I believe that meditation and other related contemplative techniques, including the use of seer stones, can help us become aware of the Divine and enter God’s Presence. This post introduces some concepts from psychology and neurobiology which might begin to help explain how this happens.
Semantic satiation and reactive inhibition
The title is a mouthful, but I think it will become more clear by watching this short SciShow Psych video:
Basically, semantic satiation is when a word is repeated often enough over and over that it begins to lose meaning. I’m sure many of us have experienced this phenomenon in daily life (fork, fork, fork, fork, fork, fork, fork…). The nodes of neurons in our brains that process the word become fatigued by firing over and over again in the same way, making it harder and harder to derive meaning from the word. When those particular neural nodes become tired and inhibited from firing, this is known as reactive inhibition.
Many may immediately notice a connection to the practice of mantra meditation (also known in Christianity as “centering prayer” or “contemplative prayer”), or any kind of meditation that uses a word or phrase repeatedly, spoken aloud or silently in the mind. After some time, the mantra seems to diminish, or change in meaning. It becomes more abstract and fuzzy, or different meaning might become attached to it. It may eventually drop away entirely from consciousness, leaving one with a “silent mind.”
Deepak Chopra, a well-known spiritual teacher, once described this:
As you repeat the mantra, it creates a mental vibration that allows the mind to experience deeper levels of awareness. As you meditate, the mantra becomes increasingly abstract and indistinct, until you’re finally led into the field of pure consciousness from which the vibration arose. Repetition of the mantra helps you disconnect from the thoughts filling your mind so that perhaps you may slip into the gap between thoughts. The mantra is a tool to support your meditation practice. Mantras can be viewed as ancient power words with subtle intentions that help us connect to spirit, the source of everything in the universe.
(Source: Xaric, “Connecting the Dots. Mantra Meditation and Semantic Satiation,” Mindful Mind.)
Mantra meditation is only one form of repetitive meditation. In fact, all forms of meditation or contemplation seem to include some kind of repetition, which may trigger the same neural satiation and inhibition. These forms include:
- Breath Meditation – focusing on one’s own breath inhalations and exhalations over and over and more closely (sometimes known as mindfulness, vipassana, or insight meditation)
- Chanting and Singing – repetition of words through sung vocalizations
- Yoga, Tai Chi, Martial Arts and other body postures – repeated and highly specific body postures and actions
- Gestures – repeated actions with the hands, arms, and fingers (e.g. Mudras)
- Dancing – repeated body movements (e.g. Whirling Dervishes in the mystical orders of Islamic Sufism. See also my paper on circular spiritual dance: “The Genesis of the Round Dance.”)
Repeated sights or seeing can also have the same effect. This might be of particular interest in my Mormon tradition, because of the early Mormon use of seer stones. The Prophet Joseph Smith is known to have used several seer stones, and one in particular that he used while “translating” the Book of Mormon. An 1831 article in the Palmyra Reflector notes how these seer stones were often used:
‘Peep stones’ or pebbles, taken promiscuously from the brook or field, were placed in a hat or other situation excluded from light, when some wizard or witch (for these performances were not confined to either sex) applied their eyes, and nearly starting [staring?] their [eye] balls from their sockets, declared they saw all the wonders of nature, including of course, ample stores of silver and gold.
(Source: “Palmyra Reflector, 1 February 1831,” in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, 5 vols., (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books), 2:243. Bracketing by Vogel. Emphasis is my own.)
One interesting detail here that I’ve highlighted here is that the seers would seemingly stare intensely at their stone while it was in the bottom of the hat. Staring at the stone could be called a kind of repeated visual seeing, looking without distraction.
In the 1826 “Glass Looking” Trial, it is further recorded how using the seer stone affected Joseph:
“…he had occasionally been in the habit of looking through this stone to find lost property for three years, but of late had pretty much given it up on account its injuring his health, especially his eyes – made them sore.”
It seems that such repeated visual staring at the stone could make Joseph’s eyes sore. As anyone who has tried staring at anything for a long time may know, your eyes can get fatigued, dry, worn out, tired, blood-shot, etc. Again, this seems to indicate lengthy staring at the stone.
A repeated visual field seems to be able to induce the same satiation and inhibition as a repeated mantra. One commentator on this effect notes:
This applies to our sight as well. If you keep staring at an object for several seconds, without blinking or moving your eyes at all, your sense of sight gets altered. Your peripheral vision starts to get blurry, then the item that you are focused on gets blurry too. Should you be focused and still enough, you will probably get to a point that you won’t be able to see anything while having your eyes open (until you blink or move your eyes, don’t worry you won’t go blind permanently). I have achieved this a few times but it is really hard and it takes a lot of effort and concentration.
(Source: Xaric, “Connecting the Dots. Mantra Meditation and Semantic Satiation,” Mindful Mind.)
I too have done this, using my seer stones as well as simply staring at a fixed point out in a room, on a wall (perhaps similar to zazen in Zen meditation), or anywhere in front of me. Any kind of “meditation object” will do. If one keeps their eyes mostly motionless, and tries not to blink, eventually the entire visual field will start to go gray, starting at the edges of one’s vision, and closing in on the center point of focus, almost like a tunnel. Eventually the center of focus might also disappear entirely from consciousness, and the mind may begin to insert its own images or “visions” into the void of consciousness.
Other scientific approaches
An article published in the 2013 journal Frontiers in Psychology by Bernard J. Baars studied this effect and other similar ones which contemplative spiritual traditions throughout history have used to try to achieve “silent consciousness.” The article is called “A scientific approach to silent consciousness,” and is quite fascinating. “Silent consciousness” is noted as a state of consciousness without content, sometimes also called “pure consciousness.” Such consciousness is often the goal of many contemplative traditions and practices. It is noted that this kind of consciousness might always exist in the background, but is often overrun by our thoughts that run continually through our mind that overshadow it. These repeated thought or action practices can cause such thoughts to diminish or fall away entirely, revealing pure consciousness underneath. The article notes that such awareness of pure consciousness is “often interpreted in ontological terms as a direct knowledge of metaphysical reality.” We’ll return to that thought later on.
There are two other effects noted in the article that may have come into play in the use of seer stones, specifically why the stones may have been put in the bottom of a hat. The first is a featureless visual field, also known as a ganzfeld. Such a visual field lacks “spatial or temporal contrast.” Staring into the bottom of a hat, with the surrounding light being blocked out, could have become very dark and featureless. The article notes:
Many neurons in the visual system are contrast-sensitive, and these cells may drop down to baseline rates of firing. Visual brightness and hue therefore tend to disappear during ganzfeld “blank-outs,” while consciousness continues.
The ganzfeld effect is noted on Wikipedia to cause “hallucinations,” or what we might better call “visions.” Because of the perceptual deprivation, the mind begins to insert images of its own creation, or from memory, into conscious awareness.
The effect is the result of the brain amplifying neural noise in order to look for the missing visual signals. The noise is interpreted in the higher visual cortex, and gives rise to hallucinations… in addition to an altered state of consciousness…
Hallucinations caused by sensory deprivation can, like ganzfeld-induced hallucinations, turn into complex scenes…
Wikipedia also notes how this effect can be traced back to ancient times:
The adepts of Pythagoras retreated to pitch-black caves to receive wisdom through their visions, known as the prisoner’s cinema. Miners trapped by accidents in mines frequently reported hallucinations, visions and seeing ghosts when they were in the pitch dark for days. Arctic explorers seeing nothing but featureless landscape of white snow for a long time also reported hallucinations and an altered state of mind.
The same visionary effect I have heard reported from prisoners in solitary confinement, or the visions that people can experience on “dark retreats.”
It seems to be a similar process that happens when one looks at clouds in the sky, and sees patterns, figures, faces, objects, etc. Where there is no discernible features in our visual field our mind looks for signals in the noise, and brings thoughts and other images into our consciousness that are not actually present in the external scene.
The other effect mentioned in the Frontiers article is called “near-threshold attending.” Some practices focus on “barely perceivable events.” This could help subjects “become more attuned to silent consciousness.” With a stone placed in the bottom of a hat, with little light entering the hat to illumine it, the stone would have become barely perceptible, forcing the seer to focus more intensely to try to perceive it, which again, may help to quiet other thoughts in the mind and lead to pure consciousness.
Another related effect is called “closed-eye visualizations” (CEV), which may also be familiar to meditators, who usually meditate while their eyes are closed. It may also be applicable to the use of a seer stone because of the dark environment of the hat. These are noted on Wikipedia as “types of hallucinations [that] generally only occur when one’s eyes are closed or when one is in a darkened room.” A level 4 CEV is described as perceiving “objects and things”:
This is a fairly deep state. At this level, thoughts visually manifest as objects or environments. When this level is reached, the CEV noise seems to calm down and fade away, leaving behind an intense flat ordered blackness. The visual field becomes a sort of active space. A side component of this is the ability to feel motion when the eyes are closed.
Opening the eyes returns one to the normal physical world, but still with the CEV object field overlaid onto it and present. In this state it is possible to see things that appear to be physical objects in the open-eye physical world, but that aren’t really there.
An even deeper level is described where “perceptions and think-it/feel-it perceptions become stronger than physical perceptions, and completely override and replace open-eye physical perceptions.”
What about God?
This is all to say that a combination of semantic satiation and reactive inhibition, the ganzfeld effect, near-threshold attending, and closed-eye visualizations, as well as other psychological influences, may take place in meditation and other contemplative practices, and may have been part of how Joseph used the seer stone in “translating” the Book of Mormon.
Some readers might be asking, “but what does this have to do with God?”
It seems to me that all these practices and influences essentially quiet the mind. In “silent consciousness” or “pure consciousness,” one’s mind is open and receptive to new thoughts and understanding. These new insights may bubble up from deeper in the subconscious mind into consciousness, or from the right holistic/creative hemisphere of the brain which seems to be normally dominated and overshadowed by the left analytical/logical/linguistic hemisphere. Extremely novel creative imaginative ideas, complex scenes, peoples and environments might spring up into consciousness as a result, which may be our deeper mind trying to communicate with us important information or truths it has perceived but may have been suppressed. In this state of consciousness we might be able to “hear” what we might call the “still small voice,” or “voice of the Spirit,” receive insights or revelations from seemingly out of nowhere, and we may be able to “see” (seer) the “visions of God,” or images from our deeper Self. These seem to emerge from the deeper recesses of our mind when consciousness is open and free of thoughts.
At times, through certain contemplative practices or other influences, the thoughts that usually run rampant through our mind, what we might call our ego, or our normal sense of “self,” become greatly diminished or may disappear entirely. Those nodes that normally process our sense of self, or self-perception, get fatigued and inhibited. This may happen particularly when one is focused or concentrated on one’s self in some way, as in vipassana meditation where one’s own breath is the focus, or one is trying to become aware of the “witness” or “observer” in consciousness, or trying to become conscious of a “self.” When the focus on self becomes satiated in the neural nodes and networks of the brain, then that sense of “self” might be reduced, inhibited, or altogether disappear from consciousness. This, I believe, is what some religions call the experience of “no self,” “ego death,” “ultimate sacrifice,” “surrender,” or “submission.” Our sense of “I” is gone.
There is no longer even a “me” or “self” in consciousness, and yet I am still conscious, alert, and aware. Without our own sense of self, or self-awareness, we become aware of all things as part of our identity. The boundaries of the self, our body, are inhibited in the brain, and so one sees one’s self as encompassing all things in the entire universe. There is no boundary of self. There is no limit. One sees that they are Infinite, without Beginning or End. There is no separation between self and other, subject and object collapse into one, and one identify’s Self with all things that ever have been or ever will be. The experience of “you are that!” (Tat Tvam Asi), as some traditions call it, becomes one’s reality. Without the brain generating the boundaries of a “self,” you experience Oneness with all things. They are all “You.” It is all of One Essence, including your consciousness and awareness.
Some people might think that this is a delusional state of mind, diseased, sick, mentally ill, imbalanced, disordered, or deficient. “If my brain is not functioning normally, including my sense of self,” they might say, “then it is a worthless state.” But I would very much disagree. Spiritual traditions, religions, and even many wise secular people, from all around the world and throughout history, have reverenced these insights and states of mind as the very pinnacle of human attainment and knowledge, perhaps being the best representation of reality the human mind is capable of perceiving, and have even called them salvation, liberation, enlightenment, and awakening. All the delusions, errors, sins, blindness, problems, suffering, lies, and fears associated with our old sense of “self” are gone. There is a conscious “remission of sins,” as one sees all things as Perfect, including one’s Self as all things. All things are perceived as Pure, Holy, Sacred, Complete, and Whole.
As stated earlier, it may be the very goal of many religious and spiritual traditions to achieve it, and have a “direct knowledge of metaphysical reality.” Without the egoic “self” standing in the way of things in one’s consciousness, rushing thoughts constantly through the mind about one’s own life and experience and “worldly” knowledge, one may be able to finally see clearly the world around them, the life that ebbs and flows through all things, how all things are deeply interconnected, and even see reality as it is without the usual filters of the mind. This reality that one perceives, and the remarkable insights that come into one’s mind because of it, is what many traditions might refer to as “God.” Others might call it the Divine, Reality, Life, the Universe, Natural Law, the Ultimate, the Transcendent, etc. And we witness that we are One with It all.
This has been an introduction to the psychology, neurobiology, and science that may underpin revelatory and visionary states of consciousness, even Divine states of consciousness, perhaps even the experience of salvation and enlightenment itself. I have many more thoughts along these lines that I will continue to share.
If you have comments, thoughts, questions, ideas, suggestions, or insights about these things, please share them in the comments below or on Facebook.