Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Illusory Self & Healing

What you saw was an illusory me running up an illusory tree.
Advaita founder, Adi Shankara, explaining his escape from a wild elephant

The Nour Foundation and Krista Tippett recently hosted a conference entitled To Be or Not to Be: The Self as Illusion. I found the discussion interesting as it introduced a point of view I don’t usually consider:

during cardiac arrest (we) know that the function of the brain stops; there's no blood flow in the brain. Within two seconds patients become unconscious, and the function of the cortex is gone, so there are no body reflexes, no pain reflexes; but also the abolition of brainstem activity is demonstrable, with the loss of the gag reflex and of the corneal reflex. Fixed and dilated pupils are found. The function of the respiratory center, located close to the brainstem, fails, resulting in apnea (no breathing). The clinical findings are that there's no function of the brain… the electrical activity in the cerebral cortex (but also in the deeper structures of the brain in animals) has been shown to be absent after 10–20 seconds (a flat-line EEG)…
I was raised as a physician and on the idea that consciousness was just a product of the function of the brain. As a cardiologist I was involved in many, many resuscitations. The moment I started to ask patients who had survived a cardiac arrest…if they had memories of the period of cardiac arrest, which is called clinical death… To my big surprise 12 out of 50 patients who had survived a cardiac arrest told me about an enhanced consciousness during this period of a supposedly nonfunctioning brain...In my view nonlocal or enhanced consciousness is received and not produced by the body.
Pim van Lommel, MD

Or, as Tippett restated the conclusion, “it’s not so much that the body produces consciousness, but rather that the body resides IN consciousness.” And this is what they discovered when the breathing stopped. The image of the breath stopping and consciousness continuing brings to mind the Taoist technique of primordial breathing during which the breath becomes increasingly more subtle, and may cease altogether. This can also happen during meditation and the feeling I’ve always experienced is that at this point breath is drawn not from air, but something much subtler - from prana or the life energy itself. At such moments you really feel beyond bodily confines.

I had out-of-body experiences myself as a young man, and in the beginning, they were extremely realistic and very convincing…They occurred in the context of very long ten-week meditation retreats. In the beginning I thought to myself, “Oh, boy, have you been so arrogant! All these stories about soul travel and astral bodies are literally true!” It was really shocking.
Now, I think they’re all complex hallucinations…
What gave me doubt about out-of-body experiences was that a friend, a professor of psychology asked me, “In an out-of-body state how do you move, say, from one point to another; when you’ve left your body and then you go to try to flip a light switch and it doesn't work and then you go to the window and try to fly out.” Initially, I was firmly against my friend's inquiries … And then I realized I don't walk during an out-of-body experience, instead I am in one place one moment and then in another place another moment, without any awareness of moving between the two places. So there are actually breaks or holes between memory points in terms of how movement is experienced in the out-of-body state. These breaks show us that out-of-body experiences are actually internal models the brain tries to create, and that these models have certain gaps because the brain creates them.

Thomas Metzinger, philosopher

The breaks and holes that Metzinger points out sound very much like Buddhist emptiness teachings on the arising and dissolution of any experience. The Buddhists conclude: there is no self or, at best, only an illusory self.

Yet too, this arising and dissolution reminds me of quantum physics’ story that discrete particles of material creation arise from the emptiness of the vacuum only to dissolve. Yet, we like to think that material reality is REAL - there is an objective reality existing “out there” outside the subjective nature of my mind.

I have been questioning what exactly is Real and what hallucination for several decades now. That’s why I call this blog, “Seeing for Myself.” I wanted my investigation to be experienced based. My Experience: real or illusion? How am I to rationalize experiences I have had, but would never have expected, given the scientific perspective of my upbringing? DO I need to go outside the paradigm?

Over the years my conclusions have swung dramatically. I had just about decided there is no such thing as a hallucination – all the “myths” are real, “all possibilities exist”… when the exact opposite: “it’s All an illusion,” could no longer be ignored. These days I am left straddling the fence. And I think this might be useful.

I revisit this issue again as I think about healing. How does healing really work? I mean nitty-gritty, rotting disease getting reversed. Mystics can proclaim “The world is illusion” as much as they want, but in the end, no one wants a brick dropped on their foot. The damage appears quite real. Sometimes it’s irreparable. And sometimes, the doctors have to hit “control, alt, delete” because observation doesn’t seem to jibe with pre-established fact.

But, if it is deeply true that reality springs into the mind in a discontinuous manner remarkably similar to material creation springing from the vacuum, then I think from time to time we ought to come across an example of the brick’s damage also presenting its self in discontinuous fashion, arising moment after moment from the gap in consciousness of self – and sometimes, changing just like that (snap the fingers) into another form called “healed”.

And so, I come to the story of Anita Moorjani, given 36 hours to live as her organs shut down from Hodgkins lymphoma. I don’t take this as a miracle or hallucination. I take it as mechanics of creation andmechanics of deep healing. Moorjani calls it, “Dying to be Me” which is great because yes, this is an issue ultimately rooted in the self, the true self and an illusory self. Curiously, she says that while on the other side she knew that if she chose to live the results of the blood tests would be changed to reflect that her organs weren’t in collapse. This is remarkably like the retroactive prayer and healing Joseph Rael described in House of Shattering Light.

...confusion exists because spiritual teachings point to something that doesn’t exist in the usual way. The nature of reality can’t be described or explained with words, and it can’t be experienced through the ordinary senses...
So we are left with a dilemma: It’s incomplete to say that there is no doer, it’s incomplete to say that everything is the doer, and it’s incomplete to say that I am the doer. It’s like a multiple choice test where all of the answers are wrong! Yet, what is it like to not have an answer? What’s it like to hold the question even when you’ve exhausted all of the possible answers?

Maybe it’s a way we can open ourselves to new forms of healing and new ways of being in the world.