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#2499 - Friday, June 16, 2006 - Editor: Jerry Katz

    Two articles. One on the neurology of spirituality. The other is on nondual ecofeminism.  

These articles represent the kinds of nonduality you can go out and talk about. It's not the sit still and be quiet nonduality. It's not a teaching from silence but from words, comparisons, possibilities, behavior, and knowledge. It is social and cultural nonduality.  

--Jerry Katz

Neurotheology researcher explores spirit, mind conundrum

Cheryl Heckler

Oxford, Ohio (ENI). The head of the first university research centre in the United States focussing on the relationship between spirituality and the human brain says he hopes his investigations will help foster greater understanding about religion.

"I'm hoping we can help create much more positive views about religious groups and the views they have toward each other," said Dr Andrew Newberg, director of the newly-founded Center For Spirituality and The Mind of the University of Pennsylvania.

The centre focuses on "neurotheology", a discipline that applies brain research to spiritual questions, such as, "Does transcendence through prayer have a neurological basis?", "Is moral behaviour part of the evolution of the human brain?", and, "Is God created by, or the creator of, the human brain?"

The ultimate goal of the centre is to improve understanding about religion and spirituality and to examine the impact of belief on the human brain, said Newberg, a medical doctor and assistant professor at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

In an interview with Ecumenical News International, Newberg said he was very young when he started asking questions about God. "I remember thinking, 'Why are we here?' and 'What is God all about?'" he recalled. Newberg's past research has focused on how the brain functions during mystical or religious experiences. His book, "Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief", summarises his long-term studies that used high-tech imaging to examine the brains of meditating Buddhists and of Franciscan nuns at prayer.

He discovered that intensely focused prayer triggers a specific response within the brain that makes the transcendent religious experience a reality.

Newberg's most recent book, "Why We Believe What We Believe", argues the human brain has the capacity to create and maintain a belief system which goes far beyond survival-oriented needs.

"These belief systems not only shape our morals and ethics, but they can be harnessed to heal our bodies and minds, enhance our intimate relationships, and deepen our spiritual connections with others," Newberg said. "However, they can also be used to manipulate and control, for we are also born with a biological propensity to impose our belief systems on others."

Still, while beliefs are rooted in the biology of the brain, they are equally shaped by parents, peers and society, Newberg stressed.

And, he added, a better understanding of beliefs might foster a more compassionate perspective about people who hold different standpoints and point the direction towards a more positive society.

He said, "I'd hope we can promote deeper understanding of hard social issues as well and to help people, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, each develop a compassionate stance to one another."



Excerpt from







Experiential Knowledge of Radical Nonduality


The chilly reception accorded to recognition of unitive dimensions of being in most contemporary philosophical circles warms somewhat, especially among ecophilosophers, if the concept of nonduality is limited to meaning “interdependence” or “interrelatedness” of autonomous entities. Such an alternative to dualistic thinking is acceptable to many ecofeminist philosophers who reject any stronger, or more radical, sense of nonduality. I believe, however, that paying attention to the evidence for a radical nonduality – which is located largely in types of knowledge that have been marginalized and devalued by the modern, objectivist orientation – yields ample cause to reconsider the dominant conceptualizations of acceptable epistemology.


In a variety of circumstances, humans have perceived an inherent and continuous sytemicity within the unfolding universe, a constitutive unity that exists along with, not instead of, manifestations of particularity and subjectivity. Ecophilosophy would be enriched by recognizing that human perception can be polyvalent, that different kinds of perception can occur, many of them nonlinguistic. Moreover, it is necessary to acknowledge scale in perception: discontinuity may seem obvious at one level of perception but absent at other levels.


Female Body Parables


To discuss experience rooted in female physicality in ecofeminist philosophical circles today, one must first respond to the ready charge of “essentialism,” the deconstructionist insistence that “woman” is entirely a social construction and that any assertion of women’s experience is “totalizing” and oppressive to the individual. I feel that the essentialist debate has been framed too crudely: the issue is not a universal, essential feminine personality structure but, rather, the question of whether the fact that females, in all our particular and cultural diversity, bleed in rhythm with the moon and have the capability to grow people from our flesh, as well as transform food into milk for the young, has any effect on the ways in which we experience life. Deconstructive “antiessentialism” slams the door on that question – viewing gender as noteworthy social construction draws from the dumb body, just as culture is usually understood to be constructed from dumb nature – but I feel that ecofeminism should explore it.

The erotic processes of the female body-mind often yield states of consciousness that can be appreciated as “body parables,” expressions and reminders of unitive dimensions of being that underlie the supposedly fixed delineations of separateness. In the postorgasmic state many women experience a peaceful, expansive mind state of free-floating boundarylessness. Indeed, the clitoris seems to exist for no other purpose than erotic pleasure, and experience that can be the passage to expanded consciousness during and shortly after orgasm. On the first day of menstruation a woman sometimes experiences a sense of soft boundaries of her body-space. In pregnancy and childbirth, the delineation between me and not-me can seem blurred and somewhat elusive. In nursing, while cradling the extension of her flesh to her breast, a woman again may experience a dreamy sense of soft boundaries. All of these greater or lesser immersions into experiencing nonduality teach one that although separateness and discrete boundaries can be important in this life, they are not absolute. Rather, other perceptions of the world are just as real, even though they receive almost no validation in official modern Western culture.


Perceived Unity with Nature


A second mode of experiencing nonduality can occur through immersion in natural surroundings, such as the deep silence one can encounter on wilderness trips when the dualistic habit of perceiving self apart from nature gradually loses its grip and the apparently fixed boundary between inner and outer seems to become permeable and gives way, at times, to a palpable sense of being at one with the surroundings. People often experience less intense versions of the same phenomenon at the seashore, in a large park, or in a backyard garden.


The Magical, Unitive World of Young Children


A third type of experiencing nonduality occurs cross-culturally among young children. Many of them commonly perceive magical, felt connection with their world in general or with particular objects such as a tree or an animal. Their organic orientation is generally suppressed and denied by socialization in Western cultures, yet a great many adults remember at least an impression of that mode of being in which boundaries were quite permeable and the world was perceived as being vividly alive and unified.


Sudden, Unexpected Apprehensions of Nonduality


Experiencing awareness of a unitive dimension of being can also occur at quite unexpected moments, not necessarily connected to particular settings or activities. Describing such experiences in retrospect, people often report that their consciousness was grasped, suddenly and usually fleetingly, by an intense awareness of the unity of all being. A biologist at Oxford University established a research project during the 1970’s in which he and his staff gathered and classified over four thousand accounts of such experiences. A typical account of a unitive experience was related by an individual who was walking down Marylebone Road in London and “was suddenly seized with an extraordinary sense of great joy and exultation ... all things living, all time fused in a brief second.”[i] Such revelatory encounters with a unitary dimension of being may be extraordinary, but they are not supernatural. They would more accurately be labeled ultra natural, a journey into the cosmological nature that lies within the world that Westerners tend to perceive as a aggregate of discrete fragments bound by such forces as gravity and electromagnetism.


The Unitive World Views of Indigenous Peoples


Throughout much of the complex cultural diversity of native nations runs a commonly expressed perception that the earth is alive and humans are not separate from it or from the rest of the cosmos. Traditional native peoples generally apprehend the Great Family of All Beings as consisting of forms that are diverse manifestations of the boundless Great Holy, or Great Mysterious. As ecofeminists have come to learn more about native cultures, many have experienced a resonance in the native holistic orientation, which finds countless assumptions of Western epistemology to be absurdly discontinuous.


Meditation and Related Practices


In numerous cultures, both Eastern and Western, traditions of mental practices have been passed down through generations because they preserve efficacious techniques whereby one can experience nonduality. Such practices include various forms of Buddhist meditation, raja and bhakti yoga, Sufi dancing, and contemplative exercises in Christianity. The specific techniques vary a great deal, but the fact that an organic and unitive perception emerged in so many different cultural contexts indicates the presence of something more than mere social construction.[ii]


Holistic Perceptions in Contemporary Science


The mechanistic and objectivist orientations in Western cultures have not yielded to the considerable scientific evidence for a holistic world view. Many scientists are coming to realize that we can no longer make sense of reality except as a evolving whole in which we ourselves are situated.[iii] In cosmological terms, the perceptual shift is moving from the modern sense of our surroundings as a collection of discrete objects undergoing events that are unconnected except for the effects of local forces to a sense that all interactions are manifestations of unified primordial “universe activity.”[iv] That is, the universe is not just a thing but also a mode of existence (informed by events and relationships in its immediate context) and its universe mode of existence (informed by cosmological events and relationships) – or its microphase mode and its macrophase mode. Hence several physics experiments during the past twenty years, such as those establishing Bell’s theorem of nonlocal causality, have demonstrated that it is not viable to think of a subatomic particle or event as being completely determined by its local circumstances; events taking place elsewhere in the universe are directly, instantaneously, and inherently involved. Focusing solely on the microphase mode of being yields a partially valid but limited understanding.[v]


The major shift in contemporary science is a movement from viewing nature as “a mechanics” (as did Descartes, Newton, and Bacon) not only to recognizing subjectivity in the natural world but also to recognizing immensely complex capabilities for self-organization and self-regulation in vast systems, or communities. The notion of “mind” is no longer limited strictly to an individual organism. Self-regulating “decisions,” for instance, are apparently made continuously by the great biocybernetic system that has been called Gaia, our planetary home.[vi]


Central to each type of observation of nonduality in the above list, which is by no means comprehensive, is the recognition of a continuous dimension of being that unites seemingly separate, discrete entities. Since recent discoveries in Western science are focusing attention on various examples of nonduality, perhaps a reconsideration will occur in Western philosophy, which has largely delegitimized discussion of the phenomenon.[vii] Ecofeminist philosophy, with its particular interest in relational aspects of being (a focus shared by both feminism and ecology), might logically become a site of development – one among many – of the meanings and implications of acknowledging nonduality.

[i] Alister Hardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 1.


[ii]A number of constructivist positions are presented in Steven Katz, ed., Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978); rebuttals are presented in Robert K. C. Forman, ed., The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).


[iii] Wan Ho, “Evolution in Action and Action in Evolution,” Gaia and Evolution, ed. Peter Bunyard and Edward Goldsmith (Camelford, Cornwall, England: Wadebridge Ecological Centre, 1989).


[iv] See Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992), chap. 1.

Also see Erich Jantsch, The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution (New York: Pergamon Press, 1980); David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980); and John Briggs and F. David Peat, Turbulent Mirror (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).


[v] Ibid. Also see F. David Peat, Einstein’s Moon: Bell’s Theorem and The Curious Quest for Quantum Reality (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1990).


[vi] James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), and The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth (New York: Norton, 1988).


[vii] As for the question of whether various kinds of perception of nonduality reveal various aspects of a sole unitive dimension of being or whether they reveal several different unitive dimensions of being , I do not know.

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