Posts Tagged ‘new age’

SERMON: “Getting Wisdom” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

“Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”  (Proverbs 4:7, New International Version, © 1984)

The “rev” as a young Art Director in his “therapy years”.

I read that Bible verse early in what I call my “therapy years”.  I was 27, working as an Art Director for an industry publishing company, and deeply involved in my church (in fact I would soon be off on my church-supported stint as a “smuggler for Jesus” in Europe).

The immediate impact of that verse was to make me feel better about paying for my ongoing therapy sessions (with a Christian psychologist) after I had used up my annual insurance benefit for outpatient therapy.  I was facing about three months, I think, of paying full-fare for my “wisdom”, and it seemed like an awful lot of money.

I don’t regret paying that money.  I don’t miss it.  I think I made the right choice.  But I have been wondering a bit about how to quantify the effects of the years of self-examination, therapy, counseling, reading, journaling and psychic-visiting that followed.

I find I must seriously consider the possibility that much of the calm and happiness that now mark my life are as much the product of natural processes that influenced my physiology, (in most particular my brain) as they are the earned result of all of my navel-gazing.

It could be argued that the single most remarkable thing about us humans is the capacity we have to use our minds to “step outside of ourselves” and observe our own behavior.  We can act instinctively, react quickly, and yet at the same time (or shortly thereafter) notice what we are doing and analyze it.  It is a rather amazing ability, and one that we point to as a large part of what defines us as “humans”.  But at every level beneath this one (both cognitive and physiological), we are still such animals, really.  I know that we give this idea a nod in many ways, and yet I don’t know how much we really give it its due.

As a young man, it was probably obvious to everyone but me how driven my behavior was by the testosterone pulsing in my system.  I would sometimes find myself in a sexual situation that a part of my mind — had it the courage to speak up — would have asked of the rest of me: “But, do you really want to be here?”.  (The answer would, at times, have been “No”).

(Is this the dilemma that Paul talks about in the Bible as well?  “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15, New International Version, © 1984)?  Such questions troubled me as a young, enthusiastic Christian).

We know now — thanks to science — that the human brain doesn’t fully mature until about age 27.  So in that sense it’s not surprising that the late-mid-twenties marked the beginning of my “therapy years”.  I was a young professional out in the world, with enough experience to begin to question whether the way I engaged that world was really optimal.

We read about the “mid life crisis” that hits forty-year-old men, but I was a bit early for that.  And yet, when I hit thirty, I found myself in another period of re-examination.  I did a bit more therapy, and read a lot of self-help literature (which was coming out like a flood in the popular press then).  “New Age” ideas had also become popular enough to be considered “mainstream”, and so I found an easy substitute for my my abandoned Christian belief system (as well as a whole new set of “enlightened” ideas and techniques to try out in order to achieve emotional stability and “happiness”).

I worked that New Age angle for about as long as I’d worked my Christianity (roughly 15 years), eventually finding a psychic who had a technique of deeply affirming me as an individual that set me on a quest for my new Holy Grail of total self-acceptance (a quest that eventually led me to abandon the “spell of belief” altogether).

But I can remember many years made up of long, painful days trying to find a way out of depression or anxiety into a brighter world, using any tool, tip or technique that presented itself.

Eventually, the clouds began to lift.  And over a rather long period of time, I found myself feeling more and more like a complete and coherent being, a process that took a long time to get rolling but, once it did, created a sort of momentum that was its own positive feedback loop.  And then, one day, I realized that I was actually happy and getting happier, becoming increasingly content with the way I saw the world and the person I was in that world.  And one night the familiar catalog of past events that I had mulled, autopsied, and replayed in endless mental loops for years and years suddenly lost their psychic punch.  The past, it would seem, had finally slipped into irrelevance.

The story I would have told you then would have been one of pride in all of the “self work” I had done.  I was proud that I had consistently made the choice to “buy wisdom”, to look inward and face my demons and — most importantly — have the courage to be willing to be completely accepting of whoever it was “Bob” turned out to  be.  It was, indeed, a point of pride, and of no small comfort when I compared my humble external accomplishments to my peers who had families and houses and such.  Others may have gained the world, but I had gained my soul!

But now I’m not so sure.  Not about my current persistent happiness or the man I’ve turned out to be, but about just what the major factors in that process really were.

For it turns out that there is science to be considered here: for not long after my young male brain had matured, it began its cognitive decline into the decay of the thirties and forties.  But with a twist: for it seems that the aging brain works to compensate for the “Swiss cheese-like” holes forming in our gray matter by creating new synaptic connections between the hemispheres of the brain.  So what I thought was the product of my deep introspection and analysis — namely my new-found ability to synthesize thought and emotion — was more likely the result of this natural patch-work happening inside my skull.  And then, of course, there is the seemingly inevitable age-related drop in male testosterone levels (that goes a long, long way to mellowing out a man).

After a few years of those lower testosterone levels, I found myself much less the jittery lone-wolf I had been before, and was more like a cat that didn’t mind curling up and purring with people now and again.  People I had known for years almost overnight became beloved friends whom I treasured.  I became a loving man.

Then came the years when I was seeing people I knew in the obituaries every week (most in the year leading up to the death of my father at age 91).  When my dad died, I was just about exactly half his age.  Suddenly I was thrust into another period of reflection, only now I was looking back on a life of learning my professional, artistic skills from the perspective of the master pondering his path to that mastery.  And after a couple rough years of transition into “middle age” that followed, I finally decided that my primary job would no longer be my own self-discovery and growth, but that the remaining years (at least until the next phase hit) would be to get on with doing all that I could with all that I had for as long as I could.

And then finally, after all of that, I hit a time in my life where I began to feel that I had, after all, gained a good bit of wisdom.  I wasn’t ready to be a yogi on a mountaintop – - I had to much yet to do with the remnant of youth still in my physical body and brain — but I did have that sense that if it all ended tomorrow, I had, at least, achieved that much with my life.

But now I wonder just how much of that wisdom came from all of my questing and questioning, anguish and acquiring, and how much was mostly the result of having simply stayed alive long enough for my brain to move through the phases of the first fifty years of my life?  It’s impossible to know.

(In fairness to my introspective self, I think that what I am really looking at here is the issue of emotional equilibrium and emotional intelligence — the sort of self-knowing that allows us to make decisions based on a certain clarity about what we feel, desire and need, not our storehouse of general knowledge or acquired technical skills, though the former helps in the application and appreciation of the latter, perhaps more than the acquisition of the latter inevitably brings about the former).

In short, it is not impossible to believe that a good deal of what I would like to take “credit” for (in terms of my general “happiness” or “contentment”) is pretty much pure biology that I have dressed up in a contemporary “personal growth” narrative.

This viewpoint has the appeal of injecting a bit of humility into the way I view the “wisdom” I have acquired in my lifetime.  And that, to me, is a fairly good indicator of the amount of “truth” in the idea.  It’s something I like about science: it puts us in our place in a particular way.  Meaning that it doesn’t degrade us (as another person might for their own gain), but neither does it give us license to think of ourselves as more clever than we actually are.  Science is, I think, the single best mirror we have in which to behold our true selves.  Everything else is wishing and fear.

Does this mean, then, that all the reading, counseling, praying, thinking and wondering I did in my teens, twenties, thirties and forties was a waste of time, energy and money?  No, I don’t think I can say that.  After all, I had to fill those difficult years with something, and I did, at least, choose to occupy myself some useful actives (I went to art school, for example, and worked a series of professional jobs, continuing to seize opportunities to develop my natural artistic talents into professional abilities).  But when it comes to all of the “self-help” work, I think it will remain an open question whether it was anywhere near as effective as I needed to believe it was at the time!

And so I’m left with this: not knowing, completely, from whence I — as the individual I now am — sprang.

My DNA, of course, was there from the start, and I was lucky enough to have a family that saw to it that I didn’t starve or get eaten by hyenas.  I was educated and socialized by my parents and siblings so that I could make my own way in the world.  I had opportunities for counseling when my melancholic and anxious personality was more than I could handle.  I had time alone to think…and think…and think (perhaps a bit too much of that).  And I had a talent for art and expression that gave me a place to invest time and education that eventually became a deeply satisfying career.  But in so many ways I am simply a male animal that has had the good fortune to live long enough to mature through the sequential phases of childhood into a mature adult who is now able to enjoy his life free from many of the uncomfortable by-products of DNA’s insistent urge to procreate.

After eons of the biological evolution that led to my own human parents, I have navigated the tumbling whitewater of my individual evolutionary path and lived to pop out the other side — onto calmer waters where evolution doesn’t give a rip about what happens to me next.  It is a fluke of history that I am alive in a time where so many of us get to live as long as we do in this post-evolutionary land of (potentially) enjoyable existence.  And though I can’t completely credit my own wisdom for getting me here, maybe I can borrow back just a bit of that satisfaction — suspect though it is — in recognizing that I do have the wisdom to recognize who and what I am.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Exploring a Universe Beyond Belief” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

At times it feels as if I could be a small, human-sized probe hurling silently through the universe, looking back toward my earthly home and noting, from time to time, how differently it looks from an ever-increasing remove (something like that remarkable American Museum of Natural History animation that offers a mind-altering perspective on our place in the vastness of the known universe).  And as I race further from the point where my journey began, I find that my feelings about life on this planet continue to evolve as my increasing knowledge continues to feed my changing perceptions.

I can trace my launch off into existential space to the week I disconnected from the bonds of my religious belief some 25 years ago.  At that moment it felt as if some cosmic rubber bands that were stretched to their limit — and that had been keeping me attached to my beliefs up to that point — were suddenly severed, and all the stored-up energy of years of suppressed questions expelled me into the great, black, existential void of space.  Though it took many more years of floating around within the gravitational pull of belief before I finally slipped out of that particular system into the vastness beyond, my course was set.

The East Coast of the United States as seen from space. NASA photo.

This all sounds a bit hyperbolic, but as a metaphor it is apt and useful.  The truth is that the majority of humans appear to show little or no interest in moving beyond belief, and the constricted perspective that it offers in return for its comforts.  I understand that, because I can tell you from experience that the view from outside that familiar, small world is, indeed, disconcerting.

On the surface, then, that would seem to be an argument in favor of not stepping outside of that believing, comfortable world, except for one tiny problem: reality.

For many of us, the dawning of a spiritual awareness can feel like (and is often promised to be) the one great leap of faith that will ever be required of us.   After all, who ever heard of needing a “second conversion” once you’ve found THE TRUTH?  Well, you’re hearing it here.  It could be argued that human history is a record of the struggle with that second conversion: a conversion from the revealed “truth” of superstition and religious belief to reality.

In part because of the discipline of this blog, the speed of my own flight from belief has only increased, and with that increased speed has come a higher frequency of perspective shifts.  To the end that I have arrived at a sufficient distance from belief to feel like I can now see it both for what it is, and for what it is not.

And what I see in belief is a phenomenon of consciousness, spread across the spectrum of animals that exhibit in in accordance with the sophistication of their evolved brains.  We humans are the big-brained, verbal language-endowed believers, so our beliefs are naturally the more complex (though by no means qualitatively singular in all ways to our species).  But our religious beliefs are completely our own, and have no supporting source anywhere outside of our busy brains.  They are an artifact of our minds, pure and simple.  But of course, our experience of existence is not simple at all, and — artifact or not — belief is a part of that experience.

I don’t think it is my “job” to rid humanity of irrational belief.  I would have to have the egotism of a fundamentalist evangelist to think that a) eliminating belief were a feasible goal, or; b) that I was the one human of such power to accomplish that goal.  I’m afraid I am finding myself more and more in line with the feelings of our late comedian George Carlin when he sees little chance of humankind making any significant alterations in their own path.  This is not necessarily a comfortable existential place to be, but I feel like I am seeing things ever more clearly as I continue to spin out into the space that (it turns out) exists beyond belief.

I often compare my thinking of today to the way I saw the world as a Christian, remembering that Christianity made sense to me then (as it does to many now), and offered some sort of worldview that was workable.  At this more distant remove, however, I can’t see how it could work at all, and most certainly not with the knowledge of science I now have.  I think fundamentalist religion (in particular) functions best, like all irrational belief, in a certain mental environment where curiosity is dampened, and solace valued more than fact.

But to the hyper religious, my views may appear as merely a competing creed, based upon hope, fear and desire (to the same degree that their own faith is).  That is a tough nut to crack, because one always hopes to get it right, and fears getting it wrong and being found out to be a fool.  (Check out this clip of Bill Maher making the point that “Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position”).

But I think it’s pretty clear that science (even with all of its faults and false-starts and revision in the face of new evidence) is the best tool we’ve got going to ascertain the nature of reality.  As the comedian Eddie Izzard so funnily put it, science has “Bunsen burners” and all of its other trappings of actual experiment, whereas believers in God have…a book.

The religious (be they old-time or new-age) don’t trust science, in part because it constantly shatters illusion.  They therefore most often accuse it of being too narrow or blind to the kinds of “evidence” that science routinely ignores as unmeasurable (and therefore not evidence at all, but belief).  In short such believers think science has (for it’s own imagined, selfish reasons) set the bar for “evidence” too high, when what science has actually done is reveal to us just how low that “bar” has been for most of our  history.

And so we find ourselves in a modern society in which a majority of our fellow citizens openly distrust science because they continue to value religion.  What can be done in the face of such a dynamic, when there are dozens of “conservative” legislators that would happily de-fund any and all governmental scientific research given the chance?

This is our social reality that fights against the revelation of our true physical reality, be it global climate change, the genetic basis of sexual preference, or the meaninglessness of “race” as a scientific term.

We are an odd bunch of animals, but once we accept that we are, indeed, animals, we are then free to see ourselves as we truly are.  Contrary to the protestations of the religiously devout, such knowledge does not debase us in the least.  It only feels like we are brought down because we have for so long imagined ourselves as creatures that we are not: divinely made, every hair of our head valued by a vast and incomprehensible sky god (that nevertheless inclines his cosmic ear to our every utterance and our every thought).

It takes only a step back to see how absurd such a belief is.  But another step away can bring us into an understanding of why we are so naturally inclined to believe such things in the first place.  One more step away and we can see that such a state will likely continue, and that there will always be this struggle between the humans that have braved their fear to see what really lies behind the mysteries that frighten us, and those that would just rather not know.

Such is our “fate”, I believe.  Like George Carlin I will always carry a glowing coal of hope for humanity within me, and will enjoy the humane, intelligent humor of the likes of Eddie Izzard.  I will be awed by the kind of beautiful AMNH animation that gives form to the knowledge of the cosmos that scientists have fought so hard to accumulate, and look for the ways that I can be a decent human being that does what he can to make the world he can affect as good as it can be.  But I will not suffer under a delusion of my specialness in the vastness of this universe (nor even on this tiny planet).

One’s response to reality will inevitably vary depending on one’s temperament.  Many just plain don’t like it.  That’s their right.  I got into this Quixotic quest in order to figure out my own place in the world, and the rest, as they say, just sort of happened.  I am as self-centered as every other animal that has ever lived.  But thanks to science I can understand, like Cyrano, that in life I “was everything yet was nothing” (everything to me, yet nothing to the universe).  And that’s just the way it is.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

The "rev" having a "mountain top" experience!

After a Sunday morning hike part way up Tortugas Mountain, I sat on a jagged boulder under a cloudy, early Fall sky.  The wind was rising and falling in that blustery kind of way that marks a shift in the seasons.  I watched the cars pass below me on the paved road that snaked around the base of the mountain, and heard their distant hiss.  I looked at the Organ Mountains to my east, and the Mesilla Valley to the west.

I began to think of the many times in my life when I went outdoors to pray.  I spoke out loud the names I had prayed to before, to see how they felt in my mouth (and to check if they had any residual charge in my psyche): “Heavenly Father”, I said, “Lord Jesus”.   Then I said: “Speak to me Holy Spirit: show me that you’re real”.  At that moment, a wind came up, whistling past me.

It was just the kind of coincidence that had helped — in the past — convince a young believer (me) that God was real.  It was perfect.

My rational brain politely intervened, reminding me again of the power of confirmation bias when it came to our natural cognitive tendency to connect two random and unrelated events into a uniform narrative.  I decided to conduct an experiment.

“Oh Holy Hamster” I said.

Nothing.  Not a whisper of a breeze.  (Obviously the wrong deity).

I tried another: “Oh Sweet Baby Llama — speak to me”.

There was only the whisper of a breeze.  But I knew what to do.

“Oh Sweet Baby Llama, you whisper so quietly that I can barely hear you.  Speak to me, oh Baby Llama, oh sweet Baby Llama.”

And the Sweet Baby Llama answered me in a blast of wind that surely could have come from no other place than the divine breath of the creator (llama).

Except of course the wind had not come from the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven.  It was a local random (meaning non-intentional) weather phenomenon with completely natural causes that we understand because we live in an age of science.

But setting that aside for the moment, these are the kind of thought/action/belief experiments that give us chills as children and adults: The first time you get up the courage to ask a Ouija board a question; ask Jesus for a “sign”; sit down in front of a palm reader at a psychic fair; or ask the wind to answer.

C.S. Lewis described the terror of this kind of moment where one suddenly is confronted by a force one was chasing without really ever expecting to catch up with:

“There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God!”) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” — “Miracles” C. S. Lewis

But this time I did this “test” without that twist in the base of my esophagus.  It was a rather playful interaction between my conscious, formerly-believing mind and the world that is so random as to be almost always cooperative with our whims.  Combine that randomness with an evolved brain hell-bent on making sense out of EVERYTHING and, voila, you’ve got the Sweet Holy Baby Llama speaking to one of his (or her?) believing children through a seasonal cold front moving across the face of the planet.

I know this seems silly.  But many a believer has done this trick on themselves, and walked away from it encouraged by a seeming confirmation of their beliefs.  The famous scientist Francis Collins had just such an experience where he came across a waterfall on a walk that had frozen into three distinct streams.  In that tableau he saw the holy trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Clearly none of us humans is completely immune.

What’s unfortunate is how easily we take these things seriously.  There are figures on the national stage right now (who think they should be President) who see messages from God in hurricanes and earthquakes.  We may as well determine national policy based on the reading of goat entrails and the casting of runes.  There is no practical difference (though there is clearly a huge social difference as a majority of Americans are much more sympathetic to theism than voodoo).

The thing I’m not telling you about my “prayer” to the Sweet Baby Llama is that I had years of training in how to make something as innocuous as a breeze into the voice of God.  I attended many a prayer meeting where I learned to speak in tongues, where I learned that familiar cadence of spoken prayer that includes a lot of space fillers, so that one can basically create an endless prayer that can carry you until SOMETHING happens that can be taken as a sign.

It’s hard to admit to ourselves that we are trained and duped so easily.  One comfort to our acceptance of our bald credulity is the fact that it happens to almost all of us.  Belief is truly natural to our brains.  Even some of the writers of the Bible recognized this, using it as a proof of the existence of God:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (New International Version.  Copyright 1984.  Emphasis mine)

We do have a sort of “eternity” in our hearts.  We understand the passage of time and our the mortality of all physical life.  So why should it be surprising that a living being, once conscious of his existence, should not wonder whether or not that existence could (or should) continue outside of the physical world it inhabits?

It’s hard not to see the thread of human longing that is woven through all of our belief systems.  In this way the battle of ideas that was the war between the heathen Vikings and the Christian Kings of Europe was not a triumph of truth over falsehood, but a displacement of one model of belief by another, seemingly more “modern” one.  This process continues unabated.  For those to whom the God of the Bible is a bit too archaic, they can simply transfer their desire for transcendent beings to Aliens or benevolent spirits in a universe that desires our good.

Even people who assent to the reality that mind and spirit are purely products of the human brain are loathe to abandon more spiritual conceptions of life.  So deep is this need for belief that believers are rated higher in happiness than non-believers.  The hard, cold reality of life is that the hard, cold reality of life is easier for us to take when we can believe that there is an intelligence behind it all that is kindly disposed towards us.  But in the words of Michael Shermer:  “I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know.”

There is no denying that staring the void in the face is discomfiting.  So is the contemplation of our own eventual death.  Yet somehow we humans — cursed as we seem to be above all other life on this planet with a conscious awareness of our own mortality — somehow manage to go about the business of living, wresting pleasure, accomplishment and satisfaction from our lives.  There is a certain wonder in this.  The life of an individual ant seems meaningless to us, but would we feel the same if that ant was building an opera house, or conducting genetic research to find cures for diseases that were attacking her fellow ants?  Probably not.  We’d think her noble.

And so we humans, believing or not, soldier on.  Helped and comforted by God, the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven, a general sense of agency in the universe or the appreciation of our capacity to courageously accept our lot as evolved living organisms on a spinning planet of rare life in a vast universe.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “There is No God, Yet God Exists” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

I remember the pointed rebuke from many a preacher that proclaimed that the great sin of modern man is that he makes himself God.   Meaning that “New Age” beliefs, or the dreaded “Secular Humanism” are guilty of elevating Man above God, where Man’s desires are made King, and the Devil dances a jig of victorious delight.

But it turns out that Man is God after all, but not in the way the preachers feared.  No, it’s much worse than that, and also not bad at all.  It simply is.

The person we come to know as God is, and has always been, the part of our own consciousness with which we are able to converse (more specifically, the part that talks back to us.)  This is why it can feel like we’re talking to a real person when we “pray”.  (Because, well, we are!)

Blasphemy of blasphemies, I am denying the existence of God!  Don’t be silly.

I am actually affirming the existence of God, for that person that we address exists, no doubt about it.  It’s you.  It’s me.

Now the actual essence of what the preacher thinks is that we non-believers are taking a part of our earthly selves and replacing the God of the Universe with it and, basically, acting too big for our (lowly) britches (and insulting God to boot.)

This, of course, assumes the existence of an actual, physical, all encompassing God.  Such a God may or may not exist, but considering the rather impressive plasticity and agility of our own consciousness, there is little in the way of “spiritual” phenomenon that requires any further external personage (other than our own differing levels of consciousness and perception) for its explanation.

So here’s the funny part in all of this:  As is ever the case (it seems) the preacher is accusing another of his own crime, for it turns out to be him that has made himself (literally) God.  For isn’t that what he does?  He talks to his own consciousness, his consciousness answers him back (from within his own skull) and he proclaims his own murmurs to be the words of God!

Now I don’t want to be too hard on him, for these sort of fictions are very useful to us humans who — being as social as we are — have a hard time acting solely from our own desires.  Therefore it can be useful to have “better” reasons to not go with this person to that event, or some such.  So having the ability to say “I’ll need to pray about that”, can be a more feather-smoothing way to say “I don’t want to do that, but I need to find a way to get out of if that doesn’t damage our relationship, which I may well need in the future.”  (I’ve made that sound more crass than it needs to be, but you get the point).

I could sum this all up by saying: There is no literal God, even though the thing we humans have always known as God does, in fact, exist.  And although it seems a huge disappointment to find that the actual God is not all we thought him (generally him) to be, the real God can survive the disappointment and turns out to be completely unchanged by the ordeal and can, in fact, continue functioning as before with no diminishment in his — or her, or its — capacities.

For God’s capacities (or “powers”) have always been limited, if we are honest with ourselves.  How many prayers have really been answered?  Some, to be sure, in seemingly remarkable ways.  But our minds are tuned to noticing most the outcomes that confirm our beliefs (a tendency called “confirmation bias”), and we are top-notch magical thinkers, which is a huge help in keeping the idea of an external, autonomous God alive.

This is who and what we are.  I’ve come to realize and accept this.  Which brings me to the odd place of agreeing with every believer in God, or at least finding no solid intellectual grounds for telling anyone that they have made up their entire experience of God.  Of course they haven’t.  And, of course they have.  If you get my meaning.

There is no God, yet God exists.
There is no Heaven above.

There is no God, yet God exists,
In the hearts of those who love.

There is no God, yet God exists,
We pray to our own buried soul.

There is no God, yet God exists,
Ever just beyond our control.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “God Brain, Dog Brain” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

I think that we can all buy into the idea that we have multiple levels of consciousness.  As an example: I’m one of those that can drift off into a thought while I’m driving and suddenly realize I don’t remember driving the last half of a block.  How did I do that without the car suddenly flying into the tumbleweeds?  Well, of course there is physics, with the combined forces of inertia and gyroscopic effects that tend to keep a vehicle going fairly straight most of the time, but there is still a measure of continued human control inputs that were being fed to the steering wheel and gas pedal by some part of my brain.  We tend to call this part of our consciousness “body memory”, or the “unconscious” or even “reflex”.  (Though reflex –as I understand it — is more properly the domain of the deeper part of our brain, just above the parts that keep our heart beating and our lungs breathing).

But if we consider the functions of our brain from the most basic: running the bodily processes that keep us alive; to the most abstract: the part of our brain that allows us to consider our own thoughts (as in: we are having a thought; we are aware that we are having a thought; we are having a thought about that thought; thinking about that thought changes the thought –or the process that generated that thought — thereby literally re-wiring a small part of our brain; whew!), we must come to the conclusion that there are multiple levels of processing going on inside these skulls of ours!

For the religiously minded, these different levels of consciousness are personified as mind, body and spirit (the body being the “lowest”).  So the part of consciousness that we are most familiar with — the one that converses with others and makes the grocery list — is the “mind” (in this organizational system).  For the more severe believer, our ancient animal impulses are labelled as our “sinful nature”, and therefore confined to the “body” where they can (in theory) be isolated, berated and battled (or, more often than not, happily succumbed to!).  But one level of our consciousness — the one that talks back to us when we talk to it — we make out to be God, or the Holy Spirit, the one that hears our prayers.

Science tells us that we have at least three physical, evolutionary layers of brain, meaning we have two additional (and later) add-ons to the primitive, non-reflective, yet reflexive survival brain.  The latest evolutionary addition contains the higher rational faculties, and probably is the part most responsible for our ability to be self-reflective to the degree we are.

Evolutionary psychologists will also tell you that these later developed parts of our brain serve a very important social function in that they allow us to moderate, or interrupt, our natural fearful response to strangers and reach out a slightly damp hand to introduce ourselves (as opposed to attacking them and trying to rip their throat out).

Every spiritual guru or new-age whats-it peddle their own brand-names for our intrinsic multi-layered consciousness.  What is most often sold is the notion that parts of our “self” are actually existing outside of our own heads and bodies.

(My “psychic” told me that my physical body could not contain the full dimension of my spirit.  Now this wasn’t that hard for me to swallow, as I’d spent fifteen years of my life as an Evangelical Christian.  Of course it helps that I live in a society surrounded by support for the notion of the “spiritual”.  You can’t swing a cat without running into someone talking about “spiritual things”)

Now this is not just a question of semantics.  In fact, I think it’s more a question of conception than words, though words matter (clearly, or else there’d be no point in marketing such a variety of names for the levels of human consciousness).

As I described in an earlier sermon, it was while reading Daniel Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell”  (reviewed on this blog) that I finally realized that I had been imagining a part of my own consciousness as being external to my physical self for the last 35 years of my life.  Once I had that realization, I had the very singular experience of feeling my “spirit” re-enter my body.  (For the first time in my adult life, there was no-one and no-thing outside of myself listening in on my thoughts).

Now no actual “spirit” re-entered my body.  That would be ridiculous (but surprisingly easy) to believe.  So what actually happened?  I think that I simply stopped projecting a part of my own mind outside of itself.

If this sounds odd, take a moment to speak out loud to whatever god or spirit or higher self you speak (or pray) to.  Where is that other party in the conversation physically located?  Where do you sense him (or her) to be?  Floating around you?  In Heaven?  Next to you?

Ask the average person that question, and I’d bet a nickel most would prove to be actively imagining a part of themselves out in the ether somewhere (in some diffuse way).

We humans are magical thinkers.  There can be no serious doubt about that fact.  Just look around at the crazy shit humans believe.  At any given time, one out of five Americans is believing something stupid.  One week one in five don’t believe Osama bin Laden is really dead.  Another week it was that President Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery.  The same percentage thinks aliens are flying through our skies at night, crashing once in a while.  So why wouldn’t most people believe in angels and demons, gods and devils?  It comes pretty naturally to us.

We have God in our brain.  We also have our inner dog (or cat — take your pick).  We have our inner “critic” as well (or “the committee” as some folks call it).  We also have the faithful, non-verbal part of our brain that memorizes frequently-needed physical motions, so that we can learn to play the piano, chop an onion, hoist a baby onto our hips, or have sex in a way that propagates the species.  We also have a level of thinking that allows us to analyze our thoughts — looking for errors and false connections.  And that part of our brain can use the tools of reason to manipulate the middle-managers in our brain into correcting (or at least patching over) detrimental connections, bad file storage, and un-helpful reflexes (this is what therapy and counseling are all about).

That’s a lot to fit into a skull, but then, we humans have evolved huge, calorie-burning brains to handle the challenges of managing our three-in-one brain, of coordinating the myriad synapsis that fire off in each multi-layered social interaction.  I can just imagine the frantic communication channels that are buzzing in there as the highly rational, modern brain figures out how to talk to the middle-aged, transitional (dog?) brain that has to find a way to make sure the deep, wet, survival brain is on board with blood to the muscles, energy to the cells, and oxygen to the brain so that the whole circus parade resident inside our skulls can manage tasks such as ordering our steak medium rare at a restaurant.

God brain.  Dog brain.  Love brain.  Beauty brain.  Rage brain.  Chew-off-my-own-limb-to-save-my-life-brain.  Chew-off-your-arm-to-protect-my-child-brain.  Sugar/alcohol/drug brain (MORE!MORE!MORE!) It’s all in there.

I expect we’ve personified parts of our consciousness in order to be able to hold these parts of our self in a manageable, conceptual framework.  Makes sense.  So it probably doesn’t make that much difference whether we call a part God or dog (up to a certain point, at least, as I do think we’d be better of losing the habit of externalizing the God part — maybe fewer people would do mean things under the false belief that “God told them to do it”).

For me, for now, I might try out talking to my “selves” on the level they operate at.  I’ll talk to god-bob like, well, god.  And dog-bob like dog.  Who knows who else is lurking in there (though I expect there’s a limit to the levels of consciousness amenable to carrying on a conversation).  Again, I’m putting a conceptual template on top of a slightly amorphous reality as a sort of practical “bob’s brain” management tool.

In time I expect brain science will progress to a point where new names for the multiple levels of our consciousness will enter the popular lexicon.  Which means I’d better get my seminars and books going before someone finds a better set of names than the ones I’m selling…

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: I’M A BELIEVER! Confessions of a Person of Faith. By the not-so-reverend bob.

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

I am either uniquely qualified by my experience to comment on belief in our culture, or completely disqualified by my own evident credulity.

People believe all sorts of things.  I once complimented a truly clever artist by telling him “You have the most interesting mind”, to which he replied “I don’t know.  There are people out there that believe they’re a toaster”.  I saw a bumper sticker on a truck this morning that declared in bold print: “9/11 Was an Inside Job!”  There are some who might sincerely believe that our moderate Democrat President is a Socialist intent on ruining the economy of our country.  More than half of the country believes that Jesus’ return to earth is a very real possibility in their lifetimes.   I despair.

My qualifications for commenting on belief are that I have spent many years in two prominent cultural camps: the “Born Again” Christians and the “New Agers”.  I’ve ventured into no belief as an explorer or reporter, but as a person looking for an effective way to view the world.

Both Religion (Christianity) and Spirituality (New Age) offer workable world views.  About equally effective, and about equally built on bullshit.  But we have an incredible tolerance for crap (and my accusatory finger is pointing at me as well).

I’m an actor, and many of my friends are actors too.  I’ve also written for the stage, and watched actors find their way into the characters I’ve created, and I’ve witnessed a wonderful thing in the way they do this.  For an actor can take a few sentences on a page, along with a stray bit of stage direction, and fill in the vast unknown about the character they are playing with an entire world and fully-formed personality created completely in their own mind.  This is an actor trait — no, a need — that playwright’s depend on.  The writer only has to give the actor enough to engage this capacity (and the director need only encourage and guide it), and the actor will write his or her (internal) biographical tome from the supplied bits of raw theatrical material.

This is how belief works.  This is how every believer can search the scriptures and find a new understanding.  This is how the Creationist can make up the answers to how Noah fit two of every 5-50 million species (current estimates) in the Ark: the writers of the Bible need only give the reader’s natural story-telling, story-believing and pattern-making impulse a starting point, and he or she will fill in the rest.

Ever notice how every single minister or evangelist has a seemingly exclusive and secret knowledge of God’s true personality and intention?  That is the stuff that churches are made of (for if there were true unanimity, there would only be different franchises of the one true church, n’est-ce pas?)

And this, my friends, is where science steps in.  Oh I know that I can pick up just about any anthropology book and find colorful descriptions of activities and attitudes of our distant ancestors that cannot be reasonably deduced from the few actual artifacts that have been found.  That our primate ancestors existed is really beyond question at this point, but even the scientist has the same innate human urge to tell the “story” of his or her find.

Science is built upon physical evidence, free (ideally) of our individual projections or wishes.  And the scientific method has developed (over time) to effectively counter this tendency that we (to our credit) recognize in ourselves: that our desire for a good story is ever waiting to creep into our “interpretation” of whatever evidence is before us.  Hence, a double-blind, placebo controlled study stipulates the controls of the medical experiment down to the level that the person administering the “real” or “placebo” drug is not informed as to which they are giving out, so that no hints or suggestions will be transmitted to the patient in a way that might trigger the patient’s innate “placebo” response (which — though helpful to the recovery of the patient — makes a mess of getting to the “evidence based” results we are looking for).

I think belief is a natural state for us.  It is too persistent to be otherwise.  That it has served us in some beneficial way in our evolution must be accepted, even though the expression of our tendency toward belief in a variety of religious systems has often channeled our own destructive, fearful and vindictive tendencies into some truly monstrous atrocities.

The point of writers like Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris et. al is that this marshaling of our natural human credulity by the hucksters that inevitably profit from it is a blight and hindrance upon our progression into any sort of livable and humane future.  I concur.  What’s to be done about it is another question entirely.

I think something can be done, because I have moved out from the realm of belief.  First in my declension from Christianity, and then from (to borrow from Dennett) my “belief in belief” itself  (which in its later stages took the form of a belief that allowed me to give weight to the mix of hokum and validating attention my “psychic” gave me for years).  Now I look for evidence and knowledge, not belief.

Belief, it turns out, is not a necessity for life.  And anyone who tells you that it is it trying to sell you something (or selling themselves some more of what they are already invested in).

I look to science.  Which, it turns out, doesn’t know everything.  But at the very least, science is honest about how much we don’t know, even as it continues to acquire knowledge at a stunning pace.  (As Christopher Hitchens puts it: “We now know less and less about more and more.”)  One the one hand it is mind-blowing to consider how much we have learned in the last one hundred and fifty years about biology, genetics, the earth, our own bodies and disease.  On the other we are humbled when we still can’t really explain the exact “why” of how some of our best medicines work.  (The good news is that the rise of evidence-based medicine can at last show us what medicines actually do work and what treatments are kept alive only by our belief in them).

When I was a kid I had a 45 record of The Monkeys song “I’m a Believer” (written by Neil Diamond).  It keeps playing in my head as I write this:

“I thought love was only true in fairy tales,
meant for someone else, but not for me,
Love was out to get me (“nah nah nah nah, nah nah”)
That’s the way it seemed (“nah nah nah nah, nah nah”)
Disappointment haunted all my dreams…

Then I saw her face,
Now I’m a believer
Not a trace
Of doubt in my mind
I’m in love (“ooh ooh”)
I’m a believer, I couldn’t leave her if I tried!”

He saw her face, and constructed an entire love relationship in his own creative mind.  Did he talk to her?  Maybe not.  (A dear friend of mine once asked out a woman he’d been admiring from a distance for months.  “Do you still like her?” I asked, the day after their long-anticipated first date.  “Not as much as before I talked to her” he replied).

Belief moves in to fill the void before facts and evidence can seep in to displace it.  Most of us are believers to one degree or another.  When it comes to belief I was “Chief among sinners” (to borrow from Paul).  Now that I’ve moved beyond belief, I feel a mix of gratitude and embarrassment for the experience.  One the one hand it gives me a valuable insight into my fellow humans who continue to believe in belief in it’s many forms; on the other it gives me a sharp awareness of my own willingness to — over and over again –  “fill in the blanks” for the preacher or the well-intentioned quack.

As an actor and writer, it’s a wonderfully useful trait, this urge to “fill in the blank”, to make up the “rest” of the story.  But as a citizen in a modern democratic society, it is a tendency that must be brought under the influence of fact and evidence in the realms of the overall public good.

We do not have to choose between being coldly rational or imaginatively deluded, we simply need to do the work of modern people and apply our reason to the delusion, and let our imagination dispel the cold.

t.n.s.r. bob