Installing the Idol: On the real power of imaginary notions

by Yohan J. John

800px-Crown_Brow_Throat_Chakras,_Rajasthan_18th_CenturyI want to make one thing absolutely clear. I am not a Zen Buddhist, I am not advocating Zen Buddhism, I am not trying to convert anyone to it. I have nothing to sell. I'm an entertainer. That is to say, in the same sense, that when you go to a concert and you listen to someone play Mozart, he has nothing to sell except the sound of the music. He doesn’t want to convert you to anything. He doesn’t want you to join an organization in favor of Mozart's music as opposed to, say, Beethoven's. And I approach you in the same spirit as a musician with his piano or a violinist with his violin. I just want you to enjoy a point of view that I enjoy.

Alan Watts

Some years ago I had my third eye opened. I was spending the summer in Bangalore, doing an undergraduate physics project at the National Aerospace Laboratories. I was staying with my sister's friend, and his landlady insisted that I participate in something called the “Kyudo ceremony”. My friends warned me that she was a bit of a kook — her house was filled with nude self-portraits in garish colors and flattering proportions — but out of sheer curiosity I acquiesced. The landlady whisked me away on her scooter to a nondescript house in a residential neighborhood that doubled at a Japanese Buddhist temple of some sort. In the waiting room, one of the assistants (devotees? students? acolytes?) asked me my name, which she carefully wrote on a very thin piece of paper. No explanations were offered. I was then taken to the main prayer hall, i.e., the living room. There was an altar, atop which say a statue of the Buddha, a few packets of biscuits, and a bunch of bananas. The priest who led me through the ceremony was a little old Japanese lady who communicated via a plump and slightly nervous-looking Indian translator. I stood and knelt and mumbled as instructed, occasionally wishing I had a translator for the translator. At one point the piece of paper with my name on it was set aflame —a rather stylish touch, I thought.

Once another inductee was put through the motions, we were given the opportunity to learn what it is we had actually accomplished with that fifteen-minute-long ritual. A middle-aged Indian man emerged from nowhere with an instructional chart. It looked like one of those poorly drawn anatomical diagrams that are endemic to Indian schools. But instead of anatomy, we were confronted with a diagram of… eschatology. The Kyudo ceremony (I have been unable to find any mention of it on the internet) is based upon the belief that when you die, your soul will leave through one of several orifices in your body. Your rebirth (or liberation thence) depends on which hole in the body your soul evacuates from. If I remember correctly, leaving through the mouth means you come back to earth as a fish. If you leave through the nose, you are reborn as a regular land animal. If you leave through the ears, you become a bird. If you leave through the eyes, you become a sky god. This sounds like a sweet deal, but it is apparently only a consolation prize. The real goal is to leave through the third eye, and escape from the whole repetitive cycle of birth and death. But the third eye is blocked: something is needed to clear the way for the soul's egress. Normally it is your conduct — your karma — that determines this sort of thing. And Buddhism usually suggests that certain steps, like the eight-fold path, will help you break the habit of being reborn. But these Kyudo folks believe that their ceremony is a shortcut to transcendence.

I. The Mental Temple

It was not my goal when I began writing this essay to reminisce about the opening of my third eye. I started out with the aim of speculating about how it is that rituals and behaviors come to produce particular feelings and thoughts in some people but not in others. I keep an open mind about spirituality and ritual — I'm always trying to think of some grounded materialistic way to think about the ostensibly immaterial. I don't know if I really am a materialist or not, but I think it's worthwhile to see if there is a naturalistic baby in religious practice that we can keep while throwing out the supernatural bathwater. I think my unconscious decided to reincarnate the memory of the Kyudo ceremony so that it could serve as an instructive negative example. As far as I know, I didn't have any new thoughts or feelings as a result of the ceremony. And given what I am about to say about spiritual practice, perhaps the reason for this is the fact that the ceremony was precisely backwards: they should have explained the process first, and then subjected me to it. You cannot reap before you sow.

A couple of years before this eye-opening experience, I had another, more extended one: entering college. In my first year I became famous among older students for a kind of mind trick. I would perform a simple ritual involving a person's arms that would allow me to raise up the arms without touching them. After a series of steps involving shaking the person's arms and snapping my fingers, I would beckon the person's hands, and soon enough the arms would rise to the default zombie position. The person's eyes had to be closed — they couldn't tell exactly when I had begun the beckoning gesture. Almost everyone I performed this trick on could feel a force that seemed to pull on their hands. I had people try it on me, so I know this subjective feeling — it's like invisible puppet-strings are tied to the back of each hand. Bizarrely, it seems as if the specific action of the 'hand-summoner' actually matters to some extent. In some people, one arm would rise slower than the other, so I had to speed up my beckoning to get the slower arm to catch up. I freely admit that this was some kind of hypnosis (though I still have no explanation for the hand-speed phenomenon — maybe it was a delusion on my part). And through experimentation, my friends and I discovered a crucial fact about the trick: you have to tell people what is going to happen before you performed the ritual.

I think this is important to the 'magic' of ritual: the idea of its power must be implanted first. The idol must be installed. During Hindu festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi, a temporary shrine for the presiding deity is constructed over the course of several days. On the auspicious day and at the auspicious time, the idol is installed, and the next stage of worship can begin. After the festival, the idol is then immersed into a large body of water, where it eventually disintegrates. The power of the whole festival — whether you see it in supernatural terms or simply as a cultural and artistic experience — depends very much on the process. Jumping to the end would be as meaningful as skipping to the last page of a murder mystery.

Typically, phenomena ranging from my arm-raising trick to the agonies and ecstacies of religious experience are explained by invoking psychic or spiritual forces: wholly imaginary concepts that have no real-world existence as measurable entities. The explanations for why such phenomena occur are typically questionable, but they remain interesting as social and psychological phenomena if nothing else. How do we trigger them? Why are some people unaffected? It seems as if imaginary concepts can sometimes become idols in our mental temples, and the gradual process of installing them is central to their power.

II. Practical metaphors

The idol metaphor may help us think about chakras: the Hindu-Buddhist concept beloved of mystics, yogis, and sundry New Age crackpots. Chakras are positions in the body (or in the 'subtle body') that are closely linked with emotions and bodily functions. The typical chakra system involves seven chakras. Each chakra is usually associated with a Hindu god or goddess. Trained practitioners claim that by focusing on a particular chakra, they can directed the deity's powers towards healing, strength, or mystical realization.

CzakryChakras are often touted as having some connection with the endocrine system. This link in turn is deployed to bolster the claim that ancient sages knew as much as — if not more than — modern scientists. But the dirty secret of chakras is that the connection with the endocrine system has nothing to do with ancient Indian sages, and much to do with Sir John George Woodroffe, a 20th century British Orientalist. In 1919, under the pseudonym Arthur Avalon, Woodroffe published a book called The Serpent Power: an idiosyncratic 'translation of Purnananda's Satchakra-Nurupana, a 16th century work on Kundalini yoga. Purnananda's seven-chakra system was one of many chakra systems on offer in the centuries-old Hindu-Buddhist marketplace of ideas. None of these systems mentioned the endocrine system: that was the unique contribution of Avalon/Woodroffe.

Learning of the dodgy history of chakras is enough to scare away all but the most dogged astral warriors. But if you are willing to dig a little deeper, you can discern a more sophisticated conception of chakras, and of similar concepts like the meridians of Chinese Qigong. They do not need to be understood as half-baked attempts at physiology or psychology. They can instead be understood as tools of the imagination: practical metaphors.

Whatever else they may be, chakras are focal points around which 'psycho-physical' practice can be structured. A practitioner, aided by a teacher, uses techniques like meditation and yoga to create a link between each chakra and the powers of the corresponding divinity. All of this allows the practitioner to transform external divine power into internal spiritual power. In somewhat more roundabout naturalistic terms, practice facilitates a transfer of the cultural power of the (notion of) divinity into psychological power. Through an arduous process of physical and mental discipline, the chakra idol comes to be installed in the mind of the practitioner. [1]

But what constitutes the psychological power of the mental idol? What gives chakras any efficacy in dealing with emotions or health problems? Here's one possibility: chakra techniques are structured to enhance conscious influence over the pathways linking the brain to the internal organs and glands.

Is this even possible? There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, but we do know that the brain has powerful effects on the body. Almost every part of the body is in regular communication with the brain. And we know that thinking can modulate the emotions: cognition can trigger anger, joy, sadness, confusion, embarrassment. These emotions come with changes in heart rate, perspiration, blood flow, and even body temperature and blood sugar levels. They can even influence the immune system.

If physical practice can give athletes and musicians better control over their muscles, perhaps mental practice can give practitioners better control over their viscera. Perhaps associating imaginary constructs like chakras with physiological processes can influence how the brain and body communicate — cleansing the doors of perception, as it were. The chakras — and other related constructs — might provide seed locations around which new neural patterns might emerge and evolve: brain states that can better interface with the emotional system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, the immune system and (dare I suggest it?) the endocrine system.

III. More than Real?

Chakras can therefore be simultaneously imaginary and useful. This is not necessarily a new insight of modern apologists for esoterica. Ancient and medieval Indian thinkers seem to have placed great store in the power of the imagination. As the title of a recent book on this subject suggests, they may even have considered the imagination to be More Than Real [2].

1024px-Kailasanathar_TempleA story from medieval India helps establish the pride of place that imagination once held in Indian culture. There was once a poor Brahmin named Puchalar. He wanted to build a temple to the god Shiva. He tried to gather the necessary resources, but came up with nothing. Undaunted, he decided to build the temple in his mind. He gathered the necessary materials, cleared a space in his imagination, and proceeded to build his temple, brick by brick. Meanwhile, the king was also building a temple to Shiva — none other than the famous Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple. When it was completed, the god appeared to the king in a dream. He was told that his temple was well and good, but that the god's favorite temple was that of Puchalar.

Clearly Shiva — and by extension the devotees telling stories about him — were capable of seeing an imaginary creation as even more valuable than a real (and quite beautiful!) one. And perhaps we can discern a similar propensity in our contemporary secular culture. The medieval Indian theorists of the imagination might have resonated with the fantasies of JRR Tolkien and his legions of followers. These works of visionary world-building evoke the idea that the universe itself is the dream of Vishnu. Every conjurer of an imaginary world is like the Brahma that emerges from Vishnu's navel: a demiurge conjuring up a new world within a wider cosmos.

Not all imaginary cultural artifacts are capable of unleashing psycho-physical forces, however strong their cultural currency may be. I imagine very few people can turn Gandalf into an internalized symbol for enlightenment or relief from joint pain. And the reason may be this: it is hard for us to install modern imaginary creations in our mental temples. The label of 'fiction', with its connotations of falsehood and idle fantasy, may obstruct Gandalf's passage into the halls of neuropsychological power.

IV. Synaptic Samadhi

It makes sense now to really flesh out the metaphor of 'installing the idol'. The first and most important idea is that our notions of meaning and power cannot be completely self-generated. We cannot lift ourselves up by our bootstraps, and we cannot consciously trigger the placebo effect. The imagination can do a great many things on its own, but it seems as if culture can provide the additional building materials required to give an imaginary concept the solidity of an idol. The body is the temple of the holy spirit, but one cannot always invoke the spirit on one's own. The power imputed into a chakra — an interiorized idol — is transferred from the power already imputed by society into the associated god. We might say that the person's faith renders the internal idol potent, and that the faith in turn was socially constructed. So social forces solidify the cultural ideas circulating in a person's mind.

If all this is starting to sound like the ravings of a wide-eyed loon, let me give everything I have just said a more explicit scientific 'gloss'. Every human being is conditioned by four kinds of causal forces. First there is genetics: it gives rise to the biological toolbox that our cells have at their disposal. Second there is the environment: all living things are locked in a feedback loop with it. Third, there is culture: a kind of secondary environment constructed through family, ethnicity, religion, and government. Finally there is the idiosyncratic life trajectory that each of us is on. It gives us our developmental and experiential inheritance: the memories, habits, tastes and tendencies that accumulate as we age. Each of these four causal forces constrains the other. Genetics gives us a cellular recipe book: possibilities rather than certainties. Our natural and cultural environments 'read out' the book, condensing the possible into the actual. And personal history — the set of incidents and accidents that befall us — influences our developmental, epigenetic and behavioral reactions to nature and culture.

These causal forces are inscribed in our neuronal networks: they shape both the structure and the dynamics of brain processes. We already know that these forces influence our aesthetic reactions: genetics, geography, ethnicity, upbringing and prior experience can all modulate our broad aesthetic and culinary tendencies. But maybe taste is only the tip of the iceberg: perhaps our physical reactions to art or music or food are part of a larger class of bodily manifestations of brain states. Of these, the placebo effect may be the most important, at least conceptually. We seem endlessly surprised by it, and that may be because we can't seem to fathom how 'mere' thoughts — so nebulous and ephemeral — can have causal efficacy in our material bodies. [3]

We have to get over this lingering dualism. Thoughts, beliefs, moods, emotions — these are all physical. We may not understand the biological details right now, but we have no reason to doubt the basic assertion. So it should not be difficult to agree that a concept, even if it is purely imaginary, has some kind of existence as a neural entity that gives it the potential to affect the body.

Actualizing this potential is the challenge. Even if we are on board with the idea that beliefs can have powerful effects on physical health, we can't usually trigger these effects at will. Our mental powers are only partially under voluntary control. We can no more trigger the placebo effect than we can summon feelings of bliss or love out of the ether. This may be because we don't always have control over the 'strength' of a neural pattern. We can't just choose to create or modify a synapse. Neural plasticity is present throughout life, but some kinds of neural connections seem to be most modifiable in childhood. Others may require years of effort to alter.

We may need to adapt existing neural connections in the service of new goals. So if, for example, you are a Hindu who believes in the gods associated with the chakras, your training with the chakra system may be more fruitful. A person who has no entrenched neural patterns associated with these gods may struggle to create them in adulthood. The process may take longer, or require a fortuitous combination of effort and circumstance. Even someone who has abandoned the faith she had as a child may have more 'resources' than an adult convert from a very different culture: she may be able to access old neural patterns associated with Hindu concepts and practice. Her new atheistic neural patterns may not be particularly well-connected to the power centers of the brain, so they may not easily facilitate psycho-physical manipulation. When it comes to installing the idols, it seems that the gradual but persistent forces of culture are by far the most effective means.

The very fact that many of us become more open to an idea when it has been translated into scientific language suggests that science (as a value system rather than as a methodology) has been successfully installed by our social networks into our neural networks. Even the cranks and kooks and snake-oil salesmen try to give their ideas and products the aura of science: they know that even people with minimal education set some value in the new gods of science and rationalism. This may also be one of the reasons some chakra enthusiasts — both in the west and in India — want to claim that their system is linked to the endocrine system. If they truly believed in the methods and interpretive traditions from which the chakra system emerged, they would not need to borrow credibility from modern medicine.

This brings us to the strange state of affairs we face in the contemporary world. Many of us have abandoned any literal belief in the transformative powers of saints, spirits, chakras or qi. But actual, hard-nosed science has not replaced these powers with new and trustworthy ones. The ambiguity of the life sciences shows no signs of resolving itself in our lifetimes. If anything, we have come to realize that life is far more complicated than anyone could have predicted. A biology-based science of the self seems to recede like the horizon whenever we make progress [4]. While we are waiting for new idols to be fashioned, we can dust off the old ones and try to put them to use before they disintegrate. And given its impenetrability, the spiritual succour science provides to its practitioners (which I confess is not a lot) may be beyond the reach of much of the general public. Perhaps there is a half-way point between the wide-eyed credulity of the hippie and the sneering cynicism of the skeptic. Perhaps the millions of people deriving solace from meditation and other 'alternative' psycho-physical procedures know something that the rest do not: 'mental technology' is possible even if we do not fully understand its neuroscientific underpinnings.

The other possibility, of course, is that chakras and other psycho-physical procedures are all nonsense peddled by charlatans, and that only Very Serious People in lab coats (and Madison Avenue suits?) can manipulate our minds. I suspect that we will find much to retain in practices from off the beaten path, given my own limited experiences, as well as those I have encountered second-hand. I know several fellow neuroscientists, for example, who engage in various sorts of meditation and alternative mental practice. They are well aware that most of what they experience doesn't have a neuroscientific explanation. But given what we know of neuroscience — that experimental mysteries pile up a lot faster than theoretical explanations — we may want to dedicate some resources to studying psycho-physical processes in and of themselves. Why abandon such a fascinating world to the freaks and the frauds?

We should see ourselves as perpetually engaged in a wide-ranging anthropological project. Each of us is the unique product of evolutionary, cultural and personal histories. No two people, however similar, react in exactly the same way to the same situation. But perhaps there are patterns. The secular Hindu may have a neural network that is still 'fired' by the sights, sounds and smells of the pujas of her youth. The lapsed Catholic may have a neural network that resonates with the language of saints, sinners, and redeemers. There may be imaginary mental constructs that we can cultivate and experiment with. Some of them may require preexisting genetic, cultural or experiential raw material: the right kind of soil. Others may require the opposite: a clearing in mindspace born of ignorance and unbiasedness. And perhaps some of these mental constructs will prove useful in dealing with our health problems, both personal and societal. Subjectivity will always lie in the grey fringe zones of science, but that doesn't mean we can't experiment with it. Science is not the only lens through which to look at the universe. Exploring the possibility space of human imagination is a project that is as old as humanity itself. Anyone can join in — you don't need expensive equipment or a fancy degree. All you need is a willingness to open that dormant third eye.

In fact, I know of a ritual…


Notes and references

[1] I've derived some of the ideas on chakras from an excellent and detailed blog post I recently came across at

[2] I am slowly making my way through Indologist David Shulman's invaluable book More Than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India. It tells a story that the vast majority of Indians (let alone people from other parts of the world) are quite unaware of: how a rich tradition of theory and debate about the imagination emerged and flourished in ancient and medieval India. I find even the early chapters to be brimming with ideas that are genuinely novel to me, and strikingly orthogonal to the typical axes of thought I've encountered in western philosophy.

[3] I explored some of the implications of the placebo effect and the importance of mental state in an earlier 3QD essay: The Mind Matters.

[4] Several of my 3QD essays explore how biology approaches the notion of 'self':


The third eye is not wholly imaginary: we actually have one, sort of. It's the pineal gland, which is also known as the parietal eye in other organisms. It was an evolutionarily older light sensor — the paired eyes we now use for vision have taken over the job of vision. In humans and other primates the pineal gland seems to play an important and poorly understood role in sleep and dreaming.


This essay is partly a byproduct of ongoing but sporadic conversations between myself and two old college friends: Kaustubh Das and Madhu Mohan Chandran. Kaustubh studies tantra and yoga, and has been challenging me to open up my notions of science in order to admit the possibility of a science of mind or consciousness, of which yoga and tantra are examples. I generally express skepticism towards the claims of gurus and god-men, but Kaustubh's clarity and persistence make me wonder if I'm being too dismissive. Madhu is a yoga practitioner and spiritual adventurer, and over the years he has tried to get me to take the concept of chakras seriously. I used to be incapable of it, but I'm slowly trying to widen my horizons. This essay represents my progress so far.


(Madhu on the left and me on the right. Another lifetime of the universe.)