The Illusion of Soul
Updated: Jan 18, 2022
Do You Even Meditate, Bro? Imagine the boundless, timeless, eternal and superior awareness. Imagine it as something that is beyond imagination! Imagine an infinite being without limits who dwells in the realm of the infinite. Now imagine a discarded cigarette butt on a sidewalk. It has traces of red lipstick on its end... Can you see it?
I have been into meditation since I was too young to even predict that this is what people will call it at the corporate retreats 30 years later. My parents would often hassle me about my sitting. “Why are you sitting idly! Do something!” Being idle is still frowned upon. “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” claims an old folk proverb. "Better be on a roll constantly!", most humans urge. They go on living moment to moment checking tasks off their to do lists. Always on the look out for "what's next!" To get the parents off my back I engaged in art and craft. It helped me achieve my meditative flow state while making me look more “productive” to the outside observer.
Then there was over ten years of long distance running until my foot gave in (healing underway). Those who ever ran continuously for more than 8 miles can testify to the power of the meditative flow state running induces. It feels like the wind just swooshes through the clear space in between one's ears! Recently, since there is no one left to bug me about being idle, I went back to sitting. I don’t function well unless I maintain my meditative state induced through any of my three methods: art, running/walking, sitting.
There are many schools of meditation. Many of them involve tapping into the boundless, timeless, often divine and superior realm. Good ol' Christian prayer is a form of meditation too! Some of them unfortunately dupe people into a cult-like state of dependency where illusions, speculations and wishes are accepted as reality.
From the scientific standpoint, meditation is beneficial to the brain as it's been concluded in multiple studies. Secular approach to meditation is just about quieting down brain's activity and freeing up parts of it as if through a restful sleep. The sense of space and timelessness seems to be eternal, unchanging and independent of our brain but it is something we experience only thanks to our brains being able to concoct and experience such mental landscapes. Trust me: once the brain dies, so dies its vision of "infinite awareness". Meditation gurus will argue that the state of "infinite awareness" is beyond concocting, beyond imagining, beyond effort. My question to them is whether it is still possible to concoct an idea of a state of mind that is beyond concocting and how would we tell the difference. Our brain's concoctions are after all very convincing. The error is in a neglect to give our thinking brain credit for being able to shape our mental landscape to such a convincing effect and in separating it from the "unthinking awareness" or "the heart" or "the soul" or "the body" while all of these 'elements' are of the brain. The brain processes concepts, experiences, emotions, stories, sensations. The same brain hallucinates and falls asleep to reset. Brain is all there is. When it dies, so die all its ideas, dreams, experiences and emotions. Why would it be so impossible to imagine the end? Why would we create an argument that the period doesn't end a sentence? My best guess is because we love life and we hate to think about letting it go. I call it a "sequel mentality". On the other hand understanding and accepting the idea of the ultimate end can bring relief and leads to much more fulfilled life of enjoyment.
In meditation, tapping into the awareness of self at its core, when done right, shouldn't take effort or shouldn't feel like "getting some place else". It's a state that just is here and now, has 'always' been there (since our birth) and is not going anywhere (until we die). I call it the "seahorse awareness". It should be the state of mind that is easiest to tap into but the difficulty lies in the noise our surface thoughts, emotions, delusions and speculations make on a daily basis.
Time Factor Just as we can't rest by just thinking or talking about sleep, we can't tap into our awareness of self by only conceptualizing it. This is also why simply learning about anxiety won't make it go away and why only through gradual exposure therapy over months some progress can be made. The brain needs time.
Mind is Body Human being as a whole IS a brain! The density of neurons is highest inside the skull but it spreads out all the way towards the tips of our toes and fingers. When we touch something, we touch it with our brains. When we stretch out our hands, the universe is at our brains' fingertips! Nerve impulses activating and controlling movement travel from the movement regions of our brains tipped about the necessity of the change/reaction by some external observation or an internal cue such as an unpleasant thought. On the flip side, adapting certain postures, gestures and body language can affect our mental state and thoughts. Functions we don’t even think about, like breathing, are also controlled by our brain. Our brain controls emotions by releasing hormones. Adrenaline makes us fight or flee, cortisol makes us stressed, deficiency in endorphins makes us unhappy. Anxiety disorders are based on a 'thought > feeling > behavior' loop where each one amplifies the other. Catching the lightning fast thoughts that lead to feelings and behaviors can help break this cycle, so is managing behaviors... or feelings.
The strangest thing about it all is that our brain is still capable of rejecting the premise about its own functions. Only an advanced brain can conceptualize and then reject the basic truth about itself the same way it can imagine number of false but convincing narratives about some spiritual realms that can become our reality even after our brain dies and decomposes.
"You just can't make that s**t up!" "Nope! But your brain can." And now take a small dose of a psychedelic drug... Good! In a moment your brain will imagine things you are convinced can't be originating just from within itself. Dreaming is another example of this function. Dreams and hallucinations seem unpredictable, twisted and they show us things we couldn't have known or seen! But the truth of it is, our dreams or drug induced visions are a remix of things we've seen, learned and experienced, things that are stored within our jumble of neurons.
It’s all in the brain and that includes the reality our brains experience subjectively and differently from the brains on drugs, the brains of dolphins, cats and hummingbirds. The brain of a sea horse is an example of basic consciousness we are almost envious about: “float, eat, mate…” What is the objective reality like? No one will ever know for sure because it's being processed by a unique and glitchy brain capable of imagining convoluted concepts, processing emotions and creating illusions/delusions. One thing is certain: our consciousness didn't evolve out of a whim of some divine being. It originated in the simplest organisms at the roots of our evolutionary tree as a way to navigate through the immediate surroundings: to find food and mating partners and to stay away from danger. This is why our senses don't lie to us when it comes to hot stoves or delicious fragrance of a pie. The scientific method is in a way an extension of that basic sense perception. There is some room for speculations but they can't be accepted until confirmed. Because our awareness didn't come from nothing but originated as a tool of perceiving reality, we can safely conclude that our perceived reality isn't entirely a solipsistic simulation crated by our brain. Abstract thoughts, mental landscapes, stories, delusions and speculations, on the other hand, is a feature that developed on top of our basic sense perception once the further developed human brain found more time to prognosticate, tell stories, seek answers to impossible questions and daydream.
Our brain is advanced enough to imagine a cigarette butt on a sidewalk, a sunset, the soul, the infinity, superior beings without limits and even things that are beyond imagining. However, being able to imagine and grasp those elaborate illusions doesn’t make all of them true. This realization may feel like our mind became a mirror that turned its face to another mirror to induce a feedback loop of self reflection. Brain thinking about brain thinking about brain thinking... Could that be the only version of infinity we can actually experience?
To break from that loop we must perhaps try our best in experiencing the shapelessness and timelessness of the present moment.
Story telling and illusions make our lives interesting by adding a layer of richness to our basic sense awareness but being able to distinguish imagined constructs, dreams and visions from the actual fact based reality often turns out very challenging and in many cases can't be done without external reference points to check against, albeit still with the use of the same glitchy brain. This is the best we've got! Having the ability to recognize and give credit to the power of our day dreaming brains, having control over our mental landscapes and being able to distinguish delusions from reality would put humanity at a great advantage. I'll bet my soul on it!