Friday, December 27, 2013

Neuroscience and the Spiritual

As someone who considers herself to be spiritual, to say that I have no interest in neuroscience would not be accurate. I take a very keen interest in neuroscience and have long thought that much of what is taken for spiritual experiences, if not caused by, are definitely related to the brain and nervous system.

Having been born with uncorrected right eye amblyopia (lazy eye) and having struggled academically at school whilst being sensitive and intuitive, it was not until I began having spiritual experiences that I looked for a rational explanation, sure that there was one, since, otherwise, these types of experiences are commonly attributed to mystics or saints.

My investigations into amblyopia and its possible effects on the brain led me to form the hypothesis that the lack of stimulation to the left side of my brain through my lazy right eye caused the right side of my brain, which has historically been associated with spirituality, to work harder. This hypothesis has been borne out by Jill Bolte Taylor’s account of her left brain stroke and her observing hyperactivity in her right brain which resulted in what we would recognize as spiritual/mystical experiences.

I studied and practiced Buddhism for almost 10 years, not because of karma, but because of a natural attraction. I was drawn to it, the theory came easy; the practice, well, that’s another story, I struggled with that, but an intuitive understanding of the Buddhist sutras came easy. Then in 1998, and again in 1999, I experienced the rising of energy that we call Kundalini on this Consortium.

Thinking about my experiences, there were two possible origins: I could attribute them either to benevolent karma left over from a previous lifetime or to a neuroscientific explanation. I can remember the day I was walking through my local park asking myself the question "why me" and "why did these experiences happen to me" and getting a straight three word answer "right brain dominant" and then feeling a little deflated that it wasn’t caused by more loftier, more spiritual activity, but this is what came through and I wasn’t going to go against it.

walking through my local park

Thus began a period of writing to both psychologists and opthamologists to learn more. Most never replied to me; those who did dismissed my hypothesis. I was amazed by their reluctance to accept a rational scientific explanation. Things were said to me like, "If you don’t stop looking for a reason, you will lose the gift of the peace and calm that you have been given." In the end, I gave in and shelved my neuroscientific explanation. Even as I was doing so, I felt it was not the right thing to do. I am keenly aware of what goes on in the laboratory of own body: my thoughts, feelings and actions are very much guided by this awareness. However, on this occasion, I ignored an inner feeling of uneasiness and started reading all the books I could find on mysticism and spirituality.

In the days following this decision, I noticed that life was not flowing as well as it had been. I felt lost and ungrounded in a way I never had while attributing my spiritual experiences to being caused by my brain and nervous system. I got ego inflated. I started to believe I was in some way "chosen." And the longer it went on the more superior and ego inflated I became whilst giving the impression of being the opposite. Then I crashed. (I write more about this in my book so I don’t want to elaborate here.) Let’s say that my spiritual balloon was well and truly burst, and I came back down to earth with a bang.

central nervous system
I decided to return to my neuroscientific explanation and trust that if this was wrong, it wouldn’t be other people who would turn me away from this path again, but the Divine. Immediately, life began to flow and harmonize once again. I am much stronger than I had been previously, able to defend the possibility of a link between neuroscience and spirituality. For me, it’s now a very simple equation. I have a neuroscientific explanation for my experiences, and life works and flows.

As I said earlier in this post, I believe there is a correlation between spiritual experiences and "something" going on in the brain and nervous system. I am not saying that it is causative. To say that it is causative is to display a breath-taking arrogance. I am not a neuroscientist, so I cannot speak cause and effect. However, I do speak of correlation because I often ask myself, "If I had two proper functioning eyes, would I have had the kind of experiences I have had?" Not just the experiences, but their transformative physical, mental, spiritual effects, as well.

Spiritual experiences are common. That they happen is no longer in dispute as they are now reported so frequently. What is less understood is how effective they are in bringing about permanent transformation, i.e., a permanent abiding peace and harmony, not only for those who undergo these experiences, but in the lives of those around them.

A famous spiritual teacher once said that he evaluated the effects of his transmission on his devotees not only by the changes in their minds and bodies, but also by the changes in their lives and the lives of those around them. Something about this resonated. Authentic spiritual experiences are those that result in such an outflow of peace and compassion that those around them cannot but be touched. The true purpose of spiritual experience is transformative, both individual and global. And while many people are now reporting energy rising episodes, the world has not yet manifested evidence of transformation. Something is awry.

Why is it that with so many people reporting spiritual experiences the world is not transforming? Again, to give a definitive answer would be arrogant. Nevertheless, I suggest it's due in part to the temptation to inflate one's ego that accompanies many spiritual experiences — unless the subject is vigilant.

I say this based on my own experience. The spiritual ego distorts the nature and quality of such experiences. It does this by taking ownership and making it "my experience" and then following it with an "I am special" and a "I must teach/be a guru." I don’t believe this is the way of authentic spiritual experience. The Tao behind these experiences is to become even more ordinary (which the ego hates). False spirituality wants us to be SOMEBODY; the real is happy being NOBODY. The irony of the process is that you have to desire to become SOMEBODY before you realize that you are NOBODY and NOTHING. With that realization, you become — not by looking for it — a SOMEBODY who can transform, not only yourself, but more importantly the world.