Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Itch As Glitch: Deconstructing Externality and Sensation

Any meditator will undoubtedly be very familiar with our old friend, the itch. While I think the connections between scientific discoveries and Buddhist beliefs can be over-emphasised, in this article, taking uncontrollable itching as a starting point, Atul Gawande looks at the new light being thrown on the relationship between external objects, sensation, and consciousness.

Scientific developments are challenging what Gawande calls the ‘naïve view’ – that we perceive the world directly, that sensations transmitted by objects are ‘picked up by our nerve endings, transmitted through the spinal cord like a message through a wire, and decoded by the brain.’ Rather, he argues on the basis of this research, the mind is not so much decoding sensations, as constructing objects from signals, signals which are ‘radically impoverished’ compared with our experience of embodiment. On this view, perception, rather than being a response to external stimuli, is in fact the brain’s ‘best guess,’ or inference, about what’s ‘happening out there.’ Phenomena like phantom limb pain, or itching in places with no nerve endings, are what happens when the best guess happens to be wrong; and thus a solution might be possible if that guess can be adjusted – in the case of phantom limbs, by ‘mirror therapy’ through which patients appear to themselves to possess the missing limb.

What’s interesting about this from a Buddhist perspective, it seems to me, is that it dovetails with the teaching that our impression of our own embodied objectivity, and hence our whole concept of the ‘reality’ we inhabit, is illusory, and that in normal everyday life we do not have access to unmediated experience (indeed, this would suggest that there can be no such thing as unmediated experience, only the experience of experience as mediated – though the nature of meditative insights is not a subject on which I’d claim any authority from experience whatsoever). It seems to me (from my limited knowledge) that there’s a particular affinity here with Yogacara perspectives on cognition as constitutive of a (supposed) reality external to consciousness. The mind not only imposes particular constructions on objectively-experienced sensation as a result of contact with objectively-existing, separate external objects; all those sensations and separate objects exist as they are experienced only as a result of being constructed mind-objects, or dharmas.

As well as giving a new approach to problems like those mentioned above, this perspective on consciousness might also relate to new practices in dealing with pain. Rather than distraction - an older technique - Gawande notes that people with chronic pain are now often advised to ‘work through’ the pain, giving the body a chance to ‘reset’ pain sensors. Though it’s not mentioned in the article, there’s some fascinating work out there on mindfulness as a method of long-term pain management, which would seem to bear definite similarities.

I wouldn’t want in any way to diminish through comparison the agony people experience when dealing with these kinds of medical problems. But there is something fundamental here about the fact that our suffering can be our own creation, and that we may not be conscious of this, or, if we are, this intellectual understanding in itself does not serve to mitigate that suffering. Sakyamuni is often understood as a physician, and in identifying ‘everyday life’ itself as dukkha, we might ask what treatment we could use to help readjust our fundamentally faulty understanding – which brings us full circle, away from these abstracted intellectual meanderings and back to the cushion…


  1. For me, it is the insight that you talk about here that is the most important teaching buddhism has to offer in our current age. It's neither modern, nor unique, but that doesn't detract from its importance in any way, in fact it enhances it. The "Myth of the given" is about exactly this, but I think from a western perspective and according to wilber, gave rise to post-modernism in general.
    I also feel it's the reason why a lot of people who don't really understand it think that buddhism is nihilistic - but it's not that there's nothing "out there", it's that we can never experience it directly (we can never 'know' it), and what we do experience is necessarily "empty".

    I dream that a lot of religious arguments would just stop if the people arguing could understand this one point.

  2. Not having read Wilber, I'm not sure what his general take on postmodernism is...

    For myself, I get a bit flummoxed when I see postmodern thinking depicted as a negative aspect of a contemporary Western crisis of meaning. On my reading, postmodernism dovetails closely with Buddhist teachings - in saying that rather than accepting what is (with all the suffering that entails) because it's understood a priori to be given or natural, if we inquire there's the possibility to see that it's all a contingent construct, and that in fact there is no ultimate truth in the sense of a solid and objective reality which can be collectively experienced.

  3. "But there is something fundamental here about the fact that our suffering can be our own creation..."

    This sounds more like New Thought than Buddhism, especially in the context of the previous discussion of cognition. The Buddha taught that suffering was caused by karma, which literally means action, not a cognitive or psychological construction of reality that happens automatically.

  4. I don't think Buddhism concerns itself at all with ontological questions such as whether there is or isn't something 'out there'. We can't reach 'out there' and it can't reach us. The very hypothesis that there might be an 'out there' is part of the phenomenal world. All that can be found is phenomena. But that doesn't mean that all we have is our consciousness. Nothing is excluded and no label we apply to totality can have any meaning.

    I've never studied post-modernism and I may misunderstand it, but my understanding is that it is saying something like:

    There is objective reality (or it can't be found)
    There is no 'master narrative'
    All we have is various narratives, none of which is equally valid

    I believe that there is something fundamentally flawed about this, but I'm not sure if I can fully articulate this.

  5. I mean 'none of which is any more valid than the others'

  6. Talking about nothing is like making love without a woman.
    Just mental masturbation.
    Buddhism never talks about nothing, it talks about no thing.
    Which is really something.

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  8. I think that if the Four Noble Truths were looked at as the I-Self-Other structure instead of implying a guilt for not doing the right actions for creating a good world then the article in question can be seen as the drama of the "I" both trying to eliminate and then fill (and then eliminate again) the lack it thinks it feels with the it's "other".

  9. Buudha
    How ‘bout this?
    Talking about there not being a thing is like making love to a woman that is not there, but is.
    Just mental masturbation.
    If Buddhism talks about what is not there, it talks about nothing.
    Which is really all there is to talk about.

    Zizek asked a really great question awhile back. Something like, “Is sex with a woman really just masturbation with an other that happens to have a body?”