Yoga & The Invisible Mind.

Via Julian Walker
on Jun 17, 2012
get elephant's newsletter

We See Everything But Ourselves…

I love teaching and practicing yoga. The combination of breath, embodied awareness, and mental focus provide rich opportunities for psychological insight, emotional healing, self-development and connection with community.

I love spirituality. But I may have a different definition of this word than most people.

My sense is that the word usually conveys some kind of supernatural belief. Yet when I use it I mean a combination of things that basically add up to an interest in what is true.

What is true is of course also related to what is beautiful and what is good.

These terms: good, true and beautiful are I think central concerns of human life. Goodness has to do with ethical behavior. Truth has to do with philosophical inquiry, scientific method, reason and the truthfulness made possible through psychological self-awareness. Beauty has to do with art, poetry, music, nature —with moments of experience that lift us up or show us something good and true through the medium of an art form.

Here we are.

We are alive and we are aware.

Practices like yoga and meditation work with our capacity for self-awareness, and invite us into feeling our aliveness more fully and being in touch with the rich inner languages of sensation, emotion, thought, and intuition.

We are mortal biological organisms that have evolved self-awareness via the most sophisticated and complex lump of organic matter we have so far found in the universe. The human brain contains as many synaptic connections as there are particles in the known universe–roughly 100 trillion. It is ironic that this fact about the brain can barely be comprehended by the brain itself—by your brain as you read this, and by mine as I write it. The magnitude of its own complexity is hard to conceptualize.

This anomaly about the brain is not limited to mind-boggling factoids, it is central to the human experience.

Think about it: we are conscious all the time that we are awake, but our consciousness does not include anything that is happening at an objective level in the brain. We are aware of sounds, sights, feelings, thoughts and the whole kaleidoscope of moment-to-moment unfolding experience—but not of any of the corresponding brain activity that this awareness rides upon.

In the deepest and most uncanny sense, in a way that is central to our experience, we simply do not know what we are. Mysterious indeed!

The way in which subjective experience and objective biological processes are both inseparably related and yet completely partitioned is perhaps the most fascinating fact of being conscious.

Mind/Body Dualism

So with spirituality we have an interesting dilemma. Namely, that it is intuitively convincing to imagine a mind (or soul) that is distinct from the body, or more specifically from the biological processes of the body—which includes the brain.

This idea of something essential that transcends the body is the basis of belief in souls, reincarnation and life after death. The related notion that there are beings that can exist without bodies gives us gods, angels, demons, and indeed anything supernatural.

There is of course absolutely no evidence that these beliefs match reality in any way.

Awareness appears to be an empty space that must somehow be distinct from the body. Into this open space arise the kinds of emotive and expansive states of mind that are part and parcel of spirituality. We then imagine that these experiences, say, while meditating, practicing yoga, making love or grieving the death of a parent must somehow belong to a domain that transcends the body.

This perception, which seems entirely obvious, is the basis of what is technically called mind/body dualism—and this mind/body dualism is the single foundation on which all of supernatural faith is based.

Mind/body dualism has however been abandoned by the vast majority of both scientists and philosophers as an untenable position. The potency of moving beyond mind/body dualism is that it is a fulcrum on which one’s entire worldview is radically shifted. Without mind/body dualism supernatural faith is equally untenable. Once we accept that the mind is embodied, that our experience of subjectivity can be understood neurobiologically and is a product of material processes, indeed that any meaningful definition of mind is inextricably woven together with biology that is complex enough to have evolved brains, we locate ourselves in a reality that simply does not have disembodied minds.

I did not set out to prove the above observation to myself, rather to find out what was true, because that is at the heart of my spiritual inquiry. What then does one do when one’s path of spiritual inquiry reveals the misperception at the heart of what most people would define as spirituality?

If we think it through though, this innate sense we have of the mind as separate from the body is not that different from the entirely obvious seeming observation that the earth is flat, and that the sun moves around us in the sky. It similarly appears obvious that we are not animals and that there must be a disembodied God who created the universe we live in.

Likewise it perhaps seemed obvious to us in the past that it was a witch’s curse that caused illness, and the sacrifice of virgins atop pyramids that kept the sun, moon and stars moving through the sky.

It takes education to recognize the difference between our innate perceptions or wishful thinking and what is demonstrably true about the reality we inhabit.

Neuroscience is doing to our innate perceptions of what it is to be human, what astronomy, evolutionary biology, and science in general have done to our innate perception of the universe we live in and our place in the natural world.

God’s Special Creature

Mind is of course utterly unique in its subjective experience, yet still absolutely dependent upon objective biological processes. These are two sides of an exquisitely complex coin. How this extraordinary process occurs is still not (and may never be) lacking in mystery, but it is no longer necessary or reasonable to evoke an immaterial soul to inhabit the gap in our current understanding.

Yet most of us resist this realization in the name of spirituality. We resist it because we fear that it will rob us of love, beauty, joy, meaning, wonder if we pull back the curtain and stop attributing these to some magical agency.

We want spirituality to confirm not only our innate perceptions of reality, but also to conform to our wishful thinking. We are afraid that grounding mind in the body and spiritual experiences in our humanity will destroy spirituality.

We want to believe that we are God’s special creature, that we have an immortal soul that will survive our biological death, that we are of central importance in the universe, and that supernatural forces are conspiring to guide us on a life journey that has implications beyond our human existence. Many of us feel and that our lives can only have meaning if these beliefs are true.

So when I said above that I perhaps had a different definition of spirituality, maybe I should qualify this by saying that I am passionate about an integrated spirituality—a spirituality that is informed by science, that is psychologically aware, and that is sustainable in an open relationship with the evolution of human knowledge.

Yoga can be a way of developing self-awareness that is fearless in the face of what is actually true. Present attention, awareness of our bodies and emotions, philosophical inquiry, can all be used in the service of resilience.

The unfortunate facts of life are that there is suffering, injustice and death, that we are mortal, vulnerable creatures who are deeply impacted by trauma, neglect, and loneliness. We often react to these realities by shutting down, disconnecting from our feelings, and living our lives inauthentically.

To many it seems that the only alternative to despair is to buy into a consoling religious or spiritual belief system that negates these facts and replaces them with hopeful fantasies. But this is unsustainable.

The unfortunate facts are that no amount of magical thinking, belief in mythic figures, or special ritual activity will make us able to change these aspects of human existence. the unfortunate fact is that these endeavors take us farther away from what is true, and in the absence of truth, goodness and beauty inevitably suffer.

What good then is spirituality?

Well, I tend to think that there are two kinds of spirituality. One kind seeks to make us feel better by denying, distorting or covering over the facts of life, by encouraging faith in an invisible supernatural world that has our best interests at heart, in telling us that death is not real, and we choose our traumas to learn lessons that are ultimately for the highest good, or that no one is truly a victim, and that there are actually no facts, only perceptions which in turn absolutely create reality.

This category of spirituality is about good luck charms, superstitious ritual, seeking guidance from some imagined great beyond, believing that we can control reality through the psychic power of out thoughts, that we can find some way to get the hidden forces of the universe to sway fate in our favor. The scientific, philosophical, but especially psychological problems with these kinds of beliefs are legion, but I will save exploring these for another day.

Integrated Spirituality

The second kind of spirituality encourages us to face reality as it is. We cannot control many things about our lives. We are vulnerable, mortal, imperfect creatures —and yet we can develop a resilient compassion and courage. We can develop our minds, our emotional intelligence, our sense of the embodied sacred, of the sacred in and as the natural world, alongside the facts of injustice and suffering. We can become more open to the experience of being alive, tolerate what is difficult more skillfully and celebrate what evokes love, gratitude, meaning, and beauty more fully.

Yoga offers an opportunity to engage in this existentially honest, humanistic, grounded spirituality —and here’s the most subversive statement so far: yoga can be a way of moving beyond the need for superstitious and supernatural beliefs.

It turns out that whatever it is that works about yoga (and of course meditation and related disciplines) has to do with how it affects our neurobiology —the functioning of our nervous systems, brains and biochemistry. Being more fully alive and aware in the experience and energy of our body, and of the embodied mind is a product of shifts in our biology.

Contrary to New Age, religious (and even ancient yogic) aspirations to transcend the body, yoga is an “in-the-body” experience. Plain and simple.

Breath, movement, focused attention, flow states, insights, moment of emotional release and psychological revelation, these are all the domain of experiential spirituality, and they require no unreasonable beliefs, no pretentious posturing, no distortions of reality.

What’s more this kind of spirituality can be informed by science, infused with psychology and rooted in an acceptance of our true nature in the midst of this brief and glorious dance across the stage of the universe itself.

Note: This article originally appeared on


About Julian Walker

Julian Walker is the founder of where he supports new and established yoga teachers in living their dreams through business development. He is a writer who has been teaching yoga since 1994, and co-teaches the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Yoga Teacher Training in LA with Hala Khouri.Julian's writing is featured in the book 21st Century Yoga available on


19 Responses to “Yoga & The Invisible Mind.”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    At first glance, for good reason, science makes it's living by embracing an outer world. Science at first glance disembodies the universe of experience by placing it outside the brain. Does this make science "bad"? No. It seems that you would allow science, upon discovery, to determine the limits of your "spirituality". You quite rightly point out, "It is ironic that this fact about the brain can barely be comprehended by the brain itself —by your brain as you read this, and by mine as I write it. The magnitude of its own complexity is hard to conceptualize." Do you think it is possible that though the majority of us are using 10% of our brains by scientific standard, could be missing something that the Buddha propounded by going "inward" which would require a greater use of the brain prior to the science of counting neurons?

  2. Padma Kadag says:

    Is it possible that the Buddha and others were firing on all cylinders realizing the great perfection. I guess my question to you would be are you allowing scientific discovery to regulate your "spirituality"? At what percentage of synapse firing in your mind would be an adequate cause for Truth? My questions are sincere and I sincerely found this article interesting.

  3. @Suri_k8 says:

    The 10% use of the brain thing is a myth , there is no scientific standard or evidence behind that assumption , it is a myth propagated by new age proponents ….there is no such thing as 90% unused brain , every part of the brain has a known function …in fact the only brains that have silent areas, are those that are severely damaged . Different regions of the brain are working all the time even while we are asleep. Even going inward is impossible without a brain , consciousness is a brain function and it depends on a functioning brain.

    So to summarize
    10% brain function ——–> MYTH
    10% brain function myth———> DEBUNKED by science
    Just another example of how science can help us overcome our own ignorance ….and how it helps us get rid of absurd superstitions.

  4. __MikeG__ says:

    IMO, scientific discovery does not regulate spirituality as pertains to this article. Science cannot satisfactorily explain art, dance or why I love zombie movies. Science is not an entity or a regulating body. Science is a word for a method of rational and evidence based discovery. Using the method of scientific discovery does rule out all of the irrational and superstitious beliefs found in religion and the irrational and superstitious beliefs of persons who label themselves "spiritual".

  5. That tired old saw: we are not "using 10% of our brains…" Perhaps you can start to do some research here:

    Beside that point, it is evident that some people will always seem to think they need the supernatural to give value to this world. Call it God, or Brahman or Buddhanature, such concepts of the transcendent speak of the dualistic split Julian addresses. I think it'd be more beneficial for the sake of all beings if we transcended all that keeps us from being here fully.

  6. Julian,

    An excellent, quite moving piece! We do seem to share a bit regarding a more naturalist spirituality.

    Perhaps you — or some other readers — who are intrigued by what you write here would be interested in this:


    Neuroscience can show us why — as embodied beings — we can have experiences that you refer to as "realizing the great perfection." It's even a human tendency to reify such an experience INTO an "absolute." But to take an experience dependent upon the body and to postulate some transcendent dis-embodied state is where people go beyond all evidence to the contrary. At heart, it is the desire to pacify ego with the fairy tale of 'happy ever after.' When asked, those who are honest will admit they believe in the supernatural because it makes them feel good; that it eases their existential dread or mortality. But even this evidences a misunderstanding of naturalism.

    And one last question, though I'm not sure exactly what you mean by your question, what if it is turned around: "Are you allowing buddhist doctrine to regulate your 'spirituality?' And if so, do you really think that is keeping within the intent of the buddha?

  8. Scott says:

    Taking the Spirit out of spirituality makes it something else, Julian. As nice as you make it sound, you're still pushing a mechanistic perspective. Good or bad, right or wrong, spirituality has to do with Spirit. It acknowledges that Spirit is the energetic creative cause of life and that Consciousness itself is the Ground of Being. And unless I didn't get the memo, Samadhi is still the goal of yoga. Have you really never experienced anything deeper and more expansive than your own brain functioning? Do you really tell your teacher training students that the idea of Samadhi is superstition? Yikes.

  9. Pankaj Seth says:

    Great response Scott.

  10. Pankaj Seth says:

    Julian have you considered that your fellow travellers are not Yogis, but …ārvāka?

  11. Scott says:

    Glad you posted that Carvaka link, Pankaj. Interesting.

  12. poep sa says:

    Samadhi is a 'real' experience quite clearly explained by science and brain functioning. What scares you about the idea that THIS is enough? That there is no need for some ethereal, disembodied, transcendent realm for THIS to have awesome significance?

  13. @Suri_k8 says:

    Caravaka,it actually makes sense:
    "To them, Vedas were just incoherent rhapsodies. They also held the belief that such texts were invented and made up by men and had no divine authority."

  14. Pankaj Seth says:

    Charvakas were part of an ecosystem of views, each critiquing the rest… and so it still is. Charvakas were/are a good bullwark against excesses of the theistic orientation. The Vedas are 'shruti', heard/seen, which is not the same as 'revealed', which is instead an Abrahamic/monotheistic convention connected to the Creator God outside its creation.

    Here is an example of 'seen'… from the life of the mathematician Ramanujan:

    "When asked about the methods employed by Ramanujan to arrive at his solutions, Hardy said that they were "arrived at by a process of mingled argument, intuition, and induction, of which he was entirely unable to give any coherent account."[92] He also stated that he had "never met his equal, and can compare him only with Euler or Jacobi."

    " Ramanujan credited his acumen to his family Goddess, Namagiri of Namakkal. He looked to her for inspiration in his work,[81] and claimed to dream of blood drops that symbolised her male consort, Narasimha, after which he would receive visions of scrolls of complex mathematical content unfolding before his eyes.[82] He often said, "An equation for me has no meaning, unless it represents a thought of God."

  15. poep sa says:

    Still, it isn't totally inaccurate to say that "Orthodox" followers of the Vedic tradition see the Vedas as "revealed," in so much as they were seen (revealed to) the 'seers' or rishis.

    AND, because of this fundamentalist perspective, such culturally created social structures like the jati/varna/caste system still remains so resistant to being eradicated. After all, it is understood as the "natural order" or rta.

    Folks like the buddha critiqued such a position using critical thinking: He clearly saw that not all cultures followed the varna system, thus it was obviously a human construct and could be disregarded.

  16. Pankaj Seth says:

    As I've explained, 'revealed' has a connotation which does not fit. Next, Sankara has stated that where Shruti differs from empirical reality, there Shruti is to be held lower, and is to be symbolically understood. This isn't fundamentalist, is it?

    Varna/Jati is a long conversation… here is an interesting article by historian K. Elst entitled "The Buddha and Caste"…

  17. hazel says:

    But Yoga is a spiritual union of the psychic with the non psychic. The whole purpose of Yoga is to purify a mythological bodily system of nadis, chakras and kundalini shakti etc etc to reach samadhi. Please don't try to rationalize it anyway science itself is not rational its creative. Yoga does not need to be modernized like this you take away the mystical and your left with nothing special its so sad. Just go do a stretch and breath class instead.