Thinking Outside the (Skull) Box – Part Three
By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP, Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Chapman University, P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) Beth Israel Medical Center — Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York
In the prior posts of this series we have described ways in which the brain does not, in fact cannot, produce the mind on its own. The possibility of a 1950s science fiction scenario where a working brain can produce an intact mind while sitting in a jar is impossible. The brain is intimately connected to the body through nerves, travelling cells, circulating biomolecules, and electrical activity.
A brain severed from the body, even if it would produce some form of mind, would produce one that is very different from what we have in the brain-body complex. (Even in traditional scientific views brain and body form a single system as they evolved together over time.)
In this post we will momentarily turn away from these physical considerations to look at some reports of mind outside the brain. We will return to physical structures later to show that mind not only exists outside the box of the skull but the box of the body itself. Though seemingly limited by its covering of skin, your body is incomplete as an enclosed location for mind.
Mainstream science is reluctant, if not dismissive, when faced with the notion of mind outside the brain. Many of the examples we will be offering derive from first-hand reports from contemplative practitioners (of meditation, yoga, Zen Buddhism, etc.) – in other words, people who have spent as much time training their minds as world-class athletes have spent training their bodies (though, to be precise, in both cases it is body and mind that’s being trained, just for different tasks).
Actually, getting your mind to move outside your head is relatively easy. If you burn your hand on the stove, your attention immediately rushes there. The heartache of unrequited love takes one’s attention to the center of the chest. In various spiritual traditions this kind of “moving mind” becomes a conscious skill. Here’s a common introductory example of “mind outside the box” from Zen practice. Students who have taken on a disciplined daily Zen meditation practice – usually counting or following the breath – are then advised to move their minds into the hara. The hara is the second chakra, located below the navel, just in front of the sacrum. One way to describe this to students is to imagine that their mind is located in a drop of honey in the center of the skull (where we usually experience our mind anyway), and then to let the drop of honey slowly descend down along the front of the spine until it finally reaches the hara.
This exercise takes time and a great deal of practice. Initially it can feel as if there’s only a little movement, because your focus of attention snaps back into the skull like a rubber band. And so you begin again, letting the drop of honey slowly descend, bringing your mind with it. Why? One reason is that when your mind moves from inside your skull into a position in front of the sacrum, it can bring a jolt of energy, not unlike the way coffee suddenly energizes your mind a few minutes after downing your morning cup. What might otherwise have been sleepy Zen suddenly becomes awake Zen.
More importantly, there is an exquisite sense of stability in your mind when brought to that location: thoughts still come and go, but they take on a sense of waves coming and going, or clouds passing overhead, rather than being like a monkey bouncing all over the room. A mind running around in the space of uncontrolled thoughts makes us tired, but it also disguises the potential for having a silent, strong, still mind.
Neuroscience would do well to consider these subjective states in physiological terms. If, as we now know, the “bodily brain” is divided among the major organs, with neurons acting inside the heart, liver, and intestinal tract, it’s plausible to suppose that each center of intelligence has its own mode of “thinking,” with the brain predominating because we are so used to thoughts being verbal. We don’t hear a voice in our liver, only in our heads (and for some people, in their hearts).
But this doesn’t make nonverbal thinking inferior – far from it. The conscious mind can’t run the liver, heart, or intestinal tract but depends on their self-reliance to an enormous extent. For instance, one could consider the chakras described in Yoga – subtle centers of energy and awareness located up and down the spinal column and on top of the skull – as theoretical models of nonverbal mind. This sensing of energy centers cannot be proven scientifically, perhaps, but neither can pain, pleasure, love, ecstasy, and other subjective experiences that exist in the first place because people feel them (see below). In the same vein, various Eastern spiritual practices accomplish what we cannot, taking consciousness out of the brain to do work elsewhere.
In Eastern traditions the purpose of subjective states is to be useful, to aid inner work. What kind of work? The ancient texts give various answers. There is control of the involuntary nervous system, as demonstrated by the extraordinary feats of yogis and swamis who can consciously slow down their breathing and heart rate. There is balance, achieving conscious control over homeostatic mechanism and thus promoting health. There is the pursuit of enlightenment – a vast area beyond the scope of this post – and also the same curiosity to explore nature (in this case, inner nature) that drives mainstream science in the realm of materialism.
The fact is that Zen students and practitioners in other traditions routinely move their minds out of their heads. The experience has been replicated for centuries; it isn’t accidental, haphazard or hallucinatory. Having learned how to do it, you discover by playing around with the practice that you can move your mind into your little toe, your shoulder, your elbow, perhaps even across the room. The immediate reflex of most neuroscientists is that such a subjective sense of “moving mind” is the result of neuronal activity, and even if we cannot quantify such subtle and intricate activity today, we will one day be able to as our tools evolve.
The best rejoinder to this claim is that a whole host of subjective experiences in the domain of medicine are self-reported and cannot be measured without asking the patient what’s going on. Statements like “I feel a bad pain here,” “I’m depressed,” “I’m confused,” and “I’ve lost my balance” can sometimes be traced to distorted brain activity on an fMRI scan, but only the patient can relate what is actually happening. The brain scan can’t tell someone he’s in pain when he says he isn’t. To say “I see my fourth chakra” isn’t less valid; it just has far less brain research devoted to it. (When a bacterium avoids a toxin in a petri dish or is attracted to food, can we claim to know that it is not feeling some primitive form of repulsion or desire?)
The Zen practice of placing the mind in the hara is only a minor example, a step along the way to deeper, more profound experiences. There comes a time in nearly all contemplative traditions when one’s sense of mind and even the ordinary self changes fundamentally, for a moment or a lifetime. In Vedic and Buddhist traditions these experiences are called forms of Samadhi, where a connection is made with pure awareness at the deepest level. In Hebrew mystical practice this might be understood as D’vekut, in Christian practice, Cleaving to God. The thinking mind is left behind, and one arrives at consciousness without content.
Here we’ve reached the shadow zone where “my mind” dissolves into mind itself. In this zone reality shifts dramatically. Instead of sitting inside the space of a room, the person sits inside mental space (Chit Akash in Sanskrit). Events that take place are not strictly mental, however. The inner voyager witnesses time, space, matter, and energy being born here. If such an experience is valid, the implications for physics – and for everyday life – are immense. Consciousness is no longer the elephant in the room, the thing science prefers not to talk about. It becomes the only thing to talk about if you want to know where reality comes from. Starting with the undeniable fact that the brain shares mind with the rest of the body, we are on the verge of showing that mind must be shared with everything in existence – going outside the box extends to infinity, a possibility we will unfold as this series continues.
(To be cont.)
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 75 books with over twenty New York Times bestsellers, including co-author with Sanjiv Chopra, MD of Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and The American Dream, and co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony). Chopra serves as Founder of The Chopra Foundation.
Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director of the Center of Excellence at Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)
P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.
Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-author with Deepak Chopra of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)
Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) and Director of the Liver and Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Beth Israel Medical Center — Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York. www.neiltheise.com neiltheise.wordpress.com