“The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.“.. Albert Einstein.
No one can doubt that the origin of all mystical experience, whether it is presumed to be real or imaginary, is the brain. And if we examined the brains of a Buddhist, a Christian, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Hindu and a Jew we would find the same model, more or less, in every case, just as we would find one mechanism of blood pressure and flow, one of cellular division and so on. But while for the body there is only one school of haematology and one of physiology, where unusual states of the brain are concerned there are literally hundreds of different schools of psychiatry. Despite all these approaches and the advanced technology identifying functional areas of the brain, nobody can say yet what the nature of consciousness really is.
The basic problem is how intangible thought came to be joined with solid matter so that a unique and persistent pattern, i.e. the personality, is created and maintained throughout our life (and re-established, as far as possible, after physical damage). The surprising idea that at some level, however deep or under whatever conditions, consciousness can be part of whatever mysterious stuff comprises matter, does not fit with our tendency to classify mind and matter separately. Another puzzle is how the brain could possibly repair itself overnight during sleep, or after injuries, in a manner beyond highly skilled surgeons. The discovery of DNA revealed an astounding mechanism behind the formation and occasional malformation of the physical body, in which two metres of this remarkable molecule exist inside each of our 100 trillion cells. But, though we can vouch for the presence of our own consciousness, it cannot be detected by any external means known to man, meaning firstly that its source, components, quality or strength cannot be measured, and secondly, that the intellect has no way to cross the frontier standing between the comprehensible physical world, and our own self.
In a similar way, sight never detects sound, or touch detects hearing, and so on. The different biological machinery required to detect a given aspect of the Universe means that any aspect of it can be hidden or revealed only according to the sensory equipment given to a life form. We have no knowledge, for example, of polarised light, magnetic signals, or ultraviolet and infrared light which are commonly used in the insect and animal world. Each sensory mechanism casts the world in a completely different light; for example, if we could detect neutrinos, we would be able to see right through the planet.
All of the confusion in the field of psychiatry means that unlike the physical sciences, the intellectual study of the mind is not yet on a stable foundation: while the discovery of DNA overturned assumptions and superstitions about heriditable qualities, creating an entirely new scientific field of research, no such revolution has yet been made in the field of consciousness. Psychiatrists must still act like a plumber doing his level best to fix leaks despite never knowing where the water comes from, how it can be stored, what causes its ebb and flow, and why it can dry up alarmingly or be delivered in a toxic and dangerous condition. Or even what water actually is.
That there could be hundreds of differing schools of psychiatry is puzzling, considering that mental illness is, unfortunately, a very common phenomenon, and professionals have been free for decades to study millions of confirmed cases. Instead of the firm conclusions one would expect, the causes of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and paranoia, the binary nature of depression and creativity, or insanity and genius, the reasons for the recent rises in autism, Alzheimers or ADD and so on, are all completely unknown. A genetic link is becoming clear, and their steady increase points to a mechanism of some sort. But what that mechanism is, nobody can say.
Bearing all this in mind, the fact that there are many religions and breakaway groups with conflicting claims and beliefs is not to be wondered at, since the brain, the organ from which the puzzling edifice of religion grows, is still a mystery, and far from being common, mystical experience is the rarest of all exceptional mental states: documentation regarding known cases is hundreds or even thousands of years old, often couched in ancient, symbolic, or cryptic language, and has been subject to numerous revisions, interpretations and translations. The real wonder is how they have survived at all, still form part of the daily thinking of billions of people, and command the attention of some of the most intelligent minds on Earth in inumerable books, debates, critiques, denouncements and rebuttals.
Therefore the surprise feigned by critics of religion and the mockery which invariably follows, at the idea that each faith knows the truth, is completely unwarranted, and does not arise after a logical assessment, for which they have neither the time or inclination, but because of a personal dislike. We never ridicule a professional on the basis of diverging views within his field, if for no other reason than he has at least dedicated his life to a subject that we as laymen know almost nothing about. To an unbiased mind, there is ample scope for disagreement about what constitutes genuine mystical experience and what path should be followed to achieve it. All we know for sure is that belief in the spirit has been an inseparable companion on the human journey for at least the last 200,000 years – judging from evidence of ceremonial burials – and must be inextricably linked to the brain.
The public discussions between articulate atheists and religious spokesmen are well attended by intellectuals and thinkers, which would hardly be the case if the debate was over the flatness of the Earth. The only result is that the question as to what keeps religion in the psyche of so many billions of people, in spite of all efforts to discredit it, is far from satisfied: though mocked by some and accepted by others, the global and age-old phenomenon of religion is never explained in an unpartisan and credible way.
At present, the intellect struggles to cope with the complexity and the diverse fields of research at the boundaries of all the major fields of science. Surprising new discoveries – new species, planets, subatomic behaviour, twists in the DNA saga, nanotechnology – still appear every week but to make headway, a scientist must become so specialised that he cannot possibly keep up with all research in his own field, let alone that of all others. With only superficial research on the web, I happened to find that malformed hemaglobin molecules are not left to clog up the cells but are marked for disassembly and returned to their point of manufacture within the cell, where the components are recycled: a fact which took a clinical haematologist of twenty years standing completely by surprise.
For the layman, the position is even worse. One day he is advised that red meat is safe, the next, that it dramatically raises the risk of cancer. The same alarming swerves apply to other everyday products such as wine, dairy and even fruit – all part of our daily diet for thousands of years and subject to decades of research. With such conflicting views about even commonplace activities, the scientific establishment is starting to lose credibility: recently the announcement of a visible crystalline substance which rendered objects underneath it invisible, was greeted not with awe but derision in a national newspaper. One wag wrote: “I have invented the same kind of invisibility material: a plank of wood.”
Annoyance at this apparent confusion is not limited to the general public: the Annals of Oncology recently complained that the World Cancer Research Fund published its review on how to avoid cancer, focusing on diet and never once mentioning the dangers of smoking, despite it being responsible for around 30% of cancer deaths, compared to around 3% for diet:
“After decades of research activity, we still do not know how we need to change what we eat to reduce our cancer risk. It is a clear priority to establish a strategy to understand the causes of those cancers not related to tobacco smoking or other established risk factors. The way forward has to be through the development of meaningful biomarkers which may reflect the nutritional factors relevant to carcinogenesis and which also will allow randomised trials to be of shorter duration.”
Can such typically vague and tentative wording fire the enthusiasm of researchers, or galvanise a generation of youth to descend on Washington and crusade for a better future? No.
Recently a Scientific American article appeared to show that most people trust the advice of scientists: some pages later, a graphic revealed that obesity in America had increased so drastically in the last two decades that more people are now obese than healthy, and a very large proportion dangerously so. So either the advice is faulty, or not being communicated effectively. Or perhaps nobody is listening anymore. The first article, on closer inspection, actually showed that scientifically literate people (19% having PhDs) generally trust the advice of scientists.
Religion is the one field currently unexamined by science. As far as I know, no genetic or biological studies of lifestyles incorporating and excluding spiritual practices have been made or are planned. Without this research, it is as unscientific to dismiss religion as it is to dismiss it on the pretext that corruption is found in religious institutions. The same corruption is found every day in business and government and treated for what it is – predictable human behaviour, without feeling the need to scrap all business or government. Critics of religious hypocrisy are correct to point it out – but they should also note there are health professionals who get ill, and lung surgeons who smoke. There are politicians, tasked with organising countries, whose personal life is in chaos, comedians suffering from depression, pacifists in the army, and teachers of music unable to identify real talent. There are elderly chairmen of directors still in the grip of childish tantrums, stock market chiefs and bankers who take catastrophic risks, traffic police who habitually break the speed limit, and probably cobblers whose children run barefoot!
The reason why external studies of the brain, even if they continue for hundreds of years, will never reveal the nature of consciousness, is because consciousness is detectable only by consciousness itself. Meditation and other mystical practices are, in effect, the brain focusing on its own source. Various parts of the brain become thicker and more active as a result of the continued practice of meditation, and it is these areas which are involved in detecting what, exactly, thought is, and from where it emerges. This hunger for information about our own selves, for information about the origin of what actually comprises our consciousness, is what drives people towards religion. The lack of scientific research on what constitutes healthy religion and what is downright dangerous is the reason why the field of religion is currently in the same state as that of medicine in the days of snake oil salesmen and magic charms. It took dedicated and talented researchers to unravel the secrets of the human body, of infection, bacteria and so on – and it will take a hundred times more effort to unravel the intricate forms of exceptional mental states. So far, none has been invested in religion, for the reason that much of it remains clouded by superstition and ancient dogma, which the scientist feels degrades it beneath his attention; its persistent re-appearance in daily life can be a source of intense irritation to him. “Have your own bloody Christmas,” as Christopher Hitchens once said in a debate.
The only logical reason for mysticism to exist is if whatever underlies the physical surface of the Universe is of a completely different nature than that detectable by the senses. If this were not so, it would mean a straightforward end to any investigation whether into atomic structures, biological machinery, multiple dimensions, psychic phenomena and so on, and if the brain were limited to the everyday performance usually expected of it, then widespread interest in mysticism should never exist in the first place, even by Darwinian logic; after all, those with no sympathy for music show no interest in creating it. It would be tantamount to eyes existing without light, ears without sound, or the circuitry for intellect in a chaotic Universe without laws or any predictable events – a world where reasoning could serve no purpose.
If we were to close our eyes and trace the contours of a Van Gogh comprised of thick, impasto oil paint, we might begin to detect the outlines and guess as to what the picture represented. Piling up this huge sensory input and trying to amalgamate it would require superhuman memory and concentration, be liable to error, and still reveal nothing about colour and perspective or that indefinable quality of emotion which artists hope to transmit. Yet, even a moment’s glimpse of the picture and its real nature would register immediately in a blaze of colour. Eyesight would supercede the sense of touch, and explain its mistaken assumptions when it was acting, as best it could, in the dark. Every puzzling texture is now seen for what it really is, and our minds are linked immediately with Vincent’s emotions. How can we describe the colourful image, filled with optical tricks and exuberant flourishes to a person blind from birth? How could we explain our certainty that it was not created to be touched, but to be seen?
Likewise, reading a musical score for a violin we could form an impression of the melody and tempo. But if presented with a dozen pages of the scores for sixty instruments of an entire orchestra, along with songsheets for the accompanying gospel choir, the sense of sight is overwhelmed, and the brain saturated with data which it cannot possibly collate in real time. The only way to integrate the thousands of dots representing changes in pitch and intensity is to use hearing. A few moments listening and all the grandeur, subtlety, harmony and emotion of the performance meets with our consciousness, along with the realisation that its real nature can never be represented in print, or to those born without hearing.
The erroneous belief that mystical experience can suspend normal laws of physics or provide a handy escape from our own lives and responsibilities leads many to seek gurus and miraculous displays, and is used to advantage by frauds such as Sai Baba, who “materialises” golden orbs from inside his mouth, to the hysteria of the crowd. Behind such displays and hero worship are – surprise! – a life of sexual and financial extravagance. The ignorance of the crowds, along with the possibility of ruthlessly exploiting them, will cease once science devotes even a fraction of its superb ingenuity to unravelling the biological basis of mysticism.
The difficulty with explaining the nature of the Universe through physics and equations alone, is in relying entirely on the intellect. Even if the Grand Unified Theory were to be found, it could never be explained satisfactorily to the everyday person. It might well influence future technology, but the true nature of the discovery would never enter the mass mind, just as a table of wavelengths would never excite the same interest as the sight of a rainbow appreciated even by small children, that is, by a natural facility already existing in the brain. For the everyday person, there is still confusion about the Theory of Relativity, a century after it was announced. Stephen Hawkins’ A Brief History of Time is a wonderful book but the concepts resist repeated readings, and generally remain a mystery outside the world of physics.
Instead of being scholars, the mystics of the past were generally poorly educated. Or, as in the case of Buddha, they discarded worldly pressures which would otherwise have used up all the resources of their brain. They were free to accelerate the evolutionary processes and prise open the tenth door, a sense within the brain itself. This acceleration was not without risk, as was known to the ancient Indian sages, and needed a stern will and self control, but its natural long-term development within the race, and its biological roots, are aspects of mystical experience as verifiable as the optic centre or the auditory chambers. Its development is a serious matter, and can no more be conjured up by a quick read through a trendy book and some wishful thinking, than an Olympic athlete be instantly made out of an obese, malicious, self-obsessed or genetically deteriorated individual averse to any exercise of their own self control. These are the precautions Nature has put in place to safeguard the brain’s most powerful facility.
These spiritual luminaries did not concentrate on pulling rabbits out of their hats, but instead led simple, unadorned lives, leaving behind a spiritual wisdom couched in forceful, timeless language. It is a shocking sign of the dearth of understanding in this material age, that sleight of hand should be confused with these spiritual prodigies. It would be better if these hucksters, televangelists, and cult leaders worked a miracle on themselves, refunded the money of their devotees, and disappeared altogether.
The actual reason mysticism is said to transcend reality is because it arises from a specific part of the brain, perhaps predisposed in some genetic way, perhaps trained by meditation or aided by a certain way of life, interacting with an aspect of the Universe not detectable by the physical senses. It gives immediate insight not into the physical world but the world of life behind it, and the fundamental nature of mind. The unity of all living entities, the eternal nature of consciousness and its relation to the Cosmos are common traits of mystical experience, and the distant echoes of these reports are the ancient spiritual texts of mankind. The Sermon on the Mount, the Discourses of Buddha, the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita and Qu’ran can still move the heart more than all the centuries of critiques and denials which trailed in their wake, for the reason that they emanated from a deeper consciousness, via spiritual genius which committed its brain not to a pile of gold or the memorisation of truckloads of books, but an exploration of the inner world.
A similar quality can be found in the experience of genius, where ideas can arise in a flash as if out of nowhere, filling the mind with excitement and gratitude, in a brain somehow prepared and receptive. Genius is already close to mystical experience. But in mysticism the brain has risen one step further, sensing not only new ideas but the source from which they emerge. In other words, the journey begins away from the physical world, and toward the origin of consciousness itself, through the organ of the human brain. This is the true power behind an eloquence which outlasted empires and mighty civilisations. Not for nothing have some religions marked the crown of the head as a sacred point, depicting it in ancient paintings as emitting a halo of light, or adorning it with caps or turbans, or representing it with the thousand petalled white lotus of the ancient yoga treatises.
Further accenting the importance of the brain, mystical experience has been most common around the age of 33 – 40, the period at which the brain and nervous system mature. Jesus and Buddha are both said to have reached enlightenment at this age. Mohammed’s visions and revelations began at this time also. Gifted with this experience, it can hardly be surprising if an agrarian mind raised in humble surroundings at a time when it was supposed that the Earth was the centre of a modest Universe, might have felt he was face to face with God himself. The indescribable otherworldliness of this vision easily explains the cryptic phrase “the kingdom of Heaven is within.”
It is for this reason mysticism has been held in such high regard in every culture and age. It is for this reason that even a single flash of mystical experience carries more impact than an entire lifetime spent in study. With such an illumination into the world of life from which our own self has somehow arisen, the personality is changed forever. These are the human experiences which launched the major religions of today; despite distortions, their sometimes fantastic interpretations, and the vicissitudes of the centuries, they form a cherished bulwark of hope for billions still drawn to their beauty. Instinctive recognition of our own evolutionary destiny is the reason why prophets are held to be beyond reproach, beyond criticism, and even sacred or divine, as they have been the rarest class of humans ever to walk the Earth.