TL;DR Version

Unicorns Never Die

What view of the world should one have
So as not to be seen by the King of Death?

View the world, Mogharaja, as empty, always mindful;
End the view that there is a self, then one is beyond death.
One who has such a view of the world, the King of Death does not see.

Snp 5.15 "Mogharaja's Question"
from The Way to the Far Shore  

Unicorns Never Die. There's never been a single reported death of an actual unicorn is all of history. That's because unicorns are imaginary.

It turns out that the Self is also imaginary. If you can stop imagining a Self, you realize the Deathless. This is why the Buddha said above to "end the view that there is a self." Easier said than done! A deep intellectual understanding that the Self is imaginary won't stop the imagining of a Self. Even an unmistakable experience of the imaginary nature of your Self won't stop you from imagining a Self. This imaginary Self is very deeply rooted in our psyche.

So how do we get beyond the imagining of a Self? Again, the Buddha provides the answer above: "View the world as empty, always mindful." Viewing the world as empty is beyond the scope of this essay - for some hints on that, see Nagarjuna: The Freedom of Emptiness. This essay is about the relationship between Mindfulness and Not-Self.

The Self is generated via neurological activity. Two parts of the brain implicated in this Self-generation are the ACC and the PCC. These two areas a part of a network know as the Default Mode Network (DMN). When there is nothing else for you to do, your neurological system isn't quiet, it activates the DMN. This DMN activity reinforces your sense of having/being a Self. Quite simply, one of the most important keys to waking up (i.e. realizing the Deathless) is to wire up a different default than the DMN.

So this raises two questions:
      What should the new default be?
      How does one make the switch from the DMN to that new default?

The "always mindful" part of the Buddha's answer above is the answer to the first of these two question: Mindfulness (present moment awareness) is what can replace DMN activity. Therefore Mindfulness needs to be wired up as the new default. And unlike the DMN, present moment awareness can be used even when there IS something to do, as well as when there is nothing to do. This is the "always mindful" the Buddha is speaking of.

As for making the switch from DMN to Mindfulness, the Buddha taught about that as well:

Whatever one habitually thinks or ponders becomes the inclination of ones mind.   Dhammapada    

Modern neuroscience has discovered the same thing: whatever neurological circuits one frequently activates become the inclination of ones mind. So the method for making the switch seems to be to replace mind-wandering (DMN activity) with Mindfulness. This is usually referred to as "meditation practice plus mindfulness off-the-cushion."

The type of meditation that stops mind wandering par excellence is Concentration practice. In other word, being concentrated is a good way to stop DMN activity. Concentration practice has other benefits as well: upon emerging from a deeply concentrated state, ones ability to examine reality to see what's actually happening has been greatly enhanced. This aids in "viewing the world as empty." Furthermore, the tendency to reactivate the DMN has been damped down considerably - at least for a short while.

It seems that training in these two activities - Mindfulness and Concentration - is the key to Awakening; everything else is (necessary) supporting activity.

The River
Imagine a river flowing swiftly along. It reaches the point of Nothing-To-Do. There are 2 channels it can go down:
  1. Default Mode Network (DMN) which is wide,
  2. Present Moment Awareness (PMA) which is narrow.
(At least these channels are like this for the untaught worldling.)

Now consider:

Eventually the river switches course at the point of Nothing-To-Do from the DMN channel to the PMA channel. This is called Awakening.

[Actually the role of concentration is more complex than outlined above. Concentration can divert the whole river down the PMA channel - but not at the point of Nothing-To-Do; it diverts it further upstream at the point of Do-Concentration. But even after that sluice is closed, the volume of the flow is reduced enough that the whole flow can continue down the PMA channel at the point of Nothing-To-Do, at least for a little while until the flow increases. This is the time to throw those insight boulders in the DMN channel.]

A Few Questions:
Ayya Khema said that Arahants don't dream. Joesph Goldstein pointed out the similarities between the dreamy, not quite awake state and the lost-in-selfing state. Is the DMN active during dreaming? And inactive in deep, dreamless sleep? Is the DMN ever active during sleep in one who claims to be an Arahant? Do we now have our Arahant test?

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Leigh Brasington / EmailAddr / Revised 22 June 15