Debugging Mind Viruses

The idea that our minds are infected by viruses is not new. Here we mean viruses as analog to computer viruses (Technically, we use the term virus as a general term to include also worms, spyware, Trojans and other types of malware), not biological viruses. Richard Brodie wrote a book titled “Viruses of the Mind”, with the subtitle “The New Science of the meme”. Meme is thought to be the unit carrier, whereby viruses spread and proliferate. Brodie wrote: “Mind viruses have already infected governments, educational systems, and inner cities, leading to some of the most pervasive and troublesome problems of society today: youth gangs, the welfare cycle, the deterioration of the public schools, and ever-growing government bureaucracy.” In this posting, the author discusses techniques of debugging such viruses. It starts with slowing down, one pointed concentration, bare attention, and ends with reflection, and effort and practice.

Computer programs, except for the simplest school book examples, always have bugs, i.e. programming errors. That is why we have so many update releases and service packs. Yet the service pack itself introduces new bugs! As software grows more complex, the number of bugs increases exponentially. Software also ages, the longer it has been in use, the more likely it is to be in disharmony with the original specifications and/or with the changing environment it is supposed to handle. Additionally, software is often used in an open environment such as the internet, and the bugs are no longer just programming errors, but malware from infections.

The mind is definitely so much more complex than a computer program, quantitatively and qualitatively. It does not take a lively imagination, to see that mind viruses are so much more abundant, fatal and difficult to debug. There are no anti-viruses, which you can simply buy and use to clean our minds. Debugging our minds is inherently difficult, because we have first of all, to admit that we carry viruses, and be willing to scrutinize our ego, habits and world views. Even when we rationally recognize a virus in our minds, we still need considerable discipline to overcome it. Just think about overeating or quit smoking.

The mind debugging techniques discussed here are derived from age-old methods of liberation and purification of the mind. We will see some parallels as well as differences of these methods with computer debugging.

Basic techniques:

The processes in the mind are intricate and interlinked. Just as in computer debugging, we have to do unit testing before we do integration testing. Make sure that each component is functioning as they should, before considering the component’s interaction with each other. If processes are running parallel, we need to consider one particular process in isolation first. This is the technique of One Pointed-ness: concentrate on a single object. Don’t do multi-tasking. Don’t watch television or read the newspaper while eating, don’t answer the phone while simultaneously signing contracts. In the extreme, one should not sing while bathing. To some, this is contrary to what they normally do. Many also think that without multi-tasking, we are not functioning efficiently. There are two different opinions here, one considers debugging as a sort of cleansing process, after which we can return to our normal daily activities. The other says that we have to strive to do debugging at all times, anywhere. Here we only say that there are debug and normal modes, it is possible and desirable for some to in debug mode all the times.

Concentrating on a single object is hard enough. It may be a fast running process. Therefore slow down, trace each step one by one. We are so accustomed to rushing from place to place, from one object to another, from one activity to another, that we become impatient when things slow down. But many people familiar with stress reduction have come to the same recipe: slow down!

The third technique is Bare Attention, seeing things as they are without trying to do anything. Just noting, not labeling, not making inferences nor judgments. Suspend our thinking, just note what happens, breathing in, breathing out. When we have developed this technique to a certain level, we can discern finer things which we normally miss. Our body sends messages to us all the time, but we practically ignore them until one day we discover that we have a serious illness. Nature talks to us in many forms, but we keep destroying the very foundations of life on earth by pollution, cutting down trees, killing plant and animal species. Bare Attention to our to body, mind and to nature will help us to be aware of the messages they send. If a virus infects our mind, they will somehow manifest themselves, and Bare Attention will be aware of their existence. In theory at least, for there are many hindrances to this process; anger, emotion, desire, illusion, attachments can all make the view muddy and turbulent, and prevent Bare Attention to see through.

Bare Attention can be practiced by sitting in meditation, relaxing, and noting our breaths. Our minds will then wander like a monkey, sounds come from all around, sometimes a mosquito bites us, our body aches or we remember someone who has done us wrong in the past eliciting emotions. In Bare Attention we note everything that comes, without judgment, and return to our breath as soon as possible. When we are angry, note the feeling of anger, when a memory arises, be aware of it, and when we desire to quit the meditation, note it also. After our minds are quieter, we will be able to discern not just the fact that something is, but also its arising and passing away. We let things speak for themselves.

Bare attention can be called radical acceptance of the present moment. It is definitely not possible to practice bare attention while wandering to the past or future, or to dream of other places. It therefore ties together with the principle of Here and Now. Za Choeje Rinpoche, in a guided meditation tape, said: ” Meditation is simply the art of living in the present moment. The purpose of meditation is to remain in a state of calm abiding and to relax into our true nature”.

Not being here and now, means we are lost, living in some virtual reality built from memories, illusions and fantasies. To always abide in here and now is a very powerful weapon against mind viruses. By being here and now, we can keep in close touch with reality.

The techniques mentioned so far, One Pointed-ness, Slowing down, Bare Attention, are all connected with each other and with the principle of Here and Now.

It is important to point out, that during the practice, there are two very different processes going on. One is the concentration on an object such as breath, and the other is the noticing of whatever comes into the mind. The second process is unpredictable and chaotic. In order that the practice be beneficial, the first process must dominate, we must only notice the events interrupting the first process, but we must not follow them, we go back to the first process as soon as our awareness allows. The first process is the anchor without which there will no structuring, and chaos will take over. This theme of chaos and order is quite common in other areas. A good architecture is never a complete chaos. Nor is it just order. The order, symmetry and symmetry breaking, and some chaos confined within the order is what makes the architecture a work of art.Insight Meditation consists of two parts, Bare Attention and Clear Comprehension. Bare Attention must precede Clear Comprehension. However, by itself, Bare Attention is not sufficient to understand and reflect our mind. This is where Clear Comprehension comes in, which will be discussed in a follow-up post.