Friday, January 10, 2014

‘Flashback Friday: Perspectives on Mystical Union’

You’ve heard of Throwback Thursday? Well, this is Flashback Friday, the second post of a hopefully weekly feature that will discuss topics from the past that I didn’t get around to writing about in a timely manner.

Today we revisit October 16 of last year on the campus of New York University, where the Mindfulness Project at NYU hosted the Psychology Department’s Dr. Zoran Josipovic, who presented “What Is Nonduality: Perspectives on Mystical Union” to an audience of about thirty students of neuroscience—and me. I ask that as you continue reading, please know that I am no scholar of any kind on this amazing subject, and that any errors discerned by the knowledgeable reader are attributable to me, and not to Dr. Josipovic.

Okay, so what is Nonduality? The Nonduality Institute says:

Nonduality is understood as the realization of a very subtle, non-conceptual, unbounded consciousness that is experienced as the essence of one’s own being and of all life. This is a mutual transparency of self and other, in which everything, including one’s own being, is revealed as made of a single, vast expanse of consciousness. It arises together with phenomena; it pervades the movement of perceptions, thoughts, emotions and sensations. This nondual consciousness is not known as an object separate from ourselves; rather, it knows itself.

This level of consciousness has been regarded as the source of positive qualities of being, in the sense that such qualities as compassion, insight, joy and equanimity manifest spontaneously when one realizes it. These qualities are experienced as non-referential, in other words, not a specific compassion for someone, but an open-ended state of compassion that pervades one’s entire field of experience….

Approaches to nonduality that focus on recognizing and dissolving mental constructions also de-construct the notion of the self. Any fixed ideas of the self, such as "I am a teacher" or "I am a good person" will obscure our realization of nondual consciousness. However, when we realize nondual consciousness pervading our body and environment, we uncover a qualitative, authentic sense of our individual self. Nonduality is neither the subject nor the object of experience. It is the unity, the oneness of subject and object.

Courtesy Dr. Zoran Josipovic
Buddhist monk exits MRI machine as part of the
neuroscience research of 
Dr. Zoran Josipovic, at right.

If you’re like me, you had to read that a few times, and that is largely because we Westerners are imbued with a tradition that makes us dualists by default. It dates back to the ancient Persian religion Manichaeism, a belief that existence is starkly divided into two struggling forces: spiritual light of good versus material worldly darkness. Manichaeism spread far, taking root throughout the Near East, in Africa, and even China. In the early centuries of the Common Era, Manichaeism was the principal rival to Christianity as inheritor of the pagan world about the Mediterranean. While it did not outdo either Judaism or Christianity, it did influence both to varying degrees; so it is in our collective consciousness today. (I won’t go into manifestations of Manichaean belief in esoteric symbolism, but it’s there.) Perhaps Manichaean thought is illustrated best by the archetypal image of the little angel on one’s shoulder imparting moral guidance while the little devil on the other shoulder encourages something else. I don’t mean to say Nonduality is exactly the opposite of Manichaean duality because Nonduality aims for the transcendent—achieving oneness with the world.

Powerpoint slide courtesy Dr. Zoran Josipovic.

Back to the Nonduality Institute:

Nondual awakening is not dependent upon a particular spiritual lineage. When we realize nonduality, we are not realizing Buddhism or Hinduism. We are realizing our own fundamental nature—the spiritual foundation of our being is self-arising. It is naturally there, and it appears spontaneously as we become open enough to uncover it. Although the different spiritual lineages describe nondual awakening in different ways, the arising of nonduality itself is unmistakable.

And now back to the lecture.

Zoran Josipovic, Ph.D., is the director of the Contemplative Science Lab in the Psychology Department at NYU, and an adjunct assistant professor for cognitive and affective neuroscience. He is the founding director of the Nonduality Institute in Woodstock, New York. His research interests are states of consciousness cultivated through contemplative practice, what these states can tell us about the nature of consciousness and its relation to authentic subjectivity, and the relevance they have for understanding the global and local organization in the brain. He is a long-time practitioner of meditation in the nondual traditions of Dzogchen, Mahamudra and Advaita Vedanta.

The substance of the lecture explained how mindfulness exercise, or meditation, helps reorganize the brain. It is not a secret that Buddhist monks achieve higher attentional skills, and greater tranquility and happiness thanks to their meditations. Josipovic’s research into the neuroscience of all that is unlocking the very real secrets of blood flow in the brain and other activities of the cerebral cortex during the act of meditating. In other words, the human brain is capable of Nonduality; the question is, how to master the practice of achieving it.

Powerpoint slide courtesy Dr. Zoran Josipovic.

The neural networks in experienced meditation practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments, Josipovic explained, and this “reorganization” in the brain is believed to cause what meditators describe as the harmony between themselves and their surroundings that they enjoy. Scientists refer to this as the brain’s “default network.”

Powerpoint slide courtesy Dr. Zoran Josipovic.

Josipovic defined the brain as being two networks: the extrinsic, which concerns things like motor skills, and the intrinsic—or default—network, which is actuated by mental reflection and emotions. The two do not work in conjunction for most people, and take turns in being active. They are in competition. This permits people to focus intently, being free from daydreaming, but can this competition be affected by cognitive strategy, such as meditation? Among the Buddhist monks participating in Josipovic’s research, there is evidence of the two networks being active together during their meditations, the key to the monks’ sense of oneness with their environs.

Powerpoint slide courtesy Dr. Zoran Josipovic.

Additional benefits to this research include gaining greater understanding of Attention Deficit Disorder, in which the internal goes uninterrupted with no balance with the external; and of autism, which is somewhat the opposite in that there is no internal awareness. Study into Alzheimer’s Disease also profits from this work.

For further reading into Josipovic's research, especially the specifics on the cognitive exercises, see his paper, Influence of Meditation on Anti-Correlated Networks in the Brain here.

Powerpoint slide courtesy Dr. Zoran Josipovic.

Powerpoint slide courtesy Dr. Zoran Josipovic.

Powerpoint slide courtesy Dr. Zoran Josipovic.


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