Yoga and The Invisible Brain
I love teaching and practicing yoga. The combination of breath, embodied awareness, and mental focus provide rich opportunities for psychological insight, emotional healing, self-development and connection with community.
I love spirituality. But I may have a different definition of this word than most people.
My sense is that the word usually conveys some kind of supernatural belief. Yet when I use it I mean a combination of things that basically add up to an interest in what is true.
What is true is of course also related to what is beautiful and what is good.
These terms: good, true and beautiful are I think central concerns of human life. Goodness has to do with ethical behavior. Truth has to do with philosophical inquiry, scientific method, reason and the truthfulness made possible through psychological self-awareness. Beauty has to do with art, poetry, music, nature —with moments of experience that lift us up or show us something good and true through the medium of an art form.
Here we are.
We are alive and we are aware.
Practices like yoga and meditation work with our capacity for self-awareness, and invite us into feeling our aliveness more fully and being in touch with the rich inner languages of sensation, emotion, thought, and intuition.
We are mortal biological organisms that have evolved self-awareness via the most sophisticated and complex lump of organic matter we have so far found in the universe. The human brain contains as many synaptic connections as there are particles in the known universe – roughly 100 trillion. It is ironic that this fact about the brain can barely be comprehended by the brain itself —by your brain as you read this, and by mine as I write it. The magnitude of its own complexity is hard to conceptualize.
This anomaly about the brain is not limited to mind-boggling factoids, it is central to the human experience.
Think about it: we are conscious all the time that we are awake, but our consciousness does not include anything that is happening at an objective level in the brain. We are aware of sounds, sights, feelings, thoughts and the whole kaleidoscope of moment-to-moment unfolding experience —but not of any of the corresponding brain activity that this awareness rides upon.
The way in which subjective experience and objective biological processes are both inseparably related and yet completely partitioned is perhaps the most fascinating fact of being conscious.
So with spirituality we have an interesting dilemma. Namely, that it is intuitively convincing to imagine a mind (or soul) that is distinct from the body, or more specifically from the biological processes of the body – which includes the brain.
This idea of something essential that transcends the body is the basis of belief in souls, reincarnation and life after death. The related notion that there are beings that can exist without bodies gives us gods, angels, demons, and indeed anything supernatural.
There is of course absolutely no evidence that these beliefs match reality in any way.
Awareness appears to be an empty space that must somehow be distinct from the body. Into this open space arise the kinds of emotive and expansive states of mind that are part and parcel of spirituality. We then imagine that these experiences, say, while meditating, practicing yoga, making love or grieving the death of a parent must somehow belong to a domain that transcends the body.
This perception, which seems entirely obvious, is the basis of what is technically called mind/body dualism —and this mind/body dualism is the single foundation on which all of supernatural faith is based.
Mind/body dualism has however been abandoned by the vast majority of both scientists and philosophers as an untenable position. The potency of moving beyond mind/body dualism is that it is a fulcrum on which one’s entire worldview is radically shifted. Without mind/body dualism supernatural faith is equally untenable. Once we accept that the mind is embodied, that our experience of subjectivity can be understood neurobiologically and is a product of material processes, indeed that any meaningful definition of mind is inextricably woven together with biology that is complex enough to have evolved brains, we locate ourselves in a reality that simply does not have disembodied minds.
I did not set out to prove the above observation to myself, rather to find out what was true, because that is at the heart of my spiritual inquiry. What then does one do when one’s path of spiritual inquiry reveals the misperception at the heart of what most people would define as spirituality?
If we think it through though, this innate sense we have of the mind as separate from the body is not that different from the entirely obvious seeming observation that the earth is flat, and that the sun moves around us in the sky. It similarly appears obvious that we are not animals and that there must be a disembodied God who created the universe we live in.
Likewise it perhaps seemed obvious to us in the past that it was a witch’s curse that caused illness, and the sacrifice of virgins atop pyramids that kept the sun, moon and stars moving through the sky.
It takes education to recognize the difference between our innate perceptions or wishful thinking and what is demonstrably true about the reality we inhabit.
Neuroscience is doing to our innate perceptions of what it is to be human, what astronomy, evolutionary biology, and science in general have done to our innate perception of the universe we live in and our place in the natural world.
Mind is of course utterly unique in its subjective experience, yet still absolutely dependent upon objective biological processes. These are two sides of an exquisitely complex coin. How this extraordinary process occurs is still not (and may never be) lacking in mystery, but it is no longer necessary or reasonable to evoke an immaterial soul to inhabit the gap in our current understanding.
Yet most of us resist this realization in the name of spirituality. We resist it because we fear that it will rob us of love, beauty, joy, meaning, wonder if we pull back the curtain and stop attributing these to some magical agency.
We want spirituality to confirm not only our innate perceptions of reality, but also to conform to our wishful thinking. We are afraid that grounding mind in the body and spiritual experiences in our humanity will destroy spirituality.
We want to believe that we are God’s special creature, that we have an immortal soul that will survive our biological death, that we are of central importance in the universe, and that supernatural forces are conspiring to guide us on a life journey that has implications beyond our human existence. Many of us feel and that our lives can only have meaning if these beliefs are true.
So when I said above that I perhaps had a different definition of spirituality, maybe I should qualify this by saying that I am passionate about an integrated spirituality —a spirituality that is informed by science, that is psychologically aware, and that is sustainable in an open relationship with the evolution of human knowledge.
Yoga can be a way of developing self-awareness that is fearless in the face of what is actually true. Present attention, awareness of our bodies and emotions, philosophical inquiry, can all be used in the service of resilience.
The unfortunate facts of life are that there is suffering, injustice and death, that we are mortal, vulnerable creatures who are deeply impacted by trauma, neglect, and loneliness. We often react to these realities by shutting down, disconnecting from our feelings, and living our lives inauthentically.
To many it seems that the only alternative to despair is to buy into a consoling religious or spiritual belief system that negates these facts and replaces them with hopeful fantasies. But this is unsustainable.
The unfortunate facts are that no amount of magical thinking, belief in mythic figures, or special ritual activity will make us able to change these aspects of human existence. the unfortunate fact is that these endeavors take us farther away from what is true, and in the absence of truth, goodness and beauty inevitably suffer.
What good then is spirituality?
Well, I tend to think that there are two kinds of spirituality. One kind seeks to make us feel better by denying, distorting or covering over the facts of life, by encouraging faith in an invisible supernatural world that has our best interests at heart, in telling us that death is not real, and we choose our traumas to learn lessons that are ultimately for the highest good, or that no one is truly a victim, and that there are actually no facts, only perceptions which in turn absolutely create reality.
This category of spirituality is about good luck charms, superstitious ritual, seeking guidance from some imagined great beyond, believing that we can control reality through the psychic power of out thoughts, that we can find some way to get the hidden forces of the universe to sway fate in our favor. The scientific, philosophical, but especially psychological problems with these kinds of beliefs are legion, but I will save exploring these for another day.
The second kind of spirituality encourages us to face reality as it is. We cannot control many things about our lives. We are vulnerable, mortal, imperfect creatures —and yet we can develop a resilient compassion and courage. We can develop our minds, our emotional intelligence, our sense of the embodied sacred, of the sacred in and as the natural world, alongside the facts of injustice and suffering. We can become more open to the experience of being alive, tolerate what is difficult more skillfully and celebrate what evokes love, gratitude, meaning, and beauty more fully.
Yoga offers an opportunity to engage in this existentially honest, humanistic, grounded spirituality —and here’s the most subversive statement so far: yoga can be a way of moving beyond the need for superstitious and supernatural beliefs.
It turns out that whatever it is that works about yoga (and of course meditation and related disciplines) has to do with how it affects our neurobiology —the functioning of our nervous systems, brains and biochemistry. Being more fully alive and aware in the experience and energy of our body, and of the embodied mind is a product of shifts in our biology.
Contrary to New Age, religious (and even ancient yogic) aspirations to transcend the body, yoga is an “in-the-body” experience. Plain and simple.
Breath, movement, focused attention, flow states, insights, moment of emotional release and psychological revelation, these are all the domain of experiential spirituality, and they require no unreasonable beliefs, no pretentious posturing, no distortions of reality.
What’s more this kind of spirituality can be informed by science, infused with psychology and rooted in an acceptance of our true nature in the midst of this brief and glorious dance across the stage of the universe itself.