Posts Tagged ‘the mind’

SERMON: “The God Who is Always There” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

On one level it is impossible to say that God does not exist, even if He exists only as an idea.  For ideas have a certain presence in our world, and when ideas are shared by so many, their presence is multiplied.  But can such an idea be multiplied to the point that it becomes a self-standing reality, independent of its cognitive creators?  No.  I don’t think so.  No more than our personalities — no matter how large — can survive our own physical death.  That is the realm of metaphysics, not measurable reality.

So what are we to say, then, to the innumerable people who have had deep “personal experiences” of God and spirit: who have felt that sense of another presence at a time of crisis, or that familiar voice in our head (that is not often a voice so much as an impression, word or idea)?  And what artist or creator has not known “inspiration”, where an idea seems to arrive fully formed from out of nowhere?

Of course none of these nearly-universal experiences comes from “out of nowhere”.  So far all of the evidence of science tells us that they come from our physical brain.  And our physical brain is certainly a “somewhere”.

Because we have a multilayered brain, it can do more than one thing at a time.  And that is precisely, in fact, what it’s doing all of the time.  We don’t have to think about making our heart beat or telling our muscles to walk or grasp any more than we have to consciously manage our breathing or digestion.  It seems to “just happen”.  But we know these automatic impulses are not “just happening” at all, but are being “directed” (or ordered) by processes in our brain.  And yet that part of our brain that performs the 24/7 management of our body is hardly what we would call “conscious”.  It is the primitive “lizard” brain responding to the input of the senses and the nerves and the chemical signals that are the literal lifeblood of our self-contained organism.  Is this, then, God?

We could call it that.  But we have yet a higher level of consciousness that operates just below the conscious brain.  This is the source of our emotions and desires and the generator of our “fight or flight” response.  This is the part that hears something, or sees something, and sets off the chain reactions of adrenaline and awareness that gets us ready to run or do battle before our conscious mind even knows what’s going on.  Is this, then, our Guardian Angel?

Given the chance, we almost always go for the God in the sky.

I keep making these comparisons between the natural processes of our brains and our conceptions of spirit and the divine for a reason: because of our long history with religion, our mental/emotional default setting is to maximize any and all possibility of God working in the world, and minimize the possibility that everything that we experience of existence has a physical, earthly and/or biochemical basis.  In short, we have a natural confirmation bias toward spiritual causality.

But here’s the deal: we have so much going on within our brain that it is incredibly easy for us to project a part of ourselves outside of ourselves.  We do it all the time, and we do it quite naturally: we externalize an internal reality.

How can we do this?  Think about it: we are capable of not just our own conscious behavior, but of observing our own behavior, and commenting on it.  We can notice our selves, almost as if we were outside of ourselves watching the things we do.  That’s how we can say “I can’t believe I just said that!”, or some such.  But beyond that, we have several layers of mind always at work below the level of consciousness.  These are also parts of our “self”.  So is it really any wonder, then, that we sometimes confuse an aspect of our self for someone (or something) else?  No.  Especially if you add in the mind’s ability to identify with one part of our personality over another (meaning we will often try to make a distinction between our “true” self and an aspect of our personality or behavior that is causing us social harm).  This, I submit, is a very likely source for our ideas of the minor demons and troubling spirits that populate our religious literature and folklore.  (The major ones perhaps inspired by the more extreme manifestations of severe mental illness).

(You’ll notice, I hope, an important thing here: I am not discounting the reality of our experiences of these phenomenon.  I am only quibbling about our attribution of their actual source.)

So why is it that our first impulse is to identify any and all of these phenomenon as God?  Habit and hope.  For whatever reason, it remains much more appealing to most of us to find in everyday phenomenon evidence of an external spiritual presence.  Makes sense, actually, for animals as social as we are to not want to be alone, ever.

(There have always been those few for whom the idea of an outside presence reading their every thought is oppressive.  These are only too willing to dispense with the God idea.  But for the rest of us it’s usually problematic in some way, and it often requires some terrible experience of tragedy or disappointment to trigger a declension from faith.)

The greatest problem for the religious is not that the God that their religion is based upon doesn’t exist, but that the “God” that does exist (as a shared idea) is not the one that they suppose is actually there.  As long as the idea of God exists, however, then God, too, will exist.  But as an idea: a receptacle for our anomalous experiences of consciousness.  And those experiences will continue as long as we do.  And as far as it concerns us humans, that’s as good as eternity.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Led Astray” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

I spend my Saturday mornings on my hands and knees creating paintings in chalk on the street during our local Farmers and Crafts Market.  Focused on my work, what I mostly I hear is the burble of the crowd, catching occasional glimpses of the feet of those who stop to watch or drop a dollar in my tip jar.  But I do look up from time to time.  One morning I looked up to see an elderly man walking away from me — and before I realized what was happening my throat seized with a sob that had leapt up from my chest.  In the moment that it took for my conscious mind to form the question: “What’s going on?” the reason for my reaction was delivered to that conscious mind: I was watching my dead father walk away from me.  Of course, it wasn’t my father at all, but a man of a very similar size, with a similar walk, wearing familiar colors.  It took only a few seconds before my critical mind was able to distinguish the differences between the actual man I was watching and my real father.

It’s a rather stunning illustration of how the mind works, and also how the mind can be fooled: I had glanced up with no thought in particular in my mind, and had seen a man with enough physical similarities to my father to trigger the reaction I would have had had my actual dead father walked past me at the Market.  My tears were real — my vision was not.

In evolutionary terms, it makes sense to err on the side of caution: to jump or run away first before deciding that the snake in the grass is really just a snakey-looking stick.  That same ancient instinct told my brain in a fraction of a second that I was looking at my father.  One very interesting aspect of all of this is that it happened before my conscious brain had a chance to get involved.

But this is not surprising, as recent neuroscience research has shown that, basically, the conscious mind is the last to know.  Most often our decisions are happening on the next level down, in a different part of the brain, with the net result that our bodies are reacting to the news at the same moment that the memo is being read by that part of our brain that we like to believe is in control.

We are invested in the notion that we are the authors of our fate, therefore the realization that so much of our reactions and decisions are happening on a pre-conscious level can be unsettling, as if some palace coup is afoot to dethrone our conscious mind from the role of monarch of the ship of our natural state.  The actual message is not that dramatic.  Our mind — the conscious product of our brain (or brains) — operates on several levels.  Those who study such things tend to identify them with the time of their biological evolution, from the more primitive to the more modern: the later adaptations being added to (but not replacing) the earlier brain(s).

Our brains don't always give us the correct readings.

To me it’s clear that this tells us that we are animals — complex organisms like any other on the planet, but with larger, more complex brains.  We argue endlessly about the things that separate us from the other animals, yet are always drawn back to the enormous biological and cognitive heritage that we share.  No matter how hard religions tries to resist the erosion of the temple of our uniqueness, the waves of data and science and reality continue to wear it down.

But why should this even be an issue?  Why does it seem to matter so much to so many people that we NOT be like the other animals?

The answer to that is as obvious as it is irrational: to accept that we are of a kind with every other life form on the planet makes it harder to hold to the idea that we are special creations of an infinite intelligence.  For, despite the fact that our social natures intimately entwine us with small groups of our fellow humans (an animals — our pets!), we are subject to feelings of painful loneliness in those moments when the company of others cannot protect us from the deep dark of night, or our smallness in the face of nature.  We have a deep need to not be alone, and that extends into the universe as well as into our community.

This is the primal existential terror that stalks each of us conscious beings.  Perhaps it is the force that fuels our profoundly social nature: our need to bond with each other; to form and nurture meaningful and lasting connections with friends, lovers and families; extending acts of charity to strangers we’ll never meet.

As I “saw” my dead father in the body of a stranger at the Market, we see the hand of God in random events, our brain’s stored associations with a lifetime of experience with other thinking beings triggered by unrelated sights and sounds that seem to have a shape we recognize.

I wasn’t thinking of my father that morning, but deep within me was a ready desire to see him if I could.  The fact that the experience was unbidden is the sort of detail we take to infer outside agency (“I didn’t make it happen”), which gives us the freedom to ascribe “meaning” to a random event.  The fact that my brain could even have the deep emotional response it did tells me something even more startling: that this brain of mine is willing to believe that which I know to be physically impossible: my deceased father walking through the market as if living some new, other life, that just happened to take him on a walk past his son drawing on the street.

It is little wonder, then, that we have built entire systems of belief on the quirks of our evolved brains.  We have all had these experiences, after all, and therefore have a common frame of reference for this kind of phenomena.  And it is the quality of these experiences, much more than their detail, that seems to matter most.

The more I read about the variety of human religious experience, the harder it is to hold to the idea that there is some objective spiritual reality out there that we are all given equal access to.  It sounds much more like the tales that children tell each other when they are making believe, and I would argue that it touches the same emotional and psychological triggers that such child’s play can trip: the expansive feeling in the chest, the cinching in the throat from excitement, the tingle of mystery tinged with danger, all within the safety of another’s company.

This is religion, then: the things we make up to describe the things that take us by surprise.  Whether it’s the face of Jesus on a tortilla or my father back from the dead at the Farmers Market.  Our brains are like a cosmic Global Positioning System that sometimes gives us a wild reading, and we have to go back to the old-fashioned tools to check our bearings.

In my pilot training we learned that even the reliable magnetic compass is subject to distortions: It can be affected by the magnetic field of electronic equipment in the aircraft; certain maneuvers can make it spin wildly; depending on your longitude, you have to add or subtract degrees from its reading; and every compass comes with it’s own “correction card” where you note the quirks of your own particular device.

So it is with our brains.  Mostly steady and reliable and, frankly, wondrous electrical devices, we nevertheless have to take note of the times they will lead us astray.

t.n.s.r. bob