New Ch’an Forum, No 26, Summer 2002, 22-26
In September 2001 I led a weekend retreat on memes and meditation for the Bristol Ch’an Group. Afterwards John asked me to write about the ideas behind the retreat. My intention then, as now, is not to dwell on the science and controversies involved in memetics, but to explain briefly the idea of memes, and explore how this can help us in our practice.
Why do we think all the time? Why, when we sit down and keep still, does our mind not go quiet? Why do all those thoughts come rushing up, along with reactions, emotions, replies, arguments and yet more thoughts to add to the starters? Why can’t I just sit down, say to myself ‘now I will sit without thinking’ and do it? The answer lies in the memes.
Memes are ideas, habits, skills, stories, or any kind of information that is copied from person to person. The term was invented by Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, and its origin is important for understanding why memes are so powerful, and how they do the things they do. In his best-selling book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explained the importance and power of replicators. Replicators are information that is copied with variation and selection. That is: lots of slightly different copies of something are made, most are killed off, and the few that survive pass on whatever it was that helped them survive to their offspring – and then it happens again – and again. This was the amazing, and scary, idea that Darwin called “evolution by natural selection”. In The Origin of Species he showed how all the creatures on this planet could have been designed by natural selection, and that the process needs neither a plan, nor a designer.
More recently American philosopher Daniel Dennett has described the process as the ‘evolutionary algorithm’ – a simple mindless process that once the requisites are in place must happen. If you have heredity, variation and selection then you must get evolution or “Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind” (ref). It’s as simple as that.
What Dawkins explained, in The Selfish Gene, was that this process is not confined to our most familiar replicator, the gene, but must apply to any information that is copied with variation and selection. All around us, he said, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup of culture, is another replicator. Ideas, habits, skills, stories, technologies, and artistic creations are all copied by a process that may loosely be called imitation. Copying is not perfect, so there is plenty of variation and recombination, and far more copies are made than can possibly survive. So we have a new replicator, a cultural replicator. Taking it from the Greek for ‘that which is imitated’ and abbreviating it to a word that would sound something like ‘gene’ Dawkins called them ‘memes’.
Understanding memes as replicators gives us an entirely new vision of what it means to be human and what is going on in our lives. Think of it this way. As soon as our early ancestors first became capable of imitation, a new replicator was let loose and started evolving. As humans gradually got better at imitation, more and more memes could find homes in human brains and be passed on again; in actions, tunes, traditions and ultimately in language. Once language evolved there were even more possibilities for more memes. People could start telling stories, singing songs, and passing on their knowledge by speech. Then more memes could appear.
This is a never-ending process as long as the conditions are in place. If the selfish memes can get copied they will, and so our world fills up with more and more of them. And our modern world is very full of them indeed.
Note that when I say the memes are ‘selfish’ I do not mean that they are little magical entities sitting around in our heads thinking ‘now I must get myself copied’. Not at all. Just like genes, memes are only information, but they can be selfish in this sense and this sense alone. If they can get copied they will. And they do not care (because they are only bits of information and cannot care) what are the consequences for us, for our genes, or for our planet. They just go blindly on using us to get themselves copied, and along the way create our complex modern world.
And what is that world like? Look around you now and you will see countless successful memes. Perhaps you can see pictures and images, windows and carpets, books and newspapers. These are all memes because they have been copied again and again. And these are the successful ones because they have beaten the competition to get where they are. Think of all the memes you have come across today – all the memes that have, in their own various ways, shrieked at you ‘copy me’ ‘copy me’. Most of them are words – words on the cereal packet, words on the radio, words in the morning paper, words on the posters in the street, and then all the words that people have spoken to you, on the phone, in your email, and in person. How many of these will you remember and pass on. Not many, but those few will live on to jump into another brain and have another chance to get copied and so shape our world. This is the meme’s eye vision.
Now the important question becomes – which memes will succeed and why? The general principle is that memes will get copied whenever and wherever they can. Some succeed because they are good or true or useful or beautiful. In other words we copy them because they are valuable to us. Others succeed in spite of the fact that they are not. They may use tricks to get themselves into our heads and get passed on again. They are rather like viruses that take over the copying ability of their host and put it to work for their own propagation.
There are many kinds of meme virus. A good example is an email virus. A typical one shouts “Warning, Warning, news just in from IBM (or Bill Gates or …) terrible virus, warn all your friends immediately that if they open a mail called “bla bla” their hard disk will be wiped clean”. This little collection of words can be called a memeplex – shortened from ‘co-adapted meme complex’; in other words, a group of memes that succeeds by hanging out together and getting passed on together. This little memeplex has a very simple structure. I call it C-TaP. It is basically a ‘copy me’ instruction backed up by Threats and Promises. In this case you are told to pass on the message. If you do you will help your friends (the altruism trick), if you don’t they will get their hard disk wiped (using fear to threaten). The memeplex also uses urgency, status (e.g. IBM), and exploits the fact that passing on an email message to lots of people is quick and easy. And so it is that this stupid little bit of text has been copied around and around the world, infecting millions of computers and still going strong after 5 or 6 years. If you doubt the power of memes to change the world then reflect on this silly little memeplex. It has frightened countless people and clogged up whole email systems. A few mindless words have had obvious and serious effects on the physical world. They have even found their way onto this page. This is the power of the memes. Buddhism is a meme.
I began deliberately with a very simple virus but there are far more powerful ones that use exactly the same structure. Dawkins calls them ‘viruses of the mind’; he means religions.
Dawkins used the example of Roman Catholicism; a collection of basic teachings that are passed on in church, by learning the catechism, and through prayer, singing hymns and saying grace. Beautiful cathedrals tempt worshippers inside and lift their hearts, making them want to spread the memes again. Beautiful music and songs carry the words of God and Jesus to more ears and minds. Good Catholics pass on all these ‘truths’ to their children and are encouraged to have lots of children who must, in turn, marry (or convert) a Catholic and bring up their children in the faith. The reward is everlasting life and the punishment – well it’s even worse than having your hard disk wiped. In addition the threats and promises are untestable. God can see all you do but you cannot see him. Heaven and hell are only to be seen when you die and cannot come back to let on that it was all a hoax. No wonder such religions and their doctrines fill our world and have survived for thousands of years.
Buddhism might have been an even more interesting example to make his point. In some versions it uses the same tricks, but it has the added feature that the lineage is often preserved. Just as with biological lineages, we can often trace the entire copying history of the central insight from teacher to teacher to teacher, through more than two millennia.
Note that the way to think about these religions is not to imagine someone making up a religion with all these meme-tricks in place, but rather to imagine lots and lots of little cults starting up all over the place at different times, with different tricks. Most would die out, just as most organisms die out without leaving any offspring, but the very few that happen to have the best tricks will win through, persuade people to copy them, and so shape our minds and our cultures. Being infected with a religion at an early age is no trivial matter. It shapes your mind, affects which memes you will subsequently accept or reject, and affects everyone you come into contact with. Very few people choose their religion, even though most think their religion is the best. Most are infected in childhood and never throw the infection off. We are seeing some of the consequences of these religious memes in the world situation we face today.
It is interesting here to compare Zen with Islam or Christianity. At base the memes of Zen are not very sticky or infectious. There is the idea of no-self, the tough practice of meditation, the encouragement to let go, living without clinging or desire and giving up the idea that anything really matters. These are not immediately attractive ideas. No wonder that all too easily Buddhism either fizzles out or becomes a religion like any other – with bells and incense and music and beautiful buildings and pictures and statues and promises of gaining merit or being reborn in a better life (a daft idea in view of the insight that the self is not a persisting thing). Memetics helps us understand all this. True Zen treats all these things as so much ephemeral form. Yet as memes they are more likely to get picked up and passed on. Letting them go is not easy.
Now we can come back to the question I asked at the start. Why do we think so much?
There are two good reasons for asking this, perhaps slightly odd, question. First there is all the trouble we have in meditation, and second there is the evolutionary cost. Thinking is expensive in energy terms. Our brains use up a disproportionate amount of our body’s energy and we could surely save a lot of valuable resources by just not thinking when we don’t absolutely have to. The traditional answer, from evolutionary psychology, is that we must be thinking useful thoughts – perhaps preparing or planning useful actions – but given what tends to come up in meditation, I am not convinced. In any case here is an alternative explanation.
Our minds, at rest – alert and open – are like a beautifully weeded garden, bare brown earth where anything might grow. And just as the weed seeds are ready to jump into all that bare brown earth, so the memes are ready to jump into our open minds. If weed seeds find a space to grow, off they go, and soon all that open space is a mass of dandelions, speedwells and rosebay willow herb.
It is the same with thoughts. Think about what kinds of thoughts are the most troublesome. I don’t believe many people are plagued in meditation by the sounds in the room, or by images of scenery once observed, or images of walking or jumping, or even flying. In other words, it is not our immediate perceptions, nor the things we have learned by ourselves that are troublesome; it is the ones we pick up from other people. It is all words and stories that cause the trouble; all memes. You take a simple sound in the room and turn it into words and arguments and likes and dislikes. You fret over what you said to x, agonise about what to do about y, turn over and over those images of destruction and death from the television, and rehearse what you will say or do when z happens. Word, words, and combinations of words. And words are memes.
The reason is simple enough. If a meme can get into your head and get itself passed on it will. Memes that manage this trick do well, get passed on from person to person and keep going. Those that cannot die out. In this way the world becomes filled up with catchy memes; worrying memes and emotional memes; memes you can’t resist telling others about, and memes that just have whatever it takes to get you turning them over and over in your mind. These are the survivors in the meme pool. These are the memes we all come across. These are the memes that are ready to jump into the gardens of our minds.
Meditation is the hoe. Meditation is also, of course, a meme. You would never have invented the techniques of Ch’an meditation for yourself. They have been part-invented and part-selected over thousands of years, passing down from person to person in a long evolutionary path. But all of them have this in common – they are ways of defusing the power of other memes. John’s wonderfully simple instruction “Let it come; Let it be; Let it go” is a meme-weeding meme. Any other meme that pops up is met with the same response. Its power to stir up your mind is interfered with. Its features designed to get you to store it and pass it on, no longer work so well. “Let it go” gets in its way and the cycle of meme-repetition is broken.
In a similar way the silence and mindfulness we cultivated during the retreat have the same meme-weeding effect. You only have to make eye contact with another human being, or smile in mutual recognition, for a multitude of memes to leap into action, ready for their chance to get spoken or acted out, and hence passed on. There is no need to think of the memes themselves as having intentions or desires (obviously they are only little bits of information and cannot have intentions and desires). Instead think of them this way. Stored in your head are countless ideas, stories, jokes, ways of saying things, words, and ways of putting words together into sentences. Over the long history of the evolution of the English language, and the norms of friendly behaviour in our culture, certain of these have done better at getting copied and most of us have been infected with them. Whenever there is a chance for them to get passed on they will have a go – that is all they do. Look someone in the face and the words “Hi, how are you?” spring ready for action. See someone looking at an empty plate at lunch and the words “Would you like some more bread?” just jump out of your mouth. That is why I suggested we not speak at all during this weekend – not at all – not one word. This is why I suggested we not even look at each other or communicate in any other way (apart from during the discussion periods). There is no need. And when we don’t – well the memes have much less chance to jump into our lovely freshly weeded minds. They have to wait their turn, and our minds stay clear and open.
I first got infected by the meme meme about five years ago. What made the ideas so exciting was that memetics can provide new answers to difficult questions, such as why we humans have such big brains, where language came from, and why we can be so altruistic. But gradually I found that the ideas spawned a new attitude in my practice. In meditation I would see these fearsome inner conversations starting up and think ‘oh there comes that meme again’. By seeing them as memes, out only for their own selfish replication, I could much more easily let them go. Indeed I could laugh happily at all these little bits of selfish information zooming around, hopping from brain to brain, brain to book, book to computer, and computer to phone. How can you take them so seriously when they are all just memes? I hope this understanding may help you in letting go too.
And who is doing that letting go? That question, too, yields to a memetic answer. Perhaps one day we might have another weekend and take the idea of memes a little further in exploring the nature of self and consciousness.
I would like to thank everyone who came on the memes weekend for making my first ever experience of leading a retreat so rewarding.
Blackmore,S.J. 1999 The Meme Machine Oxford University Press. (Paperback March 2000)
Blackmore,S.J. 1999 Waking from the Meme Dream. In The Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Science and Our Day-to-day Lives. Ed. G.Watson, S.Batchelor and G.Claxton; London, Rider, 112-122
Dawkins,R. (1976) The Selfish Gene Oxford, Oxford University Press (new edition with additional material, 1989)
Dennett,D. (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, London, Penguin