Mass media may have us believe that science and spirituality are at odds. However, in our one universe, our oneness, there is plenty of room for both in harmony. The Dalai Lama is the highest spiritual leader of Tibet and he happens to have a strong curiosity to know and understand neuroscience. There are spiritual clues that come with understanding how our nervous systems work on the physical level. Therefore, our discussions of the “One Teaching” would not be complete without a review of neuroscience!
Fortunately, we don’t need years of academic study and a medical degree to understand. Neuroscientist and professor at Berkeley, David E. Presti, wrote a masterful book called, Foundational Concepts in Neuroscience, which succinctly takes the reader from atoms to consciousness. In the introduction, he explains that his intention is to provide a comprehensive overview, “Beginning with atoms and molecules, building up to membranes and cells, progressing to neurons, neural circuits, and sensory organs, and then on to perception, memory, language, emotion, sleep, and dreams.” He does this magically in such a way that each topic builds on the next, so the novice can understand. He does it all, with plenty of visuals and diagrams, in under 300 pages.
Presti continues in the introduction that a common theme, “is the mystery of how mental experience (which is all we are ever truly able to know) is related to the workings of our brain and body – the deep mystery of mind and consciousness.” That deep mystery he speaks of is rooted at the center of the one spiritual teaching. In other words, this common thread involves the integration of science and spirituality, not the separation or division of them.
At the cellular level, much of what takes place inside our nervous system involves the passing of microscopically charged particles through neural cell membranes, triggering a whole series of interactions inside the cell. Cells communicate with one another this way and through long chains of cells, signals are passed back and forth from the nerve endings to the brain. Current science seems to have a pretty good grasp of this process and is able to explain the workings of senses, emotions, memory, etc. However, once all of these signals actually reach the brain, much of the processing at that point is still not fully understood. In other words, consciousness is still a mystery and so is the life force that orchestrates the whole process.
As human beings, each of us experiences a unique consciousness which includes a sense of “I am.” This conscious experience is all we can ever know. Mine is mine and yours is yours and as far as we know, we’ll never be able to trade places and experience another person’s consciousness. However, we have to wonder what it is that comprises this “I am” with which we’ve come to identify. Do each of the cells in our bodies have their own conscious experience? Do our hearts, hands, legs, have their own experience of “I am?” We don’t seem to think or act that way. On the contrary, at the egoic level we seem to think that everything that makes our body is just part of who we are; the stuff “I” am made of. What about the stuff we are part of? We live on earth which from outer space probably appears to be a living planet. Does earth have a consciousness and does it identify itself as “I” separate from the whole? Does the earth’s consciousness recognize its human parts as individual beings with their own consciousness? Or is all of this “me”, “I”, “you”, “we”, “us,” all just a figment of our human imaginations?