The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 10: Brain vs. Mind

CT_of_a_normal_brain,_sagittal_20

image by Mikael Häggström, M.D.

 

I’m using Saturdays for summaries and tangents, a little bit of lagniappe as we go through the Bhagavad Gita.

On Monday I referenced this lyric from For the Beauty of the Earth by Folliott S. Pierpoint:
For the joy of ear and eye,
   For the heart and brain’s delight,
For the mystic harmony
   Linking sense to sound and sight.

But this isn’t the way we usually sing it in church. Some editor disliked the word “brain” and substituted mind. Mind sounds more spiritual, doesn’t it? “For the heart and mind’s delight.”

It changes the meaning completely. Pierpoint is talking about the joy of being aware, appreciating the sense-data that comes into our brains and marveling at the mystery of consciousness itself. It is a “mystic harmony” that allows us to make “sense” of our senses, to turn this data into meaningful information. We do not experience the world directly—it comes to us through these neural pathways. Today we know it takes our brains about 250 milliseconds to make up a story about what is going on “out there” while we are stuck “in here.” It’s how we “make sense” out of the world, linking sense to sound and sight.

But by changing “brain” to “mind,” the editor muddies the meaning. Now we’re singing about the mind’s delight, which is probably in thinking big thoughts about abstract things. “What’s on your mind?” is a different question from “What is your brain experiencing?”

I’m a fan of neuroscience, and I’m fond of saying, “All of our spiritual experiences are brain experiences.” In other words, if you have a profound experience of God’s presence and grace, we can see it on an fMRI scan. But ever since the Greek philosophers, Western people have made sharp distinctions between the physical and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the mental. Even though the Bible says very little about metaphysics, Christian doctrine, following our Greek tradition more than our Hebrew one, has been obsessed with mind-body dualism.

And in the Christian West, the body has been on the losing end of that duality. “Spirit” is good, and “flesh” is bad. And while we’re concerned about spiritual things, like saving souls for heaven, we can ignore physical things, like poverty and the way bodies are incarcerated.

Not only do I reject this dualism, I also think the original lyric expresses what Pierpoint was getting at: How is it that these biological, physical phenomena create this thing we understand as experience? What is this thing I understand as me, that takes these auditory and visual inputs and turns them into meaning? And is that process really me? Am I having an experience? Or is experience having me?

The Hindu sages, practicing meditation for generations and passing down the wisdom of their introspective insights, followed this existential question and came to some conclusions which are both unsettling and liberating:

I am not my experiences.
I am not my thoughts and feelings.
I am not my wants and imaginings.
I am not my memories or beliefs.
I am not my even my will.
I am not my even my brain.

They concluded that the core of who I am, my identity, is pure consciousness. This Self, Atman, is an observer—an experiencer. The data comes in, but I am not the data. Decisions are made, but I am not even really the decider. I am pure consciousness, poured out from God like water from a vessel, or rolling like a wave on the ocean.

Their metaphysical explorations did not lead them to mind-body dualism. The physical world was a manifestation of spiritual forces. There is quite a bit in the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads that delve into how these forces manifest in the physical world.

All of that is to say that I think the Hindu sages would appreciate Pierpoint’s lyric better than the Christian editor who decided it needed changing. My brain is made of the same stuff and communicates with the same neural pathways as my eyes and ears. It is a delusion that my mind is somehow more me than my brain is. I am both of these—and neither.

Prayer:
God Who is Forever Beyond Our Understanding, you delight in all my senses. Help me find bliss in knowing my essential union with you.

2 thoughts on “The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 10: Brain vs. Mind

  1. This is a tangent but a heart can beat in a vat disconnected from a brain. Gut and heart send signals to the brain and, theoretically, contribute to our sense of self. People hanging out together regulate each others’ heart beat and respiration. Maybe our sense of self isn’t just our embodied self?

    • Absolutely! I think there’s a lot of merit to the idea that our self is “embedded, not just embodied.”

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