How the Brain Creates God
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the sower of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger . . . is as good as dead. --Albert Einstein
The Great Unknown
Imagine one of our ancient ancestors, suddenly stricken by illness or a near-fatal accident. Hovering near the brink of death, an ordinary person suddenly finds him or herself locked in an immersive visionary experience of shadowy figures, muted voices and blinding luminescence.
The cosmos opens its enfolding arms and infinity spreads out in a timeless panoply that dissolves all fear, all separation from the Divine. Fear of death vanishes in a comforting flood of bliss, peace and dazzling light the ultimate holy connection. Overwhelming conviction arises that this is the more fundamental Reality. The welcoming gates of a personal heaven open
Suddenly back in the body, returned to ordinary reality, one is left to interpret that transcendent experience to oneself and others. This near-death experience may not have resulted in physical demise, but it has led to the death of the old self the personal self -- and the rebirth, rapture, or resurrection of the soul or spirit. It brings a surge of emotions, conviction and even transformation in its wake. The soul has taken a journey from which one cannot return the same.
A descent into psychobiological hell can lead to a transcendent journey toward Heaven or perhaps the yawning abyss of the Void. Shamans, priests, prophets, mystics, and gurus arose to show the Way of navigating these nether regions, of finding healing, the eternal moment, a peaceful heart, and unity.
Our human progenitors had to directly confront existential issues of survival, adaptation, stress, mating, birth, loss, and death. They gradually developed stories about the basics of life social, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual existence. They created myths, beliefs about creation and our creation to give meaning to life. They developed rituals, ceremonies, and practices to heal body and mind, mark life passages, and placate forces beyond their control. These accounted for their origins as well as voices, visions and experiences that seemed to come from the great Beyond.
The brain is hard-wired for mystical experiences to modify the threat of our hostile existential reality. Metaphysical explanations developed for the essentially unknowable, for sudden and irresistible seizures of ecstasy. Some of these accounts were more sophisticated than others depending on their cultural background, but all shared a common core by defining the mystery of the relationship between mankind and the Unknown. It might be called a peak experience, spirit possession, epiphany, religious rapture, nirvana, satori, shaktiput, clear light, or illumination. The difference is only one of degrees of absorption, of fulfillment.
The god-experience is a process, a subjective perception, rather than an objectively provable reality. Distractions cease, replaced by the direct impact of oceanic expansion, sudden insight, childlike wonder, ecstatic exaltation above bodily and personal existence, dissolution in a timeless moment, fusion, gnosis.
It is direct perception coupled with high emotion and deep realization of what appears to be ultimate truth. It rips away the veil of illusion, revealing the pure ground state of our existence without any emotional, mental, or belief filters. Left with only pure awareness, the natural mind is finally free of earthly trappings. Bathed in emotions of joy, assurance and salvation, Cosmos becomes a living presence. Immortality is sensed, so fear of death vanishes.
Many called that numinous mystery God. In some sense, religion is a reaction to what actually is. But to many, when it comes to their religion, those are fighting words for theirs is the true way, the only way. Heaven on Earth cannot be achieved so long as those two realms are separated. God comes down to earth in our own psychophysiology, dwelling within us.
Programmed for God?
Neurotheology is the marriage of brain science and theology, which systematically studies the relationship of God and the universe. Religion is the expression of theological attitudes and actions. Tradition says God created the heavens and earth, and God created man in his own image.
But did God create man and the brain, or does the brain create God? Revelation is the act of God manifesting, disclosing himself, or communicating truth to the mind. These subjective experiences are the basis of mysticism. Perhaps God hid mankinds spirituality where we would least expect it and be least likely to look within ourselves.
The religious element of our nature is just as universal as the rational or social one. Could altering brain chemistry by playing some visual and pleasure circuits, while quieting those governing self-image, cognition, orientation, and time sequencing give rise to a transcendental bliss, a god-experience? Can they give rise to the electrochemical supercharge described as kundalini, the serpent power that rises up the spine in illumination? How can we journey along the continuum from pleasure to enthusiasm, to joy, ecstasy and enlightenment?
This is the question posed by both theistic and non-believing scientists alike, in an attempt to comprehend our spiritual urge. Religious division is still the global root of conflict in the modern world. Even within ourselves we can experience crises of personal faith, as our worldly outlook vies with our spiritual beliefs. Most religions or spiritual practices have a salvivic value they save us from the banality of human limitation and limitless or meaningless suffering, lifting us up and often conferring a glimpse of the infinite, the Absolute.
In his 1962 utopian novel, Island, Aldous Huxley coined the term neurotheology to describe the territory where human wetware interfaces with the divine. Since then it has come to mean the emergent field that describes the neurological phenomena that underlie classical mystical experiences from all spiritual practices.
It seems our nervous systems are pre-programmed to experience a variety of religious or spiritual experiences. We can journey within and explore our inner world, just as we can the outer world.
However, this human study of the phenomenology of the God-experience doesnt reductively negate the possibly of a divine creative force. Rather, this transdisciplinarian science simply seeks to describe the mechanisms involved in that process. It explores how the divine is translated into the human realm, from the archetypal to the material world. It combines aspects of religion, psychology, and neurology. This new paradigm synthesizes the truths of both science and religion giving birth to neuroshamanism.
Our God-program is the means through which humans have traditionally interpreted the meaning of major life passages such as stress, birth, identity, aging, death, and opening to a sense of infinity. It bears heavily on our image of our Self, our relationship with others, and our place in the cosmos and world. It is the source of our faith and the ground of our beliefs. Religious dogma has been created over eons to interpret or account for these dramatic personal encounters with spirit.
Taxonomies of religious experience have been created in anthropology, sociology, psychology, and religious studies. They form maps of the territory of spiritual experience from shamanism, to artistic expression and all forms of creativity including transcendent states of consciousness. But as mystics and scholars both admonish, The map is not the territory.
A spectrum or continuum of divine interplay is available as flow states induced through trance, creativity, and meditation. But knowing about them is not the same as direct experience of those states, purposefully induced or spontaneous. The former is a conceptualization, while the later is a grace, an epiphany. These states range from spirit possession to simple communion and nature-awe, to loss of self in awesome unitive cosmic consciousness.
The God Program
Belief and biology are entwined like mind and matter, like the twin serpents of the Caduceus, which represents enlightenment. Neurology, ritual and religion all join in what psychologist Carl Jung (pioneer of the collective unconscious) called a Mysterium Coniunctionis, or Royal Marriage with the divine. The soul becomes lost in the Self; all duality is erased.
We have a natural human capacity for spiritual experience, just as we have one for comprehension of language or mathematics. Transpersonal experience, myth, ritual, morals and ethics are undergird by a comprehensive religious ecology. The cognized environment is the stage of experience. Networks of neurophysiological structures orchestrate the play on the stage. Intricate electromagnetic and biochemical mechanisms underlie human ritual, myth, mysticism, and religious phenomena.
Whether God exists as an overarching cosmic entity or not, there are certain mechanisms in the brain which mankind has harnessed over thousands of years to facilitate the process of non-ordinary experience. They all manipulate the bodys nervous system either by over- or under-stimulation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems of arousal. They lead us toward seeing, hearing, touching and feeling the Lord in an experiential, rather than conceptual way that culminates in fusion.
Biologically, heavenly states are dependent on the limbic system or emotional part of the brain, and hormonal secretions. Mystical states are not fantasies, delusions or intangible events they are the end result of complex chemical and neurological processes. They begin with instinctive awe and indefinable thrills, floating sensations, and perhaps spiritual hunger.
Ego-death can occur when the hyperactive I submits or gives in to sensory overload, which overwhelms it. Hypoarousal leads to a characteristic silencing of the mind or emptying when the ego voluntarily submits to unification of subject and object, of I and Self. Cortical and subcortical activity become indistinguishably merged. There is no separate I left to perceive objective reality. Thus, dualism is paradoxically obliterated in the maximal excitation of both the hyper- and hypo-arousal systems.
Because they produce personal euphoria and creative inspiration, these initial states are common to poets, artists, and mystics. But mystics tell us these ecstasies may be nothing more than overloading of the emotional channels. Ecstasy is a desire for contact, a striving after union. Entering these regions in full consciousness indicates greater spiritual maturity. Stabilizing them at the personality level means the phase of emergence is over and enlightenment becomes a steady state. The neurological changes have become integrated and permanent.
The oldest shamanic techniques include fasting, drumming, trance dancing, inner journeys, and mind-altering plants. The relaxation techniques for transcendence include meditation, imagery, prayer, postures, and chanting. All of them work on the physiology to change the chemistry of the mind/body and induce oceanic ecstasies that are either all-consuming or ultimately serene.
Any constant, rhythmic stimulus to the central nervous system will induce a trance-state and accompanying high. Driving the system toward either polarity of arousal or quiescence leads to a paradoxical reversal into its opposite, much like sexual arousal leads to post-orgasmic afterglow. Similarly, at some point, meditation can release an intense rush of energy and emotion, partly through the limbic system.
One methodology produces sensory overload, while the other empties the sensory field by withdrawing attention from sensory signals. There may be sensory melding a phenomenon called synesthesia where one can see music, or taste colors.
When the mind/body is either exhausted or emptied of external input, the mind is free to process the endless loops of its own manifestation, its own internal processes. Fear and shame give way to grace, a sense of Presence, perception of sanctity, response to realization of the divine. Time, space and the separate ego seem suspended or transcended in the experience of cosmic consciousness. All is One. Beyond the unity experience is the nondual experience of the Void.
If perceptual intake is restricted or expanded beyond certain limits, the normal state of consciousness gives way to altered states, each of which has certain characteristics. This universal experience has nine typical qualities: 1) unity, 2) transformation of space and time, 3) deeply felt positive mood, 4) sacredness, 5) objectivity and reality, 6) paradoxicality, 7) alleged ineffability, 8) transiency, and 9) persisting positive changes in subsequent behavior. A direct and unmediated encounter with the source level of reality is felt as Holy, Awful, Ultimate and Ineffable.
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