Neurobiology, Communities, Religion: A Bio-Cultural Study
Neurobiology, Communities, Religion: A Bio-Cultural Study
by Antonio T. de Nicolas, PhD
Memory point: The friend enters my body In search of the center… He does not find it, He takes out a knife And breaks me open. (Rumi, Ma Ku: Where are we?)
Key Words: Bio-cultures, epistemology, human development, imagination, inner technologies, meditation, mystics.
There have been recent efforts to bring back from the silence of centuries the greatness of earlier cultures as part of our Educational curricula taught by descendents of those cultures, thus, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, even Shinto studies have found a place in the American Academ and are being taught by svholars of those traditions. . All but Hinduism, the earliest of all ancient cultures recorded in writing, the store house of our own internal habits of soul, mind, society, mortality, immortality; the reference of later cultures and mystics, the mother, literally, of our own human possibilities has neither found an autonomous voice in the Academy nor have the children of this culture, Hindus, allowed to represent themselves in the American Academy when Hinduism is taught by non-Hindus, or patronized or vilified or simply ignored.
Where academics have failed and shown their biases and oportunisms, neuroscience has succeeded and forced on us a revision of our origins beyond the machinations of the left side of the neocortex or the “interpeter module” with their lack of factual knowledge, except what the left hemisphere can coneptualize coming from the right hemisphere or their own substitution systems and logics.
What followes is also a short summary of my own quest for the same original communities, habits of mind and the last discoveries in neurobiology that not only confirm the theme of the need to return to our Indic origins, but also bring back to the forefront of the conversation the experience and writings of our own Western mystics and by understanding them we will be able to read the common origin of all of them in the experience before them in other cultures, particularly Indic cultures. It is only on this epistomological stance that it will make it possible to make life in communities, life in biological integrated systems, life without injustices, as those we are looking for now. After all, what science discovers must exist previously in human experience, for science being an activity of the left hemisphere of the neocortex it does not have access to the outside world but only to the right hemisphere where human experience is stored, and to its own substitution systems. In short, neurocience only confirms what was already there since the beginning of human consciousness. Indic texts being the first recorded texts of human history. Their presence in the Academy is essential and their absence is discriminatory and detrimental to our whole system of education.
Modern neuroscience is a hopeful model of what it’s meant by a continued criticism of its own activity and its openness to dialogue with those participating in the discussion. This attitude has not been present in the “sacred sciences” with the exception of the mystics of all religions, and in this and in their biological truth are so much closer to the scientists than to the humanists that it’s worth bringing both to the table in this discussion, bypassing the discriminatory Humanities and Religion Deparments.
Alex Comfort summarized in l979 the problems of objectivity and subjectivity in science in the following terms:
- What we call “nature” consists of “arrays” on which human mentation imposes structure.
- Phenomena, which are our only contact with these arrays, are exactly what their name implies, namely “appearings” in which structure has been imposed.
- In some instances what appears to be phenomena –time is an example– may turn out to be wholly structures, namely consequences of a particular manner of intuitivistic data-processing.
- What we call the “I” or self is the shadow of a delay mechanism in the brain between its “oceanic” state of world perception and its “substitution”, namely the selective reading of the same event through linguistic structures.
These postulates have come down to us from our most reliable source of sacramental knowledge, the observation of objective reality by controlled experimentation. However, these postulates bear a strong resemblance to the “wisdom” models of the past: Plato’s cave, Shankara’s description of mental “superimpositions”, or the efforts of mystics to manipulate the body to circumvent the determinations of the viewpoint of I-ness and claim an a-perspectival “That” or not-I experience. Hence, a description of mystical practice should be interesting, not because it produces euphoria, or bliss, but because it sheds light on human experiencing, on the activities of multiple brains on objectivity, on habit forming, and on our neural connections. Most of all, because it will encourage a conversation that due to “political correctness” is about to be closed.
Where Darwin stops with the evolution of species, the paradigm of biocultures starts by describing how the human species has bioculturally acted upon itself and the environment. Biocultures, in this context, is the same as biological foundations (the evolution of the human brains) as they are activated and formed by cultural exercise in human individuals and communities. Neither biology nor culture ( nature/nurture) is determinant of the other, but rather their mutual fecundation, through exercise and repetition, gives rise to our possible multiple brains. We humans have acquired five brains, not one, as Descartes, in error taught ( Damasio l994): the reptilian, limbic, the right and the left hemispheres of the neocortex, and the “interpreter module”, (Colavito,l995). These brains did not appear simultaneously in humans but evolved according to need or exercise, building themselves as neural paths in the brains and as external realities or cultures for the humans who used them. Thus we know of ancient cultures as being ( using Dr. Colavito’s terminology) maia types, since the brain serving as the “pilot” was primarily the reptilian, as in the child after birth;or mythos types, since they primarily developed the limbic brain, as in children between the ages of one to eleven; or right brain mimetic, since they acted on the language of images of the right hemisphere of the neocortex, as in children between the age of four and fifteen (magicians, leaders, the demiurge); or left brain mimetic (theoreticians, ideologues, theologians, social scientists), since they acted primarily from the left hemisphere of the neocortex, as in children from the age of seven on; or logos types, those whose experiences are imageless, experts in the creation of substitution systems, not able to deal with any of the other forms of knowledge of the right brain hemisphere . These biocultural types are invariant in the sense that they represent individual and social possibilities of human realities and development, but unless these brains are exercised they do not develop in full (Pearce,l992), or if one is socially sanctioned over the others, then cultural imperialism and individual loss may follow. Thus, we might find ourselves as individuals or cultures to be using one brain only, say the left brain mimetic one, and thereby giving to that brain the powers of a dictator or the arbitrariness of an emperor- king. Imperialism at its worst may be the result of arrested development in the culture or the individual. Examples in history are many. Early Hinduism in the Rig Veda is primarily a maia type of bioculture, while the Bhagavad Gita around 600 B.C. is clearly a mythos type, while Buddhism is right brain mimetic, Christianity left brain mimetic, and modern scientism is the logos type. This might explain not only how to read their mythologies, but also the difficulties in translation and the fight of supremacy of one group over others, ecclesiastical inquisitions and religious wars.
Furthermore, humans divide bioculturally, that is, our reading and acting with ourselves or others is generally determined by the type of bioculture we primarily are/use, not by the color of our skin or our countries of origin. Since, with rare exceptions, the left brain gets all its information from the right brain, not the outside world, and can only read selectively (by its own criteria) what it wants from the right brain, none of the information “spoken” by the left brain has any higher authority than itself. This revelation has enormous consequences for our dealings with others, with “knowledge” and primarily with religion. Thus, our primary concern as a culture is the education and nurture of our infants and children, for they are the repository of our biocultural development and integration. This follows because the lack of development of biocultures in children, the development of the five brains, up to the age of twelve, and in some cases earlier, is an irreversible process (Pearce,l992). In other words, if the children’s reptilian, limbic and right brain mimetic phases are not exercised, as early as the first months of their young life, the children do not develop sufficient neural links for the life of these brains, and atrophy follows. The child’s “windows of malleability” are closed by the age of puberty. By this age all the brains are either present or absent. The child is thus forced to live the rest of his/her life as a left brain mimetic, or simply a logos type. He/she becomes a victim and a problem to himself and to others, as in a jail, not able to reach either the right brain world of images and sensations or the outside world.
I remember a student of mine who approached me after class to question what she called the interpretation of the people of the Rig Veda ( 2.500 B.C.). According to her, I had to be wrong for she could not conceive how people could see images with the brain, much less make them. I tried to explain to her that images are something everyone has or makes. For instance, I asked her, what is your image of your own mother when you are not with her and I ask you, as now, about her? Her answer was: ” The only image of my mother I carry with me is m-o-t-h-e-r.” Spelling was as far as her brain could imagine. I found this example subsequently repeated by other young people.
Indeed, the clients of the Ascent of Man, of the climb up the ladder of movements, feeling, auditory, image and finally REASON, of the rule of reason over the chaotic field of the senses, of the rational over the emotional, of the objective over the subjective have ended up in a desensitized individual and culture, with the ability to manipulate the body pharmacologically, bent on avoiding the boredom that has become the sign of the times. But the fact is that we have five brains and that these brains function either independently or in harmony, either as dictators or as balanced multiplicity, either as a democracy or as victims, and thus there is still room for further human development.
No human development is possible, however, if we are unable to reach the human transparencies, our mental and bodily extensions through which we humans extend or curtail the reach of our sensations. Through these human transparencies, our mental and bodily extensions, we inhabit the world from the inside and through them we inhabit that fissure between creation and manifestation, sight and seeing, sense and sensation, stagnation and movement. Thus we must distinguish betwen a “primary text”, i.e.,our human body as the source of action and meaning and a “primary technology”, i.e.,the instrumental extension of the sensory system, like language, that makes our inner orderings available to others, a system of public signs. These signs are a “secondary text”, one of the commentaries of the primary, original text that is thus made known and public. The “primary text” lies hidden and is associated with some forms of bodily structures and behaviors that are not reached through philosophical analysis. A commentator or readerof the secondary text, however, can come to know the primary text as the origin of the secondary text and correct the interpretation and bias of one by the interpretation of the other. Third party readers of the secondary text(s) may be able to decipher it because they were trained in the use of the primary technology ( de Nicolas, l986).
Ideology and practice in science or in religion ( what we do in reality and what we “say” about reality) follow different paths. The biocultural model takes each brain as a “primary text”, that is, it focuses on what it does or can do, and also on a “secondary text”, showing how and by which criteria it reads or formulates its own activity. Furthermore, a ” primary technology” is then applied to activate and set in motion the different biological brains, thus clarifying the mental “faculty” involved in “doing”, while a “secondary technology” is used for reading the previous technology and texts and making them public. The discrepancy between the reading here suggested, where primary text and primary technology, secondary text and secondary technologies coincide, and the actual reading we are accustomed to with the secondary technology becoming the standard for the description of all realities, is equal to our ability or inability to activate our multiple brains, to keep them in exercise or extinct, to be at war within ourselves or in harmony. If the reading does not coincide with the technology in use, we have “a reading ideology” or cultural imperialism, which is the way we understand history, or the supremacy of one bioculture writing/reading itself and demanding that others do as it does. In any case, the outside world, or what we call reality, is an extension of the brain in use, or the brain in use extends itself to form worlds, holograms that become the world, or reality.
The justification for concentrating on experiences that bypass I-ness is not the pursuit of some nonrational source of knowledge. Rather it is a science starting from naive objectivism which has been able, by the force of experiments and mathematical analysis, to develop a counterintuitive model of perception empirically, which a large number (read, other biocultures) of humans arrived at without any physical experimentation. They simply cultivated mental states and bodily manipulations in which the model was not inferred but actually experienced ( Comfort l979). Similarly, when social scientists talk about science, their talk is limited by their linguistic structures that may not reflect accurately the actual structures of discoveries and inventions of science. Thus they become “theologians” of the words of science. Similarly, the theologians of old talked about the models of God, not on the experiential grounds of the mystics, but rather on the “biological/ideological” bases of God’s spirit impregnating the world and them as the “legitimate” heirs to this teaching ( Comfort l984).
The study of mystical experience is undertaken here as separate from religious theology. The first is bioculturally based, the second is socially or ideologically based. Religion, as based on biocultures, separates religious experience from other somatic pathologies, like schizophrenics, masochistic, or drug induced experiences. Mystics leave us epistemologies. The others do not. Mystic experience is always a delimiting case of various I-delimiting concerns, and so is science. Scientists and mystics are also “I’s”, and must pass all their observational input and interpretative output through the circuitry involved in the human identity expression. So, they must also become experts in interpretation. Even computers bear the mark of Adam, for his descendants programmed and targeted them ( Comfort l979). Ironically science has been able to operate as if it were truly objective, but subjectivity is the base of any scientific claim of objectivity, while mystic experience, in appearance a subjective notion, can be regarded as objective because it is totally so: the experience of not-I.
Science and mysticism part company in their own intuitive understanding of modeling itself. While science has adopted a traditional, mathematical equation-based modeling of the systems it examines, mysticism has traditionally taken a counter intuitive model where the basic unity is “individually-based,” or “agent-based,” an “algorithmic” simulation where entities are modeled as individuals rather than as aggregate “compartments” in a differential equation model. Thus the largest individual unit to be considered in this model is the “family” and the interaction among its members, biologically and culturally, bio-culturally. The wisdom literature of India has ample examples of this intuition with the oral transmission of texts by and through families, as in the Rig Veda, or the classical crisis of Hinduism in the Bhagavad Gita by the fact that the “family” structure of the Pandavas and Kauravas had come to a crisis. It is perhaps in this reconciliation of modeling that science and mysticism have a future together and with it our own understanding of our “individual” and “social” structures ( Colavito, l995).
What follows is a description of how mystics gain their experience, hoping to bring old knowledge and contemporary interests together, and the possibility that if we develop the brains, then eliciting the experience of not-I may also be possible.
Biology and Mystical Practice
Human biological systems need mystical practice for their own renewal and continuity. We tend, however, to identify mystical practice with the “religious”, but this is not necessarily so, as is evident from the practice of scientists in their breakthroughs and new paradigms, relativity, the Heisenberg principle, or the models involved in the study of fundamental particles. Mystical practice is primarily concerned with the identification of neural structures that are wholly human first, and only later, through grace perhaps, are touched by the divinity, and the same with the scientist, though he/she might substitute the word divinity by something like insight, inspiration or “oceanic ” state.
Modern science has labored to provide us with new models of human acting and human worlds ( Comfort, l984) but no model is as alive and actual as the one the mystics have provided us since the beginning of writing with their practices.
Following these comments we may conclude that human biological systems are not one brain, or one mind. Instead we have five primary brains, and five independent and interacting minds. Where “culture” interacts with “biology” neural passages open and brains are affected. Where ” culture” does not activate “biology” no neural passages and no brains develop. Thus we may have more or less complete humans, more or less complete biological systems. The human biological system does not only have five possible brains, five possible biocultures, but each brain in turn gives rise to a “shadow”: a delay mechanism in perception that accounts for reflection on perception. This delay mechanism can account for what we loosely call the self. This shadow sitting on perception accounts for our many conflicting wills. Perception, reading, interpreting are always linked to the “self” as a biocultural bias involving perceiving, reading and interpreting. Furthermore, while the right hemisphere –the reptilian, limbic, right side of the neocortex, or as named earlier, maia, mythos, right brain mimesis– has direct access to the world, to the origin of perception, and produces a “holistic”, “integrated” image of the world, the left hemisphere –left brain mimesis and logos– is largely isolated from the right side of the brain, though drawing from it all its information, that it returns to the system in the form of “concepts” or “abstract ideas”. The left hemisphere works in isolation- not necessarily subject to the general rules and interests of the integrated brain, and it can even turn the tables on the rest of the brains and reverse or even cancel the natural order of the other brains.
The study of human biological systems has also established that each bioculture has different ways to develop itself as a brain, to read the rest of the world, to interpret, or to establish its own will. Thus, the left hemisphere operates through concepts (its primary technology) and the repetition of concepts as embodied in its language, while the right hemisphere operates through images and the language of images. Thus, where conceptual thinking is approximate and has room for doubts, imagining and the acts of the imagination can not tolerate ambiguity. Decision making can be based on either, except that decisions based on the left hemisphere skills are always approximate and never without doubt. The left hemisphere has access to the right hemisphere, but its criteria for action is only human and biased, while the right hemisphere is linked to both, the human and divine worlds. The possibility exists, therefore, that the right hemisphere may reach, tap, or accept the nod of the Divine.
Imagining, as opposed to conceptual thinking, flourishes in a system of embodied readers, that is, readers with right -brain technologies. These are subjects who share not only the technologies of imagining but also the human body-text ( the primary text), where unconditioned or conditioned experience is possible. Conceptual thinking, on the other hand, flourished among disembodied subjects, linked to each other by their agreement or disagreement to a disembodied theory and the common technologies by which they verify-falsify that theory.
Imagining is sensuous, and renews human sensation. The human nervous systems has an enormous capacity to register differences; it becomes what it is through repetitions that become biological habits. The techniques of reading, for example, become transparent to the reader of this page. The techniques the reader uses to read must disappear while he/she is reading. The same applies to cognitive, imaginative, volitive acts that distributively form a language, and the images of those languages form the inner transparencies through which humans act, think, imagine and communicate. The nervous system tends to ignore the expected and responds more excitedly to new and unexpected stimuli. For this reason there is a continuous striving of the human body, more intrigued by the odd than the familiar (Turner 1983). It is more inspired by movement and change, contrasts and borderlines, than by any other characteristics of time and space. Imagining is primarily active; it involves the whole body, it creates unions, holographic marks, even in the absence of such marks, it gives life even to silence. Imagining is primarily involved in self rewarding also. It is common knowledge that human biological systems have the ability to reward themselves, but in mystical practice the rewards seem to be commensurate with the strength of the image. The stronger the image the greater the sensuous rewards. The problem for us is who gets the reward: the “shadow”, the individual will, the primary bioculture we inhabit, or it is just a transitory sign that we, as biological systems, are alive, are in movement. And who is the giver of these signs: the world, ourselves, a demiurge, an evil geni, or God? The mystics here come to our rescue. They have practiced their human trade on a biology that we only now have been able to verify as accurate; they have also shown us that through the manipulation of this biology even through the limits of their own individual biocultures, human biological systems are more complete when mystics are at work than when the right hemisphere of the neocortex is dying for lack of exercise. The descriptions that follow are a reminder to the reader that being a mystic is a dedicated effort at keeping alive our biological inheritance. And that this is not an easy trip. The examples I will choose are mostly from our Western tradition, though I could as easily bring in the texts of the Rig Veda ( de Nicolas, l976) or the Bhagavad Gita ( de Nicolas l976, l994) or even Plato ( de Nicolas l987). With the Western texts we have the advantage that these mystics passed through the ecclesiatical Inquisition, and left us their writing in languages that are more accessible to us. In some cases, like St. Teresa de Avila (Lincoln, l984) or San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross) ( de Nicolas, l995) they even left us their non-decomposed bodies as witnesses of the power of transformation through mystical practices.
Desires are Images and Will Their Act
Mystics are right brain dominant. Their bioculture is primarily kinesthetic (maia), or limbic (mythos) or right brain mimetic. The faculty they use is primarily the imagination, though in some cases they use fantasy and the result is not mystical experience but magic control, that is, the magician uses his/her inner skills to control the surrounding environment. Fantasy uses imaginative skills for the sake of a subject, a self, as opposed to the imagination that creates images out of nothing, or brings up the images of the origin, and not already created images. And this applies as well to individuals, like Teresa de Avila (right brain mimetic), or Juan de la Cruz (maia-kinesthetic type) or Ignatius de Loyola (de Nicolas, l986) ( mythos-limbic type), or whole texts of cultures like the Rig Veda ( 2.500 B.C. maia-kinesthetic text), The Bhagavad Gita ( mythos-right brain mimetic text) or Buddhism in its many forms, from maia to left brain mimetic texts. Early cultures were primarily a product of the faculty of imagining. So much so that the early cultures of India did not even have the faculty of thinking as we know it. For them manas (thought) was one more of the senses, the sixth, not a faculty.
The mystics take for granted that all perception is primarily an image. For this reason they center their spiritual practice in the maxim that : Desires are images and will their act. It stresses the primacy of images in perception, their link to the will and affections, and the opposing confrontation of two wills, their own will and the will of the “origin”, God. It also establishes their program of mystical praxis, the possible transformation of the body of the mystic by the manipulation of images. This field of original creation, the source of all biocultures, has been named chaos, nirvana, moksha, the will of God. The actual praxis of the mystic, in short, is a reversal of what is considered the normal process of sensation in literary cultures. Where the “shadow” is the result and the origin of this normal process, the dissolution, or the by passing of the “shadow” –the I-observer, the agent– is the program of mystic praxis. That this life project is possible is remarkable, more so since the technologies of the left hemisphere have established themselves by marginalizing the technologies of the right hemisphere and those involved in such practices. The feat of the mystics, however, has left for us clear epistemologies to be followed, or reflected upon in view of the fact that they were right in showing us the multiple brains through which we function.
The Neural Connection
Mysticism is not to be found within the covers of a book, nor is it a literary style, nor a literary genre, as can be said of poetry, stories, novels, theater. Mysticism is built on the construction of an interior experience, that is, in mysticism experience comes first, only later we may see its expression through some literary genres. In this sense we may say that the body of the mystic is the primary text on which the mystic inscribes the primary acts through which signs appear, and those acts and signs can be articulated and become public. The mystic becomes the witness of an experience that is immortal because it was not owned by a subject, and the mystic becomes the instrument, not the agent, of such not-I experience. Rephrasing Bachelard, the question is: ” Psychological acts make a man out of a mystic, but how to make a mystic out of a man, in spite of life?” (Bachelard, l960)
The training of a mystics is agonic. Those who succeed often forget how hard it was to start, as in the case of San Juan de la Cruz.
The beginnings are a time of trial, of meandering about, of looking for some guide, of disorientation, of aridity. It is also a time of direct assault upon the bodily –not just mental– habits of the initiate. It is a time of violence on established habits. The initiate is asked to look for a ” place”, a new place, to do the exercises, away from the ordinary surroundings, the ordinary habits, away from the familiar. He is asked, then, to change the lighting and temperature, the place of prayer, the place to walk, stand, sleep, eat or fast. In sum, a place where the initiate is forced to invent new habits, and where he/she becomes immune to the outside and familiar communications system. This new time table is forced on the body to sharpen a new will through willing the new habits, the new diet, the new time distribution, the new sleeping hours, the constant exercise of the will.
The body is forced into new habits too. It is asked to learn new positions to walk, stand, meditate, positions conducive to prolonged hours of concentration in examining one’s life, what one did ten years ago, one hour ago, to endure hours of meditation, hours of violence to previous body-habits, how to sit, lower one’s eyes, raise them, how to close out sounds, how to listen to inner signs. The initiate is taught the habit of watching for all gestures, facial expressions, voluntary and involuntary movements so that the body eventually becomes a repellent to the outside world and begins to habituate itself to facing within. The aim of all this violence is to sharpen the will in order to proceed to meditation proper. In this manner the will of the initiate is used as a surgical knife to cut openings into the interior world. A life is sliced into segments for examination into years, days, half days, hours. The initiate must then follow these surgical cuts and give to them a new language emerging from the inside, new emotions: the ugliness of sin, of selfishness, tears and pain at evil, self-pity, gratitude, amazement, disgust, consolation, desolation. Almost unnoticed a new language begins to emerge with the new will, a new background appears and an interior time table begins to chime. This is the sound of the “clock” of the “solitary region”. The “mystic-to-be” holds now a new language-technology that habituates him/her to the inner world while it also immunized him/her to previously held habit-technologies. Prayer is now a part of these new inner spaces: it may be light to relax the emotions, or it may focus on the seven deadly sins, or on the three powers of the soul, or it may become a meditation focusing on words said aloud or on those previous held meditations “where I felt the most intense spiritual feeling”. And most importantly, between exercises : “no dando lugar a unos pensamientos ni otros (not allowing any kind of thought).
Even at this early stage, the initiate experiences the excitement of the new, and also the bereavement of the old and the familiar. He/she also experiences the uncertainty of this new region: on the one hand there is no guarantee that the divinity will enter this “solitary region”, while what he/she held familiar up to this point no longer feels as it used to. The initiate can not anticipate what is going to happen, and yet he/she is giving up everything without any guarantee that the empty spaces are going to be filled. This journey needs raw faith. And this is just the beginning. There are only two facts going for the initiate: first, the exercises themselves that keep opening horizons of experience and language, and second, that the experience, he/she is looking for, “has already happened”, either in history or individually to others. Thus its predictability rests in memory and in the activation of memory.
Memory and Imagination
Memory, for the initiate or the proficient mystic, is a technology, a detachable organ ( Merleau-Ponty,l962) that stretches the body. For the mystic and the initiate memory’s goal is to reach the origin out of which our biocultures, the worlds we know, have emerged. Therefore, memory has to focus on reaching those origins, and not be content with the formed memories of the I-shadows . In other words, the memories to be re-created are those that happened previous to our biocultures, our worlds, outside of any I-shadows, outside of time and space. These are the memories of the Trinity in Christianity, nirvana in Buddhism, the first sacrifice in the Rig Veda, Moksha (liberation) in all its forms. It is because this experience has already happened that remembering it, or trying to, is already an act outside of the conditionings of the I-shadows. Furthermore, this experience is not outside of, above, below, to the right or the left of the initiate. This original experience is within, inside the initiate for without it no bioculture would have been able to appear. The initiate carries within himself or herself all the possibilities to recreate his or her own liberation. He or she does not have to depend on outside instructions, models, or coercions on how to proceed.
These memories of the origin are the ones that join people into communities. It is these memories that help members of a community to help others, to remind each other of what it is we share or are looking to share. To be a mystic is, primarily, to live on in memory, for only the mystic sets the technology of memory into a technology of original spiritual practice. The mystic turns memory around beyond the I-shadows, stores memories, turns every sign into memory-points in an effort to articulate memory to the point of bringing it to life again. Through memory, the mystics set the will of the origin — regardless of the name they give it, God, the gods, forces, energies — into motion and in many cases we experience it as an incarnate god, or an inner consolation, or a simple oceanic experience. The mystics turn memory back as on a return trip of the original act of creation when the One dismembered itself and became creation.
Spiritual exercises are thus essentially a string of exercises to bring in line a string of memory-points. Neither the spiritual exercises as they appear in written form, nor the Bible for that matter, are what they are in their written form. Writing is not the origin of the gods or of God. Each and every written word is a memory- point for us to do something else with it: re-member.
Turning all things into remembrance is not an easy task. The memories of Creation, Fall, Providence, Restoration, the Trinity, angels sinning, the inner life of Jesus, even one’s own sins need a radical act as cognitive ciphers in the presence of the “experience that has already happened”. And yet, it is on this memory bank that the initiate deposits all his security for the system to work. But for this system to work the initiate must do one more thing: develop and use the technology of imagining.
Imagining for the mystic is a different act than what we normally understand by it. And it is precisely in this difference that science and mysticism part company. Science presupposes the I-shadow and therefore reinforces the formation of such experience with its own practice, as for example with its efforts to decrease disease and poverty around the globe. The mystic, on the other hand, desensitizes any experience organized by or for any of the I-shadows in order to reach, achieve, be given, an a-perspectival not-I experience, or at least this is the result of his/her practice.
Contrary to contemporary practices in psychology where imagining is guided so that the individual or groups share in imagining the same image, or in which archetypal images are the object and goal of the act of imagining, the mystics,in general and Ignatius de Loyola in his Spiritual Exercise, leave the initiate and the curious alike completely with no particular formed images to imagine . For the mystic imagining is the actual exercise. He or she is not allowed to draw from any existing reservoir of images already formed. The mystics displace the initiate from any subjective or objective pools of images, and vigorously transplant the initiate into a field, where the absence of images will force him/her to strive to make them. The images to be born have to come out of the sheer power of imagining, the power to create and the power to create images out of nothing. How is it done?
The main feature of this technology is dismemberment.
As the mystic/initiate faces in meditation the frame of the memory-point upon which he/she is going to exercise imagining — the birth of the Cosmos from Chaos, the form of an angel, a scene from the life of Christ– a change may take place in his/her body. The mystic/ initiate goes over the memory-point reconstructing it in exhausting detail one sense at a time, sight, sound, touch, smell, movement, so that the image so made and so sensitized returns signs to the initiate/mystic. It takes this technology of reading-making the image, one sense at a time for the image to return sensation to the mystic in the form of signs. Only then meditation is taking place. In other words, meditation, remembering memory-points, dismembering and reading the image one sense at a time is for the sake of receiving signs. If there are no signs there is no meditation and the initiate is sent back to learning and following the fundamentals.
What has taken us so long to suggest, and even longer to practice, suddenly becomes in some humans a habit. The initiatory difficulties are forgotten and steps initially considered essential are skipped with extraordinary results. Some humans seem to come by these technologies easily, for others it seems almost impossible; some cultures seem to possess these technologies already as a habit and “oceanic” experiences appear almost natural or are cultivated as a matter of fact. Other cultures, ours for example, need to be reminded of their neural inheritance and that these technologies may be recovered by recalling them from the past if and only if the neural passages are kept open in childhood.
There is a moment, however, in mystical practice when all striving, the careful, agonic concentration to sharpen the will to develop remembering and imagining accumulate on the mystic with such force, that all past habits, all the expectations of the familiar, all the natural sensations seem to be about to collapse. Fear and death seem to stalk the mystic at every turn: nothing feels like it used to, and what he experienced in mystical exercises is not guaranteed to return. The total darkness of the soul is so at hand that death is many times more appealing. This is the time when faith alone, in the absence of all beliefs, will allow the mystic to carry on, somehow. It is at this juncture that most initiates and practicing mystics stop on their path. Only a few mystics continue. This is a brutal episode to happen to a human life. And many are careful not to burn all their bridges, just in case. At its most successful, this death is a complete death of all the habits and sensations of human life as organized by the I-shadows. This is a painful bereavement for the body and soul of even the strongest. In the dawn of this new mystical life there is no guarantee that life as we knew it will ever feel the same, or life as in mystical practice will return. This is the ultimate dark night of the soul through which all spiritual life must pass. And it shows the manipulative ability the body holds over sensation: the senses become empty of sensation, and the internal senses through which things interior are felt are also dry. However, for those who experience it, no sensation is greater than having been touched even once by the hand of the origin. The mystic journey, however, is not yet over.
The Reading of Signs and Biocultures
Spiritual practice, from start to finish, in the individual and in cultures, has always functioned on the biocultural model proposed here, even if those practicing it were not aware of modern biocultural discoveries. We have made these discoveries because the structures were already there for us to discover. The examples presented so far are sufficient to understand the radical way in which mystics of all persuasions depart from the party line. Their model of acting is interior, and not dependent on the outside world, except at the time or frame we find ourselves : at the time of reading the signs of meditation.
The whole program of the mystics is a series of exercises that sets into motion brains already open for these exercises. Ignatius de Loyola summarizes for us this tradition in his Spiritual Exercises. He divides the exercises into four major weeks to be performed in the space of a month. In the First Week the initiate is on probation. Can he do the exercises; is he strong enough? Does he/she have enough neural equipment to continue?
This is the first step, the translation of “verbal” stories into images of creation and fall. It is at this stage that many fail and are not allowed to continue past the first week. Is it that their neurological equipment is insufficient? The Second Week activates primarily the right hemisphere of the neocortex when the initiate is immersed in the exercises of “imagining” the images of the story, Christian stories of the life of Christ, for example. The Third Week activates primarily the reptilian brain by concentrating on raw instinctual drives, the flight or fight syndrome, the presence of death, the fight for survival, the futility of the stories of immortality. The Fourth Week concentrates primarily on developing the limbic brain, promoting love, compassion, empathy, harmony, or as Ignatius calls them: ” meditations to gain love.” We must accentuate the word “primarily” when describing the activities of the brains for in practice if one brain is affected, the others follow. We must also point out that the mystics act as if they knew that the limbic brain is linked to the frontal lobes or the pre frontal cortex, and not the neocortex. We know now that these frontal lobes are linked to the heart organ, and was/is this the reason why the mystics place so much emphasis on opening the “heart center”? Is this where they understood their primary “limbic brain” to be?
With this in mind the reading of signs takes on a special importance. There is an origin that is formless and nameless and it is the origin of all signs. Now, once this origin is activated, the signs will appear through the conditioned individual’s bioculture. And here lies the difficulty. Who can interpret these signs without biocultural bias? For signs that are interior (right brain) take suddenly an exterior form (language that originates in the left brain). This is the major problem between experience, revelation, and theology.
To summarize, these are the interior movements (signs) the mystic is expected to undergo through spiritual exercises:
- a) Signs that precede deliberation and choice. ( The origin preceding the formation of the right brain systems).
- b) Movements identifiable as the signs of the primary bioculture of the initiate.
- c) Movements consequent upon those signs of the primary or other biocultures. (That is, “knowledge” brought into consciousness by the activation of the right hemisphere of the neocortex through acts of imagining.)
- d) The deliberate action taken on the conflicting reading of signs, the right hemisphere’s versus the left hemisphere’s reading of the signs.
It is this last point that is the bone of contention between theology and mysticism, science and mysticism etc. One must be able to separate signs, for not all signs are good, some are distractions or temptations. Good signs are only those of your primary bioculture, the others are questionable. One, with the guide, must also be careful to identify any reading of those signs with left brain criteria only, since the left brain is disconnected from any direct part of knowledge of revelation. However, religion has taken the verbal forms of the left brain and its theoretical-conceptual language. And this is the reason why the mystics stuck to meditation for the reception of signs: BECAUSE IMAGES BYPASS THE LEFT BRAIN INTERPRETER AND THE RIGHT BRAIN DOES NOT LIE. Only the left brain is capable of the willing act of deception (Gazzaniga, l992).
Ultimately meditations rest on the ability to read signs.
The first test of spiritual practice is that it gives out signs. The second test is that these signs are made public, that is, to be read simultaneously by the initiate undergoing the signs and someone else, commonly the spiritual guide. The difficulties of spiritual practice are already intimidating enough to discourage even the strong or eliminate the incompetent. But these difficulties pale in comparison with making them public to outside readers. And yet, without this public reading, the signs of meditation may be just delusions, temptations or become wasted. How does one make sense of consolations, desolations, tears, visions, scruples, sightings, interior voices, joy, depressions, even temptations of suicide, the dark nights of the senses? Ignatius de Loyola, Teresa de Avila, John of the Cross are simple examples of this difficulty. They were not only persecuted by the Inquisition but they also suffered at the hands of those who read their signs. Teresa had at one time five different “readers”, confessors, and the same with Ignatius and with Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross). The last meeting before they died between Teresa de Avila and Juan de la Cruz was a personal fight between them on the issue of the reading of signs. They disagreed and parted on unfriendly terms.
Mystics also used this reading of signs for decision making, as a guide to act in the world, to bring the will of God to the world, like Ignatius de Loyola and Teresa de Avila, while Juan de la Cruz used the same reading and kept on meditating, for: “On the top of the mountain nothing, nothing, nothing.” All mystics believed that manipulating experience in this manner was due to human technologies, and that though they were only temporary they were essential for human development, in many cases for transmitting the will of God. Teresa de Avila was very explicit: ” All this preparation (for meditation) will not cause God to appear, but without it God will definitely not appear.”
This study was undertaken to enlarge both the understanding of science and religion based on modern discoveries in science and conversations held at the common level of biology. By following the biocultural paradigm we have been able to sketch the biocultural inheritance of the species concentrating on the experiences of I and not-I, the normal and the oceani, the THAT preceeding the I.. Scientists have been able to separate for us five different brains and five different I-shadows corresponding to the delay mechanism in perception the brains seem to have. We have thus been able to identify a model that is self-contained, depends for its development on its own exercises and accounts for its own biases and freedoms on interpretation and decision making. If the suggestions noted here establish that there are large resources of body manipulation (exercises) that could be explored through a better scientific comprehension of the structure of identity, and that this study needs to address the practice of the mystics for its success, as found not ion arbitrary names but in the classical mirror texts of the original Indic civilization, then there is no single finding today which could be compared in importance with this to force us to focus on inner space and its model of liberation, conditioning and freedom as already modeled in early cultures. If not, identity and its structure will continue to remain a theoretical imposition on our biologies, trivializing human life and conditioning it to theoretical inquisitions, namely, biocultural imperialism. Moreover, while we continue to find identity philosophically interesting, we are learning to modify it pharmacologically. That is, large resources of human development are being neglected in cultures different from ours and in our own because we are not able to fit them in our current models. For example, reading other people’s translations of the Rig Veda, to which I had dedicated several books and my own translations, I was dismayed at the following. The Sanskrit phrase: aja ekapad which literally means “aja” the unborn, unmanifested, “ekapada” one (musical) measure, or as St. John of the Cross called it ” the silent music,” is translated by a modern, respected Orientalist as ” the one footed goat.” The translator, coming from the left side of the neocortex, found that in old Phoenician and in Hebrew “aja” also means goat, so it took the translator no time to cover the “unmanifested” with a goat.
This example pales in comparison to the biological atrocities the Christian stories have inflicted on believers with no spiritual exercises. From Yahweh to Mary, mother of Jesus, there are left brain prestidigitations, to establish the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth that have kept theologians awake for centuries and have caused pain to believers. In other words, if faith were based on the false beliefs they forced on people, God would have no chance. But, perhaps, the myths they gave us are simply attached to their wrong models. They are obsolete. Faith is one space beyond, before any stories.
The study of oceanic experiences, of mystical practice, is by its nature religious and bound to modify our social style of understanding, not to mention the fact that it also qualifies the limited intuitions of old-type scientific objectivism, the same way that Einsteinian insights qualified Newtonian insights without contradicting them ( Comfort, l979). What occurs in a change of cultural style, and in a change of paradigm, is that the universe of discourse is expanded, and every such explanation alters our sensibilities and our experiences of I and not-I. In view of the new model of biocultures, old discriminatory racial or ethnic classifications of people will become obsolete since biocultures distinguish people from one another better by the use they make of their primary bioculture rather than by their skin color. Each group of skin colors may contain the whole range of biocultures; the racial group is not a biological unity. The discussion of biocultures as here described contributes particularly to the social aspects of modern societies like America, for people from right brain dominant biocultures, like South Asia or South America or Africa, mix with those of the left brain and logos biocultures, like the Middle East or Northern Europe. Immigrants are more prone to recognize and promote right brain modes of experiences, or not-I experiences, at home while submitting to the dominant left brain ideologies and rules of the dominant culture. By doing this they force on themselves a discourse that is alien to them and forces on them a life long exile even after they become naturalized. On the other hand, it is thanks to them that the conversation about oceanic, not-I experiences, finds a larger echo in contemporary American society. The aim is the expansion of the social discourse, attending to peoples biocultures, knowing which one identifies them primarily, and to extend our biocultures to form our true human environment, rather than returning every day to the numinous and the mysterious, or to some book upon which religions built their case . If this occurs, then we might face the original Creator in the act of creation, and our mutual human interdependence will appear finally as what it is: inter-dependent biocultures striving to form a unity, a harmony, of experience, called the human species. But let us start from the basic question: which is your primary bioculture, the one that defines you and through which you define us ? If this is accomplished, the rest might follow.
The new discoveries regarded as the foundations of the “biocultural paradigm,” which are discussed in the abstract for this article can be referenced in the following: Berlyne and Mdsen, l973; Laughlin and d’Aquili, l974; Blakemore, l977; Olds, l977; Gazzaniga, l978,l987; Uttal, l978; d’Aquili et alia., l979; de Nicolas, l980, l982, l989, l990; Routtengerg, l980; MacLean, l986.
BACHELARD,GASTON. The Poetics of Reverie. Trans. Daniel Russell. Beacon Press, Boston,Mass. 1960.
BERLYNE, D.E. and MADSEN, K.B. (Editors). Pleasure,Reward, and Preference: Their Nature, Determinants, and Role in Behavior. Academic Press, 1973.
BLAKEMORE, C. Mechanics of the Mind. Cambridge University Press, l977.
CARTER, Rita. Mapping the Mind. The Unv. of California Press, l998
COLAVITO, MARIA M. The Heresy of Oedipus and the Mind/Mind Split: A Study of the Biocultural Origins of Civilization. The Edwin Mellen Press. Lewiston,N.Y.,l995.
COMFORT, ALEX. I and That: Notes on the Biology of Religion. Crown Publishers,New York,l979. — Reality and Empathy. State University of New York Press, Albany, N.Y. l984.
DAMASIO, ANTONIO R. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. G.P. Putnam’ Sons, New York, l994.
d’AQUILI, E,G., LAUGHLIN Jr. C.D.,and MACMANUS, J.(Editors). The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis. Columbia University Press,l979.
de NICOLAS, ANTONIO T. Meditations through the Rg Veda. Nicolas-Hays,Maine,l976. –Avatara: The Humanization of Philosophy through the BhagavadGita.: Nicolas Hays,Maine, l976.
–” Notes on the Biology of Religion.” in Journal of social and Biological Structures 3:2l9-225. l980.
— “Audial and Literary Cultures.” in Journal of Social and Biological Structures 5:269-288. l982.
–Powers of Imagining: Ignatius de Loyola. A Philosophical Hermeneutic of Imagining Through the Collected Works of Ignatius de Loyola with a Translation of these Works. State University of New York Press,Albany,N.Y. l986.
— Habits of Mind. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, with Edited Texts. Paragon House, New York, l989.
–The Biology of Religion. International Buddhist Study Center, Tokyo, l990.
–The Bhagavad Gita, Introd. Trans. Nicolas- Hays, Maine, l994.
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–” Naturaleza y Cultura” in Razon Espanola. Vol.XXX, n. 90, l998
–“The Biocultural Paradigm: The Neural Connection Between Science and Mysticism.” in Experimental Gerontology, vol 33 Number « January-March l998
GAZZANIGA, MICHAEL S. The Integrated Mind. Plenum Press, New York, l978.
–“Cognitive and Neurologic Aspects of Hemispheric Disconnection in The Human Brain,” Discussions in Neurosciences. FESN., l987.
–Nature’s Mind: The Biological Roots of Thinking, Emotions, Sexuality, Language, and Intelligence.Basic Books, New York, l992.
LAUGHLIN Jr., C.D. and d’AQUILI E.E. Biogenetic Structural Analysis. Columbia University Press, N.Y. l974.
LINCOLN, VICTORIA. Teresa: A Woman. A Biography of Teresa of Avila. Eds, with Introductions by Elias Rivers and Antonio T. de Nicolas. State University of New York Press, Albany, N.Y. l984.
MACLEAN, PAUL ” On the Evolution of the Three Mentalities of the Brain,” in Origins of Human Agression.Ed. Newman, G.N.Y. Human Sciences Press. l986.
MERLEAU-PONTY, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith, Routledge Kegan Paul, London, l962.
OLDS, J. Drives and Reinforcements: Behavioral Studies of Hypothalamic Functions. Ravens Press, l977.
PEARCE, JOSEPH CHILTON. Evolution’s End. Harper Collins, San Francisco, l992.
ROUTTENBERG, A. (Editor). Biology of Reinforcement: Facets of Brain Stimulation Reward. Academic Press, l980.
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Antonio T. de Nicolas was educated in Spain, India and the United States, and received his Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University in New York. He is Professor Emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Dr. de Nicolas is the author of some twenty- seven books, including Avatara: The Humanization of Philosophy through the Bhagavad Gita,a classic in the field of Indic studies; and Habits of Mind, a criticism of higher education, whose framework has recently been adopted as the educational system for the new Russia. He is also known for his acclaimed translations of the poetry of the Nobel Prize-winning author,Juan Ramon Jimenez, and of the mystical writings of St. Ignatius de Loyola and St. John of the Cross.
A philosopher by profession, Dr. de Nicolas confesses that his most abiding philosophical concern is the act of imagining, which he has pursued in his studies of the Spanish mystics, Eastern classical texts, and most recently, in his own poetry.
His books of poetry: Remembering the God to Come, The Sea Tug Elegies, Of Angels and Women, Mostly, and Moksha Smith: Agni’s Warrior-Sage. An Epic of the Immortal Fire, have received wide acclaim. Critical reviewers of these works have offered the following insights:
from, Choice: “…these poems could not have been produced by a mainstream American. They are illuminated from within by a gift, a skill, a mission…unlike the critico-prosaic American norm…”
from The Baltimore Sun: “Steeped as they are in mythology and philosophy these are not easy poems. Nor is de Nicolas an easy poet. He confronts us with the necessity to remake our lives…his poems …show us that we are not bound by rules. Nor are we bound by mysteries. We are bound by love. And therefore, we are boundless”
from William Packard, editor of the New York Quarterly: ” This is the kind of poetry that Plato was describing in his dialogues, and the kind of poetry that Nietzsche was calling for in Zarathustra.”
Professor de Nicolas is presently a Director of the Biocultural Research Institute, located in Florida.