Hearing Nature’s Voice

Silence is a rare treat.  I enjoy music and witty repartee just as much as the next guy, but silence is revelatory.  At home and in hotels I sleep to the sound of a white noise generator.  You can’t predict the sounds of neighbors, and my hours are askew from those of the rest of the world.  Here at the lake, things are different.  I awake early, hoping to catch the sun as it trips over the mountain tops across the way, lighting successive peaks before it reaches the near horizon.  It is utterly still.  Perhaps it’s the interference of humans in the habitat, but crepuscular animals seldom wander past.  The stillness is divine.  For some the lake means loud jet skis and buzzing motorboats.  I come here seeking silence.

Our daily lives lack peace.  Even when things are good there are always more things to be done.  We cram as much as possible into days impossibly short, giving at least eight out of every twenty-four to those who deign to pay us for our efforts.  Sleep is troubled and interrupted.  There are noises in the night.  You can’t hear your soul.  As the first rays seep into the valleys across the lake the birds begin to greet it.  Their conversation may interrupt the silence, but it doesn’t break it.  Silence is finding one’s place in nature.  Taking time to be still.  To listen.

Thirty years ago I first came to the lake.  My wife had been coming here for years already before that.  There have been many changes even in my short time here.  I can, however, hear eternity in the silence, for forever is a whisper, not a shout.  As I watch the morning mist arise, skate, and dance over the surface of the water as still as the very mountains that cradle it, I strain my ears to catch any sound.  The twirling wraiths are as silent as they are ephemeral.  They spin away the last minutes before the whine of an early morning fisherman’s boat begins its sleepy journey to the deep water in the middle of the lake, herald of other daylight noises to come.  I will await tomorrow’s unction of silence, and although the baptism may be secular it’s redemptive after all.  Nature knows far more about the human soul than any measurements might reveal.  You only have to listen to hear it.

Forest of the Subconscious

The mind is not the brain. This isn’t mystical mumbo-jumbo (although there’s nothing wrong with mystical mumbo-jumbo either). We’ve been bombarded with the message that we are meat machines for many years now. Those who have studied physics and plumbed its depths often tell us that if we had all the bits of information involved, we could figure out anything. Our minds are our brains and it is merely electro-chemical signals that form a kind of operating system for this biological computer. The idea that we have a separate mind, we are told, is an illusion. Interestingly, studies of the subconscious mind raise significant questions regarding this interpretation. The subconscious, it is generally acknowledged, was discovered by Sigmund Freud. Prior to Freud many people did things and didn’t know why. Now we know, despite debates about the details, that we have to consider the subconscious mind as well as the more familiar conscious one.

I’ve been on a Through the Wormhole kick lately. Since we don’t have television, I have to watch the episodes after they air, but at least I have the option of doing this when I have some time. I recently watched the subconscious episode. The truly amazing takeaway from this was that our minds often, daily, in fact, operate on a level that we know nothing about. There are ways of tapping into the subconscious mind—meditating, as I mentioned earlier this week, is one way. Others are more scientific. Stimulating areas of the brain with small amounts of electricity can enhance abilities that we never knew we had. In fact, we might even be able to enact a Matrix-like download of information. I think I may have swallowed the blue pill after all.

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Call it a gut-level reaction, but I have always had a strong resistance to the idea that we are mere automatons. Consciousness, which, increasingly we’re discovering, involves a dose of subconsciousness, doesn’t feel at all like a we’re programmed. Theologically, I always objected to the strange notion of predestination. It made no sense, theologically, or experientially. One very wise professor once told our class, “If you want to test this, tell your spouse that you’ve got her or him completely figured out. They will do something you don’t expect.” Our minds are perhaps the most miraculous parts of human beings. The concept that we are merely following the pre-determined laws of physics makes no sense unless we believe in a literal Hell that we’ve made of this world. Are we programmed to self-destruct? I believe not. Whether in my conscious mind or in the true mind that lies underneath it.

God on the Brain

HowGodChangesBrainThose of us with scientifically oriented minds, but with affinity for the less quantifiable aspects of life, tend toward academic study of the humanities. It is not unusual for someone with a background in the hard sciences to dismiss such “softer” fields as less rigorous at best, or, at worst, a sheer waste of time. Many people in the humanities cower under this cloud of being considered somehow inferior for not being able to put numbers to everything. I suspect that’s why I find neuroscience so fascinating. While still teaching at Nashotah House, I would prompt students to think that whatever decisions they made about ancient texts, those decisions were mediated, in a very real way, by their brains. We don’t understand brains completely, but I’m amazed at what we have discovered so far. Years ago I read the book, Why God Won’t Go Away. It was an eye-opening study of what brain mapping reveals during states of religious inspiration, or at least, intense meditation or prayer. We can, to an extent, see inside someone’s head while they are communing with the other.

I recently became aware of the new book by Andrew Newberg (lead author on Why God Won’t Go Away) and Mark Robert Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist. I was a bit nervous at first, since I couldn’t recall how reductionistic Newberg was in his initial book on the subject. Neuroscientists sometimes perceive the world as being, in a sense, as all in our heads. I was pleased to see that Newberg and Waldman recognize that the “God question” is an open one. They address it right up front. I was drawn to the book because of one of their conclusions that had leaked into the footnote of something else I’d been reading: the brain changes as soon as it is introduced to the concept of God. Brain wiring is continually changing, but the takeaway here is that as soon as we introduce our children to the God concept, their brains will not unlearn it. It stays with us for life. Changing concepts about God is therefore quite difficult. Few even try.

This book, however, doesn’t see this as necessarily negative. In fact, the authors challenge the horsemen of atheism in that all studies seem to indicate that religion is actually good for you. Particularly meditation. In a world that is increasingly run on stress (just ask any business-person) this is an important reminder that prayer, or meditation, can actually heal some of the brain damage caused by life in a stressful environment. The nice thing about this is that the empirical evidence seems to be pretty strong. Our brains seem to be telling us to relax, step back, and not take all of this so seriously. Those are layman’s terms, of course, filtered through my brain. Even reading this book made me feel much more relaxed. It reminded me why, for much of my life, monastic living has seemed so very appealing. Instead, I live in the secular world with its many rewards and stresses. If I learned anything from this wonderful little book, I will be spending a bit more quiet time each day, and won’t be feeling guilty about it at all.

Growing Up

WakingUpI am in two minds about Sam Harris’s Waking Up. Literally. I haven’t read Harris since The End of Faith, and I have to admit that I found Waking Up to be a very engaging book. I can’t agree with everything Harris writes—that’s an occupational hazard of acquiring advanced degrees—but to have a scientist, an atheist no less, praise spirituality felt incredibly genuine. Spiritual experiences happen. I’ve had a few doozies over the years. I’ve also read a number of scientists who tell me they’re all an illusion. Harris admits that consciousness is a mystery. His use of “mind” instead of “brain” won me over from the beginning. I discovered that the atheist can also be a seeker. Dogmatism, of whatever stripe, is the enemy.

Harris has considerable experience meditating. This is no activity for posers or wimps. It is, despite minimal physical demands, hard work. Throughout the book we get the sense that Buddhism is among the least objectionable religions, when divested of its myths. I do wonder, however, if demythologized Christianity was ever given a fair chance. From my own experience, some of the selflessness advocated by Harris can be found in taking aspects of Christianity seriously. I understand, I think, Harris’s objections to religion. It can, and does, lead to horrors both obvious and subtle. Yet, every once in a perhaps great while, it does offer redemption. Meditation, for example, has its roots in religious practice. It is this that Harris calls spirituality. And it is good.

A Guide to Spirituality without Religion is an apt subtitle for this brutally honest and open book. Harris’s knowledge as a neuroscientist endows his ideas with great authority. He opines, and he is not alone, that meditation demonstrates that “I” is only an illusion. This loss of self will haunt me for some time. For decades I is all I seem to have. Still, I am pleased to find an open-minded scientist on this same path I tread. Raised to be both spiritual and religious set the trajectory of my otherwise logic-driven life. You can’t go back and change all that, but you can grow up. To read of Harris’s spiritual experiences in the geography of great spiritual masters as well as in the laboratory instill in this reader a profound hope. Whether or not this reader is merely an illusion. There may be morning after this long night, after all.