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A New Understanding of Soul

This blog may surprise you. It's about the mystical neuropsychology. While the theory is still very new, it has incredible implications.

As you probably know, the higher cognitive functions in humans are divided between the two cerebral hemispheres of the brain. The left side deals with speech, language, logic, reasoning, and storytelling - all the processes that we conventionally call mind. The right hemisphere deals with non-conceptual, non-language here-and-now sensory and spatial awareness and thought-free consciousness (I'm intentionally leaving out perceptual-motor functions that are largely irrelevant to my argument). Now here is where it gets really interesting. Do you know about the split-brain research?

In the early 1960's, some people with uncontrolled seizure disorders underwent neurosurgery to sever the corpus callosum, a thick band of fibers connecting the brain's two cerebral hemispheres. The surgery prevented the seizure from spreading from one hemisphere to the other mitigating its destructive power. But this surgery also exposed something both unexpected and startling. Sophisticated psychological testing by Sperry and Gazzaniga revealed the existence of two autonomous systems of consciousness in the brain. In other words, each side of the brain had its own separate cognition, problem-solving strategies, values and desires. Two brains! Two minds! It was astounding. You can still see some of their experiments on YouTube. Despite the importance of the right hemisphere for everyday functioning (recognizing faces and emotional expression, knowing where we are in the world, solving visual-spatial problems like puzzles), we don't normally notice its activity because it has no speech functions, so the talkative left hemisphere appears to run the show.

But how does this split-brain research relate to mystical consciousness? The answer is as amazing as the split-brain itself. Consider Jill Bolte-Taylor's book, My Stroke of Insight? Jill is a neuroscientist who suffered a severe left hemisphere stroke that shut down her left-brain. What happened next was unbelievable. She described, "In the absence of my left hemisphere's analytical judgment, I was completely entranced by feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience…My left hemisphere had been trained to perceive myself as a solid, separate from others. Now, released from that restrictive circuitry, my right hemisphere relished in its attachment to the eternal flow… whereby I exist at one with the universe. It is the seat of my divine mind, the knower, the wise woman….For all those years of my life, I really had been a figment of my own imagination!... Now I was simply a being of light radiating life into the world." These are the words of a neuroscientist! Rather than discussing brain structures like the amygdala, hippocampus, or frontal cortex, she's talking like a mystic! Jill recognized that right hemisphere embodied divine consciousness. And it was there all along!

Jill is not alone in her discovery of the mystical nature of the right hemisphere. Bede Griffiths, a Catholic priest living in India writing about the integration of Eastern and Western mystical traditions, also suffered a left hemisphere stroke late in life. He said it felt like a "blow" on the left side of the head propelling his awareness into the right brain. As a result, the left-brain's rational mind lost its dominance and the right brain began taking over. He recalled, "I was very masculine and patriarchal and had been developing the…left brain, all this time. Now the right brain…came and hit me." He soon began experiencing overwhelming love, which he described as the divine feminine, and said this experience of an all-engulfing love never left him. Another beloved western guru, Ram Dass, similarly suffered a left hemisphere stroke after which he experienced tremendous joy, love, bliss, and compassion. He now talks of moving from ego to "Soul Land," where "the moment is your guru." I believe Jill Bolte Taylor, Bede Griffiths, and Ram Dass are all talking about mystical consciousness.

Keep in mind, of course, that left hemisphere strokes do not often lead to mystical consciousness for numerous reasons nor do I recommend them as spiritual practice. But this data does argue that our capacity for mystical consciousness is always present, we just haven't been paying attention!

So here is my theory. I believe that the research of Sperry and Gazzaniga accidentally uncovered the neuroanatomical locus of mystical consciousness. The verbal left hemisphere generates the self-idea and its beliefs about the world, conceptualizations that order our modern lives of identity, time and story, while the right hemisphere, opens to pure mystical awareness, our normally ignored state of divine consciousness. And the incredible corollary of this argument is that mystical consciousness is always present, it's the other "me" seeking to pull my attention from the conventional mind to the divine here and now. But more to the point, this mystical self is our soul. When I shift my attention from obsessively egocentric thought to pure awareness, I enter soul consciousness. I believe this shift holds the next step to humanity's spiritual evolution.

Here is how the poet Juan Ramón Jiménez describes this other consciousness:

I am not I
I am this one
Walking beside me whom I do not see,
Whom at times I manage to visit,
And at other times I forget.
The one who remains silent when I talk,
The one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
The one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
The one who will remain standing when I die.

Welcome to Soul Land.
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