The Structure and Neurophenomenology of Spiritual Development:
A Theory of Dialectical, Integrative and Holarchical Hemispheric Relationship
While numerous studies have produced substantial empirical evidence for the hypothesis that contemplative practice can significantly reduce the conditioned responses of the amygdale and limbic system (Creswell, et al, 2007; Greeson, et al, 2001; Jain, et al, 2007; Ramel, et al, 2004), contemplative traditions have for ages acted as the laboratories in which such practices have been developed. One such tradition, mystical Christianity, has much to say about how the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:2, King James Version) can lead to a transformative dis-identification with the old man of the flesh and a new embodiment of the spirit (Romans 8:1, King James Version). The “old man,” as Waller (2007) sees it, is the limbic-generated, dialogical self (p. 83). Subsequently, he views deeper identification with conscious awareness as the substrate of experience—which he associates with increased prefrontal function—as the means of renewing the mind (pp. 90-91).
The Narrow Gate
Jesus said, "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14, New American Standard Bible). He is also recorded as having stated, “. . . the kingdom of heaven is within you” (Luke 17:21, New International Version). Buddhist teaching in the Madhyamaka tradition likewise emphasizes the potential for enlightenment (which can be seen as the Buddhist equivalent of the kingdom of heaven) as being readily available (Lama, 1995, p. 29). Yet the conditioned mind remains oblivious to the liberating reality of its immediate proximity.
This essay theorizes that the “wide gate” that leads to destruction is the culturally and neurologically conditioned mind, which is oblivious to the enlightened Buddha-nature. Inherent in this conditioning are top-down processes—global neuronal movements that entrain and therefore distort local processes involved in perception (Engel, Fries, & Singer, 2001; Haken and Stadler, 1990). Through this top-down process, certain neural networks create persuasive attractor patterns (Hoffman, 1992), some of which have been linked to various psychiatric disorders (Li & Spiegel, 1992).
It is further theorized here that the narrow gate which leads to life is nothing other than the mindful and conscious awareness of the Buddha-nature—consciousness as presence—within; i.e., meta-awareness—the awareness of awareness. This gate, then, is narrow because it is mediated by both an enlightened intention and an exclusive neural circuit involving the middle prefrontal areas, which work to preclude the top-down neural processes involved in the expectations of attachment and aversion arising from the conditioned mind (Siegel, 2007, p. 82). Sometimes referred to as a bottom-up process (Siegel, 2007, p. 137), this narrow gate involves present-moment awareness, attentive not only of mental and bodily processes (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, p. 441), but of conscious presence as well (Waller, 2007, p. 30). This anchoring of awareness in the present moment, as such, acts to override the conditioned mind.
This essay’s theory regarding the narrow gate is congruent with the attention-gate theory, which states that attention acts like a gate, recruiting neurological cooperation, thereby exerting mental influence over the brain (Davidson & Neville, 2004). Begley (2007) has documented an example of this gate-function of attention, offered by scientist Helen Neville: if an individual attentively reads a book while passively listening to music in the background, the visual areas of the brain will be activated and the areas associated with hearing will not. Conversely, if the music is listened to attentively while passively looking at a book, the areas associated with hearing will become active (p. 159).
By way of this gate-function, mindful awareness holds the capacity not only for overriding the top-down processes of the conditioned mind, but for recognizing the dialogical self for what it truly is—a phantom arising from neurological conditioning (Waller, 2007, p. 64). Waller (2007) has stated that prefrontal-mediated witnessing of--rather than identifying with—the voice of the dialogical self is the means by which attachment to the ego is diminished (p. 77). The cultivation and establishment of the narrow gate, therefore, down-regulates the amygdale and limbic system (Creswell, et al, 2007), so that the mosaic voice of the L-N-M system eventually subsides to varying degrees, opening the possibility for the reverberating circuits of meta-awareness to mediate the blissful realization of sat-chit-ananda, a yogic term for the experience of one’s true nature as being-consciousness-bliss (Ghose, 2001, p. 161).
Nataraja (2008) postulates this process as being neurologically mediated first by activity in the attention association area within the prefrontal lobes, the stabilization of which is followed by a decrease of activity in the right parietal lobe, resulting in an experience of spaciousness and wholeness (p. 85-87). This is believed to trigger a response in the autonomic nervous system, so that the parasympathetic nervous system comes online and mediates a sense of peace and blissfulness (p. 89).
When the activity of the right parietal lobe stabilizes, its activity eventually spills over into the left parietal lobe, helping to mediate the dissolution of the self/other boundary (p. 89). Once balanced, another autonomic response occurs, this time within the sympathetic nervous system, giving rise to the experience of clarity and insight (p. 89). During the simultaneous activation and balancing of the yin (parasympathetic) and yang (sympathetic) of the autonomic nervous system, both penetrating insight and blissful presence emerge into conscious experience (p. 95). The more this neurophenomenological process is repeated (presumably within the later stages of development), the more identification with that stage of development loosens until such identification ceases altogether, at which time identification with the next stage begins (Wilber, 2000, p. 197).
The Neuroscience of Wholeness
As previously mentioned, spiritual development is mediated in large part by progressive integration of right brain and left brain processes, especially when healthy right modes of being and awareness become predominant over left analytical modes (see Figure 5). In keeping with Lao Tzu’s dictum to “[k]now the yang, but keep to the yin” (Towler & Cleare, 2005, p. 23), this neurological theory of development states that balance between the perceptual modes does not necessarily refer to equal measures of activity in each mode. Rather, in this view, right modes of being become increasingly dominant yet holistically integrated with left modes, so that right modes of awareness become the greater spiritual context in which left modes of analysis and interpretation are formed (see Figure 6), with the result being that rational modes of thought are transcended and included by supra-rational modes of mindful presence.
In essence, the direction toward which this neurological process is aimed is the eventual transcendence of the brain and conditioned mind as the loci of the self, which comes with the liberating realization that one does not necessarily have to be the victim of one’s neurophysiology. At the same time, though the brain and phenomenal mind are transcended, they are also included as valuable tools for relating to others in the relative world, with the distinction that they are now realized to be ever-changing phenomena rather than the ground of being. As a consequence, not only are certain aspects of behavior now radically shifted, one’s personal narrative is, to quote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that of “a spiritual being having a human experience.”
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