In 1976 Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a book in which he proposed that as human beings we are not the pinnacle of the natural world (an idea to which we are comically susceptible) but instead are merely hosts for genes, who are actually in charge. These genes have employed us as their clever and self-obsessed instruments to one purpose: to copy themselves into immortality. The theory was a Copernican-style displacement of our collective egos, and while it is a commonly accepted idea today, Dawkins’ gene-centered view of evolution opened many minds at the time and created new conversations about what it means to be human. Oddly, one of the most powerful ideas in the book is just a bit of an afterthought toward the end. In a chapter called “Memes: the new replicators,” he proposed that another part our nature behaves exactly like genes: beliefs. Dawkins used the term “cultural unit of information” rather than “belief” and he called these self-replicating units “memes” (from the greek “mimeme,” or “imitator”). Today, memes are usually thought of as pictures of cats with punch-lines written beneath them. However, the serious study of memes emerged as a new body of theory and speculation in the past twenty years. As a discipline it had its coming out party in the 1990s with the first issue of the Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission.
The term “meme” is not used as often as it once was, probably because of all those pictures of kitties deadpanning on the internet, but the core concept, that mental constructs are essentially self-replicating agents, has not diminished with time. In fact, it has shown remarkable staying power for such a radical idea. A number of influencial variants on meme theory have arrived on the scene in the past couple of decades, including philosopher Daniel Dennet’s “rough drafts” theory proposed in his book Consciousness Explained, and psychologist Susan Blackmore’s “memeplexes” in her book The Meme Machine. What all the differing theories suggest is that, just as with genes, we are merely the self-obsessed hosts of beliefs that have us unwittingly convinced of our primacy. We think we are using beliefs to navigate the world and thrive, but actually they are using us, or to be more accurate, it is an exchange. To get a glimmer of how profound is this exchange, and how favorable it is for us, think about what the belief in germ theory has done for your longevity. The radical idea that beliefs use us as much as we use them, and those that help us are helped by us, is slowly gaining ground in mainstream science. However, it is still on the sidelines. It is my guess that once we can track and study beliefs in the same way we do genes, through direct observation, then the field will likely explode into a fertile ground for new discovery. By then we will likely call them something other than “memes.” After all, we’ll want to leave something for all those adorable cats.
What Dawkins and some of his colleagues do not delve into (and which meditators face each day) is an existential correlate of meme theory: if my beliefs are using me and I’m using them, then what am I? Taking meme theory seriously, even a little, leaves one in a very uncomfortable position in this regard. Most of us no longer create an identity exclusively based on familial, tribal, city, state or career affiliations. However, most of us do make an unconscious assumption that what we believe in, have faith in, or “stand for” is actually us. We think that some deep version of our thoughts are who we are. Meme theory proposes that this is a tremendous (if adaptive) mistake. Consider the following thought experiment. Someone asks you who you really are. They insist it must be the “real you” beyond what can be seen by other people. It can’t just be something you do or a role you have in relation to others. Who are you in your deepest self? If you are like most people then you would likely answer this question with a worldview, moral code, or religion. In other words, with a belief. I’ve done this experiment with friends, and most respond along the lines of “I am a Buddhist,” “I am an artist,” or “I am an environmentalist.” While we think that these are the deepest expressions of ourselves, meme theory proposes the disconcerting notion that this cannot be the case. Instead, our beliefs have done something remarkable (and a bit crazy if you consider it), they have convinced us that we are them. Through a clever trick that is not fully understood, we not only accept some beliefs to be true, we assume that they are us. This is the default position of the mind, and it is the most comfortable state for us. Therefore, if you pause and consider the implications of meme theory, you should start to feel a bit anxious. If that last bastion of the “real me, deep down” is seen as just another natural process of the mind, then what is left to be me? The psychologist and popular author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi saw this connection early on in the 1990s when he tied meme theory directly to the sense of self in his provocative book The Evolving Self. This connection between what we think and what we feel ourselves to be is normally hidden from sight, but it is powerful.
Where does meditation fit into all this? If you are a meditator you already see the connection as clear as the words on this screen. As it turns out, insight meditation practice appears to confirm some aspects of meme theory. With meditation you discover that your thoughts are quite independent of your will and come and go as they please. Even just a minute of calmly watching what the mind produces will reveal that very little of its activity is under your control. Sudden images, memories, plans, judgments, wishes, fantasies and internal lecturing come and go as quickly and as uncontrollably as a babbling stream. There are good neurological reasons for this. It is estimated that the brain processes 38 thousand trillion operations per second. If even a tiny fraction of these operations are what we colloquially call “background noise” then hundreds of thousands of them are occurring within a second. Of those, perhaps only a small fraction fire together in a pattern recognizable enough for us to be conscious of them. Of those, if only a small percent survive in our awareness for longer than a second then we are still left with dozens of flashes of cognitive activity each instant. And of that remaining set we may become fully aware of just one or two. Anyone who has sat in serious meditation for even moment can confirm that a quiet mind is actually very noisy. I have often compared it to a clown car at a circus constantly spinning out of control and revealing new absurdities at every turn. When you sit with this reality long enough the resulting insight is unmistakable: I am not my thoughts. They are not me. They happen on their own, without a controlling agency on my behalf. I can nudge them, judge them, hold them in contempt, dispute them, and distract myself from them. If I am a trained academic, I can make the mind follow a disciplined line of thought for a small amount of time, until exhaustion sets in. But what I cannot do is control thoughts in an ultimate sense. There are simply too many and they are rushing in and out too fast. The mind often gets compared to a garden that we cultivate, but really it is more like a dark and riotous jungle into which we have a few inroads provided by civilization, education, and if we are lucky, meditation. If we look deeply at this cognitive ecosystem we see that it is teeming with all manner of phenomena flashing in the dark and disappearing. An earnest look at this can be both disturbing and awe inspiring.
But although a meditator can see that the many thoughts winking in and out of the mind each instant are not “me,” she or he can still take beliefs as self. This is actually common. Meditators can simultaneously hold: “I am not my thoughts” and “I am a believer” in mind, not realizing the the first dismantles the second. This is because beliefs are felt to be special types of thoughts. They are more fixed, stable and make up a kind of internal cognitive architecture. But they only got that way by being copied and recopied. Beliefs are nothing more than thoughts that have found a footing in the mind and have set up dominion there. They did this because they serve a very important function that can be seen clearly, but is often missed. It is seen when, as one watches the coming and going of cognitive phenomena, a signal arises in the noise. The layers of randomness become a background upon which patterns emerge. Some thoughts repeat themselves, or newer drafts of themselves, over and over again. In other words, some of them are “sticky.” Why is this? Meme theory suggests that the stickiest thoughts either fit well into the existing cognitive ecosystem or offer something useful to the meditator. In other words, our “beliefs” act as selectors, winnowing out what is incompatible and recopying what is in harmony with the existing architecture of thought. With continued investigation a new insight becomes unmistakable: all these thoughts and their sponsoring beliefs have to do with… me. If a thought begins with the phrase “I am…” or is just a few links in the chain from “I am,” then it has pride of place in the cognitive environment and is preserved and copied and re-copied. It begins to seem as if the mind is just repeating different iterations of what it perceives to be “me.” This can become very elaborate and intellectual. Very philosophical and deep. But a dispassionate look at the thoughts will show that any new thought that reinforces “I am” is kept, copied, and can even spun out into a story in the mind. If the thought or belief is particularly adaptive it will have encoded in it the instructions for copying itself. You will feel “called” to share it with others.
This is why meditation is such a rebellious act. Through meditation one begins to do something that threatens the constant trance of the babbling mind: you begin to witness beliefs instead of becoming them. Upon awakening, it is as if you realize you have been tricked into believing that you are the main character of a play only to find that you are in a seat in the theater. You begin to see, sometimes to your astonishment and dismay, that beliefs are just scripts, and if you observe them critically you see that they are empty of self. You have no ultimate interest in them. Even more disturbing, meditative investigation will show that the thoughts you took to be yourself do not survive in the mind by whether they are conventionally “true” or “false”, but rather by whether they play well with other beliefs. You begin to realize that your internal compass for belief was not set to look for truth, but for “self.” This insight upsets everything, because now you begin to understand that all beliefs could be wildly off the mark, and often this is exactly the case. The implications for this are astonishing. In the most extreme cases, we can believe things that are not only mind-bogglingly contrary to the world around us, but positively harmful to ourselves and others. This is in no way an unusual thing. Most of us know, or are, the hosts of some patently false and disturbing ideas. Just to cite some of the more vivid examples: there are people alive today who are convinced that the Earth is flat and others that it is hollow. There are those who sincerely think that air can be food. That if they think about something hard enough it will manifest. That sitting inside of a pyramid will cure illness. How can that be? Because those beliefs serve their hosts in some way and have convinced them of their truth. I have met people who literally believe that they have a cosmic karmic bank account in the red. Or that they receive instructions for what to have for lunch from an invisible being. Or that they have a long neck because they were a giraffe in a prior life. They believe these things sincerely and whole-heartedly, and they are no different from myself or anyone else. They simply became host to some particularly strange beliefs. How it happens is still being worked out, but if you would like to learn some of the science behind it look into Michael Shermer’s excellent work on the topic.
Meditation changes everything, because if it is done with sufficient strength and honesty it reveals the process of self-making through belief and therefore makes non-belief, rather than belief, the default position of the person. Seeing the process of identification with thoughts as it is happening is one of the things that meditation does for us, and simply seeing it happen shakes the very roots of belief. You will never see thoughts the same way again. This is something that meditation masters in virtually all the traditions have been professing for thousands of years, and ideas like meme theory may be the west’s initial attempt to catch up. I am not proposing that ideas like meme theory are “correct” or “true” in an ultimate sense. That would simply create another belief to hang the self on. To return to the analogy of the play, meme theory, or the meditative insight that “I am not my thoughts” is like a character walking onto the stage and talking directly to you in the audience about the play itself, “you know you’re not in this play, right?” It is a disrupter, a protester that crashes the show and keeps one from suspending disbelief and getting lost in the drama. Notions like this are nicely described by the Buddhist phrase “skillful view.” Meme theory is not so much an idea as a very skillful way to view ideas, and it is skillful because it supports us in breaking loose of all views. It changes how we think, not just what we think. The more we can view beliefs in a way that distances our sense of self from them, the easier it is to experience the kind of liberation that comes from being free from the constant demands and expectations they place on us and our world. This is the most skillful thing we can do. Ultimately, we come to see that not only is there no self in the play, there was never one in the audience either. The whole theater was a prop.