[Essay] Excursions: March by Clint Stevens

This piece is part of the Excursions series.

Often in this season, streams change their course. The vascular plants, dormant all winter (though soon to be waking), absorb less water now, so the ground is wetter and more malleable. The annuals have long since died off, so their roots no longer stabilize the soil, which is further destabilized by the winter-long cycle of freezing and thawing. Early spring also means more rain, so freshets form as creeks and rivers fill to overflowing. Old logjams are washed away, banks erode, and from time to time a stream will swerve in a new way on its course to the sea.

The Chinese word means “desire” or “attachment.” It also denotes the mind’s act of giving a particular shape to reality or some portion thereof. Jonathan Star explains the word in his translation of the Tao Te Ching: refers to “a deep-seated desire, attachment, longing, mental pattern or tendency, limitations or modifications of the mind, a store of past impressions, or a repetitive history of thoughts, longing, or habit.” These various senses come together when we see that derives from ku, which is the Chinese word for gorge–it is “the cutting of a deep ravine by the constant flow of water.” , then, is the formation of an outlook or worldview through the repetitive act of thinking in a particular way: denotes a mental habit.

In Emerson’s late and incomplete The Natural History of the Intellect, he writes, “What is life but what a man is thinking of all day?” A man whose thoughts are mean and narrow will see life as mean and narrow; a man filled with love will see love. Thinking is not so much a mirror or representation of reality as it is a force upon reality, a force that makes reality what it is. What we regard as the way things are is a groove cut into being. It is a rut made by habit. The mind moves in a certain way, and that path becomes habitual, just as water flowing habitually in its channel makes that channel, and these pathways, in time, can seem absolute or permanent. But no habit is unalterable. 

In chapter five of How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Michael Pollan discusses the neuroscience of psychedelics. The centerpiece of this chapter is what is known as the default mode network (DMN). The default mode network is, appropriately, the default mode of the mind–that is, it is how the mind is when it’s not directly engaged in some act of attention. It is “the place where our minds go to wander–to daydream, to ruminate, travel in time, reflect on ourselves, and worry.” The DMN is also the brain’s chief administrator. As Pollan describes it, the DMN “exerts a top-down influence on other parts of the brain, many of which communicate with one another through its centrally located hub.” It is an organizing and centralizing power; it rules the native anarchy of the mind. The centralizing, unifying force of the DMN results in what we have called for a long time the self, or ego. It is that state of mind in which we see ourselves as separate from others and the rest of existence. It is that sense of “me” as a distinct person who follows his habitual course.

From an evolutionary vantage point, the DMN is an extraordinary achievement. It is no less significant than (and I believe partially cognate with) the rise of civilization itself. Yet, as Pollan points out, there is a significant price we pay for this achievement: “When the grooves of self-reflective thinking deepen and harden, the ego becomes overbearing. This is perhaps most clearly evident in depression, when the ego turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality.” The DMN is responsible for our “excessively rigid patterns of thought–including addiction, obsessions, and eating disorders.” And certainly, though Pollan doesn’t discuss this directly, the DMN is the source of our self-righteousness, that belief that our worldview trumps others and makes us morally obligated to condemn (or eradicate) alternative views. In other words, the DMN is responsible for some of the worst diseases humans are subject to. 

Psychedelics like LSD and magic mushrooms deactivate the default mode network. Psychedelics sand down the grooves in the mind and thereby allow the mind to flow in new ways. This is why psychedelics are such effective treatments for addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder–they unbind us from our habits. They erode our self-imposed limitations; they wash away the sense of a personal identity and show what is the extraordinary and liberating truth–“that consciousness survives the disappearance of the self.” 

This is cutting-edge science. The default mode network was not discovered until 2001, and it has only been recently that the US government has begun easing its ignorant prohibitions against psychedelic research, which is paving the way for even more discoveries. But it should be noted that none of this is really new. As Pollan points out, the same effects that psychedelics have on the DMN have been seen in people who practice meditation regularly. Westerners have often regarded as delusional the Buddhist assertion that the self is merely a fabrication, and Westerners have even more often derided the notion that the destruction of selfhood is a good thing. But this new science might help some of these people see otherwise. 

For a number of years, my greatest teacher of zazen (seated meditation) has been Eihei Dogen, a Buddhist Monk from Medieval Japan who studied in China and then returned to Japan where he became the founder of what is known as the Soto School of Zen Buddhism. The Soto School is known primarily for what is called shikantaza, which means “just sitting.” As the Sanshin Zen Community in Bloomington, Indiana explains zazen on their website: “We do only four things in zazen: take the posture, keep our eyes open, breathe deeply and let go of thought.”

Let go of thought. Zazen is not concentration or introspection. It is not a quest for some particular insight. It is not the adoption of a theory or worldview. It is merely letting go and leaping beyond. It is the chipping away at walls and barriers. It is an erasure. It is the spring flood finding its way to the infinite sea. 

Walk out into the wild non-human world this morning. Walk out and find the harbinger of spring. That little flower does not know what it is; it does not know who you are. Go out to meet it. The gate is open.

About the Author
Clint Stevens lives and writes outside of Centralia, IL.

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