Biology, Spirit, and Transcendence

By Will Meecham

If you’re interested in more of Will’s work highly recommend his blog, WillSpirit, where he explores growing and wellbeing after recovering from a traumatic childhood.

My blog’s tagline includes the word spirituality, which has devolved into a vague term that can mean almost anything. In the interest of clarity and to balance the two previous posts that emphasized material takes on human life, this essay will outline my spiritual path and beliefs. Readers may or may not be interested, but it helps me to spell out my philosophy from time to time, especially since it’s still maturing.

What follows rambles through my ideas about different metaphysical stances, to my own personal experiences with them, to a description of my current stage of development. Since my understanding of the world’s religions is superficial, at best, don’t be surprised if my statements about faith and practice sound obvious or naive.

Two posts back I stated that our animal identity constitutes “the most central and accurate description we could give of ourselves.” After all, it seems unarguable that humans are mammals with large brains. Even while writing that sentence, however, I remained aware that many resist considering themselves ‘mere’ biological organisms. Indeed, when I posted the same essay on my Psychcentral blog, the following comment came in:

Hmmmm, so we are reduced to “cycles of carbon and calcium?” I prefer that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by our creator. As a believer, I will be returned to Him.

This reader’s opinion probably resonates with many who consider themselves religious or faithful. Here’s an edited version of what I wrote in reply:

You bring up the other common opinion about ultimate identity: that we are best described as conscious entities (souls) inhabiting organic forms. But even if one takes that view, at death the body is still reduced to its constituent elements and recycled in the biosphere. The two viewpoints are not mutually exclusive. In fact, since our biological form is apparent, while our spiritual nature remains debatable, even believers should look for ways to interweave the two perspectives. To deny our biology is to deny material reality, just as to deny our divinity is to deny higher meaning.

Divinity, as I intend it here, is a loose term meant to suggest that we have inner measures of soulfulness that go beyond the solid, predictable qualities of organic matter.

In the opinion of Christians and Muslims, each person has an immortal soul that is born once to this world and then consigned to eternal bliss or damnation based on a lifetime’s accounting of virtue, sin, faithfulness, and redemption. The sensible person thus works toward righteous behavior in order to secure a place in Paradise.

According to many Hindus and Buddhists, a soul (or its equivalent) is reborn repeatedly through time because of karmic entanglements accrued in previous incarnations. The wise soul engages in right action to limit such attachments and thus escape the cycle of death and rebirth.

Not all religions postulate an eternal and personal soul. For instance, Western Buddhist teachers seldom mention reincarnation. They discuss the basic principles of detachment and right behavior without reference to rebirth. This obviates the need to discuss a soul-entity, and in fact the Buddha himself rejected the existence of a discrete soul, since he found no evidence for any consistent, fixed self in his deep explorations of mind. Most Buddhists in the USA seek direct, meditative insight into the nature of consciousness as the ultimate goal of practice and don’t worry about escaping the cycles of birth and death. The focus is on mental process without invocation of any divine or eternal soul.

Many contemplative traditions (including some strains of Sufism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism) also reject the personal soul-concept. However, they do so by invoking a universal consciousness that subsumes the individual. This is the non-dual stance, which sees no meaningful distinction between soul and body, or between spirit and matter, or between God and individual souls. According to this philosophy, all beings arise as creative expressions of one vast Presence that manifests in myriad forms but retains core unity, which unenlightened humans fail to grasp. Such analysis rejects boundaries as illusory, whether between individuals, between people and animals, or between people and Divine Nature. We are viewed as all of one body, in the deepest sense. This perspective is essentially ecological and fits well with what we see in the biosphere.

Those of conventional scientific persuasion bristle at mention of either soul or universal consciousness. They see any suggestion of mystical reality as unfounded, infantile, and dangerous. But there is no scientific evidence that rules out either individual souls or cosmic consciousness. Quantum mechanical principles such as entanglement and non-locality provide plausible, if completely unproven, mechanisms whereby enduring impressions of mental life could be retained in the cosmic matrix without violating established physical laws. These ‘recordings’ could possess all the qualities we expect of discrete souls or universal awareness.

Over the years I’ve explored many different metaphysical positions. Raised as an atheist and educated extensively as a biologist, I never seriously questioned the strict materialist perspective until age twenty-nine. At that time, as I entered Alcoholics Anonymous and felt encouraged to find a ‘higher power,’ fate connected me with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Quakerism eschews dogma and doctrine in favor of direct, experiential discovery of ‘the light of Christ’ within each of us.

In 2000, after a series of profound (even shattering) spiritual experiences, I converted to Catholicism. For many years I went to mass several times a week and tried hard to buy into the Roman Catholic worldview. But although I appreciated the call to mysticism and the sacred rituals, the Church’s dogmatism, reactionary sociopolitical views, and rejection of female priesthood alienated me.

As an alternative, I explored Buddhist meditation. For two years I went to local meditation centers for weekly sittings and occasional longer retreats. At the same time, I undertook an intensive program of reading about Buddhism. The emphasis on silence and detached observation of thought felt quite helpful and fit with the clinically oriented mindfulness meditation I’d learned ten years earlier in classes at a local medical center. But in the end, I had trouble with Buddhist emphasis on emptiness and detachment. Although I see the value of exploring these qualities, they offer little in the way of felt love or sweetness. Meditative consciousness is vast and reverberant, but not inherently warm.

Next, I explored a Hindu offshoot at a retreat center that opened a couple of miles from my home. The monastics taught me to visualize my soul as residing in the area of the third eyein the middle of my forehead. I learned to concentrate on my soulful qualities rather than my bodily identity. This approach challenged me at first, because so much noise and confusion seems to arise in my head, and focusing my attention there failed to quiet the uproar. At the suggestion of a skilled meditator, I adjusted the technique by moving my conscious centerpoint to my heart, where there is more peace and warmth. Before long, I awoke to the powerful illumination of an ancient inner awareness that has little use for my day-to-day worries, ambitions, and desires. This inner light feels like a combination of personal soul and universal Presence arising from the cosmos itself.

Oddly, and beautifully, I now find myself having gone full circle. After all my explorations I am back at the Quaker starting point, only with a much more palpable sense of thatdivine light within each of us. This is experience and not belief. I cannot justify it in rational terms and see no reason to try. All I can do is describe what happens when my meditations go well. It matters little to me whether my direct apprehension of love, unity, and rightness resides only in my brain or truly connects, as it seems to, with a cosmic consciousness. Because it is experiential and not referential, it feels quite solid and unshakable. Some days I interpret my soulfulness in mystical terms, and other days I think about it in purely neurological ones. But no matter what I believe about this state of mind, it brings me peace.

Every person must choose her or his own path, and I have learned to judge no one’s, not even my own. Those who prefer material atheism have adopted a belief system that requires no leap of faith and has a logically satisfying internal consistency. Those who believe in heaven or reincarnation, and who view souls as eternal and individual, have found a comforting formula that gives meaning to what happens here on earth. Those who meditate mindfully to enter spacious states of consciousness experience inexpressible mental stillness. Non-dualists, in turn, use their practice to find (what seems like) experiential confirmation of an ageless and infinite cosmic unity.

For my part, I know only that there is something that feels divine and non-egoic in the center of my chest. It beats like a spiritual heart throbbing in unison with the biological pump that moves my blood. My metaphysical position is neither more nor less valid than any other. It has features in common with the tenets of materialism, since my bliss seems deeply rooted in my biology. It shares some aspects of the soul-religions, because the brightness within acts like an eternal spark that illuminates my better nature. Consciousness also feels enhanced, as I tune into the infinite harmony that comes with silent meditation. My practice has non-dual aspects too, since in its highest expression I feel merged with all beings and all Nature.

This is my spiritual trail, which has been blazed through two-and-a-half decades of searching and introspection. I believe each of us must choose whatever path feels right. We should seek the tradition(s) that can heal both our own wounds and the troubles of the larger world.

So although I spent two posts honoring humans as living, breathing organisms, it feels vital to round out the discussion with my conviction that we also embody a loving, timeless Presence that permeates and transcends our material forms. This may be a personal soul, or a universal one. It may be pure consciousness or an artifact of brain physiology. No matter. It dwells within each of us, waiting for the day we abandon our desperate scheming and open to Life in all its terror, splendor, and Grace.

More of Will’s work on Beyond Meds:

About Will Meecham, MD, MA

In late 2014, Will Meecham, MD, MA, launched MindfulBiology.org to combine clear explanations of biology with guided meditations, in order to help us better appreciate our amazing human bodies. Before he felt ready to start MindfulBiology.org, which he considers his life’s work, Will needed to overcome a highly traumatic upbringing. Although he had successfully completed years of higher education (in ecology, biophysics, neuroscience, and medicine), when neck disease ended his career as an oculoplastic surgeon, he suffered psychiatric collapse. In the aftermath he was forced to confront vulnerabilities common in those who suffered hardship early in life. He found a tool for recovery in his knowledge of human biology. Understanding how his body responded to circumstances helped him accept the ups and downs of daily life as experienced by those who suffered trauma early on (a substantial proportion of the population). As he began to feel more stable and secure, he was fortunate to find work teaching anatomy and physiology at a yoga institute, where he developed methods for combining life science with embodied mindfulness practices. He now writes and offers local seminars to help people appreciate their own living system and to use biological knowledge to promote recovery.