Dr. Arvind Vasavada, my guru and friend, my gentle, generous mentor from my seminary days, used to advise me and his analysands (counseling clients), “Be…
What is the worth of matter and these bodies made from it? Some religionists say matter provides a mere stage on which we act the drama of our lives, creating the conditions of our afterlives. Some scientists say it and our world are just insignificant specks in the enormity of the universe. Are we lost in a false dilemma? Must we choose between irrelevant matter and senseless matter?
We should reject both irrelevancy and senselessness. As I once wrote in a paper for the Humanist Institute, “Matter Matters.” To take matter and life as a mere stage-set for a testing, vengeful God seems presumptuous, dismissive of the good glory. Without these corporeal bodies on this living earth in a dynamic universe of lawful order we couldn’t even argue the case. Matter matters.
For me, physics and biology are part of how we know and treat our religious world. I’m glad we have matter and a plausible scientific explanation of how it has formed and evolved into ever more elaborate life. Those who resent this materialistic approach snub the very ground of their being. They act as though matter, life, and animals are somehow below us, in direct contrast to how Elohim God evaluates them as “good” in Genesis One. If you would seek God, study nature, outer and inner. That’s my deistic approach. So when I came across Joseph Chilton Pearce’s The Biology of Transcendence: A Blueprint of the Human Spirit, using scientific reference and hard on religion, I jumped in.
His book is promising, but frustrating. He’s prophetic in providing a biological basis for our personal and social transformation, and he’s frustrating for not providing clear cites. He gives himself the latitude to tell it his own way. That’s refreshing, but hardly reliable. We need religious writers to ground their work in verifiable, agreed facts. When they obscure the sources of those facts they short us and weaken their credibility.
For instance, part of Pearce’s thesis depends on the supposed fact that a mother’s emotional condition during pregnancy affects the size of certain areas of their baby’s brain. An insecure, frightened mother will birth a baby with small pre-frontal brain mass and larger primitive brain mass. A secure, happy mother will give birth to a baby with more neo cortex. Crucial support for this thesis goes mostly undocumented, thus weakening the whole argument I wish I could rely on – because it is so important to us.
Here’s his approach. Early in his life he spontaneously entered “unconflicted behavior.” In his twenties, he could see the contents of letters before they arrived, do all-night banking work far beyond typical ability, and move with uncanny agility. He had lost his fear of death, finding life far more manageable than it ever is. Part of it had to do with immediacy. As intuition spoke he had to go with it or lose it. Later in life he wrote A Crack in the Cosmic Egg to describe it, and much later, this book, his prophesy to us.
He notes how as creatures evolve in nature they inherit previous advantages which they then incorporate in order to transcend them. The ancient reptilian brain at the base of our skulls carries the emotionless survival instinct. It takes novelty fearfully and quickly either flees or fights. This old pattern served the reptiles well even as it became the rudimentary mind of the mammal. The mammals needed the reptilian skill in order to develop their new abilities. The old form is not lost, but is utilized in going beyond it.
Our second level of brain comes from our mammalian inheritance (as I explored via the book A General Theory of Love). This mid-brain limbic system of emotional/social ability incorporates and transcends the reptilian. Both levels are needed in us. We need to survive, and then we need nurture and communion with others. Our lives are not isolated survival strategies; we live with family and larger group. Touch, voice, and gaze all help us thrive.
(New discovery and research show we have more options in our behavior than our near cousins the chimps model. While they are patriarchal and violent, our other near cousins across the river, the Bonobos, show matriarchal ways of sharing, tenderness, and generalized sexual friendliness. Humans show bits of both.)
Though other mammals have a bit of neo-cortex, it is much bigger in humans, five times larger than the first two levels combined. This human brain is crucial to our language, compassion, and higher modes of thought. Built on these earlier animal forms, the human brain transcends all that came before it in ways both magnificent and frightening. Getting these big brains born and developed is our uniquely human task, danger, and opportunity.
Pearce sees a fourth step in our evolution – a heart/prefrontal loop. He says the heart is not just a pump, but has brain-like structure in and near it that can be part of our next evolutionary step. In a zygote, the heart develops first, then the brain, then the body. The heart is not just a muscle; it is made largely of neural cells which communicate with our overall brain via a sophisticated system of nerves and hormones. One of its functions is to produce ANF, a hormone that leads to the production of cortisol, which stimulates our sympathetic nervous system (responsible for our fight and flight reactions of attacking, defending or fleeing). Or if such cortisol release is too frequent, it goes to the parasympathetic system responsible for shutting down our system into depression.
Just as the laws of physics describe how matter exists in simple and complex forms, the laws of biology show the parameters and reciprocal cycles of our dynamic organism. Structure and function affect our thoughts and our thoughts affect our structure and function. Translated to the collective social mode, our biology influences society and society influences our psycho-physiological system. It is a dynamic, cyclical interrelationship.
How we are at heart shapes us and our culture. Pearce rightly warns us against cultural trends that repeatedly stimulate our alarm, anger, and fear so much we either react with anger and anxiety, or we succumb to apathy, powerlessness, and overall susceptibility to diseases. Transcendence is a vulnerable flower. Consider what became of the peace and love generation: we went from “Make Love, not War,” to “Make War, not Love.” The consequences of this in our personal minds and bodies, our infants and our familial relations, and our overall society are enormous.
Unfortunately, our economic, marketing, political, military and even religious systems don’t counter this over-stimulating our anxiety, anger, and fear into cortisol; they make it worse. We are frequently prodded to react, be it to sell pills, prop up politicians, or participate in wars. All of this sucks us into our reactive minds and tends to create infant’s brains primed for the fight or flight sort of reactive minds. A culture of fear and anger is bound to perpetuate a bunch of low-brain bullies and intimidated victims. Pearce sees this as a biological, social tragedy. Instead, he offers the biological and spiritual tools that can literally change us and our world. For him, the Second Coming is humans forsaking the reactive fear and hate that leads to a hellish world, replacing it with the bravery, trust, and compassion Jesus modeled. This is not a sectarian argument; it is a biological possibility and opportunity.
While the reptilian brain tends only to the dangerous present, the mammalian tends to the emotional past, storing early nurture or fright information in the amygdala, deep in our unconsciousness, where it still influence us in our attitudes, identities, and dramas. The high brain, the neocortex, reaches into the future as well. But when it does so with trepidation and anxiety, it sets off loops of hormones and thoughts bound to drag us back into a fearful or angry sort of mind. Do that long enough and it turns depressive. Do that long enough and we wither and get sick.
At only 40,000 years old, the newest parts of our neocortex are our prefrontals, the most precious and precarious part of our brain. Seat of our creativity and compassion, they can quickly lose it to the demands of the amygdala as it routs us back into primitive brain survival modes. The primary prefrontals grow only after birth, during the first year, in tandem with the infant’s sensory-motor system. The secondary prefrontals then grow along with the emotional-cognitive development via the orbital-frontal loop. In the four to five year old, they grow along with the more intuitive right hemisphere and temporal lobe development, and in the seven to eleven year old are involved in the synthesis of the right and left hemispheres. If all goes well, the prefrontals integrate with all the functions of the brain by adolescence. Then a secondary growth spurt comes on in conjunction with the myelination (or sheathing and stabilizing) of the neural connections, which takes place by year 21. (Interestingly, this final growth spurt has no known function; it’s just new brain atop everything else we’ve become.)
Not only can mothers give births to babies with brains structured (to some extent) for fear and hate on one extreme or creativity and compassion on the other, the crucial first years of nurture also structure our baby’s brains and patterns. In other words, when babies are born in security and love and are raised in closeness and care, they can develop their transcendent abilities – their highest and most humane of possibilities. And when not . . .
Thomas Merton once commented that western civilization is a one-eyed monster great at parsing out facts but poor at learning intuition and love. Pearce has a similar complaint. How is it, he wonders, that we can pick Jesus as our model then repeatedly act like crucifiers? Why do we generate lofty sentiments but manifest Hiroshima? Why do we live with so much tragedy and violence when we really want to love?
His complaint is that culture itself perpetuates fear and hence, trouble. He sees culture as teaching survival. His preferred term is socialization, the impartment of civility. I think he makes too simple a linguistic dichotomy between these two and that he stresses culture’s survival teachings while forgetting culture’s mechanisms of kindness, art, and progress. But, in main, he makes a good case for the mutuality of the biology/culture dynamic.
“Culture has been the principal environment of mind for many millennia,” he writes. What served us to flee the proverbial saber-toothed tiger persists in generalized fearfulness and meanness. Tigers are no longer the threat; we are. Humankind must survive itself if it is ever to flourish. Wars are great at focusing this primitive survival brain on to killing the enemy, the “other.” But when wars stop, the warring mind doesn’t, and we can then turn on ourselves. Witness the eager rush to war on innocent Iraqis (who never attacked us) on the flimsiest of rationales. Consider the rise of hate talk radio and how it and our current president make sport of despising liberals. Our supposed reaction to 9-11 was “United We Stand,” while the domestic reality was the dyslexic version: “Untied We Stand.” Why does our culture launch wars on others and us? What is it in us that make us so fearful and hateful?
Classic Christian and conservative philosophy contend we’re born flawed, inclined to be bad. I contend the flaw is in their thinking, and that they fail to honor and cultivate the promising wonder we are by instead creating systems that make us turn wretched. They create a culture that forces and fulfills their twisted philosophy.
In this culture, instead of loving nurture, the infant comes into a world of scorn and shame. Too many children develop their identity seeing a scowling face, hearing an angry “No,” and getting painful swats on their butt. They’re then taught, “thou shall not this,” “thou shall not that” in a way that expects submission and obedience rather than understanding. The child fears abandonment and begins to conform to the “no” in order to be included, sharpening and maintaining her or his survival responses. They acquiesce obediently, or grow sneaky by learning how to lie. Sensitive little children come into a world of angry giants teaching them how to grow up to be angry giants. The cycles of abuse roll down through the generations, victims becoming victimizers.
As it clearly states in Genesis One, we are built in the image of God, part of the goods that are this natural world. We are built for magnificence, creativity, and happiness. But we cannot arrive at our transcendent possibility if we’re caught in a culture that keeps activating our primitive survival brain. We cannot use blind belief in worshipping a mean God and expect to develop our innate humanistic abilities. We cannot live by the sword and expect to reside in heaven. Nature builds in excellence and exultance, but our religions keep teaching us the ways of fear and hate.
As Pearce notes, Christianity is not the light of a radically kind Jesus, but the lengthened shadow of a fanatical Paul. Jesus loved Mary Magdeline and asked her to teach; Paul said, “I do not allow women to teach in church.” He started out as the zealot Saul, became the zealot Paul, and gets used by the zealots of the fall. Augustine twisted the Garden of Eden story into the exact opposite of its obvious intent. Original Sin isn’t in our sex and nature; it’s in judging our sex and nature as flawed and fallen, taking our natural goodness and calling it bad. John Calvin led inquisitors to strip innocent women and voyeuristically look for the hated “witch’s tit,” killing many. John Wesley’s wife described how he would daily whip his screaming children in an effort to “beat the devil out of them.” What started in kindness and forgiveness has become shame and blame. Pearce complains some fundamentalist, evangelical, and Catholic teachings do it all: they induce the illness, diagnose the disease, and sell the supposed antidote.
(We have come a long way from these difficult habits, but our progress is precarious. Whipping children used to be normal. A recent Newsweek article recounted how in the late 70’s some 90% of parents reported spanking their children. By the late 80’s that had dropped to 66%. And recently it has dropped to 9%. The norm of how to treat children has improved, but voices are active in justifying and even promoting the practice again.)
How can we fix this?
Pearce wants families and society to know the importance of the mother’s happiness and security during pregnancy and the early years of their children’s lives. Close, loving contact does more than teach; it creates the very structure of goodness. This is not for mothers alone; it takes a village of wise, kind, gentle elders. But parenting is limited and there’s more that we all can do. Pearce picks up on the work of the HeartMath Institute, which has mapped the electromagnetic field of the heart. The force of this field is 60 times greater than that of our brain waves. Not only does the heart integrate and inform the rest of our brain, it influences others. An incoherent heart poorly integrates the body/mind and it doesn’t do well with affecting others. A coherent heart has a healing effect on both the body/mind of the person and that of other persons. This seems implausible until we remember effective therapy and the many saints and sages who advise we consult our heart and live from it. Consider love or grief and how they feel in the heart.
The importance of this for mothers with fetuses inside or infants at breasts is obvious. But we influence those around us too. A coherent heart manifests in subtle behavior changes. The tone of the voice softens; the look in the eye is lighter. Our mammalian brain watches for such subtlety, whether we notice it or not. How well we incorporate our lower brain and develop our higher matters. How we are in ourselves becomes who and what we are in society. We are not just affected by society; we affect it.
Like Jesus asked, do we want to live by an eye for an eye, or develop a new way of seeing? That new way has to do with interrupting our usual way of reacting and inserting a kinder heart and wiser mind. It takes awareness and effort. At the moment of difficult challenge we stop our usual sight, freeze-frame it, and get a bit of meditative detachment from it. We might replace reaction with deliberately inserting a memory of a peaceful event. In any case, we don’t let old emotional scripts built into our amygdala, muscles, and bones run us with old fears, angers, and reactiveness.
Instead of reacting, listen to your heart. When it speaks to you, act on it. Use the moment to be new. Do as Emerson advised: “Trust thyself.” Get a bit of masterful detachment going that replaces fear, anger, self-loathing, depression, or weariness with bravery, kindness, pride, happiness, and energy. Doing so is changing the very structure and functioning of your brain. And beyond that, you’re affecting those near you, which influences society. Like Emerson, Pearce noticed: this cannot be had second hand. Real mastery is in the living. You can incarnate something bold and wonderful if you have the intension and bravery to do it in the instant of trial. Pearce defines dominion as “transcending limitations as they arise.” The Now is where you can be new.
Easier said than done; I know, for I recently stumbled on this very advice. I should listen to the sermons I preach. During an argument with my son I realized his needs were old emotional ones having nothing to do with my point. When I saw his shaking hand I didn’t freeze-frame soon enough and say, “Forget it, son. I love you. Let’s deal with your needs.” Later I did, which reached him and helped, but not soon enough to prevent him from leaving.
“Speak when you’re angry,” Ambrose Bierce wrote, “and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” Instead, we need to practice behaviors that enable our transcendent abilities to emerge.
Our biology holds the secret treasure of our transcendence but it takes our effort too. This has long been known in religious ways. Buddhists try to be four things in Right Speech: truthful, helpful, pertinent, and kind. What sort of second coming would result from our incarnating the inclusive kindness of Jesus society-wide were we to apply it in our every near and distant interaction?
When you need grace, grace flows in; something good built in comes across eons of time. Grace isn’t external; it is imminent in our structure. We have long-dealt with fear and hate; we have long been learning how to rise above it. One guru applies the universalistic practice of looking at difficult or disappointing others, and saying, “There I go.” The ones we have centered on to be our idols (such as Jesus) advise “judge not,” “turn thy cheek,” and “in the least of these you find me.”
Especially in this time of shallow, sanctimonious politicians launching needless wars and preparing to launch more, we need our supposedly largely Christian culture to live up to the promise that Jesus modeled: living by love in spite of fear. What the biologists have finally come to anew is really quite old. Ancient wisdom applies in our lives and in our world. Yes, we are mammals and lizards and all the earlier forms, but we are so much more than that. We can transcend what we thought we were to incarnate transcendent beings alive with compassion, care, and creativity. What heavens we could create and dwell in were we to go the way of intelligent, heartfelt love!
This matter, formed into our magnificent world, is neither irrelevant nor senseless; it is our precious home needing our care in order to be shaped into an enthused culture. You’re not just a lizard or a mammal; you’re a human capable of the highest forms of transcendence. The Holy Spirit isn’t a ghost; it’s how you’re built to best be.
The cynical but caring Karl Marx once remarked “religion is the opium of the masses.” Too true, but the rest of that quote is even better, for he also said religion is “the heart of a heartless world.” Your heart is the heart of matter.
Reverend Brad Carrier
Largely as developed and presented at:
The Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass, Feb. 4, 2007
The Unitarian Universalists of Central Oregon, Feb. 11, 2007
The Humboldt Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Feb. 25, 2007
© February 28, 2007