The theatre of the mind
A writer tries to make sense of inexplicable phenomena through science and the lives of two complex individuals
Despite claims to the contrary, we inhabit the books we write through our engagement with the main protagonists. This engagement is not always intentional or even contrived: it is present through the language, idioms, ideas we choose to explain people and phenomena, and the events as they unfold around them.
In this remarkable book, history, memory, anecdotes, all come into play in the unravelling of complex phenomena. At the heart of the book is the author who is struggling to make sense of inexplicable phenomena through recourse to neuroscience, biological factors, unfathomable spiritual practices, and the lives of deeply revered and uniquely complex individuals. Shourie’s personal journey is central to this book as he seeks answers from those whose experiences are in fact the stuff of mystery, religion, and other worldliness. He is as much a part of the core arguments in this work as are the characters and their profoundly psychic experiences that he seeks to understand and explain.
Shourie has written a powerful book. He seamlessly moves between the personal, the spiritual and the scientific to render explicable that which is incomprehensible and apparently inexplicable. His own life experiences are reflected in his urge to find explanations for unusual and complex phenomena. This makes the arguments in the book far more meaningful and accessible.
Quest for answers
To find answers to his searching questions, Shourie focusses on two well-known and revered individuals: Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharishi. One may worship them or one may try to find an explanation for their experiences, utterances, behaviour and spiritual authority. Shourie takes the latter path, although he does not fail to faithfully report how lay persons and believers conduct themselves around the two ‘saints’.
Shourie has captured with great depth, and acute attention to detail, the visions, and trances that Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharishi experience, their complete lack of awareness of embodiment with all its demands, and total immersion in the experience. The downright contempt for bodily comforts, for food or drink, or for any form of pleasure (in a shutting down of sensory inputs) is replaced by a sense of profound attachment to the ‘Mother’ in Ramakrishna and to the siddhas, the cavity inside Arunchala Hill in the case of Ramana Maharishi. It is as if both saints live their ‘life’ elsewhere, outside the domain of the social, in the mind. And yet, they descend into the ordinary, to their disciples, other seekers of truth, to whom they reveal their experiences. The life of the mind, the ‘theatre of her mind’ as Shourie puts it (p.117) when an individual experiences hallucinations and other psychic phenomena, is however paramount and this is what engages Shourie in his efforts to find scientific explanations.
In a fascinating chapter on the relationship between mind, brain and body, Shourie argues that neuroplasticity enables the alteration of the brain due to certain practices including the exclusion of sensory inputs, ‘worldly’ relationships and the development of ‘longing’ for a single, exclusive object—“for seeing the Mother, or for realising the ‘Self’” (pp. 236-7).
Citing neuroscientists, Shourie claims that this would result in the alteration and rearrangement of neurons in the brain. He cites evidence from experiments about hypnosis, placebo surgery, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, to show how the mind acts over the body, exercising control over seemingly complex medical properties.
A startling conclusion is that these changes are not occurring merely in the imagination but have ‘real consequences’ inside the brain with certain physiological results. The mind, therefore, can alter the brain and what we do with our body can also alter the brain. The saints, Shourie argues, not only practise physical mortification but also consciously direct the mind away from sensory inputs and worldly concerns to what we may refer to as single pointed concentration. In this manner, the mind influences the mind and through continuous disciplining, the brain as well.
It is far more difficult to understand consciousness which is a complex and difficult terrain. Questions about the location of consciousness, its presence, where and how it arises, and dissipates, may be explained at different times through experiments that are largely inconclusive. On the basis of scientific findings, Shourie concludes that it is uncertain from where exactly in the brain consciousness is triggered. Its absence may also be activated by physical causes through electrical stimulation or a tumour. However, it remains a mystery. This brings home the truth that there are some matters that elude scientific explanation.
At the same time, Shourie warns his readers about faith and devotion to godmen on the basis of the ‘miracles’ or other spectacular feats they may perform. Instead, he argues that everything is explicable by the laws of nature. His own life experiences did sometimes lead him to different ‘gurus’ for explanations and succour. Eventually, however, Shourie rests his faith in scientific ‘truth’ and in understanding the working of his mind, the self, the illusion of reality. Based on evidence from scientific experiments of different kinds across varied cultures, about experiences of hallucinations, visions, near-death experiences, Shourie’s analysis affirms his effort to find a universal understanding of how our minds work.
It is not always possible to find an explanation for the inexplicable, or what appears to be a deeply mystical experience, but Shourie has made a courageous effort. In more ways than one, this book is outstanding: taking the lives of the two saints as central to his analysis, it seeks to place spiritual experience in the realm of scientific knowledge; it tries to explain, very movingly, our very private dilemmas through recourse to the experience of others; and it also very sharply highlights the inconclusive nature of science when dealing with ‘consciousness’ and other mysteries of human existence. Herein lies the conundrum: we seek explanations from science and find that sometimes ‘reality’ surpasses the realm of experiment, proof and generalisation: where then do we turn? To faith, belief, or to our own minds to seek explanations for that which even science cannot prove? The fragility of both science, and of human endeavour, lies revealed.