Saturday, 15 September 2012

Meditative Monkeys and Mysticism

Well, that's fine, but thing is - it makes no difference just saying so, does it?

The common denominator of the mystical experience is a feeling of oneness with the universe, with God, however you want to express it to fit your belief/nonbelief system. The essence seems to be a loss of the separate ego, a state of being which feels in total harmony with everything else. A state of being that is not a matter of conceptual thought or language-based argument. And it is of course ultimately futile to try to describe it.

The very word "mysticism" often brings rational secularists out in a rash. That's a pity. Insofar as I am a rational secularist, I can't see any conflict. I'm confident that neuroscience will soon be able to map - maybe it already can map - this mental state. It can certainly map meditative states. 

Experience of deep meditation, the usual but not the only gateway into a state of mystical union, does not turn you into a wooly-minded follower of nonsense. It is "simply" a mental state, or can be seen as such. Can also be seen as union with God, if that's the  net of meanings you cast over the universe.

Coming from the other end, people who are scared of/annoyed by rational approaches to spiritual matters sometimes seem to think that the neuroscientists and "explainers" of mystical and meditative states are somehow off-piste, and should mind their own business. Just seems to me like yet another example of futile polarisations. 

It's been decades since it was discovered that you could observe the brain-wave patterns of people in deep meditative states, and now we can actually see these states as activities in different areas of the brain, via MRI scans. This sort of work ought surely to convince sceptical rationalists that states of deep meditative calm can be observed, it's not an illusion or a con trick.

This is a Japanese macaque. It has been found that they can quite deliberately calm themselves, and escape a very hot day, by getting into water and entering a state that can be described as meditative, or at least, "mulling things over." I've banged on about them before:

With all due respect, if a Japanese monkey can quite literally chill out, then we all can. Or does being human in 2012 make that harder to do?

Feeling at one with "things," the universe, is surely a good and healing thing, even if for a short time, and only occasionally. The safest and most immediately realisable gateway is meditation. It takes some steady practice and application. Mindfulness meditation can help with depression, pain and anxiety; it can also open other doors, those doors of perception that Blake said needed to be cleansed for us to see things as they truly are.

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