I like my spirituality (if there is such a thing) to be as scientific as possible.
Fantasy, imagination, and speculative philosophizing are fun, but when it comes to understanding myself and my place in the cosmos, getting real is more appealing to me.
So an article in the March 2010 issue of Scientific American struck me as having important implications for an oft-heard assumption of meditation-based spiritual and mystical paths:
That it's possible to arrive at a state of pure, or mostly pure, awareness. Meaning, basically, that one's consciousness isn't contaminated by thoughts, emotions, and other egocentric manifestations of me, me, me.
For example, in "Love's Quiet Revolution" Scott Kiloby writes:
Thoughts, opinions, and beliefs belong to the world of form. You can express these things and play with them. But there is a formless awareness within you that sees that you are only sharing the details of your particular conceptual overlay.
...True spiritual awakening is realized when the entire movement of self is owned and transcended through pure awareness. Action can then be taken from awareness, not from a repressed or projected (unconscious) story of self.
This notion is central to meditative practices in Buddhism, Hinduism/Vedanta, and other faiths.
It presumes that humans are capable of becoming aware of mental activities that usually are unconscious or unattended to, so life can be more free, genuine, spontaneous, honest, and in-the-moment.
Rupert Spira is another writer on nonduality who has been inspired by Ramana, Rumi, Shankara, Nisargadatta, and other sages. He writes in "The Transparency of Things":
Meditation is simply to abide as oneself... Consciousness is transparent, colourless, Self-luminous, Self-experiencing, Self-knowing, Self-evident. That is our experience in this moment.
Now, I'm not completely sure what Spira is referring to here. I sort of do, and I sort of don't.
It seems that he, like Kiloby, assumes that it is possible to be subjectively aware without being "captured" by either external (in the world) or internal (in the brain) objects of awareness.
Maybe. But let's take a look at the Scientific American article, "The Brain's Dark Energy." The summary Key Concepts are:
- Neuroscientists have long thought that the brain’s circuits are turned off when a person is at rest.
- Imaging experiments, however, have shown that there is a persistent level of background activity.
- This default mode, as it is called, may be critical in planning future actions.
- Miswiring of brain regions involved in the default mode may lead to disorders ranging from Alzheimer’s to schizophrenia.
Most of us have seen photos of brain scans that show what part of the brain is active when a person is doing something, such as reading. Researchers would figure out what brain areas are important to reading aloud, as contrasted with reading silently, by looking for differences between two scans of someone engaged in each activity.
But the article says:
Any of what is called intrinsic activity, the constant background activity, would be left on the cutting-room floor. Representing data in this way makes it easy to envision areas of the brain being "turned on," during a given behavior, as if they were inactive until needed for a particular task.
However, researchers now have found that the brain is always doing something. They just don't know exactly what that "something" is. But whatever it is, "a large fraction of the overall activity -- from 60 to 80 percent of all energy used by the brain -- occurs in circuits unrelated to any external event."
A collaborating group of brain regions known as the default mode network (DMN) appears to account for much of the activity when the mind is unfocused and to have a key role in mental functioning.
Seemingly the DMN prepares the mind/brain for action, which often (or always) is a reaction to stimuli in the outside world or, I presume, an internal thought, emotion, or whatever.
So bubbling away below the surface of our conscious awareness is the DMN's constant background activity, which strikes me as being akin to the unseen maintenance procedures of a personal computer -- keeping things in working order (more or less), allowing the user to be able to do what he or she wants to.
But there's more to the story, because the article says that what we are aware of is a whole lot less than what there really is. The brain/body is highly selective about what makes its way into our feeling of "this is how things are."
Researchers have known for some time that only a trickle of information from the virtually infinite flood in the surrounding environment reaches the brain's processing centers.
Although six million bits are transmitted through the optic nerve, for instance, only 10,000 bits make it to the brain's visual processing area, and only a few hundred are involved in formulating a conscious perception -- too little to generate a meaningful perception on their own.
The finding suggests that the brain probably makes constant predictions about the outside environment in anticipation of paltry sensory inputs reaching it from the outside world.
Well, I guess it's still possible to believe in "pure awareness."
But whatever pure awareness is -- and again, I'm kind of vague about this -- this notion needs to be compatible with an emerging neuroscientific world view if it is to make sense to me.
The mind/brain filters unadorned reality markedly before perceptions become conscious. All the while, unconscious mental systems are churning away unrecognized, apparently laying the groundwork for interpreting those heavily filtered perceptions based on past experience and for taking action in response to some event.
How "pure awareness" enters into all this is a very open question. It sure looks like modern neuroscience is challenging some of the fundamental assumptions of spiritual belief systems.
This doesn't negate the benefits of meditation, mindfulness, and non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.
To my mind (the only one I have), research such as I learned about in the Scientific American article simply helps us look upon meditative and contemplative practices realistically rather than idealistically.
We may not be able to negate brain processes that function automatically in guiding human perceptions and actions. But we can become more aware of how the mind works, and what leads to more satisfying ways of living this marvelously mysterious life.