Thursday, July 17, 2008

Putting All Tools Aside

Originally I intended to take a break from all posting and writing last January. I wanted to concentrate on meditation and work, and let my verbal mind have a rest. After a while, however, I got an itch and started to hunt around the internet for a different kind of conversation than I'd been used to. I've always been more science-minded than most people interested in spiritual matters, and in school I was actually much stronger in science than the liberal arts. I keep a list of science websites that I regularly look at to see what's up in those fields, and became interested in the debates they often have about religion and science, particulary the current enthusiasm for atheism and the issue of intelligent design. Having once been an atheist, from the ages of about ten to twelve, I had some sympathy with those who reject religious views in favor of science, so I decided to revisit that world with a little more depth and see what was up.

I ended up entering into a few ad hoc debates at two websites in particular: EvolutionBlog, and My first experiences, at EvolutionBlog, were simply awful. I had expected some hostility to spiritual views, but not quite so intensely reactionary and just plain rude. As is my way, rather than backing away I just dug in deeper, seeing how far I could go in trying to present anything remotely like a spiritual perspective to hardcore atheists. The answer turned out to be: nada. I mean, I'm used to being called a fool once in a while, but this was an unrelenting onslaught that turned into a total rejection not just of my ideas, but of me personally. That was quite refreshing in its own way, and I highly recommend the experience. There's nothing quite like being told you are a complete idiot to take away any veneer of pride you once might have had in yourself. On the other hand, it also gave me some direct experience and insight into what at least a certain sector of the scientific atheist community sees as the irrefutable truth of the scientific approach to truth.

What I got to see first hand is that scientific atheism is, for many of its adherents, simply another religious cult that tries to promote itself as the one and only path to reality and truth. Pointing this out won me few friends within that community, but I guess that wasn't what I was really after, though it would have been nice. I don't have a problem with science as a discipline, as a limited tool for finding out certain material facts about the physical universe. In that respect, it's very useful, as long as we are aware of its limitations, which are contained in the discipline itself of examining only physically “objective” material phenomena. The problem comes when scientists insist that this one tool is the only valid tool anyone can use, and advocates that we throw out everything else in the toolbox. Soon the situation becomes almost psychotic: if the only tool you have is a hammer, over time every problem begins to look like a nail, and one becomes interested only in those problems which a hammer can solve, and those it can't solve, one smashes down until they aren't noticed anymore. The problem with science is that for some people it has become the only standard by which to understand all of life, to the point where they conclude that if science can't understand it, it's not worth examining. To say the least, this is not a productive approach to any but the most simple and mechanical of life's problems. Even worse, it inculcates the notion that solving problems is what life is really about in the first place.

On a more positive note, I found over at Richard Dawkin's site a much more polite and open-minded group of characters, who at least seemed appreciative that someone was willing to engage them from the religious side of the debate with some persistence and honesty. Even if they didn't agree with my ideas, they at least didn't ridicule them, and even seemed to enjoy the process of examining what I had to say. After several long forays into their forums, I left with at least some sense of satisfaction, and an open invitation to return and have at it once again. By then, however, I felt that I'd pretty much exhausted what I could say there. If anything, the experience was even more conclusive to me that science is simply not a spiritual discipline, any way you want to put it. Not that scientists can't be spiritual people, or that people can't approach science from a spiritual perspective, but the actual approach of science itself is no more spiritual than automotive mechanics, though certainly not less so.

What was the point of all that for me? Well, it certainly wasn't preparation to become a public debator on issues of science and religion. Quite the opposite. It felt like a purifying episode in which I have had the opportunity to examine the lingering scientific materialism within my own mind, and go past it. The purpose wasn't really to convince anyone else about the folly of the scientific approach to religion, it was to convince myself of that, and to see that if I really wanted to know the truths of spirituality, I was going to have to let go of my own scientific mindset, or whatever lingering notions and doubts remained within me about these matters. As I mentioned in my last post, I came away realizing not only that I don't know anything, but that the path of becoming a “knower of things” just isn't what I'm interested in. I don't want to know things, I want to love them.

Science is a big force in our world, and an increasily dominant part of it. But it remains a tool, not a truth, and it's a fairly limited tool at that. Richard Dawkins is famous for remarking that the existence of God is a scientific proposition, and it should therefor be investigated and answered scientifically, which is to say in the negative, since there is little scientific evidence for God. This presumes that God can be known by the use of tools, and that science is the tool we ought to use. It doesn't take into account the notion that there may be no “right” tool for knowing God, and that any tool one uses to know God will only end up describing the tool itself, and its capabilities, and not God. Why? Because God is not a “thing” in the world that any tool can touch, see, or decipher. God is at the source of the very consciousness that would make use of a tool, whether it is a material tool or a psychic one. God simply mirrors back to us our own efforts to know Him, and thus the tool we use when we try to know God will give us a description of God that mirros the tool itself, and not God Himself. 

What kind of God does science come up with? Well, one could say that it is a God of mathematics, of pure mental, conceptual abstractions. It's not a theistic deity, so it calls itself atheistic, but this is not really so. It simply makes GOd into a mathematical process it tries to assume is material in nature, but cannot actually be pinned down as such. After all, what material existence do numbers actually have? None. There are no numbers in nature. They exist only in the human mind. So is there really such a God out there, a material machine that produces a mathematical universe? Of course not. This is just the mind looking at the world, using its own concepts as tools, and reporting back the image it sees in the mind of itself. Naturally the ulimate reality it uncovers is a pure conceptual abstraction of mathematical laws. It just makes the mistake of assuming that this is what "the world" really is, rather than what the tool being used to investigate and describe it is.

This problem is not unique to science, but it has its corrollaries in spirituality as well. If we use spiritual tools to see God, we also end up describing God by those tools, rather than knowing God directly. A friend of mine is quite deeply involved in studying his own dreams. He's done this for years, and has a remarkable repertoire of spiritual dreams that occur on a regular basis to him, which he records, interprets, and sees God through. The problem is, using this tool of his psyche also taints the subject of his study. God is not a dream, and yet dreams will indeed reveal God through their own instrumentality, convincing us that God is what we see in our dreams and visions. Well, not exactly. It's certainly a better tool than mere materialistic science, but it's still a tool, rather than a form of direct knowledge. Again, the psyche is merely a collection of reflections of itself, without any formal basis. As the Buddhists say, it is empty. What it uncovers boils down to a mirror that reflects back the method and tools employed in the effort to find its own truth. The psyche must be seen as empty in order to see God.

I'm not suggesting we not use these tools. Science is a marvelous tool, as are visions and dreams. But their primary value is practical, as a way of reflecting certain dimensions of ourselves back to us. Science reflects the material dimension, and dreams reflect the subtle dimension. But God is neither material nor subtle. God is in the dimension where we already stand, which we cannot see because it is not apart from us. It is us. We know God without a thought or perception involved, which is almost too simple for us to comprehend. We know God through love, which is the embrace of what we already are, what everyone and everything already is.

I recall a story about Ramakrishna, when a woman came to him in despair of ever knowing God. She had tried all kinds of practices and beliefs, but she couldn't find God in any of them. Instead of recommending some new method she hadn't yet tried, Ramakrishna simply asked her if there was anyone in the world she loved. She thought for a while, and then replied, well, I love my son. Ramakrishna said, there is God. Wherever one finds love in the world, there is God. In the beginning, we love the objects, the others we encounter most intimately, like the woman's son. But God is not truly in the object of one's love, God is in the love itself. Learning to see love as a force that transcends its own objects is probably the most difficult part of spiritual life, but the only truly important part. This is what science and psychism fails to understand, because they are concentrated on objects and the tools we can use to know and manipulate the objects around us. Even if science and psychism are done with loving care, they still cannot know love itself without relinquishing their own tools, laying them down and knowing without the mind, which is the root of all tools. Mind itself is only a tool, but we tend to let it rule us and define us, and we try to solve all the world's problems with the mind, even the problems of the spirit. But the mind, even the deep psyche, is just a tool we have developed for practical purposes, and we must put them down to enter the temple of the Lord. What is Holy is not manipulable, is not decipherable, is not knowable. It is known through loving embrace with open hands in the darkness of love's mindless embrace.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Be A Refuge Unto Yourself

It looks to be almost six months since I abruptly stopped posting to this blog. At the time, I felt as if I'd lost confidence in my ability to speak meaningfully about spiritual matters, or at least lost any sense that it was useful for me to do so. Quite a few commentators pointed this out, and I felt they probably knew better than I did. Since then, I've fairly well confirmed both those points. It was pretty much an open secret that I had no idea what I'm talking about most of the time. Since then it's become clear to me that I simply don't know anything at all about anything at all. I do wish this were some kind of Socratic confession of philosophical brilliance, or an Advaitic confession of No-Mind. Instead, it's just a simple fact. If I were to try to put a positive spin on it, I'd call it humility. If I were to put a negative spin on it, I'd just keep my mouth shut. As it is, it's just the simple facts of the rather ridiculous life I lead.

As it stands, my life, my spiritual life, is one long series of embarressments. Perhaps I should not dwell upon this, it's something of a self-indulgent trope, but there it is. To confess this is not in itself an answer, but perhaps it is at least an opening. I have read from Ramana that possibly the most important qualification for spiritual life is humility. Many people have scoffed at this over the years, myself included, particularly in the Adidam community, in which Adi Da himself famously said that humility is just an ego making itself small. But I think this misses an important point. Humility is not about having a low assessment of oneself, it is instead a way of making room for something greater than onself to enter into the picture. When we are full of our own pride and thinking, we make no room for Grace to enter into our minds and teach us something we don't already know. The problem with the mind is precisely that – it thinks it already knows all the answers, or can learn all the answers by thinking, by acting, by perceiving, by exercising itself and becoming stronger and stronger. The opposite may actually be the truth. We learn more by not thinking, by not exercising the mind, but by letting it stand aside, and letting something greater than the mind into our sphere of attention and guide us. The mind perhaps needs to rest, and let what is not mind have a go at teaching us for a while. At least enough to inform the mind from a position beyond the mind, such that mind is no longer the sole province of our intelligence. This is what humility means: stepping aside, even a few small inches, to allow something other than ourselves to show us the way.

For some reason that might at first seem opposite to this whole notion, I have been guided of late by one of the last admonitions of the Buddha: be a refuge unto yourself. Strangely, this and humility seem to go hand in hand. Perhaps it is because who and what I really am is not what my mind tell me I am at all. To be a refuge unto myself means letting go of everything I think about myself, and simply being myself, in a state of unknowing humility. Since I know nothing of myself, this seems relatively easy. Since I don't know how to think about myself, or the world, I might as well take refuge in myself, whatever that might mean. I don't really know what it means, but I like the resigned feel of it. Refuge implies a sense of being battered and in need of shelter, and this is surely how I feel in general about this life I have led. I have arrived at the age of 50 in a rather shambled state, without much to show for myself, and with few prospects for a future. My years are numbered, my youth is behind me, and though there are certainly plenty of good years left, the damage has been done and is not likely to be undone except by death, which is perhaps too far off to take consolation in. I have lost most of my youthful enthusiasm for the potentials of life. Some have been realized, some not, but all of them clearly fade and dissolve, and that process is already well under way. The truths of impermanence weigh and sag upon the flesh. Not only does the body fade, but so does the mind. My insights have also come and gone, and I cannot take refuge in them. They don't even last long enough to console me for an evening any more. Where can I turn but to myself in my naked and aging mindless being? If that is not very much, it is all that I have. Surely there is room for Grace in that refuge, if Grace comes from deep within oneself. If not, I have no other place to go in any case.

A refuge is a place of safety, but there is no room in myself for anything but a naked self. That will have to be enough, and perhaps it is. Perhaps this is what the Buddha meant by renunciation. What can we take with us into ourselves? Not even this body, this mind, these thoughts. They don't seem to fit. We must shed what is not able to pass through the portal of the self. We make room by letting go of what crowds us in. This too is self-enquiry.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Feeling of Pain, Feeling of Self

I've had some interesting responses to this whole matter of practicing self-enquiry. I got a very wonderful email from someone who practices self-enquiry, and describes the process as intensely frustrating, and even painful. I would print the email, but the writer wishes to remain anonymous. But here's one small sample of her experience, if she doesn't mind my quoting her:
“Another thing that happens sometimes is as soon as I turn inward instead of looking outward, I feel pain. A kind of burning sensation in the heart area that immediately makes my eyes fill with tears. This is a strong disincentive ... I can hear my mind urging: oh this bad feeling will go away if you stop this enquiry business. I do my best not to give in to this and to feel through the pain to the sense of "I am" -- even if the pain does not go away -- though it does if I stick with this long enough.”

I don't commonly have these experiences of pain when I practice self-enquiry, but it reminds me of a basic principle in deep-tissue massage, which is that you have to learn to relax and surrender into the pain. My son has been learning deep-tissue massage techniques, and tried them out on me recently when I visited him in Santa Cruz. He's become quite the expert at finding the areas in the body where I hold tension and am, essentially, “fighting” myself, not relaxed and surrendered. When he pushes on those points, I can't tell you how painful it is. My first reaction is to tense up and fight his pushing, clenching my muscles, which also numbs them to the pain. But then I realize I have to let go and surrender to the pain, and let the whole fitful tensing process relax. A lot of the time I was able to do this, and though it hurt, it was good, and I could let go of some of that tension-effort. But some spots were just so fricking painful I just had to plead with him to stop (he let up, but not by much).

I think there's a general principle here in relation to any experience in life, but particularly the wisdom which comes from even a little bit of self-enquiry. Which is to simply observe and feel whatever is coming up in the body or mind, and not react to it, not try to fight it, but simply relax the grip we have on ourselves that we reinforce through every kind of experience, even painful ones. I think self-enquiry brings these things up, because it goes deeper than the body, deeper than the mind, and thus whatever we are holding onto in body and mind will make itself none, and sometimes painfully so. What this woman experiences in self-enquiry is probably unique to her in the specifics, but universal in the basic pattern. I think Ramana said that virtually everyone who takes up self-enquiry will go through a lot of trials and difficulties, internal and/or external. I gather it gets subtler over time, and maybe even the content gets “subtle”, but the process seems pretty much the same in principle all the way through. Everything that we experience has to be let go of, because holding onto our experience is in some sense the very essence of our suffering. The devil of course is in the details.

I suppose this is what I mean by there not being much guidance out there for what literally goes on in the practice of those embarking on self-enquiry, and I don't know if it really changes all that much even for those who are very mature in it. From the accounts of Muruganar and Ammamalai, for example, this seems to be the case. They of course had the direct guidance of Ramana. Most people out here in the west have little to none, and much of what does pass for “guidance” falls well short of the mark. In fact, even the more prominent pseudo-Advaita gurus out there don't seem to talk about self-enquiry much, probably because they don't know much about it.

I recall when I first began to re-read Ramana about three years ago (for the first time since I was a teenager) and flirted with self-enquiry for the first time, I sensed that I was in for big trouble. Sure enough, I went through the most difficult time of my life rather suddenly. Something I read in Ramana really stuck with me and came alive to help me through this, when he said that the biggest mistake most people make is that they thank God when good things happen, and never when bad things happen. I just started repeating this over and over and thanking God every day for all the difficulties I was going through, and you know what? It really helped. And in the end, things did work themselves out fairly well. And I had a chance to see what was really important in life, which is why I began, eventually, to take self-enquiry more seriously. So maybe that's another thing to do. When the shit really hits the fan while doing self-enquiry, thank God, or the Self, or Ramana, or whatever you want to call it, for it, and don't just thank him for the blissful experiences that sometimes come.

We also got a comment from Kang, who sometimes gets a little over-excited, but we appreciate his passion. He writes:
“You know, I don't care what you or anyone else or even Ramana might say about this, self-enquiry is not a "practice." To call it that is just to make a self-conscious, narcissistic, egoistically fetishistic affair out of what is patently, in that case, NOT self-enquiry.”
Come on, Kang, don't be shy, tell us how your really feel.

Okay, this isn't really so hard. As the other dude says, this is just words. I understand the whole “no practice” teaching of Papaji, and I love his way of putting it, and I also know that he teaches self-enquiry, but says that self-enquiry isn't a practice. I guess you are arguing along those lines? Well, good. There's a serious truth there. Self-enquiry isn't a “practice” like doing mantra japa or meditating on Tibetan visualizations of Tara. It is, as you say, merely finding out who we are. But let's face it, semantics aside, if you have to do it more than once, it's a practice. Those who only did it once and succeeded can be counted on the fingers of one hand, that I know of. Ramana, Papaji, and Lakshmana. Obviously all three were hugely prepared to make self-enquiry effective. The rest of us who have tried at least once and not realized the Self, well, if we want to keep trying, we might as well just call it a practice.

Is the practice of self-enquiry a self-conscious, narcissistic, egoistically fetishistic affair? Yes, I think so, if we are honest with ourselves. I mean, what's more narcissistic than putting all our attention on ourselves? What's more egotistical than focusing on the “I”-thought? It's hard for me to think of anything. It's egotism pure and simple, which I think is really what makes the whole thing work. Rather than beating around the bush, or running away from the ego, or trying to purify and transform the ego, self-enquiry just looks at the ego head on, no fuss, no muss. As Ramana said, in self-enquiry we look for the guy who is claiming to be the boss of this whole affair, and when we make the enquiry thorough and still can't find him, the whole charade is up. That's the end of the ego, and yet the process means putting all attention on this imaginary ego, until we see through ourselves.

My own experience with self-enquiry is erratic, but a lot does come up that I have to surrender. Lots of emotions come up, lots of happiness comes up, lots of tears, lots of devotion, lots of doubt, lots of mediocrity, etc. For me, it's all about simply feeling the “feeling of self”, which I don't even know quite how to describe. That's kind of how I got into self-enquiry in the first place. I was still in Adidam, and I'd pretty much given up on most of it, but something about the whole description of the “self-contraction” in Adidam had always intrigued me, and so I had gotten into “feeling the self-contraction” not in the usual way people talked about in Adidam, as a cramp in the gut or the mind, but in the basic self-position. When I left Adidam shortly thereafter that's about the only thing I took with me, spiritually speaking – not that I practiced it much, or did anything about it really. But when I began reading Ramana again the practice of Self-enquiry now seemed to make sense to me, which it hadn't long ago when I first knew of Ramana. The feeling of self seemed like a good starting place for moving into self-enquiry, and it seems to obviate something of the more headache-inducing notions about self-enquiry such as “awareness watching awareness”.

Although I must admit the AWA teachings, based of course on great quotes from Ramana and Nisargadatta, are excellent ways of looking at self-enquiry, but they try to distill it too far from its source, and make a fetishistic obsession of it that is divorced from its living reality, by which I mean the whole living reality of spirituality altogether. I've definitely benefited from such views, but I always find that the reality of Ramana is much wider than that narrow understanding and reductionism of self-enquiry.

I suppose that's why I react a bit to some of those who pass on the great teachings of Ramana, even very astute and high-minded guys like David Godman. There's a tendency, I think, to reduce Ramana's teaching to a “practice”, rather than a living relationship to a profoundly overwhelming Transcendental Being residing in our Heart. Ramana himself didn't do self-enquiry till the last minute. Before then, he was hanging out at the local temple, staring at the statue of the Goddess there with tears running down his cheeks. Now, could we say that practice was a form of self-enquiry? Maybe we could, if we understood self-enquiry in a way that's a little “out of the box”. Because I think self-enquiry includes a lot more than just the most literal exercise of asking “who am I?” for a half hour each morning and evening, and randomly throughout the day. It involves more than merely putting attention on awareness itself. I don't know that I want to define what it really is, but I do know that it's more than any of the book definitions let on.

Of course, maybe there's a reason why this doesn't get talked about much. Maybe it's not supposed to be talked about. I'm not sure why that would be, but it could be the case. And maybe it's a mistake for me to even broach the subject, much less have a blog like this. I gotta say, every week I wonder if I should just let this go. Who knows, maybe God will strike me dead. I should be so lucky.

Anyway, that's where I get off, this feeling of self. Meditating on that feeling is quite relaxing, really, even if it is just ego. Somehow, by meditating on the feeling of self, I feel something beyond self. Meditating on the “I', not as an abstraction, but as a feeling, makes the process seem real to me in ways that many conceptual approaches simply don't. The feeling of self isn't limited to just some sense of interior personae, but is the feeling of the body, and the feeling of the mind, as a sense of self. So when I practice self-enquiry, and feel this sense of self, it isn't apart from the body really. It's coincident with the body, just not limited to the body. It's coincident with the breath, with awareness, with feeling altogether. Somehow, that makes it work for me. And it's easy to see that this “I” is a feeling that runs through the whole of our being, all of our bodies, all the sheaths, to whatever degree we are aware of them. Everywhere we experience anything, there is a feeling of self at the core of that experience, and we experience that feeling all the time.

So, that's just my beginner's experience. It hasn't made me into some kind of enlightened dude who can now pontificate about the ultimates. Or rather, it hasn't stopped me from being a pompous dude who likes to pontificate about ultimates whether he knows what he's talking about or not. But it does feel damn good, and as Janis says, that can't be bad.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Open Secrets

The commentator quoted in my last post has replied in a kindly fashion, and I think it's worth responding to:
“I am the previous commentator whom you quoted. My apologies for the deprecatory tone of some of my remarks, which I regret. I tried to edit my comment after posting it, but found that I could not. I was over-reacting to your last post which seemed to wander pretty far from anything I recognized as self-enquiry, but now I understand your purpose better. The constructive part of my comment, I believe, was the recommendation of the James book, but that doesn't seem to be the focus of your interest right now.

I do think Michael James is making a very serious effort to address the practice of self-enquiry specifically for beginners. But he does not spend a lot of time discussing beginners experiences with the practice, but rather in clarifying and correcting characteristic beginner's misconceptions of the practice, and wrong approaches to it. I think this does at least overlap some of the areas in which you express an interest in your current post. And books are not necessarily merely about "theory" as opposed to "practice". James does indeed get into the theory, but primarily focuses on practice.

I suppose we're all "beginners" in this practice, but I have been devoted to this particular path of self-enquiry, inspired by Ramana, for decades now, including several stints in Tiru, acqaintance with Godman, James, and others, etc. But this is not my place to discuss my experience with this practice. This is not a discussion group, but rather a blog which is your stage.

Again my best regards to you and best wishes for your practice. May it be fruitful.”
Thanks, dude, I appreciate the kind words. No apologies necessary, as your criticism is probably quite valid. I only wish you would be more specific about what you saw in my posts, because that would be really helpful. You have to understand, I'm very much alone out here, with no one around me who practices self-enquiry, and not much chance of traveling to Tiruvanamalai anytime soon, and yeah, kind of going crazy. So I'm just putting it out there as it rattles around and then comes out of my mind. I don't expect any of it to be correct or right. And you don't have to think that it isn't your place to put in your two cents. Believe me, two cents is more than I have, so it could prove mighty valuable to me. You're probably right that we're all just beginners, but some are more beginnerish than others I'm sure. One thing self-enquiry does, I think, is make us realize that we are all equal, that we really are all in this together, and struggling for better or worse with that part of ourselves we all share in common. And it eliminates any sense of worry about being criticized or having failed, because it's obvious we have already done that for endless lifetimes, and it can't really get any worse, so what do we have to lose except some silly sense of self-imagery.

I appreciate the reference to Michael James' site, but without mentioning any particulars, I don't really know what part of his site you are referring me to, or what issue you noticed that might be addressed there. If you've been practicing self-enquiry for a couple of decades I'm sure you have a lot of wisdom to share with me and others who might be reading this blog, and it would be more than appreciated. Again, have no fear of trespassing on any taboos here. Self-enquiry (as I understand it) means going beyond those things to the core of ourselves, where we are one at heart. So you are not separate from me, nor do you have to act that way. Nor does anyone out there. Just do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I think that's the only operative rule.


Beginner's Confusion is Unavoidable

Sorry for not posting much lately. I've been traveling, and sick, and just busy. Not that everyone feels this is a bad thing, of course. Here's a recent comment on my last post:

“If you would like to bring some clarity to your often confused and confusing notions about self-enquiry, you will do well to study Michael James' magnificent work "Happiness and the Art of Being" subtitled 'A layman's introduction to the philosophy and practice of the spiritual teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana.' Michael James is a deep and profound student of Ramana's teaching, and was a close collaborator with Sadhu Om. You can learn more about him by checking him and his book out on the net. His book stays very close to Ramana's own words, but also draws on the insights of Muruganar and Sadhu Om. James' own contribution is his crystal clear writing style and deep understanding of these teachings, practices, and their implications. The book "Happiness and the Art of Being" is available from amazon, or free on the web as a pdf file.

If you are sincere about delving into the practice of self-enquiry, you will find this work invaluable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to ruminate about these things and post your own idiosyncratic take on them, feel free to ignore this advice. Best regards to you and best wishes for your study and practice.”
I guess I should make it a little more clear what I'm doing on this blog, and what I'm not doing. First, I'm not trying to present any orthodoxy of Ramana's teachings, or Advaita, etc., not as a rule at least. I may do that from time to time, it's on my list so to speak, but really, there are way, way better sources on the subject out there than me. I'm familiar with the “Happiness of Being” website the commentator referred to, as well as all kinds of great sources such as various books by Ramana, Sadhu Om, Lakshmana, and David Godman's website (which, by the way, has the ebook posting of Guru Vachaka Kovai). I've gone through a fairly rigorous samyama on self-enquiry, though I'm sure not as much or as deeply as many readers here. However, I think it needs to be said that book knowledge is at best a beginning, at times a guide, and is no substitute for the actual practice of self-enquiry, which is much “messier” than the book descriptions lead one to think.

One issue that has struck me from the beginning of my interest in self-enquiry is how few people actually practice it, and how few who actually practice it become enlightened. It's obviously a fairly advanced practice, and I'm fairly obviously not an advanced spiritual soul, and so I've had some reservations about the practice. The descriptions of self-enquiry by Muruganar, Ramana, Lakshmana, Sadhu Om, and others who have taken it all the way are beautiful and inspiring. On the other hand, there's a certain unreachable quality to their descriptions which makes the practice seem beyond the reach of all but the most mature souls. This, of course, is contrary to Ramana's own teachings on the subject. Ramana claims that self-enquiry is also the best practice for beginners, for those who are anything but advanced souls. In a series of emails with David Godman last year about self-enquiry I argued this point, and he emphatically confirmed that this was Ramana's view, to the point where I had to concede it to him. The question that remains for me is, what is the actual practice of self-enquiry like for beginners, and how is it made effective?

That's what this blog is supposed to be about. In part, of course, it just represents my own ruminations about various related spiritual topics, but the question remains, how does the rest of spirituality relate to self-enquiry, not just in theory, but in practice? Spirituality is complex, the human spiritual organism is complex, and the practice of self-enquiry has to address all of it in practice or it's just not meaningful. My sense for why self-enquiry is so unpopular, even among followers of Ramana, is that people simply don't know how to take it up as beginners, and so instead they take up all kinds of simpler practices, such as bhakti. David Godman remarked in an interview a few years ago that someone interested in self-enquiry stood at the door of the meditation hall at Ramanashram asking for help on self-enquiry, and found that not a single person was actually practicing it there.

So please, pardon me for being a neophyte at this, but I think there's a serious disconnect out there between the theory of self-enquiry and its beginning practice. My own postings clearly reflect this. I do “sorta” know what self-enquiry is, intellectually. I do “sorta” know how to practice it. But the gulf between me and the full and clear understanding of a Ramana or a Muruganar on the subject is immense. And yet, I can't start from Ramana's position, I have to start from where I am, and move as best I can towards their position. And yes, I know that means I am assuming unenlightenment on my part, and that this is a self-fulfilling assessment. But assuming enlightenment doesn't seem to be working for anyone I know of either. There's obviously a real process that has to be engaged that grows us in the practice of self-enquiry, and that brings even the most lowly beginners through a process of enlightenment that may take many lifetimes, perhaps, but is real and true in the moment it is engaged.

And that is what I would like to be doing – simply engaging in a process that is real and true, even though I'm clearly a very raw beginner, not an advanced or mature being by any means. The process of self-enquiry seems very difficult even for advanced practitioners, so I think it's going to be even more so for beginners like me. If I seem confused and confusing, yes, it's because I am. But I don't think I'm going to become less confused merely by intellectual study of the subject. It certainly helps from time to time, but really, at some point one has to put down the books and engage the practice, and make a fool of oneself. I don't think the actual practice of self-enquiry is flattering to anyone. I don't think it's very clear to anyone who hasn't actually realized it. If it were clear, these people would be enlightened themselves. That they are not suggests that the process is more profoundly confusing than the literature suggests, and that focusing on the literature too much can become a crutch which gives one an intellectual sense of clarity which lacks the depth necessary to actually make self-enquiry effective in practice.

And I think that is why so many people abandon self-enquiry. I have certainly done that a number of times, only to be drawn back into it. Most people, it seems, even ardent followers of Ramana, just give it up after a few fruitless tries. There is very little guidance for such people out there, and it's very easy to imagine that the confusion which arises when we begin to practice self-enquiry means that we are doing something wrong. Unfortunately, we probably are, but that is also simply to be expected when engaging in something as profoundly central to our being as self-enquiry.

I don't think it's necessary to say this, because I think it's rather obvious, but in case some people are wondering I am most definitely not trying to develop a spiritual “teaching” about self-enquiry. I have zero qualifications for that. There's a ton of people far better qualified than I for that job, and as I say, lots of literature on the subject. I'm just trying to engage a beginner's consideration of the actual practice of self-enquiry, and how it relates to this messy business of mind and life and spirit. I appreciate any feedback I can get, as long as it's constructive feedback, and not merely trying to play suppression games.

Now, as for the issue of my “idiosyncratic take”, yes, it most definitely is. But I think everyone's take on self-enquiry is idiosyncratic – except for those who have realized the Self. The problem with the literature and public discussion of self-enquiry (what little there is) is that everyone seems to be striving to eliminate the idiosyncratic, and give only the purest and most refined descriptions of self-enquiry. I think that creates an imbalance. I think we need more idiosyncratic views and accounts of self-enquiry, not less of them. I for one would really appreciate hearing how other people practice self-enquiry, what their views are, and their experiences, without trying to make a perfect cookie-cutter of it that corresponds to the pure descriptions of Ramana and Muruganar and Sadhi Om. I would find it more inspiring to hear such things. Others might disagree. In my case, it's the only option I have, since I can't really write about the pure teachings except intellectually. As I've said, I've been there, done that, and it's just not useful to me anymore.

I'm quite aware that what I'm doing here is of very dubious value, and who knows, I may not do it for much longer. I originally began posting here simply because I thought it would help me maintain some attention on self-enquiry, which is useful in and of itself. But I won't pretend that my practice is anything profound. I do what I can, and I'm open to any help anyone can offer. You don't have to be a spiritual teacher, just an ordinary bloke like me who is traveling this same difficult path.

Thanks again to everyone out there for your support.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Self-enquiry As a Yoga of Love: Cutting Through Spiritless Materialism

One thing I want to keep repeating, as often as is necessary, is that self-enquiry is not an intellectual or analytic process. It isn't even a form of discrimination at heart, though it is supported by discrimination. Primarily, it is what can only be called love, devotion, surrender - the heart. Discrimination is only useful in coming to this understanding. Discrimination teaches us that everything else is inherently meaningless, except for this core love of Self. All meaning comes from the Self, and is attached to the forms the Self takes by the mind that presumes itself to be the only real actor in all of this, but is in reality merely the still and actionless Self of love.

My experience of practicing self-enquiry is that it awakens this love spontaneously, without adding any particular intention for it to do that. As Ramana always said, there is no jnana without bhakta. What is most striking about love awakened by self-enquiry is that it is not attached to any particular object. The general practice of bhakta is to direct one's attention to an object, a God, a Guru, a symbol or archetype of some kind, and practice devotion to that object. I'm not saying this is wrong to do at all, mind you. I think it's a wonderful thing to practice. It's just that self-enquiry is different in that when love awakens through self-enquiry there is no object it is associated with. One can, of course, quickly associate it with an object. The Guru is the most common such object. So people around Ramana, for example, naturally associated the devotion awakened by self-enquiry with him as Guru, and practiced a devotional life in relation to him. This isn't wrong either, and is in fact also very wonderful. It's important to remember, however, that even Ramana always reminded his devotees that their real devotion was to the Self, and that he, Ramana, was only an outward symbol of the Self, the purpose of which was to help direct their attention back upon themselves, on the Self in the heart, and to use him for that purpose if need be, and not for any other purpose.

What self-enquiry shows us about love is that it does not arise in relation to objects, but that it arises spontaneously from the heart, because it is merely the heart's own nature. The problem with devotional religion in general is that it tends to see the purpose of this love arising from the heart as some imperative to direct itself to some “other”, to enter into loving relations with these others, and to fulfill some kind of loving destiny with them. All kinds of strange myths develop as a result, myths of Gods and Gurus and plans for the universe. But in reality all such ideas are merely the mind's imposition on this free love arising in the heart. Love itself has no purpose or direction. It is merely the Presence and Nature of the Self, the heart, our very being. What is realization but the recognition that this is so, and the cessation of all attempts to exploit or direct this love in relation to objects?

This doesn't mean we can't discuss the yoga of this love, that we can't discuss how it arises and moves into life. As mentioned in my last post, there's a whole cosmology of forms by which we appear here, and the practice of self-enquiry doesn't ignore these forms or their structure. In fact, if we aren't aware of that structure to some basic degree we can easily be deluded by our own mind and makes assumptions and associations that simply aren't true, that are the result of unconsciously presuming these forms and structures within our own minds to be inherently meaningful, rather than merely composed of mind-created meanings. And then our love becomes bound and destined, rather than free. So this merely amounts to understanding the structure of our suffering, and releasing that structure from the limitations we have placed upon it.

In my last post I discussed some of the structural relationships between the physical body and brain, and the pranic and astral bodies. I mentioned in particular that one of the chief developmental processes in becoming associated with a physical body is establishing a fully functional “interface” between the astral and the physical, particularly at the level of the brain and nervous system. If this is not done, we become frustrated and dysfunctional, to the degree that this interface is incomplete or damaged. I'd suggest that much of what we suffer from in the physical realm while alive is the result of our inability to properly develop and grow this synaptic interface with the astral self. Most of what we “do” in this life is really little more than this, not any achievements themselves. Because our attention tends towards objects, we do indeed develop these capacities in relation to objects, particularly physical ones, and this is good, because that is the very nature of the process. It is only that the way we tend to go about this actually reinforces object relations, and leads to clinging and attachment that actually interferes with the process, thus creating a long struggle with our own double-binds. The dilemma becomes one of relating to the physical with love, and yet avoiding the pitfalls of attachment in the process. I think we all know how hard that is.

Self-enquiry helps us go beyond these pitfalls by showing us that love is not about any object, even physical ones near and dear to us. It recognizes that the source of love is in the Self, not merely in the relationship between astral and physical. It teaches us how to love without being bound. More specifically, it allows the individual to develop these relationships in a way that undoes the pitfalls and limitations that develop if we seek through these means for some specific result.

I mentioned that one of the benefits of meditation is that it allows the astral and physical to grow and develop this “interface”. Primarily it does this not by any directed effort, but by the relaxation of the stress and struggle that interfere with this natural process. The surrendered and relaxed state of meditation allows this growth to occur naturally and in a healthy manner, rather than in an aberrated and object directed manner. Even if the form of meditation is object-directed in some fashion, as in devotional meditation, this can still occur if it results in a general relaxation of the brain and nervous system. However, tense and tightly focused forms of meditation may have a negative and aberating effect. By constricting the tissues of the brain, and of the pranic body, and of our astral energy itself, the ability of these to form strong and healthy bonds is disrupted and even perverted. This occurs when meditation becomes obsessive and overly object-oriented, or even when it becomes obsessed with pranic and astral energy as an object in and of itself. By turning these into objects of meditation, our energy becomes more disturbed, and is unable to form a healthy bonding with the physical body, resulting in ill-health and mental and emotional disturbance. There's much in the literature of kundalini yoga and other such approaches which demonstrates this danger.

Self-equiry, on the other hand, because it is not directed towards any object at all, is one of the most effective forms of meditation for the purpose of creating a strong and healthy interface between the physical, pranic, and the astral, as well as what is beyond the astral. When self-enquiry awakens the love of the Self, this centers us in the primal yoga by which the body does indeed grow to health in all these dimensions. The love that is the Self arises as a yogic force that has great nurturing power in the physical, pranic, and astral bodies, and helps unify them – not just in some abstract philosophical manner, but in a wholly direct and effective manner. In fact, it reaches beyond the astral into the discriminative body, the “bliss body” of deep sleep, the Witness consciousness, and the Source at the root of the Witness.

And this is where self-enquiry shows its real strength. It establishes a linkage all the way through our entire manifest self all the way to the Self that is our very Nature and Source. I liken it to an arrow that shoots straight from the Self, the heart, passing through all the “I”s of the deeper personality all the way to the physical self of the body-mind we feel ourselves to be. In each bodily sheath, this “I” is the mechanism of love and blissful attention, if self-enquiry is kept constant and alive. The enquiry into the “I” is a most effective means for opening the doors, so to speak, of the body-mind, such that we bring into life the clear and free being of the Self as love. This love of the Self creates and nurtures a healthy and open-hearted linkage between all these aspects of the body-mind, allowing them to grow and form the kind of functional relationship between all their parts and dimensions that is the hallmark of a happy life. And this “arrow” is ourself, our attention, our consciousness, our own being. There is no transmission of energy from the Self to us, no Grace falling down upon us from the sky, there is instead our own attention moving from its depth to its surface, and manifesting as freedom in the midst of the display of light and life that is our own Self.

In the practice of self-enquiry, this always manifests as an intensification of the sense of self, at every level, and the noticing of self as the prime experience at every level. The physical self is not diminished by this practice, instead it is merely opened to the pranic and astral. Attention does not become fixated in the pranic or astral in the process, instead it becomes opened up, and the natural relationship between these is allowed to grow and manifest in these bodies. The astral is not made an end, but another plane of the self's identity. Likewise, the astral itself is opened to the deeper identity of the discriminating self, and this is opened to the even deeper “bliss self” of the anandamayakosha sheath, and this opens to the Witness consciousness, which opens to the Heart itself. In self-enquiry, all these sheaths are effectively opened, such that the love-bliss of the Self moves through them, like an arrow, precisely to here. As this love moves through the sheaths of the body, it helps realign them to the naturally open and healthy relationship they ought to have, rather than the aberated and disturbed relationship they tend to fall into in ignorance. The light of the Self does not merely illuminate our awareness, it also heals and grows our bodies as they are intended to be, resulting in a overall bodily ease and harmony that is often called “sattva” in the traditions. Sattva means balance, harmony, and health, but at the deeper level, it is synonymous with enlightenment itself, because this is what enlightenment really amounts to, the full opening of the body-mind on all levels to the love-bliss of the Self.

This is how identification with the body is itself transcended. It is of course said in Ramana's teaching and many others in the Advaitic tradition that transcending identification with the body is what enlightenment is all about. And this is true. Likewise, it is said by Ramana that self-enquiry is the means by which identification with the body is transcended. This is also true. What tends to be left out of the public conservation about these matters, however, is how this yoga actually occurs. It is often left unsaid, and attention is focused instead on attention itself, and how important it is to focus attention on the Self, on the “I” thought. And this is all true too. But the process whereby self-enquiry actually matures is not very well described. At least that is my limited observation. I'm trying to point here to an integral part of that process, whereby self-enquiry actually functionally liberates the body-mind from identification at every level, through this yoga of awakened love of the Self that opens the doors and windows of the body-mind to see the world and the body from the perspective of the Self, through every facet of “I”, like an arrow shot through each “I” in a row, linking them all up in a single cord of energy-attention-love, and growing them, freeing them from their delusions and aberated connections, until there is simply a pure sattvic harmony all through every experiential dimension of the body.

One can see the evidence of this is the bodily disposition of people like Ramana. One can see it in the eyes of such people, even in photographs of them. There is no outward sign of perfection in them, only a completely relaxed and harmonious disposition of sattvas that makes them open channels of the Self. This is why they are as valued and treasured. Not because they are inherently different from you and I, but precisely because they are no longer being anyone but themselves, are no longer struggling with themselves, and have simply surrendered to themselves, to the point where their own Self has opened all the bodies of their being, from the depth to the surface, without obstruction. When we talk about “ego”, that is all it really means – the kinks and obstructions of energy and attention that makes us experience ourselves as something other than the Self. The sense of “I” that we call ourselves is merely that – a kink in the Self, that can be removed by allowing the love of the Self to permeate every place in the body-mind where our “I” is known. This restores us to our true “I”, and this is of course done by directing examining the “I” at every level we are aware of ourselves as “I”, which is really all of them, if we will stop limiting ourselves to the materialistic interpretation of experience.

And that is the real problem with materialism. It does not let us be ourselves, as we really are, but is constantly interpreting experience in a manner that diminishes our greater sense of self on any level but the physical. And this view actually aberates and disturbs us, because it prevents us from allowing the natural, healthy relationship to the pranic, the astral, and beyond, to develop as it ought to. Instead, it constantly diverts attention to its lowest and most material common denominator. This does not allow us to become healthy human beings, even at the level of the material world, because the material world requires a good and strong relationship with the pranic and the astral to become healthy and stable. Cut off from these, it gravitates towards all kinds of unhealthy paths, from exploitation of the physical to excessive control of the physical to religious dogmatism and fanaticism to mentalized idealisms to cutthroat competition and even open warfare. The general desperation of human beings is the result of an inability to feel the pranic and astral roots of our own being in any meaningful way, as well as what is beyond and deeper than even these. Self-enquiry, and all genuinely helpful spiritual paths, are aimed at awakening and opening ourselves to our own roots, grounding us in reality rather than in the abstracted fantasy of materialism.

I hope this helps explain my basic views on these matters. In the next few days I hope to respond to some of Tom Veitch's comments in an ongoing thread we've been opening up between our sites. I'd also like to write something about evolution, particularly in relation to the debates about creationism, intelligent design, and various spiritual approaches to the matter, including Ken Wilber's writings on evolution. It should be interesting. Also, I'll be tossing out one more Cosmic Vision as fodder for discussion.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Astral Evolutionary Materialism

I've been thinking about the two visions I posted here over the last couple of weeks, and what they mean to me. I'm been particularly interested in discussing the mechanics of bodily incarnation, and what that means both spiritually and developmentally for all of us. As it happens, I've been reading some interesting material lately that gives me fodder for some ruminations on these matters. And then, just a few minutes ago I checked in on the old Lightmind Forums to see if Tom had done anything new, and there's a post by him there that refers to my last post on Spiritual Materialism.

Tom has some problems with the way I try to make accommodations with atheistic materialism by acknowledging that our brains just aren't very well suited to process visions and other spiritual information that falls into it:
This view is a pretty good attempt to find a meeting place between the neo-Darwinian science and mysticism. Unfortunately it ends up siding with the atheists, in that the brain is seen as "better designed and formulated to process physical experience than mystical experience." The brain is viewed as largely limited to the provisional "beta" operating system, which is an outward-adapting system. The "omega" software -- which developed alongside the "beta" system, if pretty much discounted or ignored. This despite the author's familiarity with the literature and practices left by the explorers of consciousness: the yogis and sages of India. So, for example, there is no mention of what the yogis named the ajna and sahasrar chakras, nor of direct brain-experience via those long-known brain functions. And "our mystical experience" is described as "chaotic, discontinuous, in conflict, and contaminated by personal and structural biases."
I understand where Tom is coming from. I think he has a point that I'm bending backwards a bit in trying not to offend materialists or atheists. But I think I am pointing to a legitimate problem with mystical experience, visions, and other phenomena, which often gives materialists and atheists plenty of good arguments against spiritual phenomena and traditions that evolve from them. The physical brain is, indeed, a physical mechanism, evolved in most respects to process information in relation to the physical world. It does seem that it can also process information that comes from deeper experience as well, or we wouldn't be able to report visions and meditative experiences at all. What I think needs to be examined is how accurate it is in processing this information, and what kinds of corruption errors enter into that process.

Obviously all kinds of people have had legitimate spiritual experiences over the milennia, and just as obviously many have had conflicting interpretations of those experiences. I am of the view that much of that conflict is not merely conceptually based, but is literally based in the structural processing of the brain itself, and how it deals with spiritual phenomena. I think that this could even be described as an evolutionary process, that our brains are adapting to such things, and that not all brains are equally adept at cleanly processing and interpreting these experiences. Add on top of that the cultural interpretations that have been put in place, plus the conceptualizing, cognitive differences in individuals, and you get the general mess that is the current state of affairs in religion.

Much of what goes on in discussions of spiritual experience is confined to the latter matters of interpretation – cultural and cognitive. We tend to assume that our spiritual experiences are basically the same, it is just that we interpret them differently on these levels. I'm suggesting something a bit different here: that our brains themselves are engaged in very basic functional mechanical processes in relation to these experiences that are subject to all kinds of inconsistent disturbances and corruptions. Just, as I might add, our brain has problems accurately processing physical information, it also has problems processing spiritual experience, and perhaps even more so. Most courtroom experts will tell you, for example, that the most unreliable evidence presented in court is eyewitness testimony. People simply don't know what they see or hear, and they don't remember it properly or order it right in their minds. Countless examples about as to the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, such that if didn't go against the grain of our own beliefs in ourselves as witnesses, most of it would be thrown out. However, juries usually come to the opposite conclusion. They tend to regard eyewitness testimony as the most reliable of all information, and regularly convict people of crimes based on eyewitness testimony even when other information contradicts it. Many people put in jail for murder or rape who have later been proven innocent based on DNA testing were originally convicted based on eyewitness testimony.

And the same problem exists in religion. Whole religions exist which are based, for the most part, on highly questionable eyewitness testimony. Islam, for example, is based on the visions and dreams of the Prophet Mohammed, who wrote them down to form the Koran. Let us presume for the moment that he was sincere, that he really did have these dreams and visions as reported, and recorded them faithfully. No one really knows what he actually experienced, but we do know that how his mind interpreted these experiences can't merely be reduced to some set of ideas we call “Islam”. At its root was a mystical experience, a sensory experience that goes beyond the physical, that his brain processed at some level and produced the sights and sounds that he recorded. Muslims feel that these sensory experiences came from God, some Christians would argue it was the Devil, and a materialistic psychologist might argue that it was an example of delusional psychosis.

And this is the problem with mysticism in general. Visions are not merely subject to conceptual interpretation, the mere having of them implies that the physical brain has some capacity to receive and process the raw extra-sensory data of the vision, and thus we have to have some faith in the brain's ability to do that reliably, in such a way that accurately reflects not just the physical world, but the spiritual realms as well, and their relationship to the physical. The materialistic interpretation of visions is that they are merely the product of overactive imagination, or psychosis, or some other process within the brain, but even if we reject that reductionism in favor of the reality of spiritual consciousness, we do have to acknowledge that the physical brain must play a key role in the process, and that it represents a “bottleneck” on many levels that tests the reliability of not just the conclusions, but the raw data itself.

To have any chance of answering the questions this raises we have to address some very basic issues as to the anatomy of the human mind, the brain, the astral worlds, and what their relationship is to the physical. As Tom says, there is a long history in yoga about the various subtle structures of consciousness, including various chakras, but I think we have to admit that these are not physical structures. If one cuts open the brain, one does not find an ajna chakra behind the eyes, or a sahasrar at the top. One does find the pineal gland behind the eyes, however, and it's probably no coincidence that it is this gland which has been linked to the kinds of mystical experience which hallucinogenic drugs are found to induce. But how these various aspects of the brain and its immensely complex mechanism relate to our subtle anatomy is not easily demonstrated.

The Hindu system describes five sheaths to the body, the physical, pranic, astral, discrimination, and bliss sheaths. The middle three are really all what one could call “subtle” or astral, but they have distinct differences. The pranic body, for example, coincides with the physical body, and is only slightly more subtle than it. There are many suggestions that the pranic body is even composed of atomic and molecular structures very similar to those of the physical world, and that they “grow together” in some respects from the time of conception. The pranic body is the “energy body” that most people who are involved in spiritual practice learn to feel to some degree or another. It is most closely associated with the breath, and can be felt in the breath with even a modest degree of sensitivity. This is the meaning of the world “spirit”, and why early spiritual cultures place so much emphasis on the breath, and the power of the breath to connect us to the spirit real. What they are referring to is the pranic body, which is so closely related to the physical body that it often feels as if it is almost the same thing, and is very much involved in all kinds of ordinary experiences such as emotion and feeling, as well as basic health and well-being. However, this is not really what we mean when we talk about the astral body, or the process of reincarnation.

The dream-vision I recorded here about death, in which my “deeper personality” was temporarily shaken loose from the physical personae of Conrad, demonstrates how the astral being relates to both the physical and the pranic life. My own “deeper personality” is not the same as the physical personae of Conrad, but lives in the astral plane, and never actually “enters into” the physical world. Instead, it simply allows its attention and identity to be subsumed by the physical during incarnate life, and is not fully freed from that subjugation until death. In the meantime, there is a dualistic play going on at all times, in which our astral self is combined with, but never fully merged with, either the physical self or the pranic self. Moreover, it is linked to the physical through the pranic, which means that it is always at an even greater remove from the physical than we might like to think. On the one hand this is positive, in that it gives us greater distance from the overwhelming power of the physical, allowing us the ability to reflect, not just cognitively, but spiritually, on our life and decisions. This gives us greater moral and ethical capabilities than the physical body alone possesses. The physical body alone is, after all, just an advanced monkey (as one commenter has put it). But because we are not the physical body alone, we are more than just monkeys, we are spiritual, conscious beings who have the capacity for moral reflection and action. Even the brains we have evolved reflect this capacity. But there is the rub.

Because the astral body is at a remove from the physical, it must rely upon a complex web of interconnections to properly function through the physical. These interconnections are slowly developed from conception onwards, but like any developmental process they are subject to all kinds of interruptions and error. Likewise, they are evolving mechanisms, not something perfectly designed by a benevolent God for our perfect happiness. Like the physical brain itself, they are the result of a long series of evolutionary, developmental processes that have left us half-finished, and still adapting to all kinds of basic functional needs. In some cases they are better adapted than others. And there is of course a huge range of developmental achievement and capability at every level of the process, from the sensory level to the sensory processing level to the imaging level to the cognitive level to the cultural level. We can't pretend that there is anything genuinely universal about the results of these processes, because everyone's developmental capacity and path is going to be slightly different, or in some case, greatly different.

The result is that there is a wide divergence in not just the language of how mystical experience is reported, but in the sensory experience itself. One of the reasons for this is because the interconnections between the astral body and the physical body are of widely differing degrees of quality and capacity. Another reason is that the physical brain itself doesn't have a full capacity to process astral information. As mentioned before, one of the primary purposes of the physical brain is actually to filter out astral data that we would find confusing and disturbing to physical life. The physical mind is a fairly simple creature, and it just isn't made to process all that astral information. In fact, it is often said that the purpose of reincarnation is to start afresh without all the intruding details of our ancient spiritual history, thus enabling us to learn something new, and work out our problems in a more dramatic and tangible form than the astral life allows. This would be defeated if the brain were continually aware of the vast range of our astral lives, so it works to deliberately suppress such things for the most part.

Mystics, in that sense, are people who are finding ways to “hack” the brain, and allow us to gain access to information that not just the brain's software, but the hardware itself, has evolved to filter out. This isn't necessarily a bad thing at all. It could very well be that we have taken this filtering process too far, to the point where materialism itself actually has begun to seem rational and real to many people. That's my view at least. I think materialism represents a faulty development in the interaction between that astral and the physical brain, such that the physical brain simply takes over and runs amock, leaving the astral self stranded, so to speak, in a physical world that no longer even acknowledges its real existence. This is what gives rise to the universal feeling of alienation in our materialistic age, because we have indeed become alienated from our spiritual source and nature on this very basic level. (I'm not even referring to the non-dual source and nature here, just the astral mechanics of mind).

What all this implies is that a critical part of the process of growing up in this world involves the development of a healthy relationship to our astral selves, to the pranic life we are so intimately related to, and the ability to function clearly in relation to all these. That ability, as I've mentioned in earlier posts, involves the development of the discrimination body as well, something that is also often left out of the picture. New Age people often talk about developing a healthy relationship to the spiritual world, and this is all very good, but they often leave out the discriminative functions of the mind when they do so, whereas it is discrimination which is the “prime directive” of the spiritual life. It is even the primary purpose of being born in physical form altogether. We are born in physical bodies in order to develop wisdom, because here things really do seem distinct and separate, and thus it is the perfect place in which to learn how to discriminate between truth and lies. It isn't perfect for this because it is a place of perfection – just the opposite. It is perfect precisely because it tests us so severely in every respect imaginable, and requires that we develop discrimination in order to get through it.

In another respect, then, even the development of discrimination requires that we develop a fully functional relationship to the astral dimensions. I don't mean that we have to become “psychics” and go around seeing auras. That isn't the point at all. What I mean is that we have to help ourselves grow the capacity to “interface” with the physic so flawlessly that we can bring all our wisdom to bear upon the tasks at hand, and draw on the great depth of intelligence and discrimination we as astral beings have developed over many, many lifetimes. If we limit ourselves to what we have learned in this life alone, we are not going to do very well. We need to be able to fully interact with the physical as fully developed spirits, not merely as monkey-brains. This requires some tinkering with the brain itself, in a nurturing manner, in order to allow these connections to grow properly. That is one of the main benefits of meditation, for example. It's not merely a relaxation technique, and it's not merely some way of taking attention out of the physical and putting it on the astral. In some respects its the opposite. It's a way of allowing the astral mind to move into deeper relationship with the physical brain and build new connections, new synapses that allow the brain to feel and process astral information more effectively and usefully. That allows great wisdom to develop in both directions. Our physical bodies become smarter and better adapted to multidimensional consciousness, and our astral bodies gain new understanding and energy from the physical world. For that reason alone, meditation is often refreshing and re-invigorating.

As to Tom's criticism of me for promoting a neo-Darwinist slant on these matters, I plead guilty as charged. However, I don't see this as a criticism, but praise. I do think Darwin's “Great Idea” truly is great, and applicable even to the mechanics of spiritual evolution. I think spirituality in general would benefit from taking seriously the notion that even our spiritual anatomy is the result not of “intelligent design”, but of an open-ended evolutionary process that has gotten to its current state of affairs by long struggles of adaptation and on the ground experiment. I do not find this to be a reductionist approach, but one that marvels at the incredible variety and differentiation produced by evolutionary development, as opposed, say, to central planning. I think we have to realize that far too much of our religious and spiritual ideologies are the result of the kind of reductionist thinking that one finds in Stalinist or Maoist materialistic cults. The idea of a God at the top of the pyramid who is planning and directing all of human spiritual development along some kind of ideological line is itself merely the product of failed spiritual development, the kind that allows the physical brain to seize control and claim itself as the ruler of the universe of mind.

Now, I'm not opposed to the notion that there are subtle beings and even subtle “Gods” who might influence our evolution. Who knows, there might be aliens involved for all I know. But all such subtle beings are still part of the evolutionary environment in which we evolve, not something outside it. We evolve in response to, and in relationship with, all kinds of subtle forces and factors, some benign, some perhaps not so benign. How that actually occurs is hard for me to say. Or anyone for that matter.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Rage Against The Cosmic Machine – More Dreams and Visions

For those of you who might wonder if there is any way to fight the Cosmic Machine, if there is any place for rebellion and dissidence in the face of our vast multi-dimensional universe of form and structure, I offer the following Dream-Vision I had about 15 years ago. I think it sheds some light on quite a few matters, including this whole reincarnation scam we are stuck in.

I had this vision back in 1991 I think, while camping out with my wife and kids in Lassen National Park, one of the more beautiful places in the world. We found a remote camping ground about ten miles down a dirt road, at Juniper Lake, at an elevation of about 6000 feet. There was no running water or toilets, so we had to bring everything in with us, but the setting was incredibly gorgeous and restful. Spiritually, I was in deep crisis at the time. I had left Adidam a year before, and I had no real idea what I was doing. I would have to say that I was deeply dissatisfied with my life and what I had done with it thus far, which is one of the themes of the vision, but I was happy with my family at least, and pleased to get away for a week from everything.

The dream began in archetypal fashion. I was driving along a four-lane divided freeway in my minivan, talking on a cell phone to everyone I loved in the world. My wife, my kids, my relatives, all my friends, all kinds of people from whatever karmic past I had, they were all on the phone with me on a gigantic conference call, and it was immensely enjoyable to feel my relationships with all of them. It was so distracting that I began to veer out of the far right hand lane in the lane to the left, and I had to bring myself back so as to stay out of trouble. This happened two or three more times, and each time I was so absorbed in the phone conversation that I didn't notice I was drifting out of my lane until I had gone far to the left. My view through the windshield was being obscured as well my a number of very soft, comfortable pillows. The whole feeling of it was that I was so immersed in these loving relationships and the comforts of life that I wasn't paying attention to what else was going on. And then I drifted to the left one more time, and crossed over all four lanes of traffic, and by the time I noticed and tried to correct my steering, it was too late. The car hurtled over the left side freeway barrier, and flew out into the air. It was then that I realized the freeway at this point was actually a giant bridge, and that it was at least 200 feet above the ground. So the car and I plunged 200 feet to the ground below, and I realized in an instant that I was going to die, that I was going to lose all those loving relationships, simply because of one stupid lapse of attention.

And that's just what happened. I fell all the way to the ground, crashed, and died. Everything went blank. After a brief interlude, the dream resumed, but something had completely changed. Now I was driving the minivan on the streets below the bridge, as if nothing had happened. The car was fine and my body was fine, but I was a different person entirely. I could see Conrad driving the car, but I was no longer Conrad. I was viewing Conrad from a position slightly behind and to the right of Conrad's head. I was rather perplexed by the whole situation. Hadn't we just fallen 200 feet to our deaths? So why was Conrad alive and driving along as if nothing had happened? This didn't make sense. I knew this wasn't the way life worked. No one survives a crash like that. So why was Conrad still alive? Suddenly it all made sense. I realized that this was Conrad's dream. He had only dreamed that he'd crashed and died. And somehow, because the dream had seemed so real, we had become temporarily disconnected, and I had become self-aware again, able to see Conrad as a distinct, physical personae.

I was completely aware of myself as an astral being, as the “deeper personality” that had reincarnated as Conrad. There was no shock to this, it was just the most natural and obvious thing. It's only now, after the dream, that it feels necessary to describe it. In the moment, I was totally clear about who I was, that I was this reincarnating personality who had taken on the physical body of Conrad all these years, and who now, because of this dream of death, had been shaken out of that association, at least enough to see what was going on. I realized that this was a rather rare opportunity to evaluate how this reincarnation was going, and make some decisions about it. So I examined this guy Conrad and tried to see what was what with him. And my general assessment was, what a fricking lemon I'd gotten stuck with. There were some redeeming features to him, but in general he seemed like a very mediocre character who hadn't done much of anything in his life, either physically or spiritually, and who was struggling with so many basic things in life he seemed almost hopeless. I felt very much dissatisfied with Conrad, very frustrated and obstructed, and I felt as if I had to re-evaluate whether or not to continue with this incarnation or not.

So I tried to figure out whether Conrad was worth it or not. And on the face of it, Conrad really didn't seem to be worth my time and energy. I knew that if I wanted to stick with Conrad, I would just re-associate myself with his body and mind, wake up in the morning, and be almost completely subsumed in the identity of Conrad once more, and go along with that until he died a natural death, whenever that would be. This was not very appealing at all, and I felt rather repelled by the whole idea. I also realized that if I wanted to, I could chose to leave this whole Conrad incarnation behind, and go back to the astral worlds. But that option didn't seem all that great either, because it meant I'd have to just find another body to reincarnate in, and there's no guarantee it would be any better than Conrad. In short, neither option seemed all that great. In fact, the more I looked at the situation, the more intolerable both options seemed.

I realized that I didn't want to take either of those options, but I also saw that nothing else was being offered to me. And that made me angry. Really angry. I realized that if this was a moment to re-evaluate my situation and choose what I really wanted, none of these things were what I wanted. What did I really want? I wanted to be free of all this bullshit.

I looked around at Conrad's dream world, and realized how silly and stupid it was. I looked at Conrad and realized he was just a stupid tool who was oblivious to the realities of this universe. The dream was itself a perfect reflection of Conrad's attitude. One minute he's dreaming of death and annihilation, the next moment he acts as if nothing's happened, as if he's just out on a Sunday drive around town. He seemed oblivious and vapidly superficial, and not very bright to boot. This just pissed me off, the whole situation pissed me off, and I didn't know what to do except vent my anger. So I decided to have a little fun and blow off this dream world. I took control of the steering wheel, and instead of driving on the right side of the street, I began driving crazy and wild, all over the road, and the people in the dream world all got very scared and upset. They began running away from this madman on the loose, and I thought that was very funny indeed, since they were just dream people to begin with. It was as if I were violating the laws of the dream world, and this got them all very upset and they had to get away from me. Eventually I crashed the car into a gas station, and it broke the headlights on the car, and suddenly the whole world went dark, the sun went out, as if it were night. I said to myself, well, that's proof this is a dream world, because in the waking world the sun doesn't go out when you break your headlights.

I got out of the car, and now I was really pissed. I felt like a revolutionary just wanting to wreck this whole dream illusion. My anger was building and building, and driving me to some passionate end I couldn't even figure out. All I knew is that I didn't want to go back to being Conrad, and I didn't want to go back to the whole reincarnation game either. Both paths seemed futile and absurd, and no way to live. I wanted something else, but there didn't seem to be anything else, so all I could do was rage about it. And that's what I did. I just raged through the dream. I wasn't interested in buying into any of it. I began examining the world around me, examining everything really close, and saying “dream” to myself. I would look at things and say over and over again “dream”, until it became clear to me that each object in my view was merely a dream construct, a meaningless facet of my own mind. I could see that things were merely a dream, nothing more, nothing less, and as I did so my rage became intently focused on this process. It seemed that I knew that if I was going to get beyond this dream, I would have to penetrate to the root of it. So I kept inspecting everything until I could literally recognize everything as being a dream, not real at all, and there was a tremendous meditative intensity to this process, until the world around me began to change, to loosen up, to become less and less solid and fixed.

At a certain point in this process of dream-recogniztion I saw a small bridge up ahead. It was a simply wooden arched bridge, not very big really, maybe 60-70 feet long, resembling the famous bridges in Monet's water lilly paintings, but a larger and wider. The instant I saw this bridge I realized that it was merely a symbolic representation in the dream of the “Bridge to God”. That was a phrase out of a rather famous Adi Da talk about entering the psychic realm, and I recalled that in the dream, but I also realized that this was the real thing. It was just that my mind, being familiar with that phrase and concept, had constructed this dream-symbol to represent the passageway into the God-Realm. So I eagerly walked towards the bridge.

As I approached the bridge, however, I suddenly saw that it was guarded by two gigantic black dogs, resembling Tibetan Mastiffs. They were the biggest dogs I'd ever seen, and incredibly fierce looking. As I neared the bridge, they turned to look at me, and as soon as they saw me, they took off on a dead run towards me, teeth wide open as if ready to devour me. I knew in an instant that they were going to tear my face off and rip me to shreds, and my first instinct was to turn and run away as fast as I could. I had just begun to turn when the second thought occurred to me, “What am I afraid of? These are dream dogs, and this is a dream face and body. What do I care what they do to me?” So instead of running away, I just kept going forward, and as the dogs neared, I just looked at them and said “dream”. Sure enough, the dogs leaped at me, they tore my face off and began to rip me to shreds, but I didn't react at all, I simply continued in my conviction that they were dream dogs and could do me no harm. In short order the dogs realized that I understood this, and a spark of recognition appeared in their eyes. They backed down, a sign of respect on their faces, and they stepped aside to allow me to enter the bridge.

I walked up and over the bridge and as I crossed it the whole world began to change. I entered the God-Realm. Suddenly, everything in the world was sacred, was holy, was of the nature of God. It was an utterly beautiful thing. There were no “holy things” in this world, the world itself was holy. Sacredness pervaded the world like gravity pervades this world. One couldn't help but relate to everything in a sacred manner, because it was simply obvious that it was sacred. It was just like gravity in our world. One doesn't take a step, one doesn't even make a movement in this world without being utterly aware of gravity governing everything. It was the same thing in this sacred world. Holiness was simply the universal nature of things.

For a time I merely walked around enjoying this God-World, and marveling at the enjoyment of it. But fairly quickly I became aware that I was still in a dream world, though a sacred and holy dream world. And something about that remained unsatisfying. I realized that this still wasn't what I was looking for, that this was also part of the machine I was raging against, and my anger returned, even more powerfully than before. Except now my anger was much more refined and pure. It was no longer merely a violent emotion, it was a powerful and overwhelming urge to go beyond all dreams, even really good dreams like this one. So I returned to the process of inspecting this world, just as I had inspected the previous dream, looking at every little feature of it until it became clear to me that it was a dream. I continued to say “dream, dream, dream” to myself, until I could see that each object was a dream, no matter how sacred it appeared to be. And as I did so, the sacred world began to open up and dissolve, and another opening appeared, this time more like a window than a bridge, and I passed through it.

I then found myself in an even holier world. But soon I saw that it too was a dream, and I began the same meditative process of recognizing it as a dream, until it too opened up like a window, and I passed through to an even deeper world. And then I passed through that world as well. Each time a new world appeared, I inspected it again, and passed through it again. The process accelerated, so that I spent less and less time in each world, until I was moving through them so quickly it was hard to even notice them. Soon it was as if I was in a rocket ship just shooting through them all, and I began to rise up, passing through world after world in blinks of an eye. Soon I was inside a cathedral, shooting up through the nave and spire, no longer even seeing individual worlds, just flying at unbelievable speed through this narrow tube-like nave, only about ten feet in diameter, made of mostly white bricks with red lines running through it. I realized after the dream that this tube was the Sushumna, the spinal line where the kundaline flows, and the red lines in the walls were like blood vessels.

My determination was utterly exhaustive to break beyond every world, and yet finally I reached the very summit of the cathedral. I found myself hovering just below the domed ceiling of the nave, wondering what the hell was this? I felt hugely disappointed once again, as if after all I'd been through, this was all there was to find – a small domed ceiling. This was not what I wanted. I was not satisfied to be at the top of this whole structure of worlds. In fact, I was more enraged now than I'd ever been. I pounded on the bricks of the ceiling with my fists, yelling at the top of my lungs to let me through.

From beyond the ceiling, the Voice of God spoke to me. It was a deep, powerful voice, not at all unlike Charlton Heston, say. The Voice of God asked me one simple question: “Who is it who wants to pass through?” For a moment I was dumbstruck. It occurred to me that I had no idea who I was. I had once thought I was Conrad, but that was left behind long ago. I had thought of myself as this reincarnating personality, but those worlds were left behind as well. So who was I? As I asked the question, “Who am I?” the answer suddenly became clear. I yelled, while still smashing my fists against the ceiling bricks, “Da! Da! Da!” That, of course, was the name of God in Adidam, which I was most familiar with. I'm sure if I'd been a Hindu I might have said “Brahman!” or “Shiva!”, or if I were a Jew, “Yahweh!” In any case, it wasn't the word itself that mattered. It was the sudden recognition that I was the Divinity I had been seeking. And as I shouted out “Da!” the bricks crumbled under my fists, the ceiling broke open, and I passed through. As seems to be the case with such moments, there's no memory whatsoever I can bring back with me of what was beyond that ceiling. It was just perfect freedom.

I woke up in the morning from this dream as Conrad once more. I no longer had any sense of being that deeper personality, or “Da” for that matter. I was subsumed again by the physical persona of Conrad, in all his mundane mediocrity. Yet for some reason this dream has stuck with me after all these years in every single detail, as if it had been burned into my mind. It was obvious I wasn't enlightened, I wasn't much changed at all. But a deep impression had been made. I couldn't be so entirely blithe about my life anymore.

The general effect of this dream on me isn't what you might have expected. I didn't take up the practice of self-enquiry on its basis. I didn't start going around the world inspecting everything until it became clear that even this physical world is merely a dream. It seems that I really am an incredibly slow learner, just as my deeper personality had observed. But elements of this vision have certainly stayed with me, and continue to influence me. Every once in a while I re-immerse myself in the dream, as I've been doing now in writing about it, and there's definitely some kind of power to it that continues to draw me beyond the mechanical confines of this universal dream of ours. And yes, I finally did get interested in self-enquiry a couple of years ago. At the time of the dream, however, I took it to be a message to get more thoroughly re-involved in Adidam, because that was the religious karma I had. It took me years to realize that Adidam, too, was just another dream, and not a very good one at that. Whereas the dream itself clearly had no such message in it. Quite the opposite, it seems. It points to freedom from any such “cathedral” of conventional holiness.

There's plenty of other things in this dream-vision to discuss. I won't pretend that its symbols represent anything universal. But the mechanics of the dream do seem to represent a universal frustration and dissatisfaction with the whole business of reincarnation that can be the basis for an impulse to go beyond all of this. It's something of a Howard Beale moment, of yelling “I'm not going to take this anymore!” through the streets of the universe, telling the Cosmic Machine to just go fuck itself. We don't do that, because we don't see the whole picture in front of us, and see how endless and pointless the machine really is. We don't let our rage come to the fore in all its purity and singleness of determination. We don't take a closer look at the world we live in, and notice that it's all a dream, and that every object in it is merely a dream object, the good and the bad, the loving and the frightening. If we did, we might not put up with the options that seem to be put forth to us as inevitable and inescapable.

Maybe there's another way entirely.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Neuroscientific Materialism and Mysticism

After writing yesterday's post on Spiritual Materialism, I was reminded of another critic of spirituality, Geoffrey Falk, who was once a long-time member of Swami Yogananda's Spiritual Realization fellowship, later became involved in Ken Wilber's integral movement, and has ended up an incisive if increasingly rabid critic of both, and even all things mystical. He wrote a well-received online book called Stripping The Gurus, in which he rather scathingly indicts many well known figures on the spiritual circui. It is worth reading as a kind of mental vaccine  for anyone considering getting involved with any teacher or Guru. It's not a wholly convincing argument in my view, but its arguments are worth considering in any case. Many people find Falk's manner offensive and unnecessarily personal. I rather enjoy his style, but I must admit he uses a rather broad and heavy brush to cover over a great many subtleties he seems to wish didn't exist in this field of spiritual criticism. Even so, many of the objects of his criticism are well-deserving of some critical attention, a thing not much cultivated in the public world of spirituality these days.

The downside of Falk's arguments, I find, is the same bias towards materialism that is visible in Jody's Guruphilliac website as mentioned yesterday. Falk is even more materialistic than Jody, however, and seems to have the zeal of a convert to the cause. Of course, he also has the virtue of knowing what he's talking about, when it comes to scientific matters at least. His take-down of Wilber's evolutionary mysticism is quite on the mark, for example. And his explorations of the neurological correlates to mystical experience are also grounded in solid science. He takes the findings of neurology and science as indicating that there is no truth at all to mystical experience, and that we can safely categorize virtually all such things as forms of either brain damage or psychosis, which in essence are the same thing.

I've followed neuroscience for a long time, and I'm always happy to learn more about it. Falk's blog, which is an often amusing read, frequently delves into these matters, as in two entries from October 10-11, 2007, readable in whole in his archives, but not directly linkable. You will have to scroll down to the appropriate dates. I was particularly interested to find this passage, which relates to the Cosmic Vision I described in a previous post:

Subject: White Light October 10, 2007

From Chapter 22 of Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi:
[God] eventually appears to the persistent devotee in whatever form he holds dear. A devout Christian sees Jesus; a Hindu beholds Krishna, or the Goddess Kali, or an expanding Light if his worship takes an impersonal turn.

From Clay Stinson's (1997) Open Letter to Ken Wilber:
[T]he sustained "white light" experience, or "entering into the light" through meditation, is a form of what neuroscientists call cortex disinhibition—the random firing of neurons in the brain. This random firing, in turn, stimulates the visual cortex producing these lights and luminosity's fanatical mystics and zealous meditators talk about. Moreover, the greater the number of neurons firing, the greater is the intensity of the white light. Quantitatively put, with few neurons randomly firing, all one sees during meditation is a small circle of white, to bluish-white, light. With a moderate number of neurons randomly firing, one sees, during meditation, a moderately large circle of light. With all or most of the neurons randomly firing, one sees a circle of light so large, brilliant, and luminous that it literally engulfs the field of vision during the meditation session. The mistake, here, of mystics, meditators, spiritual "masters," and Near Death Experiencers is to identify the "neural noise" or "white light experience" for God, Self, Mind, "mystical realization," satori, etc....

[S]o-called mystics, meditators, and spiritual "Masters" with the "big realizations" are suffering from various species of (i) brain damage, (ii) epilepsy, (iii) psychosis, (iv) schizophrenia, and (v) debilitating depersonalization disorder, or (vi) some combination of these five.

As a measure of how far I've come in the past three years, i.e., since the time when I took parapsychological and mystical claims completely seriously: I agree with everything Stinson wrote in that piece, including its obvious (and valid) "reductionism."

I also really like the "tone" of it. :)

Note also that a "small circle of white light" is effectively a vision of an "internal sun," providing a neurophysiological basis for the "sun symbols" found throughout our world's mythologies, beyond mere exoteric "sun worship."

The finding that “With all or most of the neurons randomly firing, one sees a circle of light so large, brilliant, and luminous that it literally engulfs the field of vision during the meditation session,” is very interesting in relation to this vision of a circular “Cosmic Mandala” of lights stretching all the way to the periphery of one's vision, with a white light in the center surrounded by bluish light, and gold on the outside. That's certainly a fairly accurate representation of what I saw in my vision, as well as what Yogananda saw, and Adi Da as well. The question then is, what does this mean? Falk takes the materialistic view that it means these views are simply the result of the brain acting in an excited state, brought on by various intentional methods, or merely random happenstance. He seems to think this discounts or reduces such experiences to deviant brain phenomena.

The problem with this view is that the same data can be just as easily argued in support of mystical experience as being real. It would suggest that there are, indeed, ways in which the brain can reflect experience that is beyond the merely physical, if it is put into a state in which the normal sensory inputs from the physical world are interrupted, and different forms of processing are used by the brain. It even suggests that the structure of the brain itself can be seen as a reflection of these greater-than-the-physical patternings of consciousness. In other words, this “Cosmic Mandala” may be very much real, and the fact that the brain can be made to see it in certain states may simply reflect that even the brain itself is built upon a higher physics which enables us to process and recognize these higher perceptions.

The more obvious point that Falk seems to miss is that the main message of neuroscience is that ALL of our perceptual experience, physical and mystical, is a construct of the brain. Or at least, that it all perceptions are processed and created in the brain out of whatever inputs exist, and thus what we call “ordinary reality” is just as much a brain phenomena as mystical experience. The question of deviant phenomena arises only in relation to whatever brain phenomena we have come to except as “normal”. But we must always be reminded that what we call “normal” is itself a construct of the brain and nervous system that is subject to constant alteration and interpretation, and is composed of a great many “false perceptions” and assemblages of data that don't make real sense. It is often familiarity alone that allows us to “make sense” of or experience, and the problem there is that familiarity with an illusion of the brain can be just as convincing as anything we might call “real”. This is the real reason why religion is so full of nonsense – because our brains tolerate a tremendous amount of nonsense, and even seem to require it. So the problem isn't confined to religion at all. The whole gamut of human experience is guided by brains that lie to us all the time. This is where real skepticism and criticism should lead us.

Deconstructing our experience in toto is not a terribly reassuring process. The contributions of neuroscience here are immense, but they do not lead to materialistic conclusions, in my view. Rather, they lead to the conclusion that the snake is biting his own tail. That our entire materialistic view is itself merely a construct of the material brain, and that materialistic logic is a vicious circle that cannot find a solid foundation upon which to rest. It not only requires faith in material reality that cannot be confirmed, it requires faith in our own reasoning power that is dependent on a brain that can't be relied upon to tell us what is real.

The alternative to materialism is not plain old religious or mystical faith, however. The critique of neuroscience can't be dismissed so easily. We do have to recognize that even spiritual mysticism has no absolute foundation. It too is in essence subjective, it is merely an infinite subjectivity, rather than a reductionist subjectivity. And that is not genuinely consoling or satisfying either.

But at least with spiritual mysticism we are dealing with an open universe, rather than a closed one, and this alone is a good argument in its favor. We can't dismiss the relationship between mysticism and brain phenomena, but we can reject the notion of reducing it to merely that. Even so, we have to consider that because all mystical experience is indeed filtered through the brain, it is changed and modified to suit the brain's capabilities. Which means that mystical experience is inherently unreliable, and probably even more so than physical experience. We have to admit, I think, that our brains our better designed and formulated to process physical experience than mystical experience, which I think is why so much of our mystical experiences are chaotic, discontinuous, in conflict, and contaminated by personal and structural biases.

One theory I'd give credence to is that one of the primary purposes of the large and advanced brains that human beings possess is to filter out mystical and non-physical experience. This gives us a tremendous advantage in many basic respects, in that we are able to reduce the world to its physical dimensions, and thereby work with the physical world in a way that most other creatures cannot. The downside of this is that when we do experience mystical or even subtle realities, we don't know how to deal with them. Our brains literally don't know what to do, other than repress the experience, or discard the data. In some respects this helps us, but in others it represents a real liability, and can become a runaway train of reductionism that leads to much misery and isolation. The problem here is the notion that such reductionism is itself “real” rather than just a particular evolutionary path our brains have taken that does not reflect reality itself, but merely what works for human beings as creatures trying to survive and prosper in the physical world.

The problem with this evolutionary path is that it can actually reduce our chances of survival in the long run. Just as the strangeness of evolution can produce peacocks with massive tails that serve no use whatsoever, other than that female peacocks like them, our brains can produce an overabundance of wiring that suppresses the mystical simply because we find temporary satisfaction in that. It has certainly allowed us to vastly increase our numbers and dominance of the planet in the short run, but in the long run this same tendency could lead to our extinction, in so far as insensitivity to what we are doing on the spiritual level can make us oblivious to the damage we are doing not just to the planet, but to ourselves, in the process. Which is why I think these modern spiritual movements aimed at gaining greater spiritual and mystical experience of the world are essentially positive, in spite of the tremendous number of illusions generated in the process. I see an evolutionary correction happening, in which the motion towards reductionism is being refined by greater sensitivity to and understanding of the subtle and mystical. I think the structures of our brains are learning to adapt to mystical experience in a way that can often be quite positive. It can of course also be quite negative, as more than a few examples show. But evolution is always a messy and imprecise process.

I should mention that I'm not really referring to genetic evolution here, or even merely cultural evolution. I am referring to the evolution of human consciousness, which isn't precisely defined by either category. In other words, genetics alone does not define how people think, or even how brains work. Genetics certainly plays a huge part, but it only sets the table, it does not tell us what to eat and how to go about choosing what to eat. The brain itself is not defined by genetics. Rather it is in a constant process of growth and adaptation. Probably the greatest discovery of modern neuroscience is that the brain is not a fixed piece of hardware that is set in place once we have grown up. Quite the contrary, it is capable of a great deal of on-the-fly adapation. These can be affected in all kinds of ways, from behavior modification to spiritual techniques to diet and exercise to environmental factors. Brain imaging studies show remarkable adaptivity at every level, and the possibility of enhancing this process is growing the more the brain is studied. All of these processes can be seen as a meta process of the evolution of human consciousness, occurring at all levels, including the physical.

One other excert from Falk's blog is worth looking at:

I've just finished reading Newberg and d'Aquili's (2001) intriguing book Why God Won't Go Away. From which:
Research reveals that repetitive rhythmic stimulation ... can drive the limbic and autonomic systems, which may eventually alter some very fundamental aspects of the way the brain thinks, feels, and interprets reality. These rhythms can dramatically affect the brain's neurological ability to define the limits of the self. (p. 79)
If those rhythms are fast—in the case of Sufi dancing, for example, or in the frenzied rites of Voudon—the arousal system is driven to higher and higher levels of activation....
As a result, certain brain structures are deprived of the normal supply of neural input on which they depend in order to perform their functions properly.
One such structure is the orientation association area—the part of the brain that helps us distinguish the self from the rest of the world and orients that self in space—which requires a constant stream of sensory information to do its job well. When that stream is interrupted, it has to work with whatever information is available. In neurological parlance, the orientation area becomes deafferented—it is forced to operate on little or no neural input. The likely result of this deafferentation is a softer, less precise definition of the boundaries of the self. This softening of the self, we believe, is responsible for the unitary experiences practitioners of ritual often describe.

They later give similar plausible explanations for the meditative origin of a "subjective sense of absolute spacelessness, which might be interpreted by the mind as a sense of infinite space and eternity; or conversely, as a timeless and spaceless void.... There would be no discrete objects or beings, no sense of space or the passage of time, no line between the self and the rest of the universe. In fact, there would be no subjective self at all; there would only be an absolutely sense of unity—without thought, without words, and without sensation. The mind would exist without ego in a state of pure, undifferentiated awareness." (p. 119)

This, too, is something that Falk likes to interpret as demonstrating that even the mystical experience of “no self” or “egolessness” is simply the result of a deviantly functioning, or malfunctioning, brain. However, the real point seems to be the opposite. That the sense of “self” we take for granted throughout the day, and even in dreams, is itself merely a construct of the brain, and if that aspect of the brain which constructs a self is not there, neither is this so-called self. It suggests then that what is experienced by mystics is simply an absence of an artificial construct – in other words, a more genuinely pure experience of reality than the brain normally saddles us with. This may well be the case with all kinds of mystical experiences. Their relation to brain “malfuction” may merely be that when the brain is no longer processing sensory input in its accustomed fashion, we get a glimpse of what the world might look like to us when it is not so heavily processed by the brain – a more raw and more “real” perceptual experience, even one that is no longer saddled by the conventions of objective perception. Hallucinatory drugs have a long history of being used in this manner, and it may well be that they function not by “adding” anything to our experience, but by “subtracting” aspects of the brains processing of our experience, giving us a more raw and unfiltered experience of reality. However, the devils are always in the details, and the fact that both drugs and mystical experiences are processed by a brain at all indicates that we are always experiencing a mixture of the two, and how they mix together is always hard to predict, and decipher.