In the last article I was mainly trying to organize some thoughts around the “object” side of things, what was appearing to Dr. Eben Alexander’s mind and whether it proves heaven or not. What about the “subject” side, the actual state of mind he was in?
Dr. A’s cortex was “offline” so where, we might ask, WAS that experience? “It’s all in his head”, some people grumble when they hear about trippy experiences like this one; only he wasn’t in his head.
Even if his cortex was “switched on”–as it has been in other people who have had similar experiences in their dreams or while awake–where in the brain can that all fit? The mind and body are different entities, different dimensions if you will. If anywhere, the seat of our consciousness is in our heart chakra, not our brain; nonetheless our mind is formless and therefore not constrained by matter. Not all our thoughts are in our head – one could argue that the most important ones are in our heart. (For an article on how the mind and the brain are not the same, see Buddha and the Brain, as well as the comments readers have left below it.)
Moving from our head to our heart
For people who love to meditate, I think a real secret of their success is moving from their head to their heart. The more we center ourselves at our heart, the more concentrated and peaceful we feel, and the easier it is to meditate. When I experience even a little inner peace from even a short meditation, good thought, or blessing, I like to feel that peace at the level of my heart. It feels more reliable and stable. I start every meditation there; in fact I try to stay in my heart as much as I can. It also helps me stay in the moment. We can also identify with this peaceful mind at our heart as our Buddha nature, our potential for limitless peace and happiness. I think this is creating causes to experience the non-dual mind of great bliss, when we can have “heavenly” experiences on tap.
The main thing this article did for me was to increase my determination to get from my head to my spiritual heart – to keep applying effort to gather my inner energy winds into the central channel in my heart chakra so that they can no longer support the development of gross conceptions of dualistic appearance. This is one of the main aims of spiritual practice, because with the resultant very blissful clear light mind, or very subtle mind, we can realize ultimate truth directly, or non-conceptually, and experience permanent freedom and inner peace. You can read all about this in Modern Buddhism, available free.
In transit in Washington DC, I read a Facebook update about my friend’s son Nathan Dorje, who is a handsome little boy with semi-lobar holoprosencephaly. He may not be able to do many of the things his brother and sister can do requiring complicated conceptual thoughts, but his infectious happiness and love are states of consciousness as “real” and significant as any others, and have brought a lot of joy and meaning into many people’s lives. I would bet that he feels these things at his heart.
When my grandmother was slipping into senility and upset at her brain’s deterioration and inability to remember the name of a tree we were looking at, I remember encouraging her to try and stay as much as she could in her heart where she could still feel love, peace, and purpose just like anyone else — these are what really count. She liked that. She asked for a Buddhist book, and Transform Your Life ~ A Blissful Journey followed her to her nursing home, even though she could no longer read.
I was interested less in the descriptions of fluffy clouds than in the sense of non-duality Dr. A felt, which I think is in common with all these kinds of experiences.
“It seemed that you could not look at or listen to anything in this world without becoming a part of it- without joining with it in some mysterious way. Again, from my present perspective, I would suggest that you couldn’t look at anything in that world at all, for the word “at” itself implies a separation that did not exist there. Everything was distinct, yet everything was also part of everything else.”
The subtler our mind, the less dualistic it is – the less pronounced the appearance of inherent existence, or things existing as findable entities, “out there” somewhere. Our deepest level of mind, called the very subtle mind or the mind of clear light, is naturally blissful and non-dualistic. Things do not appear “out there” to that mind.
The thing I like most about non-duality is that there is no sense of separation and therefore alienation from our surroundings or other people. There is no grasping in the mind at things we need or want because we already have everything. The wisdom of non-duality and compassion are two sides of the same coin. Instead of being trapped in the prison of self by our self-cherishing and self-grasping minds, as Dr. A’s account suggests we naturally connect with and identify with others as they no longer feel like “other”. We don’t have to think our way into it as we do with our grosser levels of mind. There is no basis for loneliness or selfishness. Love overflows everywhere, no longer constrained.
Given this, it is not hard to see why subtler levels of mind are also less distracted and more concentrated than grosser levels, so Dr. A experienced no distraction, or interruptions, from his vision. In his case, I couldn’t tell you which exact level of consciousness was functioning, but we know it was not his ordinary waking consciousness.
Levels of thinking
When we are falling asleep, or fainting and when we are dying, our sense awarenesses (associated with our eyes etc) first stop working. Then our gross thoughts, ideas, memories, and even our sense of self disappear. These may or may not have some association with our brain – and on one level it doesn’t matter to a meditator because we don’t meditate on our brain any more than we meditate on our eyeball in order to affect our state of mind, we meditate using the mind itself. You can read about the death process in detail in one of Geshe Kelsang’s first books Clear Light of Bliss. However, even during the death process our awareness itself never stops. It just becomes more subtle. Our thoughts become less “crunchy”, if you like, less solid and real, and, as mentioned, less dualistic.
Scanning the magazine rack at LaGuardia, wondering whether I could be bothered to buy anything to read, I spotted Newsweek’s announcement: “Heaven is Real.” I snapped it up. This out of left field article was too tempting a contrast to the politicking of this election season, and the general Us and Them unrest around the world. Judging by the thousands of comments online, the article is provoking strong reactions, as I daresay Newsweek predicted it would. For some, it is a breakthrough – an eminent man of science, brain science no less, saying that he now has proof of heaven (the name of his book) and the existence of consciousness beyond the brain. For others, it is annoyingly unscientific; the guy was clearly tripping out and has no proof whatsoever of anything, and they are cancelling their subscription forthwith. Here’s an example:
“It’s all a bunch of anecdotal malarkey. The only difference between this article and all the same BS I’ve heard from other people that believe in mythological deities is that this guy used the word “cortex” more frequently.”
For me, I read it on the plane above the clouds, and found it both fascinating and utterly unsurprising. I couldn’t help scribbling in the margins of my magazine, as Buddha had a great deal to say on the subject of the nature and types of consciousness and its relationship to the body, the survival of consciousness after death, the existence of different realms and what and where these are, the existence of divine beings and what and where these are, the ontological status of ourselves and our world, and so on. He taught all these to show that there is a path to freedom and happiness, and, like everything else, it begins and ends in the mind.
By relaying some of my scribbles here, I’m hoping to provoke your thoughts and experiences on the subject in the comments below, as I can be by no means exhaustive on the subject (exhausting, maybe! It has ended up longer than I anticipated! I’m now realizing it was an ambitious topic for one blog post, so I’m breaking it into 2 parts …)
In 2008 the neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander contracted a rare bacterial meningitis and his entire cortex shut down.
“For seven days I lay in a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline…. There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in a coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well.”
He then describes journey full of very peaceful, non-dualistic, and cosmic appearances, the like of which he cannot recall ever experiencing before.
“According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.”
I suppose I want to look at this from two angles – from the point of view of the object, or what is appearing to the mind, and from the point of view of the subject, the mind itself.
So, is heaven real?
That depends on what we mean by real. (And, I guess, what we mean by heaven!) Perhaps it’s better to ask “Does heaven exist?” It is not real in the sense that it is findable or inherently existent, independent of the mind. We cannot go visit it some place outside the mind. But appearances of peace, goodness, and bliss etc do exist as projections of a peaceful, good, and blissful mind.
Some terminology: in Buddhism we talk about six realms of samsara, and the highest of these are the god realms, sometimes called heavenly realms. We can create the necessary concentration and good or virtuous karma to be reborn as a god (though it is in point of fact more useful from a spiritual point of view to be reborn as a human.) If we are reborn as a god, although we have some lovely heavenly experiences while the rebirth lasts, we are not permanently free from suffering, and will once again take rebirth in painful realms.
Pure Lands exist outside of samsara and are not subject to samsara’s rules. Once we have purified our mind sufficiently, we are permanently free because we no longer have the delusions and negative karma that throw up our suffering. I wrote an article about Pure Lands here.
However, both the god realms and the Pure Lands are equally projections of mind, like illusions, like dreams. So is our current life, for that matter.
I came across this expression once, and have found it very helpful:
I am not in the world; the world is in me.
I add to that the fact that I too do not exist from my own side, any more than the world does.
Heaven and hell worldwide
A majority of cultures and religions have concepts of heaven and hell. Is this all a bizarre coincidence? Or could there be something to it? Dr. Alexander is by no means the first person to have had this kind of blissful experience–while awake, or dreaming, or having a near-death experience–or the first person to talk about it. He says himself:
“I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history.”
Skeptics may put these experiences and resultant beliefs down to a massive collective hallucination. In a way they are right, because all of us are always hallucinating to a greater or lesser extent for as long as things keep appearing to exist from their own side, independent of our mind, and especially when we grasp at those appearances as reality. But whose hallucination is more “accurate” or non-deceptive – someone experiencing an ordinary, mundane world full of problems and a crunchy sense of duality, or someone experiencing heavenly beings, love, and communion?
My grandfather was a skeptical man of science too until he had some experiences that changed everything for him. I wrote about that here. Someone very close to both me and my grandfather emailed me a fortnight ago about her cataract operation:
“During the op it was v. beautiful as I think I was in heaven – I was in the most beautiful white, silver coloured clouds floating in eternity, quite amazing. It was either heaven or it might have been Mars as I had heard on the radio on Monday that US scientists have sent some scientific equipment into space to land on Mars for a breakthrough research project.”
After we have had such experiences, we can conceive of them in different ways, depending on our belief systems, backgrounds, and so on. As Mike Hume said on Facebook about Dr. A:
“He is seemingly interpreting his experiences from a Christian perspective, despite the fact that he has stated he has never really believed in God. I guess this isn’t surprising, though. I think if he had investigated other ideas and concepts of mind and consciousness he might have interpreted it differently.”
But if we have these experiences and appearances, it shows they are possible, doesn’t it?! If these three people’s stream of consciousness is capable of experiencing such joy and peace once, who is to say they do not have the potential for experiencing something similar for a very long period of time again in the future, even forever? And would that not be some kind of heaven?
We also have the potential or karma for a great deal more suffering, which we need to take steps to purify and remove. A friend messaged me on Facebook:
“I worked in hospice during my graduate studies and there was more than one person who had horrible, horrible appearances at the approach of death. One elderly woman had burning bedsores and hallucinations, and she kept screaming for Grandmother to put out the fire on her body shortly before she went unconscious before death. I prayed hard for her not to die with that mind and take rebirth in a hell realm. So looking at the two sides of people’s experiences I find hope AND a cautionary tale.”
If people ask for physical, scientific proof of heaven (or hell), they may not get it, as science does not use the right tools for measuring the dimension of non-physical mind, and in fact has a self-confessed “problem” over what consciousness even is. Particle physics is now pointing the way to a non-objective universe, however, some modern scientists agreeing that there may be no objectively testable universe.
Jason Mandella says on Facebook:
“Science can assert that consciousness is merely a product of activity in the brain, and it can measure and predict that brain activity accurately with various instruments and practices. But it cannot “explain” lived, conscious experience: what is the nature of it? As Michael, Duane and Pawo are suggesting, Buddhist practice starts from the lived experience of consciousness. Living meditation masters from Buddha to now, present instructions which can be practiced by us. We verify from our own experience if what is being presented is true. That sounds like a science of consciousness to me. Does it need to be validated by conventional science if its working? Not that I have gotten much further than setting up the laboratory; but I have a little faith and some good reasons–like any scientist.”
Clearly, it is hard to do any fact-checking on Newsweek’s article! I don’t think Dr. A’s experience proves that heaven exists objectively. It doesn’t prove any universal truth “out there”. Dr.’s experience was subjective. Kelsang Lekpa says on Facebook, and I agree:
“His spiritual experience doesn’t prove one bit that an actual physical heaven or hell – exactly as he describes it – exists outside of his brain, after death.”
“If I dream of unicorns, does it make them real?”
But what his experience does indicate is that anything can appear to mind.
It is subjective – would I have those exact experiences in similar circumstances? Probably not. My thoughts might not even be blissful to begin with – if negative karma is ripening, I could experience hell. My appearances will depend on my own thoughts and karma — I will project a different movie, which may or may not share some of the same elements. Appearances are infinite. Due to emptiness, anything can appear. If everything is a projection of mind, and nothing exists objectively or from its own side, it stands to reason that we can project anything, and we do. We have already had infinite projections in life after life since beginningless time (there is no beginning or end to our consciousness.)
When I read this, it reminded me that there are different levels of consciousness and that what we experience depends entirely upon our own mind; in fact experience IS mind. The Mahayana Buddhist goal is to remove all delusions and dualistic appearances from the mind through wisdom and perfect all good qualities through compassion. My wisdom and compassion already exist as part of my Buddha nature, I feel that my main job in life is just to increase these each day until I attain enlightenment. Unlike the random, chance encounter Dr. A had with his own potential for peace and bliss, not easily replicable unless he contracts meningitis again, through spiritual practices we will one day be able to experience bliss continuously at will, and appear or project whatever we want to our minds. If we are prepared to put in the time and training, these results are replicable, and have been replicated by countless meditators including Buddha and many of his followers.
As Robert Thomas said on Facebook:
“For me this account, whilst meaningful for the individual concerned, and others, adds nothing by way of proof. Even the Prof’s conviction that all this occurred whilst his cerebral cortex was inactive is impossible to verify. I prefer to rely on the accounts and insights of accomplished mind trainers who approach the more and more subtle levels of consciousness whilst maintaining mindfulness and clear discrimination.”
And as Mike Hume put it:
“I hope that I can have similarly vivid experiences through meditation, rather than having to nearly die.”
If you asked me to replicate the results of an experiment proving the existence of quarks, say, I would be hard put to do it as I do not have anywhere near the necessary training or experience. Similarly, without the necessary mental training and experience it is hard for each of us individually to replicate the results of generating at will a blissful, non-dual mind mixed inseparably with the ultimate nature of phenomena to prove that it exists. But I trust quantum physicists that quarks exist and have a function in my universe, and I also trust Buddha and his followers that these profound states of mind exist and have a function in my universe.
(In the mind of bliss and emptiness, we can find true commonality (as opposed to objectivity). But that can be left for another discussion on another day.)
(This is an article I wrote ten years ago for a New Kadampa Tradition website, and I thought I’d dust it off and share it here as not much has changed in this department!)
In May 2001, Newsweek ran the headline ‘God & the Brain’. The magazine featured a series of articles on the new ‘neurotheologists’ who are attempting to chart the connections between mystical experience and brain patterns, hoping to answer the ‘question of consciousness’.
One of the articles began:
“One Sunday morning in March 19 years ago, as Dr James Austin waited for a train in London, he glanced away from the tracks towards the river Thames. The neurologist — who was spending a sabbatical year in England — saw nothing out of the ordinary: the grimy Underground station, a few dingy buildings, some pale gray sky. He was thinking, a bit absent-mindedly, about a Buddhist meditation retreat he was headed toward.
And then Austin suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness from the physical world around him evaporated like morning mist in a bright dawn. He saw things ‘as they really are’, he recalls. The sense of ‘I, me, mine’ disappeared. ‘Time was not present,’ he says. ‘I had a sense of eternity. My old yearnings, loathings, fear of death, insinuations of self-hood vanished. I had been graced by a comprehension of the ultimate nature of things.’”
Sharon Begley’s article went on to state that scientists are beginning to use brain imaging to pinpoint the circuits within the brain that are active when people meditate or enter periods of deep prayer. Current scientific thinking has us experiencing a sense of ‘cosmic unity’ when the parietal lobes quiet down, manifesting ‘spiritual emotions… of joy and awe’ within our middle temporal lobe, and having our intense periods of concentration, such as in meditation, linked to our frontal lobes.
Notwithstanding the above, Buddha drew a clear distinction between our body and our mind. Although the two are related, he said, they are not the same thing. The mind is not the brain, and the brain is not the mind. The brain is physical, whereas the mind is formless and functions to know objects. In fact, Buddha explained how our deepest levels of consciousness do not depend upon the body at all.
Some people think that the mind is the brain or some other part or function of the body, but this is incorrect. The brain is a physical object that can be seen with the eyes and that can be photographed or operated on in surgery. The mind, on the other hand, is not a physical object. It cannot be seen with the eyes, nor can it be photographed or repaired by surgery. The brain therefore is not the mind but simply part of the body. There is nothing within the body that can be identified as being our mind because our body and mind are different entities. For example, sometimes when our body is relaxed and immobile our mind can be very busy, darting from one object to another. This indicates that our body and mind are not the same entity.
In Buddhist scriptures our body is compared to a guest house and our mind to a guest dwelling within it. When we die our [deepest level of] mind leaves our body and goes to the next life, just like a guest leaving a guest house and going somewhere else. If the mind is not the brain, nor any other part of the body, what is it? It is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects. Because the mind is formless, or non-physical, by nature, it is not obstructed by physical objects. Thus, it is impossible for our body to go to the moon without traveling in a spaceship, but our mind can reach the moon in an instant just by thinking about it. Knowing and perceiving objects is a function that is unique to the mind. Although we say `I know such and such’, in reality it is our mind that knows. We know things only by using our mind.
I reckon we all know from our own common-sense experience of our own mind that mind and body are not the same. Here’s an experiment. Close your eyes and think about your mom. Ask yourself: “What does this thought feel like? What is it? Where is it? Does it feel like a chemical or neural impulse? Or the side-effect of heightened lobe activity? Etc.”
When I do this, consciousness of my mother (let alone any non-dual experience of anything transcendent such as the illusory nature of all phenomena or the experience of blessings) does not feel like anything physical at all. Thought exists in a different dimension altogether — the formless dimension beyond the physical, without shape, color, spatial boundaries, tactile properties. Invisible, but the creator of reality. Immaterial, but mattering a great deal.
Moreover, when we refer to ‘my body’, we do not feel as if we are talking about ‘my mind’, and vice versa, which clearly indicates that we know first-hand that they are not the same. We may have the figure of speech “My brain hurts”, but we also talk about our mind, feelings and experiences all the time, and I would argue that when we do we are not even casting a sideways glance at our brain. If you’re feeling depressed, do you have the notion “My brain is depressed”? If you really want something, does it feel like “My brain really wants that!”?
I personally think that we are not born with a belief that our mind is our brain. I think it is a so-called “intellectually-formed delusion” that we acquire due to incorrect reasoning and/or other people telling us. Often we don’t question this conventional wisdom and assume smart people know what they are talking about when they say the mind is the brain, even though it provides far more questions than answers.
I never thought about it much until one day, as a 14-year-old, I was dancing and suddenly felt a wave of bliss at my heart. I thought to myself: “This feeling is not in my brain! It is so much bigger than that. It is not physical!” And that for some reason got me thinking about an article I had read about a mother who had lost her child, and it seemed to me impossible that all that grief could be contained in a lump of grey matter in her head. Also, life just isn’t that meaningless – why do we worry about anything if all that is doing the worrying is a sponge-like organ or a bunch of chemicals? Who cares what happens to us or anyone else if it is only happening to a blob of meat in our skull? Anyway, I had practical thoughts like this before I met Buddhism, so when later I was introduced to Buddha’s experiential teachings on the mind it was a “no brainer” (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-))
In struggling to answer the ‘question of consciousness’ and how the mind relates to the body — which arose when the materialist view of Descartes and his followers took hold of Western philosophy — rather than simply accepting that mind and body are different natures and taking it from there, scientists have tried to answer the question by reducing consciousness to the purely physical. We are blinded by science: this reductionism obscures our own direct experience, based on the false premise that mind and body cannot be different natures. We are cheated out of an understanding of the formless continuum of our mind, with dire ramifications for our spiritual beliefs such as life after death, the existence of enlightened beings, and the possibility of infinite mental and spiritual development and bliss.
There is not and never will be a magical chemical concoction or brain operation that will lead living beings to full spiritual awakening. Finding a permanent way to quieten our parietal lobes is no guarantee of ‘cosmic unity’! And even if these things were possible, they would be pointless.
Meditators, on the other hand, are scientists of the mind who spend their lives investigating the nature of consciousness from direct experience (something that can be done only by using mental awareness, not crude physical instruments) — and they have clearly understood that the mind is not anything physical. There may be some relationship between certain types of mental awareness and the brain, as there is between sense consciousness and our sense faculties (the eyeball, nose, etc); but the fact that two things have a relationship proves that they are two different things, not the same thing e.g. a driver affects his car, but is not the same as the car.
People tend to put their hands to their hearts, not their heads, to indicate deep feelings of love there. When we meditate deeply, our consciousness feels seated at our heart. In his Tantric teachings, Buddha explained that our mind is related to subtle inner energy winds that can be said to have locations within the body — we have conceptual thoughts related to the winds in our crown chakra (perhaps why we scratch our head when we’re confused!). Our minds of attachment are related to winds in our navel chakra (hence those butterflies!) We have love and wisdom related to winds in our heart chakra, which is also the seat of our deepest level of mind. Stories abound in Buddhism of great meditators, such as Geshe Kelsang’s Spiritual Guide Trijang Rinpoche, who remained warm and upright for days after their brain was dead, meditating on the clear light of bliss at their heart. You can find out more about all this in the Tantric books.
(Finally, there are stories of people who live with a tiny fraction of normal brain matter but still have an IQ of 100 or more. You can Google it.)
Do you think it matters whether or not Westerners are taught that the mind is the brain? Have you had any experiences that convince you that it is not (or that it is!)? I look forward to your comments.