Recently I picked up Kevin Nelson's book, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience, after reading it quite a few years ago. I first heard of Nelson, a leading researcher in near-death experiences, via a New Scientist article that I blogged about in 2010.
Not surprisingly, in his book Nelson concludes that spiritual experiences are decidedly physical. In his Epilogue, he writes:
We have placed fragmented consciousness at the heart of many of our spiritual experiences and stripped away the illusion of the seamlessly integrated self. Odd as it may seem, we have shown that primal brainstem reactions seem to be at the root of the experiences that we think of as spiritual and that make us most human.
This concept of "knee-jerk spirituality" deals a strong blow to the idea that free will is necessary to connect with whatever we feel is sacred.
At the neurologist's command, a flicker of electrical current to the brain makes it seem that our consciousness has been lifted from our body and is floating freely in space. The brain pathways used during "natural" spiritual experiences are the same pathways used by spiritual drugs, indistinguishable from otherwise genuine religious conversions, transforming lives long after the drug is flushed clear from the body.
Clinical neurology tells us that these are the same pathways distorted by some diseases of the brain that produce disorders fitting criteria for religious experience. Are spontaneous and authentic spiritual experiences nothing more that "experiments of nature" telling us how the brain works?
We have strong indications that much of our spirituality arises from arousal, limbic, and reward systems that evolved long before structures made the brain capable of language and reasoning. Neurologically, mystical feelings may not be so much beyond language as before language.
...We are all of this world, and my experience optimistically compels me to believe that understanding the brain as a spiritual organ strengthens our quest for meaning and complements a mature spirituality. My deepest hope is that this quest will ultimately bring us to a new birth of wisdom.
In his chapter, "The Fragmented Self," Nelson makes an interesting point. An obvious one, really, but something that gets ignored by those who claim that they went beyond their self into a sense of spiritual or mystical oneness.
If someone truly has no self, they have no way of remembering that they had an experience where they lacked a self. In other words, it takes a self to know that you don't have a self. Nelson writes:
The self, like consciousness, can fragment. And when we look closely, it may be that a little piece of the self remains even in the most powerful experiences of self-transcendence. After we delve into the way the brain constructs the self, we see that the complete loss of self, even in the most powerful of mystical experiences, is a dubious proposition.
...It is strange, even paradoxical, that the loss of self becomes one of the most powerful experiences that we can own, usually becoming deeply embedded in our lifelong self-identity.
There is no doubt afterward that the "me" of the experience owns the feelings, sensations, knowledge, and aftermath of the types of spiritual experience that involve loss of self! So powerful is this ownership that it often becomes integrated into our enduring religious beliefs and deepest aspirations.
Brian explains his hopes that - “We are all of this world, and my experience optimistically compels me to believe that understanding the brain as a spiritual organ strengthens our quest for meaning and complements a mature spirituality. My deepest hope is that this quest will ultimately bring us to a new birth of wisdom”.
I quite rate Kevin Nelson’s work on ‘human spirituality’. Although not having read 'The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain', I have read his book 'The God Impulse' and was impressed by his research and findings. I quote: - The book's cover announces:- 'In The God Impulse' Kevin Nelson, a neurologist with three decades' experience examining the biology behind human spirituality . . ' And:- 'Offers the first, comprehensive, empirically tested, peer-reviewed examination of the reasons we are capable of NDE's, OBE's and other mystical states. By no means does he decry spiritual states, regarding them as a valuable aspect of human life and possibly, for some at certain times, helpful.
Brian quotes Nelson:- “The self, like consciousness, can fragment. And when we look closely, it may be that a little piece of the self remains even in the most powerful experiences of self-transcendence.”
I would stress that when we talk of the 'self' we are describing not an actuality, a mysterious entity but a construct – perhaps a social construct – that the brain has assembled from birth enabling the person to primarily differentiate itself from the world it inhabits by providing a mental construct of 'who I am' (or rather, of who I believe I am) for the sole purpose of navigating and surviving in its environment.
Although a self is natural, it is only natural in the sense that it is created from the brain's processing and is a mental construct. In any genuine 'spiritual quest' to realise that such a self is a convention, an assemblage of information is said to be the first step to realisation.
Posted by: Ron E. | December 30, 2022 at 08:45 AM
@ Brian Ji [ If someone truly has no self, they have no way of remembering that they had an experience where they lacked a self. In other words, it takes a self to know that you don't have a self. ]
I suspect the mystic would argue that to transcend self would
place your consciousness in a state of oneness with creation
untethered by time and space. There wouldn't be obstacles
to remembering other states of mind or any passage of time to
dim one's awareness. They'd all be freshly there in your con-
sciousness encapsulated in the timeless "now". So. would all
past and future events.
You'd experience all things by "direct perception" in that state.
You'd also carve out a small memory of that bliss and place it
in the future as a pleasant surprise to fondly remember when
duty dragged you back into the state of "self".
Posted by: Dungeness | December 30, 2022 at 01:13 PM
RSSB and Gurinder singh dhillon and the science of the soul are all a complete lie and is a stair way to hell not heaven. The 5 secret mantra given at the time of initiation in RSSB are satanic. The first is jot niranjan, which means light onto the devil, then onkar, rarunkar, sohung, satnam. You go into a transe state and in that suggestive mind state you experience Lucifer's light and sound show and some bliss. This is all to give you a temperary dopermine hit, but you gain no understanding, no clarity, and no wisdom that will help you in any real way. You may as well make love with your partner, or take some hellusenagenic drugs.
Gurinder singh dhillon your days are numbered, your a sickly, narcissist, and have a motive of murdering your own mrs so quashing your court cases. People are waking up to your lies and hypocrisy and justice will be served sooner than you think.
Posted by: Kranvir | December 30, 2022 at 01:36 PM
@Nelson writes: “The self, like consciousness, can fragment. And when we look closely, it may be that a little piece of the self remains even in the most powerful experiences of self-transcendence. After we delve into the way the brain constructs the self, we see that the complete loss of self, even in the most powerful of mystical experiences, is a dubious proposition,”
An interesting statement and one that could cause some confusion. The gist of Jay Garfield's book 'Loosing Ourselves', where he more or less deconstructs every argument for there being a self, is that he replaces 'self' with 'person'. “. . . the word person denotes the complex, constructed socially embedded psychophysical complexes of which we really consist.”
Where Nelson rightly says “ . . . a little piece of the self remains . . .” Garfield would probably describe that 'little piece of self' as the 'person' that we know ourselves to be – a person being comprised of body, brain and mental faculties with all its varied cognitive processes. I'm not too keen on the term 'person' – it denotes a mask (persona) – although Garfield does use it in the sense of a human being.
I prefer Dogen's point (which Garfield also quotes): “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the body and mind of others drop away. No trace of realization remains and this no trace continues endlessly.” Garfield adds that “Dogen here connects the recognition of the absence of self with a kind of spontaneous engagement with reality . . .”
And that I would say is the totality of the quest – whether through science or self study (or both) – to see through the delusions that the self habitually presents and to re-engage with reality.
Posted by: Ron E. | December 31, 2022 at 03:06 AM
Read this post of yours, Brian, as well as your comment, Ron, first thing as I fired up my computer now. And sat awhile thinking over all of this --- 5 minutes by my clock, and an eternity by my interal sense of time.
I usually tend, of late, to come down hard on everything religious. But, I was thinking, this no-self business, it is such a mind-blowing thing. Well, the thing in itself, obviously. But what I'm referring to now is how, back in those days when the methods of science had yet to be formulated, this man nevertheless so clearly worked out, not tentatively but with the fullest certitude, not vaguely but in full complete detail, this completely counter-intutitive idea that there is no abiding self, at all.
We tend to laugh at religious crazies, and tell them to go publish their earth-shattering realizations in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and come away with the million dollars that comes with the Nobel Prize, not to mention a life of respect and fame and celebrity (arrived at honestly, and not by gypping the gullible).
Well, I was thinking, if posthumous Nobels were a thing, and if religio-scientific discoveries were a thing, then if ever someone deserved a Nobel, then that would be this very remarkable man, the Buddha.
Buddham Sharanam Gachchhamih! ...Heh, nah, that's taking much it too far!
But absolutely, all respect. Credit where it's due.
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | December 31, 2022 at 05:53 AM
Was thinking about this the other day.
Another way to look at this ‘loss of self’, is to consider it more as an expansion (not in an ego sense) rather than loss.
With expansion of consciousness, it seems logical to me that the influence of mind/body and associated constructed self is lessened, as more of the Self comes into awareness. Thinking tied up with sense of separation/desire/fear/past/future etc is reduced and acting/being in the present moment becomes more the default state. The mind/person comes into play when needed - otherwise remains on the back burner. This is not everyone’s cup of tea.
However as a description of an awakened state - this makes sense to me.
Here’s to more enacted care and wisdom in 2023.
Posted by: Tim Rimmer | December 31, 2022 at 10:02 AM
Loss of self becomes deeply meaningful to our self when Gurinder Singh Dhilion and Radha Soami Sex Cult comes a banging on ya door and taking your soul to the inner demonic realms of the light of lucifier
Yes the 5 name simran is of Lucifier (Kaal) who goes by the first name chanted by an so called initiated Radha Soami satsangi as Jyot Naranjan (light of Kaal.
Why chant the other 4 as its game over already you're off to Hell where Kaal resides in the everlasting pitts of fire already
Most don't see or hear anything inside and if they do it's just enough to manipulate the individual to experience a something so they can steadfast and finally be mislead at the time of death
Gurinder Singh Dhilion sets the trap up so well all known Radha Soami Cult members are zombiefied they can't understand anything or accept anything else other than the shovelled bull Gurinder shovels so deceptively
He does this by using black magic he has acquired for the entrapment of the soul from and for kaal by using his eyes to push out an evil spell of love for him which they call darshan as he sits on his egotistical stage.
All satsangis are told to look at him in his eyes, now you know why even if it feels out there, it's true.
It's evil and it entraps all who go to him, this is why he travels all over the world. Giving his so called satsangs and darshans.
He will go to hell and will take you there too.
See threw this evil of Gurinders Singh Dhilions
You deserve so much better make that change leave the idiot baba behind in 2023
Posted by: Trez | December 31, 2022 at 10:08 AM
Steve Jobs not-so-famously said that Thomas Edison did more for humanity than Babaji and Carl Marx combined.
Jobs was an Eastern religion devotee in his youth, but let it go. Really let it go.
Hey guys, I thought you left religion as well. Why are you still working so hard to find your "self"?
Posted by: Goswami | December 31, 2022 at 09:34 PM