Just a quick note: David Weisman has written an opinion piece at Seed about how some (not all) of the tenets of Buddhism match up with what neuroscience is teaching us about the brain. It’s at least somewhat relevant to some of the discussion here lately, particularly because he talks a bit about the differences between Eastern and Western religious thought.
I mentioned that I’m reading Philip Goldberg’s American Veda. I’m noticing some interesting things about the ways that Westerners think about the Eastern spiritual ideas they adopt (and adapt).
For example, a chapter about several high-profile guru scandals concludes with some thoughts on how these scandals, painful as they were for many of the people involved, helped spiritual seekers become more savvy. Despite the continuing presence of “dewy-eyed zeal” around gurus, Goldberg says that Westerners looking to Eastern spiritualities for guidance have become “more autonomous” and “less vulnerable to flawed gurus and oppressive institutions.” One reason for this, he suggests, is the ability to look at gurus as practitioners of a science of consciousness rather than as religious figures, so “their teachings can be viewed not as divine truths but as hypotheses to be tested” (and presumably rejected if they are found wanting).
What I am curious about is whether it is something intrinsic to Eastern spirituality that enables Westerners to view its teachings as hypotheses to be tested, or whether this is possible because most Westerners were not raised to view its teachings, practices, and leaders as sacred or in touch with the divine. (I suppose it might be some of both.) The Catholic sex scandals come to mind here; people who demand that the pope be called before an international court for his part in the cover-up are denounced by some as disrespectful, but it’s hard to see on what possible grounds the pope could have earned the right not to be held responsible other than simply by being a religious figure that people have been taught not to question. What would it take for a culture-wide shift, in the more religious parts of the West, to the belief that Western religious teachings and leaders should be evaluated by the same standards of agreement with physical reality and decent behavior as other beliefs and people?
Another interesting example is the Western attitude toward meditation and yoga. The mainstream scientific establishment has focused on the health benefits of these practices, both physical and mental (reducing the stress response, lowering blood pressure, increasing the ability to focus, etc.). For many Westerners, “yoga” means only the postures, whereas in its homeland, the postures are only one part of the practice of yoga. Some yoga advocates and meditators don’t approve of this stripping away of the spiritual qualities of these practices. (The description of this in the book reminded me a bit of the Christians who complain about the largely secular meaning of Christmas to many people.) To me, though, this development strikes me as being positive overall. For those who seek transcendence, I can’t imagine it’s hard to find someone who will offer to help you get there. For those who don’t, narrowing the focus to the physical and mental effects is a way to understand and apply some useful things the species has learned about how to live well in a human body with a human mind, while dropping (or relegating to the status of myths) the parts that contradict what we know about how the world works. And again, I wonder if it’s easier to follow this process, which in my opinion is beneficial on the whole, with a religion that you were not raised in.
Although I do not believe in any of the gods proposed by the world’s religions, I do have feelings of wonder, awe, connectedness, and transcendence that might reasonably be described as “spiritual.” However, describing and sharing these feelings in the absence of belief in a deity can be difficult. For one thing, as soon as you use the word “spiritual” to describe yourself, the word “supernatural” comes to many minds. And in my experience, there is some reason for this: the word “spiritual” is too often connected with some kind of belief in the supernatural, AKA woo (or in the longer but in my opinion more descriptive version, mumbo-jumbo). It’s enough to make an atheistic primate wonder whether it’s time to stop using the word “spiritual” altogether.
I’ve long been interested in certain Eastern ideas of spirituality, which often seem to offer practical advice for living well without a lot of dogma (at least as they have been presented in the West). As a bonus, some of these approaches also treat the body gently, as something to be cherished, rather than as an enemy to be conquered or disciplined. (The word for this in the Catholicism of my girlhood was “mortified,” as in “the mortification of the flesh.” Ugh.) The problem is that you can generally only get so far into any reading on Buddhism or yoga before bumping up painfully against woo (reincarnation, karma as a true causative agent, levitation) or a renunciatory spirit (celibacy, avoiding alcohol) that is one of the more unfortunate aspects of religion, IMO. If enlightenment is attainable only on the mountaintop away from real life, it has little value for me. (I have found a few non-mumbo-jumbo books about Buddhism and mindfulness; see the list at the bottom of this post.)
So I was very interested in Philip Goldberg’s American Veda, which chronicles the spread of Eastern spiritual concepts in America, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to today. (He specifically investigates only the broader spiritual concepts of what he refers to as Vedanta-Yoga—e.g., “one truth, many paths”—rather than religious ceremonies, deities, and such.) I may have more to say on the book as a whole later. For now, I’m going to focus a couple of things that struck me for what they say about how science is related to Eastern spiritual ideas.
In a chapter on the founding of the Esalen Institute, the famed retreat center that explores humanistic spirituality, Goldberg quoted Jeffry Kripal as saying that Esalen offers
“a kind of secular mysticism that is deeply conversant with democracy, religious pluralism, and modern science.”
Sounds good, especially when compared to fundamentalist versions of Christianity and Islam, which are often opposed to religious pluralism and/or modern science. There are echoes elsewhere in the book of this suggestion that Eastern spirituality is suitable for a modern secular society. However, a little later, in a chapter on the influence of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (guru to the stars, most notably the Beatles), Goldberg quotes Harry Oldmeadow, a theorist of religion:
“The interest in Eastern spirituality met some deep yearning for a vision of reality deeper, richer, more adequate, more attuned to the fullness of human experience, than the impoverished world view offered by a scientifically-grounded humanism.”
I initially interpreted the first quote as implying that people were actively seeking a spirituality that was compatible with other things they valued, e.g., science and democracy. The second quote seemed contradictory: it seemed almost to imply that even if people accept science and humanism, despite the relatively shallow, less adequate world view they offer, they remain hungry for something more. I’ve encountered this attitude before, and I still find it discouraging. Some of my most powerful feelings of wonder, and some of the deepest, richest, most mind-opening thoughts I know, are profoundly connected with our scientific understanding of the world. To me, the quest for an adequate spirituality is about finding a way to make room in my life for those feelings and nurture the experiences that give rise to them (not getting too caught up in the daily round of work and chores) and trying to share them with others. It is not about supplementing the inadequacies of a scientific-humanist world view because I don’t find that world view inadequate.
Goldberg’s book is not specifically about science and Eastern spirituality (although he does have a chapter about that topic, which I’m just about to read), and he certainly doesn’t delve very deeply into what “compatibility with science” might really mean. The people and events he describes often seem to involve a fair amount of woo (e.g., after making a hit with transcendental meditation, the Maharishi went on in the 1970s to try to train people to levitate). The picture overall is fascinating but definitely not one of a mumbo-jumbo-free spirituality, and reading this book is leading me once again to question my use of the word “spiritual” in connection with myself. I’d love to hear what others think. Do you describe yourself as spiritual or as “spiritual but not religious”? Do you think it makes sense for atheists/agnostics to describe themselves as spiritual? I’d be especially interested in hearing from anyone who grew up with the original ideas behind Eastern spirituality and religion in these ideas’ native habitat.
Here are the non-mumbo-jumbo books on Eastern spirituality:
- Confession of a Buddhist Atheist
by Stephen Batchelor
- Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening
by Stephen Batchelor
- The Feeling Buddha: A Buddhist Psychology of Character, Adversity and Passion
by David Brazier
- Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness
by Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston
- Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness
by James H. Austin
- Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom
by Rick Hanson
I mentioned yesterday that I’m interested in some of the mental constructs that thinking meat has created, like science or art or religion. I’m particularly interested in areas where these things intersect: what science has to say about how and why we create and enjoy art, for example, and, on the other hand, art that is based on scientific ideas or scientific data. Another particularly exciting intersection these days is the relationship between the world views and approaches of science and religion. In the past, I haven’t exactly hidden the fact that I’m an atheist, but I haven’t been explicit about it either. Consider me fully out of the closet (see that nice red atheist “A” over in the sidebar?).
By “atheist” I mean that I see no reason to believe in any of the deities proposed by the world’s religions, and that I believe that the physical world is all there is: we do not have supernatural souls that predate or outlive the body, and every phenomenon we experience, from hunger to love to lust to transcendence, is based firmly in the physical world. I’m not unsympathetic to metaphorical uses of the word “god” in the sense Einstein used it, as a description of the sum total of the universe and its laws, but overall I tend to avoid such use myself. The main reason for this is that I believe it can foster confusion. Also, in my own case, I found myself using it that way to try to build a bridge between myself and people who believe in a more traditional god. This eventually began to strike me as a dishonest attempt to gloss over a deep difference in world view, and it became important to me to articulate my views more clearly.
The decision to be direct about my views on this topic coincides with a gradual realization that in order to understand each other and live together well, humans should be able to respectfully and honestly discuss religious ideas with the same rigor and intellectual standards we bring to discussions of any other aspect of the world or of human behavior. We can’t leave a large chunk of human behavior outside of the realm of rational discussion. I’d also say that as a species, we would be much more successful at getting along with each other and not trashing our planet if our actions and decisions were evidence-based and concerned solely with what we know about the physical world here and now (which of course includes the emotional world of human interactions and relationships).
Tomorrow: Spiritual but not religious: what does that mean?
Spirituality is complicated, an experience with many facets. The current model of spiritual experience in the brain involves multiple brain areas, reflecting that complexity, and has recently received a bit more experimental support. Earlier research has suggested that the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain may play complementary roles in certain kinds of religious or spiritual experience. Researchers have examined the relationship between damage to the right parietal lobe and scores on the Index of Core Spiritual Experiences (INSPIRIT), an assessment of a person’s spirituality. Their findings agree fairly well with a model in which feelings of transcendence are linked with increased temporal lobe activity and decreased activity in the right parietal lobe.
This press release from the University of Missouri focuses only on the right parietal lobe without really saying what it does or talking about the interaction of multiple brain regions that shapes spiritual experience. The paper itself (citation below) offers some interesting discussion of the role played by the various brain areas in general and how they contribute to spiritual experiences in particular. The right parietal lobe is associated with visual and spatial sensory perception, and with the ability to place oneself in space relative to the surrounding environment. While other researchers had suggested, based on earlier work, that transcendence is somehow linked with changing perceptions of space, the authors of the current study think it may have more to do with decreased right-hemisphere functioning overall and a decreased sense of the self. Perhaps as the sense of self diminishes, a feeling of greater connectedness can grow in its place. Some meditation techniques are apparently useful in nurturing this feeling of wider connections with others and with the universe.
The paper also discusses the role of the temporal lobes, which appear to be linked with the strength of the reaction to religious figures and symbols. This is just speculation on my part, but I’m wondering if people whose parietal activity is reduced, permanently or temporarily and for whatever reason, without a particularly strong increase in temporal lobe activity, might be more likely to experience a spirituality more or less separate from the traditional religious imagery (deities, angels, etc.). This would actually explain a lot of things about my own experiences, and I’d be interested in hearing what others think.
Support for a neuropsychological model of spirituality in persons with traumatic brain injury, by Brick Johnstone and Bret A. Glass. Zygon, Volume 43 Issue 4, December 2008, pp. 861-874.
One possible way to unify a big-history narrative is to use the theme of growing complexity in the universe. Stuart Kauffman studies complexity and self-organization; in particular, he believes that self-organization might play an important role in evolution, along with natural selection. He has recently written a book, Reinventing the Sacred, about his approach to moving away from a purely reductionist science and toward a science infused with meaning and even a sense of the sacred (a totally naturalistic sense, not a belief in a supernatural being). Kauffman talks about the book in this interview with Salon and has written an essay for Edge.org that’s excerpted from the book.
In the Salon interview, Kauffman says that having a shared sense of the sacred in nature might give the emerging global culture something to converge on (to counteract what he describes as a natural retreat into fundamentalism on the part of some people). This reminded me a bit of what David Christian said about a big-history narrative serving as a secular creation story. However, while what Christian said really resonated for me, Kauffman takes the idea much further, into places I’m not entirely comfortable with. For one thing, Christian noted that he wanted to draw a line between religion and what he was talking about with regard to big history, whereas Kauffman seems to be blurring that sort of line. (And I really don’t know what to think about his idea, mentioned in passing in the Salon interview, that there might be some connection between quantum physics and consciousness.) Still, he makes some good points and some provocative points, and I think the book will definitely be worth reading. (Anyone already read it and have any comments on it?)
When I think of psychoactive substances associated with religious rituals, I think of things like mushrooms and peyote and ayahuasca (which I associate with fairly dramatic alterations of consciousness). However, it now appears that incense also has psychoactive properties–specifically, it has antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects (in mice, anyway, and it interacts with a protein that occurs in mammalian brains). A new study looked at frankincense, a resin from the Boswellia plant, and in particular at the compound incensole acetate. In mice,
“…the compound significantly affected areas in brain areas known to be involved in emotions as well as in nerve circuits that are affected by current anxiety and depression drugs.”
Incensole acetate also appeared to lower anxiety and reduce depressed behavior in the mice. (I hate to think what they did to those animals to depress them.) The press release from EurekAlert leaves me with some questions. It says the compound was “administered” to the mice, but it doesn’t say exactly how, and how the results they found might be expected to apply to people inhaling the incense. Also, I don’t know much about how incense is made and whether frankincense is used in the incense sticks or cones you buy in the store, and if so, how much. I’m sure the point is not self-therapy (I wonder if Nag Champa contains the same stuff?) but rather that this brain/chemical interaction tells us interesting things about how depression and anxiety work, and about possible therapies for the future. Still, I’m curious.
To follow up on the post about the science of religion, here’s an article from Science & Spirit that describes the neurochemistry and brain activity that underlie mystical experiences. It’s a nice summary of various recent pieces of research, written by an atheist who looks at her own experience of transcendence in terms of what was happening in her brain and body at the time.