Elf Heart

Routes of Perception?

As I mentioned in Elflight, recently available work in various areas of neurocience has provided support for the efficacy of the techniques described in Elflight. I attempted to keep the theory in Elflight to a minimum, but here I'd like to go into more detail. What follows is just one potential explanation, but I think it's worth pursuing, partly because accepting it 'as if' it's correct seems to allow the design of effective rituals.

The uses of mental triggers and of meditation techniques is a part of this, but an understanding of the detailed neuroscience helps as well. There's good evidence for some degree of hard-wiring of the brain response to the basic techniques in areas such as parietal and pre-frontal lobe function, the limbic system, left/right hemispheric disturbance and the construal of effects within the visual cortex, all of which I've described before. Taken together they allow the formation of an hypothesis as to why and how sex-magic works.

I'd like to play fair and emphasise at the outset that with a single exception none of the scientists I'll mention has extended their own theories into the area of sex magic, although a number have addressed spirituality in general. This emphasis is particularly necessary because my extension of Todd Murphy's speculations on the origin of romantic love into this area will probably tread on a few toes.

Such speculations are, however, for a little way along the journey, so instead let us begin at the beginning, with the traditional 'single step'.

As you'll see from the beginning of Elflight, my use of triggers and meditation exercises are to an extent inter-related. Meditation is a practical technique for inducing and altered state of consciousness, whilst I use triggers as shorthand for inducing it during ritual. To take the neuroscience behind meditation first, Newberg and d?Aquili, initially working with a small group of Zen meditators, did the primary work.

Meditation inside a CAT scanner would defeat far better minds than mine, but a relatively new technique, SPECT (single photon emission computerised tomography), permits more flexible research work. Volunteers meditate quietly with an IV line in their arms. During the 'one with everything' state, a tracer (normally hexamethyl propyleneamine oxide, but that's probably more detail than you need) is injected into the line, and this binds preferentially to the areas of the brain being heavily used. Later work in a scanner allowed Newberg and d'Aquili to compare the activity to that of the brain at rest.

The study was based on several hypotheses in 'neurotheology'. These postulated that meditation would increase activity in the frontal lobes, particularly the prefrontal cortex. They also hypothesized that the altered experience of time and space in meditation would be a result of decreased activity in the superior parietal lobe. and also predicted that there would be a decrease in the activity in the sensorimotor area of the brain. Whilst there might be changes in the midbrain correlated with autonomic actions, it was suggested that there would be little change in activity in the cerebellum, superior frontal cortex, and occipital lobes.

Well, sort of. The findings supported the hypotheses that meditation is associated with increased activity (blood flow) in the frontal lobes and that such activity is correlated with decreased activity in the posterior parietal lobes. Decreases in blood flow in the left superior parietal lobe and increases in the left prefrontal cortex suggested that the two areas work together to create a sense of space. But there was an in blood flow to the sensorimotor cortex (indicating that meditation practice does dampen the perception of distracting external stimuli) and also Increased activity in the thalamus and midbrain, which may be connected to increased attention span of subjects during meditation.

So much for Zen, but Newberg (after d'Aquili's untimely death) repeated the experiment with Franciscan nuns who were using a verbal technique called centring prayer whilst performing the rosary. The key results were the same when adjusted for the normal brain function changes. Later on you'll see that I consider the important factors to be that whatever the meditation target, there is a decrease in activity of the parietal lobe, which is responsible for differentiation between self and other (the left side of the lobe deals with one's own image: the right with context).

Another topic to which I'll return is the inexplicable sense of awe that sometimes accompanies the experience. One 'knows' that the experience was profoundly important but is completely unable to explain it to anyone else. Jeffrey Saver of UCLA comments that the temporolimbic system is responsible for stamping the experience as 'important' in the same way that it marks your child's, or lover's face as being 'important'. The limbic system is a part of the brain that dates from way back in our evolution and he believes that during an intense religious experience the limbic system becomes unusually active and tags everything with special significance, characterised by bliss and well-being.

Support for this theory comes from studies of people who have epileptic seizures restricted to the temporal lobes. They frequently report a sense of profundity during those seizures, whereas Alzheimer's victims normally exhibit a loss of religious interest. The religious or spiritual profundity is, says Saver, 'similar to people undergoing religious conversion, who have a sense of seeing through their hollow selves or superficial reality to a deeper reality'. Clearly, as in other areas of spirituality, it isn't the experience per se that matters; it's what you do with it that counts.

Limbic stimulation brings a richness to experience, a fact that is unconsciously used by many forms of ritual. Deliberate, stylised motions of ceremony makes them different from mundane actions and may help the brain to flag them as significant. Music and chanting affect the limbic system in the same way as ritual actions, triggering arousal or bliss, just as meditation can be shown to induce arousal and relaxation, often at the same time. This marriage of opposites, thinks Newburg, adds to the intensity of the experience. The technique of centring prayer is what allows the nuns studied by Newburg to use the verbal symbolism of chant to create a distinct 'sacred space' It's similar to the 'dercad' of the early Celtic Christians: as Psalm 46 has it, 'Be still and know that I am God' (verse 10).

If this were a scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal, I'd move to Todd Murphy's work next. But it isn't (and on the web you should always consider that anyone can publish seriously wacky stuff without review), so I'll do the triggers bit next and then return to Todd.

I've been very fortunate in having good teachers throughout my life, and my first tutor in Wicca was just particularly influential. He was a brilliant musician who allowed me to jam in with him sometimes. We got to know each other and he introduced me to the use of mental triggers as shorthand techniques for inducing changes of mental state. Better, he pointed out that grouping triggers was important. So, what's a trigger in the first place? A trigger is something like the taste of the biscuit in 'Recherche du Temps Perdu' in that a single experience brings back a whole flood of memories, or maybe the sound of a song that was in the charts when you broke up with a partner. These remembered experiences mean different things to different people: a close friend can't stand the smell of hot train brakes but to me they evoke the start of the summer holidays.

The only difference is that a trigger is something you build into your own consciousness quite deliberately. You can pay serious money for a course in doing this and those courses have different names, but essentially the principle is the same. Invoke the state of consciousness you want (in this case the 'other' induced by the changes in brain function during meditation) often enough in the presence of a consistent and distinctive experience and you'll develop a short-cut to invoking that state of mind. Touch a special amulet often enough in circumstances when you're calm and you'll develop a state where touching that amulet will dispel a panic attack. That's a simplistic case but I hope you'll get the basic idea.

The problem with simplistic cases, however, is that they can get you into trouble. Build a trance-state trigger into a simple candle-flame and your partner at an intimate meal for two will find you a great listener until you end up face-down in the pasta. Build a trigger into an unique object and you may need serious help if it gets stolen or damaged. So, we use a set of reasonably common items.

In this case the items are a special green tilt-lantern and a fragrance, which we can use easily when we meditate. The clothing is not only special but provides some degree of protection, and putting it on and taking it off signal the start and finish of the ritual, which is important. Laundering it with the fragrance used during meditation is a good reinforcement. But, it's the group that matters more than any one item. The tilt-lantern is special-to-type but I can build another: green LED's are replaceable. So is the fragrance: the clothing may be a little more difficult - in fact the logo I mentioned can be reproduced on my computer and adorn a new shirt in a short time - but with two out of the three still available, rebuilding the set just takes a little work.

Well over half-way, you are now, I hope, convinced that there's something behind meditation, and you've had a cut-price introduction to what's behind some of the most expensive self-empowerment courses in the world (again, trust no-one and check this stuff out elsewhere on the 'net). The remaining section on my interpretation of fascinating work by Todd Murphy, and a very short summary of work on shamanic trance by David Lewis-Williams. Both are fascinating and very convincing speakers.

He suggests that what we experience as love is an example of a much larger group of experiences involving the self/other relationship. He further proposes that the 'other' is one's self and that the 'self/other' model is related to the 'sensed presence' effect, the feeling that people sometimes get that there is someone or something close to them, perhaps that they are being watched but certainly that there is a presence.

The 'self' is rather more than what we see even in our quietest moments: in fact we have two selves the left and right halves of the brain. The left handles language, which is a tool for social interaction, so it's conscious of social standing: when we receive expressions of love or feel secure, the left brain sees it as an increase in social standing. The right experiences the world in non-verbal ways it's introspective, affected by music, art and how others feel rather than what they say. It's usually subordinate, staying hidden, so the left brain is the one of which we are aware, the right giving input only occasionally. The 'sensed presence' experience occurs when the two sides of the brain fall out of synchronisation and the conscious hemisphere becomes directly aware of the subconscious. The left brain 'knows' that it can't have two selves, it experiences the intruder as an external 'presence'.

Murphy believes that sensed presence also happens when we interact that in effect we are projecting part of ourselves onto others. When we associate with people who are really special to us, their words affect our self-esteem. We want positive states to repeat, and to avoid the negative, unpleasant ones, which creates a tendency to bond with people that feel good to be around.

Searching for romantic fulfillment, he says, we are looking for an experience that will change our experience of ourselves. 'True happiness' might be found only outside one's self. In the Sufi tradition, God is the 'beloved'. In early Christian 'love-mysticism', union with God is described as being similar to romantic fulfilment. In the same way, Murphy thinks, falling in love is the process of projecting one's right-sided sense of self onto one's beloved. 'I and thou are one;' he says 'the other is the self'.

His hypothesis is unproven but convincing, and suggests to me at least that the neuroscience of romantic love is similar, or perhaps even identical, to that of spiritual experience in general. If, as is my experience, exercises resulting from his theory are also valid in sex magic, this might have implications for the interpretation of 'love-mystic' texts from a number of mainstream religions.

From related work with entoptics, Lewis-Williams has generated an elaborate theory of three-stage shamanic trance based upon studies of the French painted caves. Most researchers feel that he is running ahead of the evidence, but virtually all agree that the initiation of shamanic trance is signalled by experience of flying, of breathing under water or, most commonly, of passing through a membrane into a hill or rock. Shamanic techniques also regularly involve the presence of a 'helper' who interprets and records the experience. I think this sounds familiar. I's also interesting that in 'The Mind in the Cave' Lewis-Willians, albeit in passing, makes explicit reference to sex magic.

Okay, to summarise. We have a meditation system that, with regular practice, produces a suppression of the self/other model regardless of the meditation target, and as a side-effect sometimes produces a sense of 'importance' of the experience. We have a reasonable set of triggers that can be used as a ritual shorthand to enter that state. We can now add the ideas that spiritual experience, sensed presence and romantic love are all related to left/right hemisphere intrusions and that the experience of love involves projection of the subconscious brain onto one's partner.

In terms of sex-magic the extension here should be obvious. When we meditate with our partner (preferably in the presence of at least one of the triggers), we can use the imagery of the partner's sexuality, whether or not actual sex is involved in the meditation. This self-reinforcing circle generates a feeling of one-ness and may add to the feeling of special-ness, which in turn generate profound spiritual experiences related with sensed presences and love. This gentle approach gets better and better with repetition, which may explain the often-repeated advice that such techniques work best for couples in a committed relationship. It may not be a question of moral disapproval after all.

Several people have reported seeing unbidden companions in working through the Flowing Well, and the experience is even more common if you're open to it rather than, as one, correspondet commented 'telling it to go away, and finding that it did'. To quote Jung, 'Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit'. Or in this case the Goddess. The celebration in the cave may be familiar as the Benevento from Leland's Aradia. How genuine it is is not at issue here, the symbolism is so well known that t might spring unbidden to anyone familiar with the work.

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