Our Ordinary Sense of Self. Different Aspects of
“No Self” During States of Absorption and Kensho
James H. Austin, M.D.
The end of the conceit “I am” –-- that is the truly greatest
happiness of all.
James H. Austin
制与心理过程，其代表性著作有 Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of
Meditation and Consciousness (MIT press, 1998)、Zen-Brain
Reflections: Reviewing Recent Developments in Meditation and States of
Consciousness (MIT Press, 2006) 以及Zen-Brain: Selfless Insight
(MIT Press, 2008) 等。
Zen meditators train
attention both during sitting and daily life practice. How else can we
conceptualize the process of long-range Zen meditative training? One
suggestion is that it involves a deconditioning, the kind that whittles
away old maladaptive aspects of the egocentric self. Only then, during
decades of gradually re-training our pre-attentive mode of attention, of
mindful introspection, of awakenings both gradual and sudden, can a
less self-centered person emerge. This individual, in the course of a
long process of “re-programming” can become increasingly aware,
simplified, stable, compassionate and humane.(1)
From this basic perspective of deconditioning, each individual self
begins as an active, tangible (if transient) entity. Figure 1
illustrates the ordinary mental field of this individual self. [Figure 1
Infants and children become conditioned all too soon to acquire their
array of personal assets and liabilities. Among the liabilities
developed are three dysfunctions of selfhood. Reduced to simplified,
operational terms, these liabilities are referable to our constructs of
“I, Me, and Mine.” Figure 2 illustrates how this triad of self occupies
the axial center, looking out toward the outer world of the environment.
[Figure 2 Here]
The liabilities of the assertive sovereign I-self are manifested in
overt acts of arrogance and aggression. Those of the fearful, vulnerable
Me-self generate inner turmoil, feelings of being battered by life and
besieged by anxieties. The Me is an object, the target of life’s
The dysfunctions of the intrusive Mine are more subtle. They are
observable in the ways children and adults cling to possessions, covet
material goods, and cherish their own fixed opinions. This pejorative
triad, the “ABCs of our I-Me-Mine,” causes suffering not only during
childhood, but at every age. It becomes the basis for adult longings and
loathings, and for many unfruitful, overconditioned, egocentric aspects
of our personalities.
Recent research suggests that most aspects of our multifaceted self
are attributable to defined networks that blend their interactions in a
variety of subtle functions.(2)(3) As one oversimplification, much of
the higher levels of our bodily self-image --- our soma --- is normally
represented along posterior pathways that lead up toward the superior
Yet this major sensory supply into the parietal lobe must first pass
through deeper thalamic circuits. In this respect, the thalamus serves
as a “bottleneck.” Notably, its GABA-containing reticular nucleus acts
as a “shield.” This inhibitory function becomes important when we ask:
How can one’s sensate, physical self vanish during some of the
superficial states called the absorptions? Figure 3 illustrates the
nature of the mental field during internal absorption when this ordinary
sense of a somatic self drops out of awareness. [Figure 3 Here]
However, our ordinary psychic attributes --- those of our psyche ---
are more complex. Although their functions build on the scaffolding of
this basic physical axis, the higher-level expressions of our psyche are
more referable to networks linking other regions. These associations
are elaborated on during interactions that link the cortex of the
frontal and temporal lobes, and join in consultation with other
parietal, thalamic, limbic and paralimbic systems.
Which “ordinary” psychological functions are included within this
second, psychic, category? They represent higher-level integrations of
functions that are at once cognitive, emotional, and instinctual.
Rarely, some very special experiences arise from unusual changes
within our psyche. These novel states expand pre-attentive and intuitive
functions in extraordinary ways. Their underlying deconditionings of
the self unveil profound, direct insights into the way reality is
experienced. The extraordinary insightful states of kensho-satori and
Being exemplify such rare moments of experiential realization. Figure 4
illustrates the mental field of insight-wisdom during kensho-satori.
Please note how substantially this more advanced state of “awakening”
differs from the earlier state of internal absorption. Moreover,
absorptions are also lacking in the potential to transform traits of
character. [Figure 4 Here]
Locked within our ordinary egocentric consciousness, is it
intellectually possible to appreciate the nature of any state so devoid
of its usual, dominating internal sense of self? No. Why not? Because
we’ve always inhabited a dual world of our own making, both consciously
and subconsciously. We do have a perspective on that “other” outside
world at large, but it arises only from the self trapped inside this
habitual self/other dichotomy.
However, let’s suppose that this usual subjective sense of an inside,
egocentric self were to vanish. Does such a moment of “no-self” imply
that consciousness is lost? No. What does happen, as the result of this
shift? The residual witnessing awareness now opens up to experience ---
with utmost clarity and depth of meaning --- the whole Other covert
aspect of this former duality. The technical term for such
non-subjective perception is allocentric awareness (allo implies other;
ego implies self).
How does this no-self, allocentric field of other-centered perception
enter experience? In the extraordinary state of kensho-satori, it is
directly experienced as “suchness.” Suchness is the realization that
“all things are as THEY REALLY ARE.” Figure 5 illustrates how, inside
the state of kensho-satori, the usual sense of two parallel self/other
universes gives way to yield the impression of “Oneness.” [Figure 5
After kensho, the stage is set for the individual to enter into a
more authentic engagement with the vicissitudes of daily life. This
becomes an ongoing process of self-analysis. It is a practice that
probes much more objectively than before. This daily life practice
ripens incrementally, as the result of more refined degrees of clear
mindful awareness, of introspection, and of a succession of little
On this long-term path of mindful, introspective meditative training,
the once-tall arrogant I of the earlier problem self is gradually
transformed. In what direction? Toward that of a more actualized,
lower-case i. The former besieged Me of the anxious self can now become a
more buoyant me. Slowly, the clutching Mine of the old pejorative self
can also evolve. How? Into a more compassionate mine. In the total
transformation toward a lower profile i-me-mine, egocentricity can yield
to allocentricity, a person who cares for others. Allo- is no esoteric
prefix. A recently introduced term, allophilia, refers to the openness
to experience other human beings with the same positive consideration
that one usually extends toward oneself.(4)
Recent neuroimaging and other brain research clarifies the functional
anatomy of networks that correlate with our ordinary sense of
self/other dualities. These newer findings permit novel perspectives
with which to interpret the mechanisms underlying our deeper levels of
extraordinary perceptual experience. These rare states, having realized
selfless insight-wisdom, have the potential to transform one’s traits
and be actualized in one’s ongoing attitudes and behavior.(5)
* * *
1. J. Austin. Zen and the Brain. Toward an Understanding of
Meditation and Consciousness, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1998.
2. Austin, J. (2000) ‘Consciousness evolves when the self dissolves’,
Journal of Consciousness Studies 7, 11-12, 209-230.
3. J. Austin, Zen-Brain Reflections. Reviewing Recent Developments in
Meditation and States of Consciousness, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2006.
4.Positive prejudice. Really loving your neighbor. The Economist
2007. March 17; 66.
5. J. Austin, Zen-Brain: Selfless Insight, Cambridge, MA. MIT Press,
Figure 1 – The Ordinary Mental Field.
Stimuli enter from the outside world and from internal proprioceptive
events. The blend contributes to our notions that we continue to exist
as a central thinking and feeling self.
Figure 2 – The Ordinary Self/Other World of the I-Me-Mine.
Our I-Me-Mine is a tightly knit triad. Its complex attributes relate
our sensate physical body to our thoughts and emotions. Its I is
sovereign. Its Me is a vulnerable target. Its Mine is all possessive.
Note how those small, curved arrows of the Mine not only thrust out to
clutch at whatever we try to possess in the outer world. They also curve
back to attach themselves to our own fixed opinions and other
internally biased notions of selfhood.
Figure 3 – The Mental Field of Internal Absorption with Sensate Loss.
A major absorption dissolves the bodily self. It effaces the ordinary
physical boundaries of the I-Me-Mine. What remains? A witnessed,
silent, heightened, clear, ambient awareness. The sensory blockade shuts
off not only the stimuli from the outer world. It also shuts off
proprioceptive information relayed up from the head and body. Most
emotions do not register aside from a pervasive enchantment and bliss.
Figure 4 – The Mental Field of Insight-Wisdom (Kensho-Satori).
The brain’s intuitive capacities approach their peak. Subjectivity
dissolves. A totally unifying objective vision comprehends the whole
outside world. The impression is: All things as they REALLY are;
immanent, eternal perfection. Fear vanishes because the entire I-Me-Mine
drops out at every affective level. (Dashed lines serve only to suggest
the location of former boundaries.)
Figure 5 – Parallel Universes.
At the top of this figure, our usual self/other mode is shown. It
constructs two separate parallel universes. On the left side of this
duality is our own larger, self-centered universe. We’ve always given it
the higher priority. Off to the right lies the rest of the world
“outside” us. Farther down, however, in a supraordinate state of
consciousness, egocentricity vanishes. The ordinary world (Samsara) and
the noumenal world (“nirvana”) are now perceived as unified within an
impression of “Oneness.” At the bottom, after kensho, the former
over-inflated self (on the left) has become “thinner.” Larger “pores”
exist in its formerly rigid boundary. They are intended to suggest that
this newly awakened self enters into a fresh appreciation of the outside
world, and can engage it actively on terms that are now much more open,
direct, and inclusive.
James H. Austin is Clinical Professor of Neurology, University of
Missouri Health Science Center, and Emeritus Professor of Neurology,
University of Colorado Health Science Center. Austin is the author of
his well known book Zen and the Brain, which aims to establish links
between the neurological workings of the human brain and meditation.
Austin has recently written a sequel to it, Zen-Brain Reflections,
published in February, 2006.
Austin is also a practicing Zen Buddhist. After a number of years of
Zen meditation, Austin spontaneously experienced what Zen practice calls
"enlightenment" on a subway platform in London. The chief
characteristic of his experience seems to be a loss of the sense of
"self" which is central to human identity, and a corresponding feeling
of union with the outer world. Austin speculates as to what might be
going on in the brain when the "self" module goes offline, and also
discusses the seeing timelessness of the experience in the context of
the brain's internal clock mechanisms. In Austin's own words,
It strikes unexpectedly at 9 am on the surface platform of the London
subway system. (Due to a mistake)...I wind up at a station where I have
never been before....The view is the dingy interior of the station,
some grimy buildings, a bit of open sky. Instantly the entire view
acquires three qualities: Absolute Reality, Intrinsic Rightness,
Ultimate Reflection. With no transition, it is all complete....Yes,
there is the paradox of this extraordinary viewing. But there is no
viewer. The scene is utterly empty, stripped of every last extension of
an I-Me-Mine (his name for ego-self). Vanished in one split second is
the familiar sensation that this person is viewing a city scene. The new
viewing proceeds impersonally, not pausing to register the paradox that
there is no human subject "doing" it. Three insights penetrate the
experient, each conveying Total Understanding at depths far beyond
simple knowledge: This is the eternal state of affairs. There is nothing
more to do. There is nothing whatever to fear.
Austin claims that the experience represented "objective reality" in
that his subjective self did not exist to form biased interpretations.
Uncompromisingly scientific, Austin notes that how little Zen Buddhism
and scientific rigor conflict.
James H. Austin, Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of
Meditation and Consciousness.
Zen and the Brain is a groundbreaking work that bridges the gap
between the fields of religion and science.
A great deal has been written by medical doctors on the
functioning of the brain/ and by mediators on the effects of meditation
on the human personality. Medical researchers/ who have attempted to
bridge this gap through scientific studies on the efficacy of meditation
in bringing about physiological and mental changes in the human
personality, have been downright skeptical concerning meditation's
positive efficacy. However, serious meditators have enthusiastically
cited the history of the Eastern and Western meditation tradition as a
justification for their claims. One of the major hurdles in this
fascinating area of research has been the fact that very few medical
researchers have had any personal experience with meditation while the
vast majority of meditators have had no training in the neurology of the
James Austin is among a rare breed of scholars who/ as a trained
neurologist, is thoroughly knowledgeable about the anatomy, physiology,
and chemistry of the brain, and as a Zen practitioner he is fully
familiar with the meditative experience. In his book Zen and the Brain:
Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness, Austin makes a
bold attempt at bringing together these two diverse disciplines, the
twain that are not supposed to meet. Austin attempts to accomplish two
major tasks in the eight parts of his book: (1) to describe in a clear
fashion the often confused topic of Zen and its close links to the
brain, and (2) to venture into the discussion of his personal encounters
with the Zen masters, zazen training, and the meditative experience.
Part 1, "Starting to Point toward Zen," offers a brief outline of
the history of Zen and Zen's relationship to the brain, mysticism,
religion, schizophrenia, narcissism/ and depersonalization. Part 1,
"Meditating," presents the physiological mechanisms of meditation
including Zen meditative techniques and skills/ zazen. kōans,
physiological changes during meditation, the effects of sensorimotor
deprivation, brain waves, and the meditative approach to the dissolution
of the self. Part 3, "Neurology," describes the most recent research
on the nature of the brain. Here Austin devotes more than 150 pages to
the exploration of the various lobes, higher functions, remembrances,
attention, memories/ and biological theories about the causes of
Part 4, "Exploring States of Consciousness/' delves into problems
associated with the word "mind," and describes in detail the ordinary
and extraordinary states of consciousness, sleep, dreams, conditioning,
emotions, pain, pleasure, and the relationship of the two hemispheres
of the brain. Parts 5, 6, and 7, respectively titled
"Quickening/' "The Absorptions," and "The Awakenings," investigate
alternate states of consciousness and "how, when and where they arise in
the depth of the brain." Discussion centers on the side effects of
meditation, phantom limbs, the roots of laughter, the effects of
psychedelic drugs, near-death experiences, the semantics of samādhi, the
construction and dissolution of time, the death of fear, emptiness,
absorption, and insight-wisdom.
Part 8, "Being and Beyond: To the Stage of Ongoing
Enlightenment," explores the permanent stages of enlightenment. Here
Austin offers a clear analysis of the nature of the ultimate being, the
power of silence, compassion, the aging of the brain, and the
celebration of nature. Austin concludes by describing the still-evolving
brain in the still-evolving societies and forecasts the positive social
consequences of the advanced stages of ongoing enlightenment.
Zen and the Brain is a groundbreaking work that bridges the gap
between the fields of religion and science. The presentation of the
typography of the brain here is rigorous and comprehensive, and Austin's
discussion of the intimate connection between meditation and the states
of consciousness is clear and inviting. Austin's work belongs to a
unique class of books that demand a special kind of training and
discipline from the author- Austin understands this challenge and
states: "in the future, whoever writes such a book should be a fully
enlightened Japanese master, fluent in English; a person who has both a
doctorate degree in neurophysiology, hands-on experience in
psychophysiological research, years of intercultural teaching
experience; and a physician whose training in both neurology and
psychiatry has been doubly certified."
Zen and the Brain will appeal to both undergraduate and graduate
students as well as to scholars in the areas of comparative philosophy,
religion, and science. The book's attraction is due to its being a rare
kind of "clinical autobiography," which started as an excursion into the
mysterious world of Zen but changed into the account of a
Western-educated neurologist who became the subject of his own
investigation. The book is long, running to 844 pages, but each page is
clearly written and fully engages the reader with an exposition that is
both simple and profound. Once you start reading it, you will find it
hard to put down.