Monday, October 28, 2013

Tantra and the Transcendental Experience

My last post, on maithuna, brought us to the end of my basic series on how to do Tantra, but it ended with tips on how to create one of Tantra’s more exotic effects, the strong sensation of merging with our partners and feeling what they feel while we’re having sex. This is one of two transcendental phenomena that get us into territory that until recently has been strictly the domain of mysticism and religion:
  • Extension of the sense of self to include the partner - "becoming one person"
  • Complete loss of a sense of self - "feeling at one with the universe"
We call these experiences transcendental because we perceive ourselves as transcending, or moving beyond, the normal physical limits of our bodies. Descriptions of these experiences have been reported across many different cultures for thousands of years, and the second one has been an important goal of religious practices in many parts of the world. But before we address the question of cosmic union, we need to look more closely at the blurring of boundaries between the partners, because that will give us some clues to the broader case as well.

As I said earlier, we’re not talking about this as just a metaphor for a strongly empathic experience. All of the couples I talked to could have described many moments like that. A statement like, “The experience was so intense that I almost felt like I could feel what my partner was feeling” would not be especially remarkable. But it’s clear that most of these couples were describing something that goes one crucial step further, a feeling of actual merger, of feeling like you are really sharing one body and one nervous system.

I’m not going to claim that such a physical or neurological or “psychic” connection actually takes place, but it’s clear that the perception that it happens is quite powerful. I regularly experience this myself, and it feels very real even though I’m quite aware while it's happening that it isn’t literally true. Whether you call it an illusion, or a hallucination, or a subjective experience, it takes a strong dose of rational skepticism not to believe it is actually happening. The question is, why does this occur so often in the context of Tantra?

To understand it, we need to look at several odd, but well documented, mental phenomena.

Thinking with Our Bodies

Humans, like all primates and most social mammals, frequently imitate the posture, movements, and expressions of other members of their social group. Part of this is learning behavior: monkey see, monkey do. A person, particularly a child, watching someone do something, will often adopt the same posture and try to imitate the same movements.

But a lot of mirroring is also signaling behavior: we’re alike, see? And a lot of it reflects an apparent attempt at a kind of mindreading: if I put myself in your position – literally! – I will feel what you feel, and that will help me understand you and how to interact with you.

One of the things that is so interesting about this is how accurate it is. Little babies can mimic facial expressions, but how do they know that the expressions on their own faces are the same as the ones they see in front of them? Remarkably, even babies who have never seen themselves in a mirror can do this. (Even new-born macaques can do it!)

Furthermore, the imitation includes much more than just expressions. When one newborn baby starts to cry, other newborns look distressed, and many will cry too. Why? How do they know that the other baby is unhappy? Why do they share the other baby’s distress?

One explanation is the same one I mentioned earlier, that in many cases emotions and their expressions are a two-way street. We know experimentally that smiling can make you happier. So can seeing someone else smile. But what is going on inside our heads that makes this happen?

We think that the reason emotional expression affects emotion is tied to the way the brain is organized as many semiautonomous subsystems that work in parallel. Often, one part of your brain becomes aware of what some other part of the brain is doing only in an indirect way, and the most common way is actually through the body itself. Quite often, for example, your conscious mind only finds out that you have solved a puzzle when you start to say or write the answer or push a button or click a mouse. When you speak, you often literally don’t know what you are going to say until you hear the words coming out of your own mouth.

Our bodies are filled with nerves that report back to us on the position, tension, pressure, and motion of our body parts. Every twitch of a muscle fiber, every slight change in a tendon or chemical level is reported back, and to a fairly astonishing degree, we think with our bodies as well as our minds. Our thoughts are written onto our muscles, organs, and glands, and our senses report back and influence our thoughts. Many of our bodily metaphors for emotions, for example, turn out to be quite literally true.  Emotional “pain” and physical pain are indistinguishable in brain scans. “Gut feelings” light up parts of the brain physically associated with the gut. Moral disgust lights up the same areas as rotten food!

The brain consists of many systems that run in parallel, which means that there are parts of our brain that really don’t know that we are happy until we smile, grin, laugh, or at least send a subcritical version of these muscle signals to the motor cortex. In effect, parts of the brain communicate with other parts of the brain using external signals. Even if those signals occur for other reasons – like faking a smile – the parts of the brain that are watching for them still accept them as evidence of the emotion: “I’m smiling. That means I’m happy. Yay!”

But that still doesn’t explain why we react to other people’s emotional cues or are so good at imitating their posture and movements. For that we have to turn to a remarkable part of the brain that has evolved to allow us to do just that.

Mirror Neurons

One of the most fascinating discoveries in brain science in many years has been the discovery of networks of neurons, called mirror neurons, that fire in patterns corresponding to other people’s movements and expressions. To quote from Wikipedia:
A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate and other species including birds. In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex.
The brain areas mentioned involve: sensing the parts of your own body and their locations (the primary somatosensory cortex); integrating that information with information about objects and the space around you, as in tool use or moving past obstacles (the inferior parietal cortex); and planning, monitoring, and carrying out movement (the premotor cortex and the supplementary motor area). And the remarkable thing about them is that they generate nearly identical patterns of signals whether you are performing an action, mentally rehearsing the action, or watching someone else perform the action.

These neurons are amazingly good at reproducing observed behavior AND at triggering emotions signaled by that behavior. For example, brain scans have shown that a skilled basketball player who is shooting free throws generates an error signal in the emotional part of his brain when he shoots a bad free throw, and that it affects his emotional centers as soon as the ball is released, before he can see whether it is going to go in. Furthermore, if he watches video of other players shooting free throws, not only will all of the same muscle signals light up, but he gets the same error signal at the same point when he sees another player make a bad shot. There’s a network of neurons called the anterior cingulate cortex in the emotional centers of the brain that is universally known to researchers as the “Oh shit!” circuit, and it lights up immediately, long before the ball gets to the basket.

What this is telling us is that a skilled observer can “feel” what goes wrong with an action long before he sees evidence of it, or even has any conscious awareness of it. Given that the difference between a good shot and a bad one might be less than a tenth of an inch in the position of a finger or the path of an elbow, that’s pretty amazing.

These systems are triggered by many things besides watching someone exercise a skill. If you see a video in which someone suddenly gets kicked in the groin, you will react, at both the mental and physical level, as if you had been kicked, except that the intensity of the pain will be dialed way down. If you are really into the video and the attack is completely unexpected, you may actually hunch a bit, like you started to double over, and you may move your hands to protect your groin. Even if you don’t, electrodes taped to your body will pick up subcritical signals to do exactly that, and brain scans will show your mirror neurons rehearsing those actions in synch with the victim on the screen. And your autonomic nervous system will start to kick in, with an increase in heart rate, respiration, sweating, and adrenaline production.
You have mirror neurons for emotion reading and empathy in two areas folded deep inside your cortex, called the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. When you see a look of disgust on someone’s face, mirror neurons in your insula give rise to feelings of disgust in your own body. When you see joy, you feel joy. When you see sadness, you feel sadness. When you see pain, you feel pain. When you see someone’s upper arm being jabbed with a needle, the same muscle in your arm tenses up and you start breathing faster. [p.141, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own]
It’s not just pain, but the whole array of emotions. We react both mentally and physically when we see other people who are placed in sudden danger, or become involved in sex, or get embarrassed or rejected. Our reaction is even more intense when it is someone real, someone we like or love, and someone who is physically close to us.

When a politician says, “I feel your pain,” we assume he is faking it or exaggerating, but the simple truth is that we humans have a remarkable ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to literally feel what others are feeling, particularly if we are very close to them physically and emotionally and if we are witnessing the event in real time, not hearing about it later.

The strength of this human empathic response explains to some extent why we
appreciate and enter into our partners’ feelings, emotions, and sensations so strongly during intimate moments. Knowing how mirror neurons work also helps us understand how this empathic response works, and why it functions so far below the cognitive parts of the brain. Because mirror neurons communicate directly with the parts of the brain that control our bodies and our emotions, they sneak their influence in below the level of logic or factual awareness. It’s the difference between understanding how others feel and feeling what they feel.

But that still doesn’t explain the sensation of merging with another person. For that, we will need to look at another important set of brain systems, the mental maps that track where our bodies are in space and where the boundaries are between ourselves and everything else.

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