriously. I mean, even taking things seriously doesn’t necessarily have to be taking things seriously. So there’s a lot of playful ways that you can bring into your life.
Rick: Yeah, and however stuck one might feel that one is in a left-brain way of living, there’s hope. Evolution is never-ending, and whatever your age, whatever your circumstances, whatever your degree of conditioning, life goes on. And we can always move it in the right direction. We can’t attain instant liberation as you were talking in the beginning necessarily, but we can sort of, we have a certain wiggle room, you know, and we can keep kind of pushing the, using our wiggle room to push things or guide things or allow things to move in an evolutionary direction. And they will. “Seek and ye shall find,” and all that.
Chris: And even if you’re coming down hard, if your left brain is coming down hard on yourself, and you say, “Well, I’m a failure, and I’ve messed this up, and I keep getting off track,” there’s no way you can mess it up. I mean, if there’s only God playing to be you, then you’re giving God a very interesting experience. And so, that recognition that you go into this like, you know, the universe has got your back, you know, you can’t mess this up, and that ironically actually helps us not mess it up so much, which is very strange, but it seems to be true.
Rick: Yeah, there’s a verse in the Gita which says, “No effort is lost, and no obstacle exists.” Good. All right, well, thanks so much, Chris. I’ll, you know, put up a page on bathgap.com with a link to your website and your books, and people can, and your YouTube channel. Your YouTube channel has a ton of really interesting videos. And incidentally, there’s a tool, let me see what it, eh, oh, here it is. I’m going to open it up and tell people what it is so not everybody doesn’t email me to ask. It’s called, well, there’s various ones, but the one I use is called Media Human YouTube to MP3. Media Human YouTube to MP3. And you can use it to download every video on a YouTube channel and automatically convert it into audio files, which is what I did with Chris’s channel because he has hundreds of videos on there. And then you can take those audio files and get them onto your iPhone or whatever and listen to them while you’re driving and stuff. Because, I don’t know, I wouldn’t sit and watch hundreds of videos in front of my computer. Couldn’t do it. All right, so thanks so much, and thanks to those who have been listening or watching. And my next interview will be in a couple of weeks with Lucy Grace, whom I interviewed a few years ago. Lives down on an island off the coast of New Zealand. And everybody liked her a lot, so we’re going to revisit her and see how she’s doing. So I’ll talk to you later. Thanks, Chris. Bye.
Chris: Thanks, Rick.