Browsing through my collection of half-read books, recently I came across The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience.
Starting in where I left off quite a few years ago (the book was published in 1999), I can tell that I'm going to be reading this baby straight through this time.
Because the question marks I left in the margins next to statements that questioned whether any mystical experience occurs outside of the physical brain now would have my personal version of exclamation marks next to them (a round dot made with my highlighter).
Back in my religiously devoted days I was resistant to any suggestion that the body is all that we are. After all, my goal was to rise to spiritual regions with my soul – if not now, then after death.
Older and hopefully wiser now about unsupported metaphysical claims, I'm a lot more open to scientific conceptions of spirituality. Which is why The Mystical Mind is more interesting to me the second time around.
This morning I read the first part of Chapter Two about the brain and central nervous system. Fascinating. As a long time daily meditator, for more than thirty-five years, I'd always wondered about the difference between active and passive approaches to meditation.
Some people sit quietly and try to reduce brain activity. Others engage in walking meditation, or dancing – if you're a Sufi.
The authors of this book are both medical doctors, so they're well qualified to explain goings on in the brain, which they consider to be the source of the mind.
The brain is the substantive underlying part of human thought, experience, and emotions. In other words, it is the bodily organ that allows us to think, feel, and receive input from the external world. The mind is generally considered to be the thoughts and feelings themselves. Thus, the mind is the product of the functioning of the brain.
OK, I already knew that. But what Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg then reminded me of was stuff that I hadn't thought about much since high school science classes: how the autonomic nervous system, which helps connect the brain to the rest of the body, is composed of two subsystems – the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system.
The sympathetic system causes a sense of arousal (yes, the kind you're thinking of, along with opening airways in the lungs, increasing heart rate, dilation of the pupils, and such). The parasympathetic system, on the other hand, maintains homeostasis and conserves the body's resources and energy.
In short, we've got arousal and quiescent systems in our body and brain. And the point of this book, which I know because I jumped ahead and read the final chapters years ago, is that mystical experiences are the product of different sorts of arousal/quiescent states.
Reductionist? Sure. But like the authors say, point out any human experience that occurs in the absence of a body and brain. If that were to occur, the person would be dead, incapable of pointing.
What's interesting is that if you push either the arousal or quiescent systems far enough, they can cause an "eruption" in the other system.
Such a function may occur when one of these systems is driven to maximal activity despite the protective antagonistic mechanism. When this occurs, one can induce a "reversal" or "spillover" phenomenon.
This spillover effect occurs when continued stimulation of one system to maximal capacity begins to produce activation responses (rather than inhibitory) in the opposite system. This state is relatively rare and requires intense driving of one of the systems, beyond its normal capacity and beyond the inhibitory effects of the other system.
They give examples.
The hyperquiescent state "may be experienced as a state of oceanic tranquility and bliss in which no thoughts or feelings intrude on consciousness and no bodily sensations are felt."
The hyperarousal state is associated "with keen alertness and concentration in the absence of superfluous thoughts and feelings. The person may feel as if they were channeling vast quantities of energy effortlessly through their consciousness." (as when athletes feel they're in the zone or going with the flow)
The hyperquiescent state with eruption of the arousal system "is usually accompanied by the sense of a tremendous release of energy. Thus the meditator may experience an 'active' bliss or energy rush."
The hyperarousal state with eruption of the quiescent system may involve experience of "an orgasmic, rapturous, or ecstatic rush arising from a generalized sense of flow and resulting in trancelike states."
They add about the latter:
This experience may occur as a result of practices such as Sufi dancing and marathon running and even occurs briefly during sexual climax.
Ah, finally. A form of meditation that I'm good at.