Personal and Spiritual Growth: Evolutionary/Neurobiological Foundations

Below is a draft of what will probably be the Preface for my current book project on which I have decided to focus. The working title of the book is: Adaptive Landscapes, Archetypes & Zen: Toward an Evolutionary and Neurobiological Foundation for Spiritual and Personal Growth. Here’s the draft:

This is a book about my adventures in Zen, much to the chagrin probably of my Zen roshis, Lawson Sachter and Sunya Kjolhede, at Windhorse Zen Center outside of Alexander, NC. Lawson-roshi is also co-director of the Clearwater Zen Center in Clearwater, FL. Both are fellow mental health specialist, Lawson, a licensed psychotherapist and Sunya trained in Clinical Pastoral Education. Technically, to keep me out of trouble with my state board, I am a licensed professional counselor in this second half of my life, retired now. In the first half of my life, I was a college professor with a specialty in biochemical and molecular evolutionary genetics.

I have been a practitioner of Zen now for some 35 years and finally decided, at 73 years of age almost, that it was time to get serious about it. You know, fish or cut bait; shit or get off the pot. At this stage of my life there is a lot of Bandido that comes out. The latter is one of his favorite phrases. Bandido is my alter-ego/shadow archetype. I introduce him in my previous two books, in some detail in my latest, Guru. You will meet him more herein later. He is my hero so to speak but has to be kept under close watch that he doesn’t get out of hand. He’s very prone to that—he and his dragon, Chaos.

On top of this Zen story, per my usual, I am coming at this from a very evolutionary and neurobiological perspective, again, reflecting my first profession as a college professor and researcher in evolutionary genetics, and my later interests in neurobiology. The basic question I am asking is, how can a deeper understanding of evolution and neurobiology help us in our efforts to live a life with more serenity, balance, and wellness? Hopefully, you, my reader, will find, quite a lot! At least I feel it has helped me in my journey.

Closely related to this, believe it or not, is, how can our Jungian archetypes help us in our journey? If you look through the literature, you never read a Zen master saying anything about archetypes. So, what’s archetypes got to do with Zen? Read on and find out (in the book).

This is a book largely about our subconscious mind—a favorite stomping ground for us therapist types, at least for me. You will read a lot here about our subconscious mind. You can also read that as, subcortical mind. In these wonderful brains of ours, some more wonderful than others, about 95% of the brain is subcortex, meaning below the cortex. They cortex, that wonderful part that makes Homo sapiens think they/we are so brilliant, is only a thin layer, maybe a few millimeters deep, on the outside of the brain, only about 5% of the brains total mass. But wait, there’s more…

We have at least three other “brains” in our body. Let’s change terms here, you know, get more technical, let us switch to talking about nervous systems instead brains. It used to be the nervous system was divided up into two basic parts: the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS). Things have gotten a lot more complicated over the last couple of decades. We now know that we have at least two other nervous systems, the heart has its own nervous system with its own memory capabilities, and then there is the gut’s nervous system, the Enteric Nervous System. The latter two are more of neural networks. There are also indications that the kidneys may have their own neural network system, also with memory capability. If these, why not the liver, spleen, lungs, etc. What about muscle memory. Whew, this is getting complicated.

It is why we really have to talk the BODYMIND or MINDBODY. It is the whole shebang. The body works as a unified whole. You have to talk about all of it to really understand the big picture. Afterall, Mother Nature, aka Natural Selection, has had over 4.5 billion years to fine tune this sucker. So, that’s kinda, sorta, where we are heading in all of this. Of course, I never really know where I’m headed till I get there. Sometimes I get lost; sometimes I wander around a little (or maybe that’s “wonder” around); sometimes I’m just befuddled. Eventually I get there though, so hang with me.

Also, before we go any farther, let us be sure as exactly what I mean by the word, “spiritual.” Spirituality, as I am using it here, is about cultivating inner-peace and personal growth. It is not about worshiping some supernatural being. In heart and mind, I am a Religious Naturalist through and through. There is nothing that is beyond Nature. Nature is all there is. Zen Buddhism is my spiritual practice, not my religion.

That said, I will start my story here with three dreams, three Zen-type personal koans if you will, and a shamanic-type journey to visit my/Bandido’s dragon, Chaos. Koans are Zen stories or puzzles that do not have logical solutions. They have intuitive, right brain solutions. They were created to help students of Zen gain a deeper understanding of ultimate reality, what Buddhist would call the Void, Emptiness, or Buddha Mind. What Taoist and Zen would also call, the Tao. That’s a pretty heavy discussion all in it itself. We’ll save it for later.

These three dreams occurred just as I was getting heavier back into Zen recently, after seven or so years of not doing sesshins. The first during my first sesshin, a two-day sesshin modified for accommodating the COVID-19 virus pandemic. Not your usual grind-you-in-the-ground Zen sesshin of spending long, hard hours (for me) in the Zendo frozen in sitting meditation. For this sesshin, we were in individual rooms and connected via Zoom. By the way, sesshins are intense meditation retreats in which you spend nine or so hours a day sitting in still meditation, called zazen. More on this later too.

These three dreams and the shamanic journey offer a very personal peak at my struggles in my own journey but that are typical of the kind of stuff that comes up when you do this type of work on yourself—deep inner work. It is really very much about subconscious shit. It is my hope that from my struggles, you, the reader, will gain help for your own journey.

All this said, let our journey begin…(Stay tuned)