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The Imaginarium of Belief

Humans are a storytelling species. Anything else that may set us apart from our fellow earthlings – our art, technology, industry, government, science, spirituality, and personal life – is made possible only as part of a larger endeavor in constructing meaning. As one of our ultimate concerns, making meaning through storytelling is how we orient ourselves in reality, open up new possibilities, find strength in adversity, come together for fresh solutions, or drive ourselves to extinction.

In a recent post entitled Above Us Only Sky I introduced the imaginarium of belief as the place where stories are born. It’s also where those interesting characters of a particular kind of story known as myth enter our world. I don’t claim that god literally exists out there and apart from our imaginations, but that god’s existence is literary, as a figure in narratives that tell of our origins and destiny, of our place in the cosmos, and what we have inside ourselves still to discover and awaken.

I understand that such a statement may sound heretical and blasphemous to those who have been instructed to take the stories of god literally and who believe in a literal (factual, metaphysical, supernatural) deity. Even though they have never encountered a separate deity – and we need to carefully distinguish this from undergoing certain experiences and attributing them to an idea of god they have in mind – the expectation is that they should persevere in believing such, as this adds merit to their faith.

As religion insists on the objective truth of its myths (or sacred stories), any hope of restoring an appreciation of their genuine significance recedes. We might be tempted to review every myth for its deeper meaning, and in some cases it will be worth the effort. But rather than committing ourselves to such an exhaustive review, which would take a long time and carry us across a wide diversity of cultures, I’m taking the option of remembering what you may have forgotten.

Once upon a time you played in storyland and every feature of your life-world had roots and branches in its magic.

It’s conventional these days to regard the myths of culture and the fantasies of childhood as amusements we’ve outgrown. As modern adults we need to put aside stories that don’t connect us to reality, and focus instead on straightforward descriptions of the way things are. Our preference is for theory over myth, since theories are explanations of objective facts we can count on. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what mood you happen to be in today; a valid theory is true regardless. In fact, the theory is true precisely because it has methodologically excluded the idiosyncratic factors of personality and perspective.

This virtue of an absolute truth outside our human experience is what seduced religion into confusing its own stories with supernatural journalism – as an objective reporting on revealed facts, metaphysical beings, and historical miracles. Once this move was made, the validity of religion as a system for the activation and development of spirituality was almost entirely lost. Religion has consequently become depleted, defensive, regressive, and irrelevant.

My hope is that as we individually recover an appreciation for the mythopoetic imagination and its stories, our perspective on religion and its future will brighten as well. We’ll see.

In Whole Picture, Whole Brain I proposed that meaning is the product of two parallel processes working together: communion (based in the right hemisphere of our brain) and knowledge (based more in the left). A deep rootedness in reality (i.e., communion) or an objective understanding of reality (i.e., knowledge) is insufficient in itself to make our existence meaningful. We need the contributions of both sides – communion and knowledge, embodied contemplation and detached observation, stories that reveal (myths) as well as stories that explain (theories).

As these two storytelling processes (right-side myth and left-side theory) work together, they deepen and expand our experience of meaning, as well as empower our creative authority as meaning makers. As we mature into adulthood and our belief system needs to become more realistic, responsible, and relevant to the daily concerns of public life, the challenge is not to lose our sense of communion with reality and its integral wholeness.

Whether a particular belief identifies and explains something in objective reality or reveals and expresses something from our deeper experience, our method for determining its truth value will be different. A story about god, then, might be scrutinized for its factual accuracy or contemplated for its metaphorical depth. In the first case it will be rejected for lack of empirical evidence, while in the second it might open new insight into a mystery that can’t be isolated and defined.

Since the Western mind has been moving steadily toward the mastery of knowledge and away from the mystery of communion, I will devote the remainder of this post to clarifying what the mystery of communion is all about.

Let’s drop down from the imaginarium of belief in my diagram and begin where it all starts: in the stream of experience where each of is every moment. It would be easy to assume that the ego – your prized center of personal identity – is immersed in this stream, but not so. Ego lives inside the imaginarium of belief, caught in its own delusion of separateness. (This delusion of separateness is an important phase in your self-actualization as a human being, so long as you are enabled to transcend it in higher experiences of inclusion, wellbeing, and wholeness.) To enter the stream of experience, you must surrender the center of who you think you are.

This, by the way, is the path of mystical descent practiced across cultures and often against the orthodoxy of (particularly theistic) religion. The goal is to steadily unwrap the constructed self (ego) of every last label identifying “I, me, and mine,” until nothing is left but boundless presence – not “my presence” or the presence of something else (like a god), but the present mystery of reality.

To arrive at this place of deep inner calm you will have to first sink past the delusion of who you think you are, descend the electrochemical web of your sentient nervous system, deeper into the ancient biorhythms of your animal body, and finally pass through the trough of the wave to a silent stillness within.

You need to be reminded that you are always already here, and that this inner clearing of boundless presence awaits you even now.

We moderns are so much into the management of identity (who we are or strive to be), that we have forgotten the wellspring in the depths of what we are, as human manifestations of being. Our essential nature is in communion with reality, while our conditioned self (ego) is separated from it.

When you were very young, the stories that shaped and inspired you were less concerned with objective reality – simply because your separate self had not yet been established and there was no clearly objective reality. What made these stories so compelling for you had nothing to do with factual accuracy. They were compelling by virtue of their metaphorical profundity, where profound is in reference to containing deep insight rather than intellectual sophistication. The characters of story were metaphors – vehicles, mediators, and catalysts – of the immersive experience in which you took such delight.

Such an immersive experience is another name for what I mean by communion.

Again, when you were a young child, these imaginary and metaphorical beings were spontaneously appreciated for their power. But on the other side of childhood (specifically after age ten) your perspective on these stories and their characters began to shift more toward the left brain, which is the hemisphere with greater investment in the match between words and their objective referents in external reality. From that point on, theories (as explanations) became more important to getting on in the world than myths (those revelations of inner life).

The challenge became one of contemplating those same fictional characters in conscious acknowledgment of their metaphorical nature. They are still capable of facilitating the mystery of experience into constructs of language (meta-phorein means “to bear across”) – but now you have to look back down through them in order to catch the insight at their roots. 

And this is where we are today with respect to the myths of religion. The sacred stories that once carried our spontaneous experience of communion with reality began very naturally to lose their enchantment. Which put believers on the horns of a dilemma: either reluctantly give up on the myths and leave them behind for a more adult engagement with reality, or else insist on their literal (i.e., factual) truth and consequently reject many well-established theories in the contemporary system of knowledge. Unfortunately, not only have a large number of theistic believers gone with mythological (or biblical) literalism, but metaphor-blind leaders have encouraged and even insisted on it.

Back one more time to the imaginarium of belief, where our knowledge about reality and our communion with reality intertwine (without fusing into confusion) in our constructions of meaning. Theories alone or myths alone are not enough for the important work to be done. We need them both, which means that we need to brush up on our creative skills as storytellers.

 

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The Wheel of Fortune

Our noses are pressed so far into the business of everyday life, that we rarely push our chair away from the desk far enough to take in the bigger picture. The demands on our time and attention leave us too exhausted at the end of the day to contemplate anything “bigger” than a glass of wine, online distractions, or the prospect of a decent night’s sleep.

We might diagnose our times as suffering from “commotion fatigue,” referring not just to the disturbances happening around us, but even more to the agitation and upheavals going on within. If you were to spin a raw chicken egg on the table, stop it momentarily with your finger and then pull away, the still-spinning insides will get it moving again without your assistance. It’s like that. The inner vortex of frustration, irritation, and anxiety has us spinning even when to all outward appearances we are sitting quietly alone. Eventually all this inner commotion wears us out and leaves us depleted.

Popular forms of therapy include sedation, either self-administered by the glass or in the form of prescription medication, mental distraction, entertainment, or saying “no” to some of the things crowding in on us. Less often do we consider the benefits of opening the window of perception to a reality larger than the set of concerns we are trying to manage.

If asked What’s going on? our answer will likely be limited to the stuff that’s on our personal plate. But, of course, there is much, much more going on than only that.

Getting a sense of our place in the grand scheme of things could provide us with the perspective we need to distinguish between what really deserves our attention and what matters less. If you don’t know where you are, anything might offer the clue you’re looking for; and without a sense of the whole, any clue is as good as another.

Most cultures have – or at least had at some point in the past – a grand-scheme picture of being and time which serves to situate human existence and the individual’s life journey. While this picture is not identical across the cultures and historical periods, for the most part its major components form a constant pattern – something like a transcultural mandala of our species. In this post I’ll adopt a name commonly used for it: The Wheel of Fortune.

Religious myths represent our first efforts at contemplating the Wheel of Fortune. Much later, scientific theories worked out the picture in a more impersonal and abstract language. Myth and theory are really just two ways of approaching the same mystery, one looking through the screen of personality, and the other with this screen methodologically removed. One sees intentionality behind and throughout reality, while the other is committed to regarding it all as a marvelous accident, devoid of purpose or final goal.

Religion positions intelligent volition at the start, center, and end; science lets mindless chance evolve over inconceivable intervals of time and space. The plain fact, which neither one can ignore, is that conditions have indeed provided for the flourishing of life, sentience, and self-awareness in the universe. By intention or by accident?

Is it legitimate for human beings to ask why we are here – to search out our purpose, deciphering clues to our possible fulfillment and responsibility to the whole? Or are we limited only to asking how we got here – the random causality leading up to our arrival over countless eons of time? Religious myths offer revelations into the provident intelligence behind everything. Scientific theories offer explanations that make reality intelligible, but only to us.

It’s helpful to remember that these two storytelling enterprises, religion and science, are contemplating the same reality. Whether it uses metaphorical archetypes or metalogical algorithms in its preferred narrative, one doesn’t have to be right and the other wrong. They can both be right (or wrong), but from different angles of approach.

That is to say, the Wheel of Fortune is a shared fascination of both religion and science, and both historically have been interested in understanding the big picture and our place in the universe. Each component of the Wheel can be represented mythologically or theoretically, as we’ll see.

The cosmic order issued from the preconditions of chaos, personified in myth as a monster (e.g., the serpent Tiamat or the dragon Leviathan) whose body enveloped the primordial stuff of existence. By the sword or command of a god its body was opened up to release this energy and then subsequently dissected into the sky, earth, sea, and underworld.

According to scientific theory, this primordial state was a singularity of infinite potential that exploded outward in expanding waves of energy that quickly crystallized into the elements of matter. Hydrogen and helium fused first to become the center of nascent stars, where stellar nucleosynthesis proceeded to form the heavier elements of outlying matter and solar systems.

According to both narratives, the energy of chaos is paradoxically the ground of existence. While both myth and theory depict the decisive event as having occurred at the beginning of all things, the chaos, whether divided and portioned, or expanding and transformed, continues even now to fuel the creative process. In fact, the creation or ‘big bang’ of our universe wasn’t just an event in the distant past, but is presently ongoing.

Cosmic order continuously arises by the dismemberment of the dragon, by the out-pouring differentiation of chaos into the relatively stable forms of matter.

What we are calling the ground of existence, then, refers to the spontaneous uprising of energy into matter, of matter into organism, of organic life into sentience, and of awareness into egoic self-awareness. The ground is not outside of these, but deeply internal to each existing thing.

For a self-aware human being, the grounding mystery is accessed by descending within, through the centers of personal identity (ego) and a sentient nervous system, from which threshold consciousness releases to the organic rhythms of the animal body. Unconscious matter and (deeper still) quantum chaos support everything from still farther down/within, but awareness can only contemplate these ineffable depths from the drop-off of its own center.

The Wheel of Fortune’s upward swing follows the rise of cosmos (order) out of chaos, a coming-into-existence (genesis) of all things. To exist is to ‘stand out’ of this purely potential state, taking form and finding a place in the grand scheme. It is happening all the time; or we might also say, its happening is the very definition of time.

Religious myth and scientific theory are both narrative constructions by which human minds have contemplated the mystery of a provident universe. Whether we ask why we are here (an inquiry into purpose and destiny) or how we got here (exploring causality and evolution), we are seeking to understand our place in the whole.

But the Wheel continues to turn, and as it swings downward this cosmic complexity begins to come loose at the seams. In the myths we hear of the breakdown of order, a worldwide deluge, the fall into mortality and the collapse of virtue, an apocalyptic catastrophe – all archetypes, once again, of what we can perceive going on around us in countless small and larger ways.

Because it looks through the veil of personality, religion sees intention, purpose, and will operating behind things. If gods and heroes are the agents in the Wheel’s upturn, on its downturn the myths feature devils and anti-heroes who conspire in the universe’s unraveling.

Science names this demonic intention toward disorder entropy, which refers to the tendency or “law” that pulls complexity down toward more stable arrangements. Complex systems require more energy to hold together and they function relatively far from equilibrium.

Our brains, for instance, are made of material nerve cells capable of conducting electrical impulses, forming circuits and networks of interaction that give rise to consciousness. Consciousness itself is a highly complex process and inherently unstable; it is dynamic and not static. Entropy is experienced as mental fatigue, and as the brain loses energy its functions collapse to lower, slower, and more stable states.

From a vantage-point higher up in the organizational complexity such as a personal ego, this downward pull toward stability threatens existence and will eventually bring about its end. On the Wheel of Fortune this is where reality is perceived not as the supportive ground of existence but rather as the abyss of extinction – the dragon once again, but now in its aspect as world-devourer and ultimate solvent of forms. The pouring-forth of genesis has its counterbalance on the Wheel in kenosis (from Greek, to empty out).

In the language of science, chaos is not only the quantum field that gives rise to the physical universe. It is also a dark sea of probability and indeterminate fluctuations that is quite literally nothing, in that it has no objective existence of its own. The very act of measuring these fluctuations determines whether they show up as particles or waves, but their behavior is intrinsically unpredictable. A methodological detachment of our research intention from the supposed object of study, which is how science proceeds above the quantum level, is just not possible down here.

Not only do all the qualifications of the Newtonian universe dissolve into nothingness as we approach the quantum field, but even the sacrosanct division of mind and reality folds in upon itself.

Thus the Wheel of Fortune turns – not one time only, but again and again in unceasing revolution. And not only at the highest level, either, where the whole thing turns as the mystery of our universe, but in every quarter, niche, and speck. The great uprising of matter into life, of life into sentience, and of sentience into the self-conscious ego reading these words right now, is circling back around to begin again.

 

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Human Progress and the Four Forces

Four ForcesI write this on New Year’s Day, a traditional time when people around the world make resolutions to be more responsible, love each other more deeply, and finally do something about the dreams they’ve been procrastinating on. In 30-days time, which is about how long it takes for real change to get established or abandoned, we’ll check in again.

It doesn’t always or even typically go the way we had hoped it would.

I reflected on hope in a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-AF) where I defended its importance against a trend in popular psychology which regards it essentially as yet another way human beings divert attention away from the present moment into things that aren’t real. As the expectancy of something to come, hope pulls us out of the here-and-now and thereby undermines our one genuine touchpoint in reality.

Of course, the hopeful person is still very much in the present moment, for there is nowhere else one can be, but the investment of awareness is being channeled away from what is to a future prospect of only what might be.

What this argument fails to take into consideration is the fact that our brains, particularly the most recent and uniquely human part called the prefrontal cortex, have evolved (quite literally) with the future in mind. Generally speaking, animals with more evolved brains and nervous systems are able to anticipate, predict, and plan their actions in view of future (i.e., hoped for) outcomes. Not only does this give them an advantage over animals lacking the talent, but such a future orientation allows for creative options denied to lesser brains.

Naturally the challenge is to live in touch with the present as we plan for the future. Each of us is familiar with the way that obsessing over tomorrow can cause us to overlook the priceless gift (present) of today.

As I see it, hope is one of those undeniable forces that shape human progress. As we prepare ourselves for another year, our anticipation of what it might bring and our plans for what we hope to accomplish exercise a powerful influence on what actually comes about.

But another force works in opposition to hope. I’m referring to the deep grooves of habit that hold us in well-established patterns of behavior and belief. Just like hope, habit is sometimes denigrated as a negative influence that prevents us from fully engaging in present experience. We do something long enough, or it was set in place early enough, that now we don’t even have to give it a second thought. Whether we learned it through repeated practice and discipline like a skill, or picked it up more or less spontaneously in reaction to trauma or chronic stress, habituated behavior and its associated beliefs constitute a good deal of what is meant by character.

Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” He was referring not to some magical power in belief itself, but to the power of habit in shaping our judgments regarding our own creative authority. If we routinely (i.e., habitually) dismiss or deny our capacity to change current reality and bring about something new, that deep and familiar groove will eventually deliver us to our grave.

The real danger in habit has to do with the way it locks us inside behavioral patterns and mental boxes that stifle our creativity. We become hostages of our own convictions, spellbound by the mystique of certainty, and dead to the creative intelligence that got us thinking in the first place.

Each of us has an ego, a separate center of personal identity that strives both to fit in and stand out at the same time. From birth our tribe began prodding and luring our behavior in the direction of communal aims, all the while giving support to the emergence of personal ambitions regarding our future goals. Some of those goals never crystallized out of the fantasy state, where they functioned more as a therapy of mental escape from the fixed conditions of everyday life than as motivators of actual progress. As we know, a habit of insecurity, entitlement, self-doubt, and procrastination can keep us perpetually stuck in the daydream of what we wish our lives could be.

In that daydream we tend to live out of touch with our body (since it is where our trauma and shame are stored) and equally alienated from our soul (which is where intuition and unity-awareness are found). If we could only pay attention, symptomatic messages in the body would reveal where our creative energy and higher human progress is currently blocked – in hang-ups around security and power (gut), attachment and love (heart), or meaning and truth (head).

The body itself is informed by a deep instinctual intelligence with roots reaching back into our evolutionary prehistory. Those urges, drives, and reflexes were formed over millenniums of symbiotic adaptation to the limits and opportunities of the environment. Even though the innovations of culture have liberated us somewhat from the force of instinct, we are foolish not to include our animal nature and its visceral intelligence in our New Year’s resolutions. No diet, whether endorsed by medical doctors or Hollywood movie stars, will produce a healthy body if we have lost attunement with the body’s own primal knowing of what is truly wholesome and beneficial to health.

Opposite the dark urgencies of instinct are the bright revelations of wisdom, guarded (or ignored) under the stewardship of our diverse cultures. The soul’s insight into the truth of things is like a transcendent light shining through the stained glass icons of meaning that our cultures honor and protect. Oftentimes this light illumines the genuine beauty and grace of those icons. But sometimes, particularly when they have become dogmatic, inflexible, and absolute in their claims on truth, it may inspire the birth of new images and metaphors in pursuit of a higher meaning.

Wisdom should not be confused with knowledge or “being smart.” Throughout its history, the evolving stream of human wisdom has been contemplated as carrying the ethical insights and mystical realizations that can help us live more authentically, more compassionately, and more peacefully together in community. Wisdom will always challenge us to sink deeper and open wider to the present mystery of reality, always beyond the moral judgments and doctrinal orthodoxies that currently divide us.

Our progress, both individually and collectively, will be short-lived so long as we continue to believe and behave as if we’re separate from (and superior to) the rest. Wellbeing – truly being well (a cognate of the term ‘whole’) – is about living with the Big Picture in mind and promoting wholeness in all we do.

In my diagram the double arrow between instinct and wisdom is bigger yet less distinct than the single-direction arrows from habit to hope, while the latter are more pronounced. This is to make the point that as long as we stay in the grooves defining who we are and what’s in it for me, access to the deeper force of instinct and the higher force of wisdom will be largely unavailable to us. And as long as that’s the case, our human progress, both in this coming year and in the decades still to come, will be questionable indeed.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2016 in The Creative Life

 

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When the Time is Right

Reasonable_PassionateWould you consider yourself more reasonable or passionate? Do you think things through before you act, or do your feelings inspire your actions? Is it a priority for you to maintain objectivity as you make your way through life, or is engagement with the moving stream of experience a higher value for you? Finally, do you more often plan and choose what you do next, or are you one who is moved by urgency and tends to see the options you had only in hindsight?

Most likely you will say “sometimes” to each of these, as well you should, since they characterize an inherent duality in the human brain. We are familiar with this duality as the opposition between thinking and feeling, and sometimes it’s hard not to divide the world into hard-headed thinkers and soft-hearted feelers. That’s when the inherent duality of consciousness breaks down and gets played out as a dualism in reality – no doubt the creative seedbed of mythology, religion, art, politics, and even a good deal of science insofar as it uses logic (as theory) to bring the mysteries of existence to light.

But “sometimes” doesn’t mean “equally,” and even a casual observation of yourself and other people will notice that each of us favors one of these more than the other. Just because I might be more reasonable doesn’t mean that I can’t be passionate. And if you are more the passionate type, this doesn’t necessarily imply that you can’t also be reasonable. It’s more true to say that reason and passion are inversely related, which means that more of one entails less of the other. Their dynamic opposition, and the inescapably paradoxical nature of experience as caught in their creative tension, is what makes it all so interesting.

Because I prefer being reasonable to being passionate – though, again, there are things I’m very passionate about – I’m going to analyze this opposition into two distinct personality types. I’ll refer to my own type as “high road,” and because I don’t want to suggest that passionate folks take the low road, I’ll name their type “deep stream.”

In the diagram above you should notice that I have not placed cognition (thinking) directly opposite to emotion (feeling), as popular psychology tends to do. Instead, the expressive urgency with which strong emotion drives us to act out is counterbalanced by the freedom to choose, in what is known as volition. For its part, cognition stretches across the system, although it intersects with (or intervenes on) the high road sooner in the process leading to action than it does with the deep stream. This is the distinction I was getting at when I asked whether you tend to weigh options beforehand (by planning and foresight) or more often become aware only later of what options you had at the time (in hindsight and review).

All of us are oriented by life itself on the specific challenges prompting us to act or react to the situations in which we find ourselves. The evolutionary idea of “fitness” refers to the way in which an organism’s behavior adapts to the conditions of its environment in order to maximize its chances of survival and reproductive success. If we loosen up our definition of behavior to include every kind of action, from physical movement of the body to glandular changes in the secretion of hormones, then it’s easier to understand how the quality, direction, and ultimate success of life turns on behavior.

If action is the ultimate outcome, then motivation is what moves us to behave in the ways we do. As we consider our own experience, we are aware that our motivation in a given instance might follow the high road of premeditated reasons, or be pulled into the deep stream of compelling passions – again in some combination, but stronger on one side than the other. Although my language makes it seem like it’s one or the other, I think we can all agree that volitional goals and emotional drives are intermixed in the action-path of our daily behavior.

Cognition, or conscious thought, gets involved sooner in the process along the high road of volition. When we are weighing our options and trying to determine which is more aligned with our longer aim, thought is assuming a vantage point above and outside the specific allure of the individual options themselves. This objectivity is critically important when we’re taking the high road, since it enables us to detach emotionally from something and make a rational appraisal of its value relative to our larger plan or purpose. It certainly is the case that much of our progress as a species is due to this ability for taking an objective view on the challenges and opportunities life brings our way.

But we aren’t just bloodless cyborgs calculating the probability of favorable outcomes according to preprogrammed logical algorithms. Our emotions are what make life really interesting, if also painfully complicated at times. Conscious thought typically shows up farther downstream for passionate types. Being “in the flow” of inspiration and spontaneous feeling is a higher value than trying to be so terribly deliberate about it all. But cognition does show up, and when it does, the quality of experience is not about objectivity but engagement. Thought at this level is metaphorical, fluid, and shape-shifting. To be engaged in what’s going on enables us to respond intuitively and empathically to more subtle signals. Think again about our progress as a species, and reflect on how much of it is the product of creative imagination, artistic inspiration, and spontaneous feeling.

All of this is not intended to pit one side against the other or force you to choose between them. There’s too much at risk when we glorify one side of ourselves and condemn the other, especially when our pathological divisions play out in the social realm. We elevate the favored part of ourselves to divine status and project the disowned part into our enemy, where it can alienated, vilified, and attacked.

We need to be reasonable and passionate, if we have any hope of being happy and healthy. There are times when we will benefit from taking a step back and working through our options with the big picture in mind. But there are also times when we need to jump in and let the spontaneity of life pull us from our well-laid plans.

Wisdom is knowing when the time is right.

 

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Our Creative Brain

I am fascinated with the human brain, and since I own one, I try as best I can to understand how it works. Without reducing all that I am to my brain and what goes on inside it, I nevertheless have a strong suspicion that everything I am is deeply dependent on this three-pound wonder between my ears. In reflecting further on the matrix of meaning and the myths by which we construct our worlds, I’ve come to a revelation concerning how all of this might be brain-based after all.

Web of Meaning_MatrixHere is my illustration of what I call the matrix of meaning – the crisscrossing polarities of primary concerns (orange) and narrative motifs (black) – and the web we construct on its frame as we weave the pattern known as our world. A deeper exploration of the matrix itself can be found in my post “Myth and the Matrix of Meaning” (http://wp.me/p2tkek-j2), while more about the peculiar construction of the web and its zones of meaning is in “Meaning and Paradox” (http://wp.me/p2tkek-sv). The opposition inherent to the four polarities gives the matrix its creative energy, which in turn compels this incessant human activity of meaning-making.

As I reflect on the matrix and particularly on the zones of meaning with the brain in the back of my mind (how’s that for a twist?), I begin to see how the three zones correspond to three main evolutionary divisions in our brain’s anatomy: (1) the primitive brain stem enfolded by (2) the limbic system and crowned with (3) a cerebral cortex. Each division evolved with specific responsibilities to the whole, and all of them work together for the survival, adaptation, and fulfillment of our potential as a species.

NeutralityThe brain stem (informally known as our “reptilian brain”) is responsible for the internal state and basic life-support of our body. Activities such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, body temperature and the countless visceral events that must be coordinated in regulating the dynamic balance called homeostasis are monitored and adjusted from the autonomic control center of the brain stem.

Notice how the first zone of meaning, neutrality, is deeply similar to the brain stem’s preoccupation with homeostasis. Could it be that this natural balance-point in the body’s internal state is at the root of our preference for familiarity, comfort, and living on “autopilot”?

We like to stay where things are manageable, where the situational demands on our attention and effort are minimal. If we could, a part of us would prefer lounging in the warm sun as long as our animal nature is content.

Meaning-making begins, then, with our basic needs for safety, warmth, and nourishment. Once the channels of provision are flowing, it’s easy for us to stay in those grooves and succumb to the sleepy rhythm of the day-to-day.

Conflict

But as we know, we can’t stay there indefinitely. Life throws us curve balls and our automatic routines are upset. In addition to a brain stem that
works compulsively to keep us alive, humans (and all other mammals) possess a limbic system, which gives us the ability to respond emotionally to our environment.

Obviously any organism that can link up an association between an external object or event and its own internal state, so that the merest stimulus suggesting that object or event in the future elicits an anticipatory response, will have a survival advantage over an organism lacking this emotional talent.

Once again we can see a correlation between the brain and meaning-making. Emotion is equipped for life in the “conflict” zone, where the polarities in the matrix generate stress and strain. The limbic brain is also the niche in our nervous system where ego begins its career, also known as our inner child. In our quest for identity (ego = “I”) – typically most desperate and dramatic during adolescence – we are trying to figure out where we belong and how we are special.

Stories of privilege, entitlement, and superiority serve to bolster the ego and make us feel that everything revolves around “me and mine.” If the body seeks homeostasis and validates our narratives of contentment and the status quo, ego frequently instigates conflict in its ambition to be first, highest, and best. There’s no need to recount the damage done to ourselves, our relationships, and our planet as ego tries to exploit conflict in its favor, whatever the cost. I want to win, don’t you?

Paradox

The most recently evolved division of our brain is the cerebral cortex – all those billions of neurons and quadrillions of connections that carry the impulses of experience into conscious thought. At this level the brain is further organized into lobes, circuits, and nuclei specialized to process specific kinds of information coming across our senses.

Beyond this sifting-and-sorting business, however, the cortex also gives us the ability to restrain our urges and reflexes, to extract general ideas from concrete examples, to think critically and strategically, to imagine what’s possible and to transcend opposites. The farthest forward of specialized structures and last to come fully online is our prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-control, rationality, forethought, and responsible behavior.

Another interesting feature of the cerebral cortex is its lateral division into left and right hemispheres. While the differences between the two hemispheres are commonly misrepresented in popular literature, research has revealed the left side (above and behind our left eye) as more gifted in abstraction and analysis, while the right side tends to be better with information that is concrete and intuitive. In the “conversation” between the hemispheres, conducted across a structure called the corpus callosum, our higher brain is able to reconcile opposites as paradoxes rather than have to come down on one side or the other (dualism).Zones_Brain

What we’re talking about here is our higher self, also known as the soul, which is where our adult intelligence resides. Only as we are able to move out of neutrality and rise above the conflict can we refine our appreciation for the complex nature of experience. The greatest paradox of them all – the timeless mystery within us and the turning cosmos around us – is home to the soul, the zone where we construct and celebrate ultimate meaning.

 

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God On The Brain

I don’t typically talk much about the brain in Tracts of Revolution, where it’s more about how spirituality, religion, philosophy and science offer frequently contradictory (but possibly at some deeper level, complementary) accounts of reality. This three-pound organ and its central place in our ongoing efforts to live happy and meaningful lives is, however, my veritable obsession in another blog of mine, called Brain Tracts. Perhaps this brief excursion into the neuroscience of God will entice you to check it out.

Mental Theater

In order to beat down the grass a bit and make a path to this grand topic of God, let’s begin by talking about what your brain is doing right now. Throughout the day your brain is entertaining a series of loosely chained scenarios, as you move in and out of the various environments and situations of daily life. One of its important contributions is the faithful representation inside your mental theater of what’s going on outside and around you. As you drive your car on the road, sit behind your desk at work or school, or engage a conversation with friends, your brain attends to (or bends toward) the stimuli coming across its sensory outposts – the classic five (or so) gross senses of your body.

Gathering together these numerous strands of sensory information, your brain projects this composite representation on the screen of your conscious awareness. Whether it’s an apparently seamless and dynamic movie unfolding there or a “still shot” of something you are studying with concentrated effort, the focus of your attention is your mental object. As it flashes up there on the screen inside your mental theater, it is only information. In my attempt to make it as uninteresting and impersonal as possible, I will simply name it: “IT.” IT is what you are focusing on right now.

Now, your brain isn’t just a fancy mechanism for collecting and processing sensory information from the environment – although that in and of itself is pretty amazing indeed. Your mental object might instead be something you are recalling from yesterday or five years ago; or again, IT might be something you’re making up on the fly, as it were, by the wonder-working power of imagination. Perception, recollection, and imagination are thus the three channels by which your brain brings your mental object (IT) to the screen of present attention.

The debate between theism and atheism over the existence of God gets predictably hung up at this point, with one side (the atheists) refuting it on the claim that this particular mental object has no basis in the sensory-physical realm of our senses and was simply made up (imagined) by superstitious storytellers. Theists will typically counter by appealing to sacred writings that record and inerrantly preserve the actual (miraculous, supernatural) experiences of people many centuries ago. The responsibility of faith today is to trust these accounts as a reliable witness to the objective truth of God’s existence.

In my opinion, this debate is tired, boring, and pointless. The theists are misreading their sacred texts by taking the stories of God literally, and the atheists are playing right into it by taking the theists literally. For a way through the stalemate, we need to go back to the brain.

Lower BraintractYour brain is “wired” into your body through a complex nervous system that reaches out to your muscles, organs, glands, tissues and cells. I call this a braintract – specifically your lower braintract, since you have an upper one as well (which we’ll get to in a bit). With brain-imaging technology and carefully controlled experiments, neuroscience has discovered that your brain is constantly monitoring the stream of experience flowing below the threshold of conscious attention. This spontaneous engagement with the stream of experience is called intuition (or at least that’s what I’m calling it), and it’s where your brain is “picking up” all kinds of subtle impressions of what’s really going on.

Of course, “stream of experience” is only a metaphor – although I hasten to add that the word only here should not be taken to mean merely or nothing but a metaphor. Metaphors are image-words used to convey something that cannot be grasped in objective terms. Many of our most powerful experiences in life are of things that have no separate existence of their own but are nonetheless real to us by virtue of the unmistakable and frequently overwhelming feelings they evoke. Any attempt to extract such metaphors from the moving stream of experience and strip them of feeling ends up destroying them along with the connection to reality they provided.

I have argued that religion began as a way of contemplating the present mystery of reality. Its deepest and earliest metaphor is the ground of being – the providential support and creative source on which all depends, moment to moment. The feeling of this ground is registered in your nervous system, generated out of a syndrome of countless synchronized events transpiring in your cells, glands and organs. The present mystery of reality is grasped intuitively and “known” spontaneously in the rhythms of your breath, your heartbeat, and the nerve cycles of consciousness.

Religion thus began with a metaphor that conveyed a profound and essentially ineffable experience of reality as the rising support of being-itself. Quickly enough – for the next task of religion is to tie the concerns of daily life back to this deeper support – it further clarified the ground metaphor into the natural incarnations known intimately by every newborn mammal: mother and (to a lesser extent) father. The earliest representations in religion of the present mystery of reality were the generative provision of Mother Earth and the supervisory protection of Father Sky (or heavenly Father) – both archetypes (or “first forms”) of the grounding mystery.

It’s important to understand that these primordial representations (and earliest mental objects) of reality were not of a being in the earth and another being in the sky. As archetypes of the ineffable mystery of being-itself (i.e., the ground metaphor), they translated a deeply intuitive experience and established a relationship to reality that acknowledged our natural dependency and communion with the universe.

Upper Braintract

So far my theory explains the origins of our concept of God, beginning in the spontaneous engagement with the stream of present (and preconscious) experience. This intuition of reality as provident support and creative source was first grasped and communicated in the ground-of-being metaphor, but pretty quickly got translated into the specific incarnations of Mother and Father – and by extension, Mother Earth and Father Sky.

Once your brain fastens the focus of attention on a mental object, it sends this information via your upper braintract to your mind where its meaning will be determined. Your two braintracts are constantly working in parallel, with the lower braintract (your body) converting the information in your brain (the mental object) into an energy-state of feeling, and the upper braintract (your mind) translating it into a narrative composition (story) of meaning. Your mind is a storyteller and perpetually busy constructing narratives around your mental object, which serve to frame a context, establish causality, project possible scenarios, predict outcomes, and generally link the mental object into a web of associations that makes it mean something.

Storytelling is recursive elaboration on a mental object, or what is commonly called reflection: the bending-back of your mind on a work-in-progress, weaving strands of identification and significance around it, like a spider bundling up a trapped fly in sticky fibers. As the mind cannot help but construct meaning when your brain presents it with a mental object, telling stories (including theories, hypotheses, explanations, reports, excuses and lies) is its primary business.

Coming back to religion and its concept of God, this business of storytelling is how humans make sense of their experience and link everything back (Latin religare) to the grounding mystery. Yes, this is mythology – not fallacies, deceptive tales, or bad science, but dramatic narratives connecting our life-world and daily concerns to the provident reality supporting and supplying our existence in this moment. The many deities of religion are personifications of hidden agencies in the rhythms of life and death, the landscape and its resources, the seasons and catastrophes that shape our experience in the world.

The danger of telling stories about the gods (these hidden agencies) is in our mind’s need to perform further recursive elaboration on these elaborations – constructing the god’s genealogy and sibling relations, reputation and character, sovereign will and inner thoughts – all of which may encourage the belief in his or her separate existence. As the archetypes of Mother Earth and Father Sky reproduced into the countless offspring deities of the regional and tribal myths, the actual origins of God were forgotten and the literary gods became literal beings. The stage was thereby set for the theist-atheist debate. Who’s right? Neither one.

Braintracts_full pic

If – and I grant this is a BIG if – we can look through our deities, descend along the winding path of our sacred stories and deeper into the intuitive experience that got everything started, we will be able to relax our grip and loosen up. It all began with the waking of consciousness to the provident uplift of life in this moment. You’ve never left it, despite your long and tired journey in its quest.

One day you will close your eyes and unwind completely into a mystery beyond name and form.

 

 

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Flow in the Creative Life

I am of the opinion that a human being desires. Before this desire gets directed along a particular channel and attached to a specific object, it is life in its purest form. Life, desire, creativity and spirit – these are deeply synonymous terms in the vocabulary of what it is to be human.

Think of desire as the current that activates and inspires our experience at different levels. Oriental philosophy offers the idea of chi or energy and the various chakras or activation points along the vertical axis of the spine. Each center opens out to reality at a unique frequency of intelligence and concern. When the chakras are fully aligned and activated, an individual experiences “flow,” fulfillment and well-being.

The West has its own chakra system, although it hasn’t been developed to the degree of detail and sophistication as in the East. Typically these activation points go by the names “mind,” “heart,” and “will” – where mind thinks, heart feels, and will moves you to act. Medieval philosophy in many ways is best understood as a sustained contemplation and dialogue on these three energy-centers in human experience.

For their part, soul and body are not regarded as additional centers but refer rather to the deep interior (soul) and animal nature (body) of a human being. It was only later that a third dimension was clarified – not a “power” or energy center but what I have elsewhere characterized as a standpoint in reality – named ego. This is the socially constructed and self-conscious identity of an individual person.

As a construct, ego lacks the “substantiality” of the soul and body, and for that reason it would be acceptable to say – with Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) – that it doesn’t even exist. It’s a project and projection, a rather neurotic contraction of defenses, attachments and delusions.

In the language of liberation, awakening, and the creative life, ego is our primary obstacle. It’s what needs to “die” – in the words of Jesus (the Christ) – so that our deeper life can rise up and find its wings.

Back to the energy centers. This idea has become particularly interesting to me of late, as I reflect on creativity, desire, and spirit. I am appreciating more how the truly creative individual is one whose mind, heart and will are perfectly aligned and fully activated. In order to work out the implications of this, let’s look more closely at each of these Western chakras.

For our purposes I will use the organs of the brain, heart and gut as visual representations of mind, heart and will. And even though we are born with all our organs intact – with the brain nevertheless continuing to mature still into our third decade – I am going to begin this reflection at the gut level and move upwards, following the direction of development.

GutWhy is it that you feel sick to your stomach or have issues with your intestines when you feel distressed or threatened? Your gut is a system of organs working together to metabolize nutrients and remove toxins. When stress hormones are released into the bloodstream, your gut gets thrown into high gear so that you can have all the energy you need to get out of danger.

Your gut is the energy point where you feel either securely grounded or dangerously at risk of not getting what you need to stay alive. At this level of intelligence, reality needs to be experienced as provident and supportive, something greater in which you can trust and have faith.

Of course, the indisputable fact that you are alive is proof enough that you live in a provident universe. Not only “this place,” but this planet, this solar system, this galaxy, and the entire cosmos are conspiring at this moment to provide what you need to stay alive and flourish.

  • Key words here are: Providence, Support, Security, Trust and Faith.

When you have the assurance of this, the energy flow of desire is allowed to ascend the axis to points above. If it’s uncertain, or if you were raised in a home where there was lots of deprivation, neglect, abuse and repression, then the energy that should be ascending gets stuck in your gut. You can expect your health and happiness issues to be centered there.

HeartBut let’s say you are faithfully grounded in a reality that is provident and supportive. This sense of security is like a gate that lets desire continue on its upward circuit. Next it comes to your heart.

Why is it that when someone close to you decides to leave or is suddenly taken away, you feel “brokenhearted”? Why do so many people suffer from heartache? Your heart, more than any other organ, is connected to every other organ and outpost in your body. By its very nature it is about cooperation. When the connection between your heart and another organ is lost or obstructed, that organ will die.

Your heart is the energy point where you feel either intimately connected or coldly removed from the web of mutual interdependence. At this level of intelligence, reality needs to be experienced as relational and loving, something in which you can belong and find love.

A distinction between Western and Oriental cosmology is that while the latter regards the multiplicity of separately existing things as an illusion, Western philosophy and science affirm it as foundational to what the universe is. A corollary of this idea is the view that being is essentially relational and dynamic rather than monistic and unchanging.

  • Key words here are: Relationship, Communion, Intimacy, Belonging and Love.

When you have the assurance of this, the energy flow of desire is allowed to ascend the axis to the next point above. If it’s absent or doubtful, if your experience has involved more than your share of exploitation, rejection, betrayal or dysfunctional relationships, then the energy that should be ascending gets stuck in your heart. Your health issues might be centered here, in the physical consequences (or early symptoms) of losing your passion, compassion, and communion with life.

BrainBut let’s say you do feel a strong sense of belonging and healthy rapport in your relationships. This sense of intimacy is like a gate that lets desire continue on its upward circuit. Next it comes to your brain/mind.

Why is it that a lack of clarity in your efforts to make sense of something gives you a headache? Why are people so ready to trade their lack of meaning and purpose for a psychiatric diagnosis and treatment plan? Your brain is your “executive” organ, the seat of conscious awareness, and the worktable in your construction of meaning. Its dual responsibilities are to regulate the internal processes of your body and articulate the neural platform of your mind (thinking self).

Your brain is the energy point where the certainty of your life’s meaning is managed. With its unique cognitive powers you are constantly sounding a transcendent reality for echos of significance. At this level of intelligence, reality is scanned for patterns, rhythms, and correlations, which are then analyzed, synthesized, and fantasized into a cross-referencing system of meaning known as your world.

What you seek is understanding, and as you are busy with the process of constructing meaning, various checkpoints along the way (conventionally called “facts”) challenge your brain to update its world-picture.

Key words here are: Transcendence, Meaning, Certainty, Understanding and Truth.

Now, if the ascending path of desire has gotten tangled up and caught on hooks farther down, leaving only a trickle of energy by the time it reaches this point, your personal meaning can become extremely rigid, awkwardly outdated, and curiously dogmatic. When your intellectual guidance system is out of sync with the actual coordinates of reality, you should expect headaches – physical and otherwise.

                                                                           

Okay, so there you have my interpretation of the Western “chakra system.” Human creativity is an inverse function of the “impedance” in this flow of energy/desire/spirit through the primary centers of the gut, heart and brain.

The more impedance – that is to say, the greater degree in which this creative flow gets “hung up” and pulled off center into the various ailments, demons, and neuroses of our predicament – the less creative we are. (I suppose it’s obvious to also say, the more destructive we tend to become.)

The creative life is grounded in the provident mystery of reality. It flows outward into communion with all things. It strives to ask better questions, ones that will deepen understanding and open up a larger vision for our lives.

I think this model has a lot to commend it. Philosophy, theology, politics, business, commerce, art, science, medicine, ethics – we stand a chance of getting our cultural system back on track and centered again.

And just to think, it all begins with you and me.

Take care of yourself.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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