Saturday, July 1, 2017

Consciousness and the Quran

Surat An Nur (24)
Ayah 39-40
Those who do not believe
Their deeds are like a mirage in a desert
The traveler in the desert who is thirsty will think it’s water
Until he comes to the mirage and realizes that it was nothing
And then he finds God
And sees his own destiny in the same instant.

Or, the person who denies the truth is as if in the darkness of a dark ocean,
Covered by high, dark waves,
Which are covered by clouds, depths of darkness, layer upon layer
and if he stretches his hand he can hardly see it.
And if he doesn’t find God’s light he will never have light.

When I was eleven years old, in the fifth grade, I had an experience that I remember as vividly today as when it happened.  I was standing in front of my class at school, reading a book out loud, and I fainted.  I left my body and hovered above my teacher and the other students as they scrambled to get water and revive me.  I had other out of body experiences as well.  I used to have flying dreams.  Except they didn’t feel like dreams, they felt real.  It was exhilarating.  I would fly out the window of my bedroom, sometimes over the Blue Ridge mountains toward my Grandma’s house, sometimes to places I didn’t know.  I could swoop and dive and change directions, but I could never get anywhere.  I never landed, I just flew.  I wanted to land, but I didn’t have that much control.  I stopped having those dreams many years ago, until I went to Medina.  I’ve shared this story with some of you before.  The day we arrived in Medina, at our hotel beside the prophet’s mosque, Osama went to pray and I lay down on the bed to rest.  The next thing I knew I was flying up a minaret, above the spiral staircase, and then out of the opening at the top, into a sky that sparkled with colors more beautiful than anything on earth, toward a brilliant light.  And there was child riding on my back, a boy child, laughing in sheer utter delight and joy in sharing the experience with me.  When I came out of it, I tried to place the child – he felt completely familiar, and yet he wasn’t anyone of my family or friends.  And then I thought of the Prophet, and it felt right.  Now, call this experience what you will – a dream, a hallucination, a vivid imagination.  All I can say is it felt real.  And it was, along with circling the Kaaba, the highlight of my Umrah.

I share these stories to let you know that these experiences, and others, are why I believe in what people write and say about Near-Death-Experiences – so-called NDEs.  These are experiences that people have had when their brain activity – that which is centered in the neo-cortex, the seat of our conscious awareness, has stopped for a period of time – they become brain dead - but they then come back to life.  Reports of these kinds of experiences have multiplied in recent years, possibly due to advancements in medical science that allow us to bring people back from cardiac arrest, drug overdose, severe bacterial infections, etc. 

Dr. Eben Alexander was a renowned academic neurosurgeon who had an NDE in 2008 when he contracted an extremely rare form of bacterial meningitis that shut down his neocortex and put him in a deep coma for a week.  His doctors had advised his family to remove life support – he should have died.  But he shocked them by coming back and regaining full mental capacity within a few weeks.  He came back, but was profoundly changed by his encounter with the hyper-reality of the spiritual realm.  He wrote a book about it, Proof of Heaven, published 2012.  A former atheist, Dr. Alexander has become an active advocate for a blending of science and spirituality.

In his writing, he now starts with this quote from Albert Einstein:
“Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.” 
– Albert Einstein (1879–1955)

Dr. Alexander writes, “Together, science and spirituality will thrive in a symbiosis offering the most profound insight into fundamental Truth, yielding unimaginable power. The keystone is in global progression of individual conscious awakening.  Many in both the scientific and religious (or spiritual) realms must denounce their addiction to prejudiced, divisive, dogmatic beliefs, in order to open our awareness to this synthesis of understanding Truth. By probing deeply into our own consciousness, we transcend the limitations of the human brain, and of the physical-material realm.  The spiritual realm is real. Seamless blending of science and spirituality will occur.”

Alexander is hardly the only one researching and publishing in the area of NDEs and paranormal phenomenon.  Bernardo Kastrup a computer engineer who specializes in artificial intelligence and reconfigurable computing, and has worked in some of the world's foremost research laboratories, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Philips Research Laboratories, published an article this spring (Scientific American Blog, March 2017) on Transcending the Brain, in which he describes cases of damage to the brain that are associated with enriched consciousness or cognitive skill.  These include cases of choking, cardiac arrest, and physical damage to the brain.  “In a recent study, CT scans of more than one hundred Vietnam war veterans showed that damage to the frontal and parietal lobes increased the likelihood of “mystical experiences.”15 In an earlier study, patients were evaluated before and after brain surgery for the removal of tumors, which caused collateral damage to surrounding tissue. Statistically significant increases in “feelings of self-transcendence” were reported after the surgery.16”
New brain mapping technologies have shown that enriched consciousness and heightened cognition happen when measurable brain activity stops.  In other words, the experiences are happening beyond the realm of the physical brain.
15. Cristofori, I. et al. 2016. “Neural correlates of mystical experience.” Neuropsychologia 80: 212-220.
16. Urgesi, C. et al. 2010. “The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self Transcendence.” Neuron 65: 309-319.
van Lommel, P. et al. 2001. “Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands.” The Lancet 358 (9298): 2039-2045.


In another new book, The Self Does Not Die, 2016, the authors, Titus Rivas, Anna Dirven and Rudolf H. Smit, analyze over 100 cases of NDEs.  These experiences included extrasensory perceptions beyond the patients’ immediate bodily environment, telepathy where either the NDEer had a telepathic experience in relation to someone else, or alternatively, where someone had a telepathic awareness of the NDEer, out-of-body experiences, healing in NDEers that is inexplicable by current medical science, paranormal psychic abilities, such as after-death communications (ADCs), extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis (PK) and precognitive dreams after NDEs. They conclude by pointing out that materialist explanations for such phenomena are illogical and inadequate. The Self Does Not Die offers significant empirical support to the emerging scientific view that consciousness is fundamental in the universe, and that the soul exists and does not depend on the physical brain for its conscious expression.
These empirical data refute the production model, which states that the brain produces consciousness out of physical matter. Rather, the filter model (i.e., that the brain serves as a receiver of primordial consciousness) is far more reasonable in accounting for all the available evidence. Sooner or later, the sheer frustration with the ongoing inadequacies of materialist pseudo-explanations will nudge the prevailing western paradigm towards the deeper truth, as it is objectively represented in this remarkable book.

Spirituality and Science strengthen each other.  But, as Dr. Alexander points out, they cannot be conceived of as complementing each other as long as we cling to either purely materialist, empirical, fact-based explanations, or pure religious dogma.

The filter model of the human brain as a receiver of primordial consciousness complements the schema in Shahab Ahmed’s book, “What Is Islam?”  (Princeton University Press, 2016)  Ahmed defines Islam as:

Meaning-making for the self in terms of hermeneutical engagement with Revelation to Muhammed as Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text – that is, with the entire phenomenon and matrix of Revelation, rather than just the Text of Revelation (p. 405).

In other words, for Ahmed, Islam is not just the Revelation of the Quran (Text), it is also the greater Reality from which the Quran was revealed (the Pre-Text), and the human understanding and culture that has developed from understanding both the Quran and that Greater Reality (Con-Text). 

Ahmed describes Pre-text of Revelation as follows:
The Text of the Revelation requires as its premise an Unseen Reality or Truth that lies beyond and behind the Text of the Revelation-in-the-Seen and upon which the act, the Text and the Truth of Revelation are contingent.  This is Unseen Reality is ontologically prior to and … larger than the textual product of the Revelation:  it is the source of Revelation.  The act and text of the Muhammadan Revelation together represent a single historical instance and enactment of this lager and prior dimension of the reality of Revelation – which I will here term the Pre-text of Revelation. (pp346-7)

Ahmed goes on to define Text as follows:
The Truth of the Text of Revelation is only the Revelatory Product:  as such, it is but an expression in the here-and-now of this world of the Truth of the Pre-Text of Revelation.  That the Quran/Text of the Revelation is true but does not encompass all the Truth of the Unseen Pre-Text of Revelation is accepted by all Muslims.  Indeed, the Quran does not even claim to possess all the Truth of the Unseen made available in the Seen, saying for example, ‘On Earth are signs for the sure; just as there are within your own selves:  do you not see?’”  p 347

Ahmed’s concept of Pre-Text is strikingly similar to Dr. Alexander’s description of “Primordial Consciousness.”  Ahmed proposed that it is possible to access the Pretext without reference to the Text of Revelation.  By this definition, one could argue that Dr. Alexander and other NDEers experienced the Pretext directly through their NDEs.

What I see, what I am proposing, is that Ahmed’s new and compelling understanding of the phenomenon of Revelation can be seen as being validated by research now being conducted on the phenomenon of NDEs.  Eben Alexander and the many other people who have had Near Death Experiences might be understood as having somehow directly experienced the Pre-Text, the Primordial Consciousness.  This is the Reality confirmed in Quran as being more Real than the life of this Earth.  Quran refers to our earthly existence as but a mere reflection of the Greater Truth of Allah.  Quran also tells us that when we die, this life will seem to have been but an instant. 

If we accept that NDEers are experiencing the Pre-Text, or Primordial Consciousness directly in our time, and that they are sharing with us hints about the nature of Reality beyond death that we do well to consider, we are forced to ask ourselves, does the Text of Muhammed’s Revelation – the Quran – still have relevance for us today?  Of course, for Muslims who believe that the Revelation of Prophet Muhammed, pbuh, was a miracle in itself, the answer must be yes.  But how?  The Revelation of Prophet Muhammed was a very different phenomenon than the NDEs of today.  First of all, it resulted in language – a text, the Quran – that was and still is the vehicle through which the Prophet and his followers could gain insight into the broader Truth that is Allah.  But second, Quranic Revelation is in large part very different in tone than the experiences reported by those who have had NDEs.  The later talk about love and beauty beyond imagination – almost exclusively.  The Quran is filled with language of justice and punishment for those who do not accept the Truth of Revelation and commit evil deeds without remorse.

From Quran:
Surat Al-An’am [6]
Ayah 60
And Allah causes you to be as dead at night, and knows what you do in daytime; and brings you back to life each day so that your term will be fulfilled.  In the end, you return to Allah, and you will understand all that you were doing in life.

Ayah 70
And leave to themselves those who have been beguiled by the life of this world, and made play and passing delights their religion, but remind them that every human being is held by whatever wrong they have done, and shall have no protection from Allah, none to intercede, none to accept any ransom offered.  These are those who will be held by the wrong they have done; for them there is to come a draught of burning despair, and grievous suffering awaits them be cause of their refusal to acknowledge the truth. 

How can we understand this difference in tone, if we accept the premise – which I do – that both phenomenon are real?  Maybe the dire warnings in Quran were needed for that time and those people, and our time engages a different experience of PreText – Consciousness – Allah/God.  Or maybe the people who have negative Near Death Experiences don’t share them because they don’t want to believe they were true.  Or maybe those who destroyed their connection to Allah as Creator never did come back – never became NDEers. 

I have to admit that I struggle mightily with the idea of judgment from an All Loving God.  I know I’m not alone in this.  However, I have to admit that it is comforting to be reassured by Divine Text that evil does not go unpunished.  I can understand that denying the Truth of Divine Light would preclude a soul from access to it, condemning that soul to immersion in the energy of destruction rather than creation.  And I can understand that being stuck in destructive energy would feel as the sometimes graphic language of Quran describes it.    

This is all food for thought.  I conclude by saying simply that reading about NDEs and thinking about them in terms of Ahmed’s proposed definition of Islam has given me new ways to engage with the Text of Quran – and much to think about.

Oh Allah, inspire us always to new levels of understanding your Reality, and protect us from misunderstandings.  We pray that you guide us rightly, enlighten us and forgive us when we go astray.