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.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 7: Facing Death

1440px-Placid_death

© Tomas Castelazo, http://www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

 

Krishna says to Arjuna that he need not despair about the coming battle. He can approach it in almost a detached way if he thinks differently about his despair, and if he changes how he thinks about the nature of reality. Psychologists call this “metacognition”—how we think about thinking. It is a principle of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) that if I change my thinking, I can change how I feel. I’ll share more about this in the coming weeks.

Krishna tells him 1) that the Self is imperishable and cannot die, 2) that pain and pleasure are simply data, and cannot touch the Self unless we let them. Then he says

O mighty Arjuna, even if you believe the Self to be subject to birth and death, you should not grieve. Death is inevitable for the living; birth is inevitable for the dead. Since these are unavoidable, you should not sorrow. (BG 2:26-27)

Whatever you believe about life after death—whether our souls wing their way to heaven, get reborn in another form, or simply cease to exist—our fear of death is not rational. It may be functional, in that it keeps us alive by helping us avoid playing in traffic or juggling hand grenades. But death is part of life; if we’re in for a penny, we’re in for a pound. It doesn’t benefit us to worry too much about it. Or, as Jesus says:

Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?… Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.  (Matthew 6:27 & 34)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus doesn’t tell us not to worry because our soul is immortal and we cannot truly die. He says God will take care of us, and he implies even if we do die permanently, there is no sense worrying about it.

People who are not religious often claim that religion is simply a way to comfort people in the face of death. And religions often do construct elaborate mental models about what happens when we die — we might go to heaven or hell, get reincarnated, merge with a cosmic consciousness, time travel, or wake up to a new reality. But in the great wisdom traditions, the sages point out even if none of these are true, why worry?

The stoic philosophers present a similar idea. Epictetus said, “I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” It doesn’t mean death and loss don’t affect us, but we can face them squarely. So much of our life’s energy is wasted trying to avoid death and the pain of loss, but as Seneca said, “It’s better to conquer grief than to deceive it.”

Qoholeth, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, spends a lot of time on these questions:

Who knows if a human being’s life-breath rises upward while an animal’s life-breath descends into the earth? So I perceived that there was nothing better for human beings but to enjoy what they do because that’s what they’re allotted in life. Who, really, is able to see what will happen in the future? (Ecclesiastes 3:21-22).

These wise teachers do not speak about what they do not know. Instead they say the worst case scenario is that we face death with courage, knowing it is inevitable and finding meaning in our actions even if we fail. This is an important point, and it often gets left out of religious doctrine and summaries of teaching: The wisest among us acknowledge that we could be wrong. Maybe there is no heaven, or resurrection, or reincarnation, or union with God. Maybe we just end. And maybe that’s not so bad.

But the best-case scenario is that there is the possibility that there is something better already at hand; not only that we can have eternal life and union with God when we die, but that we can have it right now in this life. On this point, both Jesus and Krishna agree.

Prayer:
Source of Life, help me to love life the way you do, so much so that I no longer fear death.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 6: Introducing the Self

Atman

Click image for source

 

Atman is usually translated as self, soul, or breath. It is a basic concept in Hinduism and Buddhism. The sages put the Self under a microscope through meditation and introspection, and understood their practice to be a voyage of discovery.

Today, modern psychology, neuroscience, and even physics and mathematics are wrestling with the notion of consciousness. What is this thing that I understand to be my self? Am I a soul in a body, like a “ghost in a machine?” Am I a thing, an event, an illusion, or an emergent property of the universe? Regardless of how we understand it, neuroscientists have learned—or simply affirmed—that the practices taught by Hindu sages for thousands of years actually work for our mental health.

The impermanent has no reality; reality lies in the eternal. Those who have seen the boundary between these two have attained the end [goal] of all knowledge. Realize that which pervades the universe and is indestructible; no power can affect this unchanging, imperishable reality. The body is mortal, but that which dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable. Therefore, Arjuna, fight in this battle. (BG 2:16-18)

Just in case you forgot, the last line reminds us that the context of this philosophical discussion is a battlefield. Though the battle is part of the impermanent world, it is still a battle that must be engaged.

One believes he is slayer, another believes he is slain. Both are ignorant; there is neither slayer nor slain. You were never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when your body dies. (BG 2:19-20)

Is this comforting or disconcerting? If our souls are imperishable, then why does killing matter at all? After all, Christian crusaders who captured Jerusalem justified the indiscriminate killing of Muslims, Jews, and Christians by saying, “Kill them all; God will sort the dead.” Christian theology (and other religious thinking) has often dismissed injustices in this world and unnecessary suffering by offering people “pie in the sky by and by.” White evangelicals still insist that saving souls, not social justice, should be the main goal of the church.

I think the sages would say that this kind of thinking is unenlightened. Such people do not understand the true nature of the Self.

In contrast to Hindu scriptures and Greek philosophers, Jewish and Christian scriptures do not spend a lot of time on metaphysics. This is one reason there are so many different understandings of what happens when we die. Are we a soul trapped in a body? Or are we a “psychosomatic unity,” a soul-and-body mashed together, which can die permanently, but has the hope of resurrection? Our doctrines point to the second explanation, but I grew up hearing the first more often in church.

Something Jesus said corresponds to Krishna’s words to Arjuna:

Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul [psyche]. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in [Gehenna]. (Matthew 10:28).

The first part of the saying affirms that there is part of us that survives death; but the second rejects that it is eternal. I honestly don’t think there is enough here to hang a doctrine of the soul on. From the Bible we have a handful of parables about souls—a few clearly intended for humor value—some poetry, and some references to breath and resurrection, but nothing about what consciousness is.  

The Hebrew Bible doesn’t say much about souls in part, I believe, because they had escaped slavery in Egypt, and Egyptian religion was all about souls. The Egyptians had an elaborate metaphysics about the soul (ka). The Pharaohs filled their tombs with gold that they could take to the afterlife, while countless slaves labored to build their fine cities. The escaped slaves wanted nothing to do with the religion of their oppressors, who viewed the afterlife as more important than this one.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty about consciousness in Christian tradition and mysticism. One of my favorite hymns is 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.

It’s a beautiful lyric, but the place I want to draw your attention is to this “mystic harmony”—because there is no Christian metaphysical explanation about how our nervous system interacts with a non-physical soul. The Bhagavad Gita delves into this metaphysics. The Bible is mum.

Prayer:
Eternal God, you revealed to Moses that your name is I AM. Teach me who you are, and who I am.