Deepak Chopra and Intent

Deepak Chopra and Intent

A Science of Miracles–No Longer Optional? (Part 2)

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For most people, miracles are something left behind in childhood. They require innocent belief, not adult rationality. The camp of vocal skeptics and atheists provide a crossroads, in fact, where one way leads to irrationality, the other to rationality, as if this definitively defines where the truth lies. If you don’t take the way of rationality, you will wind up in the realm of superstition, primitive myths, magical thinking, and bogus miracles.

Why, then, did Einstein make his famous remark that either nothing is a miracle or everything is a miracle? Because he saw deeper into reality than the simplistic either/or of skeptics and atheists. As we saw in Part 1 of this series, there is no credible scientific theory that describes how the mind interfaces with reality. This means that there is no theory that proves the existence of miracles or disproves it. Until we can fully explain consciousness, we can’t fully explain the events that occur in consciousness.

It sounds startling, but science can’t explain ordinary experiences, much less supernatural experiences. No one knows how thoughts arise, why intuition exists, where creativity comes form, or most important of all, how the porridgy gray matter of the brain, which is totally dark and silent, produces the sights and sounds of the three-dimensional world. The simplest and most profound miracle that everyone encounters every day is this miracle.

So, if everyday sights and sounds are totally inexplicable, the possibility of miracles can’t be dismissed. That’s different, however, from saying that they do exist. What kind of reality would allow for them? One that is both ancient and cutting edge. In the ancient Vedanta of India, the physical world was seen as a projection of consciousness. This is also the best explanation that modern scientific thinking has proposed, although Vedanta is a fully formed view of reality while scientific theories about consciousness are still tentative and speculative.

What binds the two is this: The universe is being created beyond spacetime. This act of creation is going on right this minute. Vedanta says that you and I are part of the creative process. We are more than the body and mind that has emerged into the three-dimensional world. Our source is beyond spacetime, in the realm of pure consciousness. There would be no body, mind, or world for any of us if we weren’t connected to the source.

Miracles, then, are events that exist closer to the source than events we tag as normal and natural. Science gets us closer to the source all the time, which is why yesterday’s miracles routinely turn into today’s technology–someone had to dive deeper into the nature of reality to create transistors, airplane travel, television and radio. With current experiments in reverse causation, nonlocality, and antigravity, there’s every likelihood that so-called paranormal experiences will become normal in the future.

Ancient sages got close to the source in a way different from science. They did it through consciousness. Shifting reality through consciousness is called a miracle if someone appears in two places at once. Yet every time you have a thought, the electrical and chemical activity in your brain shifts, which amounts to the same thing. In meditation a person transcends the superficial activity of the mind to go deeper, and according to the world’s wisdom traditions, this journey toward the source has no limits–you can transcend the physical universe completely.

At that point reality shifts completely at the same time, for unknown to us in our everyday lives, the body, mind, and world are products of our state of awareness. The reason that Vedanta calls the everyday world a dream or illusion is that once you get to the source, you find that you change any aspect of reality as easily as in a dream. You have reached the womb of creation. There is no longer any doubt that you exist beyond spacetime–and always have.

This truth was self-evident in the experiences of the sages of Vedanta. God consciousness is human consciousness that has arrived at the source. In God consciousness you don’t become the God of religion, whose identity is clouded by centuries of dogma and belief. In a sense, God consciousness has nothing to do with that God. It’s actually a creative state that operates from the source.

Let’s accept, then, that it’s possible for miracles to exist. Proving it leads in two directions. Either you accumulate enough data through scientific means that no doubt remains about miraculous occurrences, or you take the journey personally to discover if God consciousness is real. That’s the actual fork in the road, not the rational/irrational fork of skeptics and atheists. Future science will have to explain consciousness in order to understand the universe; there’s no escaping the challenge. So it may turn out that either road, scientific or personal, will arrive at the same destination.


Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Coming soon, The Future of God (Harmony, November 11, 2014)

A Science of Miracles—No Longer Optional?

posted by Admin

In its ambition to explain every aspect of the natural world, modern science has sidestepped very few problems. Some mysteries are so difficult that they defy the scientific method. It’s hard to conceive of experiments that will tell us what happened before time and space emerged, for example. But two mysteries have been consistently sidestepped for decades out of prejudice. One is the nature of consciousness, the other the reality of phenomena loosely categorized as mystical or supernatural.

However, now that there is a burgeoning science of consciousness, fermenting with much theorizing, arguments, and controversies, it may be necessary to solve all kinds of fringe phenomena, in particular miracles, that have long been considered the province of superstition, credulity, and outright fraud. (This is the hardened position of the vocal skeptics’ camp, but their impact on the practice of science is too minimal to deal with here.)

If you look upon the physical world as a given—what you see is what you get—governed by fixed mathematical laws of nature, the whole domain of wonders and miracles poses no problems. Levitation, bilocation, psychic healing, clairvoyance, near-death experiences, and all the miracles related in the Bible can be dismissed out of hand.  Accepting the physical world “as it is” constitutes naïve realism, which all of us depend upon in our everyday lives. As I’ve pointed out in many previous posts, consistently co-authored with a physicist, geneticist, biologist, cosmologist, or philosopher, naïve realism hasn’t been scientifically tenable for at least a century, ever since the quantum era began.

If we can’t accept the physical world as it is, a level playing field can be posited that includes both the natural and supernatural. The two categories are no longer divided from each other by an impenetrable wall. There are several completely cogent reasons for making such a statement.

  1. All experience occurs in consciousness.
  2. Consciousness is the meeting place between perception and reality.
  3. This meeting place is inexplicable at present. There is no scientific explanation for everyday experience, much less the so-called mystical.
  4. The materialistic assumptions of science as it’s currently practiced have made no headway in explaining how the brain’s electrochemical activity produces the sights, sounds, textures, and smells of a three-dimensional world.
  5. What is known with certainty, however, is that the brain filters and reduces the input it receives.

The last point needs expanding. If you insist upon being a staunch physicalist, someone who refuses to accept any explanation outside materialism, the brain must be the seat of mind, and the world we perceive must be registered faithfully by the brain.  But there’s no doubt that the brain is fallible. Its mechanisms are easily fooled, by optical illusions, for example. Its fixed neural pathways constantly distort even basic perceptions, as when a person suffering from anorexia looks at her starved and wasted body but sees it as “too fat.”

Leaving aside its fallibility, the human brain processes only a fraction of the billions of bits of sensory data bombarding it every day. Through a process of filtering and reduction, it creates an image of the world that is acceptable for everyday navigation, nothing more. It’s been rightly said that the “real world” is actually a reflected image of how the brain works.  It’s an abstraction built up from mechanical manipulation at the neural level.

To simplify, the real world is like a fenced-in corral that includes only what is acceptable and permissible while shutting out what isn’t. Acceptable and permissible are personal terms—we all know people who are blind to aspects of their lives that are glaringly obvious to others. But these are also social and cultural terms. The brain can shut out what society refuses to see. Sometimes this refusal runs deep into the unconscious. The historical denigration of women and blacks, for example, was created by a complex mélange of beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, received opinions, and willful blindness. All of these ingredients changed the brains of the people who participated in them, including the victims.

A science of consciousness must reach beyond the conventions of acceptable and permissible reality that are brain-based. Physicalists find this impossible to do except in a limited way. They insist that the brain must be delivering reality because for them there’s no other alternative. Thus the brain is given a privileged position. Rocks, trees, clouds, hydrogen atoms, and quarks aren’t conscious, but even as it sits in the middle of the scene, with no qualities to distinguish its “thingness” from the “thingness” around it, we are supposed to view the brain as totally unique.  This is pure animism, the belief that spirits live inside material objects, verging close to religiosity, turning the brain into a three-pound god.

By abandoning physicalism, we wouldn’t be returning to an age of superstition (the favorite straw man of the skeptical camp). We would be expanding the fence, allowing in more of reality.  Until there is an understanding of how the mind interfaces with reality, no viable explanation exists for any experience, much less the mystical.

All I’ve done in this post is to propose a level playing field for all experiences, and that’s only a start, obviously. Saying that miracles aren’t totally excluded isn’t the same as proving that they exist, or even might exist. Having opened the door, we’ll see if miracles can walk through it, which is the topic of the next post.  It was Einstein, not a shaman, yogi, New Age devotee, or charlatan, who famously said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

(To be cont.)

 

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Coming soon, The Future of God (Harmony, November 11, 2014)

Can Sam Harris Wake Us Up? (Part 2)

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Most of us recognized ourselves in the mirror this morning.  The person looking back at us has a familiar name, a family, a job.  He (or she) carries around a long menu of likes and dislikes, along with a personal history from the moment we emerged from the womb. It would amaze the vast majority of the human race to be told that this person in the mirror is an illusion. Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up, delivers this startling notion loud and clear, and his aim, in a nutshell, is to debunk the illusion of the personal self, which he says is the key to becoming real.

No one can predict if the message will stick. “No self” has been around for centuries as a basic tenet of Buddhism. (Refer to Part 1 of this post for more details.) Harris dresses it up in brain science, but looking for Buddha in the brain is as futile as looking for Mozart in a piano. It’s obviously specious reasoning, but in Harris’s profession of neuroscience, everything comes down to the brain. Devout Christians find sermons in the stones; brain scientists find them in the anterior cingulate.

Harris would be a more persuasive thinker if he weren’t so dogmatically a materialist. His biases make Waking Up a troubling read at times:

“It has long been obvious that traditional approaches to spirituality [are] based, to one or another degree, on religious myths and superstition.” (p. 62)

“Neuroscience has also produced results that are equally hostile to the traditional idea of souls.” (p. 62)

“Some people are so desperate to interpret the [Near Death Experience] as proof of an afterlife that even those whom one would expect to have a strong commitment to scientific reasoning toss their better judgment out the window.” (p. 186)

None of these haughty opinions is good science. And it’s ironic that someone with such a closed mind is now in favor of unbounded awareness.

As for his area of expertise Harris is quite impressive. He makes much of intriguing findings on the brain’s unreliability, wandering thoughts, and confused perceptions. Some of this is over-interpreted. Harris states, for example, that “There is no region of the brain that can be the seat of a soul” (p. 116), but there is no region of the brain that tells us where experience comes from, why the color red is red, how one thought is connected to the next, or how electrical activity in the neuron produces the sight, sound, and texture of the three-dimensional world. Until these basic problems are solved, assertions about higher reality based on neuroscience, whether pro or con, are meaningless.

Yet there’s no getting around the fact that the illusion of “I, me, and mine” lies at the heart of Eastern spirituality.  It’s not the special province of Buddhism. Harris’s challenge to the personal self, which is the best part of his book, would be echoed by a Taoist, a Hindu, a Jain, and countless other varieties of Eastern belief. They all hold that you cannot be enlightened as long as you have a personal stake in the world. This is a radical claim, all but unknown in the Christian West, and the Buddhist strategy of “ego death” is possibly the most radical of all.

The reason for such strong common agreement is this: suffering, ignorance, and self-destructive behavior are the product of the conditioned mind. It’s not the brain that forces us to feel pain and sorrow, to act out of anger, to possess low self-esteem. It’s how the brain got trained. Who did this bad training? The mind. Therefore, the mind must find a way out. Only through self-awareness can old conditioning be confronted. The job isn’t done overnight, yet thousands of years of spiritual experience attest to the possibility of waking up.

Viewed sympathetically, Harris’ book gives the reader many good reasons to step on to the spiritual path.  If the path leads you to God or the soul, Harris holds that you’re a fool. If it leads you to the purity of perfect detachment, he holds that you’ve won the golden ring.  Either way, the personal self isn’t going down without a fight. While neuroscience is busy drawing better brain maps, life goes on, enticing us to be good and bad, loving and hateful, real and deluded. The allure of “I, me, and mine” is very strong, always present, and nearly impossible to resist.

I believe something a medical school professor used to tell his students: “If you want to understand consciousness, don’t go into neuroscience.” Otherwise, you’ll mistake the map is the territory. God isn’t in our neurons, but neither is Nirvana.  The fact that Harris is standing by the side of the road shouting “No Self!” actually compounds the problem. If “I, me, and mine” is a trick of brain training, who is to say that “no self” isn’t just another trick? Harris turns the brain into the villain of one story (my self is real) and the hero of another (my self is an illusion). He wants to have his cake and eat it too.

Here we get to the heart of the matter. Buddhism, contra Sam Harris, will never be about the brain. Buddhism is about the mind beyond the brain. Transcendence is the key. It has to be. As long as mind = brain, we are trapped. The same would be true if music = piano.  Obviously you could destroy all the pianos in the world and music would still exist. What Harris believes, along with neuroscience in general, is that if every brain was destroyed, mind would no longer exist. The Buddha taught the exact opposite. Mind is universal. Awareness is the foundation of reality. Worlds come and go, but mind remains unchanged.

Harris doesn’t address the most crucial fact about enlightenment: In order for the mind to transform itself, reality must change altogether.  If “I” is unreal, so is the world that “I” believes in.  A materialist view is lost before it even begins, because it forces you to accept the physical world as a given.  Harris relies heavily on the unreliability of perception. But the brain can’t unravel our mistaken perceptions because the brain is itself a perception—it’s caught in the very net it wants to untangle.

Each of us will have to choose our own way, of course. For the moment, skewed science and half-digested spirituality are serving Sam Harris well. He is as partisan, strong-minded, and absolute as ever. Despite its lack of even-handedness, though, this stimulating book is worth reading whether you agree with it or not.  Harris has crossed a divide and now has more in common with spiritual seekers than he does with noisy atheists.

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Coming soon, The Future of God (Harmony, November 11, 2014)

Can Sam Harris Wake Us Up?

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It caused a stir when Sam Harris, in a new book titled Waking Up, changed his message from militant atheism to peaceful Buddhism. A positive message is better than a negative one, and since Buddhism is often labeled as “a religion without God,” Harris’s move isn’t as radical as it looks at first glance. He has had Buddhist teachers for a long time.  Waking Up speaks to a growing number of Americans who say they are spiritual but not religious. Some of these people want to find God, only outside the constrictions of organized religion.  Since he’s still adamant that God doesn’t exist, Harris probably has nothing to say to that group.

 

What he offers, with abundant backing from neuroscience, is a new flavor of Buddhism, in which some time-honored tenets are proven to be true by examining how the brain works. There is always a danger when someone holding personal beliefs dresses them up with science. You wonder if the contrary evidence has been fairly examined. Many readers may accuse Harris of paying serious attention only to the research that fits his scheme, and this is certainly true. An entire realm of spiritual experience is alien to him, not just the kind associated with praying, feeling God’s presence, contacting the soul, and near-death experiences. To Harris, this whole realm is delusional; therefore the research that supports it must be worthless (not that he shows any depth of knowledge about it—his dismissal is out of hand).

 

He’s also uninterested in Eastern paths like Yoga and Vedanta, although they get a few passing references.  What’s crucial for him is to find a neural basis for subjective spiritual experiences. He whispered about this when he was among his militant atheist friends, who took a scornful view of subjective experiences, on the grounds that science and rationality are opposed to the woolliness of subjectivity.  It’s heartening that Harris has more sense. His own personal experiences—with drugs, meditation, and various spiritual guides—has convinced him that experiences in consciousness are valid.

 

Without describing himself as a Buddhist, Harris puts Buddhism up as his candidate for locating the neural basis of spiritual experiences, thus connecting objectivity and subjectivity into an acceptable, rational package. My own strong belief is that Buddhism isn’t compatible with the materialistic slant (i.e., it’s all in the brain) that is the bedrock of Harris’s book. I don’t want to spoil the good that readers will take away from the book. The more that people give credence to their subjective experiences, the more likely they are to take up meditation, as Harris advocates. That’s hardly a new idea, but it’s good to have it reinforced, since research on the benefits of meditation, now more than forty years old, has become ever more convincing.

 

We can’t find what we’re not looking for, and what Harris seeks to prove isn’t at the core of spirituality. He likes the Buddhist teaching about the personal self being an illusion, because he can match it up with several pet theories about the brain. One of these holds that we believe we have a self, a personal “I,” because the brain’s complexity can’t be fathomed, so we choose arbitrarily to believe in “I” in order to make sense of the world.  There’s also the matter of finding “I” somewhere in the brain, in the way that vision can be found in the visual cortex. Some neuroscientists feel, in fact, they have located a brain center for the sense of self. The drift is clear enough: we are products of the brain’s chemical and electrical activity. That’s the hard reality, and the good news, as Harris sees it, is that the brain creates valid experiences that can and should serve to support a better brand of spirituality devoid of miracles, for example, which he disdains.

 

Yet all of this can be countered. In the Vedic tradition of India, going back centuries before the Buddha, there are some key ideas about the self that are still compelling today. Let me summarize them.

 

The everyday self, according to the Vedic seers, is a faint reflection of the higher self, clouded by the restless mind and the demands of everyday life. Through meditation, the higher self can be experienced. It is the source of love, compassion, creativity, and intelligence. The everyday self wouldn’t have those qualities without the higher self. Once this is realized, a path opens that enriches life by freeing us of illusions about who we really are. As we wake up, inner and outer reality are no longer separate. In unity consciousness–the highest state of enlightenment–reality “in here” is no longer separate from reality “out there.” Both exist as the play of universal consciousness.

 

Buddhism takes a very different view and offers a different path. Leaving aside the many schools of Buddhism, the path outlined by Harris offers no higher self. It is based on the total illusion that a personal “I” exists. It is this fictitious self, the ego personality with its countless demands, preferences, and insecurities that binds people to an unending cycle of pleasure alternating with pain. To escape from this bondage, then, is the main goal of the spiritual path. Through meditation, a person gains mental clarity. The ultimate clarity is achieved in a state of pure detachment, in which it is seen that consciousness is empty of any content. In the state of enlightenment, one is fully awake to the freedom that arises when the ego has died.

 

The teaching of “no self” looks very different from the teaching of “higher self.” Without identifying as a Buddhist, Harris believes that “no self” can be scientifically validated. (It also rationalizes his atheist position.) Has he successfully made the case?  If he has, then Sam Harris is the man to go to if you want to wake up. Since the research he cites is solid and valuable, what matters is how he interprets it.  For each point he makes, I’ll give a counterpoint from the “higher self” perspective.

 

Point: On p. 41, addressing the cause of human suffering, Harris takes a phrase from the Buddha, “the unsatisfactoriness of life,” twisting it a bit into “the unsatisfactoriness of the good life.” Pointing out that even happy, successful, healthy people have subtle kinds of suffering, he leaps to two conclusions (p. 42): “Most of us feel a wide range of painful emotions on a daily basis.” “We are all prisoners of our thoughts.”

 

Counterpoint: Neither of these statements has a basis in experience. Do you feel a “wide range of painful emotions on a daily basis”? This attempt to undermine “the good life” requires Harris to make thought the enemy, so that he can teach us how to stop participating personally in our thoughts. But he overlooks the fact that deciding to follow Buddhism, or Sam Harris, is a thought. How do we know which thoughts are positive and which are negative? Being a utilitarian, Harris invokes pain. But sadist, psychopaths, liars, con men, and even ordinary people pursue and even enjoy “painful” thoughts. If I feel unattractive and fat, the thought is painful, but it leads me to lose weight, which is good.

 

In reality, suffering isn’t a matter of seeking pleasure or avoiding pain, because in the complex tapestry of the self, most experiences are tinged with both pleasure and pain. Anyone who has been a parent knows this very well, as does anyone who has experienced the travails of love.  The “higher self” view holds that what we want is richer, more fulfilling thoughts, of love, compassion, truth, and so on.

 

Point:  On p. 43-44, discussing the meaning of enlightenment, Harris writes, “”It is quite possible to lose one’s sense of being a separate self, and to experience a kind of boundless, open awareness—to feel, in other words, at one with the cosmos.” But, and it’s a big but, this boundless awareness “says nothing about the universe at large.” This is the physicalist guarding the wall that separates scientific facts from subjective feelings.

 

Counterpoint: In the Vedic tradition, the portal to higher knowledge is the unbounded awareness Harris describes, and because all of reality is the product of consciousness, what we learn and know through the inner journey far surpasses scientific data. This is the point, so often made, that the map isn’t the same as the territory. Falling in love, creating great art, losing yourself in the beauty of music—these are the ways we experience reality. Collecting data about them isn’t remotely the same as having the experience. In the states of enlightenment described in Vedanta, there are experiences that say a great deal about the universe. In the fully awakened state of unity consciousness, a person experiences his awareness as his core existence. This is the control switch that creates everything. Harris permits his limited experience of unbounded non-self as valid, but not the experience of advanced states of unboundedness of fully enlightened beings. Of course scientific knowledge is valuable, but it doesn’t explain how our experience comes to exist or how subjective experience connects to the objective universe. Harris puts the universe “out there,” waiting to unfold a wealth of data, but in reality we live in a participatory universe, and it’s how we participate that determines the outcome of every moment.

 

Point: Harris follows the Buddhist principle that it takes a thorn to remove a thorn. The mind creates suffering, but we must use the mind to get out of suffering. The point is made in classic Buddhist fashion on p. 45: “Even just recognizing the impermanence of your mental states . . . can transform your life. Every mental state you have ever had has arisen and then passed away.” This analysis is key to the rest of the book, since Harris is heading for a state where thoughts are witnessed from a place of detachment, and if the brain can deliver such a state, poof, no more suffering.

 

Counterpoint:  It’s psychologically incorrect to say that a mental state like anxiety, depression, or anger merely rises and falls away. These feelings can be endemic, repetitive, and stubbornly fixed. There is a stage of therapy, and a very valuable one, where the patient gains some distance from negative thinking, and by not being so overwhelmed, healing can begin. It is also true, as classical Buddhism teaches, that the “witness” is an aspect of the mind associated with detachment.

 

But it puts the cart before the horse to try and witness. Should I witness the death of a child rise and fall in my mind? Should I be detached from the thought that I love my wife? The fact that thoughts appear and disappear is secondary. The primary thing is what you do with the thought. Good, bad, and indifferent actions can follow from any thought. Your next thought might change your life. The witness state develops spontaneously when meditation allows the mind to settle into its true nature, which is peaceful, loving, creative, intelligent, and so on. Because the mind is at the root of all experience, it delivers the best that existence has to offer, not in a blank state of detachment but in a subtler state where you enjoy what is happening and also witness it as the product of your own consciousness.

 

The Upanishads have a beautiful image about this, speaking of two birds sitting in a tree. One bird eats the fruit while the other looks on silently. This is the classic Vedic view of the mind, that its silent source creates and supports the active mind. Witnessing and thinking go together. One isn’t used to demolish or detach from the other.

 

These counterpoints are not posed out of hostility to Harris’s book, and I hasten to add that I venerate Buddhism as a great spiritual tradition. I hope Sam Harris has viable responses to these points. In the next post we’ll go deeper into the brain science he relies upon. But it would seem that his angle of interpretation was firmly set before he looked into the data. That angle is his to pursue, of course, but as a directive for everyday life among his readers, I have my doubts.  If “no self” is only a stepping stone on the way to the “higher self,” these issues can be resolved to the benefit of everyone.

 

(To be cont.)

 

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Coming soon, The Future of God (Harmony, November 11, 2014)

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