The previous column in this series: Midweek Mysticism: Neuroscience confronts reality of the spiritual, attracted so much feedback, especially for the definitions of consciousness, spirit and mind, that it would be a good idea to address some of the comments. To start, here are those definitions again:
Spirit is the ancient word for consciousness and thus equivalent to it. I often use “Spirit/Consciousness” to convey that this is not what science calls consciousness — many neuroscientists believe (and it is a belief) that there is no “consciousness” outside the brain. I hope the current batch of new developments will nail this frankly illiterate notion once and for all.
Consciousness is both personal and impersonal. The latter is what we call God, the personal is “soul”. Consciousness (with upper-case “c”) is soaked into the Universe and, indeed, is indistinguishable from it, seen spiritually. Some Zen masters make this distinction as Big Mind/Little Mind, although I prefer to use “mind” — originally “heart” in old texts — for something else.
Mind is the contents of consciousness — our everyday thoughts and impressions. It’s what dies with our body, leaving consciousness (soul) to carry on to the next stage.
1. On the point that neuroscientists don’t believe that consciousness exists outside the brain, I suspect they are confusing thoughts, memories and emotions, ie the contents of consciousness, with consciousness itself. It’s no wonder many of them don’t believe in God.
It’s easily done in the rush of a hectic life, and indeed it’s the normal state of mind of most people, but it’s devastatingly destructive as a major plank of a scientific discipline.*
Indeed, it makes a mockery of the whole business. Being able to split off thoughts from consciousness by stopping them, partially or completely, is the essence of all spiritual practices, such as prayer, meditation, and contemplation — in its technical sense.
2. Some questioned the notion that “Consciousness (with upper-case ‘C’) is soaked into the Universe and, indeed, is indistinguishable from it.” Try this link to another piece on Cosmic Consciousness.
3. Others wondered why “soul” and “God” should both be designated as consciousness — “consciousness” and “Consciousness”. I admit my intent was not fully explained. It was meant to show the hierarchy of consciousness, and how the personal soul has full access to mystical experience, ie, the mind (for want of a better word) of God.
It also illustrates how, during advanced spiritual experiences, the mind is left behind — you can sometimes hear it chattering away — and you completely inhabit your own soul, which is intimately joined to God. See The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, where the “darkness” is not eerie, just the absence of mind.
4. I hope you can see how fraught these explanations, and especially the words used, can be. They must be written from direct experience. There is no other way. All else is a kind of fraud.
5. And that’s my main point. Neuroscience works from observation, as does most physical science. The aim is total objectivity, ie, separation from that which is observed. Subjective evidence is not “science” to the purist.
However, as all mystics know, this field of knowledge/experience is only opened up to those who become infused with the subject. The antithesis of science?
Actually, no; and here is where the Quantum crowd come in. Early Quantum physicists discovered that, in the micro world they were trying to observe it was impossible to separate observer from observed, that all things are connected. Indra’s Net illustrated the same thing way back in antiquity.
A mystic would say that there’s no separation between the soul and the essence of God.
I hope that answers the queries, at least in part. I will be writing a lot more in this area in future. It really is the crux of the matter. When you boil it down to its bones, as I’m trying to do, the whole field becomes as obvious as a plain view of a landscape.
* See Neuroscience: Under Attack by Alissa Quart, New York Times.
… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.