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I’m not going to spend too much time discussing the pros and cons of each side. The essence of the argument is whether the mind is a product of the body, created with it and ending with the death of the physical body. Or whether the mind is a separate non-corporeal entity which becomes attached to the body and moves on to other things when the physical body dies. There is huge debate about this amongst the atheists and evolutionary scientists, and those who believe in God or some higher intelligence and purpose in the universe.
Part of the confusion comes from the language.
- The brain is not the same as the mind
- The mind is not the same as consciousness
- Consciousness is not the same as awareness
We tend to equate awareness with being conscious and thinking with our mind. When we are asleep and unconscious we are still very much alive, and our brain has some awareness of what is going on around us (we will awaken immediately if there is an emergency), but our conscious mind is not operating.
We don’t generally remember much of our early life until we about 3 years old (there are possible exceptions including reports of in-womb memories). We don’t recall previous lives (most of us don’t, but it has proved difficult to conclusively prove those who claim that they do), and nobody has yet given conclusive proof of out-of-body experiences although there are some very plausible accounts from near death experiences which are often during hospital operations.
For most of us it seems that only when we are awake and conscious with brain activity in our prefrontal cortex, that we have a mind and thus it is dependant on the electrical signal activity in the brain. Out of body experiences during meditation are explained away as hallucinations due to brain chemicals and lack of other sensory input. A lack of oxygen does result in flashes of light appearing at the back of the retina – the tunnel of light reported by people having an NDE. At the same time, if one consciously enters this state during deep meditation you can learn a great deal about how the brain operates – an impossible experience during the normal waking state. If we had conclusive evidence of past life experiences or out-of-body experiences (OOBE’s) then it would prove the case for mind separate from the body – but this has yet to be done. The many reports do highlight the presence of different states of consciousness which supports the experiences that many people report during meditation.
When Darwin published his theory of evolution, some scientists jumped on this as a silver bullet that explained everything about evolution. Certainly there is a mutation and variation between generations that mean that some physical bodies survive better than others. But it is acknowledged that spontaneous mutation also occurs, and that environmental factors have a part to play in activating genes. If evolution is a law of the universe, where did this universal law come from? It implies that there may be some laws or higher intelligence (or consciousness) underlying or permeating the universe.
The problem is that when most of us start thinking about these subjects and arguing their point of view, we are doing so using the ego and the Default Mode Network (DMN). Whilst it has access to memories and experiences and learnings, the ego is not the highest intelligence in our brain. The key to understanding the mind-body problem is to tackle it with the higher executive functions of the brain. These questions don’t trouble the great spiritual masters – they are only troubling to us when we are discussing and debating using our egos. Contemplating or reflecting on these questions in a quiet meditative state is a great exercise for the faculties of the prefrontal cortex, and you are more likely to get the answers you seek that way.
Dualists and Advaita
The discussions have often lead to people taking sides with one of two camps. The dualists, who believe there is God and there is man (good and evil, angels and devils) – there is a physical body and a spiritual essence and these are separate. And the non-dualists, the Advaita philosophers who argue that there is no separation, it is all one. I encourage you to consider these things during deep meditation rather than getting in to debates with the egos of other people, or reading long treatises.
Quote from Tielhard de Chardin: “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.”
This debate over the mind-body problem will continue for a long time. The spiritual masters of the past and present are not troubled by this question, and when each of us are actively using our higher executive brain functions and not being dominated by the ego, we will get all the answers we seek.