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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness

Austin, James H. (1988).
Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

ISBN: 0-262-01164-6

Description: Hardcover, xxiv + 844 pages.

Contents: Contents in detail, chapters containing testable hypotheses, list of figures, list of tables, preface, acknowledgments, introduction, 158 chapters divided into 8 parts: 1. Starting to Point Toward Zen, 2. Meditating, 3. Neurologizing, 4. Exploring States of Consciousness, 5. Quickening, 6. Turning In: The Absorptions, 7. Turning Out: The Awakenings, 8. Being and Beyond: To the Stage of Ongoing Enlightenment, In Closing, Appendices: A. Introduction to The Heart Sutra, B. Selections from Affirmation of Faith in Mind, C. Suggested Further Reading, glossary, references and notes, source notes, index.

Note: The author presents his personal experiences within the context of other meditators' experiences. Moreover, he correlates these two lines of evidence with the latest scientific evidence from multiple disciplines. As a result, the numerous "testable hypotheses" in this book point the way toward future research which could further clarify the mechanisms underlying alternate states of consciousness. MIT Press URL:

Excerpt(s): Preface

Aldous Huxley called mankind's basic trend toward spiritual growth the "perennial philosophy." Herein, I take a different perspective. To me, the trend implies a dynamic intimate perennial psychophysiology. It is a series of processes, slowly evolving, that culminate in defining moments of an extraordinary character. What are such "peak" experiences? How could they both profoundly enhance, yet simplify, the workings of the brain? This book summarizes the latest evidence.

This is also a story of one neurologist's personal quest and professional search. These two paths converge in ways that lead to one straightforward thesis: awakening, enlightenment, occurs only because the human brain undergoes substantial changes. Does prior meditation help the brain to change in this direction? If so, how? This subject is explored throughout the book. (page xix)

By Way of Introduction

This book began as a personal quest for information. I had come on sabbatical leave to Kyoto, Japan. As soon as I engaged in Zen meditation, I became puzzled. Nothing in my previous medical or other training had prepared me for this encounter. My ignorance was abysmal in three major areas: (1) Zen-What is it? (2) The human brain-How does it actually function? (3) Meditation and enlightened states-What really goes on during these? Stimulated by these questions, I have gone on to try to answer some of them in this book, to make the conceptual framework a little easier for the next person on the path.

We expect scientists to be impersonal about their data. But suppose we wish to move toward that scientific goal which William James had predicted. To reach a "critical science of religions," he said, the basic material must come from "facts of personal experience." In my case this could only mean extracting entries made in my journal. You will be reading material that describes an unusual interior world from the inside. ...

No neurologist overtaken by a major alternate state of consciousness is a "nerve doctor" at that very instant. No self-referent ego is there. No special discrimination scans the moment, biased by its years of training. Analysis isn't stunned. It simply isn't there for several seconds. Later, when the episode is over, a few persons might be able to drop such an experience. But what of others like myself, long immersed in the neurosciences, whose commitment to Zen is not so total as that of a monk? (page xxiii)

If so, then where does the experience of this Great Self come from? The premise of this book is that it must come from the brain, because the brain is the organ of the mind. The same perspective holds whether mystical or peak experiences arise spontaneously, are cultivated, or are drug-induced. Our thesis is that prior meditative training and daily life practice help release basic, preexisting neurophysiological functions. This thesis will lead to the following proposition: mystical experiences arise when normal functions reassemble in novel conjunctions. (page 18)

Gradually, the Western world has come to appreciate that mystical experiences serve several practical functions: (1) They tend to resolve anxieties at various levels and to promote a physiological sense of well-being. (2) They help to actualize potential abilities. (3) To the degree that others have similar experiences, they contribute to the social bond within a group. (4) They prompt people to become directed toward other values and goals beyond themselves, to reevaluate the way they view this everyday world, the universe at large, and their place within it. (5) They stimulate scientists of many kinds to try to explain them. In the process of doing so, we develop a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying both ordinary as well as extraordinary states of consciousness. (pages 29-30)

And these early perceptual symptoms offer tantalizing hints about where psychedelics first act on amine circuits in the human brain. But it is a different task to localize the sources of those long-delayed mystical, religious, or other experiences. Why? Because they do not develop until many hours later. One cannot expect to find simple explanations for the experiential flavor of these rare later events. At least not in the known primary effects of the psychedelic drugs. (pages 418-419)

Clearly, some of the quickening effects of meditation resemble some of the quickening effects of drugs. Why? Could they both be sharing certain mechanisms, at levels either shallow or deep, that are worth making a serious effort to understand? If so, then do either one of these two agencies-psychedelic drugs or meditative training-have specific effects? The literature clarifies these issues.

We have just seen how a gas like nitrous oxide can activate mental processes. Another gas, when inhaled, also releases experiences that in some ways resemble those prompted by LSD. This gas, carbon dioxide, is normally found in low concentrations in our bodies and brains. As an example, Grof found that the kind of reaction he could stimulate by giving his patients arousing concentrations of CO2 would predict which kind of response to LSD they would later develop. Moreover, the next point is especially noteworthy. Each person's response to CO2 also evolved-over days, weeks and months-as did that to LSD. ...

What general conclusions can one draw from the above observations? First, that the brain's responses do evolve. ... when the brain is already primed and on the brink, a strongly arousing event may tip it over into different kinds of quickenings and awakenings. (pages 420-421)

The emphasis in this book is on the Zen approach to the Middle Way. This means meditation, not medication. Meditation in moderation, not to excess. Indeed, the major meditative disciplines tend to remain very conservative. The fact is, anything that makes the setting and the experience itself more artificial will later make it more difficult to assimilate this brief state in a positive way into the rest of life's ongoing experiences. I do not endorse or use drugs. But many others have tried both routes. Sooner or later, most abandon LSD. It turns out to be an obstacle, not an aid, to their practice of zazen. Watts, recounting his earlier LSD experiments, went on to entitle his later article: "Ordinary Mind Is the Way." "Ordinary mind" meant a state that was clear, stable, and undistracted by hallucinations. This is the Zen Way. (page 425)

Only 3 percent of Masters and Houston's psychedelic subjects (6 out of 206 participants) met their criteria for a subcategory called "Unitary Consciousness." It emerged out of their fourth, deepest integral level, and was empty of all "sensuous or conceptual or other empirical content." Who were these six persons? Were they different in other ways?

To begin with, they had older brains. All were over forty years of age, intelligent, well-adjusted, and creative. They were also a highly motivated group, for they had either sought out mystical experiences in previous meditative or spiritual disciplines or had long maintained a major interest in integral levels of consciousness in general. Their prior years of preparation had left them with a "somewhat abstracted attitude." During their first, sensory level on LSD, these few mature subjects showed an especially rich array of psychedelic phenomena. However, they then barely skimmed over the second and third level of experiences. As a result, they arrived rather quickly at the threshold of the fourth, integral level of experience.

To some, psychedelic mystical experiences "is mystical experience." Yes and no. Some small segments appear authentic. Still, I side with Masters and Houston in concluding as follows: when one takes a critical view of the psychedelic type of experience not in terms of its isolated segments, but in its total context, it differs "diametrically" from that emerging in the Zen meditative context. To cite only three of the reasons why this is so:

  • The trained meditative subject, not exposed to drugs, learns gradually to empty the mind. In contrast, the subject driven by psychedelics is self-propelled into a sustained roller coaster ride, exposed to a heavy barrage of pressing perceptual, affective, and other mental phenomena.

  • The drug experience lasts much longer. Some psychedelic subjects remain in their affect-charged experience at the integral level for from fifteen minutes up to two hours or more. After this encounter, they don't wish to return to another psychedelic experience in the near future.

  • The drug experience transforms less frequently, and to a lesser degree. ... (pages 428-431)

It suffices here to emphasize one other important point about vision that we will expand on later. Grof found that his subjects' experiences differed in ways which depended on whether their eyes were closed or opened. Clearly, this is another reason why psychedelic experience varies. To illustrate: the subject whose eyes are closed will experience the tension-free phenomenon of "cosmic unity as an independent, complex, experiential pattern." In contrast, when this same subject opens the eyes, there occurs the sense of "merging with the environment" as well as feelings of "unity" with the objects that are being perceived. At this moment, with the eyes open, the world is then seen as a place of indescribable radiance and beauty. Now the subject, imbued "with feelings of complete security," sees no negative aspects either in the world or "in the very structure of the cosmic design." In this perfection, "everything is as it should be." (page 433)

Had the former drug users finally decided to stop taking psychedelics solely as the result of a conscious choice, reached by a purely intellectual decision? Or had they grown up as it were, because a series of other events, deep in the brain had contributed to their loss of taste for LSD? Why do such questions come up? Because our discussion will lead to a set of other explanations why subtle changes in receptors and in brain circuitry could also be responsible for cutting off a person's attachments and cravings at very basic levels, and therefore to other reasons why such changes could extend to include the cutting off of a perceived need for drugs. (pages 583-584)

So let us now take a critical look at the state of awakening, kensho-satori, and reexamine it from the same broad biological perspective. At its core is change. Change means shifting from old to new. What is enlightenment's first crucial contribution? What it sheds. What it subtracts. It destructures, deprograms and deconditions in depth. As a result, the brain becomes less top-heavy; its functions are simplified, revitalized. New systems of adaptive behaviors can develop more readily in such a reorganized brain. Accordingly, one can be cautiously optimistic about this unique capacity of the brain to shift into a wide range of alternate states. For herein resides a potential resource, a resource which could serve as the basis both for our long-range biological survival and for our cultural advancement. ...

Advanced alternate states of consciousness exemplify the capacities of the human brain for change. Put simply, they help us cast off our outmoded, hard-shelled, stereotyped behavior patterns. Aided by future variations of this same general theme, some of our adaptable descendants-those whose education had gentled them and made them more flexible-could build on their experiences, become increasingly free to adapt creatively, and so be enabled to survive future crises. Moreover, at the same time, awakenings could also help them open up to appreciate new cultural approaches, and to redesign the increasingly more humane ways of living required to benefit both society as a whole and themselves as contributing members.

All this would proceed millennia by millennia, much too slowly for anyone to appreciate at the time. Let a few more persons multiply who had survived because they had greater capacities for such adaptability, and the resulting series of events might go on slowly to change the ethical and religious climate of the far distant future. Still, from this Mu perspective, the basic transforming process would remain a biological one. It would be an increasing capacity for change.

Biological at its core, the evolutionary process proposed in this qualified hypothesis would continually spin off the related secondary cultural layers. This means that cultural evolution would phase in at every step to provide the essential positive and negative social reinforcements. The cultural influences could be of many kinds: spiritual, for example, or environmental or political or economic. (pages 688-689)

This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2003 CSP

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