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.

Breathwork and sensed energy

In an earlier post, I described my experience with transformational breathwork and the Wim Hof method. I’ve continued to practice these, and to do some online sessions with the breathwork instructor from the retreat I attended late last year. In looking around for more information on breathwork, I came across a book by David Lee called “Life force: Sensed Energy in Breathwork, Psychedelia and Chaos Magic” (Norwich: The Universe Machine, 2018).

Lee gives an overview of and simple instructions for ten types of breathwork, as well as discussing their various purposes and effects, and the relationships between them. This is interesting enough, but his approach to understanding breathwork completely changed my experience of it. He describes the book as an exploration of “sensed energy” and schemes of belief that work best for experiencing, cultivating and manipulating these subtle sensations. In particular, he frames breathwork in terms of the arousal and relaxation of sensed energy.

Transformational breathing produces within minutes a tingling within the hands and feet and a sense of energy surging around the body. Lee advises to simply witness this energy as it circulates and coalesces into definite sensations and emotions. Layers of unresolved emotion may surface and the high level of sensed energy helps them to resolve. So breathwork may untangle pain and discomfort from the past. Lee describes how to modulate the intensity of the breathwork to hover in the space between suppression of this unresolved material and its too intense activation, allowing a process of resolution to occur, rather than repression or re-traumatizing. I certainly experience intense emotions at times during breathwork, and the periods of “tantrum” and application of pressure to particular points on the body enable you to intensify and experience or release these intense emotions.

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