Atheism and Spirituality

Late last year I volunteered to participate in a research study on psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences.  I completed an online survey and later was interviewed by the principal researcher in a more than hour long semi-structured zoom interview. In the survey, I had answered a question on religious affiliation with “Atheist”. During the interview, the interviewer expressed surprise that I practiced Zen meditation as she equated atheism with a materialist philosophy.  I in turn was surprised at her assuming that a spiritual practice implied a belief in God or gods, particularly as my practice was to a large extent within a Zen Buddhist context, which does not treat the historical Buddha as a god or invoke concepts of gods.

I refined my thoughts on this topic in several online discussions, where I found both religious believers and some other atheists were very hostile to the idea that an atheist could have a spiritual practice. And I noticed that some of the atheists who did say they were spiritual, defined “spiritual” in terms of experiences like the enjoyment of a sunset or a moving piece of music, or the feeling of being part of nature.  

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Zazen, left brain, right brain, self

During the last COVID wave, while activities were restricted and I was largely staying at home, I intensified my zazen (sitting meditation) practice. With more attention to my  practice, I was surprised to find I was easily sitting for 45 minutes and spending less of that time lost in thoughts and more time simply being present here-now aware of the arising and passing on random thoughts, sensations and sensory inputs.

There are four main categories of things that distract my attention from being here-now:

  • Largely verbalised thought sequences. These can be somewhat spontaneous, jumping across subjects and concerns, or more focused on solving a problem, thinking through a situation or piece of work to be done, planning, strategizing, worrying, pondering the past or future.
  • Distracting sensory stimuli with associated thoughts and emotions, eg. An intrusive noise, an insect flying around or crawling on my skin, an itch, or an ache or pain.
  • Images that appear in the minds eye. These can be random or connected.
  • Full-blown dream-like visions or daydreams, sometimes short, sometimes long.

I also occasionally experience auditory or olfactory hallucinations. For example, a voice saying something, or a distinct smell.  But these are rare.

I’ve been paying attention to these distractors, the so-called monkey mind, and getting better at observing them arise and letting them go, rather than being mindlessly caught up in them, and discovering some minutes later that I have been completely lost in a train of thought or a daydream. And I have increasing periods when I am sitting in awareness here-now, without thoughts or other types of mental distractions. My attention may be on the breath (sensation, following, counting), or on a koan key word, or simply on what is arising in consciousness (shikantaza).

In the last week or so, I have become aware from time to time that hidden in my awareness there is a non-verbal though process going on. Because it does not involve conceptual thinking or quasi-verbal expression, it is difficult to notice. But I have realized that there is a part of me still thinking in some sense in a non-verbal way. This tends to be about some sort of witnessing by my observing awareness and a judging process about the extent to which I am present “here-now”. I tentatively concluded that my monkey mind was very very clever, and was trying to get around my practice of letting go of thoughts (those largely verbalized or visual sequences) by finding a much less obvious way to think non-verbally. But then I came across another possibility.

Last night I was reading about the split-brain research of Roger Sperry and others nearly 50 years ago, resulting in Sperry receiving the 1981 Nobel Prize for Medicine. The human brain consists of two hemispheres connected by several neural networks, the main one being the corpus callosum. In patients whose corpus callosum had been surgically cut in half (to prevent epilepsy) the two hemispheres had little communication and function largely independently. In particular, in most people, the left hemisphere is largely responsible for verbal communication, and the right more dominant in reading and displaying emotions, and in spatial and musical processing. For a fascinating and more detailed summary of this research, see Sam Harris’s 2014 book Waking Up (highly recommended). In particular, he explains why this research leads to the conclusion that the two hemispheres of the split brain are independently conscious.

A key experiment involved flashing a word, say “Egg”, to the left half of the visual field, processed by the non-verbal right brain, and the subject (speaking from the language-dominant left brain) will say they saw nothing. When asked to reach behind a partition and select an object with his left hand (controlled by the right brain), he will select the egg. Ask him to name the object he now holds in his left hand without allowing the left brain to get a look at it, and he will be unable to reply. The right brain is “thinking” and it knows that it saw the word egg and can recognize the feel of an egg and select it, but does not have the words to express that.

Is it possible that the time spent training my consciousness to let go of thought trains has enabled me to develop the skill of doing so for left-brain verbal thought trains, but not so much for the right brain’s non-verbal thinking?  Its quite exciting to think I may actually be noticing the much more subtle non-verbal thinking of the right brain, usually well and truly overspoken by my quite strongly developed verbal-cognitive thought processes. These have been quite strongly developed by a career focused on mathematical and statistical modelling, where I’ve learnt to play out quite complex analytic processes in my head before implementing them in a computer program or spreadsheet.  I’m not too much of a mansplainer I hope, but definitely a left-brain-splainer. 

In any case, I am now also paying attention to these more subtle thoughts arising, and seeking to let them go the same way I have been letting go of the more verbal or visual thought trains. But I wonder whether the left-brain chatter and the more subtle right-brain awareness are disengaging while I sit zazen, and perhaps becoming two somewhat more separated selves, or perhaps no self at all.

Is ASMR an altered state of consciousness?

A few days ago, I was watching Would I Lie to You (WILTY), a BBC panel show in which contestants have to bluff about their deepest secrets…and the opposing team have to find out which ones are true. One of the best things on TV.  On this particular episode, a mystery guest Charlotte came onto the show, and each member of one team had to explain how they knew Charlotte.  Joe Lycett claimed that “In the evenings, I like to relax by watching videos of her wrapping gifts on YouTube. “

It turned out to be true. Afterwards, I looked up Charlotte on YouTube and found a video of her wrapping presents.

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Brainwave entrainment

The basic idea of brainwave entrainment is to use an external periodic stimulus to cause wave1brainwave frequencies to fall into step with it at a frequency corresponding to the intended brain-state (for example, to induce sleep or meditative states). There is good evidence that the human brain has a tendency to change its dominant EEG frequency towards the frequency of a dominant external stimulus. Such a stimulus may be aural, as in the case of binaural or monaural beats and isochronic tones,or light (visual), or a combination of the two with a mind machine.

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