Spiritual Convergence: Islam, Buddhism and Neuroscience

A group of people has been chained at the bottom of a cave from the time they gained consciousness. They face a wall, on which they see shadows cast by the fire behind them. For them, these shadows constitute reality. Eventually, one of them manages to escape the cave and discovers the light of the sun shining on the world outside. She feels confused at this unfamiliar visual onslaught, but then she begins to see. Excited, she returns to share the discovery with her companions, but they refuse to believe her. This is the famous allegory of the cave, described by Plato in The Republic.

Since time immemorial, many thinkers have wondered whether we live in the depths of such a cave, oblivious to the true nature of reality. Yet, throughout history, there have been attempts to understand and describe this transcendent reality. The diversity among these attempts is fascinating, but the unity among them, while suspected for some time, has not been demonstrable until recently. As the philosopher Alan Watts wrote, “If there is anything in the world which transcends the relativities of cultural conditioning, it is Zen – by whatever name it may be called.” Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, all seem to be depictions of the same transcendent reality hidden in the depths of our own minds. Greek and Norse mythologies seem to be different flavors of the same allegorical approach to investigating the mind. They converge at a point which can now be observed in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, and might have implications on the study of astrophysics and cosmology. Let’s start with Islam, see where it meets Buddhism and Hinduism, connect these concepts to neuroscience and brain imaging, and conclude by assessing their relevance to the pursuit of knowledge in the twenty-first century.

Transcendence in Islam

Across all major sects of Islam, Imam Ali is revered as the founding scholar of Islamic spirituality and mysticism. When the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) started going into seclusion at the mountain of Hira every year to meditate, he saw only his wife Khadija and Ali, whom he had taken into his household at the age of five and who remained his closest spiritual companion throughout life.

“There is one amongst you who will fight for the spiritual interpretation of the Quran as I have fought for its literal revelation”, the Prophet says to Abu Bakr while pointing towards Ali. But what is this “spiritual interpretation”? Reza Shah-Kazemi, a leading scholar of comparative religion and Islamic spirituality, describes the Imam’s spiritual ethos in the book “Justice and Remembrance”.

For Ali, the primary motivation driving any action is knowledge of the true nature of reality. For Ali, one of the main purposes of prophetic revelation was “to unearth for them the buried treasures of the intellects”. This higher mode of awareness is alluded to through the use of paradoxical discourse, apparent in the simultaneous affirmation and negation of attributes and ideas. Everything exists in relation to its opposite; love and hate, pleasure and pain, life and death. Isn’t it poetic then that even fundamental building blocks of matter have their inverse? Matter and anti-matter, electrons and positrons, quarks and anti-quarks, gluons and anti-gluons.

Increasing awareness of this polarity of nature is one aspect of higher consciousness. Thus, the intellect, or ‘aql, is described as being multi-faceted, with the mental faculty, the ego, being just one of its many modes of operation. As a result, the true intellectual, or ‘aqil, is one who struggles against his own ego to unearth the other modes and facets of consciousness. The ego must quieten, to let the rest of the mind speak.

The Way of Zen

In “The Way of Zen”, Alan Watts quotes Lao-Tz’s description of three types of people: “When the superior man hears of the Tao, he does his best to practice it. When the middling man hears of the Tao, he sometimes keeps it, and sometimes loses it. When the inferior man hears of the Tao, he will laugh aloud at it. If he did not laugh, it would not be the Tao.”

Coincidentally, Imam Ali describes three types of people too: those seekers of the divine through whom knowledge “penetrates the reality of insight” beyond the superficial level, those who seek knowledge but for the sake of deliverance, and those who have no desire for knowledge. Not unlike Lao-Tzu, he warns that these seekers are the fewest in number, but it is through them that religion remains true to itself. My own interpretation of these three types, in the twenty-first century context, is as follows: those who seek knowledge of the true nature of reality out of pure love and curiosity, those who seek knowledge for self-benefit (better career, higher pay, more piety), and those who have no interest in knowledge.

Taoism concerns itself with higher knowledge too, emphasizing on reality as perceived across all modes and facets of the mind rather than through the limited lens of linear and representational thinking. As Watts describes, “When we have learned to put excessive reliance upon central vision, upon the sharp spotlight of the eyes and mind, we cannot regain the powers of peripheral vision unless the sharp and staring kind of sight is first relaxed.” This peripheral vision is called “te”.

Similarly, liberation from the illusory and limited view of reality and reason is called moksha, which leads to Nirvana, but only unintentionally and spontaneously, when one is not trying to reach it “for the sake of deliverance”.

The key principle here is that as long as one has a purpose that can be associated with our limited conception of self, transcendence is not possible. You should not try to reach it; you should just cultivate the right mental environment, and it will reach you.

Deep down, the same principle lies at the core of meditation or prayer across at least Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam: the chatter of the ego must be silenced occasionally to allow the rest of the intellect to come alive.

Neural Correlates Of Consciousness

With the introduction of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and other high-resolution brain imaging techniques, it has become possible to “see” neural activity. In 2001, Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University, noticed that certain parts of the brain showed heightened activity when our minds wandered in the absence of attention or mental tasks. Neural activity in this “default mode network” (DMN) is associated with such processes as self-reflection, autobiographical memory, rumination about the past or future, and mental constructions such as the self or ego. Robin Carhart-Harris, a neuroscientist and research fellow at Imperial College London, describes the DMN as the brain’s “orchestra conductor, “corporate executive” or “capital city”. Neural activity in the DMN has an inverse relationship with the attentional networks of the brain; when one of them quietens, the other wakes up. The DMN also operates as a reducing valve that allows our waking consciousness to take in the minimum possible amount of information required to make fast predictions. This is important for survival because without it, the brain can easily get overwhelmed and be too slow to make decisions.

Going back to the analogy of a “corporate executive”, the DMN is the leader without which an organization cannot thrive, but for optimal performance, this leader must unearth and leverage hidden talents across the entire team (other parts of the brain). Freud may have described the DMN as the ego that keeps the forced of the unconscious id in check.

This can also be understood through the two systems of thought described by Daniel Kahneman in his research, and in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. System 1 “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control”. System 2 “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.” When we think about our conscious self, we identify with System 2, while System 1 is the subconscious part of the mind that can generate more complex patterns of ideas. System 2 is partly related to the DMN, and the buried treasures of the intellect are unearthed when this system is optimally configured to harness the powers of System 1, creating harmony between the two systems.

Such expanded consciousness is becoming integral to our understanding of reality because increasingly, we are realizing that our waking consciousness processes only a minute trickle of the data that accompanies the reality around us.

As Carlo Rovelli, a reknowned theoretical physicist, describes in his book Reality Is Not What It Seems, “An elementary structure of the world is emerging, generated by a swarm of quantum events, where time and space do not exist. Quantum fields draw together space, time, matter and light, exchanging information between one event and another. Reality is a network of granular events; the dynamic that connects them is probabilisitic; between one event and another, space, time, matter and energy melt into a cloud of probability.”

Scientific enquiry seems to be approaching a point that may be beyond the reach of linear, representational thinking, and may require forms of thinking that may seem paradoxical, and neural configurations previously associated with spirituality. For example, the ultimate paradox in astrophysics is between the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics. According to general relativity, reality is “a curved spacetime where everything is continuous”, and according to quantum mechanics, it is “a flat spacetime where discrete quanta of energy leap and interact”. The moon is too large to be impacted by quantum granularity, but an atom is too light to curve space significantly, so general relativity can be ignored at this scale. Yet, there are cases where both quantum granularity and the curvature of spacetime matter, e.g. inside blackholes and the universe during the Big Bang. The philosophical idea behind non-duality, highlighting the unity behind seemingly opposite ideas, seems to be becoming increasingly relevant in the scientific pursuit of the nature of reality.

While the convergence between spirituality across Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and mythology seems clear, could there also be a convergence between spirituality and science? Yes, but not in the way most people imagine such a convergence take place. At the very least, the expansion of consciousness inherent in spiritual practices heralds a higher form of awareness that can be demonstrated through brain imagining and facilitates deeper scientific contemplation. At the very least, there is some beauty to be felt in the fact that on some level, human beings seem to have always suspected that there is more to reality than meets the eye.

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