When I was growing up, I never expressed an interest in getting to know people. Drafted into severe autism, from which no one ever seemed to get out, I looked up for an escape, and I found a way. But before I took the momentous step of replicating the ideas of a stranger who came to me through a book, I learned how to think in symbols. I am literally able to “see” symbols in my head as if on a tapestry of images. Not surprisingly I quickly became proficient in recognizing archetypical heroes, able to memorize tales, stories, and poems of all times. When perceiving, the archetypes emerge in human form and out comes the new, correct combination for my patterns of recurring symbols that are found in the myths.
Symbols and religion are to each other as health is to medicine, or – better – as conduct is to morality. They are the external or conscious representation of archetypes that stem from the collective unconscious. These archetypes reflect universal human forms of experience and behavior that are expressed as “images and situations that have a tremendous impact on the individual.” When I was four years old, I saw God as Zeus because my brain cannot process abstract spiritual concepts. No one taught me the concept of Zeus. It could be that because there was no activity in my parietal lobe, the boundaries between me and God dissolved. I felt a sense of unity with Zeus and I placed him in the “shadows” that appears on the moon because my grandma Irma told me that the shadows in the moon were mountains. And Zeus lived in a mountain. That I had pictured a god means only that I had discerned a beautiful harmony in the fathomless eternal silence around the starts. Do you need to have a conscious awareness in order to experience God? Or is there no harmony like the silence of God?
The other areas of my brain such as the frontal lobe, which creates and integrates all of the ideas about God and the thalamus, which gives emotional meaning to the concept of God, were not functioning or were damaged by the neurological condition. It seems that only the amygdale was over stimulated when the cross created the emotional impression of a frightening, authoritative and punitive God. Because the frontal lobe didn’t have the ability to logically think about God, my brain constructed an impression of God in others which was quite the opposite of my own primordial feeling of awe.
Not that there was any hope to integrate spirituality into my life or that I have faith in the existence of God. Never, since the draft of history, have there be so many religions, cults and spiritual practices to choose from. The biologist Richard Dawkins maintains that religion is a virus of the mind – nothing is true but the God Delusion. In such a radical atheism, religion is effectively the root of all evils. Over time, however, I began to suspect if I wanted to reconsolidate this long-term memory of God as the only reality – all there is – I had to understand, and reclaim, the essential meaning of my own heritage. This yearning is like a sacred obligation, a requirement for intellectual learning, a commandment. As long as the picture of Zeus exists, the work of building up religious ideas was carried on at a terrible disadvantage. It was complex and chaotic and the adventure seemed worse than useless, given that embracing modern religion in a secular society would have required theory of mind – the ability to infer what someone else knows or intends –, which I, as an autistic person, don’t have. I am completely mindblindness. But, all that aside, taking communion with others somehow felt good.
I. Facing the Gohonzon
About four years ago, I was drawn to Nichiren Buddhism by a native of Thailand who moved to the USA in the eighties. Nichiren Daishonin taught that our existence is identical to the universe as a whole and the universe as a whole is identical to our existence. Each individual human life is a microcosm of the life of the universe. Thus the innermost desire of the practitioner is revealed as a yearning to be in perfect harmony with the universe. For myself, I know that it’s possible to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo many times until you fall into a state of receptivity that can bring forth our innate Buddhahood – the repetition of words opens up the circuits of learning in the brain. As the practitioner loses himself in the recitation of the Lotus Sutra, as he becomes absorbed in the unified community, he reaches a transformation of their inner realm, in which he feels filled with a pleasant stimulation of the self-regarding sentiment, so that the practitioner is left invigorated, refreshed and positive. He comes to feel a great increase in his personal force and value. And at the same time, finding himself in complete harmony with all the fellow-members of the community, he experiences a great increase in his feelings of amity and attachment towards them.
My first recitation of the Lotus Sutra was without understanding. Then I started to grow clumsy. I would be confused; it was so easy to be carried away. Was there a reason why the Liturgy of Nichiren Buddhism created a counter productive mismatch – why my brain seems not to be sufficiently wired to the experience of chanting? There might be, but to understand it, we have to know a little bit about how prayer is processed in the brain. We know so little about how both brains coordinate with each other that, to this date, prayer is still considered an unrevealed phenomenon. This type of recitation involves four steps: memory, repetition, learning and sequence. The left hemisphere is lighting up as soon as the other starts chanting. It begins in the right hemisphere but as they continue chanting, the next prayer – the recitation of the “Expedient Means” – goes in rapid sequence, “Myo ho ren ge kyo, Hoben-pon Dai ni. Niji seson. Ju sanmai. Anjo Ni ki Go shari-hotsu, Shobut chi-e. Jinjin muryo. Go chi-e mon. Nange nannyu.” This is an ability at which the left hemisphere excels. And that is something I am not in the least capable of, my left hemisphere is simply inoperative.
But Nichiren Daishonin was not mistaken when he believed in supporting practices through which we develop wisdom and compassion to lead both ourselves and others to happiness. The union of both hemispheres is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things.
II. Giving my autistic non-self away
This, unlikely as it may sound, is exactly what happens in the Catholic mass: the aperture hymn makes me come alive. The right brain is awake. When the Liturgy starts the readings appeal to the left hemisphere, which of course is unresponsive. I lose therefore almost anything the Lector reads and the homily is randomly registered when an image of the Gospels comes to mind often unexpectedly. Then we come to the Eucharist, the central ritual action of the Church in which the community, led by the priest, addresses God the Father, praising and thanking God for the redemptive gift of salvation in Jesus the Christ. This ritual celebration culminates in the community coming forward to receive, as Augustine put it, “what you are,” the Body of Christ. The Eucharist is about the Last Supper and it is full of remembrance – constant remembrance. It really is about Jesus’ table and its consequences, not about his mind. And as for the Church, the Eucharist is the pillar and ground of truth.
When the priest utters the words of consecration and says, “In the night in which He was betrayed He took bread; and giving thanks, He broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me,” I somehow filled the absent left brain with his perceptions, creating sensory constructs where none can exist. I don’t mean this simply as poetry. The Eucharist is how I learned that Evolution has played a trick on autism. The priest occupied my nervous system, probably my left hemisphere, and from his own experience, transformed my experience into conceptual thinking which then made me aware of my surroundings. In other words, I am entering into a self-emptiness, a self-giving relationship to another person.
Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the Eucharist. It presents a flow of perceptions approximating music on one hand, and an integrated pattern of imagery approximating the pictorial on the other. Literally, a sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall, more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement, a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in a collective ritual. This is the obvious originating moment of an alternative to the Theory of Mind. My Christian faith does not depend upon exposing myself to organized, pre-planned packets of information that come with the Catechism. My faith depends upon chaotic, reactive information-gathering experiences. That’s why one of our best attributes is the ability to learn through a series of increasingly self-corrected ideas. “The Eucharist is a sacrament through which my left brain can function in unity with his twin brother,” is an observation I readily made. Then I went a step further: I hypothesize that if I achieve a complete oneness, teacher-disciple with the priest, the same thing will happen! It is a scientific learning style we have explored literally for millions of years.
Even though I had no formal knowledge of Catholicism, I could not be taught it or understand it if I tried. My mind was not built for the abstract, the conceptual. The Catechism therefore was not available to me as a path of truth. But I have a passion and a real power for the particular. I intuitively approached to the priest, I singled out him, I entered into his experience.
III. Storing the past through his eyes
And this brings us to a very important part of this experimental alternative to a Theory of Mind – my dependence and identification with other human beings. If you put two violins next to each other and plucked a string on one, the same string on the other violin would vibrate. Music is a sound wave. The string responds to its own wave, its note. During two years at Saint Patrick Saint Anthony, Father Steven Pavignano was my spiritual director. When I listened to his homilies or when we talked at his office, I vibrated. I understood the essence of Catholicism, I felt comfortable in the Church because he explained the world around me and I wanted to participate in the Liturgy. If the mind creates its own likeness in ideas, I am definitely creating the Catholic Church in the likeness of Father Steven’s ideas. It was the only option I had. Since it is not possible for me to construct a picture of the Catholic Church by myself, his ideas become a necessity for me in trying to understand the story of Catholicism even in the simplest terms of what happened and why.
The problem is that there is no link in my mind between Jesus and the Church, courtesy of the nonnegotiable beliefs one must absolutely hold to in order to be a Catholic. There are five: 1) The divine inspiration and total inerrancy of the Bible, 2) The Virgin Birth of Christ as a testimony of his divinity, 3) substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world, 4) His bodily resurrection from the dead, and 5) The imminent second coming of Christ. The five fundamentals are not a reflection in any way of the life of Jesus. Where are the parables and the Sermon on the Mount? They are not mentioned, so his feeding the hungry and healing the sick are also missing.
And since I have become quite unable to describe my memories by myself, I called for Father Steven’s interpretation. Memories in a neurotypical person are like a large collection of crime scenes, complete with their own Sherlock Holmes. Such is the analogy of the experts. The passage of time inexorably leads to a weakening of events and facts that were once clear and chock-full of specifics. Biologist John Medina said: “In an attempt to fill in missing gaps, the brain is forced to rely on partial fragments, inferences, outright guesswork, and often (most disturbingly) other memories not related to the actual event.” Retrieval began by summoning Father Steven to a particular crime scene, a scene which invariably consisted of pictures I have taken in the past. There are no childhood memories I recall with great fondness – my pictures are 100 percent faithful to what the brain-camera has taken and stored.
My pictures were without words. The words of Father Steven explained them. Based on inference and guess work, he then invented a reconstruction of what the picture actually means. Once I was frightened by the picture of my aunt Olga reciting the rosary with others in the Parish; he removed my fear by means of explanation. Father Steven made the reconstructive work much like a detective with a slippery imagination. He sized up problems and organized my pictures in sequences of events according to an ongoing pattern or purpose, fitting all the disparate parts together. His knowledge of the Catholic Church bled into my past memories and become intertwined with them as if they were encountered together. Did that give me an approximate view of reality? You bet it did. It became what I would today call the past. It is entirely a reconstruction of Father Steven’s outright guesswork, not the experience I had in introspecting. Even if I did intend to, introspection on my own has never been possible.