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Ancient Egyptian Thoughts & the Brain

Many impediments face us modern people who wish to gain a correct (if incomplete) understanding of the thought of the Ancient Egyptians (AEs). The greatest of these is our own consciousness. Our consciousness is not merely different from that of the AEs, it is diametrically opposed to the consciousness of those philosopher-scientist-priests whose enigmatic teachings we wish to comprehend. The gap is so profound, the rift so broad and the unwillingness of our own consciousness so pervasive that few brave the pounding seas of a consciousness in transition in the uncertain hope of reaching safe harbor in new, uncharted mental lands and processes. Yet nothing less is necessary.

Very few of us are exempt from this circumstance. And, ironically, it frequently falls upon those who become our scientists to be the most influenced: they are more fully educated in the current worldview and are required to gain detailed information about some aspect of the natural world they then hope to study impartially. In short, we are all, but they even more so, herded—or at least guided along a path trod by nearly everyone in the same society.

Astute readers will recognize the above process as the development and maintenance of a paradigm. Such a culturally accepted, basically unexamined collection of attitudes and notions, ascribed to collectively by a society, limits the range and variety of thinking acceptable within it. Societies do not want to question themselves any more than do individuals.

So it should not surprise us that a well-educated, diligent, prudent and dedicated neuroscientist (who was my teacher and whom I highly respect) would write in a journal, “The Egyptians reached the nadir of concern for the brain. Compulsively punctilious in care for the immortal soul and its future accouterment, their god-kings (12), bejeweled and entombed in gold, withered phallus erect, viscera embalmed with careful prayer, set off for the journey to the Nile of the sky with their brains discarded heedlessly like a shameful vomit on the sand.” An eloquent, metaphorically rich condemnation, based upon the accepted views of the British and the University of Chicago Egyptologists.

Another neuroscientist of note, tracing brain research’s history, wrote, “We know that the Egyptians thought that the heart was the most important organ in the body, the seat of the mind, and the center of intellectual activities.” Here again, a superficial understanding also founded upon the work of current Egyptologists, who are members of the same societal paradigm but not the same scientific discipline.

How could it occur that members of a scientific discipline can so readily accept such an idea, that these ancient thinkers, whose writings and works have occupied intelligent, inquisitive people, literally, for thousands of years, could err so egregiously about the location of their own mental activities? Has not every adult thought the mind to be “in” the head and that in some way the brain is associated with it?

Interestingly, the direct, uncomplicated answer to the first question makes clear the constriction in mental operations that initially led to the misconceptions: the AE teachings state clearly that human nature consists of two intelligences, not one. The one, commonly used and presumed by most to be the only one, they termed the “cerebral intelligence.” (CI) The other one, caused to wither and recede by improper education, disuse, indoctrination and social-paradigm-transmittal, they called the Intelligence of the Heart. (IH) Associated with each intelligence is a consciousness that, we may say, emerges from it. These are two consciousnesses that oppose one another. According to AE teachings, CI manifests clearly identifiable attributes, as it performs its role in the life of “its” organism that influences the character of its own consciousness.

Firstly, CI consists of the brain and spinal cord, both encased in bone, and called the central nervous system (CNS). Additionally, there is situated alongside the spinal column and inside the body cavity a linear array of nerve fibers that go to (innervate) the organs and glands of the body and regulate its every activity. It’s called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Completing the CI are the peripheral nerves that innervate the body musculature, the joints and the skin. Where precision is necessary, nerve endings are more numerous. Every aspect of body physiology can be modulated.

The CNS may aptly be described as three, rather than one brain. The term, “reptilian” brain, used by some writers to name the lowest brain, results in a confusing as well as incorrect emphasis. The AEs referred to it as the “automatic” brain and G. I. Gurdjieff labeled it the “moving-instinctive” brain, which is apt and accurate. In it, the lowest part of the brain and the entire spinal cord, genetically transmitted, are all the basic body movements native to a species, the intrinsic reactions to internal and external stimuli of every kind. There are hundreds of reflexes in humans, many involving only the spinal cord. Instinctive behavior patterns are built up from them and, as reflexes, are automatic.

The goal of this lowest brain is to produce and maintain a feeling of “physical well-being,” which is generated by structures in the feeling brain. That feeling we’ve all seen manifested in the comfortable, satisfied face of a warm infant, puppy or kitten. This feeling is of a lesser nature than, for instance, what one may feel when one’s close friend succeeds at a difficult task.

The organism’s needs, not merely for food, water, warmth and so on, but also for activity, satisfactory stimulation, play, and interaction are made known to the brain by its peripheral nervous system. That system conveys deficits and surfeits to the brain, which acts according to the natural appetites that motivate the organism.

The third and uppermost brain consists of the cerebral cortex, the gray matter (neuron cell bodies) that covers all the rest of the brain. It may properly be called the “thinking” brain. However, it is this brain that acquires and maintains all the restrictions, indoctrinations, attitudes and psychological limits that, in toto, comprise the societal paradigm as well as the individual barriers to the higher consciousness the AEs said was available and proper to humans.

The entire CNS and especially this portion of it is dedicated to maintaining a status quo, established in the daily process of growing up. That is, it is a habit-forming machine of exceptional breadth, effectiveness and durability. This is the consciousness that emerges from CI. According to AE thought, we all have this individual “prison,” comprised of the particular influences in our own lives plus the societal ones, from which we must escape as an early step toward full humanhood. This, by the way, is a prodigious task, not free of pain: CI does not relinquish control willingly.

The thinking brain is also the manifesting agent of a person’s many egos. We have a different ego for each of the roles we play: the husband, father, worker, sportsman, worshiper, friend, writer, hobbyist and so on. So many egos, say the AEs, do not know one another and will behave quite differently. Our egos and the ego-based consciousness of CI do not experience reality directly and cannot reproduce it correctly. This state of ordinary humanity is, again, inimical to complete human consciousness and we must strive to transcend it in ourselves, the AEs taught.

The AEs symbolized the final result of this effort, i.e. one who had perfected oneself to the point that his or her ego had been placed in abeyance, subservient to the Intelligence of the Heart. The symbol is the diadem (e.g., Tutankhamun’s) that visually “cuts off” the crown of the wearer’s skull. Early Christian statues and paintings exist depicting this state. One of these is Nicodemus, his bent arms extended forward from the elbow, holding the crown of his skull in his hands.

According to AE thought, the body with its brain constitutes “animal man” or the “automaton.” Gurdjieff used the term “machine.” This automaton has its uniqueness, its personality, just as does a pet cat or even a gerbil. The automaton thinks (although it doesn’t properly reason), is affected by a broad range of emotional states, enjoys or dislikes things. It behaves by producing reactions to stimuli arising from without or within and is generally powerless to resist these. Its currency is these sensations that automatically produce a reaction. Some may find the thought offensive, but humans as automatons are, really, inferior to animals, which are as they ought to be. Neither is aware of itself, neither “reflects on things” and both are controlled by their respective CIs, which is inappropriate for humanity. Few of us would accept the term automaton as descriptive of ourselves.

It is of interest to point out and important to realize so as to appreciate the AE teachings, that nothing of man-as-automaton survives bodily death. No rising of the body from the grave occurs, nor a reunion of it with anything. This is not to say that some aspect of a person may not survive this death: it may. On the other hand, that which may survive and that which does survive bodily death are not what in Christianity and other religions of this era referred to as the “soul.” But that subject cannot now be discussed.

The AEs ascribed many attributes to CI. However, because we think by means of it and our egos are offended when we hear (or read) them, we may dispute these characteristics or reject them as untrue. That this would occur is foretold within the AE framework: true knowledge, they said, can be gained only individually and comes at a price that few are willing to pay. Consider.

The automaton is unaware of its indoctrination and conditioning. Indoctrinated into a “consume beyond your means” attitude, Americans owe an average of $8000/household in credit card debt; many take 30-yr. mortgages for 95% of a house’s value and thousands buy cars on six-year loans. These are not practices followed in countries worldwide and are anathema in countries such as Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and others where prudence is a societal value.

Exposed to a negative emotional atmosphere in childhood, an individual’s CI becomes used to it. Despite the unpleasant consequences, such a person can easily live the rest of his or her life in this negative emotional cloud: unconscious, i.e., conditioned suffering is a resistant habit acquired by one’s CI. After all, if therapeutic progress were easily made, the many thousands of therapists would have no work. Most people think they are normal and “choose” not to confront their automaton.

Raised in a society where insects are feared and loathed, a person will not ordinarily eat one. But offer some money (as in the Fear Factor program) and some people will voluntarily overcome their disgust. Most prohibitions in a societal paradigm are more important but no more rational than that one.

A great many people are highly sentimental, even maudlin about some (but not all) animals. But the AEs taught that this apprehension is misplaced: nature has no concern for any individual living creature. Isha Schwaller de Lubicz stated it thusly: “Sentimentality is the result of a spurious relationship with nature.”

The CI of people who grow up in an atmosphere of haste, continual background sound or noise, excess stimulation, ubiquitous anxiety, meaningless jabber on endlessly ringing cell phones requires that in adulthood. In fact, ever-increasing degrees of it will be required to satisfy the CI’s insatiable appetite and they’ll become increasingly anxious without it. This is the age of anxiety, and CI produces anxiety, both directly and indirectly. To see unadulterated anxiety, watch a chipmunk or a squirrel.

Another CI attribute is its inertia and fundamental indigence. This leads to mediocrity and a relentless deterioration of individual competence and societal values. The AEs, the Schwaller de Lubicz’s and Gurdjieff, too, used the term “involution” to describe this phenomenon, which Michael Cremo recently has called “devolution.” This explains why people today are less literate than they were 50 years ago, why children aren’t taught to write (vs. print), why fewer and fewer can calculate in their “heads” and why students at every level learn less than in earlier generations, and come to think that education is simply the accumulation of information. It clarifies the “materialization” of our language, where everything is considered to be an “amount” and ideas and processes increasingly referred to as “things.”

The rise of mundane and merely utilitarian speech and the growing ignorance by the entire populace of the rules of grammar of our own language is such that grammatically correct speech and the subtleties it makes possible has become a rarity. And this lethargy of the CI makes understandable the rampant loss of descriptive vocabulary in which many words (e.g., “graph, bar-graph, figure, table”) are all replaced by one inaccurate term (e.g., “chart”) or the increasing misuse of words, some with especially important meanings (e.g., “myth,” now used as incorrect idea, lie or misconstrued statement.)

This brief enumeration of CI attributes and examples demonstrates that the AEs understood the lower nature of humanity. But a final characteristic and worldwide example justifies mention.

CI lacks an appreciation of the complexity, the interrelatedness and the subtlety of the natural world in which we live. We do not realize the impact of our activities upon it. It may be demonstrated, easily, that modern humanity has despoiled the earth to an incomprehensible degree, making it less hospitable to all forms of life. The ecological damage has become so pervasive, that in our own belated estimation, we now threaten our own survival.

In truth, if the AE teachings are valid (and the evidence supports that they are), then we need to gain an understanding of the problem. (As Dr. Phil often correctly opines, “You can’t fix a problem you don’t admit.”) We need to work to understand the automaton in ourselves and begin to modify its behavior.

Each of us is empowered to engage in the struggle to become aware of the automaton within us by the presence in ourselves of the other human intelligence, the Intelligence of the Heart. Once the automaton is known, we can begin to become humans in a fuller sense by reducing reliance on acquired habits that do not serve our long-term best interest.

This is a process that requires time, diligence, courage, resolve and some luck. Courage, resolve and diligence are spiritual qualities, not of the automaton. Where they are manifest, assistance will come. This, too, is an AE teaching.

Ancient Mysteries

March/April 2005 – #50