Enlightenment and the Brain

(excerpts from JOHN WHITE, The Meeting of Science and Spirit, 1979)

An article in The New York Times headlined “New Evidence Points to Growth of the Brain Even Late in Life” (July 30,1985) noted that the traditional view of brain development is changing. That view says development is complete by late childhood due to innate genetic design. However, new research indicates that even in old age, the neural cells of the cerebral cortex respond to an enriched environment by forging new connections to other cells. (The cerebral cortex is the ‘thinking’ or ‘intellectual’ part of the brain.) In other words, the brain can grow nerve cells at almost any age in response to novelty and challenge. A study of rats showed that neurons increased in dimension and activity, glial cells (which support neurons) multiplied, and the dendrites of neurons (branches of neurons which receive messages from other cells) lengthened. The dendritic increase allows for more, and presumably better, communication with other cells.

Another Times article (July 28, 1985) about brain research focused on “The Stuff of Genius.” It reported that the brain of Albert Einstein was investigated recently by neuroanatomists who likewise counted the neuronal and glial cells. They found that parts of Einstein’s brain used in mathematical thinking had significantly more glial cells for each neuronal cell than the brains of people not known to have been geniuses.

There is nothing firmly conclusive in this intriguing research, but it reminded me of something I wrote in the introduction to The Highest State of Consciousness (1972). There I suggested that enlightenment involves repatterning of the brain’s neural networks. Integration or unification is a primary aspect of the mindstate called enlightenment. Since mind and brain are obviously closely related, it seems clear that whereas before enlightenment the brain’s nervous system had unconnected or “compartmentalized” areas (the neurogical analog of a “fragmented” understanding, in enlightenment there is a breakthrough resulting in an integration of the nerve pathways through which we think and feel. Our multiple “brains” become one brain. The neocortex (the “thinking-intellectual” part), the limbic system and thalamus (the “feeling-emotional” part), and the medulla oblongata (the “instinct-unconscious” part, at lease according to Carl Jung) attain a previously nonexistent nut always possible mode of intercellular communication. A thereshold is passed, probably explainable in terms of both cellular electrochemical change and growth of new nerve-ending connections. However it may be accomplished in neurophysiological terms, the result is intimately associated with a new state of consciousness, a new mode of perception and feeling associated the discovery of nonrational (but not irrational) forms of logic – forms which are multilevel / integrated / simultaneous rather than linear / sequential / either-or.

…And isn’t enlightenment ultimately a matter of grace? …Theologically speaking, grace is an inscrutable experience, wholly beyond human knowledge and control, defined by Webster as “unmerited divine assistance given men for his regeneration or sanctification.” Yet, if there is a relationship between the brain and enlightenment, grace must be accounted for in some way, to some degree. What in the body of scientific knowledge has the characteristics theologians ascribe to grace? Answer: a cosmic ray. I suggest that a partial description of the event called grace can be made in terms of physics and physiology.

… Grace falls like rain on everyone but, also like rain, it can only be received by a vessel properly prepared to catch it. The preparation involves a change of readiness brought about through spiritual discipline and self-purification. Without preparation we are merely rough stones on which the rain of grace slides off; with it, we become worked stones hollowed into urns or chalices which can retain what falls from heaven. The entire process is a paradoxical mixture of effort and effortlessness. The effort is spiritual practice, our own ascent to heaven; the effortlessness is grace, which perpetually descends from heaven for our benefit. I suggest the following is a partial description of what occurs upon one’s first entry into turiya, the Sanskit term for the ultimate state of consciousness.

What has been happening physiologically in a person practicing a spiritual discipline in order to realize God or experience enlightenment? In neurological terms, that person has been altering the structure, efficiency, and quality of his nervous system. He might be quite unaware of this aspect of his effort. Nevertheless, by directing his consciousness godward he has been growing new dendrites in the brain so that better, more efficient neuronal connections may be made, just as the Times  articles suggest. Body follows where consciousness goes; matter is directed by intention of mind (this is one of the laws of noetics). Thus the spiritual aspirant has also been subtly altering the electrochemical composition of his neurons so they can pass on information better. He has also been eliminating the effects of stress which lowers the efficiency of the nervous system. Altogether, he has been undergoing a holistic process of purification necessary for the unification of body, mind and spirit.

All this has been going on below the threshold of personal awareness, building up a condition in the brain and cerebrospinal system which is at a critical point at the moment of grace. The person’s physiological condition is subtly altered. It is just on the borderline, the threshold, the point of shift to making that quantum leap accompanying a major change. But it still needs a little something more.  It is in a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition.

Then, Wham! The person is struck by something so subtle, so unpredictable, so swift and so strong that it triggers a psychophysical transformation process within him. The trigger could be almost anything, even a cosmic ray. A cosmic ray – who can tell it’s coming or going? But it’s all that I needed, I suspect, to turn that alchemical vessel, the human body, from lead to gold. That is all that’s needed to precipitate or catalyze the essential ingredients together into a new and stable element.

A cosmic ray may be God’s grace-full tool for inducing cosmic consciousness. And we are constantly bombarded by them, drenched by them, immersed in them like the rain! That little packet of energy probably hits the person between the eyes – in the “third eye” – and goes into the pineal gland, the master gland, which controls hormonal production and balance. We know from physics that when a cosmic ray enters the charged (i.e., ready) chamber of a Geiger-counter tube and strikes a molecule, it sets off a cascade effect which develops into an avalanche of molecules. This avalanche in turn becomes one of the “clicks” from the Geiger-counter. Similarly, a “chance” cosmic ray entering the pineal gland may be all that is needed for the ready vessel-person to start a quantum mechanical chain of events which quickly escalates up to the molecular level and sets off a change in the hormonal balance of the body, which in turn is all that is needed to issue a command to the nervous system: Okay, neurons, repattern yourselves; connect up those loose ends, shift to the new support processes, change your ways.

And in the flash of an “I” there the person is: caught up in visionary experience, looking on the universe in Samadhi, cosmic consciousness, in satori,  enlightenment. Not final enlightenment, to be sure, because enlightenment is an endless process. What I have described is just the entry stage through which we access turiya, but it nevertheless marks a major shift in the mind-brain relation and its attendant physiology.

A cosmic ray is not God’s only tool, of course. Enlightenment doesn’t care how you get there and God is everywhere, using every means at His command (and they are considerable!) to awaken us to divinity. So this speculative description of the psychophysiology of enlightenment is by no means definitive. On the other hand, I don’t think it detracts from God’s glory to try to extend science ever farther into the metaphysical realm. After all, God is always the root of our exploration and the fruit of our discovery, science included. So sometimes a cosmic ray is God’s tool and sometimes God’s tool is something less gentle and elegant, like the slap in the face Tilopa gave to Naropa centuries ag in Tibet, inducing Naropa’s enlightenment. Sometimes it’s a blow on the head from the Zen master’s slapping stick as we sit in meditation, just as Hakuin, the Zen master, was liberated when a housewife who resented his monkish rice-begging hit him on the head with a broom. And sometimes it’s the blow to the heart given us by someone’s treachery, someone’s unexpected death, someone’s “chance” remark, someone’s kindness in the face of our own stupidity or brutish behavior. Grace surrounds us. The entire universe is conspiring to awaken us, to release us, to enlighten us. God doesn’t care how we get there.

***

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