How it works is a mystery, but what is beyond dispute is that there is both upward causation and downward causation. Alter the structure of your brain by ingesting a psychoactive compound such as psilocybin and your consciousness changes. Alter the state of your consciousness by thinking certain thoughts and the structure of your brain changes.
The brain is like an instrument and the mind is like music. The kind of music you can play is constrained by the physical limitations of the instrument. However, unlike a physical instrument made of wood or brass, the brain is malleable and plastic. It is constantly morphing into different neural configurations. This means that the “music” you play on it actually changes the “instrument” it is played on. This is downward causation, or “mind over matter”.
The most direct and powerful types of upward causation (excepting brain disease and injury) are effected by psychedelics. The most powerful types of downward causation are produced by meditation and prayer. Put a Tibetan monk in a brain scanner and you will see extraordinary changes in the activity and structure of his brain as he enters into higher stages of meditation.
Psychedelics cause temporary changes in human brain structure and consciousness, ranging from a few minutes to twelve hours or more. A magic mushroom trip (psilocybin) lasts around six hours, but peaks at around two hours. Meditation and prayer also cause temporary changes in human consciousness and brain structure. With continued and repeated practice, however, these temporary states can become established in mind and brain as permanent traits.
This is why St. Paul exhorts his followers to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). But what is prayer exactly? The simplest and most straightforward definition of prayer is the turning of the mind towards God, captured in the Greek word metanoia, which is often translated as “repentance”, but which literally means something like “a turning about in the seat of consciousness”. A nice image to illustrate this turning about is the sunflower’s heliotropic movement to face the sun.
How can we do this? Most simply and straightforwardly, by remembering God. But what or who is God? Maybe we don’t believe in God. Either way, do we really know what it is we do or don’t believe in? Does it even matter? At the minimum, the word “God” refers to some kind of unity. Neo-Platonists would point to “the One”. SBNR (spiritual but not religious) people usually plump for something like “Nature” or “the Universe”. The Jewish Shema Prayer has set down for all time the fundamental declaration of the radical unity at the heart of monotheism: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
To remember God is to bring this “One” to mind. We can do this by simply repeating the word “God” or “Lord” or even “the One” as a mantra. If we are drawn to the Indian tradition, we can repeat the word “Aum” or “Ram”. By this simple movement of the mind away from the multiplicity of world and ego and towards the unity of God, we find stillness and a kind of unified consciousness of the mind.
This metanoia or turning to God in all simplicity is beautifully illustrated in “the practice of the presence of God” of the lay Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence. It is such an easy practice, it is easily overlooked by our proud egos, which prefer something clever and difficult to do. Brother Lawrence was uneducated and illiterate and worked in the kitchen. But he had deep understanding and he had deep faith. It is precisely because this practice of the presence of God is so easy, that it is so hard. It requires too much faith for people of little faith like us.
We can make the unity of God more intellectually satisfying, and perhaps easier for our clever egos to swallow, by noticing that there are actually three principles involved. The apparent unity is actually a trinity. This is expressed in the Christian tradition as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but it also appears in other traditions as Sat, Chit, Ananda or Parashiva, Shiva, Shakti. This “Three-in-One” allows for a dynamic interaction between the transcendent, immanent and incarnate principles of reality, connecting Being and Becoming, the One and the Many, Heaven and Earth.
We can break this down further into seven principles, Amun, Ra, Atum, Ka, Ba, Gaia, Jah, which I won’t go into here (chapter fourteen of my book The Confessions of a Psychedelic Christian, “The Presence of God”, explains how the Seven are contained in the Three and the Three in the One). This may sound terribly esoteric but it is actually quite straightforward. The basic point I am trying to put across here is that by recourse to the One, the Three and the Seven, it is in fact possible to pray without ceasing, and in so doing, to conform ourselves to the body and mind of Christ.