What it is to be a human being ~ Dorothy Rowe

“Neuroscience proves the existence of free will” would be an extraordinary media headline, and, perhaps even more extraordinary, it would be true.

What neuroscientists have shown is that we are free to make choices about how we interpret events. It is our interpretations of events, and not the events themselves, that determine what we do.

Research by neuroscientists has revealed that the way our brains have been constructed means that we do not see reality directly but only the images or interpretations that our brain has created.

As the neuroscientist Chris Frith says in his excellent book Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World (Blackwell), “Even if all our senses are intact and our brain functioning normally, we do not have direct access to the physical world. It may feel as if we have direct access, but this is an illusion created by our brain.” Our brain creates these images and interpretations out of our past experience, that is, the memories which are stored in our brain.

Since no two people ever have exactly the same experience, no two people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way. If our brains did not operate in this way and we saw the world directly as it is, we would be looking at a world that bore some resemblance to the universe that the physicists try to describe, but we would have to be as small as a nuclear particle to see it.

Every species lives in a world appropriate to the size of the species. Our brain creates a human-sized world, an elephant’s brain an elephant-sized world, and an ant’s brain an ant-sized world. In the universe we live in, everything is connected to everything else, but our brain creates patterns and divisions that do not actually exist.

People’s interpretations can vary greatly, not just in meaning but in the degree they relate to what is actually going on. Some people try to create interpretations that are as close to the truth as they can make them. In scientific terms, these interpretations have a high degree of validity. Some people create interpretations that are based solely on their fantasies, and any relationship to the truth is accidental. Most of us operate somewhere between these two extremes.
X-ray image of a human head, showing the brain

Whether our interpretations are close to the truth or not, they are guesses about what is going on. We all operate as scientists do, creating hypotheses and then testing them. When you are waiting to cross a busy road, you create a theory about the speed of the traffic. If your theory is a close approximation of what is actually happening, you will cross the road safely: if it isn’t, you won’t.

We might not be able to control most of the events in our life but we are always free to choose how we interpret those events. Every event has at least two possible interpretations, namely, it is and it is not. We often feel that an action is not the result of a choice – we say, “I did that instinctively” – but here the work of choosing an interpretation and making a decision has gone on unconsciously. Only the outcome is conscious.

Most of what goes on in our mind/brain is unconscious, but, conscious or not, choosing an interpretation is the exercise of our free will. The ability to interpret events, that is, create meaning, and to choose between alternative meanings arise out of the way our body and brain function. Creating meaning is one of the systems whereby our body/brain/mind operates.

However, the range of meanings we can choose from is limited by how much we have learned in our life. This is why being a child is so difficult. This is why organisations that want to have power over us, like the State, the Church, and Big Business, try to control what we know. The less we know, the less choice we have. This is also why the BBC must be cherished and protected, and its high standard of truth-telling maintained, no matter what the contingencies of the moment may be. We need those who inform us to give us the best version of the truth they can find, while all the time acknowledging that the best they can provide is an approximate truth.
Hand holding a small model of a brain

To claim to be in possession of an absolute truth is to claim the impossible because all we can possess is our interpretation of what we have experienced or been told. If God made us, then this is how He made us. One of the consequences of this is that there are as many forms of Christianity as there are people who call themselves Christian. The same can be said of every religion.

A great many people interpret what they have been taught by their religious leaders in ways that cause them and/or others considerable pain and suffering. Some people interpret ideas such as the Christian belief that we are born in sin and therefore must seek salvation to mean that they are intrinsically bad and must live their life striving to meet the highest standards of goodness, but always being in fear of failing and being punished. This kind of interpretation leads to misery, despair, and depression.

Many people believe that, because they hold certain ideas, they are morally superior to those who do not hold these ideas. In believing this they commit the deadliest of the deadly sins, namely pride, but they do this willingly because they believe that their moral superiority entitles them to patronise, proselytise, and, under certain conditions, maim and kill those they despise.

The way our brain functions means that we are constantly choosing which interpretation we will give to every event. From each interpretation come our decisions about how to act. However, our freedom of choice has the consequence that we cannot avoid the two necessary conditions of choice. Choices exist only in a state of uncertainty, and we are responsible for our choices.

When people fear uncertainty and dislike taking responsibility for what they do, they create for themselves the illusion of certainty and irresponsibility by choosing to be a child who is obedient to a god or to a political leader. In doing this they refuse to accept their very nature, that is, what it is to be a human being.

Dorothy Rowe

Dorothy Rowe is a world renowned psychologist and writer whose work has included such areas as emotional distress, happiness, growing old, religious belief, politics, money, friends and enemies, extroverts and introverts, parents, children and siblings.

Dr Dorothy Rowe, an Australian psychologist and author based in London, was listed in November 2007 as one of the top 100 living geniuses by global research firm Creators Synectics.

Rowe is known mostly for her groundbreaking and often controversial work on depression.

She believes depression is not a physical illness to be treated with medication but a self-made prison you can leave, if you choose to change the way you interpret your life.

Rowe also supports the growing research that shows not all people diagnosed with depression are in fact depressed – more often than not, “dispirited” would be a better term to describe how they feel.

What is depression, I ask Rowe during her recent visit to Australia. “Depression is clear-cut. It’s very specific,” she says.

“You’re in a prison with an invisible wall around you; no one can get in and you can’t get out. I recently met a man who described his experience of depression as being covered by a big wet blanket he couldn’t remove.

“People who feel dispirited can be comforted. They may feel low or irritated but they can still talk about their feelings. However, talking to someone who is depressed is like talking to a brick wall. They’ve lost interest in life.

“Depression can come on quickly, but many people are slow to realise that’s what they’re experiencing. What usually happens is one day they notice that the strange feelings they’re having aren’t passing.”


The work of charities and government initiatives has brought depression into the open.

Initiatives such as Out of the Blue (New Zealand) and Beyondblue (Australia) are doing exceptional work to bring awareness to the issue of depression and to let people know help is available.

“Today people feel they’re able to talk about depression,” says Rowe. “It has lost its stigma and shame, whereas in the past women were written off as ‘depressives’ and men were labelled ‘alcoholics’.”

Now that there’s awareness, Rowe says we need to take another look at the treatments available.

“There is an ever-increasing number of people heading to the doctor, being told they are depressed and given a prescription for an antidepressant,” she says.

“Antidepressants can give a person breathing space but they offer only short-term relief. Depression tells you that there’s something wrong with the way you’re living your life, that there’s something wrong with the way you make sense of the world. But drugs don’t turn an unhappy marriage into a happy marriage; they don’t turn an unhappy childhood into a happy childhood.”

BY Donna Duggan

Letting Go of Labels and Seeing the World Anew ~ Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

A lot of our suffering in life comes from our conceptual mind and its habit of trying to categorize and put labels on our experience. Usually our labels have nothing to do with reality, or with the actual things we are labeling. Things in themselves, as they are, are beyond all concepts; but our confused mind creates all these labels and wants to attach them to things.

Because of this labeling mind, we have friends and enemies, black and white, gay and straight, good and bad. In society, people put more weight on this label or that one, and so we experience segregation and discrimination. In Buddhism, we call this duality — our mind’s tendency to divide up the world into pairs of opposites. This is the root of so much of our suffering.

This is one of the important things we need to come to terms with on the spiritual path: seeing how the conceptual mind labels everything, and how much trouble this gets us into. Think of how often you’ve had a conversation where you assumed someone was judging you in a critical way. Perhaps you built up a whole storyline about what she thought of you.

For 24 hours, you carried this storyline around in your mind, and it tortured you. Then the next day, when you went back and talked to her again, you realized she hadn’t been thinking of you that way at all. Your suffering was self-created by the labeling mind. Sometimes we bring this kind of suffering on ourselves, and sometimes we cause suffering for others by projecting our labels onto them.

We cannot just do away with the conceptual, labeling mind. We have to work with it. Labels are necessary, but only to a certain degree. Without them we could not even ask for a pen or a piece of paper, or for directions to get from point A to point B; we would not have any words to communicate our thoughts and ideas. But so often we go beyond that basic level and add unnecessary complexities to the situation.

When we go overboard with labeling and projecting, it makes us crazy. Look at what happens when there is a big election and the talking heads come on TV and start speculating about the results. They keep talking about their projections 24 hours a day — taking polls, making up stories, and applying labels — until everyone in America is confused and up in arms. And quite often their expert projections are just plain wrong.

When we get carried away in our own conceptual labeling process, we’re like the talking heads on the TV news. We talk ourselves into believing a storyline that leads us further and further away from the truth. After 9/11, who could get on an airplane without looking at the other passengers and scrutinizing them?

We size up each person according to our concepts, and then we label them. This one looks trustworthy, but that one definitely looks fishy. We keep our eye on him throughout the whole flight, and watch him anxiously if he goes toward the front of the plane to use the restroom. Because of our labels and projections, we can’t relax.

If our labeling is actually helping us get closer to the truth, then we should pursue it full-steam. But if it’s taking us further away from the truth, then it can only lead to suffering. There’s our problem. At the same time, there’s our solution. When we learn to watch the mind and stop labeling everything and everyone automatically, we start to see things differently. Instead of a divided and fearful world, we see a world that’s fundamentally whole and unbiased.

Then we can start to relax and enjoy ourselves, maybe a little more each day. And it’s not just us freeing ourselves when we let go of our labels. We’re also freeing other people from the boxes we’ve put them in. Then we can meet each other on airplanes, in the street, or wherever, as who we really are — possibly for the first time.

New paperback edition. An indispensable guidebook through the journey of life and death. Drawing on teachings from throughout the vast tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche weaves together a synthesis of wisdom remarkable in its scope. Using humerous analogies and his profound understanding of the Western mind, Ponlop Rinpoche makes the mysterious Tibetan teachings on the bardos – the in-between states of life, death and beyond – completely available to the modern reader.

Mind Beyond Death shows us how the bardos can be used to conquer death. Working with the bardos means taking hold of life, and learning how to live with fearless abandon. The unique feature of this penetrating study is its exploration of all six bardos – not just the three bardos of death, and demonstrates that the secret to a good journey through death and beyond lies in how we live.

Walking skillfully through the bardos of dream, meditation, and daily life, we then travel deep into the mysterious death intervals and become familiar with their dazzling mindscape. This tour de force gives us the knowledge to transform the greatest obstacle of death into the most powerful opportunity for enlightenment.

“One of the most brilliant Tibetan Buddhist teachers of his generation. In this priceless and immensely practical guide, the complete spectrum of the Buddhist teachings on death is explained by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche with remarkable clarity and thoroughness.” Sogyal Rinpoche.

“It is timely that Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, has bestowed on us a direct and fresh explanation of the bardo principles that transcends the distance of translation…Rinpoche’s words light the way for us, offering us guidance in this life, the next life, and the bardos in between.” Alak Zenkar Rinpoche.

A New Creation Story: Beyond Religion and Science ~ Dr. Deepak Chopra

Stephen Hawking made worldwide news with his sound bite about how the universe was created. Specifically, he said that a Creator is not needed to explain how the universe began. Behind the sound bite was a deeper insight, which is that one law of nature — gravity — transcends space and time.

Therefore, as long as gravity exists, multiple universes can unfold out of nothing. Among scientists this proposition has raised eyebrows and no doubt will be discussed for a long time. But let’s look at the larger picture. The discussion about creation has grown stale. On one side, science sticks by its basic principles: The laws of nature govern the universe, randomness prevails over any possible pattern or design, and all phenomena, including the human mind, can be reduced to physical properties.

On the other side, religion sticks to its basic principles: God or the gods created the universe, the hand of the creator can be seen everywhere in nature, and human beings are connected to the divine, giving us a privileged position in the cosmos.

To resolve this opposition, dozens of books have attempted to reconcile science and faith. Yet without a doubt science has the upper hand. The modern world is willing to throw out any number of beliefs about God if the facts don’t fit. Science isn’t willing to throw out a single piece of data, however, to satisfy an article of faith.

The net result is that science has become bolder. The old position was that physics is separate from metaphysics. But Hawking’s statement that a Creator is unnecessary is nothing less than a metaphysical statement. In fact, it points the way to abolishing metaphysics altogether. Why bother with God when science is on the verge of delivering a Theory of Everything?

The problem is that just at the moment when science is poised to strike the last blow, it has gotten stuck. Metaphysics hasn’t been defeated; rather, physics has been forced to peer into the domain of God with no way forward. Hawking himself has been forced to concede that there is no Theory of Everything.

There is only a patchwork of smaller theories, each competent to explain a specific aspect of nature, but with no unifying principle. This statement isn’t going down well among cosmologists. They want a unified model based on mathematical certainty, not a shrug of the shoulders. They already know that time and space emerged from the quantum void, but this nothingness has to be explained. Otherwise, it could contain absolutely anything. Hawking states quite firmly that it cannot be explained. He clings to gravity as a substitute for God, since without gravity, creation falls apart.

Some scientists refuse to be shocked; others refuse to give up. Cosmologists earn their paycheck by winning grants based on the latest mathematical model for how the universe came to be. But to an outside observer, Hawking’s basic insight that the human mind will never be able to pierce the quantum vacuum feels like a direct challenge to science’s story of creation. It doesn’t support religion’s creation myths, not by a long shot.

But Hawking has deeply considered the big picture of cosmology and declared the game over, if the game is a perfect model that will unify all the laws of nature. An outside observer would also conclude that it might be too early to give up. Perhaps we can move forward if creation depends on basic principles that neither science nor religion has accepted so far.

Which is exactly what is happening in the forefront of speculative thinking. Religionists are trying to rethink God in light of quantum mechanics; scientists are looking to spiritual traditions for glimpses into the realm that transcends the five senses. A new creation story is trying to be born, and although nobody knows the outcome yet, here are the new founding principles that currently vie for acceptance:

1. Just as matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, neither can information. Beyond the display of physical processes, information fields may be the key to how the universe became organized from apparent chaos.

2. The universe may contain more than information. It could be imbued with proto-consciousness. That is, the raw ingredients of mind may be inherent in nature at the quantum level.

3. God could be a constant presence in evolution. Instead of creating the universe and then standing back from his (or her) creation, the deity may exist in every atom and molecule as the tendency to evolve.

4. Human values may be imprinted in creation. Plato first declared that our sense of love, truth and beauty derived from the perfect love, truth and beauty that exist beyond the physical world. Today, these so-called Platonic values may be provable in a new way, as universal consciousness that orders and patterns the forms of nature.

5. Mathematics may be the key to nature’s organizing power. If mathematical laws are the true building blocks of creation, then we don’t need a creator. We have symmetry, order, complexity and harmony embedded in abstract form through a higher order of mathematics that transcends time and space.

6. The observer is also a participant in creation. The universe we look upon is a perfect home for human beings because our minds are entangled with the laws and processes that create mind. To explain how the universe came about, you first must explain what the mind is. The two cannot be separated. There is no reality “out there” independent of the observer.

7. Design dominates over randomness in nature. Although we see apparent chaos at the quantum level as particles collide and interact, an invisible force urges these processes into more complex forms, eventually resulting in the most complex form of all, DNA. Candidates for such a shaping force are evolution, intelligence, creativity and even a God who likes to experiment.

One way or another, a new creation story will emerge from one or more of these basic principles. To win the day, it must conform to the data being collected about the universe. It must also not contradict quantum physics, which to date is the most successful scientific theory ever propounded. Yet it is evident that quantum physics has probably reached its theoretical limit, even though not every physicist — or most physicists — realize it.

The limit to any system occurs when its accepted foundation comes into question. In this case, advanced thinkers are asking questions that were unheard of in the past: What is mathematics? What is gravity? What is a natural law? Instead of being metaphysical questions, these have turned practical. Until they are answered, the nothingness that Hawking has peered into remains dark, inert and empty.

Yet we know it cannot be empty. Our brains are the product of DNA. DNA is the product of information arranged in a chemical code. Chemicals are the result of quantum interactions at the subatomic level. Quantum interactions wink in and out of the quantum vacuum. Moving backwards, that’s as far as the modern creation story goes.

Whatever step it takes next will have to be a step into the void. Will we discover the mind of God there? Without using religious terminology, we must discover something that allows us to go back up the ladder from a void to the human brain. Otherwise, creation will have accidentally hit upon mind. Physics, including Stephen Hawking, continues to bet on the latter proposition, but more and more it faces impossible odds.

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