Q.361 – Advaita and the Brain

Q: Hello, I have a question. Professor V. Ramachandran, a neurologist at UC San Diego, in his research outlined that  the Temporal lobe in the brain, which when excited by electricity results in the individual having a religious experience where they “now understand the cosmos” and feel as one with it. This has been characterized in press reports as “The God Zone”   He tells in his book:  “It seems somehow disconcerting to be told that your life, all your hopes, triumphs and aspirations simply arise from the activity of neurons in your brain. Science— cosmology, evolution and especially the brain sciences—is telling us that we have no privileged position in the universe and that our sense of having a private non-material soul “watching the world” is really an illusion (as has long been emphasized by Eastern mystical traditions like Hinduism and Zen Buddhism).”

So according to modern science, there’s nothing spiritual or paranormal. Consciousness in any form is produced only in the brain. How do those new information fit in the Advaita?

A (Ramesam): The quote of Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, if I am not wrong, seems to be from his 1998 book on “Phantoms in the Brain.”

By the late nineties the thrust given to Neuroscientific research through ‘The Decade of the Brain’ project was coming to an end. As a result of this concerted effort, illuminating light began to shine on many hitherto dark corners of the brain’s way of functioning – be it memory, emotions, thought process, neurological ailments or even the intractable mind-brain relation. The general atmosphere prevailing in those times was that of all round excitement and euphoria about the new findings which opened the doors to promising avenues of research in Neuroscience. Dr. Ramachandran made a name for himself with contributions to the advancement of our knowledge on the alleviation of pain from surgically excised limbs, synesthesia and even the application of neuroscientific principles to art and sculpture.

As a physician, Dr. Ramachandran had the opportunity to work with and conduct pioneering studies on epileptic patients. Epilepsy, as you may be aware, is known to man for millennia of years. It was christened as “The Sacred Disease” because of the fact that some of the epileptic patients claim to “have deeply moving spiritual experiences, including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God.” The British Neurologist Dr. Adam Zeman narrates, in his 2002 book, the story of a truck driver who happened to suddenly suffer from epileptic seizures and consequently had to change his career. He became a successful priest.

Dr. Ramachandran discovered a correlation between the excessive neuronal activity in the temporal lobes of the brain and epileptic seizures. Irrespective of what the mass media might have said, Dr. Ramachandran was the first to deny any divine linkages to the disease or the presence of a God Zone in the brain, for as a natural science student, he knows that ‘correlations can never be inferred to indicate any causal relationships.’

In the intervening period of over a decade and half since the publication of the book on the Phantoms in the Brain, Neuroscience has made tremendous progress on many fronts. We have today undoubtedly much better knowledge about the causes and prevention of epilepsy. We know for certain now that there is no G-spot for God in the brain. We also know that there is no indication of the presence of an entity called ‘self’ in our brain, in spite of our strong belief in the sense of a personal ‘self’ within. Though Jill Bolte Taylor claimed that ‘self’ exists in the left hemisphere of the brain in her fascinating book about her 1996 hemorrhage in the brain, subsequent research did not show any evidence for this contention. The sense of ‘self’ is more like a floating point gateway node of neural networks for processing self-related information. And that’s what Advaita has been teaching for millennia of years – “your ‘sense of self’ is a mere illusion.”

Science has also proved that, as Advaita has been saying for years, our idea of possessing a solid body is just that – an idea. The Swedish scientists and others demonstrated in the lab how our concept of a self having a fixed body is completely fragile through the Rubber hand illusion and whole body illusion. We claim a rubber hand placed in front as our own when the real hand is hidden and both the rubber hand and the real hand are stroked at the same time. Our brain even begins to disown our real hand as can be seen from a drop in the temperature in that hand! Same thing happens with the whole body too.

We wrongly assume that what we call our body is a single unit. We are actually a Super-organism consisting of an assemblage of many different microbiota. In fact, the food we eat is not our choice! We cannot even digest what we eat. The micro-organisms living without light or oxygen in our stomach and intestines share it with us and it is they that help us digest and assimilate all that we consume.

Further, the developments in cognitive science have established that our mind and the sensory apparatus are totally inadequate to show what exactly exists ‘out there.’ As a consequence, it is realized now that there is a ‘disconnect’ between the reality and what our perception shows to us. What we perceive as the world to be present outside us is actually a ‘map’ we see within our own brain. The brain processes and assigns a meaning as the world, according to its own conditioned experience, to the various sensory signals received by it. Amazingly, this observation too coincides with what has been taught by Advaita — the world is illusory and only an imagination on our part.

Many of the Neuroscientists these days are veering towards the opinion that free will is only a convenient fiction adopted by the body-organism. Detailed brain scanning studies clearly show that our brain responds with a decision in a situation much before we ourselves are aware of taking a decision. Scientists have been able to predict the decision you are likely to take much in advance of your own awareness of it by calibrating the action potentials in your brain under laboratory conditions. It is also found now that the way you react in a situation can be manipulated remotely without touching you by altering the electromagnetic fields in your brain through transcranial magnetic stimulation. Research is on to see if the power of thought can be used for telepathic communication. Thought power is already being exploited for the steering of the chair of a quadriplegic.

A lot of scientific studies are being conducted on the effect of meditation on the brain. Depending on the technique used, meditation can have many beneficial effects on not only the mind but also the body. Meditation can help in relaxation and also to achieve certain behavioral modifications. This is very much in line with the advice from Advaita to practice meditation to have a healthy body-mind system.

When it comes to consciousness, however, as of today, Science in general and Neuroscience in particular and Advaita take one hundred eighty degrees divergent views. Though at the cutting edge level of basic research the situation is still fluid, it can be said that, broadly, science proceeds on the model that there is a universe and you are born into it and you are able to cognize it with your brain and mind whereas Advaita tells us exactly the reverse. Advaita holds that Consciousness is primary and anything perceived is only a modulation of Consciousness. The sequential order of what gives raise to which as per science and Advaita can be expressed as follows:

Science:

World → Body → Brain → Mind → consciousness

Advaita:

Consciousness → Mind → Body and World

The important point to be noted, however, is that the meaning assigned to the word “Consciousness” in the two formulations above differs widely. Though the word is the same, what is understood to constitute consciousness in science is NOT the same ‘thing’ in Advaita. In Advaita, the word “Consciousness” stands for the inexpressible and attributeless ‘Beingness” indicated by the pointer word ‘brahman.’ As far as science is concerned, consciousness signifies our cognitive capacity. Thus it is foolhardy to believe that both science and Advaita are talking about the same ‘thing’ when they refer to ‘consciousness.’

Similarly, until recently, there has been no clear understanding on what constituted mind. There used to be two opposing schools of thought – one led by Nobel Laureate Francis Crick and the other by Nobel Laureate John Eccles. Dr. Crick held that mind was a creature of the brain whereas Dr. Eccles contended that the brain is controlled by the mind. Another Nobel Laureate Dr. Roger Sperry, however, “adopted a view diametrically opposed to that of Crick’s monist-materialism, yet was unwilling to accept the form of dualism advocated by Eccles. He concluded: Consciousness is conceived to be a dynamic emergent property of brain activity, neither identical with nor reducible to, the neural events of which it is mainly composed.” [We should note that in these discussions of the late eighties not much distinction was maintained between the words mind and consciousness.]

A majority of the scientists opine today that ‘mind is just what the brain does.’ However, there is yet no consensus among scientists on what consciousness is or how to define it.

Whereas no particular part of the brain can be characterized as the seat of consciousness, investigations on anesthesia show that “A small group of neurons near the base of the brain has executive control over the alert status of the entire cerebrum and spinal cord.” As you awaken from anesthesia, “the cerebral cortex (often thought to be the seat of higher human consciousness), was not the first one to turn back on when consciousness was restored. The more primitive brain structures including the thalamus and parts of the limbic system appeared to become functional first.” Thus we do not know if and where consciousness is in the brain.

Almost replaying the mind-brain conundrum, there are some scientists who believe that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon from the activity of the brain whereas another group of scientists think that consciousness is primary and is the fundamental basis of reality. Neuroscientists Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi along with the theoretical Physicist Max Tegmark “have embraced a form of panpsychism in which consciousness is a property of matter.  Simple particles are conscious in a simple way, whereas such particles, when integrated in complex computation, become fully conscious.” British Mathematical Physicist Roger Penrose teamed with anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff to develop “the ‘Orchestrated objective reduction’ (Orch OR) theory based on microtubules (lattice polymers inside brain neurons), and a deeper level, finer scale processing. Orch OR suggests that microtubule quantum superpositions are ‘orchestrated’ by memory, synaptic inputs and natural resonances to enable functional quantum computation, resulting in Orch OR events accompanied by meaningful conscious experience.”

Michael Posner said in 2010 that “Consciousness is one of the great, unsolved conundrums of modern science. Where, if anywhere, does awareness reside? How, if at all, can it be explained? Is the mind separate from its body? Or does everything, ultimately, reduce to biochemistry and quantum physics, including our private, inner-most experiences of the world?” This statement is valid even today. Though, undoubtedly brain science has been growing by leaps and bounds these days, we are still scratching the surface. Only now new technologies like optogenetics, diffusion tensor imaging, magnetoencephalography, mapping neuronal connectomes in 3-D etc. are affording us scope to fathom the activity of the brain in greater detail. Hopefully science will be able to tell us more about consciousness in the near future. After all, science does not stand for a fixed laundry list of facts or widely held dogmas. Science is a living method of unbiased and incisive inquiry much like Vedanta and it is a modern day Upanishad under development. The last word is yet to be written.

29 thoughts on “Q.361 – Advaita and the Brain

  1. Great question and great response. It is clear that both the Vedanta model (consciousness first/alone) and the Science model (space/time first, consciousness as an artifact) are simply two stories about the nature of reality based on models. In fact, everything we can say about the nature of reality can only be a model and thus an interpretation. Different models put emphasis on different aspects of experience. But there is nothing whatsoever that is KNOWN except that “I am here now, in this moment”. Here I am, looking out of these eyes. I am! But further investigation shows that who this “I” is is unknown, where this “here” is is unknown, what this “moment” is is unknown. All that is left is the simple observation that this “am-ness” is.

    Thus anyone who states that they are awake and “know” who they are or who believe they can teach others or wake others up are stuck in a story. Am-ness is. Nothing more can be said.

    Meanwhile a neat article on the limits of science:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/07/14/theres-so-much-science-will-never-be-able-to-explain/?hpid=z10

    I would propose that the same limits apply to all aspects of “seeking” as well.

    -John

    -John

    • Dear John,

      Thank you for your comments and the interesting observations. As you put it, “Am-ness is. Nothing more can be said” is very true.

      Thanks also for the link to the short article of Dr. M Gleiser kindly provided by you. It is perhaps a curtain raiser to his recently published book, “The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning” referred to therein. I will add it to my “Interesting Books To Read” list.

      Basically Dr. Gleiser is telling us that the scientific investigations seeking to acquire knowledge in order to find the answers to the fundamental questions about the universe have inherent limitations. There is no surprise here. As a Theoretical Physicist he must be aware of the limits “to knowing” set by the Uncertainty Principle discovered by Dr. Werner Heisenberg early last century. Secondly, to know about the universe, it is inadequate to approach the problem purely from a ‘physicalist’ angle. This fact is already known in Science. Dr. Roger Penrose suggested, in fact, that a Theory of the Universe can be developed only as a combination of the Theory of Everything and the Theory of Consciousness.

      As you are aware, we like to distinguish between ‘knowledge” (with lower case “k”) that is learnt, acquired, accumulated and stored or lost at an individual ‘person’ level and “Knowledge” (with capital “K”) which is Universal, intrinsic, non-accumulative, self-evident and never lost. (See for example: http://advaita-academy.org/blogs/ramesam/The-Enigma-of-Deep-Sleep—-10.ashx).

      The humans have a tendency to feel a ‘psychological void’ and any effort to fill it with mere ‘knowledge’ proves unsatisfactory; hence we seek the unchanging Knowledge. The ancient Indian Upanishadkars recognized this subtle point and went about their search for “That knowing which all will be known.”

      Reacting to your proposal, if I may, re: applying limits to ‘seeking’: The limiting end-point for seeking is, obviously, the end of seeking! The initial limiting point arises with the very question we ask. Without a question being raised, an initial point would have never been there at all!

      regards,

  2. Dear Ramesam, Wonderful response, I liked the so many points that you have presented such as the Rubber band experiment. With all of these one would be tempted to think Is science is finally catching up to the illusion! Thanks much!

    • Dear Shri Ganapathy Subramaniam,

      Thank you for the kind words. In fact one can notice several more such “trends” to say that the search for the ultimate Truth via a scientific approach is as rewarding as the Advaitic inquiry.

      A couple of more examples are: Studies done on dreams show that the brain is as active during dreaming as it is when awake (about 40 – 90 Hertz). Advaitic scriptures like Yogavasishta say that awake and dream worlds are an extension of one another. Scientists from Washington University in St. Louis found “complete overlap among regions of the brain used for remembering the past and those used for envisioning the future. Brain, by itself, does not know the difference between past and present and knows only the ‘now’ as Advaita says. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to discuss these on their own at another time.

      regards,

      • Dear Ramesam:

        Isn’t the difference between dreaming and wakening the fact that the former is sublatable by the latter but not vicevera? – the waking state being sublatable only by pure, objectless consciousness and, by extension, deep sleep (I will read the link you give on the latter). Thank you (excellent discussion!).

        • Dear Martin,

          Thank you.

          To say that “dreaming is sublated by waking up and not viceversa,” I am sure you know, has only a relative validity. This statement comes from the ‘Waker.’ The ‘Dreamer’ has equal right to say that the dreamworld sublates the awake state. From the POV of the ‘Dreamer’, the awake state is in his dream!

          This reminds me a discussion in Yogavasishta wherein a Sage says: “Relatively speaking, dreams have more reality to them compared to the awake state.”

          The Sage presents his argument something like this:
          We can say that the dreamworld has at least some basis to arise. The basis is the experience in the preceding awake world.

          (Incidentally, let me say here for the sake of Mr. Gpathy that experiments with rats showed that they retrace in dreams exactly what happened in the awake state. For example, if they walked along a particular path in a maze and a record is made of the neurons lighting up in their brain as they moved, it is seen that the same set of neurons light up in the same order during their dreaming stage!).

          Now the Sage asks, “what do you have as the basis for all the happenings in the awake state? The happenings are just random! So the dreamworld can at least be said to have a better reality.”

          [The exact words maybe different. I have just paraphrased. I can look up for the reference, if one is interested.]

          regards,

  3. I’m glad that someone brought this up, because I’ve been pondering a related question for some time now. It goes something like this: can damage to the brain of a j~nAnI cause him to lose enlightenment status?

    Ramesam wrote, “[W]e do not know if and where consciousness is in the brain.”

    The neuroscientist Sam Harris, whose book on free will has been favorably reviewed on this website, has pointed out that the state of the mind is inextricably linked with the state of the brain. It follows that if the brain is damaged, the mind is damaged as well.

    The following is something Dr. Harris said during a debate:

    Science is not in principle committed to the idea that there’s no afterlife or that the mind is identical to the brain…
    If it’s true that consciousness is being run like software on the brain and can – by virtue of ectoplasm or something else we don’t understand – be dissociated from the brain at death, that would be part of our growing scientific understanding of the world if we discover it…
    But there are very good reasons to think it’s not true. We know this from 150 years of neurology where you damage areas of the brain, and faculties are lost… You can cease to recognize faces, you can cease to know the names of animals but you still know the names of tools…
    What we’re being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain, and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, [but] you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties intact, recognizing grandma and speaking English!

    Regarding my question, I’m not referring to brain death, but rather non-fatal brain injury that vitiates the faculties to a considerable degree–namely the faculties that are relevant for comprehending and assimilating the Vedanta. It has been pointed out numerous times on this website that enlightenment is not an experience, but rather something irreversible. What if a j~nAnI were to be visited by severe amnesia? What if he were to forget how to read, or forget language altogether?

    • Dear Peregrinus the Nihilist,

      As my understanding goes, jnAni is the one who lost the ‘sense of a separate self’ and the claim of having a body (asarIri – disembodied). When once the sense of separate self living in that body is dissolved, then no particular person who is a claimant for the ownership of that body or mind remains anymore. As the scriptures describe, the body (the former body which housed a separate self with a specific name) is comparable to the slough shed by a snake. Though the other creatures may continue to tag that specific body with a unique ID and a label, that fact bears no special significance or meaning to Consciousness as Dr. A.M. Garcia already observed in his response.

      You may ask the question as to whom does that body appear? It appears as a separate body to the one who has to first consider himself/herself to be a separate entity having the thought that he is the ‘seer’ and some ‘thing’ else is the ‘seen’ present at a distance from him/her — i.e. a person who is still lost in duality/multiplicity.

      As Dr. Garcia said, of what concern is the body for Consciousness (which is not an entity) whether the body is hale and healthy, comatose or diseased? After all, these descriptions are from the limited perspective of the judgmental mind. Consciousness Itself has no such divisions within It.

      regards,

      • I think what I’m trying to get at here is this: according to Advaita, the mind is deluded into thinking it is a separate entity, and it is the mind that is enlightened. In other words, the problem and solution lie within the mind.

        However, the physical mind needs to be functioning properly in order to not only become Self-realized but also to continue being Self-realized for the duration of its existence. At least, that is what I thought. But you seem to be saying that Self-realization is not dependent on the condition of the mind.

        To be sure, from the perspective of Advaita, the condition of the body does not matter to Consciousness, as you and Dr. Garcia point out, but insofar as ignorance and enlightenment are “real,” subjective existential states, it does seem that the mind-brain needs to be in good working order to be in a state of j~nAna. Maybe what I’m saying is that memory is a requisite for Self-realization, that it is necessary to both attain Self-realization AND maintain it. But Advaita maintains that it is impossible for a j~nAnI to forget his true Identity.

        What you describe (that “no particular person who is a claimant for the ownership of that body or mind remains anymore”) almost sounds like a supernatural phenomenon that goes beyond the natural sciences, not unlike the idea of a soul prematurely leaving a body before the latter perishes.

        • Dear Peregrinus the Nihilist,

          It looks to me that part of the problem lies in the definitions and the semantics – the way we are using certain words and the baggage they carry. Perhaps what I intend to mean by a word like mind etc. may not be the one that is getting conveyed. So I propose to dissect some of your sentences and comment with the hope that this method will harmonize the concepts. Please do not take it as being impolite.

          P: “… the problem and solution lie within the mind.”

          R: Perfect. No disagreement. That’s what the scriptures say too.

          P: “… according to Advaita, the mind is deluded into thinking it is a separate entity, and it is the mind that is enlightened.”

          R: No.

          1. What gets deluded is an imaginary entity. It is itself an AbhAsa. It is a ‘thought’ which thinks that it is a limited entity separate from all the rest – i.e. a thought of ‘me’ to be distinct from the rest which is ‘not-me.’

          2. There is no entity sitting anywhere there with a form and shape called the mind.

          3. As a corollary of # 2, it can be said that ‘mind’ is not a container in which thoughts appear and disappear.

          P: “… the physical mind needs to be functioning properly …”

          R: 1. As already noted above, there is no physicality to the mind.

          2. It functions the way it has to. Whether it is “proper” or “improper” is a later judgement – a subsequent thought which occurs after the event of the first thought is over. That means, it is a judgement passed on an entity which does not exist anymore!

          P: “… to continue being Self-realized for the duration of its existence….”

          R: ‘You’ are eternally Pure, Free and Unbound. This Realization is not a state that comes and goes. What comes and goes, in fact, is NOT realization but another time-variant thought.

          So the concept of “to continue being Self-realized” does not stand to reason.

          P: “…. you seem to be saying that Self-realization is not dependent on the condition of the mind.”

          R: I do not know how you mean by that. So it is easier for me to restate expanding what I said in more words rather than emend the above line expressed by you.

          1. Self-realization is the end of the sense of a ‘separate self.’
          That means the end to a claim of ‘ownership’ for possessions (including the body, mind etc) and ‘doership’ for actions (including decision making, transactional deeds in the world etc.).

          2. You see, what we lump up as our world consists of at least three components:
          i) The perceptions from the five sensory organs that give the perception of a world out there;
          ii) The sensations that produce the feeling of having a body here; and
          iii) The thoughts and images which are intangible and feel like internal happenings.

          3. A jnAni has no more a claim as ‘my body’ for any ‘body.’

          It also, naturally implies, s/he has no claim as ‘my thought’ for any thought.

          Another word for a jnAni is a “Seer” without anything to see! So s/he does not perceive a world. (Remember, a perception happens only when you as the ‘perceiver’, are remote and separate from what is perceived).

          4. No where it is said that a body evaporates into thin air after Self-realization. So also we should understand to be the case with the other two components of the world. Nothing has to disapper into thin air.

          5. What has ended on Self-realization is the claim of ‘ownership’ and ‘doership.’ But these claims are also nothing but thoughts!

          Hence such thoughts as “I am the owner” cannot be prohibited to arise by a ‘you’ (even though they will not anyway eventually – but that is a different kettle of fish).

          So what happened on Self-realization? Only the “imaginary” non-existent separate ‘self’ who claims ownership has ended!

          What does it mean?

          What has never existed in the first instance has ended!

          It is like the pink elephant below your bed ending or like the third hand on your back ending. When did it exist to specially end now?

          I think I will stop here so that we understand mutually before going further with the remainder of the message of yours.

          regards,

          • It looks to me that part of the problem lies in the definitions and the semantics – the way we are using certain words and the baggage they carry.

             

            That may well be the case. 

            1. What gets deluded is an imaginary entity. It is itself an AbhAsa. It is a ‘thought’ which thinks that it is a limited entity separate from all the rest – i.e. a thought of ‘me’ to be distinct from the rest which is ‘not-me.’

            2. There is no entity sitting anywhere there with a form and shape called the mind.

            3. As a corollary of # 2, it can be said that ‘mind’ is not a container in which thoughts appear and disappear.

             

            This is tough to wrap my head around. If I am understanding you correctly, you are saying that the mind is really just a collection of thoughts floating around. If the mind is not a container, then can we say that the brain is a container?    

            R: 1. As already noted above, there is no physicality to the mind.

             

            Perhaps this is where a key disagreement lies. I tend to think of the mind as a physical phenomenon, as a function of the brain. 

            2. It functions the way it has to. Whether it is “proper” or “improper” is a later judgement – a subsequent thought which occurs after the event of the first thought is over. That means, it is a judgement passed on an entity which does not exist anymore!

            What does it mean for something to exist, in this context? In one sense, we could say that the entity never really existed in the first place. 

            R: ‘You’ are eternally Pure, Free and Unbound. This Realization is not a state that comes and goes. What comes and goes, in fact, is NOT realization but another time-variant thought.

            So the concept of “to continue being Self-realized” does not stand to reason.

            Yet surely this Realization takes place nowhere but in the mind; what else would be deluded and in “need” of Realization?  

            1. Self-realization is the end of the sense of a ‘separate self.’
            That means the end to a claim of ‘ownership’ for possessions (including the body, mind etc) and ‘doership’ for actions (including decision making, transactional deeds in the world etc.).

            2. You see, what we lump up as our world consists of at least three components:
            i) The perceptions from the five sensory organs that give the perception of a world out there;
            ii) The sensations that produce the feeling of having a body here; and
            iii) The thoughts and images which are intangible and feel like internal happenings.

            The phenomena you describe—the “sense of a ‘separate self’”, the “claim of ‘ownership’…and ‘doership’”, perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and images—all of these occur in the brain. I am suggesting that, from a logical point of view, the brain needs to be functioning properly in order to become Self-realized, as both knowledge and ignorance are, so to speak, products of the processing of information. 

            3. A jnAni has no more a claim as ‘my body’ for any ‘body.’

            It also, naturally implies, s/he has no claim as ‘my thought’ for any thought.

            Another word for a jnAni is a “Seer” without anything to see! So s/he does not perceive a world. (Remember, a perception happens only when you as the ‘perceiver’, are remote and separate from what is perceived).

            What you describe seems to be a form of depersonalization, except that it goes a step further. But is it not true that even this paradigm, or non-paradigm, hinges on the way that the brain is configured?  

            What has never existed in the first instance has ended!

            It is like the pink elephant below your bed ending or like the third hand on your back ending. When did it exist to specially end now?

             

            Perhaps I am simply confused as to what enlightenment/Self-realization is supposed to be. Here is something that Dennis wrote earlier this year, in the comments section of the post on free will:    

            Dear Shuka,

            I have to take issue with your statement that “Body-mind-sense complex are non-Self, according to advaita, and hence cannot become self-realized… ” Whilst I accept the first part of course, the second part does not follow at all. In fact, ONLY the mind (or intellect if you want to be pedantic) can gain enlightenment; the real Self, since that is all there is, does not need to become ‘Self-realized’. In fact, I would deprecate the use of terms like ‘Self-realized’ since they only cause confusion. ‘Enilghtenment’ is the same as Self-knowledge and this knowledge is the same as any other knowledge in that it takes place in the mind as a result of hearing/reading and subsequent questioning to remove doubts.

             

            If I am confused about this topic, perhaps it is the above statement or, rather, my misunderstanding of it, that is at the root of my confusion. 

            If Self-knowledge, as Dennis puts it, is the same as any other knowledge, then it would logically follow that it can be lost like any other knowledge. And if Self-knowledge can be lost, then enlightenment is not irreversible. 

            • Happy to note your continued interest.

              P: “…. you are saying that the mind is really just a collection of thoughts floating around.”

              R: In the context of what we are discussing, ‘mind’ is just the current thought. So it is possible to have a stream of thoughts, but not a ‘collection.’

              P: “…. If the mind is not a container, then can we say that the brain is a container?

              R: Brain carries a foot-print of the thought. Thought cannot be “contained” in a container for, thought is like a ripple, a movement.

              P: “… I tend to think of the mind as a physical phenomenon, as a function of the brain.”

              R: That is the bone of contention between the Nueroscientific view and that of Vedanta, as already pointed out in the main Answer to Q 361. Neither approach offers a direct proof upfront for their respective POV.

              I suggest, therefore, be open minded for now and proceed with the possibility (tentatively) of thought being not caused by the brain. It will help then to follow the teaching of Vedanta to the end.

              P: “… What does it mean for something to exist, in this context?”

              R: To exist is to be present. Something which is always on the move is never present anywhere at any time. Therefore, that which has True Presence has to be invariant in time.

              A thought has no Presence. You can never hold a thought – much like you can never grasp the ‘flow’ in a river in your palm.

              P: “Yet surely this Realization takes place nowhere but in the mind; what else would be deluded and in “need” of Realization?”

              R: The ultimate teaching of Advaita is that there is no delusion or ignorance because what all truly exists is One, there is no possibility for a second. Hence, even ignorance is an illusion!

              But before we go there…..

              When Pure Consciousness (brahman), in Its infinite freedom, ‘ignores’ Its own true nature and ‘thinks’ that It is contracted or limited, it is known as ‘mind.’

              Ending of this thought of limitation is, in one sense, Realization (i.e. ‘realize’ your true nature back again). So on Self-realization, the apparent ‘mind’ gets back its original nature.

              Like you getting back your pair of spectacles which you could not find and thought it was lost because the spectacles got shifted to the top of the head. The spectacles were never actually lost anywhere; they were sitting all the time right on your head. Though you did not get any new pair of glasses that you did not already have, you get the feeling, on getting back the spects, that you found something new . Self-realization is like that finding what you never lost in the first place.

              P: “…. from a logical point of view, the brain needs to be functioning properly in order to become Self-realized,…”

              R: True. Advainta Vedanta is for one who is bodily and mentally healthy, balanced and can pursue the search for truth relentlessly. It is not for a sick body or mind. If one is not physically and mentally fit, these deficiencies should be attended to first.

              P: “What you describe seems to be a form of depersonalization, except that it goes a step further.”

              R: Correct in a way. “Personality” is a bunch of characteristics (descriptors) that define a limited entity.
              Ending of this entity is Self-realization. That is the ‘death’ of the individuated person.

              P: “… Perhaps I am simply confused as to what enlightenment/Self-realization is supposed to be. …….
              If Self-knowledge, as Dennis puts it, is the same as any other knowledge, then it would logically follow that it can be lost like any other knowledge.

              R: Correct.
              But the fact is the only tool at your disposal is the mind and the mind has to first listen to this teaching and ‘get it’ intellectually as it is habituated to with respect to all information.

              The next step has to be total ingestion of the gained information – that is to go beyond the mere verbal level of understanding, have full clarity and entertain not an iota of doubt.

              P: “And if Self-knowledge can be lost, then enlightenment is not irreversible.”

              R: Self-Knowledge is never lost. And there lies the difference between ordinary worldly knowledge and Self-Knowledge. I think I have already given links to my articles on this topic of knowledge vs. Knowledge.

              As a wag puts it, ordinary knowledge makes you an expert in it, but you never become that. For example, knowing ‘Carpentry” makes you a carpenter. But you don’t become ‘Carpentry.” But knowing brahman makes you brahman!

              regards,

              • In the context of what we are discussing, ‘mind’ is just the current thought. So it is possible to have a stream of thoughts, but not a ‘collection.’

                So even the memory of the stream is part of that stream?

                To exist is to be present. Something which is always on the move is never present anywhere at any time. Therefore, that which has True Presence has to be invariant in time.

                A thought has no Presence. You can never hold a thought – much like you can never grasp the ‘flow’ in a river in your palm.

                Could we not more or less say the same thing about everything else that exists in the universe? Nothing on this earth ever stays in the exact same point in space-time.

                The ultimate teaching of Advaita is that there is no delusion or ignorance because what all truly exists is One, there is no possibility for a second. Hence, even ignorance is an illusion!

                Gaudapada’s grand proclamation is always worth repeating:

                “There is no dissolution and no creation, no one in bondage and no one who is striving for or who is desirous of liberation, and there is no one who is liberated. This is the absolute truth.”

                Next:

                Self-realization is like that finding what you never lost in the first place.

                Right, I think I understand that much.

                Advainta Vedanta is for one who is bodily and mentally healthy, balanced and can pursue the search for truth relentlessly. It is not for a sick body or mind.

                So it is agreed that the condition of the mind-brain is relevant to the “pursuit” of enlightenment. But it ceases to be relevant once enlightenment is “attained.” Do I understand correctly?

                But the fact is the only tool at your disposal is the mind and the mind has to first listen to this teaching and ‘get it’ intellectually as it is habituated to with respect to all information.

                So the information leading to enlightenment is processed and assimilated like other types of information, and yet cannot be lost like other types of information?

                Self-Knowledge is never lost. And there lies the difference between ordinary worldly knowledge and Self-Knowledge. … For example, knowing ‘Carpentry” makes you a carpenter. But you don’t become ‘Carpentry.” But knowing brahman makes you brahman!

                And we can never really describe what brahman is, only what it is not (neti neti). Maybe it follows that we can never really describe what enlightenment is? As Nisargadatta Maharaj once said:

                This ‘I am’ is an announcement: it is not the real. It has come out of something else. What the real is, I am not telling you, because words negate that. Whatever I am telling you is not the truth, because it has come out of that ‘I am’. The fact is, I cannot describe reality to you, I cannot explain it, because it is beyond expression.

  4. Herr Peregrinus Good question!
    “What if a j~nAnI were to be visited by severe amnesia? What if he were to forget how to read, or forget language altogether?”
    Jnani/Jivanmukta is awareness that does not see, hear, talk, feel touch. Whether the mind is in the brain or somewhere – Jnani does not need it to remember that he is Jnani.
    Instead of quoting Upnishadic Verses, let me quote Shri Ramesam on this ( Enigma of deep sleep #12) from his fourth quadrant analysis where body is active but mind is not:
    http://advaita-academy.org/blogs/ramesam/The-Enigma-of-Deep-Sleep—-12.ashx
    “With no ‘me’ being present, whatever happenings come by, they are just experienced without any desire to change them or wanting them to be different. When there is no one to accept or reject a happening, there is equally no one to face any consequences of whatever happens.”

    I have seen some “Jnanis”(?) and whirling dervishes in India acting like mental patients, morons, hysteric …Yet people paid respect to them. This must be the logic that their mind and actions have nothing to do with Awareness that they are. In Vasishta Yoga, there are numerous stories of Jnani staying in hallucinated stages for kalpas cut off from the earth world ( 100s of years).
    Interestingly absence of mind is awareness but obviouly, synthetic manonasha (thru drugs) does not seem to work. I guess Yoga meditation can do the same as long as you hold on to samadhi and then once you come out of samadhi you are back to the game of soccer.
    The answer to your question is not easy from a point of view of ajnanis like me – does anybody know what really happens duing amnesia; What happens to a jnani who falls into coma and then dies.
    Vijay
    Vijay

    • Dear Vijay,

      Amnesia is the loss of memory. The memory is what is recorded from past experience/knowledge/learning. For whom does a past exist?

      Past or future exists when the thinking mind comes into operation and claims doership for actions that happen in time.

      a jnAni, by definition is a Non-doer. So no accumulating past experience to a jnAni. A jnAni lives always in the present. In one of his talks during the last phases of his life, JK said: “I talked to some scientists whether an action can happen without leaving a record in the brain cells. They indicated it could be possible.” (Or some such words). Unfortunately he passed away before he could pursue the neural angle. Maybe Venkat can fvour us by tracing the exact words and the actual reference from his encyclopedic knowledge.

      regards,

    • Whether the mind is in the brain or somewhere – Jnani does not need it to remember that he is Jnani.

      But is the mind-brain not necessary for an aj~nAnI to become a j~nAnI? If a j~nAnI were to, as a consequence of brain damage, forget everything he knew about the scriptures and everything he learned from his guru, then what would he be left with?

  5. As a tentative response to P the Nihilist and Vijay, what is the problem with a jñani being temporarily in coma, having part of the brain damaged, or developing Alzheimer’s disease? Further, who is a jñani? Whether ‘s/he’ comes back to life or gives up the ghost, how can that affect consciousness, the only reality there is? Is that not the same thing (or “problem”) as when anybody dies? Am I this body-mind? Clearly, if this or that body-cum-mind dies (considering, as from the empirical or conventional level, that they are different from one another and from consciusness), be it that of a jñani, what is the loss, and to whom? Have ‘we’ been born in the first place?

    • Whether ‘s/he’ comes back to life or gives up the ghost, how can that affect consciousness, the only reality there is?

      It seems that you are speaking from an absolute perspective. My understanding is that Advaita Vedanta is useful only insofar as it addresses everyday dualistic experience. Is duality not the sine qua non of the Vedanta?

      Of course, if everything is like a dream (mithyA), then the sages and their scriptures are a part of that dream. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the teachings and the scriptures are not useful for awakening from the dream.

      If no one dies, then no one is enlightened either, and yet we still talk as if people really do die and really do become enlightened. Unless enlightenment is an illusion within an illusion (i.e., an individual who appears to exist while not really existing has appeared to become enlightened while not really being enlightened). But if that were true, then there would be no use for the Vedanta.

      But we do (apparently) experience duality and separateness, and hence turn to the Vedanta.

      [W]hat is the problem with a jñani being temporarily in coma, having part of the brain damaged, or developing Alzheimer’s disease?

      I think the problem with brain damage is the possibility that a j~nAnI would lose most or all of the knowledge (including Self-knowledge) that he gained through his studies, effectively retrogressing to a state of aj~nAna. If this is indeed possible, it might be problematic for the Advaitin belief that enlightenment is irreversible.

      • You write: “Of course, if everything is like a dream (mithyA), then the sages and their scriptures are a part of that dream. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the teachings and the scriptures are not useful for awakening from the dream.”

        That is true, in my understanding. ‘Life is a Dream’ (Calderón de la Barca’s play). ‘All the world’s a stage’ (Shakespeare). As to Vedanta, here is what a sage (among so many others) has said: “Vedanta plays the role of the dream lion in his world. Vedantic knowledge is part of the illusory world. But then it dissolves the entire illusion of this world, revealing reality as it is.” Sw. Parthsarathy.

        You: “If no one dies, then no one is enlightened either, and yet we still talk as if people really do die and really do become enlightened.”

        True also. That modifier, ‘as if’, is crucial.

        In the next para. you write: “…an individual who appears to exist while not really existing AS AN INDIVIDUAL has appeared to become enlightened while not really being enlightened AS THE PURPORTED INDIVIDUAL.” I took the liberty of adding the capital letters, for advaitic sense.

        Further, while ‘everybody is enlightened’, as Neo advaitins claim, ‘no one is enlightened’, as the sage Gaudapada claimed. Are these two seemingly contradictory statements true – and in what sense?

        You: “I think the problem with brain damage is the possibility that a j~nAnI would lose most or all of the knowledge (including Self-knowledge) that he gained through his studies… “

        Agree. This is as seen from the vyavaharika perspective, which cannot be denied; only understood. Jñany/s also experience thoughts and emotions. With them, these either quickly disappear, or are transmuted or resolved into consciousness.

        Something more, for pondering: “People forget the reality of the illusory world”. Huang Po.
        Mithya?

        • Further, while ‘everybody is enlightened’, as Neo advaitins claim, ‘no one is enlightened’, as the sage Gaudapada claimed. Are these two seemingly contradictory statements true – and in what sense?

          I don’t think they are necessarily incompatible. “Everyone is enlightened” in the sense that there are individuals, and “no one is enlightened” in the sense that there are no individuals. The one statement is relative, the other is absolute.

  6. Dear Ramesam, flattery will get you everywhere!

    My twopence worth on JK is that he differentiated between recording experiences that are necessary to function in the world (e.g. driving a car) vs recording psychological hurts, flattery etc – those things that build up the image, the ego. He always maintained that it was possible not to record the psychological experience; so someone flatters you, and you don’t carry it with you – they are just words that wash over you.

    He also had a number of recorded conversations with David Bohm, on whether the brain cells could see the danger of carrying the past hurts, etc, and thereby could ‘mutate’ or change their own wiring, so that the past would no longer be recorded – in the sense, I think, of building up an image of oneself.

    I can’t recall the specific quote you mention, but the website http://jkrishnamurti.org, carries a searchable database of all his work.

    I would agree with Martin. Once the sense of ‘I’ disappears, which maybe due to a neuronal rewiring, even if amnesia, Alzheimers etc subsequently occurs, it just is a happening in consciousness, and there would be no sense of distress as it advances, since there is no ‘I’ to attach to. Ultimately, the question of what happens to a jnani with Alzheimers is asked from the perspective of an ‘I’ that wants to achieve liberation (for a rarefied soul?) and to hold it eternally. But if there is no separation in the first place . . .

    Best

    venkat

  7. Thank you very much, Venkat.

    You proved once again how confidently we can rely on your knowledge, if proof is required at all!

    The link you provided has been useful to locate one reference to confirm what I wrote about JK’s talked about. I found the Varanasi 1985 Talk. I remember he spoke about experiencing without creating a record as memory in Saanen, Switzerland also, but I did not search any further. Here is what he said:

    Third Public Talk in Varanasi, 22nd November 1985:

    “So we’re asking again, is it necessary to build up the psyche? The psyche means the self, the self being all the memories, the activities of thought, imagination, fascination, fear, pleasure, sorrow, pain. It is recording that makes up the whole psyche, the `I’, the persona.

    So we’re asking, Is it necessary to record so as to build up the self? Have you ever thought about this, looked at it or investigated it, gone into this question of recording as you would into various philosophical, religious matters? It may be necessary to record certain things and totally unnecessary to record others – see the beauty of it – so that the brain is not always conditioned in memory, so that the brain becomes extraordinarily free, but active. That is the first question.

    So, learning is not to record.

    We have discussed this matter with psychiatrists in New York. They were fascinated with the idea of not recording, so that the brain cells themselves mutate. Our brains are built up of cells and so on – I’m not a professional – and in the brain cells are the memories. And we live on those memories – the past and all the remembrances that one has.”

    regards,

  8. Quite an interesting discussion..thanks for the additional information.

    Amnesia can quiet possibly remove Self-knowledge. Let us assume it does remove the Self knowledge. It means we have lost the Jnana. Let us assume that as well.

    In deep sleep too we do loose all thoughts including the thought that of jnana. when we wake up at the moment we might or might not recollect it. and depending on if you want to hold on to the thought of “I am that” all the time or want to even let that go, you may or may not remember it. then suddenly you recollect “who am I”. when we go about in daily life we do let go of that thought, we engage in daily activities, talk to people, do the things, get involved etc.. and during these I do not constantly hold on to Self-Knowledge. So during these times I do act as if I am not “That”. In fact that’s true too because the one that acts/thinks etc ..is the fictitious ego which is really not “that”.

    So this Self-knowledge is lost and gained however infinitesimally small duration it is. So the statement “Enlightenment is irreversible” is in a sense temporal. As Shri Ramesam beautifully puts it, its all from the vyavaharika perspective.

    Lets take Death. In Death the brain is completely destroyed. upon death the Self-knowledge is lost along with the body and the mind. because knowledge is part of the mind. But I the consciousness is beyond that.

    Also it is really sometimes not made clear about the concept that Mukti or Mokha means birthless deathless etc. in body/mind sense. It is generally understood that a jnani upon death is never born again. One must introspect on the meaning of that. It simply means that Since I am not the body, the coming and going of bodies and mind has no consequence on the real Me and hence the real ‘I’ has not birth or death. It does not negate the coming and going of bodies and more “new Enlightenment” happening which implies “loosing enlightenment :).

    • G’Pathy
      Let me narrate my personal experience of a flash of amnesia (for about two hours) after some intense exercise on an empty stomach. After my exercise my wife complained that I am not co-he rent and I am not remembering what happened yesterday – she called 911 and I was furious. Paramedics asked me questions which I answered I thought, but my wife told me later that I flunked big time when I could not tell the paramedic what year we were in and who the President of US was. I was sent home after a few hours. But the interesting thing is that I was mentally intact as far as I was concerned – my “I am my body/mind” feeling was intact and only the external world thought that I had amnesia. Hence the question I asked “What is amnesia?” If I were a jnani and gone thru the same physical experience I probably would’nt forget “Aham Brahma Asmi”.
      Your explanation in the above post really makes sense.
      Vijay

      • Dear Vijay:

        From your description you may have suffered from a temporay brain malfunction due to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). There is usually sweating and extreme weakness as well. Apart from the muscles, the brain needs a sufficient level of glucose in the blood in order to function (also oxygen, of course), and a large percentage of the blood flow coming from the heart passes through it.

  9. This is my ‘Reply’ to Peregrinus the Nihilist for his post of July 18, 2014 at 19:19.

    I moved my response to his posting to here for two reasons. For one, he had raised some interesting points. Next, if I post as a ‘reply’ to him, it is becoming so thin almost like a single letter column!!!

    [In the Comments below, P is Peregrinus the Nihilist. R is Ramesam.]

    P: “So even the memory of the stream is part of that stream?”

    R: What you call as memory is what appears in the “now” as another fresh thought. This thought “about a past” is actually in the present and in fact knows no past!

    Even Neuroscience says as much. There is no hard drive like disc for memory in the brain. The neurons recreate afresh a memory every time it is retrieved. No ‘stored’ info is read off a record.

    Therefore, the thought of a memory is any (i)th thought where (i = 1 to N) in the series of thoughts.

    P: “Could we not more or less say the same thing about everything else that exists in the universe? Nothing on this earth ever stays in the exact same point in space-time.”

    R: Perfect. That is why Advaita holds that the world has no Reality. The world (jagat) is defined as jAyate gachatI iti jagat – world is that which is always on the move.

    P: “So it is agreed that the condition of the mind-brain is relevant to the “pursuit” of enlightenment. But it ceases to be relevant once enlightenment is “attained.” Do I understand correctly?”

    R: Instead of mind-brain, you may as well say mind-body in the above sentence.

    P: “So the information leading to enlightenment is processed and assimilated like other types of information, and yet cannot be lost like other types of information?”

    R: Just like the mind-body has become irrelevant, even that information is irrelevant after Self-realization.

    The usual Vedanta metaphor is a ‘flame.’ A ‘flame’ ignites a log of wood, burns with brilliance and after the faggot of wood is burnt away, the flame also goes. The flame does not survive the wood. The info is like the ‘flame.’

    The residuum after the info. is also gone, That is brahman, The True Self-Knowledge!
    What can be said, who to say and to whom then?

    regards,

  10. Dear P
    P: “So it is agreed that the condition of the mind-brain is relevant to the “pursuit” of enlightenment. But it ceases to be relevant once enlightenment is “attained.”
    Agreed!This seems to be the gist of this discussion.
    The key is to get Jnanam before amnesia, coma or other mental conditions get you 🙂
    Thanks for bringing this up!
    Vijay

  11. I am posting an extract from Swāmi Dayananda’s lecture on Bhagavad-gītā śloka 6.22

    yaṁ labdhvā cāparaṁ lābhaṁ manyate nādhikaṁ tataḥ |
    yasmin sthito na duḥkhena guruṇāpi vicālyate || 22 ||

    … and having gained which, one does not think there is any other better gain than that, established in which, one is not affected even by a great sorrow (sorrowful event)…

    Swamiji’s commentary

    Quote

    When it is said that you go to the abode of ātmā and rejoice there, some location comes to mind and naturally the question is for how long? All kinds of imagining is possible. But it is clear that remaining with ātmā is in terms of knowledge, and hence it does not even depend upon memory. You can forget the word ātmā, but you cannot forget the meaning of the word once you have understood it. The words themselves are lakṣaṇa of ātmā, and so can be forgotten, but ātmā can never be forgotten. Because knowing yourself is not something memory based. Even if you loose your memory in an accident or something, it is still the same. Because there is nothing called ‘his’ knowledge, which can go away. There was only ‘This Self is Brahman’ revelation, and recognizing this fact, he was liberated. Mokṣa is a matter of understanding and not memory.

    Unquote

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