Many religions maintain that it is possible to commune with God by turning the mind inwards. Whether it’s transcendental meditation, prayer, Quaker’s Holy Silence, or yoga, there’s a persistent belief that some kind of meditation brings us closer to God.
Now I don’t believe in God, but I’m on a quest to understand spirituality (see part 1). I practise yoga, so I know from direct experience what meditation feels like. I know that you can experience a similar state when exercising, driving on a long journey, listening to music, painting, dancing and many other activities. It’s not so much the activity, but how you approach it.
I also know a little about how the brain works, and my understanding is that there are at least three levels of brain function:
- The reptilian brain. Responsible for maintaining essential bodily functions, and for carrying out a host of specific tasks, like interpreting the sounds we hear and processing what we see into familiar objects. We do these tasks unconsciously and actually don’t know how we do them. This level of the brain also controls basic feelings like hunger, fear and sexual desire. I believe that we also rely on this part of the brain to carry out physical tasks that we have learned by heart – riding a bike, typing, playing a musical instrument. Not that I’ve ever seen a reptile playing the piano, but that’s probably because they can’t reach the keys.
- The mammalian brain. This deals with higher level functions, and in particular emotions and feelings. Happiness and sadness operate at this level, as do instinctive reactions to people and situations. We probably spend too much time operating at this level, becoming enslaved by irrational feelings and wallowing in our emotions.
- The neocortex. This is the part of the brain that does serious thinking. It’s logical, analytical and it’s capable of making some good decisions. Or at least it would be if it wasn’t frequently overwhelmed by the mammalian brain telling us to make snap decisions and just be happy.
We’re pretty smart. Combining all three levels of the brain enables us to do amazing things.
In meditation, the idea is to still the mind and stop the neocortex from planning the day ahead and doing so much god-damn thinking. The neocortex can be distracted using techniques such as counting, chanting, breathing exercises and the asanas of vinyasa yoga.
So I think that meditation takes you down a level into a lower part of the brain. Whether it’s level one or level two, I don’t know. In essence, the practitioner is gaining some control over the mind, and is exploring states of consciousness that are not normally encountered.
I don’t think that this is anything to do with God, but it’s certainly an interesting place to go and I understand the attraction. By putting aside conscious thought and suppressing distracting emotions, it really does feel like we are moving into another plane of being. Practitioners speak of moving beyond space and time and of getting closer to some essence of being. In a way, I suppose that’s true. At least our awareness of space and time has disappeared, and by losing our higher mental functions we are approaching some kind of universal experience of life.
As for the idea of approaching God, well you can probably guess what an atheist like me thinks of that. How could you know that it was God? Aren’t you more likely to come face to face with a lizard?