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Meditation and the Brain

Updated on August 4, 2017

The Structure and Neurophenomenology of Spiritual Development:

A Theory of Dialectical, Integrative and Holarchic Hemispheric Relationship

Part 1

by Eric Thompson

In the interest of better understanding how the brain mediates (rather than causes) spiritual development, this essay explores neural processes and their relationship to increasing modes of social integration and personal growth. The intention in doing so is to allow a greater context to emerge in which the first person experience of development can more easily relax and allow a deeper source to come forth, bringing with it larger purpose, meaning and integration.

After first defining spiritual development, this essay introduces developmental psychologist Susanne Cook-Greuter’s model of ego development, and uses this model as a means of investigating the neural correlates of each stage of development. It is theorized that a dialectical, or argumentative, process between right and left modes of perception comprises a vital part of the developmental process, and that this process determines in large measure the level of limbic motivation at any given stage. Left modes of perception are here defined as modes in which left hemispheric processes tend to be more dominant than right hemispheric processes, and right modes of perception, likewise, denote modes in which right hemispheric processes tend to be more dominant. The neural processes by which the transpersonal domain is obfuscated are also theorized, as are those which facilitate both gradual and sudden awakenings. Finally, it is suggested that right hemispheric modes of present-moment awareness, in the highest stages of development, transcend and include left hemispheric modes of discursive thought.

Spiritual Development Defined

Spiritual development can be defined in at least four ways, all of which will be collectively inferred when using the term in this essay. In general, spiritual development refers to: 1) the higher reaches of human development, wherein individuals awaken to inherent transpersonal values (Fuller, 2008, p. 127); 2) one’s general view and experience of God or the universe; 3) the degree to which one feels empathically connected to one’s experienced self, society and the world, and therefore the degree to which one is able to express care and compassion; and 4) the degree to which one is limited to identification with the body and the discursive and conceptual mind as the loci of the self.

The developmental models used in this investigation, drawn from both Eastern and Western sources, tend to agree that development—in its full expression—emerges initially as a fusion state, then moves first toward higher levels of autonomy and individuality, and finally toward greater and more complex levels of social integration. The general direction of movement in these models is such that personal identification evolves from the gross to the subtle, and still further to the very subtle (Wilber, 2000, p. 6). This direction expresses a progressive movement away from fundamental narcissism toward naked, conscious awareness as the ground of being. Susanne Cook-Greuter’s developmental model is a good starting point for this investigation, as it meets the Western emphasis on third-person, scientific validation by way of having been empirically verified in at least 5,000 cross-cultural subjects (Cook-Greuter, 2006).

To be continued . . .


Cook-Greuter, S. (2006). 20th Century Background for Integral Psychology. AQAL: Journal of integral theory and practice, 1(2), 144-184.

Fuller, A. R. (2008). Psychology and Religion: Classical Theorists and Contemporary Developments. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Wilber, K. (2000). Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston: Shambhala.

© Copyright 2009 Eric Thompson

Meditation and the Brain 1/12: Activating the Brain's Compassion Circuits

The Structure and Neurophenomenology of Spiritual Development:

A Theory of Dialectical, Integrative and Holarchic Hemispheric Relationship

Part 2

by Eric Thompson

The Ego

Cook-Greuter’s model (2004), based extensively on the developmental theory of Jane Loevinger, envisions the human ego as potentially progressing through an arc that begins with primary identification with the body, followed by identification with the mind at various levels (e.g., emotionally, and conceptually), and eventual identification with pure consciousness as ultimate context, in which the content of mind, body and cosmos are fully contained.  Her approach to defining and examining the ego revolves around three functions: being, thinking and doing (Cook-Greuter, 2004). 

Being refers to the ego’s immediate experience, level of awareness, perceptual selectivity and emotional intelligence (Cook-Greuter, 2004). The neural correlates of this ego aspect (in a right-handed person) are theorized in this essay to be the same neural processes found in previous studies to mediate affect and awareness, as well as their optimal integration: the left prefrontal lobe (Newberg, 2009, p. 126), middle prefrontal areas (Siegel, 2007, p. 42), right hemisphere (Pinel, 2003, p. 444), anterior cingulate cortex (Newberg, 2009, p. 14) and the amygdale (Pinel, 2003, p. 443). 

Thinking includes cognitive structures which facilitate worldview, narrative interpretations of experience, logic, conceptual thinking and discursive knowledge (Cook-Greuter, 2004). This ego aspect (in a right-handed person) is most likely correlated with neural development in the frontal lobes, especially the prefrontal lobes (Waller, 2007, p. 90) and the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex (Siegel, 2007, p. 45). As such, thinking represents the cognitive framework that organizes all meaning-making and interpretation.

Doing is the operative aspect of the ego, the sense of overarching purpose and need which inform motivation and action (Cook-Greuter, 2004).  The primary neural correlates of this ego function are postulated in this essay to be the limbic system (Waller, 2007, p. 48), the dopamine-cingulate cortex feedback system (Hansen & Mendius, 2009, p. 37-8), and the bliss chemical system, which includes endogenous opioids, oxytocin and norepinephrine (Hansen & Mendius, 2009, p. 38). And because this function is associated with motivation, it is implicitly included in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Fuller, 2008. p. 132). 

Ego Development, Neural Integration and the Resolution of Opposites            

A compelling pattern emerges when these three ego functions are matched with their proposed neural correlates: being/right brain + thinking/left brain = doing/limbic-neurochemical motivation (L-N-M) system activation (see Figure 1). In other words, the degree of neural integration within the evolutionarily recent neocortex influences and tempers the evolutionarily primitive L-N-M system, and therefore behavior, to the same degree. More specifically, this neural integration refers to the degree to which right modes of direct experience and left modes of interpreting those experiences are harmoniously consolidated. The resulting motivation reflects the level of global neural integration (or lack thereof) within the brain. Levels of ego–and, consequently, spiritual—development reflect correlating levels of neural integration (Siegel, 2007, p. 40), and therefore the degree to which one is in harmonious relationship with oneself and others (Siegel, 2007, p. 39).

Figure 1. The Tripartite Neural Configuration of the Ego

In essence, as this essay theorizes, this pattern reflects a dialectic relationship between the right and left cerebral hemispheres and their correlated ego functions (being and thinking, respectively), so that the predominant motivation (i.e., the doing ego function) of each level of ego development represents a resolution of opposites peculiar to the previous level of development. As the present stage of development gives rise to a new value system, the new value system’s apparent opposites—arising from previously unconscious, conditioned thinking—emerge in order to be recognized, gently confronted and consciously resolved (Hawkins, 2006b, p. 337). As the opposites specific to a level of ego development are resolved, identification decreases with that level and increases with the next, higher level (Hawkins, 2006b, p. 337). This essay also theorizes that the L-N-M system then reflects the resolution of those previous opposites via a more complex motivational structure inherent to the new level of development. At this new stage, a new value system and its more subtle set of opposites then arise, with each successive stage exhibiting progressively deeper and more illusive sets of opposites, until eventually all opposites are transcended and dissolved.

Because each level of development represents a distinct and somewhat stable value system, each of which acts as a subtle ordering structure to help guide neural functioning (Schwartz & Allen, 2007), McIntosh (2007) theorizes that each set of values requires its own discomfort-producing antithesis to act as an impetus for incurring movement to the next, more complex level of meaning-making (p. 35). Philosopher Georg Hegel’s (1979) basic premise, in fact, was that the tension arising out of such conflict potentially gives rise to ever higher expressions of life (p. 231-2). Likewise, evidence in the field of nonlinear thermodynamics has revealed that far-from-equilibrium states comprise a vital part of the context out of which more heterogeneous forms of life can emerge (Prigogene, 1984, p. 140). It has also been theorized that, in much the same way that higher states of equilibrium act as attractors toward which order is directed out of chaos (Prigogene, 1984, p. 121-2), higher—more harmonious—stages of development likewise act as attractors toward which turbulent expressions of consciousness evolve (Howard, 2005, p. 448). In this manner, each higher stage of development serves as an attractor which draws or evolves a resolution out of the midst of subjective and neurological conflict. Consciousness itself can be seen as the ultimate attractor with which the mind progressively aligns (Combs, 2002, p. 8), with each stage of alignment representing positions along an evolutionary learning curve (Hawkins, 2001, p. 307-17).

The resulting synthesis of each stage of resolution may imply the growing influence of the right brain (in a right-handed person), since it is the hemisphere predominantly involved in focused attention (Nataraja, 2008, p. 96). Such attention is required for attending to any conflict—without the interference of left mode analysis—and eventually dissolving it via nonverbal, holistic awareness and discernment of the greater context in which the seeming conflict arises (Nataraja, 2008, p. 96). Re-contextualization is the primary route through which such resolution emerges (Hawkins, 2006-a, p. 207), apparently mediated by the cross-modal wiring of the right hemisphere, otherwise lacking in the left hemisphere (Siegel, 2007, p. 45).An increase in right hemispheric dominance has also been linked to the emergence of spiritual endeavor (Hawkins, 2005, p. 62-3), religious experience (Mathew, 2002, p. 11), intuition, present-moment awareness and optimism (Taylor, 2006, p. 18, 146), all of which involve varying degrees of mindfulness. Mindful attention, then, can be seen as an escape from the egocentric pull of ingrained left-mode interpretation and a gateway into right hemispheric, present-moment, holistic awareness (Nataraja, 2008, p. 96).

It has been asserted by various theorists that as many as 66 percent (Fehmi, 2007, p. 131) to 92 percent (Taylor, 2006, p. 28) of humanity operates predominantly in left modes of expression. Cook-Greuter estimates that 85 percent of the world population resides in the conventional levels of development (Cook-Greuter, 2004), which, along with other evidence, would seem to indicate a predominance of left mode meaning-making at those levels. Subsequent sections of this essay will present a more succinct picture of how alternating hemispheric dominance relates to spiritual development; but for now, it is sufficient to theorize that neural integration between the left and right hemispheres of the cerebral cortex in fact embodies the dialectical process comprising spiritual development.

To be continued . . .


Combs, A. (2oo2). The Radiance of Being: Understanding the Grand Integral Vision; Living the Integral Life. St Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Cook-Greuter, S. (2004). 9 levels of increasing embrace. Retrieved from http://www.

Fehmi, L., & Robbins, J. (2007). The Open-Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body. Boston: Trumpeter.

Fuller, A. R. (2008). Psychology and Religion: Classical Theorists and Contemporary Developments. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Hansen, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). The Practical Neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain: Happiness, Love & Wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Hawkins, D. R. (2006a). Discovery of the Presence of God: Devotional Nonduality. Sedona, AZ: Veritas.

Hawkins, D. R. (2001). The Eye of the I: from Which Nothing is Hidden. Sedona, AZ: Veritas.

Hawkins, D. R. (2006b). Transcending the Levels of Consciousness: The Stairway to Enlightenment. Sedona, AZ: Veritas.

Hawkins, D. R. (2005). Truth VS Falsehood: How to Tell the Difference. Toronto: Axial Publishing.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1979). Phenomenology of Spirit (A. V. Miller, Trans.). New York: OxfordUniversity Press.

Howard, L. (2005). Introducing Ken Wilber: Concepts for an Evolving World.

Mathew, R. J. (2002). The True Path: Western Science and the Quest for Yoga. New York: Basic Books.

McIntosh, S. (2007). Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution: How the Integral Worldview is Transforming Politics, Culture and Spirituality. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Nataraja, S. (2008). The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and proof of the power of meditation. London: Hachette.

Newberg, A., & Waldman, M. R. (2009). How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist. New York: Ballantine.

Pinel, J. P. J. (2003). Biopsychology. New York: Pearson.

Prigogene, I., & Stengers, I. (1984). Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature. New York: Bantam.

Schwartz, J., & Allen, S. (2007). Lead Your Brain Instead of Letting It Lead You. The Complete Lawyer, 3(3), 1-6.

Siegel, D. (2007). The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York: W. W. Norton.

Taylor. J. B. (2006). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. New York: Plume.

Waller, M. (2007). Awakening: Exposing the Voice of the Mosaic Mind. Livermore, CA: WingSpan.

© Copyright 2009 Eric Thompson

Meditation and the Brain 2/12: Neurological Differences in Advanced Meditators

The Structure and Neurophenomenology of Spiritual Development:

A Theory of Dialectical, Integrative and Holarchic Hemispheric Relationship

Part 3

by Eric Thompson

Hemispheric Dialectics and the Stages of Development

Reflecting the left-right, alternating and dialectic neurological process previously theorized, Cook-Greuter’s successive stages of development progress along the arc, alternating between individualism and integration (2004). Neurologically speaking, this alternating cycle correlates with left and right modes of expression, respectively. Additionally, this alternation represents a continual cycling between the yang (masculine individualism) and yin (feminine communal orientation) of Taoist philosophy.

The arc of this developmental schema—on the macro level—is such that the first half of the arc represents a primarily knowledge-oriented, linguistically constructed basis for meaning-making, and the second half of the arc represents a gradual increase in intuitive, nonverbal, wisdom-oriented expressions of life (Cook-Greuter, 2004). Right modes of operation have also been associated with the capacity for nonlinear, nondual forms of knowledge (Hawkins, 2008, p. 79). As this essay theorizes, the modes of meaning-making along the first half of the arc exemplify increasing left modes of interpretation and those of the second half represent right modes of being and direct experience (see Figure 2). The first half of the arc experiences life in a dualistic manner, whereas the latter half of the arc epitomizes the progression of more receptive, nondual ways of knowing and being.

Figure 2. A Dialectical Representation of Susanne Cook-Greuter’s Developmental Model

More specifically, the first two or three years of life are dominated by right brain processes (Godwin, 2004, p. 112). As such, this essay asserts that the arc of development begins with right mode dominance, increasing in left mode dominance at the top of the arc, and moving back to right mode integration near the end of the arc, so that left modes of rational thought become situated within the greater context of right modes of supra-rational being (see Figure 3). The schema is such that both the beginning and ending of the arc appear to be very similar, since both levels of development involve a predominance of right mode operation. However, in keeping with Wilber’s (2000) notion of the pre/trans fallacy (p. 245), this essay agrees that the beginning right mode is one of fusion rather than holistic integration. As Godwin (2004) has shown, the nonverbal functioning of the right brain at this stage has no means of labeling and distinguishing between various objects, states and experiences (p. 112), and therefore has no means of recognizing novelty and uniqueness. As a result, all experience is fused together as a heap rather than an integrated whole (Wilber, 2000, p. 280).

This essay further theorizes that, as left modes become increasingly available, they eventually dominate perception, resulting in the growing experience of differentiation and separation. With further development, then, a reemergence of right modes of experience brings with it an awakening to the direct experience of connection, unity and freedom. The phenomenological difference between the so-called end and beginning stages is that, with the end stage, left modes of differentiation, while being situated within the larger context of right mode perception, allow for a simultaneous recognition of the uniqueness of all beings as well as the underlying unity out of which they emerge, with the latter recognition comprising one’s deepest sense of reality.

Figure 3. A  Dialectical Representation of Susanne Cook-Greuter’s Developmental Model

Remarkably, Cook-Greuter’s model fits very well with the Vedic psychology of the three gunas—the three qualities of nature: tamas, rajas and sattva. Applying the gunas to Cook-Greuter’s model, the arc clearly begins at tamas—the operating principle of ignorance and inertia (Ghose, 2001, p. 417)—and reaches an apex at rajas—the energizing principle of desire and action (Ghose, 2001, p. 414), with all the stages falling between these two qualities representing various combinations of the two influences. Near the end of the arc rests sattva, the principle of harmony and equilibrium (Ghose, 2001, p. 415). The consecutive stages arising between rajas and sattva represent increasing levels of peace and happiness. And, of course, beyond the three gunas is moksha, utter release from primary identification with the mind and body as the loci of the self (see Figure 4). 

Figure 4. A Gunic Representation of Susanne Cook-Greuter’s Developmental Model

To be continued . . .


Cook-Greuter, S. (2004). 9 levels of increasing embrace. Retrieved from http://www.

Ghose, A. (2001). A Greater Psychology: An Introduction to Sri Aurobindo’s Thought. New York: Putnam.

Godwin, R. (2004). One Cosmos under God: The Unification of Matter, Life, Mind and Spirit. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Hawkins, D. R. (2008). Reality, Spirituality and Modern Man. Toronto: Axial Publishing.

Wilber, K. (2000). Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston: Shambhala.

© Copyright 2009 Eric Thompson

The Structure and Neurophenomenology of Spiritual Development:

A Theory of Dialectical, Integrative and Holarchic Hemispheric Relationship

Part 4

by Eric Thompson


Presocial Symbiotic Beginnings

As the name suggests, this stage implies that all individuals are uniformly embedded in the world when they arrive, undifferentiated from the surrounding world (Cook-Greuter, 2004). Basic survival needs represent the greatest priority at these stages, and therefore correlate mainly with the physiological level of Maslow’s needs hierarchy (Ewen, 2003, p. 220).

Because brain plasticity—and its capacity to be molded by experience—is so dynamic at this stage, development at this point can have lasting effects throughout the lifespan.

Stage 1: Impulsive

Here, the sense of self is rudimentary, and others are seen primarily as a means for getting needs met. As such, others are judged to be good or bad by whether or not they meet these elementary, impulsive needs. Primary identification, at this stage, is with the body, and the primary motivation is the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain (Cook-Greuter, 2004). The predominant brain structures in play include the right hemisphere (Siegel, 2007, p. 45), brain stem and limbic system (Waller, 2007, p. 35). Additionally, because pleasure seeking and the avoidance of pain are strong motivations at this stage, it is reasonable to say that the neur0modulators and neuropeptides associated with pleasure seeking and the avoidance of pain are also in play. These include dopamine, endogenous opioids, oxytocin, norepinephrine and cortisol (Hansen & Mendius, 2009, p. 36-7).

Of all these structures, the amygdale, situated on either side of the limbic system deep within the center of the brain, are easily the most active. And because they share a fast track to the thalamus (Goleman, 1995, p. 18), they mediate the perception of negative information within the brain much faster than positive information (Vaish, et al, 2008). According to Waller, this has the effect of generating negative emotional experiences in response to unmet emotional needs, which then leave their indelible imprint upon the limbic system (Waller, 2007, p.80). These imprints, then, act as attractors (a term used in nonlinear dynamics to denote systemic patterns toward which physical systems tend to evolve), around which the chaotic energy of the limbic system forms, thereby deeply embedding those negative experiences into the L-N-M system’s neural circuitry (Godwin, 2004, p. 112). Furthermore, because the limbic system is almost fully wired by age five (Waller, 2007, p. 35), many years before the higher order cognitive processes of the frontal and prefrontal lobes come online, these imprints play a large role in motivation throughout life, though the emergence of greater awareness in later development—afforded by the increasing influence of the frontal lobes—can facilitate the release of such limitations, paving the way for deeper, more authentic levels of motivation.

At this stage, both the degree to which the primary caregiver is resonantly attuned to the child’s inner state and the degree to which the child feels felt by the caregiver, set the foundation—or the lack thereof—for the kind of neural integration that can facilitate healthy development (Siegel, 2007, p. 39). With the immediacy of the impulses at this stage, the more sublime needs of aesthetics and spiritual meaning are not yet perceived (Ewen, 2003, p. 220).

Stage 2: The Opportunist (Self-Protective)

A defining characteristic of this self-protective stage of development is that the ego is still largely inexperienced at peering deeply into its true motivations (Cook-Greuter, 2004). From this perspective the ego experiences most interpersonal encounters as potential win-lose situations, where only one party can come away truly satisfied from the encounter. As a consequence of this fear-based, dualistic view, the ego views most situations in terms of its own desires and needs, and very little awareness of the other is possible (Cook-Greuter, 2004).

Because socially-oriented prefrontal activity is not yet predominant at this stage, the L-N-M and endocrine gland systems are leading the show (Waller, 2007, p. 35), which means that self-serving opportunism, backed by the energy of rajas, is the order of the day. While this stage exhibits a new awareness of others as having their own desires, it is also the beginning of seeing the world as separate from oneself. At this juncture, the parietal lobes, which together mediate the experience of a self/other boundary separated by space (Nataraja, 2008, p. 85), are mediating the first emergence of social awareness.


Cook-Greuter estimates that 80% of the global adult population falls within the range of the conventional stages of development, the majority of which tend to shift from the Expert stage to the Conscientious stage (Cook-Greuter, 2004). At this point, the next three need-levels of Maslow’s hierarchy begin to surface: safety, belonging and esteem (Ewen, 2003, p. 220-2).  

Stage 3: The Diplomat (Conformist)

The need for social acceptance and approval becomes apparent here, along with a tendency toward the shunning of anyone who does not belong to one’s family, social group or nation. Correlating with both safety needs and belonging needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, the Diplomat introjects cultural expectations and conforms to them, in order to optimize safety and belongingness at the expense of authentic autonomy and self expression (Cook-Greuter, 2004).

The abilities to look at oneself and prefer socially desirable behavior imply the emergence of activity in both the prefrontal lobes, which mediate introspection (Goldberg, et al, 2006), as well as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is involved in social behavior (Pujol, et al, 2002), though these activations are still inchoate.

Stage 4: The Expert (Self-Conscious)

Introspection begins to become more pronounced here, though still to only an elementary degree. The left hemisphere now begins to mediate higher levels of both rationality and individuality, bringing with it a need to distinguish oneself from family members. Abstract concepts start to appear, along with judgments about whether or not others meet personal standards. Maslow’s esteem needs begin to come into play here, as the ego can now start to declare the needs it once repressed (Cook-Greuter, 2004).    

Stage 5: The Achiever (Conscientious)

As the full ego-equivalent of Maslow’s esteem-needs level of motivation, the Achiever stage of development sets goals, makes plans, expects results, and prefers as friends those who hold similar values. Rationality—mediated, no doubt, by increased prefrontal and left modes of functioning—is considered to be the highest form of expression here, and most of reality is seen in terms of linear causality, with a ‘this’ causing a ‘that.’ With a strong belief in scientific objectivity, the Achiever stage views empirical science as the ultimate path to truth (Cook-Greuter, 2004).


With the emergence of the postconventional stages, the ego is now becoming progressively able to integrate multiple perspectives into a systemic frame of reference, in which the self is experienced as a part of a bigger whole (Cook-Greuter, 2004). Therefore, these stages represent the spectrum of development ranging from the very beginning of Maslow’s self-actualization stage to his later postulated self-transcendence stage, mediated in large part by the increasing integration of right modes of direct experience.

Stage 6: The Individualist

Conscious of the reality of relativism, this stage—epitomized by postmodernism—can sometimes take relativism too far by claiming that all truth, in general, is relative, not realizing the self-contradicting nature of that statement. If indeed all truth is relative, then even that statement must be relative, effectively canceling itself out. Awareness of interdependency begins to emerge at this stage, making the way for an inchoate comprehension of systems. Occasional tastes of self-actualization are present here, and peak experiences—though still somewhat sparse—become more frequent as well (Cook-Greuter, 2004).

Stage 7: The Strategist (Autonomous)

Integrative systems-thinking becomes more prominent at this stage, accompanied by the capacity to recognize long-term systemic patterns. Because right modes of holistic awareness are now becoming the context in which left modes of rational theory are situated, the being-needs of Maslow’s self-actualization stage of motivation now begin to emerge (Fuller, 2008, p. 140). In addition, this stage has the capacity to face and accept many disparate aspects of the self, including the shadow (Cook-Greuter, 2004).

Stage 8: The Magician (Construct-Aware)

At this stage, language as a human construct becomes readily apparent, as does the self/other construct. Paradox can be comfortably contained, and an increasing ability to silently witness one’s thoughts, feelings and mental phenomena has emerged. As such, habitual judgments are now consciously observed, with the recognition that they are largely results of an attempt to avoid the dissolution of a solid sense of self perceived to be the locus of identity (Cook-Greuter, 2004). Maslow’s being-cognition (Fuller, 2008, p. 138-40) is now in play, resulting in the ego’s capacity to benefit from nonrational—or supra-rational—sources of knowledge (Cook-Greuter, 2004).

Stage 9: The Ironist (Unitive)

A profound sense of belongingness and connection has now become the predominant mode of being. Regardless of their outer condition or appearance, others can now be deeply welcomed and identified with. Multiple perspectives are readily accepted, and being-needs represent the most prevalent level of motivation. Empathetic connection and acceptance are, at this stage, common experiences (Cook-Greuter, 2004). Peak experiences have mostly subsided and are replaced by plateau experiences, a unitive form of experience wherein all of life—ranging from despair to ecstasy—is fully embraced and valued as precious (Krippner, 1972, p. 113).

To be continued . . .


Cook-Greuter, S. (2004). 9 levels of increasing embrace. Retrieved from http://www.

Ewen, R. B. (2004). An Introduction to Theories of Personality. Mawah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Fuller, A. R. (2008). Psychology and Religion: Classical Theorists and Contemporary Developments. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Godwin, R. (2004). One Cosmos under God: The Unification of Matter, Life, Mind and Spirit. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Goldberg, I.I., Harel, M., & Malach, R. (2006). When the Brain Loses Its Self: Prefrontal Inactivation during Sensorimotor Processing. Neuron, 50(2), 329-339.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam.

Hansen, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). The Practical Neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain: Happiness, Love & Wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Krippner, S. (1972). The Plateau Experience: A. H. Maslow and Others. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 4, 107-20.

Nataraja, S. (2008). The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and proof of the power of meditation. London: Hachette.

Pujol, J., Lopez, A., Deus, J., Cardoner, N., Vallejo, J., Capdevila, A., & Paus, T. (2002). Anatomical variability of the anterior cingulate gyrus and basic dimensions of human personality. NeuroImage, 15, 847-855.

Siegel, D. (2007). The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York: W. W. Norton.

Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 383-403.

Waller, M. (2007). Awakening: Exposing the Voice of the Mosaic Mind. Livermore, CA: WingSpan.

© Copyright 2009 Eric Thompson

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The Structure and Neurophenomenology of Spiritual Development:

A Theory of Dialectical, Integrative and Holarchic Hemispheric Relationship

Part 5 (Final Installment)

by Eric Thompson

The Neural Substrates of Obfuscation

From an Eastern view, particularly one influenced by the Vedas, the personality arises as the result of identifying with both inherited karmic traits and environmental conditioning (Waller, 2007, p. 140), both of which deeply impact neural development. In this view, when such conditioning is deeply identified with, it solidifies the experience of a solid self and personality. In the early stages of development, the fledgling limbic system becomes imprinted with the experiences of both met and unmet emotional needs (Waller, 2007, p. 80), giving rise to reactive and goal-oriented motifs that are eventually and mistakenly identified as the self (Godwin, 2004, p. 122). From this perspective, they are nothing more than culturally conditioned neurological responses being animated by the life force (Sadleir, 2003, p. 12). Also known as prana (Krishna, 1997, p. 68), this life force is a somewhat superficial aspect of a deeper creative power, referred to in yogic traditions as the kundalini-shakti (Goswami, 2006, p. 237), which unconsciously animates bodily processes, giving rise to the mental and emotional content of the phenomenal mind (Muktananda, 1978, p. 48), with which an aspect of the underlying consciousness identifies.

The aforementioned limbic conditioning is theorized by Waller (2007) to give rise to a dialogical self, the ever-active and automatic self-talk activated by limbic attachments and aversions (p. 65). By consistently recruiting other brain areas into its employ, Waller speculates that this limbic-generated, dialogical self regularly hijacks the frontal lobes and thereby significantly biases perception (p. 50). Identification, in his view, is seen as taking place by way of the prefrontal function mistakenly identifying the dialogical self as the locus of the self, since the prefrontal lobes do not fully develop until long after the voice of the dialogical self has become active (p. 73). Waller further speculates that various complexes of limbic attractors—each with correlated beliefs, biases, attachments and aversions—eventually form sub-personalities (p. 140). The L-N-M system identity, therefore, is viewed as virtually enfolding itself around one’s true nature, obfuscating it. And because the developmental groundwork for thought and emotion have been laid in early development, the continued animation of thoughts and emotions—generated through unconscious energetic processes within existing neural networks—gives rise to the conditioned mind (Sadleir, 2009, March 10).

The Way Out

While numerous studies have produced substantial empirical evidence for the hypothesis that contemplative practice can significantly reduce the conditioned responses of the amygdale and limbic system (Creswell, et al, 2007; Greeson, et al, 2001; Jain, et al, 2007; Ramel, et al, 2004), contemplative traditions have for ages acted as the laboratories in which such practices have been developed. One such tradition, mystical Christianity, has much to say about how the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:2, King James Version) can lead to a transformative dis-identification with the old man of the flesh and a new embodiment of the spirit (Romans 8:1, King James Version). The “old man,” as Waller (2007) sees it, is the limbic-generated, dialogical self (p. 83). Subsequently, he views deeper identification with conscious awareness as the substrate of experience—which he associates with increased prefrontal function—as the means of renewing the mind (pp. 90-91).


The Narrow Gate

Jesus said, "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14, New American Standard Bible). He is also recorded as having stated, “. . . the kingdom of heaven is within you” (Luke 17:21, New International Version). Buddhist teaching likewise emphasizes the presence of the already enlightened Buddha-nature (which can be seen as the Buddhist equivalent of the kingdom of heaven) as being always available as the very substrate out of which all life emanates. Yet the conditioned mind remains oblivious to the liberating reality of its immediate proximity. This essay theorizes that the “wide gate” that leads to destruction is the culturally and neurologically conditioned mind, which is oblivious to the enlightened Buddha-nature. Inherent in this conditioning are top-down processes—global neuronal movements that entrain and therefore distort local processes involved in perception (Engel, Fries, & Singer, 2001; Haken and Stadler, 1990). Through this top-down process, certain neural networks create persuasive attractor patterns (Hoffman, 1992), some of which have been linked to various psychiatric disorders (Li & Spiegel, 1992).

It is further theorized here that the narrow gate which leads to life is nothing other than the mindful and conscious awareness of the Buddha-nature—consciousness as presence—within. This gate, then, is narrow because it is mediated by both an enlightened intention and an exclusive neural circuit involving the middle prefrontal areas, which work to preclude the top-down neural processes involved in the expectations of attachment and aversion arising from the conditioned mind (Siegel, 2007, p. 82). Sometimes referred to as a bottom-up process (Siegel, 2007, p. 137), this narrow gate involves present-moment awareness, attentive not only of mental and bodily processes (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, p. 441), but of conscious presence as well (Waller, 2007, p. 30). This anchoring of awareness in the present moment, as such, acts to override the conditioned mind.

This essay’s theory regarding the narrow gate is further substantiated by the attention-gate theory, which states that attention acts like a gate, recruiting neurological cooperation, thereby exerting mental influence over the brain (Davidson & Neville, 2004). Begley (2007) has documented an example of this gate-function of attention, offered by scientist Helen Neville: if an individual attentively reads a book while passively listening to music in the background, the visual areas of the brain will be activated and the areas associated with hearing will not. Conversely, if the music is listened to attentively while passively looking at a book, the areas associated with hearing will become active (p. 159).

By way of this gate-function, mindful awareness holds the capacity not only for overriding the top-down processes of the conditioned mind, but for recognizing the dialogical self for what it truly is—a phantom arising from neurological conditioning (Waller, 2007, p. 64). Waller (2007) has stated that prefrontal-mediated witnessing of--rather than identifying with—the voice of the dialogical self is the means by which attachment to the ego is diminished (p. 77). The cultivation and establishment of the narrow gate, therefore, down-regulates the amygdale and limbic system (Creswell, et al, 2007), so that the mosaic voice of the L-N-M system eventually subsides, opening the possibility for the reverberating circuits of meta-awareness to mediate the blissful realization of sat-chit-ananda, a yogic term for the experience of one’s true nature as essence-consciousness-bliss (Ghose, 2001, p. 161).

Nataraja (2008) postulates this process as being neurologically mediated first by activity in the attention association area within the prefrontal lobes, the stabilization of which is followed by a decrease of activity in the right parietal lobe, resulting in an experience of spaciousness and wholeness (p. 85-87). This is believed to trigger a response in the autonomic nervous system, so that the parasympathetic nervous system comes online and mediates a sense of peace and blissfulness (p. 89). When the activity of the right parietal lobe stabilizes, its activity eventually spills over into the left parietal lobe, helping to mediate the dissolution of the self/other boundary (p. 89). Once balanced, another autonomic response occurs, this time within the sympathetic nervous system, giving rise to the experience of clarity and insight (p. 89). During the simultaneous activation and balancing of the yin (parasympathetic) and yang (sympathetic) of the autonomic nervous system, both penetrating insight and blissful presence emerge into conscious experience (p. 95). The more this neurophenomenological process is repeated (presumably within the later stages of development), the more identification with that stage of development loosens until such identification ceases altogether, at which time identification with the next stage begins (Wilber, 2000, p. 197).

The Neuroscience of Wholeness

As previously mentioned, spiritual development is mediated in large part by progressive integration of right brain and left brain processes, especially when healthy right modes of being and awareness become predominant over left analytical modes (see Figure 5).  In keeping with Lao Tzu’s dictum to “[k]now the yang, but keep to the yin” (Towler & Cleare, 2005, p. 23), this neurological theory of development states that balance between the hemispheres does not necessarily refer to equal measures of activity in each hemisphere. Rather, in this view, right modes of being become increasingly dominant yet holistically integrated with left modes, so that right modes of awareness become the greater spiritual context in which left modes of analysis and interpretation are formed (see Figure 6), with the result being that rational modes of thought are transcended and included by supra-rational modes of mindful presence. 

Figure 5. The Direction of Right-Left Hemispheric Integration.

Figure 6. The Holarchic Brain in Spiritual Development.

In essence, the direction toward which this neurological process is aimed is the eventual transcendence of the brain and conditioned mind as the loci of the self, which comes with the liberating realization that one does not necessarily have to be the victim of one’s neurophysiology. At the same time, though the brain and phenomenal mind are transcended, they are also included as valuable tools for relating to others in the relative world, with the distinction that they are now realized to be ever-changing phenomena rather than the ground of being. As a consequence, not only are certain aspects of behavior now radically shifted, one’s personal narrative is, to quote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that of “a spiritual being having a human experience.”


Begley, S. (2007). Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. New York: Ballantine Books.

Creswell, S., B. M. Way, N. I. Eisenberger, & M. D. Liberman. (2007). Neural Correlates of Dispositional Mindfulness during Affect Labeling. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69, 560-565.

Davidson, R., & Neville, H. (2004). Neuroplasticity: The Neuronal Substrates of Learning and Transformation. Mind and Life II. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the The Mind and Life Institute, Dharamsala, India.

Engel, A. K., Fries, P., Singer, W. (2001). Dynamic predictions: Oscillations and synchrony in top-down processing. Nature Neuroscience, 2, 704-716.

Ghose, A. (2001). A Greater Psychology: An Introduction to Sri Aurobindo’s Thought. New York: Putnam.

Goswami, A. (2006). The Visionary Window: A Quantum Physicist’s Guide to Enlightenment. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Greeson, J. M., Rosenzweig, S., Vogel, W. H., & Brainerd, G. C. (2001). Mindfulness meditation and stress physiology in students [Abstract]. Psychosomatic Medicine, 63, 158.

Haken, H., Stadler, M. (1990). Synergetics of Recognition. Berlin: Springer.

Hoffman, R. E. (1992). Attractor Neuro Networks and Psychotic Disorders. Psychiatric Annals, 22(3), 119-124.

Jain, S., Shapiro, Swanick, S. H., Roesch, S., Mills, P. J., Bell, I., et al. (2007). A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 33, 11-21.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness. New York: Hyperion Press.

Krishna, G. (1997). Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man. Boston: Shambhala.

Li, E., & Spiegel, D. (1992). A Neuro Network Model of Associative Disorders. Psychiatric Annals, 22(3), 144-145.

Muktananda, S. (1978). Play of Consciousness. Oakland, CA: S.Y.D.A. Foundation.

Nataraja, S. (2008). The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and proof of the power of meditation. London: Hachette.

Ramel, W., Goldin, P. R., Carmona, P. E., & McQuaid, J. R. (2004). The effects of mindfulness meditation on cognitive processes and affect in patients with past depression. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 38, 433-455.

Sadleir, S. S. (2009, March 10). Recorded talk [MP3 recording]. The Self Realization Course: Precept 3, Self Awareness Institute Archives, Laguna Beach, CA.

Sadleir, S. S. (2003). The Self Realization Course. Laguna Beach, CA: Self Awareness Institute.

Siegel, D. (2007). The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York: W. W. Norton.

Towler, S., & Cleare, J. (2005). Tales from the Tao: Inspirational Teachings from the Great Taoist Masters. London: Watkins.

Waller, M. (2007). Awakening: Exposing the Voice of the Mosaic Mind. Livermore, CA: WingSpan.

Wilber, K. (2000). Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston: Shambhala.

© Copyright 2009 Eric Thompson


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    • profile image 

      6 years ago

      What an absolutely delightful read and insight into the deeper working of the human brain, ego and spiritual developement.

      You have a done an amazing job correlating all of this work and we appreciate your own insights into them as well.

      We have one area that we'd like to raise and another we'd like to suggest you look into writing about. The first is where cook-greuter states in stage 6 of spiritual developement ;

      "Conscious of the reality of relativism, this stage—epitomized by postmodernism—can sometimes take relativism too far by claiming that all truth, in general, is relative, not realizing the self-contradicting nature of that statement. If indeed all truth is relative, then even that statement must be relative, effectively canceling itself out."

      Simply put, and in a spiritual sense it does not cancel anything out but at the same time is does in a rational sense, that is only the opinion of the writer as these words are also, but it should not be stated/written as fact. It just seems very definate and all of those on the path do come to realise that everyone's viewpoint is of course relative and also that "truth" is but a word and indeed different for everyone based on thier experience and perspective. (your truth may be different to mine, but it does not neccesarily make any one of us wrong, or right for that matter) Duality convergence is not something that many can comprehend, or probably even want to try to comprehend because it is indeed very contradictive in terms of rational/ego thought.

      In regards to our advice, you should perhaps look into the developement of the brain/ego/spirituality as you have done here in relation to the Chakras and raising ones vibrations whilst on the path to Spiritual developement as it is well viewed that we learn from and develope lessons and perspective when we start energising these centers within us through material/spiritual developement.

      Hope that made sense. Love and light to all.

    • profile image

      Eric - Meditation Research 

      8 years ago

      There is scientific evidence suggesting that the right hemisphere plays an instrumental role in meditation


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