Western Views: The Human Organism

(from “Buddhism and Primal Pain” by Frederick M Farrar)


The development of Buddhism in Asia followed a divergent pattern from its source in Northern India, spreading out into Southern India and Sri Lanka, the East Asian countries of Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, and the South East Asian countries of Burma, Thailand, Kampuchea, Laos and Viet Nam.1

As Buddhism is now becoming established in the West we could add many Western countries to that list. However, in a sense it would be misleading to do so. This is because the passage of Buddhism to the West is not following the divergent pattern of earlier times but a modern convergent pattern made possible by international forms of communication. The West is seeing an influx not of one single form of Buddhism, but of all forms. In most Western metropolitan centres we now see Thai, Sri Lankan, Japanese Zen, Chinese Ch'an, Tibetan Vajrayana, Burmese, and Vietnamese centres, all expounding their own forms of Buddhism. Whereas in the past the geographic developmental pattern favoured a proliferation of philosophical and practical variants, the trend today, whilst encouraging the expression of cultural diversity exposes all philosophical views to intense scrutiny and comparative analysis. This prevailing cultural environment is likely to stimulate two concurrent responses: on the one hand, a great flow of debate culminating in philosophical reconciliation and synthesis involving not only Buddhist but also Western views; and on the other hand, traditionalist resistance to this process, attracting people disposed towards sectarianism for whatever reason, and tending towards the creation and practice of narrow ideological cults.

Whilst there is broad agreement amongst Buddhists on the notion of self-emptiness, they often disagree on the nature of conventional reality. In this respect Buddhists are not alone. The West has a rich history of investigation into phenomenal reality. The Buddhist world of the East and the scientific culture of the West may therefore be able to enrich each other with great benefit to all sentient beings.

Western Psychotherapy

Of relevance to the ordinary Buddhist practitioner is the Western knowledge of psychodynamic structures of human behaviour, which is informed by modern cognitive, medical, and biological science. At its best Western psychotherapy has been extremely effective in diagnosing and eliminating psychosomatic disease. The efficacy of therapeutic practice demands close consideration by Buddhist practitioners, for whom the appearance of psychosomatic symptoms is thought by some teachers to be a sign of spiritual progress.

Being as Autopoiesis

Francisco Varela2 and Humberto Maturana3 have described all living organisms as autopoietic systems. Autopoiesis is the process of self-organisation whose intrinsic intention is its own self-organisation. In this sense the self-organising process is its own cause and result, although at any given moment its being is not the result of the process, but rather, is the process itself. All of one's organs, one's limbs, one's reflexes, one's feelings, are the expression of one's autopoiesis.

It would seem that all forms, no matter how apparently inanimate, are in a sense autopoietic, in that they tend, or intend, to endure over time. Life, in all its richness, is the evolution of natural autopoietic processes. The evolution of life appears to be a continuation of the evolution of energy and matter studied by physicists and chemists. To say this is not to reduce life to inanimate matter, but rather to acknowledge the connection between different stages and ways of looking at a single reality. Indeed, modern science has not seen matter as "dead stuff" for over eighty years. Rather, it is seen as a highly active way of being. And this conception of matter, bestowed upon the modern mind by Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics, has allowed developments in every sphere of knowledge, including the life sciences. With regard to the sciences of mind, whereas the nineteenth century researcher was faced with the apparently insoluble problem of explaining the appearance of consciousness on the basis of inanimate, mechanical stuff, this is no longer the case. Just as matter is seen as a mode of being, so too is life. Organic and inorganic order are seen as continuous with each other. Whereas inorganic beings tend to combine in relatively simple(!) aggregates of a solid, liquid or gaseous nature, living organisms are higher orders of being which organise these lower orders in new ways. Whereas in aggregates such as clouds or liquids, structure and organisation are fundamentally identical, in living bodies the principle of organisation has transcended structure, allowing it to become flexible. This flexibility of structure is the basis for the evolution of complexity in living bodies, which in turn is the basis for the increasing intensification of their responsiveness. What we are contemplating here is not the creation of life, but the transformation of inorganic being into organic, "living"conformations. The being of consciousness is here explained in terms of being, not in terms of either "mind" or "matter".

Reflex ,Volition and Inhibition in Evolutionary Theory

In the evolution of living organisms reflexive behaviour appears before volitional behaviour, the latter evolving out of the reflexive. This is also the case in individual development: volition supercedes reflex. The basic form of reflexive behaviour is the sensori-motor response. In an amoeba the sensing behaviour of the animal is identical with the motor behaviour: it senses by altering its structure, which, as it consists of only one cell, inevitably involves moving itself within its environment. In multi-cellular animals the sense cells are separate from the motor cells and are connected by a nervous system.

The nervous system coordinates motor responses with sensory responses in such a way that when stimulated by the sense organs its activity directs activity of the motor organs, moving the whole organism into a new relationship with its environment, which in turn alters the activity of the sense organs and thus feeds back to the nervous system itself, and so on until the organism discovers a state of self-activity which it is predetermined to seek - a specific body temperature for instance. In simple nervous systems this is little more than involuntary reflexive activity, but with the evolution of life-form post-natal adaptability has become a major feature allowing animals to overcome the limitations set by involuntary reflexes. Complex nervous systems can selectively excite or inhibit different reflexive or learned responses.

The correlates of this in our own experience appear to be patience and choice. When we experience a strong impulse to do something our brain is inhibiting an immediate response and allowing time to choose the most appropriate response for the situation we are in. This process has extended the adaptability of life and allowed it to flourish in new ways and new environments. It is not being suggested here that subjectivity is caused by the nervous system, a view which leads to the position that mind is merely a byproduct or epiphenomenon of matter, but that the two are different aspects of one being or event.

Reflexive behaviour is not completely negated by the development of volitional behaviour nor does it cease to evolve. This is especially the case with respect to urgent need. We usually designate urgent need as painful, and when experiencing this condition our volitional capacities often give way or combine with reflexive behaviours such as crying, fighting, fleeing, or fainting. These responses express the autopoietic intent of our individual being.

Structural Coupling as the Basis for Communication  of Meaning Without Information

An important concept for Varela is that of structural coupling, the coevolution of autopoietic systems in close relationship with each other. For instance, when unicellular organisms reproduce the result is two separate individuals. When cells of multi-cellular organisms reproduce, the resulting cells remain part of a higher order autopoietic unity. Another important example is found in social behaviour. Social animals are structurally coupled by shared emotional gestures. These complex gestures are high order reflex patterns which appear under specific conditions and which are able to stimulate responses throughout the social group to which the animal is structurally coupled. This ability to transmit appreciated meaning by emotional gesture provides the precedent and basis for the evolution of speech which involves the use of symbolic language and abstract conceptual thought. The evolution of abstract conceptual thought defines the human species and for Varela lingual systems constitute a still higher order domain of structural coupling. The significance of this should be clear as the Buddhist discourse begins in the lingual domain. What we learn of the relationships between the lingual and other domains may allow greater clarification of the Buddhist discourse.

The lingual domain massively extends adaptability. Varela defines knowledge as effective action. The effectiveness of language stems from its ability to articulate complex practical strategies of behaviour between structurally coupled individuals. Our structural coupling means that we share patterns of physiological structure which predispose us to emotional and lingual behaviour. This behaviour allows high order autopoietic social systems to maintain their self-organisation. In specific conditions our capacities for emotional and lingual responsiveness spontaneously engage themselves. Behaving in this way is the expression of our natural structure. This limitation of our free-thinking conceptual minds by our physiological structure is what Ken Wilber4 calls Centaur consciousness, named after the half-man half-beast of classical mythology. Varela acknowledges it as the embodied mind. The Gestalt5 psychologists recognise it as the unity of the self-other relationship at the world-psychosoma contact boundary. The Primal Therapists6 call it the "feeling person" who feels what she thinks and thinks what she feels.

Need as Autopoiesis

The felt urgency of our bodying activity is the same force which manifests as both material particles at the physical level and volitional behaviour at the psychosomatic level. We may feel free in the choices we make but we nonetheless feel compelled to choose. The further we stray from our autopoietic equilibrium the more urgently we feel the need to act, the extreme example being excruciating pain and our desperate struggles to be rid of it. An important point to be emphasised here is that behaviour does not originate with the nervous system. As Buddhists explain so clearly, forms are empty of any substantial existence. They appear not because they exist but because they are dependent processes, they are behaviour. When we look for what is behaving we find more behaviour. This process seems to have no foundation, no beginning and no end. Forms are nothing other than their behaviour, complex behaviours involving nervous systems being no exception to this rule.

In its capacity for plasticity the human brain is awe-inspiring. Its outer layer, the cerebral cortex, is made up of approximately ten million, million nerve cells called neurons.7 Each of these is connected with many others so that the total number of synaptic connections is something like one million, million, million. And these in turn can be combined in variable configurations so that the number of potential configurations is virtually incalculable. And yet despite the astonishing flexibility of this behaving organ, which lies at the heart of our physiological, emotional, and speaking activities, it is nonetheless just as bound to autopoietic logic as the single cell forming the body of an amoeba. Autopoietic intent and urgency pervade every aspect of our way of being. Emotion and conceptual thought are fundamental expressions of autopoietic intent and urgency. Due to structurally coupled coevolution our bodying activity not only recreates our bodily form but also communicates emotional and conceptual meaning to others of our kind. This is our natural mode of embodiment.

When we feel pain we not only want to get rid of it, we also want to yell or cry, and depending on our stage of maturity we may cry for someone's attention. Here we see the force of autopoietic intention activating an avoidance reflex, an emotional reflex, and an associated conceptualisation, all in a single response. The automatic avoidance reflex is just the naked expression of autopoiesis. The reflex itself doesn't act in order to achieve a result, even though it does achieve a result. It just happens because it is part of the circular pattern of autopoietic behaviour which we perceive as form. The emotional reflex at one level also just happens, but it is more complicated in that with development it becomes mediated by conceptuality. The reflexive patterns themselves are whole unlearned behaviours but they can be controlled by the conceptual thought processes which themselves are made possible by those reflexes in the first place.

Conceptuality and Emotion: Being as Being-with-Others

Before abstract conceptual thought we first of all develop engaged conceptual thought. Speech is engaged conceptual thought and as everyone knows, it can be flat and unemotional, or vibrant and full of feeling. In the beginning then, conceptual thought is an integral aspect of our whole emotional demeanour. Far from being separate from feeling and emotion conceptuality is originally part of feeling and emotional behaviour. However, how these are specifically configured is the result of the changes which the organism itself selects. The pervasive compulsion to realise our own autopoiesis is something we all experience at some level. How we conceptualise that experience depends upon our encounter with our culture.

Because we human beings depend upon post-natal adaptation for our survival we are born with a mere starting point from which our potential behaviour will develop. Because of this our experience appears as a vitally important mystery whose secrets we spend all of our lives trying to discover. Autopoietic intent drives our search for knowledge whilst our structural coupling generally ensures that we will encounter our teachers along the way, those who will help us through birth and beyond into adulthood. Our sheer helplessness at birth which makes us so terribly vulnerable, both anticipates and actively demands the support of a sympathetic nurturative social group. Societies need helpless malleable babies. And babies need helpful socially formed adults. Babies know how and when to laugh or cry. They don't need to be taught this. But they do need their natural emotional gestures to be affirmed by others' responsiveness if they are to feel confident and develop properly. And this principle though changing in content with maturity continues right through into adulthood. The human individual's life cycle has evolved over millions of years in social groups and is thus social in nature. Our social behaviour is not something external to ourselves which we can take or leave as we please. It is as much an expression of our bodying activity as beating our heart or breathing. We are born to share our experience of life no matter what our educated opinion of this might be.

I have presented this picture of human organism against the backdrop of a general understanding of life as the evolution of autopoietic behavioural forms, because it expresses typical assumptions made by most Western psychotherapists. Buddhism and psychotherapy have in common the obvious fact that they both work explicitly with the human psychosoma, and the equally obvious fact that they both approach human being as process rather than as substance. As Buddhism deepens its roots in the West comparisons between the two approaches' methods, assumptions and propositions will inevitably be made.

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Spring 1997

1. “Buddhism and Asian History”, Kitagawa/Cummings, Macmillan, 1987

2. “The Embodied Mind”, Varela et al, MIT, 1991

3. “The Tree of Knowledge”, Varela/Maturana, Shambhala, 1992

4. "The Atman Project", Ken Wilber, Quest, 1989

    “No Boundaries”, Ken Wilber, Shambhala

5. “Gestalt Therapy”, Perls/Hefferline/Goodman, Souvenir Press

6. “The Primal Scream”, “The Anatomy of Mental Illness”, “Primal Man; The New Consciousness”, “Prisoners of Pain”, “The New Primal Scream” etc, Arthur Janov.

7. "Bright Air, Brilliant Fire", Edelman, Penguin, 1992

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