A fugue on symbols, consciousness, zen, choices, and enlightenment
People are happier when they think less about themselves. In this essay I want to propose a computational reason for that difference.
In Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, author Douglass Hofstadter describes a process where a brain mirrors the external world, and gradually starts to mirror itself. Then the brain mirrors its mirroring of the world, and its mirroring of that mirroring, etc. This infinite recursion is what Hofstadter claims leads to consciousness.
That model makes sense to me, and this essay is an attempt to flesh that model out further and relate it to the ideas in zen. A chief focus here will be the elimination of the self. This same concept — eliminating the self — shows up in many religions, including Christianity and Islam.
Let’s look at Hofstadter’s model from a computational perspective, while exploring the links to claims made by various religions, about a mode of transforming consciousness by extinguishing the focus on self.
Self as symbol activator
Our minds use symbols to represent concepts in the external world. These symbols become activated by our senses, and, in turn, can activate other symbols.
If I am thirsty, the symbol for water may activate in my brain, because my limbic system knows I need water. This symbol for water, if I focus on it, can then activate the symbol for a glass, and then the mapping system in my brain activates the symbols for a route to get myself a glass and fill it from the refrigerator.
All of those cognitive processes are mediated by symbols which can activate each other.
We have symbols for the most mundane things in our lives — glasses of water, refrigerators, the layout of our houses — but also some of the most profound and important things: religion, life, meaning, purpose, love — these are also represented as symbols in our minds.
We also have one symbol for “me”. I want to explore this symbol particularly. Of course, everyone’s will be different, but I’m looking for some core properties of this symbol.
I wanted to look at my brain as a system without me being in it, so that I could use it better. I tried to look at my consciousness without thinking of it as being “mine”. What does “i” look like, if i’m looking at someone else’s “i” as part of a larger system of computation?
The idea I started with is that that our brains mirror our surroundings, and this eventually leads to a “me” symbol, and then starts off a recursive mirroring process. The me symbol starts to grow symbols for its symbols, and symbols for those symbols, etc. So how does this ‘me’ symbol connect to the other symbols?
I started exploring the idea that the “me” symbol has to be thoroughly connected to all of the other symbols, because they all have implications for me.
What if the “me” symbol is just a “symbol activator?”
When I am not actively focused on the outside world, my mind wanders. This wandering is facilitated by what’s called the “default mode network”. This network is associated with daydreaming, thinking about the past and the future, and thinking about other people’s states of minds.
There is evidence that meditation reduces the activity of the default mode network. Extremely experienced meditators have lower activation of this network.
If the self symbol is wired up to all the other symbols in the brain, due to noise, it would activate symbols randomly. This random symbol activation would lead to exploration of the past and the future, as well as other people’s states of mind. This might explain why meditation practice seems to lead to both:
- a happier state of mind
- less thinking about the self
Maybe what meditation is doing is letting this self symbol’s links to the outside gradually decay themselves. If the self symbol gets weakened to the point where it no longer routinely activates other symbols, maybe the person containing the self symbol no longer daydreams or focuses on the past or present. Freed from random activation of arbitrary symbols, such a person is consistently focused on the now and in a state of flow, which feels better and leads to better choices in life.
Zen masters are people you don’t imagine doing foolish things. They do what needs to be done, only when it needs to be done, and nothing more. How are they doing that?
Let’s talk about making choices.
Choice as activating symbols.
I spent a long time thinking about this problem because I knew I was making terrible choices in life, but I couldn’t’ figure out how that worked.
I write this essay on a computer, which I understand thoroughly. Top to bottom. From the level of electrons to atoms to transistors to logic gates to circuits to the x86 architecture to the operating system, I can mentally trace the cause and effect operation of my finger on a keyboard, to a digit showing up in the text buffer in which I write now.
I wanted to understand my brain the way I understand computers, because I wanted to stop using drugs, stop making myself miserable, and apply myself to the long term thinking that worked so well for me when it came automatically and without question when I was a kid. I knew it came down to choices.
I understood physics enough to know that there can’t be magic. Deterministic systems follow deterministic rules. So how does choice making work if I’m a (mostly) deterministic machine?
Understanding the idea of neuroplasticity and thinking about questions like the “Ship of Theseus” helped me understand that the “me” that’s making choices changes over time. The physical structure of my brain is constantly changing.
Once I started considering the idea of “self as symbol activator”, a solution came: I make choices by activating various symbols in my mind. If I need to do something I don’t want to, I’ve found the best approach I can take is to consciously activate the symbols that represent the consequence of the choice.
When the “me” symbol activates symbols like “i don’t want to do this, I’d rather sleep in,” poorer choices are made. When the “me” symbol activates symbols that describe the actual outcomes that will result, my body seems to make the choice on its own.
Thinking about the results of my choices, rather than my desires, made it easier for me to make positive choices. Again, there’s this pattern of “life gets better when you think less about yourself, and more about the world around you.”
The world around me is what I would call the context of my choice making.
Context as Symbol Sorter
After spending a while on the idea of “self as symbol activator”, I started asking myself what other ways could I re-describe internal symbols so that they were no longer about me.
The idea of context and what’s relevant became more and more helpful to me as I learned to navigate the adult world of relationships and politics. The idea that some things can be true, but not helpful started to become more and more helpful to me.
For example, it’s always true for me to say “My name is Mark.” But in most cases, that’s not so helpful.
I started to imagine all the possible things I could say in a situation, and some sorting process ranking them by relevance. Relevance is one way of saying contextual value. In different contexts, different things matter.
The idea of context as “symbol sorter” started to feel more natural. What’s relevant now? Well, to some degree, everything is. Hey, the big bang happened — did you hear about that? If we are talking about physics, this may be relevant. If a person near me is on fire, this is still true, but it’s less important than helping that person not be on fire.
A zen master would rush to extinguish the fire, instead of yammering about one hand clapping.
I think the process of enlightenment is replacing the “self” symbol with more focus on context, which does a much better job of solving the problems that the self symbol originally solved.
I think the self symbol is a primitive form of a “context” system, and once the context system is fully functional, the self symbol becomes more of a hindrance than a help.
Contextual awareness as self awareness
Imagine someone who understands all the context around them. Wouldn’t you think they were supremely self aware? Maybe that’s all they are really doing. Just focusing on context, rather than a symbol of themselves.
Elimination of self, replaced with context
They say people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. When I think about all of my ancestors and the choices they made to make the world the way it is, that context makes it easier for me to focus on what I need to do, rather than what the “me” symbol wants.
When I am Hungry, I eat. When I’m thirsty, I drink.
I Sort symbols well.
Some zen students are arguing over whose teacher is the best. One claims his teacher can walk on water. Another claims his teacher can fly through the air. A third student says “my teacher is so enlightened, when she’s hungry, she eats. When she’s tired, she sleeps.”
If the ‘self’ symbol is tied up in all the others, the thought “I need to go to bed” could also activate the thought “I like to eat chocolate”, and I may do that instead of going to bed.
When the self symbol is rarely activated and weakly bound to other symbols, the context process sorts “going to bed” into the highest priority and activates the appropriate symbols to walk the body into bed.
I have found that whenever I need to make a hard choice right now — such as listening to someone whom I’m angry with — it’s important for “what I want” to get pushed down the priority stack, and for “this other person has their own validity” to come up in priority.
I’m much happier when I focus on context instead of myself, and I make better choices than I did in the past. I think focusing on context instead of self has been a key part of that transformation.
I hope this essay has been helpful for you. If you enjoyed it, check out my book.