Describing the Undescribable

Different traditions have very different teachings. Can they all be pointing to the same thing? Or is that just a ‘liberal’ approach that tries to be too inclusive? Arthur’s reaction to  our event on consciousness and the mind featuring the video of Jill Bolte Taylor and Susan Greenfield:

Most Buddhists, despite a respectful nod to their counterpart schools, feel their own way is the right way. Genuine spiritual experiences come to many people. There are also delusions.  Naturally we can’t distinguish what is real and what is delusion just on people reporting their experience.

Saint John of the Cross has a clear teaching on this matter. He said that if you have a mystical experience, then God’s intention in giving yout hat experience is served, without need for you to dwell on it or try to comprehend it. If the experience is delusion, then again you don’t need to dwell on it or figure it out.

Buddhists have a similar approach. Whatever you experience is just that – an experience, and is impermanent, and therefore Dukkha also.Suppose someone does have a genuine ‘experience’, something otherworldly that shakes them to the core. Such raw input, being something beyond the mere senses, must inevitably get passed through the owner’s mental constructs as they try to understand it. They will reinterpret the experience using the terminology and constructs provided by society and upbringing.

A Russian peasant from the late 1800’s is reported as follows:

Grischa wandered off to the woods and lay lost in meditation. A scintilla, a spark grew in his mind nearer and nearer brightening as it came, until what had been a soft golden glow suddenly erupted in a blinding white flash. “the boy prayed, tears wetting his face. Then he raced home and told his mother I can only say… I almost saw God”

His mother was frightened, and advised

Don’t tell your Father about this

She feared blame for blasphemy. This same boy Grischa had had an epiphany of sorts after hearing a passage from the bible

The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation. Say not lo here or lo there for behold the Kingdom of God is within you.

The experience was to prove pivotal in the boy’s life, and he later took his daughters back to the spot teaching them as they surveyed the tree where that first experience had occurred

God is here, inside this moment – forever.

Grischa is better known as Rasputin, and he was to develop his experiences into a hypnotic art. Curiously, he later spent a spell in a monastery where he expressed doubts that his experience might have been a mere hallucination. The priest advised him otherwise.

Special experiences are not limited to Russian peasants, and you can see the common trait – as the person afterwards struggles to describe something indescribabe, and they fall back on the constructs, the terminology or philosophy, that they have been accustomed to. It is not a bad thing – Buddhism for instance provides a rich array of specialised words to help make sense of experiences.

A couple of weeks ago, our Little Bangkok Sangha looked at another person who had an ‘experience’. Unlike Rasputin she made a video, and later a book. And an Oprah appearance describing what had happened. Jill Bolte Taylor’s 15 minute description is available on TED.

She relates her experience in neurological terms – since she is a neurologist. When she describes the ‘talking’ mind and the ‘silent’ mind, she uses ‘left brain-right brain’ terminology. Is her report any more valid because she is an accomplished brain scientist? Can the experiences be filtered through a LHB RHB construct? In The Invisible Gorilla, the authors present research where subjects are fed a meaningless line. If it is embellished with charts of brain scans, also meaningless, then people rated the veracity of the story more highly.

Taylor presented no evidence to suggest that the physical layout of the brain in two hemispheres has anything to do with the silent/chattering dichotomy. Her use of the word ‘Nirvana’, simply meant blissful, rather than liberation in the Buddhist sense.

Arthur was at our screening of the video, and sent us his thoughts:

Working from my UK model of the mind and very little knowledge of the working of the brain I found Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk interesting and food for thought.

She gave a very lucid account of what was happening during the stroke where for most people they would probably be afraid and not focus on what was going on.   It seemed to me that the effect of the pressure in her brain was simlilar to that induced by drugs though more serious in that the drug effect wears off.

She said that the LHS of her brain was switching on and off and when switched off she talked of Nivarna and having no concerns of everyday events.  When switched on she new she had things to do.   The LHS seemed to control her movements, stored her memories and was always on the move.

The RHS seemed to have given her an extremely pleasant experience and she seemed to imply that many activities were going on and experienced more than she talked about.

So I am left wondering just how does the mind interact with the body.  It seems feasible that in a normal brain the moving mind could have control of the LHS and the observing mind functions in the RHS.

It has been said of Mozart that he created a complete symphony in an instant which he then, no doubt, had to write down.   This kind of lines up with things I have heard said, about the speed of the mind, here in Thailand.  So it seems possible JBT could have had a similar experience in relation to the stroke.  She could have a very clear vision of what happened and until the LHS was re-established she could not find the words to explain it.  Few of us have experienced a completely still moving mind which plagues our meditation with thoughts and I assume that JBT does not practise meditation or is aware of its vocabulary.  But JBT did experience the switching on and of of the moving mind and its effect on the observing mind.   I would assume she used Nivarana like many would use the word ‘heaven’.   Having had the experience I feel she would know when the words she chose would accurately describe her vision.  (With Mozart and music, I assume, a note out of place is instantly recognised)

Just my thoughts which we can talk about sometime and which I will store away as part of a huge jigsaw of thoughts and maybe one day, or lifetime you might say, things will come together.


2 replies on “Describing the Undescribable”

  1. Greetings Bhante & Arthur…was just pondering that discussion about the brain and the self recently and a comment from Phra Pandit that afternoon about some current speculations about whether the brain produces the mind or if the mind produces the brain!. Any futher comments would be appreciated.

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