Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Vasana (wassana in Thai) refers to habitual tendencies or dispositions; subconscious inclinations; a term found in Pali and early Sanskrit writings (from vas: ‘living, remaining’). In yoga practice (Yogācāra or yogachara), it denotes latent energy resulting from action, or better, actions. It’s believed a pattern becomes ‘imprinted’ in the actor's consciousness, or storehouse of understandings; accumulation of these habitual tendencies predisposes one to particular patterns of behavior (samskaras).
In short, they’re all the things that go into building individual sense of self or ego. “Vasana” can be translated as mental conditioning, minute tendencies, inclinations, habit proclivities &/or driving forces which color and motivate one's attitudes and actions. Vasanas are a conglomerate result of subconscious impressions (samskaras) formed by background experience (extending even before birth, to time in the womb, conception and even beyond). Samskaras, experiential impressions, combine in the subconscious to form vasanas, which contribute to mental fluctuations (vritti whirlpools of consciousness, waves of mental activities, thought and perception).
One might have a fearful experience, and the vasana of fear can remain for a long time (as in post-traumatic stress). Vasana influences our actions and behavior patterns (samskaras). Negative vasanas create negative samskaras and vice versa. But you can replace a negative samskara, or behavior, with a positive behavior, which will cause an internal change and ultimately an external change. For example: if you have low self-esteem (a negative vasana), a positive samskara can change your perception of yourself, so that you start behaving in even more positive ways. But you can’t permanently remove a vasana or a samskara - you only replace one with another, and the old samskaras and vasanas can come back.
Vasanas: subliminal inclinations and habit patterns which, as driving forces, color and motivate one's attitudes and future actions; tendencies and impulses; longing. Awareness of previous observations, recollections, trauma's, other states of mind, etc. The conglomerate results of subconscious impressions created through experience. Deep-seated traits or tendencies that shape one’s attitudes and motivations; impressions about action and experience that remain in the mind; latent subtle desires, innate tendencies. These experiential impressions combine in the subconscious, and thereafter contribute to mental fluctuations and subconscious tendencies which color all levels of personality: our perceptions, emotions, thoughts and deeds.
Vasana: a pattern of inclinations and subtle desires; a tendency created in a person by the doing of an action, or by enjoyment; it induces a person to repeat the action, or to seek a repetition of the enjoyment. As a subtle impression in the mind capable of developing itself into action; it’s the cause of the nature of impressions of action which remain unconsciously in the mind, producing self-imposed limitations, or forms of attachments, for instance:
• Personal strengths and weaknesses
• Predispositions
• Likes and dislikes
• Habits
• Habitual outlook
• Opinions
Vasana refers to subtle desires which, like seeds, fructify or manifest, accordingly with favorable circumstances, at appropriate times. Karmic energy created in the current lifetime, or past lifetimes, through repeated patterns of behavior can be called habit energies, or vasanas. These are like old, familiar stories: our emotions, self-images, beliefs and reactive patterns that keep us within limited contexts, experiences and configurations. Many, if not most, of us need to breakup and dissolve our old, too often dysfunctional, patterns, imprints, and habits - boundaries of the ego formed by fear, intellect, memory, and will, rather than reinforce them. As everything passes away, even your mind (a structure composed of various impressions and thoughts), it may be best to experience all you can, while you can, and break out of what limitations you can.
Some say the word vasana means impregnation, learning, processing; and that because the consciousness is plastic, it can be conditioned. If we have habit energies and patterns of behavior, that’s because of vasana. We develop those patterns during the first six years of life, and continue to enact them.

People are born with proclivities; other tendencies are reinforced. In both cases, there’s tendency to repetition, and perhaps to insufficiency of exploration. To know that people (and things) act and interact in patterns is to be better able to plan, to properly respond, and to be prepared. Our personalities (personality: the whole nature or character of a particular person, with traits, qualities and individuality) aren’t necessarily locked-in and predictable patterns of attitude and behavior; much as one can quit drinking or smoking, one can change patterns (at least somewhat) – learn a new song, as it were, use another language, live in a different way, even find oneself acting inexplicably when circumstances, or the people around, have changed. But the old melody, or ways, will creep back in – to dreams, conversation, opinions, moods. A vibration will continue to exist long after it is directly perceptible to humans!
Usually vasana is mentioned in context where meditation is espoused and recommended, but maybe internal quiet, centered harmony, is enough. That the vasana patterns start before individuality, before emergence of any “self” – as recent scientific research has shown. A protein sheath around the double helix DNA strands responds to input (emotional, mental, environmental) and determines much of DNA function, acting like a switch to turn on and off genetic cues, or expression. Epigenetics, the study of gene expression and the regulation of genetic activity, particularly methyl groups and histones attached to our chromosomes, the epigenome suite of biochemical signals that determine which genes in an individual’s DNA can be turned on or off, shows that genomes respond to environmental signals, that the epigenome is sensitive to environmental impact (including nutrients, exposure to toxins, and loving mothering). DNA is fixed, and represents only possibilities; while epigenetic changes are potentially reversible, may not be simply on or off, and involve the new concept of the meme.
The term “epigenetics”was coined in 1942 to describe the idea that an organism's experience may alter the effect of (the prefix epi means ‘on’ or ‘over’). Now, it’s defined as ‘the study of heritable changes in genome function that occur without a change in DNA sequence,’ and scientists tend to accept that epigenetic inheritance affects the action of genes in offspring, despite arising from the life experience of parents. These epigenetic changes extend, at least for a small minority of genes, beyond immediate offspring to further generations, but effects seem not to last indefinitely. Epigenetic instructions aren’t found in the DNA itself, but in an array of chemical markers and switches, known as the epigenome, which lie along the length of the double helix. These epigenetic switches and markers help switch on or off the expression of particular genes.
Nutrition and stress can affect the epigenome, but, unlike genetic mutations, epigenetic changes are reversible. Research shows that diet, behavior, and environmental surroundings can have a great impact on the health of descendants. Twins with different environmental experiences display more divergent genetic expressions than do those with similar environment and experience. A common environment results in the genes of a variety of individuals to increasingly act like each other. These epigenetic changes can be inherited. Acquired traits can be passed down the generations, despite what is taught about cutting off rat’s tails (!).

Of course, it’s not just nature versus nurture, programmed clockwork-like progression or adaptive opportunism, manipulation by, manipulation of, interconnectivity, or faithful but mostly inactive observers carried along in an unpredictable flow - we’re heavily affected by group dynamics from even before our parents were conceived, and so full of influences that we certainly react more than we decide, and are largely just part of an ongoing process. Environment, nutrition and experience of germs, viruses, etc., and also emotions. A luckier child who gets more strokes will pass on some dissimilar traits to what an identical twin not so favored will. It’s not just the sins of one’s fathers, but the fortunes of one’s antecedents, which determine much of one’s character – and even, I suspect, the emotions present at the point of conception, the time of birth, and also around the house… babies pick up on signals very hard to quantify or even describe! But, eventually, they learn some control, to make and keep to some decisions, and exert some influence.
Lawrence Harper, psychologist at the University of California at Davis, has claimed that a wide array of personality traits, including temperament and intelligence, can be affected by epigenetic inheritance, saying, “If you have a generation of poor people who suffer from bad nutrition, it may take two or three generations for that population to recover from that hardship and reach its full potential. Because of epigenetic inheritance, it may take several generations to turn around the impact of poverty or war or dislocation on a population.” Marcus Pembrey, professor of Clinical Genetics at London’s Institute of Child Health, in collaboration with Swedish researcher Lars Olov Bygren, also found strong evidence that famine in the lives of the grandparents can affect the life expectancy of the grandchildren.
Michael Meaney, biologist at McGill University, showed that some epigenetic changes can be induced after birth. With graduate student Ian Weaver, Meaney compared mother rats that licked their offspring after birth and those that neglected their newborns. The licked newborns grew up relatively calm and brave, while neglected ones nervously skittered into the darkest corner when placed in new environments. Analysis of brain tissue from both licked and non-licked rats showed distinct differences in patterns of DNA methylation (methylation: the process by which methyl, or -CH3, amino acid groups are added to compounds) in hippocampus cells of each group. The mother's licking activity apparently had the effect of removing dimmer switches on a gene that shapes stress receptors in a growing brain. The well-licked rats had better-developed hippocampi, and released less cortisol, a stress hormone; neglected ones released more cortisol, had less-developed hippocampi, and, in marked contrast to the others, reacted nervously when startled or in new surroundings. Maternal behavior had shaped the brains of offspring.
The phenomenon has also been detected in chickens, in response to stress caused by abnormal levels of light. Researchers at Linköping University in Sweden reared a group of chickens under normal day and night conditions; others were exposed to randomly varying light. The offspring of the latter group showed impaired spatial learning abilities, were more aggressive, and grew faster. These characteristics were linked to changes in the activity of genes in the hypothalamus or pituitary gland areas.

Elsewhere in the animal, activity of these genes was largely normal, but was changed in areas of the brain responsible for behavioral traits, including spatial learning. This exemplifies a fundamental characteristic of epigenetic inheritance: that even genes handed down quite normally may change in what they express, with resultant change in some behavioral trait or function.
A great implication of heritable epigenetic features is that diet and stress can influence genes of children and grandchildren. In the early 1990s the British ‘Avon Longitudinal Study’ surveyed children born to 14,000 mothers and found that, of 5,000 fathers who took part, 166 had started smoking very early, in the so-called ‘slow growth’ period before puberty (between 9 and 12). Sons of these fathers tended to be significantly overweight by the age of nine, ‘though there was no noticeable difference for daughters. This shows a significant link between fathers who smoked early, and above average weight in their sons. Although little’s yet known of how environment shapes gene silencing, there’s evidence that disturbing DNA methylation during development can bring on health problems from cancer to schizophrenia.
Histone, around which DNA winds, is important role in gene regulation. Changes in histones relate to changes in the physical state and function of chromatin (chromatin fibers form chromosomes) in cell division, and thus to transcription of genetic messages (by neutralizing charges of DNA). Genes and environment don't influence development independently. Instead, environmental influences initiate changes in gene expression. Human behavior can influence inheritance, genetically and educationally. Even very high heritability in a behavioral trait doesn’t imply inevitability. One can’t just blame genes, and abdicate all responsibility.
Epigenetic inheritance may be involved in passing down of cultural, personality and even psychiatric traits, which can be regarded as inclinations. For instance, historical events have led to “embedding” of attitudes within affected communities, attitudes which persist for generations. This phenomenon is explained in Richard Dawkins's theory of memes, according to which cultural or intellectual traits are passed down via non-genetic mechanisms. The possibility raised by epigenetics is that cultural transmission may have a genetic component. Traumas like the experience of imprisonment, slavery, forced relocation or war, can leave genetic marks on descendants of those victimized by them, and thus influence - but not force - behavior.

A meme (a clumsy new term pronounced miem) is any idea or behavior that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation (including thoughts, ideas, beliefs, theories, rituals, gestures, practices, fads, fashions, habits, tunes, songs, and dances). Memes, cultural entities that an observer might consider a replicator propagate themselves, can move through a populace in a way similarly as do viruses. Dawkins, a biological theorist widely known for espousing atheism, coined the word “meme” in The Selfish Gene (1976), where he described how one might extend evolutionary principles to explain the spread of ideas and other cultural phenomena. Dawkins based the word on the Greek “mimeme” (something imitated), making it sound similar to “gene.” The concept of a unit of social evolution called a mneme (from Greek mneme, meaning “memory”) was used in 1904 by German evolutionary
biologist Richard Semon; the French adjective même has similarities in meaning to the Greek mīmos, from which the adjective mimesis comes. As Roman satirical poet Horace put it, “things which are repeated are pleasing” - but some of us are more inclined to like some sequencing than others!
According to Dawkins, genes aren’t the only replicators which change in an evolutionary manner. Memes replicate, spreading from consciousness to consciousness; many of the same evolutionary principles that apply to genes apply to memes as well. Genes and memes may at times co-evolve (“gene-culture co-evolution”).
One can’t view memes through a microscope in the way one can detect genes, but a meme is a recognizable pattern, one that serves as a template for its own replication. Language provides the first and most important memetic infection. Memeticians generally regard language as a memetically-evolved phenomenon. For example, even at the level of animals, many species have evolved particular sounds to convey various meanings (“danger”, “hungry”, “aroused”, “go away” or “come here”). Experiments have verified the memetic nature of these noises, showing that they don’t arise when humans raise the animals concerned: they’re not generated by instinct, but learned from other animals.
Some people understood many of these things long ago, much as many farmers hardly needed to be told of Pavlov’s dog salivation response to learned association of a bell sound to feeding. Interesting, isn’t it, how purportedly new, modern ideas can so match ancient understandings?

We have hard wiring, some software-like programming, and also some feedback-loop like self-awareness mechanisms. We must eat and sleep, and are inclined to indulge in some pleasures, but don’t have to be as stupid as we can be. Much of wisdom lies in knowing what we can change, or at least influence, and what not. What’s really important about epigenetcs is that, by showing the nexus and interactivity between genes and genetic sheath, it shows the lack of true viability to the “science” producing GMOs (genetically modified organisms). To replace gene strands with other gene strands makes an imperfectly formatted system – poorly responsive and inflexible, unable to adjust. Without gaining experience from interactivity with environs, genes cannot operate with real efficiency; GMOs cannot but gum up the whole works. Even if they were but food, and not part of our whole ecosystem, if we are what we eat, do we really want to eat dysfunctional food?

Self as Illusion

Like other things, we’re but temporary phenomena. Numbers may not be, but they aren’t tangible. There may be other concepts as durable, but I think not many. But the idea of some essence of a person lasting past death is popular.
What would that essence be? For me, it’s hard to imagine it caring about a name once used – and as I study history and the world, I learn that for many individual lifetimes of people, there was no lasting name attachment. One was called one thing as a baby, another as an adolescent, and something entirely different when established in regular occupation with skills others might wish to call on.
A ‘self’ has been suggested to merely comprise a collection of memetic stories, or memes… and it may even be that there is no memory until memes – for instance words – are received.

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