In his essay “Physics and Mind: Minding Quanta and Cosmology” Karl H. Pribram suggests that brain is to mind as person is to experience. As he puts it, somewhat inelegantly, you can eat a brain but you can’t eat experience.
Zombie inferences aside, I think this is an interesting way to think about what it means to approach our living together as human beings who live together and bring forth love in their shared living, especially if one of our lenses for that living happens to be A Course in Miracles.
Pribram is saying that a brain “minds” in a way similar to how a person “experiences.” On this view, “mind” is a process from which discrete moments may be isolated and examined without inhibiting its fundamental dynamism.
For example, you can give particular attention to your feelings for a certain person, place or thing. You can isolate those feelings and study them and reflect on them. What do they mean, what behavior do they suggest, how they have changed – but the flow of experience itself does not stop. It goes on in the form of reflecting and studying itself.
In the next moment, you might study and reflect on this “study and reflection,” but to the same effect. Experience is continuous and reflexive; it doesn’t have any gaps.
It is tempting to try and find a unified stable observer in all of this – the one who is looking at the flowing, evaluating the flowing, and directing the flowing. But the observer is basically the mechanical body; what is conscious and aware of its consciousness is the observing, the observing looking at observing.
In this way, there is a sense of there being a discrete observer and a discrete observed – the one who observes a certain relationship, say. But even as this seems to be a fair description of our experience of our experiencing, it is not actually sustainable. The separation that is implied is an illusion; it may be functional or even inevitable, but it is not veridical. Observer, observing, and observed arise in a simultaneous triadic way. Linear and hierarchical models of perception and cognition are simply means of organizing what arises and are helpful in certain contexts; they are not 1:1 reflections of Truth.
Critically – to Pribram’s point – we can’t eat this arising! We can’t make it stop or start, slow down or speed up. We can’t make it rain when the garden’s dry or sunny just in time for the picnic. We can certainly give attention to it in a thoughtful way (we can organize it and reflect on the mode of organization) but even if we don’t give attention, attention keeps on giving itself, just somewhat less thoughtfully, somewhat less aware of its givingness.
If we really look into this, and if our looking is clear and subject to contemplation, then we will see that whatever we are is basically “along for the ride.” We aren’t the driver and we aren’t the car. We are riding. Riding riding.
On the other hand, we are not just “along for the ride.” We are not merely “along for the ride.” Within proscribed boundaries, we are able to act. In the present metaphor of riding in a car, we can roll the window down and stick our heads out. We can look right or left; we can play games; we can nap. That is, there are things we can do with our living – make phone calls, bake bread, extend certain invitations, decline others . . .
Ultimately, this domain of available actions is what allows us to ask questions about our living and to seek “better” and “better yet” and “best” ways of being and bringing forth love.
For some of us, the “ride” includes a spiritual template and applications. We understand it in terms of atonement, forgiveness, Jesus or the Buddha, meditation, past lives, karmic debts and so forth. Asking “why” this is so does not matter (though it is not an uninteresting question) so much as considering “how” we interact and engage with this “spiritual” template and its applications.
Ask: do you have some sense of what it means to be holy? To live in a spiritual or godly way?
It is okay – it is more than okay – to privilege our interior sense of holiness, if one exists. It is okay to let the inner lamp shine on our subjective sense of Christ and Buddha and others, folding and enfolding their many scriptures, including A Course in Miracles, and see what happens when we do.
We should not worry about whether we are “getting it” in the way Ken Wapnick or Tara Singh or Nisargadatta or Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton “got it.”
Really, A Course in Miracles is like a radio and our experience of it as students is the music the radio plays. You want a good radio, but only so you can listen to good music. When the radio plays Tom Petty or Lady Gaga or Beethoven we don’t gawk in amazement at the radio. It’s not writing and performing anything. It’s the artists and their music that inspire us.
Thus, A Course in Miracles is a means to an end; getting worked up about it as anything other than a means is like worshiping a hammer and nails while it rains instead of ducking into the shelter the hammer and nails helped build.
So what is the end? Where are we going with A Course in Miracles?
In my experience, we are learning how to make sustainable contact with our inner teacher, which the course calls “Holy Spirit” but which I have more helpfully thought of as “attention.” Obviously your experience will vary; obviously your semantic preferences may not align with mine.
What does that teacher teach us? What does she offer that deepens our understanding and living?
She teaches us how to bring forth love in our living, and to understand that this bringing forth of love is a kind of opening-out in which the appearance of our separate interests dissolves and our fundamental unity and mutuality is remembered.
Oneness is not an illusion. It is not merely an ideal. Nor is it a personal experience to be hoarded or squandered or celebrated. It is the foundation of our existence and is often obscured by our confused identification of self as permanently located in and as a body. We conflate the song with the radio on which it plays.
Or – on Pribram’s view – we fail to distinguish between brain and mind and focus only on what we can eat. When we do this – when we fall prey to this error – we do becomes zombies, mindlessly staggering through a world whose value is perceived only in terms of what we can get for ourselves.
If mind can be reduced to a brain, or self reduced to a discrete body, and we are thus discrete bodies in a world of limited resources, then this zombified approach is not illogical. Defense and attack make sense. We have to look out for number one. Anything else is irresponsible.
But if we are implicated in a unity, a nondual mutuality, and that is our identity, then our behavior and priorities and understanding will naturally change. The meaning of our existence will change. It will become more loving and generous and forgiving (both in the course sense and the traditional sense). It will become radically inclusive.
We will stop being zombies and become something closer to saints. We will leave a world of sacrifice and scarcity in favor of the Garden, where separate interests are not idealized and service to one another is a joyful – indeed, a holy – responsibility.
Of course, it is relatively easy to write and talk this way. It is orders of magnitude harder to bring into application, in part because of the temptation to stop and put up tents at one’s personal sense of awakening as a personal accomplishment. We’re going to sell as many books as Eckhart Tolle, have a daily stream of admirers like Nisargadatta, indulge our sexuality like Osho . . .
We might instead think of awakening – the realization of the unity implied but not revealed by our human experience – less as some triumph of the self reflected in worldly terms than as simply getting off the train at a given destination. We scrimped and saved, bought a ticket, got to the station, boarded the train, rode the train and now we are here!
And then – after the amazement of “here” subsides, which it will – our living goes on, more or less as it always has, and which it will do until it doesn’t, and other living rises in its place.
I am suggesting awakening less as as something mysterious and rare and more as just a natural realization of what was always the case. The altar as such is everywhere which means that there really isn’t an altar.
In other words, the work is basically figuring out how to be loving in a world that is often indifferent to love and sometimes outright hostile towards it. We have to work it out where and as we are; there is no other way and nobody else to do it. Just give attention to what is helpful; be happy; make your living about your brothers and sisters.
If one looks at the course and at learning in this way, and if one takes Pribram’s sense of being into account (you can eat a brain but you can’t eat experience), then a lot of the pressure of living eases. As it does, love flows through, in and of itself. It’s doing so anyway; our work really is to get out of the way.