Thinking Outside the (Skull) Box – Part Four
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 previous posts we began with the common-sense notion that the brain produces the mind and proceeded to explode it. Using medical facts we showed that every part of the body shares in the process we call “thinking,” although the liver, intestines, and heart do their thinking nonverbally. They still make decisions, show preferences, exhibit self-reliance, and contribute in major ways to the information sent to the brain.
We have offered our proof that mind exists outside the skull without departing from common sense. In the same vein we explored the possibility that mind exists outside the brain. Many scientists would dismiss the possibility out of hand, but we showed that the inner experience of Eastern contemplative practices (meditation, yoga, Zen Buddhism, et al.) are not inferior to the data collected on subjective states like pain, feeling happy, or falling in love. Brain scans offer correlates to these experiences, but it is self-report from a person who says “I’m in pain” or “I feel happy” that must be relied upon. Similarly, subjective reports of a spiritual kind cannot be invalidated unless at the same time you are willing to throw out pain, happiness, love, and all other subjective states.
But our goal isn’t spiritual or religious. We aren’t after God but after mind (even if, on the cosmic scale, they might turn out to be the same). The deepest experiences of yogis, swamis, ancient rishis, and Buddhist masters tell the story of mind everywhere in Nature; mind indeed is the source of existence itself. It can’t be denied that reality only comes to us through subjective experience. Sir Alexander Fleming examining penicillium mold through his microscope was having a subjective experience. If there were phenomena occurring all around him that the human mind can’t experience, think about, or sense, they don’t belong to reality as we know it.
As someone having a “real” experience, Fleming and a Buddhist master exist on the same plane. The only difference is that science focuses on experience “out there” while contemplative practices focus on events “in here.” A caution before we describe these deeper inner experiences. Whether they are described as an encounter with God (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Islam), the higher self (e.g. in the monistic systems of Vedanta and Hinduism, Shaivism), or with no divine essence at all (e.g. the Absolute in Buddhism) depends on descriptive language and the past conditioning of the practitioner. The descriptive, often poetic words are culturally determined; they serve as verbal devices for grasping a nonverbal experience so that it can be reported to others, usually within the same spiritual, cultural context.
But no description can be the experience itself. There is no attempt here, as many skeptics accuse, to mystify or cloud something suspiciously immaterial and vague, perhaps outright false. If either religion or its absence makes you nervous, don’t get hung up on terminology. Pay attention to the reports of the experiences themselves as a universal phenomenon, born of the mind’s very nature, which is self-awareness.
When “thinking outside the box” calls forth such profound, often life-changing responses in the practitioner, the sensed boundaries of the body disappear. No longer does the skin form a barrier, however permeable, between inside and outside, between self and other. Now, when you feel your breath move in and out, it is the universe that you feel is breathing – indeed, the universe is breathing you. When a bell rings in the meditation hall or a car horn honks on the city streets outside or a bird sings in a nearby tree, the ring, the honk, and the song are your own, palpably arising from within yourself.
While such experiences are uncommon in everyday life, they are not rare in this special setting. Even if they are most actively cultivated in spiritual contexts, you can ask athletes about being “in the zone”, artists about feeling inspired, scientists about the moment of discovery, craftsmen about their intimacy with what is brought forth in their craft – they will all describe similar states of merging where there’s no distinction between what’s going on “in here” and “out there,” because those boundaries have dissolved.
For some people such experiences are not trained and nurtured but happen spontaneously. They may occur during a so-called peak experience or in the extremity of being near death. For others the experience arrives for no detectable reason, and yet without such an experience, could Walt Whitman have written a line like this from Song of Myself: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” His Leaves of Grass is almost entirely a report of moving in the world with an enlarged, even unbounded sense of self, where the division between self and other is experienced as illusion. Here is evidence of mind permeating the world, irrespective of the boundary of the skull or the skin.
And then there’s the experience of “dropping away of body and mind” described by the Japanese Zen patriarch Dogen; the “mind of clear light” described by Tantric teachers; the experience of lower self realizing that it is essentially the higher self, reported by ancient and contemporary Indian sages (rishis); and the Ein Sof – the infinite God beyond our capacity to describe, from which arises all creation – of Jewish mystics. Every tradition speaks about the experience of a Mind that is greater than our own minds, out of which our own minds arise like waves on the ocean. This Mind is beyond all boundaries, something in which we share with all beings and from which all beings arise. This Mind is the place in which there is no suffering. It is pure awareness with no object of awareness except itself. Reaching for words, the world’s spiritual guides teach that pure awareness is infinite, blissful, illuminated from within.
Despite the fact that cultures have institutionalized the universal Mind with terms long accepted as true (e.g., God, Brahman, the Absolute), words aren’t very helpful to someone who hasn’t yet had the experience. If the unreliability of subjective reports puts off many scientists, the claim that some people have special experiences that go beyond words bolsters their skepticism. As a result, formulating a science of consciousness has been slow to start and even slower to gain credibility.
A personal disclosure: the authors include some contemplative practitioners with a varying depth of experience in the traditions of Buddhism, Vedanta, and Kashmir Shaivism. This doesn’t mean that our personal experiences are “true,” only that these topics are not hypothetical for us. Aligning with centuries of contemplative practitioners, we find the reports of expanded awareness compelling, but being physicians and scientists, we also think of such experiences as material for hypothesis-making and testing through experimentation.
Alas, other scientists hotly disagree, saying, “No, this is not a fit topic for scientific exploration – your evidence is born of hearsay and superstition.” To those who draw a boundary around what is worth exploring scientifically and what is not, we ask, “Isn’t this just another form of unthinking fundamentalism, akin to that of religious fundamentalists whom many rational scientists claim to abhor?” The Roman poet Terence wrote, Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto (I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me). Consider all the forbidden topics, from female sexuality to epidemics, from madness to gross anatomy, that were once placed under a ban. These meditation experiences are human experiences, like every other human experience that scientists deem worthy of investigation by techniques such as putting people inside an MRI machine: experiences like depression, memory, love, fear, excitement, orgasm.
The trend is now moving away from the naysayers. Research is starting to account for the swing between the inner and outer world, a swing we all experience every day, using as subjects adept meditation practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism. These meditators report experiences in which the sense of inside/outside and self/other dissolves. Instead of dismissing this as mysticism, one hypothesis now suggests specific neural activity within two complementary signaling networks in the brain – one is active when you are dealing with the world outside the body (called task positive network), the other, the “default network” (or task negative network) revs up when your focus is inward as commonly happens in wakeful rest, introspection, or from lack of significant sensory inputs).
Our brains are thought to alternate rapidly between these two networks, but when deep, “non-dual” meditation is performed, they both activate together, because inside and outside are no longer opposite and contrary, but are experienced as a seamless mind contemplating a seamless whole. We don’t mean to suggest the default mode network is the basis for the mind (since default mode activity is also seen in primates and rats), but the data illustrates how mental states like meditation affect the brain.
Short of proving with scientific rigor that the mind is not located just in the brain, we have pointed to the fact that the experience of your mind in your head is not the only experience you can have. Exploring the implications for yourself only takes a few moments a day – you can feel for yourself how your thinking does not have to remain locked up in the box of your skull.
Finally, the aura of religion is so strong that skeptics dismiss all spiritual experience – being alien to materialism – as matters of faith. Faith, in a great many varieties, is something we all turn to for interpreting our experiences. From the perspective of quantum mechanics, which has shown beyond a doubt that solid objects are not solid, it takes faith to believe that the physical world exists – certainly a rationalist must admit that the five senses are lying or at best are unreliable.
In everyday life, faith is part of the equation. But it is not only great faith that drives spiritual investigations but also, as is said in Zen, “great doubt” – doubt as to the meaning of existence and the reason for suffering in the world. The great faith in this equation is what makes the great doubt bearable. This balance between what we know and what we hope to discover drives science as well as spirituality. The difference lies in which tool of investigation is used.
The mind studying the mind reveals aspects of reality that can’t be reached by investigating the physical world. The reach of consciousness becomes even greater once we realize that the mind isn’t locked in the skull or even bounded by the skin. Step by step, the findings of mainstream science have opened the domain of Mind, that transcends our individual minds and is fundamental to the universe.
In the next posts we’ll return to what contemporary science understands about the most fundamental structures in nature – our aim is to find a meeting place between the inner and outer method of investigation. Have we made you curious? We hope so, because curiosity is the theme to be taken up next.
(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