Posts Tagged ‘higher self’

SERMON: “A Closet Trinitarian Comes Out” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

I’m glad that I’ve read the Bible cover to cover at least once.  And I’m also glad (now) that I spent so many years as several flavors of a Christian: an evangelical of the “Navigators” style; a speaking-in-tongues Charismatic (think Pentecostal); and a moderate Christian apologist (of the type that leans on writers such as C.S. Lewis and Paul Tournier).  For one, it puts me in a position to more deeply understand aspects of the American psyche and culture.  For another, it gives me a basis for seeing the ways in which religion got things right almost by accident.

I realized today that I’m a sort of atheist trinitarian, in that I relate to my own body and consciousness as sort of a three-layered organism.  Not in the Greek or Christian manner of body, soul and spirit, but more through a recognition of the apparent natural divisions between levels of consciousness.  Don’t worry — I have not suffered a miraculous conversion from my materialist self.  For it turns out that one does not have to wax mystical to talk about the mysteries of our experience of existence.

As I’ve mentioned in previous sermons, I once asked a psychologist friend if my brain processed information differently when it entered through my ears.  His answer was “yes”.  This, to me, is why “prayer” works (no matter who or what you are praying to): there turns out to be a difference between just thinking a thought and saying it out loud in terms of just what our brain is capable of doing about that “thought”.

Clearly, someone other than me noticed this difference, and so preachers have long taught young believers to pray out loud to God if they want their prayers to be heard.  (They are also taught that God can see their innermost thoughts, but that is an issue of exerting remote control over the believer’s behavior, I think, and therefore has less to do with the issue of answered prayer).  Even my psychic of some years emphasized that I should say things out loud, as that was the only way that my “higher self” could understand my intentions (funny that we rarely question such confident pronouncements concerning unknowable things).

Now I can’t prove that any preacher or psychic taught these things with a full knowledge that he or she was simply slapping their stamp of ownership on a copyright-free bit of natural neural processing, but certainly they have all been building upon an evolved human trait that is a quite earthly-process and not, in truth, a mystical connection with the divine.

But be that as it may, this represents a way in which the promoters of the metaphysical have got something right, even if their understanding of it is wrong.  For whatever we may say, the phenomenon of talking out loud to oneself and “hearing” a response is real.  All that I’m saying is that it is one “level” of our consciousness (by which I mean the cognitive product of the physical organ of the brain as we experience it) “talking” to another.  It is a completely self-contained process — literally.

We are in a time of increasing research into the brain, and we are to the point where machines can now be plugged into the brain to “read” (in a rather crude sense) our thoughts (specific electrical impulses) and turn those signals into actions of an artificial limb, say (or conversely, an implant that can replace the damaged parts of the ear, generating signals that the brain can be trained, over time, to recognize as discreet sounds).

As in many discoveries of science, each new revelation of underlying physical processes that are observed and understood quietly removes one more plank from the increasingly rickety edifice of metaphysical doctrine.  And yet, in an interesting way, the more we learn about how the world works, the more we can appreciate the ways in which our ancestors made sense of underlying realities that they could not explore in such a scientific manner.

And this is where I get back to the idea of the “trinity”.  The Greeks, I believe, came up with the notion of the human being made up of the body, the soul (mind) and the spirit.  Early Christians took up this system and many of us today carry on with this conception of ourselves as being made up of three distinct domains joined together for the purpose of living out our years on earth.  The body is, of course, all that is physical about us: our bones, our blood, and our organs and tissue.  The soul is the essential, immutable “you” — your personality, your likes and dislikes — the thing that sets us apart from the person next to us.  (It seems to reside in the brain, but it is not dependent on the brain, and so we call it the “mind”).  The spirit is the part of us that is non-physical, eternal.  It enters us upon our birth (or thereabouts), and departs the body as soon as the physical phase of our life ends, returning to the source from which it came (taking with it, I assume, our “soul” — at least in Christian theology).

We are learning that there are enough non-brain nerve systems in the body to build another animal-sized brain (should we want to do that).  So that our “gut” is sending signals to our brain about what’s going on “down there” (this in addition to the chemical signals of food and digestion).  So that when we talk about our body “knowing” something, there turns out to be an actual physical basis for that as well.

My high school senior photo — proclaiming the Christian “brand” with a Holy Spirit lapel pin.

What I’m saying is that there turns out to a quite genuine basis for the concepts of the body, soul (mind) and spirit being a sort of three-in-one in our own bodies.  Of course, I haven’t yet discussed the physical basis for the idea of “spirit” yet.  But actually, I have.

The part of us that we have always (historically) taken to be the voice of God (or our “higher self” or, in the case of mental illness, the “voice(s) in our head”) is that mid-level of our brain. (Here I mean in actual physical terms.  In terms of our experience of that part of our brain, we’d call it our consciousness).  This is the part of our brain that is activated when we ask ourselves a question out loud, or when we pray (which is, in practical terms, the exact same action).  This is the part of our brain that answers back in that “still, small voice”.

As an aside, I think that once we get closer to seeing ourselves as we actually are, some of the more troubling mysteries of life become less mysterious (though not always less troubling).  For example, I think that the difference between the average Christian who prays and hears God reply, and the untreated schizophrenic carrying on animated conversations with invisible others at Denny’s late at night is only a matter of degree.  The first is operating pretty normally, the second has just enough of a disorder in the brain that the normal operating system of that mid-level of consciousness is running at an unmanageable speed.  The ancients (and many of us “moderns”) may see the mentally ill as something strange and aberrant, but the truth is that it doesn’t take much of a genetic twist to turn what is otherwise a human exactly like ourselves into one we think of as less-than human.  So that the Bible stories of Jesus casting out demons and bringing the so afflicted back to their “normal” selves is not such a strange story to us if we just peel back the superfluous layer of magic and mysticism that keeps us from seeing human behaviors and illnesses of the past to be just like those that we see today.

And that is how I see the world — fairly free, now, of the filters of metaphysical belief.  Nothing about the world I see has changed, only the way in which I see it.

So one could fairly say that I still “pray”.  When I’m stuck, overwhelmed, or can’t figure out where I left my keys, I often have to stop and put my question into spoken words.  And in many cases, that other level of my brain kicks in and starts to work on the problem — as if by “magic”.

It’s tricky — as a hard-core Darwinian materialist — to “pray” in this way.  This act of talking to myself has been plastered with more brand-names than a NASCAR stock car, and there is a certain revulsion at the idea of giving any credence to the charlatans (be they well-meaning or not) who keep claiming this “secret practice” as their own.  But, in the end, why would I deny myself the benefit of this other part of my brain capacity?

When I was a young Christian, I was taught to pray.  This was the first instance of my natural capacity being sold back to me as a gift from outside of myself.  Later, there came a time when I felt that I recognized the voice of Jesus answering my prayers.  Later, still, the voice seemed to sound almost like my own.  When my Christianity came to its end, there was silence for a long time (I would ask no questions my “spirit” could answer).  Then a psychic re-branded my mind once again as my “higher self”, and we talked up a storm for years and years (this is where I really learned both the “power” and the limitations of this capacity).  When I finally moved beyond belief in toto, I grew silent again for a while, shy of the brand names still clinging to my “spirit”.

But why should I be shy about embracing this part of me that has always been, well, me?

Looking back it’s obvious that the voice that answered me has always been my own.  Perhaps that is why many have come to believe that God is not a jealous God at all, but will answer any who call on him.  These are much closer to the truth of the matter than those who are trapped within the particular “brand name” of spirituality that they have been sold.  But both of these groups are still only accidentally right about what is really going on inside our brains and our bodies.  They continue to live with an extraneous barrier between themselves and their own experience of that self.

I’ve heard many Christians sputter the nonsense that modern humanist thought is all about elevating humans to the point that they displace “God” from his rightful role as our master.  Once again, they are partly right, but only accidentally.  For I do not say that we are God (as an actual being), only that God (as an experience) turns out to be a phenomenon of our own consciousness.  And though they may not be able to appreciate it, there is a huge difference between those two ideas.  I do not exaggerate the power of our natural mental phenomenon to the level of something metaphysical, but neither do I make the more troubling mistake of disdaining and discounting it because it is not of God.

No.  For my part, I strive to simply enjoy the modest “trinity” that is my own body, soul and spirit.  Completely of this world, and as temporal as my own life.  There is wonder enough in that for me.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Our Animal Brain” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

What's the human mind really good at doing?

So, here’s the deal:  Having followed my many years of religious experience with a further exploration of the terrain of no god, no higher power, and no higher self to call upon, I’m still left with the reality that the part of my consciousness that always answered when I called upon God, my Higher Power or my Higher Self is, well, still there.

In a very real sense, this is the “god” that really never does go away.  And if it’s always been simply a part of my own consciousness trained (or naturally tended) toward answering the part of my brain that talks out loud to it, why not use it?

Of course, I think the reason I veered so strongly away from relying upon the “answering god” part of my consciousness was: a) to see if there was any noticeable change in the quality of my life (there wasn’t, or if there was, it wasn’t much), and; b) to check my own tendency to ascribe to my own subconscious any magical powers.  Oh, and c) I was trying to outsmart my own confirmation bias as well.

So now the question remains to be answered: just what is this consciousness within a consciousness actually capable of?  Or, perhaps more to the point: is it really “capable” of anything at all?

The mind certainly is good at holding and retrieving information (such as when I tell it out loud that I need to remember to get eggs when I’m out, and then, hours later, it pops that thought into my head as I leave the coffee shop and am about to drive home without walking to the grocery store a hundred feet away and getting the damn eggs).  But beyond the storage and recall of data, what’s the brain good at?  Can it effect other people or create phenomenon in the physical world?

The book I read on the history of electricity (Electric Universe — reviewed on this blog) offers a tantalizing rationale for believing that our thoughts can travel some distance, because the radio waves our minds generate actually travel millions of miles (and pass through other minds on their way).  “Aha!”  We want to say: “That is the scientific evidence to support prayer and psychics and mind-reading and getting those vibes when something is happening somewhere far away to someone we know”.  The problem is that we are ever bombarded with these radio waves from every damn neuron-firing brain within radio range.  So realistically, how could we ever sort them out?  Oh well.

Still, there are the seemingly mysterious phenomenon that we all experience.  But who knows what radio waves or burst of body electricity (or pheromones, for goodness sake) or pollen, or biochemical reactions trigger the handful of conscious responses that our brains have become habituated to pay attention to?

I’m beginning to suspect that, in reality, we have a generally sympathetic — but often clumsy — helper in our own mind.

After all, look at our anxieties.  For a long time I took the traditional view that things came into our lives “for a reason”, so if some terrible memory (or just a disturbing one) came up, it must “mean” that it was time for me to “deal with it”.

Instead, I have a new idea:  I think there is something about the way our brains are wired that they respond to stimuli almost like a librarian — aged and be-speckled — that knows where every old memory is stored, and when the “librarian” recognizes a similar constellation of stimuli on the horizon, he or she just starts pulling every bit of related shit it can find off the shelves.

The psychic and emotional result can be overwhelming, just annoying, or actually distressing as old memories come up and instantly trigger familiar anxieties, fears or what have you in a new (seemingly) related experience.

Although this sort of memory storage makes absolute sense as a survival strategy for an animal on the savannah, it seems terribly outdated for modern humans navigating their way through a fairly non- (physically) threatening social milieu that is a jungle only in a metaphorical sense.

That’s what I think.  I wonder what the evolutionary psychologists think about that.  Guess I’ll need to read up on it.

To sum up the insight that my primate brain concocted about itself: our brains are wonderful biological machines that have some real and significant handicaps in processing the reality of a fairly calm modern life.

Oh well.  That’s what happens when you evolve: the old bits come along for the ride (provided they’re not carrying with them traits that will get us flat out killed before we can reproduce)!

Of course I haven’t really answered the question I raised about what other powers the human brain might have.  Hmm.

Well, for all the harping I’ve done these many Sundays on the non-spiritual realities of human consciousness, and my insistence on a mechanical basis for all of our conscious experiences, there is no ignoring or denying the one quite remarkable trait that our minds posses: the ability to step outside itself and use the function of its own consciousness to examine that very consciousness.  We are the animals that can think about what it means to be an animal, and catalog and study our own behavior.  That is something.

But, beyond that, I think we’ve misplaced some of the wonder we attach to the human mind.  Perhaps as modern neuroscience continues to reveal the true biochemical and electrical complexity of the mind our admiration for this most amazing aspect of the brain will increase, allowing us to release even more of our lingering assignment of intention and deep intelligence to the data-retrieval-machine encased in our skulls.  Don’t get me wrong: I love my brain.  I just don’t think it’s as smart as I thought it was.

t.n.s.r. bob