Friday, September 02, 2011

Memes and the Tortoise and the Hare

Petri Plate 4 by Seeking Tao
Petri Plate 4, a photo by Seeking Tao on Flickr.
A meme is an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures…It was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976).

Here are some points I have been thinking about:
1)   Spiritual Paths seem to change with time. Advaita now has neo-advaita. This causes arguments.
Some say you can become enlightened in about 30 minutes and “I’m done.” Some say it can take a life time and always opens up to greater depths. This argument is getting very nasty in some places. (Curiously, what doesn’t change is the presence of fundamentalism: rigidity and the willingness to destroy in the name of Truth.)
2)   We used to think that enlightenment changed the personality into that of a saint. Now, there’s clearly a distinction. It’s been put this way for clarity: Saints are those who display the ideals human behavior. Sages are those who have realized the true nature of the Self. This dichotomy began with Eastern teachers’ sex and money scandals. The behavioral license seems to have been cut loose path direct path emphasis of no-self. There’s no one to be a jerk. Jerkiness just happens, while no-me is free.
3)   Spiritual paths aka “how we spiritually evolve” are memes. Thus, we can expect “the teachings” to follow the laws of genetics: to change and mutate into new and fitter forms with time.
4)   The ability to evolve itself evolves. Thus, if you wanted to graph the speed of evolution, at some point you’d expect it to go parabolic.

Point Four comes strictly from concerns of molecular geneticists (of which or whom I’m one).
The ability to evolve, or “evolvability”, seemed really obvious to me the first time I heard the phrase. It’s not just that everything else in Creation evolves, so why not the ability to evolve… but there seemed to be the whole specific history of genetics revealing that Life (genes) invent new mechanisms to evolve at every major evolutionary transition.

So, when I hear that many people are awakening by directly inquiring into no-self, I cannot dismiss the possibility that awakening can be quicker now than in the past.
If spiritual paths are meant to evolve our consciousness,
If a shift in consciousness is the only means a person has to escape suffering,
If a shift in consciousness is the only hope our species has for survival,
If the ability to evolve evolves –
HEY! I should be hoping and expecting enlightenment to take less time.

That said, scientists NEVER think things are that simple. Turns out, they have only recently completed an experiment that demonstrates evolvability. I find the details illuminating:

A long-term evolution experiment on E. coli has been running for more than 50,000 generations. Two beneficial mutations arose in some strains prior to the passage of the first 500 generations. The researchers dubbed the strains that carried these mutations at 500 generations the eventual winners (EW) and those lacking the mutations the eventual losers (EL).

Surprise #1:  The fitness of EW and EL was compared. Both strains EW and EL had significantly higher fitness than the ancestral strain. But early on, the EL appeared fitter than the EW. The EW strains were at such a disadvantage that if these strains had not accumulated additional mutations, they would have gone extinct in just 350 more generations.

Surprise #2:  But, over time the EW acquired more beneficial mutations than the EL. These “later date” mutations enabled the EW to overcome their fitness disadvantage. In other words, the EW during their period of lesser fitness actually possessed a greater evolvability than the EL. You could see this difference in evolvability intially.  That's not so surpising.  The influence of genes isn't always obvious on the surface.

This saga of the bacteria reminds me of the tortoise and the hare.
The hare could get there quickly, but he had an arrogance that laid the ground for his ultimate defeat.
The tortoise in his own slow careful manner got there in the end.

These bacteria also make me wonder if perhaps the same thing isn’t happening with the memes of our spiritual teachings?
Direct path is great! Bam, you’re there: No-self. “I’m done.”
But, maybe, that leads to something of a dead-end evolutionarily (aka, eventual losers).
Meanwhile, some poor schlep of an Advaitan tortoise actually sits and meditates for 10 years, 20 years.
When he awakens, sometimes there may be no-self and sometimes there is an ego that could stand a little therapy and responsibility for that is taken.
And so change continues. Insights go deeper. Curiosity is maintained.
Maybe this is the EW, the deeply embodied enlightenment because the ability to evolve, evolvability is alive and well.  (for a different way of saying this, BATGAP has a really nice interview with Adyashanti regarding keeping a teaching fresh)

Does the world need more sages or more saints?
Does spiritual bypassing ever really work?
Does throwing a bomb for peace bring an end to war?

The other day I offered this quote, perhaps it’s again a good way to end:
Practice begins with enlightenment.
Suzuki Roshi

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