I had an interesting experience this morning. Sitting in my meditation area, sipping a strong cup of coffee, I settled down to enjoy reading a spiritual book.
I'd already read about half of Scott Kiloby's "Love's Quiet Revolution." My churchless psyche was enjoying his subtitle theme, the end of the spiritual search. I wasn't agreeing with everything Kiloby said, but his general stance seemed agreeable enough.
Until... it didn't.
I started using my highlighter to pen in yellow question marks in the margins. Lots of them. I skipped through pages that now struck me as ridiculous.
Why? Because scientific reality had caused me to see spiritual speculation for what it is: an unfounded belief system, even if it is presented in a non-dogmatic, non-religious fashion.
My previous post about how the brain's "dark energy" cast doubt on the possibility of pure awareness had led me to look at statements like these in Kiloby's book with much more skeptical eyes.
Notice that all cravings and obsessions arise from a formless awareness within you, and dissolve back into it. Allow that formless awareness to become aware of itself.
..Nothing needs to happen for awakeness to be realized. It is no different than simply opening your eyes to awaken from a dream at night. It is seeing the whole movement of the self and its entire dream that it is the center of life and separate from everything it sees.
This is just flat wrong, given what neuroscience knows about how the brain works. It isn't possible to see the "entire dream" of the self which supposedly arises from a "formless awareness."
The human brain/mind is much more complex than that. It filters and interprets reality through unconscious processing systems.
Our thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and what-not "bubble up" from sources considerably deeper than what appears to us as the surface of a stream of consciousness.
This doesn't negate the value of meditation, contemplation, mindfulness, positive thinking, and the many other activities often called "spiritual practices." However, they really aren't spiritual, if this word is taken to mean non-physical.
That's why I want my spirituality to be physical: I want it to be real.
That, um, realization hit me this morning, hard. Suddenly I wasn't at all interested in reading airy-fairy notions that weren't grounded in at least a semblance of what science knows about how the brain and mind work.
Would anyone want to go to a fitness coach or trainer who didn't grasp the essential nature of the human body? If he or she said "I'll teach you how to jump 100 yards and run a mile in 30 seconds" you'd be justified in walking away, fast.
The body has limitations. It can only do what it is capable of doing. Same with the brain and mind, which naturally are part of the body.
My wife has been listening to an audio book about modern neuroscience. She's a retired psychotherapist, so knows a lot about how the brain functions. When I mentioned to her that I'd been reading books that talk about "pure awareness," Laurel said "that's impossible."
I agree. Pure awareness is a belief, a concept, an abstraction -- just like "Jesus saves," except in a much less religious (or at least, monotheistic) context.
Neuroscience has a lot to learn about the brain's default mode network, which I discussed in my "Brain's dark energy casts doubt on pure awareness" post. The entire Scientific American article that I cited isn't available online, but a scholarly (yet readable) review of the subject by Marcus Raichle (author of the article) and Abraham Snyder can be found here.
Here's an excerpt:
Finally, there is another reason for difficulty and that lies in a difference in perspective regarding one's view of brain function. One view posits that the brain is primarily reflexive, driven by the momentary demands of the environment.
The other view is that the brain's operations are mainly intrinsic involving the maintenance of information for interpreting, responding to and even predicting environmental demands.
The former has motivated most neuroscience research including that with functional neuroimaging. This is likely the case because experiments designed to measure brain responses to controlled stimuli and carefully designed tasks can be rigorously controlled whereas evaluating the behavioral relevance of intrinsic brain activity can be an illusive enterprise.
The hypothesis that intrinsic activity is critical to brain function and behavior can be traced back over two millennia:
“The fact that the body is lying down is no reason for supposing that the mind is at peace. Rest is... far from restful.” Seneca (Seneca, ∼60 A.D.)
“...though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience. For, on the contrary, it is quite possible that our empirical knowledge is a compound of that which we receive through impressions, and that which the faculty of cognition supplies from itself...” Immanuel Kant (Kant, 1781)
“Enough has now been said to prove the general law of perception, which is this, that whilst part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part (and it may be the larger part) always comes (in Lazarus's phrase) out of our own head.” William James (James, 1890)
“This concept, that the significance of incoming sensory information depends on the pre-existing functional disposition of the brain, is a far deeper issue than one gathers at first glance...” Rodolfo Llinas (Llinas, 2001)
So neuroscience tells us that it's a mistake to believe that we can be aware of impediments to a supposedly "pure" consciousness -- that we can somehow see all the way to the bottom of the brain's well from which the objects of awareness bubble up.
We can say "yes" to the possibility of becoming more aware, more conscious, more mindful of what rises to the surface of our stream of consciousness, while saying "no" to the prospect of understanding what lies within the unconscious intrinsic default mode activities of the brain.
Thoughts and thinking are disparaged, or at least severely downplayed, by most believers in pure awareness.
However, there's good reason for arguing that grasping the fundamentals of modern neuroscience -- an intellectual pursuit -- is necessary to become "enlightened" to what consciousness/awareness is all about.