Photo from  Curious Arts

Photo from Curious Arts

“How did you know?” is a question I get a lot from people. The easy answer is at this point, having been so long an educator and artist, I’m fairly adept at making educated guesses based on deductive reasoning. The more complex answer is that I just—know.

There’s still so much we do not understand about the human brain. We’re making discoveries all the time. There are so many theories out there and learning about the theorizers is often just as interesting as the theories, especially when they start to explore the blurred lines between science and spirituality. Carl Jung, for instance, was hooked on medieval alchemists and coined the phrase “dark night of the soul” based on the first stage of alchemy which was called the nigredo or the putrification/blackening stage. This is where the alchemists charred their ingredients to a uniform black, because fire purifies. The medieval alchemists, who were known mostly for their desire to transmute base metals into gold, were among the first to document this process as parallel to human psychological/spiritual expansion.

Jung describes a “dark night of the soul” as a temporary depression that occurs between stages of a person’s development where they no longer function as an outdated version of themselves but don’t yet know who they are to become. In short, it’s an identity crisis. You can’t go back to who you were and you don’t know what’s in store. Not unlike the sixth gate in the Ancient Egyptian’s premise of the afterlife, as you change gears, sometimes you just have to stop and reorient yourself, your values, your vision for your life apart from others’. (Coincidentally, as a primarily agrarian culture, the Ancient Egyptians in the Book of the Dead, called navigating the afterlife a ‘night-journey.’)

A dark night of the soul is a lonely, isolating process that can make you feel like a misfit and dysfunctional, and in the process of course-correcting your worldview to accommodate the new you, you have to discard the outdated narratives you used to live by, which are often projections from others—expectations from one’s parents and peers and overall culture that need to be shed. That process sort of just takes as long as it takes. It can last years (quarter-life/mid-life crisis anyone?), months, weeks, a day, depending on where you are on your path. And the really fun part is that sometimes you can think you’ve absolutely licked an issue but then unexpectedly become triggered years later by an event or encounter that reminds you of a more traumatizing time. So, despite your growth, you’re booted right back to fending off crippling self-doubt, fear, and shame, and it can feel like you’ve made no headway at all. Unfortunately, this expansive and often exhausting process has no finish line, and as Jung and so many others have observed, the subconscious remains ever the undiscovered country which we traverse like a spiral staircase. The only real reward after making it through a dark night of the soul is perspective. You get to know your boundaries better (emotions point to our limits and limiting beliefs) as well as locate the source of pathological thought patterns, and sometimes you just have to let a dark night of the soul do its thing to better understand and release the unhealthier parts of ego.

Now, take someone like Descartes, who was very much interested in the pineal gland and called it “the principle seat of the soul.” For instance, in modern medicine, we’re still not entirely sure about what all the pineal gland is doing back there. We know that it produces melatonin and regulates our circadian rhythm, but it’s largely considered vestigial at this point. Situated in the middle of our brains, the pineal gland is about the size of a pea and shaped like a pine cone, and can even become calcified due to a buildup of calcium, phosphorous, and fluoride, thusly creating irregularities in our sleep and metabolism. For some reason, it also randomly regulates the onset of puberty. Other than that, we don’t really know why it’s comprised of so many cells that function like the photosensors in our retinas since it’s kinda just tucked back there.

The pineal gland sits at the intersection of the two hemispheres of your brain beneath the cerebral cortex where consciousness and sensory and motor skills intersect. It registers light/dark the same way our eyes do and appears to transmit a response up and out. Practitioners of alternative medicine/spiritualists suggest that the pineal gland originally functioned as our first eye and today, while we don’t use it to see the way we do the eyes in our face, many people argue it’s responsible for clairvoyance and visions, ya know…it’s basically the origin story of the third eye. In Sanskrit, yogis call this area the Ajna, or, the brow chakra which is the sixth chakra, the power center of your body that says ‘I see.’ Many people who experience spiritual awakenings report feeling a slight pressure between their brows almost as if someone was pressing a finger lightly on their forehead.

Another area of interest in the brain is the parietal lobe which governs planned physical movement/motion and processes sensory information. It’s situated towards the rear of your brain on top, right where it begins to slope downward. One of the more nebulous accounts of the brain’s properties has to do with mirror neurons, or the neurons that explain mimetic action and activity (When you wave, the neurons say I should wave back. Even if I don’t wave physically, the same neurons light up, so I’m still waving at you, just with my brain) as well as their role in creating the occasion for sympathy and compassion for another persons. Mirror neurons are so recent a discovery, though, there’s still a lot of debate among what they are and if they are even a thing, but! Those who suggest mirror neurons are a thing, have documented their activity in the parietal cortex, and it’s theorized that mirror neurons in this region specifically allow us to understand the actions of others. In this scintillating paper on functions of the brain’s pre-motor cortex, the conclusion surmises, “The assumptions underlying this hypothesis are: (a) individuals understand actions made by other individuals because they are able to react to them internally; and (b) the individuals know the outcome of their actions.”

Literally just this year, Columbia and Yale scientists discovered that the parietal cortex is the area of the brain that lights up when someone claims they’ve had a spiritual experience. This is the point where yogis would again argue, y’all late. They’ve been calling this region “Sahasrara” in Sanskrit for a long time. This is the seventh primary chakra and is also known as the crown chakra, the power center of your body that says, “I know.”

Long story short, my knack for being able to read people is quite literally part of my job, so I practice using what I’ve learned in the undiscovered country of the mind fairly regularly, but anyone can know things the same way I do. They just have to be open. And as Audre Lorde asserts, “There are many kinds of open.”