We are living in an age that can be described as “rational materialism,” where the prevailing thought is that consciousness arose from matter. According to this viewpoint, human beings are the end result of a random process, whereby solid atoms arranged themselves into organisms that gradually became more complicated, and eventually developed consciousness. In other words, human beings are basically “meat” that learned to think.
Science — slowly catching up with yoga
The yogic view of the world, however, is that everything starts with consciousness. Consciousness gives rise to energy, and energy gives rise to matter. (See the article, What Is Consciousness? by Swami Kriyananda) But because we’re coming out of a dark age in the evolution of the planet, our culture as a whole tends to see it in the opposite way: matter gives rise to energy, and energy gives rise to thought.
As late as the start of the 20th century, physics still mainly followed the Newtonian model, which held that atoms, electrons, protons and neutrons, the tiny particles that make up matter, behaved like tiny solid objects.
But then physicists began to realize that the smallest of these particles, the electron, exhibited energy-like behavior. And later they discovered even smaller particles called quarks — the building blocks for protons, neutrons and electrons — which also exhibited energy-like behavior. So by the early 1970s physics was finally saying, “Well, matter really isn’t matter. Matter is energy.”
So as a culture now, we’re going through an evolution. We’re beginning to understand that matter just isn’t matter; matter is energy. The next step is that energy is really thought — consciousness.
The materialistic view of religious experience
But the materialistic perspective is still very much with us. Scientists who subscribe to this view maintain that our thought patterns, our inspirations – even our love for one another – are simply electrical discharges in the brain and the releasing of neurotransmitters. So, not only are we meat that thinks, we’re meat that has spiritual experiences!
A recent well-known study compared the brain activity of Tibetan monks, who were meditating, with Franciscan nuns, who were praying. The study found that the changes that occurred in the brains of the monks and the nuns were surprisingly similar, even though they were doing very different spiritual practices.
Researchers with a materialistic bias interpreted this information as proof that only matter exists. They were pretty much saying, “Oh, well clearly, this is the death of religion. Finally this superstitious folly is going to be put to rest once and for all, because we can now see that spiritual experience is really just brain activity.”
Another researcher found that by outfitting a helmet with special magnets and putting it on a person’s head, he could put that person in a state that felt somewhat like a spiritual experience. He used this experiment to argue that spiritual experiences are merely electrical changes in the brain, and that nothing else is happening.
These scientists believe that there is no spiritual side to consciousness, that it’s just a matter of neurotransmitters and brain chemistry. But there is a growing body of scientific evidence of the existence of aspects of the mind that are totally unrelated to any brain activity.
Scientific evidence that we are more than our bodies
For instance, a recent study on near death experiences, compiled by a surgeon, included cases of people who were clinically dead but who went on to recover. These people were clinically dead not only in having no heart rate and respiration, but also in having no electrical brain activity on EEG. From a materialistic viewpoint, you would expect that during the period of zero brain activity, they would have had no mental activity.
Yet it turned out that many of these people had extremely vivid memories of what was happening around them at that time. Some were aware of having been outside their bodies, and in various rooms, where they saw things going on that they remembered clearly and accurately. In other words, though their brains were clinically dead, they were mentally active.
There’s also well documented evidence for past life recall, particularly in children who have remembered a previous lifetime. They’re able to speak a language that they’ve never heard in this lifetime, or they bring forward a talent, such as playing a musical instrument, that they’ve never been exposed to previously.
And there are studies showing the effects of prayer. It’s been demonstrated that with prayer we can dramatically affect others, irrespective of distance and time. Such effects would be impossible if prayers were only electrical discharges in the brain of the person praying.
What is superconsciousness?
We thus have evidence of mental experiences that we can’t account for by looking at the physical structure of the brain, and its chemical and electrical activity. This evidence suggests the possibility of some greater non-physical reality that’s completely independent of the brain. Yogis refer to that reality as superconsciousness.
When we talk about the levels of mind, there’s a subconscious and a conscious aspect that most people are pretty well aware of. Most people know that when they are sleeping, they’re in subconsciousness, and that when they are awake and doing things, they’re in a normal, conscious state. But very few people know about this much more refined state of superconsciousness that yogis encourage us to aspire to.
Yogananda said it very clearly. He said, “Superconsciousness is where God dwells.” And to know God, we have to open ourselves to superconsciousness.
The Brain: a window onto superconsciousness
Yogananda described the brain and central nervous system as a window onto the superconscious mind. When we meditate deeply, when our minds are very still, we open this window, this pathway, to superconsciousness.
Our brain and nervous system are the “medium” through which we have our experience of inner communion, but inner communion itself occurs at a subtler level than the physical brain.
Tuning an old-style radio
We access superconsciousness by attuning ourselves to it. I’ve always felt that what Swami Kriyananda once said about the process of doing that was an ideal way of describing it. He said, “It’s a little bit like tuning an old-style radio where you had a little knob, and you were trying to find a particular station. And sometimes, you’d have to turn it just right to get the static to go away and to actually hear the radio program.”
We’re doing much the same thing when we meditate. We’re trying to tune out all of the mental static that keeps us tied down to the conscious plane. And when we do that, suddenly this window to superconsciousness opens up, and we’re experiencing great joy and great love.
Kriya Yoga will take you to superconsciousness
We have been engineered to experience these superconscious states. It’s just a question of applying our will power and perseverance, and also remembering that God and Guru are working with us, trying to pull us through this window. We have powerful allies on the other side.
When Yogananda came to the West in 1920, he brought with him not only the inspiration of one who had achieved God-realization, but also Kriya Yoga, a practical, step by step technique by which all of us can achieve that exalted state. Yogananda said Kriya Yoga works like mathematics— “Kriya Yoga plus devotion cannot fail to give you God realization.” That’s a wonderful promise.