Tag Archives: Buddhism

Convergence of Teachings 1 – The Realm of Hungry Ghosts

Have you ever noticed that when you embark on a spiritual path or become engaged in a particular line of teaching, everything you read or hear starts to feel like just another version of the same message?

This is happening like crazy for me right now.  This post is about just a single example out of dozens. The other night I was in the laundry room looking for a book to read. The book exchange area, though overflowing with well-worn old paperbacks, almost never has anything of interest to me.  Suddenly, there among the romance novels, was In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Dr. Gabor Maté. I didn’t feel any special pull toward the subject of addiction, but on the cover of the book it said #1 National Bestseller. That felt promising. I took it upstairs with me.

For over three hundred pages I have been learning about addiction from every possible angle–from cutting edge neuroscience to behavioural studies with rats and primates to stories from his own practice working with clients in Downtown Eastside Vancouver. The author is passionately devoted to promoting evidence-based public policy. He is a devotee of solid research and fact-based decision making. He is also courageous enough to say that the War on Drugs is an utter failure; he brilliantly and thoroughly makes his case with an exhaustive arsenal of data from the US, Canada, Britain, Holland and elsewhere around the globe.

By page 340 I was convinced that the vast majority of addicts will remain addicted their entire lives, and there just isn’t a lot they or we can do about that. They began life with brains that were vulnerable to addiction. Addiction then further changes their neural pathways and leaves them even less able to inhibit self-destructive impulses. How can we ask someone to save themselves from “brain lock” when the only tool at their disposal is a brain that has been severely compromised in the one area most needed for this maneuver?

I was surprised when the author then veered in this direction, though I shouldn’t have been, given the book’s sub-title and Buddhist-leaning introductory pages:

The mind activity that can physically rewire malfunctioning brain circuits and alter our dysfunctional emotional and cerebral responses is conscious mental effort–what Dr. Schwartz calls mental force. If changing external circumstances can improve brain physiology, so can mental effort. “Intention and attention exert real, physical effects on the brain,” Dr. Schwartz explains. Not surprisingly, the brain area activated in studies looking at the effect of self-directed mental effort is the prefrontal cortex, ….  It’s also an area where, we have learned, the brains of addicts are impaired. The mental activity most critical to the development of emotional self-regulation has been called “dispassionate self-observation” by the authors of an important article on the interface of brain and mind, [published here] in 2005. “The way in which a person directs their attention (e.e. mindfully or unmindfully) will,” they write, “affect both the experiential state of the person and the state of his/her brain.”

Mindful awareness involves directing our attention not only to the mental content of our thoughts, but also to the emotions and mind-states that inform those thoughts. It is being aware of the processes of our mind even as we work through its materials. Mindful awareness is the key to unlocking the automatic patterns that fetter the addicted brain and mind.


How to break the cycle? “Everything has mind in the lead, has mind in the forefront, is made by the mind,” the Buddha said. With our minds we create the world we live in. The teaching of Buddhism is that the way to deal with the mind is not to attempt to change it, but to become an impartial, compassionate observer of it.


We can distinguish between two kinds of mind function: awareness (the dispassionate observer) and the jumble of automatic processes (conscious, semiconscious and subconscious) that dictate our emotional states, thoughts and much of our behaviour. One of the first scientists to recognize this distinction was the great Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. “Although the content of consciousness depends in large measure on neuronal activity, awareness itself does not,” Penfield wrote. “To me it seems more and more reasonable to suggest that the mind may be a distinct and different essence from the brain.”

The automatic mind, the reactive product of brain circuits, constantly interprets the present in the light of past conditioning. In its psychological responses it has great difficulty telling past from present, especially whenever it is emotionally aroused. A trigger in the present will set off emotions that were programmed perhaps decades ago at a much more vulnerable time in the person’s life. What seems like a reaction to some present circumstances is, in fact, a reliving of past emotional experience.

Maté goes on to explain implicit memory and to introduce the concept of the impartial observer.


On a side note, I found it fascinating to hear that whenever Canada starts putting money and effort into evidence-based solutions to this society’s drug problems, the U.S. administration often exerts pressure on us to stop funding such programs. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!

On a second side note, Violet forwarded an invitation to hear Dr. Maté speak. It just so happens that he is speaking in Toronto on the 28th of this month at 5:00. I will be in Toronto from the 27th till the 30th for our annual professional development conference… and my last workshop of the day ends at 4:30. I intend to try to get there for his talk.

Movie Review: Inception, Magic Realism and Dzogchen Buddhism

I don’t recommend that you read too many reviews or critiques of Inception before you see it–if you plan to see it. The director himself has said that many journalists are trying too hard to turn it into a riddle to be figured out. It’s really not that.  As Nolan says, it’s more of a ride to be enjoyed. Please don’t worry that you’re going to be confused by a million plot twists or anything like that.  I am one of the simplest-minded movie viewers.  Too many double agents in a spy flick and I’m lost, having to depend on my companion to explain things to me after the film.  I did not have a bit of trouble following Inception all the way through.  I cannot say the same of Nolan’s earlier film Memento, though I did enjoy that one as well.  No, here everything is laid out plainly with good signposts as the movie takes us from the waking world into a dreamscape and then into a dreamscape within a dreamscape and so on.  It was very clear to me which dream-level every character was on at all times.

Another caveat I would give movie goers is not to expect science fiction. I personally am not a big sci-fi fan, but I am a huge fan of magic realism.  I came away from Inception thoroughly convinced that it is a work of magic realism rather than sci-fi.  My suspicions were validated when I looked for articles and reviews this morning and found an interview with the director in which he names Jorge Luis Borges as “the chief spark for this flame.”

One clue that we are looking at magic realism is that the script does not attempt to explain the science behind what is going on–people entering each other’s dreams. The movie is not set in the future and we are not speculating about something that might be possible in the future. Rather, a magical component (ability to enter others’ dreams) is presented as fact without the smallest bat of an eye from a character like smart university student Ariadne when she is asked to join a team of dream crashers for a special job.

One tool of magic realism is to interweave the magical element with the common, everyday details of life so seamlessly so that our brain accepts one along with the other.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges are considered by many to be pioneers of the genre.  One scene in the movie where Ariadne (Ellen Page) turns two large mirrors to face one another with the slightest offset of the parallel angle so that we see a series of reflections diminishing in size toward infinity struck me as a nice tip of the hat to Borges, who was obsessed with facing mirrors as well as with labyrinths–which also play a central role in Inception.

Another feature of magic realism that I encountered in Nolan’s Inception was evidenced when we left the theatre. Our world view and sense of reality had been altered, and the alteration was still with us.  As Sylvain put it, “that movie messed with my head.”  I didn’t realize it had also messed with mine until a few minutes later when I couldn’t get out of the bathroom stall and found myself wondering if I were dreaming.

Bruce Holland Rogers points out in this article, magic realism tries to convey the reality of a worldview that actually exists.  I can vouch for the fact that there are people (me included) who entertain the possibility that what we experience every day is a dream. Many lines of Buddhism, such as Dzogchen,  teach us to view life as a dream. Allow me to bring in an excerpt from Wikipedia:

According to contemporary teacher Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, in Dzogchen the perceived reality is considered to be unreal. All appearances perceived during the whole life of an individual through all senses, including sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations in their totality are like a big dream. It is claimed that on careful examination the dream of life and regular nightly dreams are not very different, and that in their essential nature there is no difference between them.

The non-essential difference between our dreaming state and our ordinary waking experience is that the latter is more concrete and linked with our attachment; the dreaming is slightly detached.

Also according to this teaching, there is a correspondence between the states of sleep and dream and our experiences when we die. After experiences of intermediate state of bardo an individual comes out of it, a new karmic illusion is created and another existence begins. This is how transmigration happens.

One aim of dream practice is to realize during a dream that one is dreaming. One can then dream with lucidity and do all sorts of things, such as go to different places, talk to people, fly and so forth. It is also possible to do different yogic practices while dreaming (usually such yogic practices one does in waking state). In this way the yogi can have a very strong experience and with this comes understanding of the dream-like nature of daily life. This is very relevant to diminishing attachments, because they are based on strong beliefs that life’s perceptions and objects are real and, as a consequence, important. If one really understands what Buddha Shakyamuni meant when he said that everything is unreal or of the nature o fshunyata, then one can diminish attachments and tensions.

The teacher gives advice, that the realization that the life is only a big dream can help us finally liberate ourselves from the chains of emotions, attachments, and ego and then we have the possibility of ultimately becoming enlightened.[57]

If such a view of life intrigues you or resonates with you, you would probably enjoy Inception. If you like magic realism, see Inception. If you don’t like sci-fi, don’t let that scare you away from Inception. For us, it was a very enjoyable ride.