Hermeneutic Neurophenomenology in the Science-Religion Dialogue: Analysis of States of Consciousness in the Zohar
1. Neurophenomenology and Hermeneutics
[E]xegesis, as understood by the world’s mystical communities, by the world’s mystical personalities, is a way of learning theurgical practices that can influence God or the Ultimate; a primary form, a main channel, of mystical ascent; a basic source of spiritual energy; a performative mystical act with salient experiential—transformational—consequences; a way of defining one’s mystical path; and a way to meet and interact with God or the Ultimates(s)., p. 57. Italics added
“O God, You are my God, I search for You [ashaḥareka]” (Psalm 63:2) … I will enhance the light that shines at dawn [be-shaḥaruta], for the light that abides at dawn does not shine until enhanced below. And whoever enhances this dawn light, although it is black, attains a shining white light; and this is the light of the speculum that shines. Such a person attains the world that is coming.This is the mystery of the verse “and those who seek Me [u-meshaḥarai] will find Me” (Proverbs 8:17); U-meshaḥarai—those who enhance the black light (meshaḥara) of dawn.
This passage outlines the nature and process of the mystical path. The maskil, wise of heart, “arrays” [cf. “enhances”] the black light of dawn, and in so doing ascends to the state of consciousness known as the “speculum that does not shine”—the dimension of the sefirah Malkhut. Working within this dimension he attains and ascends to a higher level—the “speculum that shines”, the symbol of the sefirah Tiferet., p. 84
2. Mystical States of Consciousness as Conveyed by the Zohar
This is the light of the sun, the light of Torah, the King seated on His throne, the truth, the light of day, the center, the heart, the center bar [of the Tabernacle] running from end to end, the firmament, and the radiant light like which the enlightened wish to shine. Generally speaking, this light is associated with stability and majesty., p. 269
3. Cognitive Neuroscience and States of Consciousness Depicted in the Zohar
3.1. Hermeneutic Neurophenomenology in the Modelling of Mind
- The first step is to clarify some of the key characteristics of the normal sate of consciousness and the neurocognitive processes that are thought to correlate with them.
- Following this I shall consider the ways in which the features of mystical states as portrayed in the Zohar suggest how these key characteristics, and their neural correlates, may become altered.
- Finally, I shall develop a model of the states of consciousness which incorporates material from the above two steps. This final step in the argument is intended to demonstrate the value for cognitive neuroscience of incorporating insights form mysticism more generally. These insights can enrich our scientific models, and perhaps suggest new avenues of enquiry.
3.2. The Normal State of Consciousness
3.3. States of Consciousness in the Zohar and Neurocognitive Processes
3.4. Towards a Model of States of Consciousness
Normal state of consciousness
Altered state of consciousness
Conflicts of Interest
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- 1Details of the Mind and Life Institute and of their programs of research can be found on their website .
- 2Wolfson is writing here about the mystical experience of light, and therefore his interest lies with visionary experience. The point stands that more generally for the Jewish mystic, hermeneutics is intertwined with all forms of mystical experience
- 3It is worth noting in this context that the kabbalistic understanding of correspondence and isomorphism between different levels in the created hierarchy is in line with recent developments in dynamic neuroscience. Fingelkurts, Fingelkurts, and Neves have argued that phenomenal architecture of a mind and operational architectonics of the brain are intimately connected within a single integrated metastable continuum through functional isomorphism .
- 4The term “preconscious” is problematic inasmuch as these early processes are deemed to be imbued with certain dimensions of consciousness (see Section 3.3 below). To be more precise, they are pre- the normal state of consciousness to the extent that the normal state is dominated by the end stage of perceptual activity through which the I-narrative is generated. Issues of terminology in the study of consciousness are fraught with inconsistency, and my approach to identifying the different dimensions of consciousness in terms of operationalized processes in perception is intended to overcome at least some of the inconsistencies.
- 5There has been some debate in the scholarly literature on Jewish mysticism as to whether the approach of the fraternity of the Zohar was more theosophical-theurgic compared with other approaches that emphasized use of ecstatic practices . The exegetical orientation of the Zohar is indeed primarily theosophical—meaning that its interest lies in the structure of the divine world—and theurgic—implying that it encourages ritual practices to bring about harmony within that world and between the divine and human realms. However, it is unlikely that those responsible for its authorship had no experience of ecstatic practices. On the contrary, it is likely that a common core lies within the theosophical-theurgic Kabbalah of the Zohar and the so-called ecstatic Kabbalah that focuses on techniques for attaining higher, individual states. As Wolfson notes, the view that polarizes these two strands “fails to take seriously the many shared doctrines that may be traced to a common wellspring of esoteric tradition with much older roots” (, p. 85 n7). The intense intermingling of these strands in the Zohar is summed up by Hellner-Eshed: “In zoharic mysticism, theurgic ends serve as the vehicle for ecstatic experiences, while the ecstatic quest and the ecstatic experience serve theurgic ends” , p. 316).
- 6In using this phrase “deviations from the normal” I do not intend to convey any implication that the mystical states are not progressive or beneficial to the practitioner. It is simply that their potential value in the context I am examining here arises to the extent that they are deviations from the normal state of consciousness.
- 7This position, of course, begs the question concerning possible contentless consciousness. Whether or not such experience can be taken at face value, the NSoC is clearly identified not only by its focus on egocentricity (the I-narrative) but also by its intentionality. If there were to be a contentless state it would certainly not be a NSoC.
- 8In terms of classical classifications of spiritual and mystical practices, this formulation corresponds to the distinction between apophatic and kataphatic practices. Attenuation of processes involved in the I-narrative comes about through apophatic meditation directed towards stilling the mind, and augmentation of earlier processes entails kataphatic practices such as visualizations in which disciplined exploration of associations is encouraged.
- 9Throughout its history until recent times, the Kabbalah was very much a male preserve. The erotic storyline of the male kabbalist’s encounter with the Shekhinah forms one of the Zohar’s primary themes. To the extent that women in our day are increasingly entering into the world of the Kabbalah, this storyline is evolving. The psychological impact of this development is the subject for a future study. Here, my interest is focused on the states of consciousness in the male psyche, since this is the extent of the Zohar’s worldview.
- 10In my own case I might take this a stage further: My engagement with rabbinic hermeneutics and kabbalistic practices was instrumental in enabling me to incorporate research data from cognitive neuroscience into my formulation of the model presented over these pages and in my other works on this topic.
- 11As indicated earlier in my examination of the fit between the Zohar’s scheme and that of Underhill, this threefold division of mystical states would seem to be evident beyond the realm of Jewish mysticism. Such a conclusion would clearly lend further support to the neurocognitive model of states of consciousness presented here. However, a full analysis of mystical states across diverse religious systems is beyond the scope of my article.
© 2015 by the author; licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Lancaster, B.L. Hermeneutic Neurophenomenology in the Science-Religion Dialogue: Analysis of States of Consciousness in the Zohar. Religions 2015, 6, 146-171. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel6010146
Lancaster BL. Hermeneutic Neurophenomenology in the Science-Religion Dialogue: Analysis of States of Consciousness in the Zohar. Religions. 2015; 6(1):146-171. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel6010146Chicago/Turabian Style
Lancaster, Brian L. 2015. "Hermeneutic Neurophenomenology in the Science-Religion Dialogue: Analysis of States of Consciousness in the Zohar" Religions 6, no. 1: 146-171. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel6010146