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.

In the deepest and most uncanny sense, in a way that is central to our experience, we simply do not know what we are. Mysterious indeed!

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.

 

MIND/BODY DUALISM

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.

 

GOD’S SPECIAL CREATURE

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.

 

INTEGRATED SPIRITUALITY

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.

 

Comments
12 Responses to “Yoga and The Invisible Brain”
  1. barry says:

    Lovely. I think you have stated you philosophy lucidly and persuasively here…a nice introduction to your beliefs.

  2. John says:

    Julian,

    Thank you for this wonderfully profound and detailed explanation of your beliefs about yoga and spirituality. As a philosophy student raised in a devoutly religious family who has been developing my yoga practice over the past 1 year, your message resonates deeply with many convictions I have been having related to this clumsy term, spirituality. I often chastise myself for feeling resentment towards those in the yoga community (and other “spiritual” and religious groups) for trying to “transcend” thoughts, feelings, emotions, and other states of awareness that are branded “negative” without hesitation. When mind/body duality is done away with, it becomes clear that these so-called “negative” states cannot be abandoned without also abandoning the “positive”–and how silly it is to label these states as such. While some aspects of life may be unpleasant, i.e. suffering, taking refuge in a detached spirituality (of the first kind of which you spoke) negates the good and beautiful that give rise to all our thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc., the positive as well as the negative. I want my practice to take the direction of a yoga that is firmly grounded in pursuing goodness, truth, and beauty–that is, in ethics, science, and art; and one that is unconcerned with the binary valuation of positive/negative that the inherited mind/body-dualistic worldview perpetuates. So thank you for helping me to crystalize quite a few thoughts that have been amorphously floating around somewhere in my awareness, waiting to take the form of words. Paradigm shifts do not come easy, but hopefully one day humankind will look back on the silliness of mind/body dualism much in the same way that we look back on the idea of a geocentric universe today.

  3. Wonderful…good work…look forward to perusing…thanks, Julian!

    • Some highlights for me:

      1) “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.”

      SUBTLE, AND SO TRUE.

      2) “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.”

      AND TO PURUSE ANY NUMBER OF ADDICTIONS, WHICH IS HIGHLY UNSUSTAINABLE.

      3) “and they require no unreasonable beliefs, no pretentious posturing, no distortions of reality.”

      4) in an open relationship with the evolution of human knowledge.

      ;)!

      5) “We are vulnerable, mortal, imperfect creatures —and yet we can develop a resilient compassion and courage. ”

      BEAUTIFUL PARADOX.

      6) “The related notion that there are beings that can exist without bodies gives us gods, angels, demons, and indeed anything supernatural.”

      I was just extrapolating a related idea a few days ago!

      7) these are all the domain of experiential spirituality, and they require no unreasonable beliefs, no pretentious posturing, no distortions of reality.

      In fact, they do require a healthy dose of just the apparent opposite: leaving fancy for what the body-mind (heart) tells us is precisely, however subjectively true, true humility forged by embracing pain, understanding ourselves (more) accurately,

      7) A curious line of questions arises, then:

      Why is it that humans have an innate, yet mistaken, sense of the supernatural? Why do we EXPERIENCE-THINK ourselves as separate from our bodies? What adaptive advantage is conferred thinking that we are separate from our bodies? Or has this merely been an evolutionary consequence of self consciousness?

      8) Aloha! ;)

      • julian walker says:

        thanks for your reflections jack.

        agreed on your comments.

        as for your question:

        in chapter 4 of my book i address this in depth, but for now —i do have a theory about this that i think is quite elegant:

        1) our brain’s “theory of mind module” (wiki if necessary to learn more) allows us to imagine the minds of others based on body language, facial expression, tone of voice, behavior etc…..

        what this means is that we infer the presence of a mind even though we have no direct access to the minds of others. we interpret/imagine what their state of mind/intentions are based on this ability.

        so we have the capacity to imagine mind as an abstract principle that moves within the physical actions/cues of others. this has HUGE evolutionary advantages, because it is part of what gives us empathy and allows us to anticipate both the dangerous actions of others and the friendly signs of potential co-operation.

        2) the above ability is based on something philosopher dan dennett calls the “intentional stance” – this is another adaptation which basically comes down to the following: when we hear a rustling in the bushes and act AS IF there may be an intentional agent (ie a predator or adversary with its own intentions) we are better able to survive on the 1 time out of 10 that there is danger.

        being wrong in our interpretation of the rustling representing danger has no negative consequences, but acting as if it was always just the wind or a bird or bunny would mean that we were more likely to be eaten/killed and have our genes leave the pool.

        so again – the ability to imagine a mind behind a sound, even without evidence is an advantage.

        add to this the argument i made above about our innate sense of mind body dualism based on ” 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.”

        of course let’s acknowledge that ontologically/experientially mind and body are somewhat distinct domains, so the perception of them as distinct and THEREFORE that minds can exist without bodies in a supernatural way is compelling and understandable —but they are deeply related and mind depends 100% on body for its existence.

        so when we look at the night sky, at the vast ocean, at the grand canyon, we innately have a sense that there must be a mind out there looking back at us. when we pass a dark spooky room as kids or have to leap up onto the bed so hands don’t come out to grab us, or think we feel someone watching us as we walk through a deserted underground garage, when we hear an old house creaking around us as it cools down in the night air we imagine disembodied minds everywhere coming to get us!

        now add to this our capacity to remember the past and imagine the future so vividly and the ability it gives us to contemplate death. we don’t want to die, we feel guilty for killing the animals we hunt, and (about 140,000 years ago in the swiss alps) we begin constructing rituals to try and honor the invisible forces we imagine behind the world, whether the great bear spirit who’s children we kill, or the invisible god that must be behind the rain etc….

        religion goes from animism (spirits exist within the natural world that make things happen) to pantheism (spirits exist behind/apart from the natural to make things happen) to monotheism (a single creation god stands separate from nature and is all powerful) to oneness (with the subtle dualism of god being everything but also somehow transcendent)

        all of these conceptions are based on the perception that there must be supernatural minds like ours somewhere in our great abstract notions of the natural world.

        we also at some point started to conceive of ourselves as distinct from the natural world/animals and that we must have been “put here” by some supernatural force.

        in these matters as in many things knowledge progresses by learning to see through our innate perceptions and intuitions. science and reason have proved to be our best way of of doing so.

        the key problem is that without education, all of us are prone to enacting the same old mistaken perceptions/beliefs!

        • Cool…I read this again very carefully this morning, as it has been stewing in me all week, and wil continue to…I get it.

          Could you elaborate on this point a bit more, as I don’t see the point of it, except for the part on our fear of death, which ties into our desire to stay alive and survive the bunny in the bush! But, what is the guilt about killing animals about, and the rest of this paragraph? Thx, J*

          now add to this our capacity to remember the past and imagine the future so vividly and the ability it gives us to contemplate death. we don’t want to die, we feel guilty for killing the animals we hunt, and (about 140,000 years ago in the swiss alps) we begin constructing rituals to try and honor the invisible forces we imagine behind the world, whether the great bear spirit who’s children we kill, or the invisible god that must be behind the rain etc….

  4. Hmmmm…quite the theory..thanks for responding so thoroughly… I’ll give the effort to string it together in my own mind…there are some gaps for me in your string…what do you mean when you say “we infer the presence of a mind” in the second sentence of your response? what mind are you referring to? Our own, or someone else’s?

    Cheerz, J*

    • julian walker says:

      due to the subjective nature of mind, we by definition only directly experience our own.

      therefore we infer the presence of the minds of others indirectly, using body language, facial expression, tone of voice, language etc….. so this is an aspect of how we perceive intentionality, personality, the minds of others.

      in philosophy this is called “the problem of other minds” in psychology it is called ‘theory of mind” – i am suggesting for the purposes of understanding our innate tendency to interpret reality as having supernatural disembodied minds in it is to some extent a a side effect (called a “spandrel” in evolutionary terms) of these adaptations.

      i am confident the gaps you perceive will be fleshed out by further familiarizing yourself with the ideas.

      look up the philosophical and psych terms on wiki, and then also google “dan dennett intentional stance” as well as “michael shermer the pattern behind self deception.”

  5. julian walker says:

    i am scanning through to find the typo here and cannot see it at the moment – can you tell me where in the piece this is?

  6. samathii says:

    GOD’S SPECIAL CREATURE (last paragraph) 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 (our) out thoughts,

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