[Note: This page began originally as a post titled “Neuroscience, Handmaid of Mysticism,” published on November 4, 2010, in our main Web page The Mystical Life. To emphasize and accentuate how science — neuroscience especially and its related scientific fields of study and research — is rapidly validating the teachings of mysticism, and to further develop the discussion of the topic over time, the post was promoted to a full page in our Web site, under its present parent page, Resources.]
Science has made tremendous strides in increasing our knowledge of ourselves, our world and the universe. In particular, neuroscience (and its related fields of scientific study and research) is making so many marvelous discoveries and advances in the 21st century, that increase our understanding of the human nervous system, the brain and its functions, and the areas of cognitive learning and behavioral modification by means of neural connectivity. In turn, our understanding of the brain helps us learn more about the processes of the mind and, ultimately, about consciousness itself.
But what is truly remarkable is how science appears to be validating the domain and landscapes of mysticism, including the activity of meditation and the nature of mystical experience. This is specially evident in studies where scientific investigation, speculation and research findings begin to reflect or resonate with the teachings of mysticism. Almost daily we hear or read about how the gap between science and spirituality (or mysticism) is diminishing and growing ever narrower. We find this to be true with respect to a diverse spectrum of scientific undertakings and achievements in physics, cosmology, astrophysics, astronomy, genetics, computer science, bio-engineering, medicine, etc.
I am presenting here a number of those significant developments and findings that have finally become accepted fact in the 21st century or are making today’s news reports as scientific or medical breakthroughs, including relevant speculations and current theories which might become tomorrow’s news. In the subpages titled Neuroscience Frontiers and A “Matter” of Illusions, you will find a growing list of news articles and research study reports to supplement or compliment the contents of this page. Reminder: Bookmark these pages and visit our site regularly, to keep abreast with breakthroughs and the latest developments in science and medicine, and to discuss their relevance to your spiritual practice or their potential impact thereon. Also, if you haven’t yet, read our earliest blog on “Mystical Transformation and the Human Mind.”
Mind and body is a continuum. The body is nothing more than “mind formed” at the level of matter.
And mind (the feminine principle “power” of God) is
the medium by which consciousness (the masculine principle “spirit” of God) expresses into manifestation, projecting itself onto the screen of the mind as cognizable forms. All constitute one unit (an indivisible oneness or singularity) in consciousness. Truly, consciousness is all that there is.
It is ironic, yet understandable, that by refusing to recognize and include consciousness in its understanding of the universe, science fails to account for a viable theory of everything.
THE MIND-BODY CONTINUUM
The day is fast approaching (it may be here already, just a matter of it becoming commonplace) when neurological stimulation or neural connectivity modifications applied to the brain will instantly produce an altered state of consciousness by opening access to the higher, holistic functions of the mind; vice-versa, the mind can channel spiritual energy toward the instantaneous experience of restored wholeness (healing) of the body and the regeneration of body parts (the case for spiritual healing) during an altered or heightened state of spiritual consciousness. We see this being crudely accomplished (and not without side-effects) in the medical use of anti-depressant drugs that alter moods and emotional states by chemically modifying the neurotransmitter activity between and among neurons or brain cells. Of course, there have always been the visionary drugs used in shamanic practice to access transcendent states of consciousness and subtler, more fluid dimensions of the mind.
Then there are the so-called “miracles” performed by some mystics, saints and spiritual adepts which clearly demonstrate the mind’s ability and power to manifest things, commonly known as the power to “materialize form” instantly out of thin air, or, metaphysically speaking, the power of “mind over matter.” Buckle up your seat belts: You’re in for an astounding voyage into the infinite depths of the mind and the spirit.
Brain Engagement (Brain Entrainment)
In terms of a decidedly spiritual application, brainwave entrainment is already being used to induce and deepen meditative states of mind, aside from effecting relaxation or heightened mental focus and alertness. I prefer to use the phrase “brain engagement” to convey the idea of volitionally inducing the brain into a desired state of mind and engaging it there, rather than passively entraining the brain.
You will find that a number of classical music pieces, e.g., Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” 1st Movement, or Massenet’s “Meditation,” and New Age music pieces, e.g., “Serenity” from the CD album Liquid Mind V by Chuck Wild; “Awakening Stars” and “Song of the Inner Child” both by Herb Ernst (Play the music videos below to listen to them.), and chant, notably Gregorian, Russian Orthodox, and Tibetan Buddhist, can have an entrainment effect on the brain and the mind. These types of music are conducive and most beneficial to a contemplation practice. (NOTE: When listening to brain entrainment audio or music, the use of headphones or earphones is recommended for maximum effectiveness.)
Here are some video introductions to brain entrainment from the makers of the Brain Evolution System product, one of the better ones available in the brain entrainment market. They offer a free audio sample download of their product at their site.
In our ordinary awake and busy state of mind where the brain is constantly subjected to sensory stimuli and actively engages in stress-generating awareness or intense concentration, the brain produces beta brainwaves. When we enter into a relaxed state of mind or when we engage in daydreaming or similar mental activities, the brain switches to alpha brainwave mode, which is the preferred pattern for clear thinking and intellectual problem solving. The Silva Method uses an efficient technique for learning how to “trigger” the alpha state quickly in the brain.
The video below explains how alpha brainwave entrainment works in the brain. Although the video refers to the alpha state as “meditation,” remember that the alpha state is only a state of deep relaxation, which is the starting point in preparing for meditation. In other words, alpha entrainment is only a preparatory phase to actual meditation, by which the mind begins to disengage from everyday human awareness; it is really more of a “centering” or “grounding” practice.
During the active waking state of beta mode, once we lower our eyelids and close the eyes, the brain starts switching automatically from beta to alpha brainwave mode. This causes the body to begin relaxing into deeper states of mental and bodily relaxation. Should a tired brain or an exhausted body become too relaxed or when we settle down during bedtime or for a nap, we begin drowsing off to sleep as the brain switches from the alpha state to the theta brainwave state of light sleep.
As sleep progresses, the brain eventually crosses over into deep sleep when delta brainwave patterns are produced. During much of our sleep time at night, the brain will fluctuate between the theta and the delta modes until we rouse from sleep, during which the brain leaves the theta-delta state and re-enters the alpha state of refreshed wakefulness.
Here is a table summary of the four main brainwave patterns:
Below are examples of audio-visual brainwave entrainment for relaxation or centering. Two of them are by musician-composer Paul Collier. You can visit him at YouTube for more samples of his artistry, or purchase his music at Amazon.com.
Theta brainwaves are considered extremely relaxing and restorative brainwave activity that is commonly associated with sleep and dreaming, and the deeper meditation states beyond the initial alpha brainwave state of “disengaging from everyday awareness.” When you consciously access the alpha brainwave state of mental relaxation, you are just one step away from entering the theta state.
Theta brainwaves kick in automatically once we are asleep. Theta waves are associated with the subconscious mind and are usually produced in the right hemisphere of the brain (the intuitive mind) — as opposed to beta brainwaves of the active waking state which are produced in the left hemisphere associated with the thinking or intellect mind. Theta is the brainwave pattern that is dominant in deeply relaxed, dream sleep. For purposes of meditation, however, the mind has to develop the skill of maintaining conscious awareness (not falling asleep and losing conscious awareness) even while the brain is in theta mode and, as one goes ever deeper in meditative stages, also during the delta brainwave pattern of deep sleep.
What’s great about the theta brainwave state is the fact that it allows you to connect with your “subconscious mind” where all experiences, long-term memories, natural creativity, and inspiration are accessed; where buried powerful negative emotions and conditionings are released and dissolved; and where your spiritual connection to the “supraconscious,” “superconscious” or “unconscious” levels of mind (accessible in delta mode) is realized. Theta and delta brainwaves are extremely helpful for healing the body and the mind. This is the reason why sleep can be such a refreshing experience and a restorative state. Both brainwaves are modalities of the right brain hemisphere associated with the intuitive mind, and they dispose us to the natural healing energy flow from the divine mind of the Spirit within.
In the following video, you will hear the testimony of someone who has successfully tapped into the greater potential of the brain (and correspondingly the higher aspects of the mind) by means of actively and variously applying brain entrainment principles and processes in his life.
The application and integration of brain engagement techniques into one’s spiritual practice can yield tremendous advantage and benefits in terms of:
- Efficiently disengaging the mind from everyday human awareness as an effective preparation for meditation;
- Facilitating the process of contemplative meditation;
- Sustaining and deepening meditation states;
- Clarifying one’s mental atmosphere;
- Helping instill and maintain spiritual equilibrium; and
- Ultimately experiencing spiritual healings and enlightenment.
I can personally attest to this from first-hand experience in my own journey and in those of others with whom I share the methodology through our classes and group meditation experience.
Here are some deep meditative theta brainwave pieces you can use for your contemplation practice. I highly recommend them for background music while doing contemplative meditation. The result is excellent “brain engagement” leading to meditation.
(Vilayanur Ramachandran: A journey to the center of your mind)
Mysticism says that the human brain (as with the rest of the human body) is actually mind formed. This is the basis of the connection between the two. By implication, one can directly impact the other and vice-versa. Assuming this were so, consider the possibility of accelerated psycho-spiritual growth and mental enhancement by directly affecting the brain for the specific purpose. Can we have effortless, instant deep meditation? Better yet, can we have instant and permanent spiritual enlightenment?
The Brain: A Work in Progress
Professor Keith Kendrick is an academician at Gresham College and an authority on the human brain. He is Systems and Behavioural Neuroscientist and was Gresham Professor of Physic between 2002 and 2006. He has been a member of the Home Office’s animal procedures committee and has worked at the University of Cambridge undertaking research with regards to how neural networks are organized to control recognition and responses to social and emotional cues. He is a fellow of the Institute of Biology and a member of the British Neuroscience Association.
An engaging speaker, Professor Kendrick has delivered wonderful lectures about the human brain (among other subjects), such as the one below wherein he talks about understanding the brain as a work in progress. His lecture considers what we have learned so far about the principles of neural encoding and how they may begin to explain our memories, emotions and conscious awareness. The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website.
Professor Kendrick has also delivered a most faacinating lecture on futuristic neuroscience, its impact on the future brain of humankind. The insights he presents into the future of brain science are quite astounding, for example, an iPhone controlled completely by the brain. Most appear to still be fictional now, though some of them are already here.
Check out his past lectures at Gresham College.
Left and Right Brain Hemispheres
(Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.: How it feels to have a stroke)
The cerebrum of the human brain has a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere. How these cerebral hemispheres function is as different as night and day. Check out Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book “My Stroke of Insight” for some really good information about the functions of the left and right hemispheres of the human brain.
You can watch her TED lecture where she shares her unique experience with these brain hemispheres at the time she was suffering a stroke. Jill tells us that the experience of the right brain hemisphere is “Nirvāna.” She provides us with an important insight into how the right hemisphere of the brain could very well be our gateway to mystical experience or to the subtler dimensions beyond the physical.
Dr. Taylor gave an impressive and extensive interview on Oprah Winfrey’s cable TV network. Her interview is very insightful.
Left Brain Hemisphere Dominance: A Need for Balance and Integration
(From “Esoteric Agenda,” a film by Ben Stewart: Left Brain vs. Right Brain Education)
Ideally, there should be a balance between the two brain hemispheres, without one side totally dominating the other. However, the evolution or development of human consciousness thus far and its corresponding cultural conditioning of the mind have caused the left brain hemisphere’s dominance over the right, to the detriment of our becoming fully integrated beings. Our de-conditioning and re-education of the mind can bring about a new awareness that will balance and integrate the functions of these brain hemispheres.
(Christopher deCharms: Looking inside the brain in real time)
Brain imaging technology is opening the way to effective mind control of chronic pain, emotional problems, addictions, and potentially other mental diseases. Will it ultimately help us shape our experience of reality and life?
(Sebastian Seung: I am my connectome)
Critical to how the mind functions are the connections made by the many neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. What wonderful things can we accomplish in life if we could make the right neural connections? Can we induce an instantaneous genetic mutation or alteration in our bodies by means of certain neural connections? Could there be a particular connectivity pattern for spiritual enlightenment, Christhood/Buddhahood or God-actualization?
The Illusoriness of Mental Perception
(Al Seckel: Powerful visual illusions)
The human mind loves an illusion. Is it a wonder that the mind keeps you attached to the world? Apparently our sense perceptions are not as reliable as we might think them to be.
Al Seckel, a cognitive neuroscientist, explores the perceptual illusions that fool our brains. Loads of eye tricks help him prove that not only are we easily fooled, we kind of like it.
NEUROSCIENCE, CONSCIOUSNESS AND MYSTICISM
Zen and the Brain
Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness is a book by James H. Austin. First published in 1998, the book’s aim is to establish links between the neurological workings of the human brain and meditation. Dr. Austin presents evidence from EEG scans that deep relaxed breathing reduces brain activity. His neurological understanding is profound. His work is not only pioneering but also classic.
The publishers described the book as a —
Comprehensive text on the evidence from neuroscience that helps to clarify which brain mechanisms underlie the subjective states of Zen, and employs Zen to “illuminate” how the brain works in various states of consciousness.
The Mystical Brain
(Neuroscientists probe the brain to explore its spiritual aspects and to investigate the existence of the soul.)
Is there a mystical dimension to the human brain? Can science prove the existence of the soul? Canadian neuorscientists at the University of Montreal under Dr. Mario Beauregard, co-author of the book “The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul,” think so.
They are seeking to understand the states of grace experienced by mystics and those who meditate. They perform brain imaging scans of Carmelite nuns and Buddhist monks who have been doing meditation regularly for a considerable part of their lives.
Filmmaker Isabelle Raynauld presents their scientific research which suggests that mystical ecstasy is a transformative experience and could contribute to people’s psychic and physical health, treat depression, and speed up the healing process when combined with conventional medicine.
View the fascinating documentary “The Mystical Brain,” which features the groundbreaking research of Dr. Beauregard and his associates.
“Science, at its very best,
is very spiritual.”
(From the documentary The Mystical Brain.)
The Secret You
When do we start to become self-conscious or aware of ourselves as a selfhood? How does this occur in us? What makes us conscious? What is consciousness? The following BBC Horizon documentary The Secret You is a fascinating exploration of these questions from the psychological and neuroscientific perspectives.
Consciousness as “The Fabric of the Cosmos”
(Acclaimed physicist Brian Greene reveals a mind-boggling reality beneath the surface of our everyday world.)
I wrote earlier that “truly, consciousness is all that there is.” Watch all of Brian Greene’s four-part series “The Fabric of the Cosmos” at the PBS online channel. Then see the complete picture fall into place as you consider and contemplate CONSCIOUSNESS as the very fabric of the cosmos. (Click the poster image below to go to the PBS site. The episode view/play links are located at the left panel or frame.)