Mindfulness and the Search for the Self



When we get to the totality of our experience, will we find
the self?

In his book, Minding Closely:
The Four Applications of Mindfulness
, B. Alan Wallace
instructs readers to engage in mindfulness meditation as a
methodical practice. Now, I’m no mindfulness guru, but I trust
that Wallace’s instructions accurately reflect the traditional
practice of Tibetan mindfulness. In any case, in addition to a
philosophical discourse on the foundations of mindfulness that
is a bit too anti-materialist for my liking, Wallace lays out a
step-by-step guide for hopeful practitioners that is free of
“being at one with…” abstractions.

The first titular application that Wallace presents is
mindfulness of the body. This involves mindfulness of the
breath, which is the foundation of many contemplative
practices, and, according to Wallace, is a worthwhile entryway
to shamatha, the calming of the mind via
a focus on a single aspect of your experience–in
this case, your breath. Mindfulness of the body also includes
whatever sensations and perceptions might be associated with
your external or internal environment, be it the sounds of
the air conditioning, the pressure experienced on your bottom
while sitting, or the tugs and vibrations of
your digestive system.

The second application is mindfulness of feelings. Are you
comfortable or uncomfortable? Are there any aches or pains
emanating from your body? Are you happy, sad, content, or
discontent? Why are you feeling this way? In
asking the last question of yourself, you begin tracing the
cause-effect relationships responsible for whatever emotions
you experience. Are you frustrated because of the loud sounds
of outside traffic hindering your concentration? Are you happy
because of some personal or professional accomplishment? In
tracing these cause-effect relationships, Wallace exhorts the
practitioner not to judge, reject, or embrace the aversive or
pleasureful feeling in question. Simply observe it as is and
move on.

The third application is mindfulness of thought. As most
aspects of one’s experience overlap, so do the four
applications of mindfulness. In this way, mindfulness of one’s
feelings–and the tracing of the cause-effect contingencies
responsible for them–leads to a focus on one’s thought
patterns. What are the rhythms of your thinking? How distracted
are you and what is most prone to distracting you? What objects
are on your mind and how did they get there? Are your thoughts
relegated to the past, present, or future? How are your
thoughts related to one another? How do they arise, endure, and
subside, and is there a pattern to their progression?

The fourth application, the one that I am currently focused on,
is mindfulness of the totality of experience. As far as I
understand it, this application involves incorporating all of
the preceding applications into one–that is, mindfulness of
the simultaneous flow of one’s bodily sensations, feelings, and
thoughts. Wallace presents this application as a springboard
to vipashyana, or insight. Now, I do not presume
to speak for Wallace or any other expert in contemplative
practice, but it seems that one of the target goals of
mindfulness is the cultivation and maintenance of selflessness.
As such, each of the first three applications of mindfulness,
as well as their combined effect in the fourth application,
functions to, one by one, peel away the layers of one’s
experience. At bottom, one is expected to realize that there is
no core to the onion.

Where Soul Meets Body

Neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary psychology
all support the contention that the brain and mind are, to
varying extents, modular–that is, compartmentalized–in
structure and function. This contention is supported by now
classic studies of split-brain patients by Roger Sperry and
Michael Gazzaniga, but also by imaging studies depicting a surprisingly
orderly, grid-like structure spread out across the three
dimensions of the neocortex. Even popularizers of the “network”
model of cortical function have difficulty avoiding the
language of cortical specialization. Network terminology, in
effect, is substituted for modularity (e.g., Joaquin Fuster, in
his elegant book Cortex and Mind, coins the term
“cognit” for cognitive networks that are, in essence, no
different from the cortical modules that he tries to escape).
Much of evolutionary psychology is likewise grounded on a
foundation of cognitive modularity. The modules focused on by
evolutionary psychologists, be they associated with disgust,
sexual jealousy, or morality, are explained with reference to
their historical origin in natural and sexual selection across
generations of ancestral evolution.

Despite this seeming compartmentalization of mind, recent
findings in neuroscience and psychopharmacology suggest
the existence of a network of brain areas, dubbed the “default
mode network,” that is correlated with the experience of
selfhood. Interestingly enough, this network undergoes
selective deactivation during the psychedelic experience, as
revealed by brain imaging research on the effects of psychedelics such
as psilocybin. To counter-culture promoters of
psychedelics, such as the late Timothy Leary, these findings
would not have been surprising. Indeed, the psychedelic
experience of “ego-death” may have much in common with the
meditative experience of selflessness, a resemblance made
explicit in Leary’s description of the psychedelic
 from the perspective of the Tibetan
Book of the Dead
. Both experiences of selflessness might
be undergirded by the deactivation of the default mode network.

The existence of a brain network dedicated to the experience of
selfhood, however, does not take away the fact that the
brain–and, by extension, the mind–is not unitary. Indeed,
there would be no such thing as the “self” if there were no
sensory experiences and perceptions on which the self could
feed. The self, that is, is incomplete without the sights,
sounds, sensations, emotions, thoughts, and memories that feed
into and permeate across the default mode network, or whatever
other structure is associated with the experience of selfhood.

I see a clear parallel between the observations of mindfulness
practitioners and scientists. Although the distinctions between
the different elements of consciousness delimited by the four
applications of mindfulness and the modules posited by
neuroscientists and psychologists may not correspond in detail,
the division of mental life into bodily sensations, emotions,
and thoughts is paralleled by a similar modular distinction at
the level of the brain. For example, bodily sensations are
enabled by the somatosensory cortex and brain areas associated
with the vestibular and kinesthetic modalities. Emotions,
meanwhile, are undergirded by a variety of subcortical
structures such as the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus.
Higher-level thoughts associated with self-control and
future-planning are relegated to the prefrontal cortex. All of
these brain areas are more or less modular and each one may be
selectively activated by each of the four applications of

Nothing but Experience

What all of this suggests is that the only thing that survives
the analysis of mind, be it via mindfulness or neuroscience, is
experience itself. Other than the experience, which can be
likened to a musical chord that does not exist but for the
collective sound of each of its constituent notes, there is

This truth is difficult to accept, even for hardened meditators
and neuroscientists. It just can’t be that there is no “I” or
“me.” But, try as we might to locate the self, its elusiveness
always escapes us. And so it should. If we think about it, what
are we but a combination of sensations, perceptions, emotions,
and thoughts? And what is left when all of these onion layers
are peeled by the systemic analysis of mindfulness or

And yet, “selfhood” is an important concept that should not be
abandoned. It may even aid us in our inner journeys of
self-discovery. Rather than applying the four applications of
mindfulness one after the other, for example, we might do well
to frame our meditative practice as the search for the self.
The target is always selfhood, but the mental landscapes
wherein the self is hiding change. So, we might start out by
searching for the self in our bodily sensations. If the self
does not turn up there, we might try searching for it in our
emotions and thoughts, in turn. Finally, we might concentrate
on the totality of our experience and see if we can find the
self there.

This search can even be thought of us a gradual casting off of
everything peripheral to what we perceive as selfhood. That is,
when we do not find the self in the sensations emanating from
our ears, mouths, and stomachs, we cast these parts off as not
being central to selfhood. When we focus on our emotions and
recognize them as not encompassing the totality of our
selfhood, we might cast them off, in turn. Likewise, when we
get to our thought patterns and the linguistic stories we tell
ourselves about ourselves, we can try casting them off,
too–though our intimate association with our language-infused
thoughts might make this endeavor a bit more challenging than
the preceding ones. When we get to the totality of our
experience, will we find the self? And can this totality, made
up of a panoply of internal and external stimuli, from the
photons hitting our retinas to the memory of our first bike
ride, be grouped under the simplistic concept of selfhood? To
find out, let’s start peeling the layers.



This article originally appeared at Gregory’s blog
Life, Love and Evolution 

Gregory Gorelik received his Ph.D. in
evolutionary experimental psychology from Florida Atlantic
University and has taught psychological science and statistics
courses at Florida Atlantic University and Southwestern
University. His interests include the evolution of human
sexuality, the evolution of violence, the evolution of
religious behavior, and the biology of totalitarian political
movements. He has published in Evolutionary
Psychology, Evolutionary Psychological
Science, Evolution and Human
Behavior, Behavioral and Brain
Sciences, Religion, Brain & Behavior, and Review
of General Psychology. He is also a regular contributor
to Quillette magazine and hosts the General
Intelligence Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @GregoryGorelik

Tags: brain
, experience,
gregory gorelik, mindfulness, mindfulness meditation,
self, selfhood

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