Monday, March 24, 2008

Is Enlightenment a Brain-State?

Spiritual and philosophical forums are buzzing about the story of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. Taylor, a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, has dedicated her life to brain research, inspired by her brother's schizophrenia. As irony would have it, she herself suffered a rare form of stroke in 1996. In addition to severe physical and mental damage, the brain hemorrhage seemed to temporarily short-circuit the sense of a separate self. At moments on the day of the stroke, she literally couldn't perceive a boundary between her body and the world.

Taylor recovered and wrote My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey. Last month, she gave a talk about the experience; the 20-minute video is freely available on Google, the TED site, and elsewhere. Her description of the stroke has striking similarities to tales of altered states of numerous meditators and mystics.

And there's the rub: what does this tell us about those big, special experiences that so many of us in the "spiritual" sub-culture treasure or strive for? I sense that many commenters are afraid that acknowledging the similarity between Taylor's stroke-induced state and others' meditation-induced epiphanies... will somehow negate the holiness or transcendental value of spiritual/religious practice.

It's much like the ongoing debate about whether states induced by psychoactive substances can be equated with mystical awakening. Hell, now or in the near future, scientists can stick some electrodes into your brain and reliably create religious ecstasies. Maybe, just like the oil companies are hiding the patents for gas-free cars, the Catholic Church and other threatened powers are keeping this brain-electrode technology from the masses.

I've been contemplating all this in the wake of 4+ days of intensive Zen sitting retreat earlier this month. I'd pondered how much has changed in the direction and intention I bring to these retreats, since I did my first one 20 years ago. Back then, Zen was a matter of throwing every ounce of my energy into piercing through ordinary life, into ... I dunno, something else. Something with more meaning, more profundity, more understanding. Like pornography, I figured I'd know it when I see it.

I've met so many "seekers" who cultivate this striving for enlightenment or awakening or whatever. So many teachers and traditions encourage an intense desire for liberation, claiming that you'll find it only when you really, really want it, to the exclusion of all else.

Meditation is different for me now; it's like just sitting. If Zen means anything to me, it means keeping a mind that explores, examines, questions everything. Questioning the most treasured beliefs, the most obvious assumptions. Asking what this thing is that's seeking "more." What is this mind that thinks, "I want to get something"? Formal sitting practice is an ultra-simple situation for perceiving this moment. For inquiring into why I do whatever it is I'm doing. For what? For who?

It's less like trying to win a prize or achieve a goal, and more like looking into a mirror. You generally don't look in the mirror with the idea of getting something. Rather, you're just taking a moment to see things as they are. Pausing to look and wonder -- it reveals a perspective that's different from the merry-go-round of constantly wanting something.

Middle-aged people like me sometimes walk into a room... and then completely forget why we went there. Isn't life itself like that? We can get so entangled with the mechanics of our needs, wants, and habits, that we disconnect from our original reason for living. When I do something... why do it? Keeping that question has become my intention and direction.

Practice doesn't have to be about getting a special state or experience, about trying to fix or improve life. It can simply reflect life.

It's like being in a train station, and deciding to hang out there for the day. After a while, you get absent-minded, and end up boarding a train that takes you here or there. Eventually, you realize what you've done; you never intended to ride the train, you were just sitting at the station. So you go back to where you started, stay there for a while, till again you lose your focus and find yourself riding a train somewhere, and once again realize it and return to the original point.

Again and again, returning to just this. "Mystical" doesn't necessarily mean striving for a special mind-state through any means. Maybe you follow the striving for years; as long as wanting appears, there's no sense in denying it. But it's not mandatory to always want something more or different or better. At any moment, we may pause and look into ordinary, everyday life. Into that unspeakable thing that we're experiencing right now.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Spiritual DVD Reviews

Last month, I watched a couple of "spiritual documentaries" on DVD. Aliens From Spaceship Earth, though available from UFOTV, isn't about space aliens. It's a collection of video clips from a wide range of famous gurus from the 70s. I got it from Netflix. Closer Than Close films seven friends who meet to discuss their quest for enlightenment 'n' stuff. Their discussions are intercut with footage of a few teachers who seem to think they've found It. The DVD is available from PoetryInMotionFilms.

Aliens From Spaceship Earth, filmed in 1977, is peppered with music, graphics, and narration that are beyond cheesy. Folk singer Donovan strums his guitar, walks down a beach, gushes about the world's great spiritual awakening, and introduces segments on lots of big names: Muktananda, Satchidananda, Guru Maharaji, Hare Krishnas, and on and on.

If you can stomach its dated style and terrible production values, Aliens is absolutely wonderful as a "time capsule" of that sub-culture. It took me back to a time and mind from my youth. I spent four years with Muktananda, and this DVD has rare footage of him from his early days in the West. For each of the teachers included in this doc, there are talks and interviews with the guru, and clips of their swooning followers and "scene."

I guess I'd forgotten how much different things were in those days. Everyone was so spaced out and hippy-dippy. Almost as if these meditation traditions were viewed as strictly a means to get high.

The segment on Ram Dass was a highlight. I saw him in person in the mid-80s, but here he's shown in an earlier persona, much more stoned-out. Whatever else you say about the guy, he was a remarkable speaker. Elizabeth Claire Prophet was another standout. Her teaching is incomprehensible, but she's captivating in her creepiness.

As for the followers of these gurus: they're goofy, irrational, and naive. Still, I have to respect them for being the advance scouts for the big wave of Eastern spirituality hitting America. They made embarrassing mistakes, like all pioneers. They were like the first troops to land on D-day, taking huge casualties, but making it easier for those who came later.

Aliens swallows the gurus' claims whole, as so many of us did in the beginning. It exemplifies the blind adulation that led to so many human train wrecks in America's spritual underbelly. In the decades that have passed, maybe we've moved a bit beyond such blind faith.

Closer Than Close illustrates this change in the spiritual zeitgeist. The seekers in this DVD are professional and college student-types, soberly discussing enlightenment and the meaning of life. They speak of "enlightenment" as some special state to be sought in the future, rather than what's already appeared in this moment. I don't share their views... but there's something moving about the sincerity that these subjects bring to the filmed discussions. I can respect them for simply stopping to question what life is or should be about. Maybe that willingness to question is the important thing, and the rest is just details.

The "teachers" profiled in Closer were less impressive. It was initially interesting to hear the stories about how meditation and inquiry had connected with their lives. But they each seemed to go on too long, and get too theoretical in attempting to make sense of the experiences they'd had. It sometimes came off as lots of talk trying to explain the unexplainable. It was sometimes unclear how their stories connected to practical, ordinary, everyday life.

There was subtle "spiritual materialism" in how these teachers described their big experiences. I wondered if this was connected to their paths being too solitary. It's strange for me to say this, because I always look at meditation practice as a matter of personal intention. Most important is believing in ourselves, not following a guru or group. And yet the teachers on this DVD may suffer from being unconnected to a tradition.

We don't need a tradition to get moments of wonderfully clear mind. My formal meditations are personal, simply devoting myself to "What am I?" But each time we discard old concepts and identifications, and find a moment of clarity... we can always fall into newer, subtler attachments. We give up some material wants, but hold onto spiritual wants. We get less attached to stuff, but more attached to beautiful concepts. Or to stillness, or to freedom. Or to "enlightenment."

We can find truth and clarity on our own. Yet maybe working with a teacher has helped "keep me honest." That is, each time I get an idea that I've attained something, there's someone there to "hit" that attachment, helping me to return again and again to simple questioning. To just this moment, to "what am I doing right now?" The teachers in these videos sometimes seemed to have awakened from some common human attachments... only to fall into ideas of "I've got something."