Here at the Church of the Churchless we worship truth.
I love truth. I sprinkle truth on my cereal every morning. I rinse with truth when I take a shower. I brush with truthpaste three times a day.
That's why I adore science and dislike religion. And why I'm enjoying Susan Blackmore's new book, "Seeing Myself: The New Science of Out-of-Body Experiences" so much.
Blackmore, a British psychologist, is a spiritual but not religious sort of person. As she notes in the passages from the final Who am I? chapter in her book (which I read first, because the title drew me in) that I've shared below, science and Zen have been her twin passions.
I've read several other books Blackmore has written. I like how she uses her own subjective experiences to cast light on objective neuroscientific understandings of how the mind and body work.
Of course, the mind is the brain in action, and the brain is part of the body, so mind is brain is body. One thing, not several things.
But dualism is how most people see themselves. They wrongly believe in an immaterial soul/mind/consciousness something-or-other than inhabits the body, distinct from physicality.
Blackmore's focus in this book is on out-of-body experiences, or OBEs. The first chapter, Leaving My Body, is a detailed description of her OBE, which she misinterpreted for quite a few years, until the truth dawned on her. Blackmore writes:
I was just nineteen when everything I thought I knew was overthrown and my life changed direction. If I had imagined a future in some sensible university job, that was now impossible for I was determined to understand what had happened to me.
For just a couple of hours I was no longer confined to a slow, heavy, physical body but escaped through a tunnel into a world of flying, exploring the world from outside my body and finally entering the mystical experience of oneness, of unity with the universe.
...I had never heard of tunnel experiences, and the phrase 'near-death experience' (NDE) had not yet been invented. So I jumped to my own conclusions. I was sure that my spirit had left my body and would survive after death. I was convinced that telepathy and clairvoyance must be possible and that ghosts were real.
I became determined to devote my life to parapsychology and to prove all my closed-minded lecturers wrong.
I failed; of course I failed. The conclusions I had jumped to so quickly were ill-thought-out and superficial. But never mind. The vivid memories of those few hours kept driving me on.
Nearly half a century later I can look back and see how my intellectual life has been shaped, pushed and pulled by the experience, and how my spiritual life might never have begun had I not found myself disappearing into selflessness without having a clue what that was.
So Blackmore changed her mind. She gave up a false belief in the supernatural and mysticism, choosing demonstrable truth over comforting illusion.
Here's excerpts from her final Who am I? chapter.
I was surprised, long ago, when my Zen teacher kept going on about the importance of the body... I suppose I thought the body was unimportant, to be transcended or overcome by the mind. Surely, I might have thought, this meditation training is about the mind, isn't it?
Aren't I supposed to practise and practise and practise until I can see clearly through all the mess and worry and fear and hatred and horribleness of my own mind? Enlightenment, if such a thing exists, is surely nothing to do with the itch on my knee or the heaviness of muscle, bone, and subcutaneous fat, is it?
How my ideas have been forced to change -- for two intertwined reasons. One is the science that has transformed our understanding of human nature; the other is the ancient practices of Zen which, curiously enough, have the same effect.
For most of my life I thought these two were separate disciplines; the science was my work and Zen was a private matter, almost a hobby. Yet as it turns out they both lead in the same direction: they both take 'me' down from its pedestal and show it in quite a different light.
...Paying attention clearly and steadily to what is here right now banishes the tangly wool and disarms the slithery monsters. All those disparate thoughts, emotions and worries that otherwise keep running in our heads float through one vast space and seem to lose their power.
This is called 'one mind' or 'one-pointedness' and is quite different from our usual harried, messy confusion. The world comes to seem more and more real and immediate. Body, self and world come together. They are all the same stuff -- there is no longer a conscious me looking out at a real physical world but just all of this -- whatever it is.
This is the slow change from duality to non duality; from a world in which minds inhabit bodies towards one in which minds and bodies are fundamentally the same; from a world in which 'I' am in control of 'my' body towards one in which decisions just happen because they must.
This is a radical change and a scary one. But we can cope!
We can give up our childhood dualism; give up the idea of a unified and continuing inner self who is the wielder of free will and the subject of our experiences, and accept the scary view that neuroscience provides. Just as we have given up thinking of the earth as the centre of the universe, so we can give up our very natural but false intuitions about ourselves.
...Modern children learn about brains at a young age but they still seem to imagine a 'me' whose brain it is and who is helped along by its clever powers.
...Many adults think like this too -- believing that 'I' am the feeling, thinking person in charge. In this way we turn our self into a supreme conscious entity living in, owning and controlling our bodies. It is no surprise, then, that having an OBE [out of body experience] seems to confirm this ready illusion: 'I' have left my body so I must be an independent thinking and feeling soul.
The reverse may also be true, that throughout the ages OBEs have inspired the idea of the soul. Either way, it's a quick jump to the false belief that the supreme conscious entity called 'me' can leave its bodily shell behind and go travelling. But it cannot: nothing can leave the body in an OBE because there is nothing there that could leave.
To call something an 'illusion' is not to say that it does not exist, it means that it is not what it seems to be. My self seems to be a continuing conscious entity, a subject of experience and possessor of free will, but this is not true. The self is a representation or model of something that does not exist -- but the model itself exists.
...Modern science says the same [as Buddhism]. In one sense there is a self -- or, rather, lots of different selves. They are useful mental models of a continuing conscious entity. In another sense there is no self because these models are ephemeral constructions that arise and fall away, change and decay, and no such continuing powerful and unified conscious entity actually exists.
...We have come a long way from believing that an OBE proves the existence of a soul or a conscious 'me' that can abandon its body and live on without it. Instead, we find that our notions of self and consciousness have been, and are being, transformed. What seems so wonderful to me, after all these years, is OBE's can now contribute to that transformation.
For me it's been a long journey.
As Metzinger says, 'For anyone who actually had that type of experience it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist' and I did. Like so many others who have OBEs I jumped to the obvious conclusion that my soul or astral body had left its physical shell and could think and feel and travel without it.
It has taken a lot of thinking, experiencing, meditating and science for me to travel from that dualism to its utter rejection -- to seeing the duality of body and mind, or physical and mental, as a feature of the way we model the world, not of the world itself.
I no longer think that my soul left my body; that my astral body separated from its physical shell to travel on the astral planes or that my deep and unforgettable experience has anything to do with life after death. Thanks to decades of science and philosophy I have a far better idea of what happened to me during those special few hours back in 1970.
I am alive here and now in a vivid and colourful world.