Buddhism Pt 1: The Wandering Mind Fallacy

A nearly constant feature of my blog is that I vehemently argue against authors and ideas that I have an enormous respect for (exceptions like Tony Porter notwithstanding). I typically don’t waste my breath on obvious nonsense, but I often find that I discover my own position in the negative spaces carved out by my attacks on another point of view. Perhaps I side with Oscar Wilde when he said that “The imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates.”

This series of posts on Buddhism is no exception to this trend, as I have a deep reverence for Buddhism, but am compelled to articulate certain nagging objections that haunt and undermine my further understanding of it. These objections are not so much an attempt to refute Buddhism doctrine, which is impossible given the panoply of forms that it comes in, but rather an attempt to grapple with my objections and emerge on the other side with some perspective both on Buddhism and on my own tacit opinions. Given the enormous diversity of different forms of this religion, I am approaching it both from its more codified and systematic expressions, like the Philosophical Buddhism of Nagarjuna, and from its more practical exponents like Jack Kornfield. The greatest difficulty I have with Buddhism really is how to properly merry the two perspectives, which at the outset of this post seems impossible. This installment (Pt1) can be read as a continuation of Sam Harris & The Narcoleptic Sailor, as it is deeply concerned with the denial of Free Will, especially as this denial is facilitated by certain fallacies that both Harris and the Buddhists fail to see.

The Wandering Mind Fallacy

This fallacy is essentially the claim that whenever you “honestly” take a look at it, the mind is constantly wandering, a word that implies aimlessness and was synonymous with ‘error’ in Latin. Sam Harris uses this perspective in his little soliloquy about word choice to show that he has no choice over which words pop into his head or why and thus that he couldn’t possibly “choose otherwise,” a prerequisite for any theory of Free Will. The Buddhist version of this fallacy is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy, as to take a look at the mind “honestly” means essentially to let it wander. “The mind is aimless and wandering,” the Buddhist says, without adding “if you let it.” This “letting it” is exactly what Mindfulness meditation is. Whenever you look at your mind “dishonestly,” or with “grasping,” the mind doesn’t wander so much, though it still produces associations and connections galore. This is very different than some aimless, random wandering though! Mindfullness meditation is actually a profoundly unnatural and difficult practice, as I’m sure plenty of my readers are aware, but this precludes the Buddhist from making the claim that the mind naturally wanders. I could equally claim that the mind is naturally only “blueness” and nothing else, which you would all realize if you would just meditate forcefully on blueness, and nothing else. See! You tried it, and all is blue!

Harris was not simply “emptying his mind” and writing whatever popped into view, but as I showed, he was enacting a ‘struction’ which delimited the scope of his free association. The Buddhist is doing the same thing, except the ‘struction’ of mindfullness, also far from “emptying his mind,” amounts to creating the metaphorical space/container of introspection (the mental “stream”) with the adendum that you must not react or grasp any of the content (the “water”) . Thus, you see an endless stream of random images and so forth, but whenever any of it starts to cohere into something intelligible, it is because you are bad at meditating and accidentally grasped onto some of the content (which amounts to replacing the Mindfulness ‘struction’ with the ‘struction’ of the grasped content).  This allows them to support another self-fulfilling prophecy, that the “self” is really empty, when in fact they have decided to empty it through systematic practice. Oscar Wilde once said that “only the shallow know themselves.” The Buddhist has simply latched onto this strategy of enlightenment and built a self that is not even shallow!

Julian Jaynes was right that the self, or self-conscious interiority, is not innate (though the hardware underlying it is), but is rather learned through culture. Change this culture, and you could either fail to develop a self or develop a slightly malformed one. The Buddhist is claiming that the self is an illusion, it is empty, but can only prove this to you by putting you through a certain acculturation process whereby you very well might create an empty self. This is hardly a proof. Similarly, I could prove to you that you are not actually alive by giving you a gun and telling you to pull the trigger under the assurance that once you do this, you will see my point! The question of whether Buddhist practice actually destroys the self (and returns the mind to an ancient bicamerality), as opposed to creating a malformed, “empty” self, will be taken up in Pt4.

The mind does not wander and this fact is true on more than one level. On the first level is the above point that the mind will wander only if you let it; Mindfulness meditation being the struction “let it.” On a deeper level, however, nothing that flits by your awareness is mindless, aimless, or purposeless: it is our Will–the most purposeful thing we know of. The content of your mental stream (which is only there when you introspect, creating that stream) is your brain confabulating or guessing at what you are trying to get from it. It does not wander about aimlessly, but like a hawk, circles and hunts for the prey that you specify for it; it constantly tries to relate to the posture or position of the self. The mind is like a doctor in the ER saying, “so, you are in the ER right now, whats wrong? Does this hurt? How about here?” The Buddhist is simply deciding not to answer, not to indulge any of the doctor’s questions or attempts at relating to him, and then concluding that the doctor is non-personal, aimless, and wandering. Or, to use a different analogy, the Buddhist is like a person who goes to an oracle for help on a pressing matter, which he then fails to even try to convey. The oracle just keeps babbling on, incapable of finding any common ground, because the person isn’t giving the oracle any! Eventually, the doctor or the oracle just stops talking, at which point the Buddhist proclaims victory and says, “see, he was really silent all along…all of the questions were just an illusion! In fact, there is no oracle!” This is supposed to be enlightenment?

That being said, a form of ‘Mindfulness’ is central to my own conception of human freedom, perhaps being the most important part. It is the ability to pause in silence and reflection, to halt action and judgment, and thus to stop certain possible worlds from coming into existence by letting all of these possibilities pass into view without deciding on one (yet). However, this is hardly all there is to human freedom. ‘Mindfullness’ alone is the choice to limit your choices down to one: that of choosing nothing. It is essentially using one component of Free Will to destroy the other two (The Sculptor & His Stone). The Buddhist sits before a block of stone and chisels nothing away from it, concluding that there is nothing resembling a self there. He is right of course! The free man looks at the stone, exercises Mindfulness, watches form after form, possibility after possibility pop into view, until one of these forms delights him and he chooses to chisel away the adipose rock to reveal the statue of his dreams. He does see a self, and he is right too! Our ability to 1) be mindful, 2) to edit or sculpt, and 3) to have/produce vast amounts of material to work on are all freedoms, which combined give us Free Will. In fact, one could accurately characterize my vision of Free Will as the antithesis of Buddhism, as I think that we gain freedom not by dampening ambition or our sense of self, but by carefully indulging both; by building immense, monumental souls; by passionately cultivating what is for the Buddhist an illusion that produces all suffering.

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3 Responses to Buddhism Pt 1: The Wandering Mind Fallacy

  1. Pingback: Shakyamuni and the Origin of Consciousness | Sandy Sangha

  2. Pingback: Against A Life Of The Mind | Think On These Things

  3. Nice article. Coherent and easy to understand with what I consider to be a conclusion that comes closer to the truth of brain/mind/self/consciousness and the “idea” of free will. I always wonder why so many Buddhists harp on “no self”. Why not have a self? Is it not an interface between pure awareness and existence? A problem seems to be one of identification, where one says or feels “I AM these thoughts”, so as thoughs are observed there is an experience AS the thoughts and other thoughts result, such as “I am happy” or “I am afraid” and one suffers or delights. It seems you are saying that rather than using Mindfullness as a way to get rid of the self it should be used by the Self (the something that “see’s”thoughts) as a tool to function as a self.

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