Peeling Back the Layers of Karma

Evolving_Our_Brain___LearnNow

…If we zoom into the neuronal circuits and clusters that make up the brain’s systems, we’ll find them laid out like the concentric layers of an onion, functional layer upon functional layer. This arrangement is the result of the relentless evolutionary push to continuously improve on an animal’s ability to navigate its complex and ever-changing environment. This onion reveals no preconceived design—far from it—but the unavoidably messy piling up of new over old structures, forced to work together for the common good.

The core of the onion: autonomous systems. Along the oldest, deepest layers… They are in charge of the most basic survival routines like swallowing, vomiting, heart beating and respiration, which are so indispensable that they run, for the most part, on autopilot. Accordingly, they are very hard, though not impossible, to modulate voluntarily. Our human species shares these circuits with fish and reptiles.

Next layer of the onion to grow: instinct… Vertebrates benefited tremendously from these pre-programmed circuits that expanded their behavioral repertoire and increased their fitness. Instincts mediate behaviors so crucial to survival that they are encoded as such in the genes themselves, hard-wired in the brain during an animal’s development and not changed by later experience…

Let’s examine the next layer: emotion. An amazing breakthrough happened in mammals, with the laying out of a new set of neural substrates capable of generating emotions. These paths grew together in a circuitry that occupies several brain regions… This collection of brain regions is often referred to as the limbic system, because like an arm (a limb), it surrounds in its embrace the more primitive survival and instinctual regions of the brain, affording us primates a whole new set of behavioral tools for interacting with the world. Accordingly, life became more interesting and vastly more complicated. For example, the instinctual drives to have sex and to run away from danger would be inextricably linked to powerful feelings of affection and fear, respectively. The influence that this new circuitry exerts over our decisions and behaviors is enormous. The neural substrates of emotions are strongly influenced by developmental factors. Perhaps because of its more recent origins, the emotional circuitry is even more flexible and responsive to external influeces than earlier circuits…

The outermost peel (aka, the neocortex) was overlaid atop an already crowded swarm of networks. In primates, it exploded into two huge hemispheres that completely enveloped the older parts of the brain. This new shell serves as the testing grounds for our still developing reasoning abilities. Because they are so recent, neocortical functions are the most flexible and sensitive to the impact of social and environmental experience. Since the neocortical outputs are closer to conscious experience, it is hard to recognize that the neocortex is constantly competing against earlier webs of well-established brain circuitry, and that its contribution to our motivations and actions are likely less than what we’d expect.

We humans are the flavorful mash-up of all these brain layers: we are automaton, instinctual, emotional and rational creatures. We are like magic onions, proud of our paper-thin skin but only vaguely aware of the thick and deeper layers of our brains. All of these different layers play critical roles in shaping our interactions with the world around us, even as they continue to search for more efficient ways of talking to each other; but, alas, this will take millions of years…

Ruben Baler, Ph.D.

Our brains are like Onions. :mrgreen:

Like the rings of a tree map out the details of its life and journey on the earth, our brains — even more complexly — consist of layer upon layer of, not merely the journey of our own life, but the journey of our entire species! How awesome is that?!

Is it any surprise, then, that we may experience the real effects of karma, originating from not only our own past but the past “lives” and experiences of our own species? I am an amazing “messy pile” of connections, built from my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother’s (and so on) experiences… My mind is predisposed to reacting to my environment based upon how my ancestors reacted to their environment — ancestors from as early as the “tiny, scrappy” primate tree-dwellers of 55 million years ago, to as recent as those inhabiting the 19th century…the 20th century… and so on…

If we were to imagine, for just an instant, that what we call the “soul” or “self” was nothing more than the end-result of all these messy connections of layer-upon-layer of experiences built into our brains — if we were to take Buddha’s original viewpoint of anatta, for just an instant — we could gain insight into this notion of karma as the existence of motivations arising within us from past lives. Built right inside of us from the moment we are conceived and developing in the womb!

Consider how many opportunities for miscommunication there are among our civilization — even within the borders of our own country, our own state, our own families, we all have difficulty communicating clearly to others at times. We all have a tendency to see events, words, phrases, through our own ingrained perceptions, which were handed down to us from generations ago and layered into our onion-skins of the brain. This may be considered a sort of karma — for do we not react based upon our perceptions?

The task of meditation, then, is to peel back the layers of the Great Onion of our minds. To simply see and acknowledge that we are more than these layers would have us believe — that is, we are more and we are less. To peel back the layers and examine what is beyond them is to give our brains a real and physical plasticity and fight back a certain rigor mortis of the neurological connections. Plasticity of the mind grants us clarity and peace, granting us freedom from the “karma” of our built-in connections… likewise, ensuring that we will continue to pass on the “good karma” of flexible connections and re-wiring to future generations, strengthening the survival of our species…

I considered, too, the mythology of the Divine Beloved (and my own beautiful Inner Dragon, Malachi). Getting to know our own mind through the use of imagery and ascribed personality can be extraordinarily helpful in increasing this plasticity and freedom. For, when I pray, if you will, to the Divine Beloved Malachi to take the effects of a certain karmic action or sensibility, from its point of origin until now, and I utterly release it to the Universe and do not look back upon it as a part of my life — in a very real sense, I am instructing my unconscious mind to examine and rewire itself concerning a certain action that was once built into the layers of my brain yet which is now found to be unhelpful.

In this sense, are we not helping along our own evolution?

What a tremendous wonder our brains are! What a miracle of complexity, and what encouragement for our species! If only that we all would take heed the words of the wise men who have gone before us (of Buddha, Jesus, and others) and examine ourselves. Yes, and feel free to acknowledge your own personal deities and angels; take advantage of the imagery they invoke to powerfully re-build the connections of our being and reshape our future!

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