Sometimes I'm called a materialistic atheist by commenters on this blog, as if that's something bad. Or at least surprising, given my previous fervent commitment to the metaphysical theology of Radha Soami Satsang Beas.
But, hey, I've been talking about a grizzly bear with an EEG machine for a long time. Way back when I used to give satsangs ("sermons") to the faithful at RSSB meetings, this used to be one of my favorite thought experiments regarding the practice of meditation.
An EEG, or electroencephalograph, measures electrical activity in the brain. It's a crude way of testing brain function. Nowadays there are much more sophisticated approaches, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
However, those machines are massive. I can't see a grizzly bear carrying one, no matter how strong the animal is. So I'll continue to have my bear cart around a plain old EEG, with electrodes that get plastered to a person's head.
Here's how I used to tell my tale.
There I am, walking through the woods, enjoying the wilderness. My enjoyment comes to an abrupt end when a grizzly bear appears on the trail ahead of me. Worse, he doesn't look to be in a good mood.
My brain scrambles to remember what the hell you're supposed to do when confronted by an out-of-sorts grizzly bear. "Um, with a cougar you stand your ground and try to look big and unafraid. With grizzly bears though, don't you curl up in a ball and play dead?"
Maybe. I don't know. Regardless, that's how my thought experiment plays out. I collapse to the ground, trying to look as dead as someone very much alive – and wanting to stay that way – is able to appear.
I shut my eyes. Reduce my breathing. Go limp.
I can hear the bear shuffling forward, grunting. It sounds confused. No attack so far. Things are looking up, if you can consider that playing dead while a grizzly bear ponders your eatability is anyway describable as "up."
Then…a click. A metallic click. What the #$%&*!
could that be?
For a moment I imagine that it was the sound of a hunter cocking his gun. Then I'm remember that I'm in a wilderness area. No guns here. No hunters either. I'm on my own.
I can't stand it. I dare to half-open one eye. Thankfully the bear is turned away from me. He's occupied – with setting up an EEG machine.
Holy shit! Now I know I'm really, truly, deeply fucked! (I kept my language a bit cleaner when I included this story in one of my satsangs).
Just my luck – I'm playing dead next to a grizzly bear with a goddamn EEG machine! In a minute or two he's going to be putting electrodes on my head and monitoring my brain activity. If I think, "Don't think!" that'll appear as thinking. If I feel that I shouldn't be afraid, that'll appear as emotion.
So I've got to be as dead inside my head as I'm trying to look outwardly. A tough proposition. Real tough. Especially with the grizzly bear working like mad to set up his EEG machine. Not exactly a conducive situation for a super-calm meditation.
Well, that's the gist of my grizzly bear with an EEG tale. You're probably wondering, what's the point? Good question.
I wish I remembered what came next in my sermonizing. Then I'd have my devotional kind of answer. I seem to recall that I went on to talk about how meditation should be approached with the same got-to-do-this-just-right attitude that you'd have if a grizzly bear was about to attach EEG electrodes to your scalp.
You'd either slow down your brain activity pronto, or you'd soon be dead.
Today, though, I like this tale for a different reason. Now the grizzly isn't a bear to me, he's everything.
Nature, the universe, God, cyberspace, cold cereal, television, thinking, feeling, perceiving, not doing anything at all, dancing, blogging about grizzly bears with EEGs, whatever.
Everything that happens to us, everything that we experience, everything that we imagine, everything that we believe, everything that we know – all of that flows through our brains. Even if somehow there's something of us that isn't material, that thing (soul?) is bound to the brain.
Now, maybe you don't believe this. But that belief will show up on a brain scanner, believe me. So will everything else that you do or don't do in an attempt to show a neuroscientist that you aren't really your body, but immaterial "soul."
You'll get eaten alive by the grizzly bear of science. For sure. This doesn't mean that you aren't right. Or rather, that after you die you won't be able to note your still-alive consciousness and realize Yes, I knew it; I wasn't just my body, but something more.
Unfortunately, it'll be too late for you to convince the skeptical scientist who monitored your always-active brain while you were physically alive. Nor could you ever have convinced him or her. Because so long as you live with a brain, you're a material boy or girl, just like Madonna sang about.
Here's how the book I've been reading recently puts it:
We have also suggested that, as far as we can determine, all human experience eventually enters human awareness via the function of the brain. It certainly seems reasonable to reach the conclusion that the brain is the structure that gives all of us our thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
…The question again is how we can show that the brain is what mediates all of our experiences. This is where imaging studies lend a strong degree of empirical support…The conclusion to be drawn from this huge database of studies is that, at least for now, it seems that no matter what happens to us or what we do, there is a part of the brain that becomes activated.
…In approaching theology, it seems that any human religious or ritual experience is necessarily modulated by the brain. In fact, we have already begun studies to show the activity in the brain during profound meditation.
Who's afraid of the big bad bear? Not me. Not anymore.
I've got a brain. I'm alive. I meditate. I seek the truth of what both the cosmos and us are all about. All of that will show up on an EEG or fMRI machine.
Which doesn't bother me at all.