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Zen-Brain ReflectionsReview - Zen-Brain Reflections
by James H. Austin
MIT Press, 2006
Review by A.P. Bober
Sep 12th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 37)

   James Austin's 458-page expansion of a 1998 "twin" runs to nearly 1200, defying general readers with a neuro-dense Part III (Note 1 below) he advises (xxi) "laymen can skim." Slosh through cortex-related Eastern meditative disciplines, "mystical"/unitive "experience" (See lexicon below for this glossary term truant.), and Eastern poetry he considers "pretty words" disrooted (Note 2) from "direct" experience (yet [392] a meditator "steps out of" experience), though his "Roshi" (master) places Zen closest (452) to poetry.  "The" Zen experience intersubjectively moot, his "personal" odyssey charms most, as would physiochemical description of more than his eyes (Ch. 96), hopefully expressing recognized bodily feelings symbolically or analogically with more fervid depiction of his experiential "journey" (3, implying "links" he does not well make) through "kensho-satori" (Note 3) into fuller "insight-wisdom" (Note 4).  He could have begun the book from page 380 to that part's end, focusing on "empty fullness" (and "full emptiness"), skipping the misapprehended "oceanic" (300, 381) that French poet Raymond Rolland conveyed in 1927 to Freud's distorting hand.  Like his confreres in burgeoning neuro"science" (See lexicon.), these medical savants surf what they know well so that drunk with their brew they view themselves experts in all fields, as if scanning secondary philosophical literature makes them latter-day Aristotles or their nerve-knowledge makes them "psychologists," as Austin assumes (Note 5), urging an "I-Me-Mine" notion passing for "self," apparent Buddhist cant (impossibly "reduced" to the "physical" [9]), which the rest of us call "ego."  Alas, lack of reference shows him untouched by literature on self-ego/I-me/"objective"-"subjective" issues--social-scientific, analytic, philosophic, ranging from G.H. Mead, through Goffman, culture-personality studies, Kohut, variant "social psychologies," to the humanistic-transpersonal (Austin's spare reference to Maslow no remedy), including Jung's"ego" subsumed in that "center of my totality" "Self."  He could have used an "Eastern" artist-palette image (Bober, 1984, p. 39) with the "hole" the vaunted Western "ego" engulfed in the wood arc as expansive "self," often put down among us.  Richer the single-hewn-drum image, the "djembe," hourglass-shaped with tuning strings connecting a hide head to a "waist" "belt" just above which a circling string wends tightening with "knots" the "verticals" each representing for me a bio-psycho-historical "force"--genetic-congenital variance, "intelligence," perception, ethnicity, age, gender-role, family, region, nation, historical period--producing a roughly balanced, tuned head, its degree of tautness also affected by "cultural" humidity or dryness.  In "tension" one's "self" strikes a best "I'm-dancing-as-fast-as-I-can" balance.  (See my lexicon for a view Austin can't well stuff in his suitcase.)

 I suggest here two pivotal pulls making the author ambivalently Zen--one (307), his confessed inferior "similarity" to his Sunday-painter father--conscientious, visual, sensitive to color and form--"he highly talented in oils, I dabbling in watercolors" and, two, a Unitarian upbringing (xxiii) his "near-atheist" Buddhism does not overcome given endless "theurgic-upper-case" terms from "Being" he protects from cross-out by Heidegger (392) to other Cosmic Categories (his glossary directly ties "mysticism" with "the Ultimate Reality principle") neither earth-bound nor meaningful, with a final apology for "gassho," the "joining together of two opposing palms" in Hindu-style "respect," and "bowing" (458).  These psychodynamics condition a tremendous but unfocused output torturedly flip-flopping between professional Western dualism (as his term "allocentric" shows) and the merged monism Zen practice aims at.

Granted, Dr. Austin struggled half a century forging his professional-personal opus.  Poets/seekers can appreciate "taste's" (Ch 55) synesthetic unitivity; chapter epigrams will appeal and edify; centuries of Asian poetry offer brain-/"soul"-teasing suggestions.  The Preface through Part II puts the book in a nutshell.  With any meditative background you skim that chapter, skipping five through eight on "ego" as nine's neologistically neuro-"scientific" "interpreter"/"commentator" merely "lateralizes" (Note 6) Freud's Cs/Ucs qua memory/executive consciousness.  In 1998 (577) he both claims and denies "moonlight" as a Zen metaphor--a "clear, cold moonlight-like quality bathes [his] entire scene"--in advanced Zen, saying "I am not referring to this lunar view as a simile.  It is an internal fact of experience," but in 2006 (405-6) the experience is a "primary visual illusion," yet (408) it was not an "as if" impression: "Moonlight registered as a soft, immediate, visual fact."  (Need to spare Zen experience the nihilating categories of "delusion"/"hallucination" tortures him.  Actual "moonlight" floods the brain?  At 9 a.m. [416], "that morning's daylight" [408], with "no real moon . . . its visible source" [407]?  What's up, Doc?)  A century after 14,000 "just-so" "instincts" had been abandoned he fuses "sex" and the peculiarly Western culture complex of "romantic love" (255, 347) coming from southeast France almost to the year in 1150 CE.  His etymologies are either simplistic/noncommittal, distortively "interested," or misapprehended (Note 7).  Annotated bibliographies fusing endnotes would save pages of duplicated referential commentary.

   The witnessed suffering of a Siddhartha can produce (perhaps as one more attachment?) expanded "experience" of the "big-S" self, rather than a "via negativa" diminution yielding "insight-wisdom."  "Kensho" by communication, never found in Austin, follows.  Over fifteen weeks in a graduate process group after a woman's presence "pecked" at the "shell" of my awareness until we talked at a wrap-up party (Bober, 1984,  pp. 9-10) I can claim having "stopped the world" (Castañeda), "confirmed" in Feild's Sufi work.  Finally alone, we two simply lying side by side, "our lungs filled and emptied with the same breath" within a concrete sense of "oneness."  That "effable" (through painting or music as well?) experience "expressed itself" as "We were being breathed." like "kinhin"/"witness" (316, "Walking was continuing by itself."/235).  (Against Austin some part of the individuated person always "reports" such experiences.  Cf. Assagioli on "higher self.")

   I propose a neuroendocrinological track Austin eschews (1998, p. 83), fruitfully pursued by his colleagues of the "UPenn school" (he backhandedly [229] pooh-poohs?).   D'Aquili and Newberg (pp. 24-6), "too late" for 1998 (768, Note 13) yet not included in 2006, offer the most concise empirically based theory of "mystic"/unitive (See lexicon.) experience--"when everything comes together, all at once" (Walterreit)--on which they unfortunately impose infantile religiosity.  "Spillover" (or "reversal") between "arousal structures" (sympathetic) and "quiescent structures" (parasympathetic) occurs which, as I formulate it, balances an outflow of "personal-magnetic" energy with a relaxed receptiveness underlying all mystic experience (Note 8).  This experience forges itself in the sensorium through innumerable byways--emotion, psychology, culture, history, and ideology.  The "experient's" feeling may vary much less.  This recalls massotherapy research reported below.  It speaks of the "experience" of bouncing between two closely placed tennis rackets, thermostat-like.  D'Aquili's image suggests the "mutual-induction" coil in a car--the "primary" windings induce a current in the "secondary" windings.  A "mutuality" in both cases may be a co-buildup of "energy" to a point of maximum potential.  For me the "next step" is to fuse neuroendocrinal processes with "grounded" representational (See lexicon.) "expressions" of mystic experience, as in Borchert's reproduction (p. 288, Fig. 123) of "Roshi" Juan Yepes's perfective way to "Monte Carmelo."  It seems an unintended diagram of the brain with the occipital areas toward the bottom of the page and a kind of spinal path to the mystic Elysium called by the Taoists the "diamond or crystal center" (Bober, May review. Cf. "Roshi" Teresa de Avila's "Rey"/"sol" [p. 11], "cristal" [231].) roughly encapsulated in the shape of the corpus callosum and the anterior and posterior commissures, more or less enclosing structures comprising the limbic system--amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, and hypothalamus.

   In a massotherapy class (Bober, 1981) I presented a physiology paper entitled "The 'Sun Ganglion,' Consciousness, and Compassion."  A deeply frustrated attempt to corroborate a "solar plexus" experience I had in a training (large-group) setting at Bethel, Maine, it synthesized "naturopathic," Eastern, "occult," and "modern Western approaches."  The following crystallizes that attempt (Bober, 1984, pp. 57-8):

The continuing experience of myself as both receiver and sender (Puharich, pp. 17-18) of information through the "solar plexus," the neural mass around the coeliac ganglion, originally motivated this synthesis.  A sun-like funnel, as it were, takes in from the "macrocosm" and reflects back into the internal "microcosm," whence information goes "up" forming words or artistic expression, reminding me of an old glass Silex percolator I'd watch pushing boiling water up to become "coffee."

   This process relates the thoracolumbar and craniosacral divisions of the CNS relative not only to the adrenals ["suprarenals" in England; actually a neurotransmitter dump site] and other "glands" such as the hypothalamus but also to the heart, blood pressure, and what is negatively described as "fever," clearly related to the "glow" of peak-experiencing and expanded communing.  Thermostatically the sympathetic operates through adrenergics such as norepinephrine and cholinergics such as acetylcholine keeping the organism "see-sawing" in a narrow arc.  Vaso-constriction and -dilation raise and dissipate body heat in these "higher emotions."  While the hypothalamus regulates the experience of pleasure herein, we need to consider joy, love, compassion as experiences Western medicine can probe.  Unfortunately, animal experimentation blinds us to their (subtler) feelings.  (Uncountable times entering the Yale Medical Library I passed a portrait of the physiologist Harold Saxton Burr who poked electrodes into trees to gauge potential difference, a suggestive tool, probably the source of "biorhythms.") 

   A quarter of a century later produced a second ("Eastern") "confirmation" as a photo in Sha (p. 80) showed nearly the exact position of hands I'd stumbled upon at a period of intense unitivity in my life at that Bethel training.  He places this "Xiu Lian" ["shoo lee-en"] between the nipples, though the photo sets the heels of the palms closer to the "solar plexus" just below the breastbone.  He shows the fingers turned up more, flower- or cup-like ("lotus," he says), while I splay them right out in front.  I also place the heels of the palms lower, roughly half way between the sternum and the navel.  I move splayed hands near or far, rotating them "to the clock" as if optimizing radio reception (possibly a kind of holographic "phantom-limb 'memory'" of the umbilicus?), ultimately sensing the "right" position.  Tuning a spot through which "information is sent and received" corresponds with what Sha (p. 79) calls the "message center," the locus of the middle Dan Tian (Tien), or "cauldron."  This center (p. 37) lets you commune "directly with your mind, the organs and cells" and with "sources" "outside" yourself.  In this way (p. 31) you can "send and receive" information between you and "everything in the universe."  Such "corroboration" suggests we can "reproduce" what Taoists learned intuitively (See lexicon.), highlighting the difference between "Eastern" experience and "Western" experimentation. (How hard could it be for Austin to put a subtly sensing "grid" between people who experience such communication?  Perhaps neurologically sophisticated D.O.s like John Upledger are tuned to such subtleties.)

   Swedenborgian Balzac's "The Atheist's Mass" (pp. 2-3) has "surgeon" Desplein announce that he may have known of the "solar (message) center," "When he detected a cerebral center, a nervous center, and a center for aërating the blood--the first two so perfectly complementary that in the latter years of his life he came to the conviction that the sense of hearing is not absolutely necessary, nor the sense of sight for seeing, and that the solar plexus could supply their place without any possibility of doubt. . . ." 

Did pre-"Great War" Julia (Sears) Seton, M.D. (Cf. Dumont) know this source, fusing knowledge of physiology and "mystical" literature, here condensed, which I challenge Austin and myself to advance?  Her chariot-and-buggy mystics only used metaphors (See lexicon.) at their disposal--the "reins" flowing back from the horses to the focal point in the hands of the driver.  I imagine reins leading back from multiple pairs of percherons, or, alternatively, "funnel-hands."  Though her "reins" idea, unfolded with Jungian flavor reaching unitive heights, is a century old it knows no time.  I've added other results of her experience placing them in (psycho-)logical order. Although she reads "metaphysical," her insights free of reference (apparently much of biblical source) or concrete referent, I tried to gird her views with "modern" physiological detail:

   The prophets and mystics of old sang ever of their solar center . . . [ascribing] to the reins, knowledge, joy, pain and pleasure. The conscious command of the psychical functions through concentration of the mind and usage of the Solar Plexus has been the method of the seer for all time. . . . The solar plexus is the center of man's universe and through it he is one with all things. This is the "single eye." "Take heed, therefore, that thine eye be single, for if thine eye be single thy whole body will be full of light."     "[M]y reins instruct me in the night seasons"--thus giving the clue to all visions and prophecies--and we know clearly what these men of old vaguely hinted, for the "reins" are . . . the solar plexus center of the body, a vital point which makes for wholeness in union with our higher centers of the physical brain, the abdominal brain of the physical body--the great storehouse of universal energy and wisdom . . . . The massage of the Solar Plexus through this breath gives one increased circulation of blood to the solar center and this increases its attracting power; with a full stream of psychical energy flowing in from without, a full stream of power is released by the cells of the Solar Plexus itself. This electro-radiant energy flows over the sympathetic nerves and is transmitted to the cerebro-spinal nerves and centers, and a warm glow begins to pervade the physical flesh. Over this cord there is continually passing in and out through the reins . . . the impulses we call life. All sight, hearing, feeling, and emotion, all subjective sensation are the product of the activity of these currents acting upon the solar plexus brain and nerves and through these upon the physical brain and nerves.

   In addition to points made in my May review regarding "mystical experience," especially its needing no suppression of ego/self, I add in evaluating Austin that it

1.  does NOT require purgation, "ego-/self-lessness" (self [rather, "ego"] endures "absorbed") or "self"-conquest. 

2.  IS both "sensory" and "mental" ("emotional" as well) eminently and exclusively of, from, and through the "body."

3.  IS ordinary, NOT "rare" or "in addition," just infrequent, NOT alter-ed/-nate consciousness/reality, just "variant".

4.  is NOT highfalutin', higher, extreme (or mild, mini, or "less"), "true"/"false," more or less "authentic" or "fully developed."  As with 3., it's our legacy as human beings (363).

5.  is NOT a hierarchy or path, or series of degrees or stages, but rather, filled "moments."  (Werner Erhard's est granted "samadhi" in two weekends wrapped in three Wednesdays.)

6.  does NOT involve "fusion."  A part of the "self" always experiences the "state."

7.  DOESN'T require a guru or any guide whatsoever.

To Austin's credit he opposes a presumably "disintegrative" "mental illness" (1998, 30) and integrative "mysticism" I gloss below (Lexicon) to regale the reader.


Assagioli, Roberto.  Psychosynthesis.  New York:  Penguin, 1976.

Austin, James H.  Zen and the Brain.  Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 1998.

[Balzac, Honoré de.]  The Works of Honoré de Balzac.  Vol. VIII.  Jealousies of a

     Country Town.  Lost Illusions.  The Atheist's Mass.  New York:  Bigelow, Brown, 191?

Bober, Anthony Peter.  "Me, the Struggle to Be:  An Odyssey of Uncovery, Unfoldment, and Completion of the Self."  M.A. Thesis. Center for Humanistic Studies.  1984. Item No. 1324326

________.  "The 'Sun Ganglion,' Consciousness, and Compassion."  Physiology paper presented in the Myomassology class taught by Irene Gauthier, Southfield, Michigan, April 27, 1981.

________.  Review of Gerald G. May,  The Dark Night of the Soul, San Francisco:  Harper, 2004.  Reviewed June 17, 2005, Metapsychology Online Reviews 9:24

Borchert, Bruno.  Mysticism:  Its History and Challenge.  York Beach, ME:  Weiser,  1994. 

Castañeda, C.  Separate Reality.  N.Y.:  Simon, 1971.

d'Aquili, Eugene G., and Andrew B. Newberg.  The Mystical Mind:  Probing the Biology of Religious Experience.  Minneapolis:  Fortress, 1999.

de Avila ("De Jesus"), Teresa.  Las Moradas/Libro de su Vida.  Mexico, D.F.:  Porrúa, 1992.

Dumont, Theron Q.  The Solar Plexus or Abdominal Brain.  N.p.:  No publ., N.d.

Feild, R.  The Last Barrier.  N.Y.:  Harper, 1976.

Lewis, C.T., and Short, C.  Latin Dictionary.  Oxford:  Clarendon, 1966.

Puharich, Andrija.  Beyond Telepathy.  Garden City, N.Y.:  Anchor, 1973.

Sha, Zhi Gang.  Power Healing:  The Four Keys to Energizing Your Body, Mind, and Spirit.  New York: Harper, 2002.

[Privately printed, offered for your interest:                    

Sha, Zhi Gang.  Soul Study:  A Guide to Accessing Your Highest Powers.                         

________.  Zhi Neng Medicine:  Revolutionary Self-Healing Methods from China.]

Upledger, John.  SomatoEmotional Release:  Deciphering the Language of Life Berkeley, CA:  North Atlantic, 2002.

Walterreit, Linda C.  "What Is  the Experience of the Moment When Everything Comes Together, All at Once?"  Masters' thesis, Merrill-Palmer Institute, August, 1980.


Notes 1.  31 chapters reducible to 3.1, along with rough technicalities from others, placeable on the internet as research notes for the cognoscenti.  (Though against "drug mysticism" he spends inexplicable time on nitrous oxide, Grof, and addiction.) 

2.  Word descriptions become "paradoxical," so to speak, as the right brain laughs up its sleeve at the naively rational left.

3.  "Enlightenment" can mean to "have a light" or "feel lighter" inside; "ecstasy" can signify "standing outside of (as a clone)" or expansion beyond like ripple-rings around the proverbial pebble in the pool.

4.  Heights of capitalist mystic experience cannot be denied outright even to Robber Barons or Teapot Domers amidst "distracting" "beehive activity." [1998, 532; 2006,39] 

5.  He ignores operant versus classical conditioning or traditional "arousal" qua neologistic "quickening" [279] and burlesques "hypnosis" (See Lexicon.) [182]. 

6.  "Bicameral" usually covers front-rear of both lobes, if not also the neo-, paleo-, reptilian-cortical gamut.

7.  He mistakes "sympathy" (2006, 96) for "empathy" whose "original German word" (2006, 266) rather translates as "Einfühlung" from Greek, gives the unLatin spelling "aequinimitas" (1998, 581), and implies "education" from "educere" (1998, 120; 2006, 66), yielding "eduction," rather than the correct source "educare," "to nourish."

8.  A T'ai Chi Ch'uan/taijiquan saying states that "all the secrets of the universe are found in the moment between exhalation and inhalation." (Cf. 391, "chih shi"?)



Experience:  the etymological core (Lewis, p. 693) of the word is to "try, prove, put to the test, (reflexively) make a trial of one's powers."  (Bober, 1984, p. 37)

Hypnosis:  other-guided focus.  This increases imaginative attentiveness as "focus" implies.  "Other" may be another person or an Assagiolian "higher self," but all hypnosis is self-hypnosis.  Many in a demonstration group were "gone" hearing the yodeling record Milton Erickson brought thinking it an "induction."

Impropulsion:  movement from within, activating and enlivening outer (and "inner") "objects" in a synergistic process of reciprocal growth, challenge, discovery.

Intuition:  generally, it means capturing an immediate sense, knowledge, or realization about something and holding it with conviction, even if that conviction is at times not well founded.  Less nebulously it is a "seeing" as if with the whole being, the self as Jung propounded it, upon becoming rooted to some "object."  As one peers into it, restudies the material, steeps in it, a magma of concepts and metaphors exudes.

Mysticism:  an experience sensed, psychophysiologically, as warmth and "electromagnetic" ("centrolodic") flow to, from, and through the body directing heightened communion with the "world"/"other" /"object" producing an overwhelming "impropulsion" toward representational expression yielding a psychologically interconnective ("unitive," "centractive," "centrofluxive") insight, irrevocably shifting the contouring of self and world.  (One of his books suggests "ineffability" for Greek "mu" though "mueo" means "initiate into mysteries" and "muo" "shut," as eyes (perhaps mouth, ears, and other orifices.  This keeps the secret of the mystery cult and allows you to "go in" before expanding out.)

Metaphor(-ization)/Expression/Representation:  the simmering process ever arising from mute psychophysiological realms until expulsed grappling hooks of insight lash experience to cogently arresting linguistic imagery.  Raynor C. Johnson (Watcher on the Hills:  A Study of Some Mystical Experiences of Ordinary People.  London:  Hodder, 1959/NY:  Harper, 1960, p. 27) refers to a radio talk by William Golding who speaks of language that "fits over experience like a straight-jacket."

Neurophysiology:  this non-specialist in medicine hopes to refer to the operations of the peripheral nervous system [including the (para-)sympathetic (autonomic, generally)] as it relates to the spinal cord, brain, and para-cortical systems as they impinge on conscious and unconscious processes involved in "unitive" experiences.

Self:  the total experiencing center of the human being comprising for that individual all she or he has been, is, may become in thought, feeling, spirit, mood on the levels of the conscious and unconscious through reflective inner-directed and other-directed involvement in the world (Bober, 1984, p. 39).

Unitive:  less ambiguous, stained by "mystic" history  this refers to that kind of experience that carries conscious/ego/"everyday" awareness inclusively to a full, deep, rich rooting in the "romance" of everyday wonders, merely linguistically different from "peak-experience."  [As "peak" is not an adjective, the term logically requires a hyphen.]


© 2006 A. P. Bober


A.P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view.  His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields.  Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neurophysiology.


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