Tarka #011

On the Mystical Brain


On the Mystical Brain

Union, or the non-dual mystical experience is an ultimate state of consciousness.  Accessible by chance, intoxication, asceticism, and/or meditation, it is pointed towards in most religious traditions and often deeply desired by those who study or practice mysticism.  William James, the famous philosopher of religion and scientist suggests four qualities that mark the mystical experience. The first states that it is ineffable, or that it is intrinsically difficult to express and/or put into words. Secondly, the mystical state carries a noetic quality, meaning that it is also a state of knowledge and insight that feels authoritative and spiritually significant.  Next, James argued, it is marked by transiency and passivity.  Thus, the mystical state is typically a temporary state and, often, the subject of the experience feels overcome and not in direct control.  These qualities help frame a discussion for the varieties of experiences that might be counted as mystical.  In addition, the mystical state is often marked by an experience of non-duality and absorption.

The Yogsūtras discuss a kind of mystical experience in terms of samādhi and saṁyama and in 4.1 it explicitly acknowledges that saṁyama (the combined effect of dharana, dhyana, and samadhi) can arise for any of the reasons mentioned above.  In that context, the samadhi that results from meditation is preferred because it is said to be free of the additional karmas that would accrue in other methods, such as the use of herbs or drugs.  However, in our contemporary context new research is uncovering the potential for psychedelics to enhance certain forms of therapy and thus, potentially move the practitioner towards a greater state of mental and physical freedom.  This issue of Tarka looks at brain health and methods for understanding and cultivating brain health - including the cultivation of non-dual and mystical experiences - from several perspectives.

To begin, Zoran Josipovic, a scientist and scholar recently featured in the Embodied Brain conference, considers the wandering mind and focused meditation.  He writes, “Thus, the question is not whether we can be free of thoughts and perform with ever increasing efficiency, but whether we are authentic and present to all of our being, including the wandering mind.” As such, the focused mind may be task related and the wandering mind is more often self-related.  Josipovic notes that research on meditation is more often focused on the former and suggests that a more integrated approach to understanding the effects of mediation may better support the cultivation of greater individual freedom and authenticity.

Another scientist and practitioner/scholar featured in the Embodied Brain conference, Frederick Travis, explores transcendental meditation and its integration into daily experiences of waking, dreaming, and sleeping, an experience that is marked by non-dual awareness of inner states of consciousness and daily activity.  Travis considers both tradition specific and physiological analysis of this integrated experience and suggests that it can play a key part in furthering a higher level of human development.

Jeffery Skolnick considers psychospirituality as an often overlooked component of brain wellness. As such, the “normal” brain function is highly susceptible to habitual patterns of negative thinking and stress and the intentional practice of meditation may have the potential to counteract these habits.  Skolnick explains this as “developmental neuroplasticity,” a practice where mental training conditions the brain positively and, in turn, this enhances the brains ability to do more positive mental training.

Next, Kenneth Rose follows up on his article from the January Tarka issue, “Biological Essentialism and the New Sciences of Religion.”  The article explores the idea that, “Mystical experience is a neurophysiological and neuroanatomical fact, and not just a figment of the speculative and religious imagination.” Both this article and the January article are drawn from Rose’s recent book, “Yoga, Meditation, and Mysticism: Contemplative Universals and Meditative Landmarks.” Rose will be teaching the course, The Universal Mystic: Meditation, the Brain, and Humanity’s Mystical Birthright.

Isa Gucciardi then introduces some of the particular experiences that women encounter by virtue of having a female body.  She argues that the demands of a woman’s biology can also be understood as a portal into a larger field of consciousness.  Gucciardi writes, “It is in this larger field of understanding that women can begin to understand that, by virtue of their biology, they have the opportunity to engage with the mystery of spirit in new ways.”

Subsequently, Ido Hartogsohn introduces current research on the use of psychedelics for enhancing creativity and in creating the possibility of mystical experience.  In particular, he looks at how psychedelics function in the brain to allow the individual to perceive greater meaning in otherwise ordinary experiences.  Termed the “meaning-enhancing property of psychedelics,” Hartogsohn argues that this effect of psychedelics is a promising perspective for future research.

Following this line of inquiry, Philip Wolfson discusses the use of psychedelics in the context of therapy and for spiritual growth.  He looks at several current therapies, the history (ancient and modern) of psychedelics, medical risks and safety of these substances, a variety of potential transformative effects, and the importance of integrating the psychedelic experience with ordinary experience.

Taking up this last point, Sharon Rafferty’s article studies the concept of integration from the perspective of contemplative traditions and clinical psychology.  As a therapist and meditation practitioner/teacher she focuses on the role of the ego, the mind-body connection, and when and how integration can occur.

Finally Elliot Cohen of Leeds Becket University, offers a cautionary perspective on the use of psychedelics for mind/body healing and integration.  Drawing teachings from contemplative traditions, as well as from the work of pioneering figures such as Albert Hofmann, Abraham Maslow, Ram Dass and others, Cohen critically examines the role and use of psychedelics as it relates to the field of Transpersonal psychology.

To engage with this quarter's many courses and programs, consider our 75-Hour Certificate in Yoga, Neuroplasticity and Contemplative Science. To register just for Kenneth Rose’s four week course,  check out the The Universal Mystic: Meditation, the Brain, and Humanity’s Mystical Birthright.

~ Stephanie Corigliano, TARKA Managing Editor