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.