Thursday, August 30, 2012

Faith and Those Magical Moments of the Mind

There are certain magical moments in our minds that we hardly ever pay attention to. They happen more often in some people than in others, but they are not uncommon to most of us. They happen almost as naturally as the beating of the heart, only they are something that we can control. The nature of these magical moments determines to a large degree the make-up of our lives. They are tremendously important. I refer to those moments that happen at the point when our thoughts are transformed into plans to act.

I watched this happen a few days ago with my wife. She had just received a new cookbook – something her sister had recommended. At first she just enjoyed turning the pages and looking at the pictures. Then I heard her mention how nice a few of the dishes looked. A few moments later, she mentioned that she had decided to prepare one of them for dinner the next day. As it turned out, it was quite delicious.

It was all very natural. There was no alarm that went off as soon as her thoughts became a decision. There was not even a realization that something important had happened. I noticed that it did change her mood a bit though. Instead of being relaxed and reflective, she became animated and galvanized to do something. These magical moments have a way of doing that.

What makes these decisions so magical is that they are hidden within us and yet, over a lifetime, they define who we are. A person who is aware of these decisions and learns to work with them has tremendous advantages. This is true in a practical quotidian sense and it is also true in a religious sense. When a decision is made with a focus on Christ, the person is exercising faith in Christ. This is the most magical kind of moment of all. It is important (in fact it is very important) that this kind of faith be distinguished from that ersatz faith that masquerades as passive reflection.

Of course not every decision that we make is morally significant. Much of the time decisions are fairly mundane. We may remember that our keys are in the car and decide to retrieve them. Or we may realize that the dog needs exercise and decide to take her on a walk.

Maybe it is a stretch to call these mundane moments magical. I’ll leave that up to you to decide. Magical or not, they are important enough as a general category to be aware of their significance. There are certainly decisions that are not magical: I mean bad decisions. These include many spontaneous decisions that are mere reactions to our changing environment.

Maybe we honk at a rude driver or say something because we are upset – only to regret it later. Or even worse we deliberately plan to cause somebody grief. As a society we reserve our harshest punishments for those who commit premeditated acts of violence. Clearly, all decisions are not good ones. With criminals as with saints, a powerful will is a force to be reckoned with. Sadly, so few of us use it for good as often as we should.

I am reminded of Emerson’s essay on Power where he argues that, “No matter how much faculty of idle seeing a man has, the step from knowing to doing is rarely taken.” And then as an example, he tells us that even among the very talented, knowing is only second best. “The good Speaker of the House is not the man who knows the secrets of parliamentary tactics, but the man who decides offhand.”

One of Emerson’s examples gives me pause. It is a note he makes about a man I admire quite a bit - a man who changed the world for the better because of his mental discipline. I refer to Isaac Newton. For Emerson, Newton’s success came because he “always intended [his] mind”. This is the sort of cerebration that changes the world: the arrival at intention – a truly magical place.

And yet, for all the hundreds of books and articles written about the mind, so little is mentioned about these magical moments. This is a real shame because this is the area that is truly human. The path from abstract thought to intention – especially of powerful intention - is a path that we hardly understand physiologically. And even though it would be the crowning breakthrough of our understanding of the brain, we shy away from it because it is too numinous. It comes too close to the great religious questions that we so studiously ignore.

Instead we read histories about mind / body dualism (stemming from Descartes). This was the understanding that the physical body (including the brain) was a very different thing than the thoughts and feelings that made up the mind. The one was comprised of substance, the other of a non-material substance of the spirit.

Among modern philosophers, the mind has taken on a different significance. It is becoming the focus for understanding freedom – or more commonly the academic illusion of freedom.

Among biologists it is being considered quite differently still. Studies of the mind fill dense physiological texts describing the action of nerve cells, and of the interaction of neurons between different parts of the brain. Some very fascinating work is being done considering the changes in the brain through human development. Many significant breakthroughs in our understanding of the brain have come from studying identical twins and from persons suffering from mental handicaps or diseases.

But notice that these technical studies are focused on the reducible brain. Almost nothing is mentioned about the mind in any higher sense. This is because of an unspoken agreement among credentialed researchers that forbids suggesting that the mind might be anything other than a neural epiphenomenon. To do so smacks of mysticism – something that must be avoided in mainstream science.

Take for example Carl Sagan’s influential The Dragons of Eden where he makes this clear from the start: “I will not in these pages entertain any hypothesis on what used to be called the mind-body dualism, the idea that inhabiting the matter of the body is something made of quite different stuff, called mind.” Most modern forays into brain science are not so explicit.

What happens is that the mind is considered strictly to be the result of a functioning brain. It is then neatly put aside as a subject for a later time when we have more facts to bring to the table. The reality is that this practice will never bring us closer to understanding the mind. We waited for the sequencing of the human genome to reveal secrets of the mind. It hasn’t been very revealing. We now wait for further breakthroughs in our understanding of gene expression. But what we get is better and better at understanding the basics of the mind (of mental awareness and sensation, for example) without even touching the miraculous moments when information is processed and decisions are made.

At least part of the reason for this is our refusal to take the will seriously. It is the will, after all, that makes all the difference during those magical moments of the mind. It is the will that turns reflection into intention. In short, it is the will that makes thing happen. But it is also the will, considering its own experiences in the light of religious truth, that becomes faith. It’s no wonder that we hardly hear of it anymore.

Take, for example, the very respectable Oxford Companion to the Mind. This is a thick book with over 800 pages and thousands of scholarly entries and yet there is virtually nothing written about the will. A brief biographical note referring to one Maine de Biran is all we get and this is just a historical note of little contemporary interest.

You see, the modern world has only a couple of ways to understand the will. It is either a part of the mind that is detected by the brain (i.e. it is different from the brain, making this a dualistic approach) or it is the product of evolution. No one seems to be considering the very basic possibility that the decision making part of the mind can be studied outside of a neurology lab. I’m not sure it even matters if we discover a neuronal or a genetic tie to the will. Either way, it is a part of us that touches the very heart of our search for God. We should be paying much closer attention.

Maybe some of this will happen as we better understand the way emotions interact with the mind. Some of this work is underway (for example in research being conducted by Candace Pert on the emotions of the mind). But there is much left to do.

In the meantime let me presume to ask for the involvement of religiously minded people in this effort. Right now the work is being done by a handful of well-meaning researchers with backgrounds in science and with little religious interest, or it is done by researchers with Eastern religious sympathies. I in no way mean to belittle Eastern religions. I am, however, arguing that our Western tradition of faith has a tremendous amount to say on the subject of the mind if we’ll just take a look. With the amount of new knowledge we are gathering about the brain, there is a pressing need for a faithful consideration of what this means about the mind.

An interesting example of how some of this is playing out revolves around the word mindfulness. Depending on your dictionary, mindfulness refers to awareness but it can also imply an intention to act. Dan Siegel, in his interesting work on mindfulness, emphasizes the great power of the aware mind. Individuals that embrace the present moment with curiosity, openness, acceptance and love (COAL) are much more effective at coping with life’s challenges and are more spiritually minded.

He shares the story of the author Diane Ackerman who, after suffering from a serious fall in Japan a number of years ago while looking for birds, practiced these awareness skills which ended up saving her life. Finding herself with several broken ribs and barely able to breathe, she managed to dissociate her pain and helplessness from her awareness and instead became mindful of the situation with Siegel’s COAL virtues. Because she was able to do so, she not only survived but thrived.

This kind of awareness has great potential for enriching our lives. It should also fall neatly within the purview of mind research. Unfortunately, it only seems to get an audience among modern spiritualists and their ilk. Part of this is due to the group’s Buddhist leanings. And I think this becomes apparent in the way the body is occasionally disregarded. Siegel’s awareness involves a kind of second person dissociation of the mind from the body - a sort of looking-in from the perspective of an out-of-body experience.

This legitimately comes from a long history of Buddhist understanding about human suffering and how it can be mitigated. We in the West have much we can learn from this tradition. Siegel and those few others that are looking into this area of the mind are to be congratulated.

But let me point out that this knowledge of focusing our attention, and the power that it can muster, is not a principle restricted to Eastern mystics like so many authors seem to suggest. The awareness that leads to moral decisions based on a confidence in Christ – in other words faith – is at the heart of what Christianity is all about. For every story like Ackerman’s there are hundreds of stories of others who have drawn upon their faith in Christ in extremis to achieve miraculous ends as well.

The cynic, who may accept the power of the mind in such circumstances, will argue that it is the psychology that is important, not the mental trick that is used. And in fact for Eastern mystics, controlling the mind and the body are certainly important. Our Christian heritage, however, is quite different. We haven’t paid much attention to meditative trances and extended periods of fasting since Christianity moved from the deserts of the Middle East. We have, however, paid a great deal of attention to the mystery of the atonement.

Both traditions deal with the strains of mortality very differently. The Eastern mystic turns to a practiced psychic state. The faithful Christian turns to prayer. The Eastern mystic will succeed to the extent that he mentally withdraws from the body. The Christian will succeed to the extent that she commits herself to God. This is not a passive acceptance of fate. It is an active decision. It is a magical moment of the mind. And there is a great deal of difference between this kind of faith and a mere escape from suffering. The man in Christ accepts that he may need to endure his own cross. In the end, mortality will be vanquished. Eternity is intended for glory, not for a disembodied dissolution.

One of the most obvious examples of this faithful focusing of the mind is the sacrament prayer of Latter-day Saints. I admit that we rarely consider it as such, but I believe it is meant to help us experience magical moments. Let me explain.

Every week in the sacrament prayers we acknowledge that we will always remember Christ. As a consequence, we are promised the constant companionship of the Holy Spirit. We don’t really think that we are expected to have Christ in mind at all times of our lives. We are mortal after all. We live in a world that requires our attention in a lot of different ways and during a lot of different times. But that perdurable word always can mean more than we think.

We normally think it means continuously. But it can also mean at every time. This is clear if I say, for example, that I always wake up at 5:00 a.m. I am not continuously waking up at 5:00 a.m., but every time it is 5:00 a.m., I do get up. In this sense the Sacrament Prayer promises that every time we remember Christ we will have His spirit to be with us. Here we begin to see how a mental exercise can be transformed into that all-powerful principle of faith. The promise is that anything we may be considering, if it is done in the light of Christ, can be transformed into a magical moment filled with Divine presence.

Every time we think of work or play, of spouse or child, of life or death we can have our inner compass directed by the Spirit of God. This can happen every time. In other words, it can happen always. When it does happen, those magical moments take on an entirely different significance. Our intention becomes a divinely directed intention. And it is this divinely directed intention that is the great unexplored region of true faith.

I say unexplored, but this is only true in a limited sense – in a scientific sense. The spiritual giants of our Judeo - Christian heritage have always known the power of a divinely inspired will. Perhaps our modern mind finds it algorithmically convenient to ignore. But the truth is obvious to those with the faith to see it. It is possible for a thought to be transformed – magically. It makes no Darwinian sense. It is hidden from the laboratory. And it cannot be measured with our most sophisticated tools. It can, however, transform the life of a sinner. And it can change the world if we will, magically.

Emerson’s essay Power is in The Conduct of Life (reprinted in the Library of America’s Emerson, Essays and Lectures, 1983). Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden was published in 1977 by Random House. I quote from page 7. The Oxford Companion to the Mind (edited by Richard L. Gregory) was published by Oxford University Press in 1987. Dan Siegel’s essay Reflections on the Mindful Brain can be found in Measuring the Immeasurable published by Sounds True in 2008.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Birds and I

The sea is turquoise
And the cliffs austere,
The plangent pounding
Of the waves

The gulls are glad
To heed themselves
When we are
Shadows far away

But we are just
As real as they
And need companions
In the world

Not to impose upon
A nesting shore
Our vagrant errantries
Of self

But to imagine
More than sand,
Our souls beyond the
Broken drift of sea

For we are here
The birds and I
In spite of all the
Things I thought to be