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My Soul and Zen

I recently (2007) came across the Beyond Belief 2006 presentations, a discussion conducted by the Science Network. Some presenters were avowed atheists while others tried to bring in their religious experience for balance. I watched many of these sessions and afterward I felt like something was missing for me, that the sum of presenters are not conveying the breadth of religious experiences. There was certainly an emphasis on Christianity as the main religion to address, which I expect is the natural tendency as nearly all the attendees were probably brought up in America or Europe. Maybe if I had spent even more time watching all the sessions I would have heard someone describe my perspective but after about half I felt I had quite enough. I have my own perspective on consciousness in the religion vs science context.

Scientists are continuing to learn about the brain and consciousness. It is even possible that it might be sometime before scientists are able to fully understand the complexity of the intangible concept of conscious thinking based on the physical processes within the human brain. There was at least one Beyond Belief 2006 discussion of the current extent of our understanding of consciousness.

There are several different levels of brain activity. While there are more measurable activities when the brain is reacting to sensual stimuli, there is also a background idling that might represent the person's thinking. A person's thinking is generally a linear process, as the thoughts evaluate current conditions (from the senses) relative to past memories and to general social conditioning. The brain is able to deal with stimuli that get around this thinking process, as can be seen by subliminal messages.

One of the significant attributes of this thinking process is its linearity. The memories and comparisons of those memories are related by their time sequence. Even though a person's memory could span many years each person only has one stream of consciousness that is reacting to stimuli and considering voluntary response, whether immediate or in the future.

A human being is born with a brain with a large physical capacity for memory, one of the largest of all animals. Only the largest elephants and largest whales have larger brains, with certain dolphins and apes having brains of a similar size. The infant begins his/her life learning of its environment, initially the physical environment but later its social environment. There is much to learn but the brain is capable of remembering much.

As the infant gets older, analytical tools are developed in the brain. I assume that consciousness begins to arise as the brain matures and it is able to deal with the simultaneous sensory stimuli relative to previous experiences in memory. Infants can react to stimuli but it takes time for them to develop a capacity to analyze and react intelligently - or in another word, consciously. I have memories from a very early age (more than 2 years old) but I do not remember having thoughts until much later. Consciousness requires both a memory and a capability of analyzing that memory; this pattern matching skill must be developed.

What is our consciousness? It is the combination of our memories, our analytical abilities, our social conditioning and the interaction of those attributes. A person that grew up in the wild isolated from other people could develop memory and analytical abilities to deal with his/her physical environment. However that consciousness would be different from most other people in that children learn from other people about important social issues including attitudes, authority, etiquette and religion.

I consider religion to be one of the social issues because the way a child relates to his universe is a learned behavior. Different cultures and different religions within those cultures will train the child in their own ways. In the Western cultures (dominated by a number of Christian religions) there is a predominance of stressing the time sequence of events, the cause and effect relations. In the Eastern cultures, there is apparently more of an emphasis on the 'big picture' of events and less on a 'cause and effect' linearity. (I am not certainly a psychologist or sociologist but here I am relying on a number of Alan Watts books about Eastern religions for that perspective.) Certainly a number of authors have theorized that the advances in science in Europe and America after the Reformation, beyond the achievements of the Eastern civilizations, was in part due to the Judeo-Christian perspective on the world. This ‘cause and effect’ basis for analysis can tend to focus on the primary influences, discounting the less important ones, to help build and test theories that attempt to explain natural phenomenon.

Christian theologians have called a person's consciousness his or her soul as if the consciousness is a separate entity from the physical being. Many different animals appear to indicate some level of consciousness (at least an ability to analyze and deal with its environment in a somewhat manner) and the largest whales even seem to exhibit intelligence but theologians are probably unwilling to convey the status of a soul to the consciousness in these other animals. Also during sleep the brain shifts from sustaining consciousness to a different mode (seen physically with different brain wave patterns and even though dreams can be active with apparent physical activity no bodily motor actions occur) so what happens to the supernatural soul while the brain is asleep?

Because scientists do not yet fully understand the physical basis for consciousness, there is a current opening for a person of a religious not scientific tendency to thereby claim that the soul is a supernatural entity and this claim cannot be disproven. If a person wishes to decide, upon confronting a door to future scientific discoveries, to close that door then I see no point in trying to reason with that person any longer. Scientists continue to learn about the physical processes within the brain and it is possible that some day this understanding of consciousness might be attained. I recently read where someone pointed out a great ape could not be expected to understand the theory of relativity because it does not have that mental analytical capability. Inevitably human learning proceeds as scientists try to understand whatever is not yet known...

In my college years when I also sought a better understanding of religion, I discovered the works of Alan Watts. A number of his books compared the Eastern and Western religions and those were very enlightening given my Catholic upbringing. Several also discussed the philosophy of Zen which emphasizes a person being a part of the world, not being in the world (as in the expression 'a person was born into the world').

Among his interpretations of the Zen philosophy, he also described the Zen religious experience, satori. I had my first flash of enlightenment when I was 21, when in my spare time I was deep into a number of Zen books. At that moment (while I was at my job, certainly not reading a book!), my consciousness was altered, not the usual stream of thinking, sensing and feeling. In that moment, I actually 'felt' I was part of the world not just thinking in my brain.

I had never tried to explain my experience until the thought of this web page inspired me. Perhaps the satori is a 'snap' in the usual stream of consciousness, when the brain momentarily 'takes it all in' rather than maintaining that continuous thought processing stream where it continuously sifts and analyzes in its usual manner of pattern matching. Satori is not like meditation because when meditating the consciousness remains in control and it cannot willingly turn itself off. Satori is not like sleep because at the moment of sleep when the brain activity physically changes the stream of consciousness stops and it does not return until the person awakes. A person cannot feel that moment of falling asleep because physically the brain is changing its state. Satori is more of a shift in consciousness.

The only other feeling that I have experienced that came close to my flash of enlightenment was falling deeply in love with the woman that became my wife. I can see a similarity because in that moment of realization that I have found fulfillment in sharing my life and emotions with another person I felt something of a raised consciousness, to extend beyond my brain, to share such complete intimacy with another person. It is not quite an 'out of body' experience but it is certainly a strong emotional bond with another person.

There are many contemporary topics that reflect a Western religious context. I have seen God justified on a first cause basis (as in: what created the universe?) but that is just a reflection of the Western thinking of cause/effect. There is talk of intelligent design as better than the scientific theory of evolution but that concept rests on the Western religions emphasis that the world is made (cause/effect again), not a dynamic physical process.

Here in the very Christian United States of course (with the Christian attitudes verified by many polls to be common among a high percentage of people) there is also the ubiquitous talk of a soul that will live forever, a life after death. I cannot imagine a worse nightmare than a soul that lives forever. A person's consciousness is unmistakably connected with the brain and the body's senses. This consciousness comes and goes based on the brain's physical cycles. For the consciousness to become disconnected from the brain at death and still continue to exist, it must live within the blackest box with no sensory inputs or physical outputs (since it has no connection to a physical entity). Common stories of heaven and hell must always include physical attributes (Do we wear in heaven what we wore when we died? Which torments will be endured in hell?) because these mental images are always as if heaven and hell are just the resumption of normal life after death, with the same body we had before, rather than an image of a disembodied ghost that remains. Any proposition that there is a way for this soul to interact with other souls is just a variation on the movie The Matrix, where the souls 'plug into' some communication mechanism.

As stated in other pages in this site, the belief in a soul is just another aspect of the Western religious belief that a person is brought into the world (not produced by the natural process of human fertilization), the person is never really part of the world (denying our intimate connection with fabric of society) and so that separate entity continues to remain disconnected from the world even after death.

A number of those scientists that are involved in the current efforts to reduce the influence of religion in matters of science and state appear to be unaware of religions other than Christianity. I see no point in quoting at length from books about Zen to present the basics of its philosophy. My favorite books on the subject were written many years ago. However these discussions should recognize that not everyone in the West is still under the spell of Christianity’s influence and a more global presentation is appropriate.

created - February 2007
last change - 02/04/2007
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