Tesshin began this week’s talk musing about how our current “addiction” to technology and social media are affecting society. He recalled a recent program where he was teaching mindfulness to Boy Scouts. Many of the boys were really challenged by sitting still for ten minutes. Even the parents could not believe their children could go for a few minutes without touching their phones. We must begin to wonder if we are all losing the ability to focus and concentrate with the constant distraction of our tech tools.
Tesshin next asked the group if we thought this was a new phenomenon? Of course it is not! Social media, video games, and even TV are simply a new manifestation of a problem which has been with humanity since the beginning. The Buddha saw this problem 2500 years ago – long before any of our modern “conveniences!” Back in those days, the Buddha intuitively realized that the mind was susceptible to distraction, emotions, fear, greed, and lust. He also understood that with proper training these urges could be integrated and managed into a properly “enlightened” mind.
So what truth did the Buddha realize all those years ago? At its simplest, we now know that our mind is affected by the Limbic system (aka “reptile brain”) and other structures in the brain which drive powerful emotions and urges. The Buddha did not believe that these urges and drives were “evil,” but he did understand that they needed to be integrated, managed, and understood within the context of a deeper understanding of a well-balanced existence. He understood that that a well-trained mind is able to resist every distraction and is able to delay gratification and reaction long enough to see the larger picture of existence.
The Limbic system is our early warning system. It is focused on survival of one particular being – YOU! It is all about understanding what is “me and mine” and protecting that from everything and everyone else. It is from this deep place where dualism arises. The limbic brain is designed to react quickly in a “Flight of Fight” reaction. Of course, this is totally necessary in some situations – if you stick your finger in a socket, the limbic system is not concerned with broad issues in electrical safety – it is only concerned with eliminating the pain for you right now.
Our practice, then, is about how to integrate the fight or flight urges coming up from the limbic system with our desire to understand the unity and integration of all existence. We want to leverage the limbic system where it makes sense, but we also do not want to be led by it. We don’t want to be the slave of every distraction or urge which arises in the mind. Tesshin mentioned that there is another brain structured called the pre-frontal cortex which performs this exact function. This part of the brain brings things and concepts together into wholly integrated systems. In our practice, we are trying to develop this part of the brain while at the same time denying “energy” to the more primitive limbic system. Tesshin mentioned that studies of the brains of accomplished meditators show significant structural differences from the general population – specifically structural differences in the pre-frontal cortex.
Accomplishing the goal of training one’s mind and changing the brain takes a lot of focus and effort. This goal is not an easy one as one needs to develop focus while dealing with all the urges and distractions which our two hundred thousand year old “reptile brain” keeps sending our way. This is why our practice is not an instant solution, but rather a journey which takes a lifetime to complete. There is no final accomplishment in Zen – there is only the path. We incrementally improve the mind which means we develop the pre-frontal cortex while diminishing the limbic system. Every day on the cushion, we move the needle just a little bit. One can compare this with work in the gym. Showing up one day does not make you physically fit, but showing up every day for years pretty much guarantees the desired outcome.
So, put your reptile brain on the cushion. Meditate every day to deny it power to run your life.