Zazen, left brain, right brain, self

During the last COVID wave, while activities were restricted and I was largely staying at home, I intensified my zazen (sitting meditation) practice. With more attention to my  practice, I was surprised to find I was easily sitting for 45 minutes and spending less of that time lost in thoughts and more time simply being present here-now aware of the arising and passing on random thoughts, sensations and sensory inputs.

There are four main categories of things that distract my attention from being here-now:

  • Largely verbalised thought sequences. These can be somewhat spontaneous, jumping across subjects and concerns, or more focused on solving a problem, thinking through a situation or piece of work to be done, planning, strategizing, worrying, pondering the past or future.
  • Distracting sensory stimuli with associated thoughts and emotions, eg. An intrusive noise, an insect flying around or crawling on my skin, an itch, or an ache or pain.
  • Images that appear in the minds eye. These can be random or connected.
  • Full-blown dream-like visions or daydreams, sometimes short, sometimes long.

I also occasionally experience auditory or olfactory hallucinations. For example, a voice saying something, or a distinct smell.  But these are rare.

I’ve been paying attention to these distractors, the so-called monkey mind, and getting better at observing them arise and letting them go, rather than being mindlessly caught up in them, and discovering some minutes later that I have been completely lost in a train of thought or a daydream. And I have increasing periods when I am sitting in awareness here-now, without thoughts or other types of mental distractions. My attention may be on the breath (sensation, following, counting), or on a koan key word, or simply on what is arising in consciousness (shikantaza).

In the last week or so, I have become aware from time to time that hidden in my awareness there is a non-verbal though process going on. Because it does not involve conceptual thinking or quasi-verbal expression, it is difficult to notice. But I have realized that there is a part of me still thinking in some sense in a non-verbal way. This tends to be about some sort of witnessing by my observing awareness and a judging process about the extent to which I am present “here-now”. I tentatively concluded that my monkey mind was very very clever, and was trying to get around my practice of letting go of thoughts (those largely verbalized or visual sequences) by finding a much less obvious way to think non-verbally. But then I came across another possibility.

Last night I was reading about the split-brain research of Roger Sperry and others nearly 50 years ago, resulting in Sperry receiving the 1981 Nobel Prize for Medicine. The human brain consists of two hemispheres connected by several neural networks, the main one being the corpus callosum. In patients whose corpus callosum had been surgically cut in half (to prevent epilepsy) the two hemispheres had little communication and function largely independently. In particular, in most people, the left hemisphere is largely responsible for verbal communication, and the right more dominant in reading and displaying emotions, and in spatial and musical processing. For a fascinating and more detailed summary of this research, see Sam Harris’s 2014 book Waking Up (highly recommended). In particular, he explains why this research leads to the conclusion that the two hemispheres of the split brain are independently conscious.

A key experiment involved flashing a word, say “Egg”, to the left half of the visual field, processed by the non-verbal right brain, and the subject (speaking from the language-dominant left brain) will say they saw nothing. When asked to reach behind a partition and select an object with his left hand (controlled by the right brain), he will select the egg. Ask him to name the object he now holds in his left hand without allowing the left brain to get a look at it, and he will be unable to reply. The right brain is “thinking” and it knows that it saw the word egg and can recognize the feel of an egg and select it, but does not have the words to express that.

Is it possible that the time spent training my consciousness to let go of thought trains has enabled me to develop the skill of doing so for left-brain verbal thought trains, but not so much for the right brain’s non-verbal thinking?  Its quite exciting to think I may actually be noticing the much more subtle non-verbal thinking of the right brain, usually well and truly overspoken by my quite strongly developed verbal-cognitive thought processes. These have been quite strongly developed by a career focused on mathematical and statistical modelling, where I’ve learnt to play out quite complex analytic processes in my head before implementing them in a computer program or spreadsheet.  I’m not too much of a mansplainer I hope, but definitely a left-brain-splainer. 

In any case, I am now also paying attention to these more subtle thoughts arising, and seeking to let them go the same way I have been letting go of the more verbal or visual thought trains. But I wonder whether the left-brain chatter and the more subtle right-brain awareness are disengaging while I sit zazen, and perhaps becoming two somewhat more separated selves, or perhaps no self at all.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe: My rankings from best to worst

My previous post described my recent viewing of all 23 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and examined differences between my rankings of the movies and the rankings of critics, journalists and viewers. This post gives brief reviews of the MCU movies explaining why my rankings are sometimes quite different to others, and presents these in order from best to worst. Every other ranking I examined presents them in the opposite order from worst to best. However, I didn’t want to make readers plough through reviews of the worst movies first. Apart from the fact that nobody may be interested to read all my reviews, I’ve done them mainly to explore what I love and don’t love about the MCU, I’ve also included an index below, so you can jump straight to any particular review that interests you.

Warning: there are spoilers ahead.  If you haven’t seen these movies, watch them in timeline order first. In each review, I also give the median ranking from the 23 rankings I analysed in my previous post. The range in brackets gives the 25th and 75tb percentiles of the ranks.

Continue reading

Watching all 23 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in timeline order

My sons have been fans of the Marvel superhero movies for most of their lives and insisted I watch Marvel’s latest offering, WandaVision, a nine part TV series released weekly on Disney+ from January15th to March 5th this year.  When we got past the first two episodes, I was hooked. But the boys needed to explain quite a few of the characters and Easter Eggs to me and I realized my knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was quite inadequate.

In just over eleven years since Iron Man was released in 2008, Marvel has released 23 movies that are all part of the same universe, the MCU. I saw quite a few of these in cinemas when first released or later on TV, but not all of them. So I decided to watch all 23 in timeline order, the order in which their events occurred in the MCU. WandaVision and the currently running Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are also part of the MCU, as is Black Widow due to be released in May. but I restricted my timeline viewing to the 23 movies in the following Table that were released before this year.

Continue reading

Psychedelics and the health risks of drugs, alcohol and tobacco

In the last decade or so, there has been a renaissance of interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. While natural psychedelic substances have been used by humans for many thousands of years, psychedelics had a massive cultural impact on the West in the 1950s and 1960s. Albert Hoffman, a research scientist working for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, accidentally invented LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in 1938 and discovered its psychedelic properties five years later. In 1955, a New York banker named Gordon Wasson sampled the psilocybe (magic) mushroom in Mexico and published an article on his experience in Life magazine.

Scientists discovered the role of neurotransmitters in the brain in the 1950s, and psychedelics inspired scientists to search for the neurochemical origins of mental disorders previously thought to be psychological. Psychedelics were also used in psychotherapy to treat various disorders, including alcoholism, anxiety and depression, with some promising results, although these studies generally did not reach modern standards of research design.

However, psychedelics were also embraced by the counterculture and became linked in the mind of authorities with youth counterculture and the anti-Vietnam war protests. By the end of the 1960s, most Western governments had outlawed and forced underground the psychedelic drugs which had been legal in most places previously, and also shut down all scientific research.

In the 1990s small groups of scientists managed to start conducting various trials of the therapeutic uses of psychedelics and this has led to the so-called psychedelic “renaissance” in which larger well-designed trials of psychedelic use for treating a range of mental disorders are being carried out by research groups at institutions such as Imperial College London, Johns Hopkins University and New York University. Just today, it was announced that the Australian government will be providing $15 million funding for clinical trials into the use of psilocybin and other psychedelics for the treatment of mental illnesses, including depression and PTSD. Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind gives an excellent account of the history of psychedelics, both above ground and underground, and the psychedelic renaissance, and was a best seller. See also this article by Michael Pollan on the “Psychedelic Renaissance”.

As part of my work on the global burden of disease for the World Health Organization (WHO), I carried out several assessments of the direct and indirect health impacts of the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. I recently did an approximate update to year 2019 for deaths directly due to drug use disorders (overdoses and directly toxic effects) and indirect deaths from road injury, suicide and infectious diseases attributable to drug use. A proportion of HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C deaths can be attributed to injecting drug use with contaminated needles. The great majority of direct and indirect deaths due to drug use are due to the use of opioids, both illicit and pharmaceutical opioids. Very few deaths are associated with psychedelic drug use, but I was curious to get a ballpark estimate for comparison with other drug deaths. I will present a brief summary of the broad estimates of drug-attributable deaths, then review evidence on the likely contribution of psychedelic drugs.

Continue reading

Revisiting The Hobbit movie (yes – as one movie not three)

Having recently re-read The Lord of the Rings trilogy (see my earlier post) and realizing that Peter Jackson had changed more in the movie versions than I had realized, I decided to rewatch the three Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movies for the third time, but this time in the Extended Edition, which I’ve never seen. I purchased a copy of that, which has just arrived. But I have been pondering whether to watch the Hobbit movies before watching LOTR.  I really disliked Peter Jackson’s padding out the story with made-up elements that were not in the book, and spinning it out to three overblown movies. There were some aspects I enjoyed, but I just could not bring myself to watch them again, let alone in the extended editions.

Then I stumbled across a “fan edit” of the Hobbit movies to make a single movie (of length just under 4 hours) which is reasonable faithful to the book, removes excess material and the more ridiculous action sequences. This fan edit, called “The Hobbit – The Cardinal Cut” is described here and can be downloaded or watched on Youtube.

Continue reading

How long ago were the events of The Lord of the Rings?

As I discussed in my previous post, Tolkien set out to create a mythology for the English in the Lord of the Rings (LOTR), the Silmarillion and related writings on Middle-earth. He presented himself not as the author of LOTR, but as the translator of various histories written by Bilbo, Frodo and others in the Third and Fourth Age of Middle-earth. This makes Tolkien quite unusual among modern writers of fantasy in presenting it as set in the real worlc albeit in an imagined prehistory. What happened in that period before the Earth’s actual recorded history is otherwise remembered down through the generations as folk myths and legends, especially among the Old English. Tolkien’s life work was an attempt to reconstruct our prehistory, and more specifically the prehistory of the English. Critics Lee and Solopova commented that “Only by understanding this can we fully realize the true scale of his project and comprehend how enormous his achievement was” [1].

Tolkien described the region in which the Hobbits lived as “the North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea” in LOTR, ie. essentially Europe (including Britain). However, as he noted in a letter [2], the geographies do not match, and he did not consciously make them match when he was writing. In another letter [3] he became much more specific, saying “If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.” In the Prologue to LOTR, Tolkien also notes that “Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed…”

Fascinated by the detailed chronologies and calendars set out in the Appendices to LOTR and elsewhere, I have naturally wondered how long ago from now the events of LOTR took place. About 15 years ago, I came across an article in the Journal of the Tolkien Society [4¡ which deduced that the Fourth Age began on Wednesday 18 March 3,102 BCE.  The events of LOTR took place during the preceding year.  Despite the bizarre exactness of this, I was quite impressed by the argument, which I summarize here briefly.

Continue reading

On re-reading the Lord of the Rings 50 years later

My first encounter with Middle Earth was when I came across The Hobbit in my first year of high school. The Hobbit gave me the same sense of the numinous and of “Northerness” as earlier had C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I had borrowed it from the local library, did not remember the name of the author and only several years later as a teenager did I discover the Lord of the Rings (LOTR).  It was originally published in three volumes in 1954 and 1955, 18 years after the Hobbit was published in 1937. The Lord of the Rings became immensely popular in the 1960s with the publication of the Ballantine paperback editions, and in North America, the publication of the Ace pirated edition.  I first read it in 1969, when I purchased the 1968 first edition of the George Allen and Unwin one volume paperback with cover illustrations by Pauline Baynes:

Continue reading

Zen lineages and “transmission outside the scriptures”

I’ve mainly been doing shikantaza “just sitting” during the pandemic, but I recently started re-reading “Zen Koans: learning the language of dragons” by James Ishmael Ford. This is an excellent general introduction to Zen, the range of Zen methods of meditation, and particularly working with koans. Ford was given dharma transmission by my first Zen teacher, John Tarrant, who was the first Australian authorized to teach Zen.

Ford discusses the concept of Zen lineages in his book (pages 28-30) and this reminded me that I had collected information on the lineages of the teachers I have worked with, and inspired me to update it and turn it into a set of charts. These trace the transmission of Zen from India to China to Japan and then to my Western teachers. I’ve updated these and posted them below.

Continue reading