As a spiritual teacher, I talk about the brain in most of my lectures, and it is the central focus of my Brain Education program. For some people, this may seem odd since spirituality usually focuses on the unseen world, not on physical organs like the brain. Usually, the worlds of spirituality and science are kept separate – one relying strictly on logic and the other more on intuition – but I see them all as part of the great unfolding of human understanding. Ultimately, understanding ourselves and growing toward a higher state of consciousness means using knowledge from all fields, and thus I don’t hesitate to reference the work of modern neuroscientists and psychologists, along with the insights of great spiritual masters from the distant past.
Our understanding of the brain is especially important because it is the organ through which we interact with the world that surrounds us. We use our brains to make choices that impact our own lives, those of others, and ultimately the entire planet. The brain is not the same as our souls, since our souls will continue after the death of the brain, but it is the seat of our consciousness. And, as such, it is the most important tool for the growth and completion of our souls. There are three attributes of the human brain that make it possible for us to initiate and guide our own path toward spiritual fulfillment.
The ability the continuously change the brain, known as neuroplasticity, is one of the most amazing and important abilities of the human brain. A few decades ago, brain scientists mistakenly believed that brain connections were set in stone once a person reached adulthood, but this is not the case. Scientists have observed the brain’s ability to rewire itself throughout life, even during advanced old age. Yes, the brain can become deeply entrenched in habits over time, but the ability to learn new things and to change our own behaviors and beliefs never leaves us.
The rest of the body, in contrast, stops growing at a certain point. Your liver, for example, reaches a certain size and continues to function in a similar way for the rest of your life. If it is badly injured, it can heal and regenerate itself, but its function will not be fundamentally different than before. And, over time, the liver and other organs diminish in efficiency. The brain, on the other hand, can be upgraded. You can add more and more useful knowledge, develop new skills, and eradicate life-long bad habits. This is the gift of plasticity – the ability upgrade and fine-tune your mind over a lifetime.
Very few creatures on the Earth possess self-awareness. Rather, they behave according to instinct and do not consider the consequences of their actions or the meaning of their lives as a whole. Some animals like apes and dolphins appear to have some awareness beyond this, but there is no evidence that they ponder themselves in the way humans do. Brain scientists have even called the human brain a “meaning-making machine” because, as a species, we are uniquely obsessed with finding out the meaning of our lives as a self-aware creature on a small planet in a vast universe. Ultimately, this brain ability is the source of all spiritual inquiry since it leads to the most basic spiritual questions: “Who am I?” and “What is the purpose of my life?” Using your brain’s capacity for self-awareness, going deeply into these questions while peeling away preconceptions and emotional blockages, is the key to spiritual maturation.
I have saved imagination for last because it is ultimately the most important brain ability of all. Plasticity and self-awareness are both of little use if we cannot imagine ourselves in a higher state than we already are. Through imagination we all become visionaries, able to see what can be done to better our own lot in life, as well as that of others. Everything great that human beings ever achieved in art, architecture, literature, and technology began with imagination. Someone had to see in their mind’s eye, their imagination, that something new is possible, even if that something seemed impossible to everyone else.
Sadly, we often speak of imagination as though it were only appropriate to children’s playtime or to fanciful movies and storybooks. Really, you need to use your imagination every day if you want to become your best self. Who do you imagine yourself to be as the best version of you? How do you think you would get there if you believed you could? If you can open your imagination completely, you have made your first steps on a journey toward your highest self.
All of these amazing attributes allow us to shape our future as human beings in remarkable ways. So far, evolution has occurred in a very difficult, painful way on the planet as species fight to survive and to adapt to difficult conditions. We have the option of choosing a different route, however. We, as humans, can use our remarkable brains to choose our own evolution. All of the brain abilities I’ve mentioned above give us the power of self-determination and transformation in a way that has never existed before.
Of course, we can continue to just follow our current version of “human nature,” and possibly destroy the planet and ourselves in the process. Or, we can imagine something greater for ourselves and choose to live according to our higher selves instead. The choice is ours – a choice all of us make with our amazing brains.