Saturday, August 28, 2010

neurology of transcendance

How does focusing on a perception of transpersonal experience affect the human brain?  Many members of society want a vocabulary to talk about them and claim their benefits, but the terms used are imprecise and lacking in scientific accuracy.  Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs from his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" placed such peak experiences of self-actualization at the top of his pyramid.  Carl Sagan spoke eloquently of the inspiring nature of the cosmos, and "Einsteinian" religious sentiments are referenced by Dawkins frequently (he has also said that pantheism is "sexed up" atheism).  More recently than that there has been talk about the "New Mysterium" in philosophical circles.  I'll make a naive attempt to define what I mean. 
To my understanding a "transpersonal experience" is one in which normal aspects of our physical reality seem to change, and we arrive at a perception of a "deeper" understanding of reality.  This is like meta-cognition, in which you observe yourself and your thoughts from outside them.  The qualities of your physical perception change; space, distance, and time may be perceived in different ways.  Neural activity is altered. 

Aside from theological dogma, most religious traditions originate with a founder who claims to have had some sort of transpersonal experience or "revelation".  The founding religious community thus begun focuses on such experiences as evidence of the veracity of their beliefs.  When any religion thereafter grows large enough it becomes difficult to demand of all the followers such experiences, and so mere conformity to their particular religious opinion suffices for membership.  Jon Kabat-Zinn advocates a form of mindfulness meditation, while many indigenous peoples have traditionally held a position within the community for a shaman capable of entering trance-like states in which they claim to be able to do or become almost anything.  Being in the "here and now" with Zinn's version of mindfulness meditation can confer a "unitive" connection with the world around us. (For example, when I quiet my thought and body I am able to experience peace, appreciate a realization that I am of the same substance as everything else; we are one.  And sometimes, somehow, focusing in this way makes me feel good. And I want to spread that feeling.)

I would like to de-mystify the transpersonal experience and show that it is a very natural phenomenon, and perhaps an undervalued phenomenon.  No actual supernatural abilities are involved, though the change in neural activity accompanying such perceptions is real and measurable.  As human society moves from a supernatural to a scientific understanding of the world, I think there may be a risk of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater."  A frequent topic among atheists, and in fact the subject of Dawkins' recent talk at UAF, is the evolutionary value of religious belief, or even more simply if there is any value in religion at all.  Virtually every list of these will include something referring to the unified sense of community and socialization.  I would also like to add mutual affirmation of a shared sense of transpersonal experience and identity.  It may have been Dawkins who pointed out that this experience, for some, is one of generating a sense of "being in love."  Among Christians at least, this should be of no surprise.  Anyone familiar with Protestant or non-denominational churches is aware of the emphasis placed on God's love and the frequent reference to metaphors of romantic or familial love.  In Buddhism, there are several meditation practices involving focusing on a sense of compassion for everything.  No wonder people are drawn to religion, it is a popular forum for generating positive emotions of regard for self and others.  Unfortunately many if not all religious/spiritual traditions become hitched to ill-informed dogma that discredits the genuinely positive effect of the altered neural states enjoyed by its members.  If only this wasn't the case! 

Tim Pychyl, in his work, has identified the existential nature of problems related to motivation and goal oriented behavior, specifically procrastination.  I could entertain the idea that the generation of transpersonal experiences for self and others may be a primary objective in human life.  This would mean that the massive amount of information generated by modern society may only be of use to such an end, and becomes increasingly inconsequential once such experiences are realized. The reclusive nature of certain religious orders of monks, nuns, and other ascetics and hermits would seem to bear this out as a widespread perception. 

I'd like to avoid the charge of being a peddler of "woo" by stating I make no other claims than the reality of the subjective experiences of myself and others.  I imagine I have, not entirely infrequently, enjoyed the natural phenomenon of these experiences myself.  And of course, the vocabulary I use to describe it is insufficient in more ways than one since it touches on such intangible and nebulous concepts as a purpose or value of life.  What I would like to do is see what role they can play in life.  I have previously mentioned my sense at times, artificial though it may be, of feeling one with everything.  I have also used auto-suggestion, like a verbal placebo, to enable myself to feel warmer and sleep better, whether the result was only illusory or not I don't know.  The effect was that my brain was tricked (via the evolved mechanism of revelation or perhaps more accurately self-deception) into believing something that may have resulted in a corresponding change in my body and/or behaviors.  I think this is a significant effect that can be very useful.

As they may just as well describe the idea behind mindfulness meditation, Feng Youlan's five main points of Ch'an bear repeating in connection with this topic: 
  • The Highest Truth or First Principle is inexpressible.
  • “Spiritual cultivation cannot be cultivated.”
  • In the last resort nothing is gained.
  • “There is nothing much in the Buddhist teaching.”
  • “In carrying water and chopping wood: therein lies the wonderful Tao.” 
Pretty spartan.  What would impel anyone toward this?  To sum, there is nothing known, cultivated, gained, or taught.  All that is good is right here and now.  Boooorring, right?  But it is only in realizing that there is fundamentally no need to know, cultivate, gain, or teach that one can finally have a peace that “passeth understanding,” and a joy in sharing it with others.  Because now, one is free and able to live in the moment, here and now, and drop the mental baggage.  (The other powerful part is that I think there is reason to believe this will create actual measurable changes in neurological activity and behavior patterns.) Maybe I called this realization a transpersonal experience because I identify myself so much with my preconceptions that when I dispose of them all my ideas of  who I am and where I begin or end change and/or disolve.  Boundaries and distinctions are relaxed and lifted.

Maybe Dogen said it best in the first line of the Fukanzazengi:  "The Way is basically perfect and all-pervading. How could it be contingent upon practice and realization?"  That would seem to explain Zhuangzi's account of Lieh Tzu's behavior as well.  In practice though, this statement prescribes no specific line of action at all- it is a reflection on the significance of whatever actions we engage in relative to our stated purposes.  It's loaded with a lot of assumptions and steeped in a traditional view of life, an understanding of which may be helpful in describing its meaning.  I might reword it as: it doesn't matter what you do or how hard you try, you can't improve on perfection, so just enjoy life.  ( I am not the only one who sees some interesting parallels, superficial perhaps, between this and Christianity.)  But what about when life is very dissatisfying?  Can it ever be, even casually, associated with perfection?  That is the danger of the word and idea that Dogen has exposed himself to.  But when life is clearly not perfect or peaceful, there is still the opportunity to find it.

Directly experiencing our fundamentally positive world in which we can act naturally without preconceptions is Maslow's peak experience, and the great thing about it is that it is real, and we are free and able to enjoy it; we do not need anything else.  It is the exquisite pleasure of a subtle truth.  (I should put all this in outline form, getting too wordy here.  So here's a try:)
  • Maslow's "peak experience of self-actualization" is here defined as seeing perfection in, and satisfaction with (or at least having a non-judgmental attitude toward) ordinary, transient life- life "as it is, here and now," which is accessible to everyone. 
  • This accepting, appreciative attitude frees a natural tendency for compassion in thought and action, thereby satisfying what I consider to be "the human need."  
  • Positive lifestyle and behavioral changes (even neurological changes) follow from meeting psychological needs, which results in improved health, less stress, and more peace.  

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