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Toward a Modern Gnostic Philosophy of Mind

The psyche (or soul, or mind; except where specifically noted, these three terms will be used interchangeably throughout this article) has an important place in spiritual practice. Nevertheless, the psyche is not identical to the spirit, Nous, Atman, Divine Spark, or essence of being. That being said, we must have a proper understanding of the psyche’s role in the process of spiritualization. To this end, a “philosophy of mind” is necessary, one which not only agrees with Gnosis, but which also takes into account the findings of modern neuroscience. Neuroscience is now seen as an enemy to religion, seeing as how the common assumption—even, or especially, among neuroscientists—is that contemporary studies of the brain have dismantled the very concept of a “mind” separate from the physical processes of the brain itself. This assumption, however, requires an overturn in light of new data, in light of quantum physics, and in light of Gnosis.

Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist David Hubel, quoted in Jeffrey M. Schwartz’s book The Mind & The Brain, said, “The word Mind is obsolete.” (pg 25) What he meant by this is that, based on the scientific investigations of the functions of the brain, every function formerly ascribed to the immaterial “mind” can now be seen as a function of the material brain. On the surface, this seems true to many people. However, materialism (or physicalism) is a metaphysical assumption; just as a person’s religious bias can blind him or her to evidence, so too can “irreligious” bias. Doctor Schwartz’s research, as well as the research of others (Mario Beauregard, Wilder Penfield, Henry Pierce Stapp, just to name a few), has demonstrated that there is “something” at work upon the brain, not merely in it. This “something” is what we call “the mind”.

The primary function of the mind appears to be that of volition; that is to say, the psyche makes choices between different possible brain-states. The contents of our everyday consciousness seems to be seated in the brain (as far as science can presently tell, anyway), but awareness of those contents is not. The question of the interplay between mind and brain, too, has found a resolution in the sciences, namely in physics. The Newtonian view of billiard ball atoms bouncing one into another into another and eventually producing “something” in the process has been overturned for a century, now, but has yet to find its way fully outside of the physics department. This is exactly the mechanism—fully, inescapably deterministic in nature—which many neuroscientists and “philosophers of mind” propose is at work in consciousness. Consciousness itself is, the claim goes, merely a “user illusion”, even an “interface error”, resulting from the functioning of the brain; consciousness thus has no essential reality apart from the brain, and really has no function as mind-brain causality runs in only one direction: the brain affects the mind, but not the other way around. However, this is clearly not the case. Something is causing the brain’s very physical structure (in macro scales, no less) to shift, however gradually, in response to the will (Jeffrey Schwartz’s “mental force”) being exerted upon it in, say, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, or even just the exertion required to resist biting one’s nails or tapping one’s foot. To simplify, “habits” are the functions of brain circuits, while “decisions” are the functions of mind.

None of this is to say that there is not a physical component to volition; there are regions of the brain which become more active during the exertion of will. However, this is a chicken-or-egg question, and there is strong physical evidence that a decision is made prior to the activation of those brain centers. For instance, electrical impulses move across the surface of the scalp in anticipation of such a volitional brain change measurably before the brain change occurs. None of this is a slam dunk, of course, but it makes quite clear that the question is, scientifically speaking, still wide open.

Thoughts, memories, and other mental events can be seen as the yoke which binds the mind and the brain together; without the contents of consciousness, there wouldn’t seem to be anything to choose from, at least not during normal states. The quantum processes (please see the work of Schwartz, Stapp, et al) which hold the mind to the brain carry these mental events up and down the chain. This constant subatomic flurry of activity is what permits the immaterial mind to choose between brain states; it also corresponds to what occultists know as the “etheric double” and the “silver cord” which links soul and body. In other words, these quantum activities form a constantly shifting matrix of information “between” the mind and the central nervous system.

Spiritual practice—within the Gnostic, Hermetic, and related frameworks—is a series of volitional events by which we choose where to place our attention and where to identify our”selves”. If we take the (maybe overused) image of an onion, we can roughly say that during our normal experiences, the body is the outermost layer, then the etheric double (see last paragraph) just underneath, then the psyche, then something else, and then the spirit or Nous (which, again, will be used interchangeably). The Nous is that with which the many and varied spiritual traditions identify the “true Self”; it is not merely the individual soul of mainline religion, as that is the psyche or mind of which we have been speaking. Instead, it is simultaneously individual and collective, immanent and radically transcendent, so far from our ordinary waking experiences that Buddhism, Gnosticism and Advaita Vedanta all use apophatic/negative language to describe it: it is not this, not that; cannot be compared to this, that or the other; cannot even be said to exist but certainly cannot be said not to exist; etc. When discussed at all, it is always discussed in paradoxical or non-literal poetic language of which we can make little or no sense rationally. And yet, the fact that it is so very weird to rational consciousness is itself a rational conclusion, for how could something more exotic than dark matter (because it is not a substance at all) be meaningfully put into the limited clothing of words, or even abstract mathematical formulae?

The spirit only begins as an abstraction; as our attention draws closer and closer to it, and as our consciousness gradually becomes truly aware of it, we actually find that we are it. In a sense, we have reversed the layer order of the onion: the physical body now rests within the mind, which itself rests within the Nous which is its archetype. Abstraction falls away, leaving an experience more concrete than anything we had experienced with our fingers and toes and eyes and ears and noses and tongues. This process requires grace, which is to say that the steps along the way are freely given by a force beyond our mere conscious minds; but the process still requires the participation of our psyches, because a gift given but not accepted is just a box with pretty wrapping paper, a decoration at best and an unasked-for burden at worst.

The participation of psyche in the whole process is, once again, the task of volition, the capacity to actively choose between two or more possibilities. For most of us, will begins as a weak thing—a squeaking grunt of effort against a door made of oak—but through various disciplines (yoga, contemplative prayer, theurgy, even magic) and through direct application (making oneself do chores on a hot, balmy day), we gradually build up our reserves (so to speak). Like a muscle regularly worked, the power of mental force grows bit by struggling bit. Luckily for those of us on the spiritual path, the mere practice of our regular disciplines of prayer, meditation, and the like, perform double duty: not only do they bring us into closer contact with Nous and Things Beyond, they also strengthen our will as we go.

In Gnosticism, we usually describe there being three “states of the soul”, and every person can be said to act from one of these. There are the hylics (materialists) who focus entirely on their bodies and on physical things and experiences; the psychics (soulish) who are said to be “in the Midst”, experiencing things primarily of the emotions, passions, and imaginations; and there are the pneumatics (spirituals) who experience things “from the top down”, so to speak, or from the perspective of the Nous. Hylics may become passionate or emotional,  but generally only over physical things; psychics may be intellectuals or have an aim to achieve spiritual things, but tend to be waylaid by their own literalism and zeal; pneumatics, however, have achieved what Buddhists and Hindus call “clear mind”, a mental state allowing for intellectual inquiry from a bird’s-eye-view, from which emotions, imaginal visions, and even purely material life all continue to exist but enter into an infinitely larger, more tightly interwoven context.

Now, it is my contention that these categories are not fixed destinies, but rather that they are states through which we can pass (in both directions, unfortunately). The ultimate goal, of course, is to achieve the pneumatic framework and stay there; here, the material life is not forgotten, but is put in its proper place, and likewise emotions do not dry up but rather take on their appropriate value, and all work in accordance with true Wisdom. And here is where volition comes in.

Psyche gets to choose where to aim attention throughout life. A hylic is a person who “looks down” more often than not, and even when the gaze turns upward it is usually momentary and immediately interpreted according to the individual’s understanding of purely physical events. “That feeling of oneness with something far greater than myself must have just been the sudden activation of certain neural circuits in my right hemisphere, involving the release of a specific shopping list of ‘feel good’ neurtransmitters, etc., all toward the end of greater environmental and social awareness and responsibility.” None of this is necessarily a bad thing, or entirely incorrect, but it is a narrow view.

A psychic is a person who primarily looks horizontally, at all of the wonderful thoughts and feelings floating around, the beautiful and horrible visions available, and the potential present and future realities which have not yet been actualized. The life of a psychic can be either irrationally optimistic (see New Age and New Thought movements for examples), or else overwrought with pessimism (see fundamentalist movements); either way, it is the passions which preside, and not the intellect. Once again, this is not to say that the intellect is nonexistent in a psychic, any less than the emotions are dead in a hylic; instead, it is a matter of which “layer” is used as the basis of interpretation. In the case of a psychic, literalism tends to hold sway, as their visions and emotions are not only taken quite seriously (which, in truth, they deserve to be), but are actually taken to be the greatest reality. The psyche, then, is the realm of the spirits of passion, the flowering of the elements, and the vengeful gods of the world; this realm of the Midst is not necessarily a place of evil, but is certainly one of illusions which can be used productively or which can become an ever-shifting maze in which a soul becomes lost.

A pneumatic is able to remain calm even in the Midst, to look upon things of the body and soul as the temporary ephemera that they are, and to apply a standard of intellectual rigor to all questions and experiences, not merely those within the purview of the material world. A pneumatic, then, is a person whose psyche has “looked Heavenward” and been rewarded by the true Beautific Vision beyond visions and become identified with the Nous. That last part is vital for understanding: the psyche identifies itself with the Nous; this act of identification is, of course, an act of will by which the psyche travels beyond itself and is taken into the archetype of which it is a reflection. And just as the psyche influences the brain by way of semi-material quantum effects, so too the Nous influences the psyche by way of a corresponding entanglement (the something else mentioned above in the onion analogy). And so, there is a multilayered, instantaneous interplay of influences constantly flitting through the whole economy of the individual human being. The psyche’s relationship to the Nous is that of a reflection to the original; the brain’s relationship to the psyche is a similar one. The process of spiritualization is that by which the psychic reflection is not only gradually made aware of its own reflective nature, but is also finally fully identified with that which it reflects; the brain, unfortunately, never has this sort of opportunity for enlightened immortality, but its job is to remain a healthy intermediary between the immaterial psyche and the material world, between the subjective and the objective.

Gnosis (or jnana, in Sanskrit) is the information, the practice, the gift, and the process by which this spiritualization occurs. Gnosis happens in so many ways and in so many layers, and comes from so many sources, that it is impossible for us to put all of the pieces together until we have made it quite a long way up the mountain. Still, if we don’t constantly try to revise our conscious, rational understanding, we are liable to lose our way altogether. Our ultimate goal, beyond even the process so far described, is beyond words (or, at least, beyond my words). So let the above, a whirlwind tour of my own philosophy of mind in relation to the Gnosis beyond space/time, be helpful to you in formulating your own understanding. I pray to God’s Sophia and the Divine Logos that I have at least succeeded in getting some gears turning (an analogy grown from the outdated clockwork model of consciousness!) for others, as my own continue to turn; as Gnostics, mystics, and theurgists, it is our right and responsibility to always keep the lights shining.

See Also:

Beauregard, Mario, & Denyse O’Leary. The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Schwartz, M.D., Jeffrey M., & Sharon Begley. The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002.

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  1. July 16, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Hey i like this blog, would you like to guest blog for me at the Gnostic Tarot Blog? (http://gnostictarotcards.blogspot.com) We have similar views and I would like to get your input on some of my posts. Like the length and your overall experience with your guests , growth, and fulfillment.

    Frater Cor Meum Lucidum

  2. July 20, 2011 at 2:37 am

    Excellent article.

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