It’s hard to argue with someone about the existence of god, spirit or soul. There’s no point in trying to prove through logic and argument what someone holds as an article of faith.
I teach on Insight Timer which is a meditation app in which the vast majority of classes, courses and teaching either overtly or implicitly take as given that we have, or are, in essence spiritual beings.
I don’t, but there’s no point in arguing. I’m not there to change people’s minds.
I’m here to see if people, including myself, can shift how they view situations so the story they tell themselves about what’s going on changes.
This then allows them to shift perspective enough so self transformation, and a more integrated, richer, more compassionate understanding, and therefore more beneficial engagement, can take place.
I’m interested in how to talk across the divide, as it were, between those of us who, like me, are sceptics, and those who live lives which rely heavily in belief in a spiritual realm. To that end, I teach yoga nidra as a key practice during most of my classes, because yoga nidra can create a state of deep relaxation, and sometimes, can allow visualisations to have a profoundly transformative effect.
I read an article by a great hero of mine, Sue Blackmore (I actually asked Sue if she would externally examine my PhD thesis, so smitten was I: she gently declined, given that she is a psychologist, not a philosopher, but we had an interesting, if brief, exchange). She was writing about OBEs, out of body experiences, which are one of the trademark ‘proofs’ for spiritual adherents who believe the spirit and the flesh are two different realms.
Her own early research was based on an OBE she had herself, as a student at Oxford, a little stoned, and very tired. She spent many years afterwards attempting to find concrete evidence to prove that the experience she had had, which was entirely real to her, of leaving her own body and even of finding great difficulty in re-entering it some time later, showed the existence of a spirit world. No evidence was forthcoming.
Years later, however, and here I quote:
When brain scans were used to show that spiritual experiences have a basis in brain activity, the media were quick to proclaim that the ‘God spot’ had been found, but opinion quickly polarised into two opposing interpretations of the same evidence. One group took the findings to show that there is no God while others claimed quite the opposite: that there is a God and he uses this spot in the brain to make his presence felt. The latter claimed, for example, that we use our brains to contact the divine, that God works through this special part of the brain to inspire us, that the seat of the soul has been found or that this is the place where the material and spiritual worlds meet.
Interesting. Even when direct evidence of a brain-based locus for OBEs was found, the interpretation of the evidence divided into two camps, both finding that their explanations were more plausible than the other’s. What a strange situation, as though the discovery of the earth circulating the sun could be seen as proof not that the earth is not the centre of the universe, but that it is, only in a more nuanced, subtler way, the centre of meaning. Who, after all, the faithful cry, controls the physics?
Neuroscientists who discovered the area of the brain that gives us our sense of having a unified body-and-mind self explored further. Some truly extraordinary findings emerged. It was possible to transfer our sense of self, depending on what we were looking at. You can try this at home if you have a rubber, lifelike hand: place it next to your real hand, but hide your real hand. Get someone to stroke the rubber hand, and your own (hidden) hand simultaneously. Spend a few moments focusing on the feeling while looking at the rubber hand. Then get them to hit the hand… the rubber hand!
The most interesting, from a yogic perspective, is the ‘own body transformation task’, rotating awareness through the visualisation of a body. This is similar, in certain key respects, to the practice of yoga nidra, when you scan the different parts of the body. There is a further practice, which follows this, during which you can project your awareness as if from above, seeing yourself and the position you occupy in the room, and then zooming out, progressively more widely, until you are as far away as you can imagine — beyond time and space, perhaps. There are clear parallels with what an OBE involves.
Yet the finding that I found most interesting in all this was that it accords so closely with Val Plumwood’s experience when she was attacked by a crocodile, and, having survived, reflected on what had happened to her ‘narrative self’. I’ll quote the whole passage here:
Our final thoughts during near-death experiences can tell us much about our frameworks of subjectivity. A framework capable of sustaining action and purpose must, I think, view the world “from the inside,” structured to sustain the concept of a continuing, narrative self; we remake the world in that way as our own, investing it with meaning, reconceiving it as sane, survivable, amenable to hope and resolution. The lack of fit between this subject-centered version and reality comes into play in extreme moments. In its final, frantic attempts to protect itself from the knowledge that threatens the narrative framework, the mind can instantaneously fabricate terminal doubt of extravagant proportions: This is not really happening. This is a nightmare from which I will soon awake. This desperate delusion split apart as I hit the water. In that flash, I glimpsed the world for the first time “from the outside,” as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizable bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death.
Blackmore’s account is less bleak, but echoes this account very closely:
We are not a separate conscious agent living inside a physical body but a model of a conscious agent living inside a physical body.
We are a model of a conscious agent. Two parts to that. First, that we are an invention of our own making. And secondly, that we the doer, the agent, conducting the physical being through the landscape it encounters, is an illusion.
What are we left with?
We are the story of the self that is unified, that is embodied, that has location, that “I” possess, from which I see the world, and which “I” control. This is a story. Yet this is the story that I require in order to cope, in order to create a coherent picture of what is going on. This is the model that allows for OBEs, because there’s an IBE, an inner body experience.
Val Plumwood’s next metaphor is that of experiencing herself, her story, as a narrative that is like a book taken from a library. She has written her text on the pages (as have we all) but when it is returned to the library (and there is a sense that this is imminent), the pages will be torn out, and the entire narrative will be re-written. The idea that our story represents a persisting self is just that: a story.
Realising this gives us an entirely different perspective on what it is to be a self, and one that accords, coincidentally, or perhaps not by accident at all, because perhaps this is the very nub of what they taught, with the wisdom texts of the ancients.
Blackmore concludes, the self is
… an ephemeral construction which arises and falls away. This self, like everything else, is impermanent and seeing this makes it easier to let go.
To be honest, I’m not sure that seeing myself as ephemeral, as a narrative I have constructed, which will be deconstructed, and reconstructed without any reference to what I held dear, as being of much comfort. Therefore I would like to add one more insight which I think gives a better picture. That is this: the narrative we create is, it is true, ephemeral. We have no control of how it will be told when we are not here to tell our own story. And there is no inherent meaning, good or bad, in how the story gets told.
But not being an agent in the traditional sense of being the doer does give us a reason to ask, is there anything left that I can in fact control? Val Plumwood’s story, “Being Prey”, answers this implicitly: she had to let herself go, not passively, but into the flow of what life does when under threat.
She had to let herself as a fit, healthy young woman with wilderness training and so patterns of response, emerge into the vacuum left by the thinking self. In the same way, it is not you, the story-teller, who reacts when a truck is coming at you, but the raw respondent to data. And this, really, is the fundamental training of all spiritual practice: not how to act when you are sitting comfortable on a meditation cushion, but how you will act when you are lying on your deathbed, or confronted by extremis in any other way. In that sense, then, everything that we do is a practice. We are retelling our story so we can influence how easily and deeply we can become calm and able to stay responsive and even sensitive in moments when there is nothing left to play for.
We are in the ecological emergency and this, I believe, is the field of the spiritual battle we now encounter.
To paraphrase Blackwell, we have to throw off our self-centred illusions and learning, however difficult that is, and accept that realising what we are, our true nature, is a practice which involves the dissolution of the self. As systems within systems, we are already doing what needs to be done. The narrative we tell ourselves about who we are needs to reflect this. It is not the I of my invention who is doing anything, except constructing itself. If that construction creates obstacles to the whole flow of what is going on, then we have a problem. Dealing with this is the point of practicing seeing things differently. In an emergency, it matters to see where the action is.