A standing wave

Max, 2010/12/20 

In whitewater streams and rivers, when the water flows with a steady force over a particular geometry it forms what is called a standing wave. This wave is stationary in the stream and maintains its form as long as the river flows with sufficient force. I think the mind, in combination with its environmental context creates a similar phenomenon which we know as self. Just as the standing wave in a stream is always changing, the water droplets are constantly being replaced, so too our sense of self is constantly in flux. The sensory input is always changing, as is the chemical balance that forms the ground for the neurons and synapses that constitute thought. Though there is constant change, there are patterns that repeat over and over again with perhaps very subtle variations. The patterns are taken to be real and substantial, though they are really as impermanent as the sensory input that activates them. For most creatures, the patterns can’t be modified consciously. Even for humans this is a big challenge, but our self-reflecting nature does make it possible. To me, this is really the essence of the insight of the man known as The Buddha which is that we are processes and have the capability of altering ourselves for our greater happiness and that of others. All we need to do is wake up.

Standing waves are great for kayakers and canoeists because they can be played with. A good kayaker can hold his position relative to a standing wave for quite some time. Standing waves aren’t perfect though. There is a natural component of chaos in the system that makes it particularly challenging for the kayaker as they have to make minute adjustments to stay with it. This is where the danger is, but it’s also what makes it fun. Sometimes standing waves intersect with others and the junction between them produces more chaos, but sometimes also a whole new wave when the forces are in harmony. Selves are like this too.

Eventually the stream stops flowing with sufficient force to keep the wave’s form and it collapses. In the following season, when the water attains enough flow, the wave is ‘incarnated’ anew. It’s a different wave, with different water droplets at every moment, but it has a similar form and beauty. In this way there is life after death. The selves that are re-created by the next season’s combination of sensations and neurons are thought to belong to the bearer of the new brain case, but they are no more the property of that brain as they were of the brain in the previous season. Life isn’t really ‘ours’ at all. When we fully realize that, we are truly wise.


  1. Max wrote,

    The above train of thought springs from my ongoing experiments with mindfulness meditation and from readings of a new favorite writer, Stephen Batchelor (Buddhism Without Beliefs, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist). There’s a great example of his thinking on this subject in a debate with another Buddhist westerner who studied extensively in Tibet, Robert Thurman, on the topic of reincarnation. I believe Batchelor spanks Thurman pretty decisively, but judge for yourself.

    Comment on 2010/12/20 @ 4:05 pm

  2. byronius wrote,

    Very nice. But threatening, on some basic primal level:

    I have weapon. I kill. I am. I.

    Unclenching can be quite frightening.

    Comment on 2010/12/20 @ 6:12 pm

  3. byronius wrote,

    I had this thought today:

    Sometimes you have to flee the interview.

    Comment on 2010/12/20 @ 6:35 pm

  4. SkyHarbor wrote,

    I have brushed against this concept before with respect to consciousness… in the guise of a fuzzy ‘field’ conjecture.

    On a physical level, it should be mentioned that most musical instruments rely on the ‘standing wave’ principle to make sounds. A standing wave (and its harmonic frequencies) are all resonances. Our ears and (indirectly) our minds resonate in sympathetic vibration…

    In the Beginning was the NOTE… the Big Note. 😉

    If there is a better example of EMERGENT behaviour than abstract consciousness ITSELF, please inform me of it! We may even consider each concept as a standing wave of a certain TONE, with a fundamental frequency and a more or less complex harmonic overtone structure…

    In this view, any given ‘concept wave’ might RESONATE with OTHER concept-waves which vibrate in SYMPATHY with that concept, allowing a very rich and original TONE which then might itself be ‘stored’ as a neural network pattern…

    Too far? Too weird? I’m just blue-skyin’ here! ;-}

    Comment on 2010/12/20 @ 8:33 pm

  5. SkyHarbor wrote,

    BTW: Sometimes it IS best to flee the interview!

    Comment on 2010/12/20 @ 8:40 pm

  6. Max wrote,

    Fleeing the interview. Haven’t done that, but it reminds me of an excellent Greenism. I had a summons once long ago for Failure to Appear and dutifully went to the courthouse (with much trepidation). I went into a room where I had to wait an insufferably long time with a bunch of other morons for the legal machinery to get around to dealing with us. Finally, after a couple of hours they called a fifteen minute break. I’d had enough so I split. I mentioned this to Steve a short while later and he said I should soon be receiving a summons for “Failure to Not Disappear.”

    “Too far? Too weird?”

    I don’t think it can ever get too weird. We’re conscious aren’t we?

    Comment on 2010/12/20 @ 11:45 pm

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