Meditation, prayer alter brain, says researcher

Ventura County Star: Labeled one of the world’s leading experts on spirituality and the brain by Time and Newsweek magazines, neuroscientist Mark Waldman has found that a few simple modified meditations can change the brain in ways that promote physical, emotional and cognitive health and may even slow down the brain’s aging process. “The neurological benefits of meditation are undeniable. Our research has documented how meditation, prayer and spiritual practices alter both the structure and function of the brain,” he said. “Meditation can be modified to improve academic performance, and our newest research shows that it may even slow down the aging process of the brain. Thus our research touches on some of the most important concerns of society.”

Labeled one of the world’s leading experts on spirituality and the brain by Time and Newsweek magazines, neuroscientist Mark Waldman has found that a few simple modified meditations can change the brain in ways that promote physical, emotional and cognitive health and may even slow down the brain’s aging process.

“This, we propose, leads to greater cooperation between people: with couples, spouses, families, business associates and other groups of people,” said Waldman, a therapist with a counseling practice in Agoura Hills and Camarillo. He also is an associate fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, where he conducts research on the neuropsychology of beliefs, morality, compassion and spiritual experiences.

“The neurological benefits of meditation are undeniable. Our research has documented how meditation, prayer and spiritual practices alter both the structure and function of the brain,” he said. “Meditation can be modified to improve academic performance, and our newest research shows that it may even slow down the aging process of the brain. Thus our research touches on some of the most important concerns of society.”

With that, Waldman will present Spirituality, Compassion and the Brain, a workshop on March 8 at the Center for Spiritual Living in Thousand Oaks, to be preceded by a morning lecture on “The Neurons of Empathy.”

“Few people understand how the brain works, so I use animated videos and even a cauliflower named Mildred to explain in simple terms some of the powerful effects that meditation and spiritual practices have on the brain,” said Waldman, co-author of two books, the acclaimed “Born to Believe” and the soon-to-be released “How God Changes Your Brain,” in which he and neuroscientist Andrew Newberg demonstrate how different forms of meditation and prayer improve memory and reduce anxiety, depression and anger.

Some new techniques

“Also, Dr. Newberg and I have developed several new ways to enhance neurological performance,” said Waldman, whose research along with Newberg’s findings has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek and Time and on National Geographic TV.

“For example, did you know that yawning can make you more alert and relaxed more quickly than any other stress-reduction technique?” Waldman said. “In my talk, I will discuss the eight best ways to exercise and improve your brain, and each way is documented by hundreds of supporting research studies.”

His talk will include other research findings, including examples of how people envision God, and why all people, including nonbelievers, have a “God” neuron or circuit in their brain.

“I’ll play audio samples of people speaking in tongues, showing how the brain is altered in ways that promote creativity,” Waldman said. “I’ll explain why the reality we experience is not the reality that actually exists out there and why prayer does not influence another person’s health but why it may be an invaluable practice to boost one’s own immune system and health.”

Doing good on two levels

Additionally, “I’ll explain why optimism — which you can also call faith or hope — is the most important element in maintaining a healthy body and mind,” he said, adding, “I’ll demonstrate how a 12-minute chanting exercise improves memory in cognitively impaired patients.”

In the current climate marked by fear and diminished trust in our very foundational structure, Waldman draws attention to spiritual practices and the outstanding results that can be produced when these practices are consistently applied, said Sue Rubin, senior pastor at the Center for Spiritual Living.

“The goal of Mark’s talk is to draw people’s attention away from outward focus into the conscious awareness of what we all can do through the discipline of inner spiritual practice offering the opportunity for people to gain a greater sense of their own empowerment and choice,” Rubin said.

In a world filled with so many competing and conflicting values and beliefs, anything we can do to ease the tensions among people is important, Waldman emphasized.

“My goal is to generate greater understanding and compassion between people who hold different religious and political beliefs ” he said. “I want to do whatever I can to help people get along better with each other.”

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Faith: credible mystery

Photo by Mathijs Beks on Unsplash
Examining the place of faith in Buddhism, Nagapriya outlines why it is a crucial tool for understanding.

“For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but believe so that I may understand. For this too I believe: that unless I shall have believed, I may not understand.”

For St. Anselm, belief or faith was the starting point from which his spiritual inquiry began, the foundation upon which it rested, not its result. He saw his belief as something to understand, confirm and unfold, not something he needed to justify to himself or the world. In an age where reason is king and supreme judge, St. Anselm’s reliance upon faith may seem medieval, even intellectually naive. And yet, for me at least, it is resonant. It seems to encapsulate the essential paradox of faith: that it is the precondition of spiritual understanding, not its goal.

I came to Buddhism as a floundering human being, not as a logician seeking proof of the Buddha’s ‘theories’. Before I knew anything about Buddhism, a seed of faith was already there: I hoped there could be a way out of my spiritual crisis. A dyed-in-the-wool skeptic might consider even this as evidence of credulity, but I think it is more reasonable than resignation or despair. Since I did not know if there was a way out of my existential predicament, I was faced with a choice: to accept there was none, or to hope there was and to look for it. If I had chosen the first the discovery of meaning would have been impossible, the second at least offered a chance. Even the strongest reasons will never persuade a skeptic that a spiritual path is worth undertaking.

Paradoxically, in order to develop faith we must already have faith or at least a seed of it. Faith has, however, become an intellectually discredited source of knowledge, dismissed as the refuge of the weak: for insecure people seeking easy certainties. Exposure to religious cults has no doubt intensified suspicion of anyone who proclaims their faith. We have learned to demand reason, science and hard facts. Faith and reason are seen as opposed: the one naive, credulous and unreliable, the other informed, rigorous and trustworthy. Ironically, western culture appears to have an unqualified faith in reason — especially the scientific method.

Buddhism has been popularly acclaimed as “the religion of reason,” even claimed as a philosophy that can be divorced from contaminating religious features. Buddhism, it is sometimes proposed, is entirely rational, as it does not depend on unverifiable beliefs, such as belief in the existence of a creator God. But such a description, while having an element of truth, knocks the stuffing out of Buddhism. Although Buddhism can be expounded rationally, what motivates the individual Buddhist to practice is certainly not reason. Reason could not have compelled me to abandon previously cherished goals and embrace a life of spiritual discipline. Reason articulates, supports and confirms the commitments that I make on quite different grounds. What inspires people to strive towards a spiritual ideal is not reason but an emotional conviction. Faith moves us to act.

 Paradoxically, in order to develop faith we must already have faith or at least a seed of it.  

But what does faith mean in the context of Buddhism? In what does a Buddhist have faith? And how is it generated? “Faith” is an emotive term: for some positively so, for others negatively. But we should not be put off by a word. It has much in common with such words as confidence, trust and conviction that most of us use happily. I find conviction especially resonant since it evokes the robustness, stability and, above all, passionate commitment that is the characteristic of faith.

Traditionally, the primary object of faith for a Buddhist is the Buddha and secondary objects are the Dharma and the Sangha. Collectively these Three Jewels are the principal ideals of Buddhism. The individual Buddhist has faith that the Buddha was Enlightened and that Enlightenment is an ideal realizable not only by himself or herself but also by all humanity. But how is it possible to have confidence in this? The Buddha died a long time ago, there is no means of verifying his attainment and, besides, how can we have confidence in someone’s attainment of a state that seems wholly beyond all we know? Buddhist faith rests upon three grounds: intuition, reason and experience.


Faith is an intuitive conviction that the Buddha was Enlightened, that his teaching is true, and that we can emulate his spiritual achievement. It is not an intellectual conclusion but a passionate assent expressed through devotion, service and discipleship. It is as though, deep down, the potential for Enlightenment within oneself resonates with the testimony of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. At first it is vague, even shaky, but through time it becomes firm, clear and robust. The more one pays attention to this intuitive conviction, in order to understand and then articulate it, the more it flowers into Wisdom.

At the age of 19, I was part-way through a Philosophy degree that — naively — I had hoped would enable me to discover ‘the meaning of life’. After my first year I had a deep realization that intellectual inquiry alone was a futile method for generating beliefs upon which to base my life. Moreover I realized that I did not believe in God and that no-one was going to save me. I was on my own. I could see no way forward until I encountered Buddhism. Somehow, without even knowing what Buddhism taught, I felt a conviction that this was the way out and, as the months and years rolled by, this intuitive faith settled into a steadier, more informed commitment.

 For me, the mystery of faith is not why it is, but that it is.  

Faith often arises seemingly from nowhere, without warning, like a flower blossoming in a wasteland. For me, the mystery of faith is not why it is, but that it is. Based on a fleeting encounter, on a book left lying around, or a chance meeting on a bus, the whole course of a person’s life can be irrevocably changed. This seems almost miraculous.

But is intuition to be trusted? While there can be no proof as to the truthfulness of one’s faith, this does not mean it is unreasonable or unreliable. A characteristic of human life is that much of what we think we know cannot be proved. Logical certainty is a rare thing and has only a small part to play in our lives. Most decisions are based on far less compelling grounds than those which inspired my commitment to the Buddhist path, but this is not to say they are unreasonable.


Reason functions as a means of testing and clarifying our convictions. While it is possible to have correct intuitions, it is also possible to have false ones, so until our intuitive faculty is sufficiently refined, reason remains indispensable. For example, I may have an intuitive conviction that I am on live television, that all my friends are actors and that my world is no more than an elaborate film set. Being a reasonable person I decide to investigate the matter, only to find that the evidence before me points unequivocally to the reality of the world, rather than to its being a fabrication. In such circumstances, it would be unreasonable not to accept that I am, in fact, living in the “real world” (though it remains a logical possibility that I have been systematically misled, as in the film The Truman Show). The fact that it may be possible for a belief to be false does not mean it is unreasonable to hold it. Most of our beliefs would be discarded by such a measure. The reasonableness of a belief is found in relation to the weight of the available evidence, not to logical certainty.

There may be beliefs, however, for which there seems to be no decisive evidence either way. The belief that the Buddha was Enlightened is like this. There is no compelling evidence to recommend it — it is difficult even to know what it means — while, at the same time, there is no convincing evidence against it. The Buddhist scriptures say that the Buddha was Enlightened, but they may simply represent the wishful thinking of pious followers. Undoubtedly the Buddha (at least as presented by the Buddhist scriptures) exerted a profound influence on many people, but this proves nothing about his spiritual attainment: many charlatans have done the same. Hence, testing the belief that the Buddha was Enlightened using reason alone is inconclusive.

Does this matter? In practice I do not think it does. It is questionable whether one needs to hold any such belief to practice effectively as a Buddhist. Enlightenment represents the highest possible development of the human individual. Perhaps the minimum faith needed for Buddhism to become meaningful is trust that one can change for the better, that such change will lead to greater self-fulfillment and that Buddhism offers beliefs and practices that will encourage this to happen.


 The relationship between intuition, reason and experience is not always simple.  

Faith achieves its decisive confirmation through experience. Only when we realize for ourselves the truths that Buddhism propounds can we feel fully confident that faith has been justified. This is a progressive process. Consequent upon our initial faith, we decide to practice according to the Buddha’s teaching. After some time our experience begins to confirm the reliability of that teaching as we experience for ourselves the fruits that it promises. This enables us to place our faith in the Dharma more fully and even to trust in those teachings, for example rebirth, that are not immediately verifiable.

But what if experience does not bear out our intuition or seems to contradict it? Do we then abandon our belief? Buddhism teaches that through ethical practice we become happy, but there are surely many people who are ethical but miserable. We could suggest they are simply not ‘good’ enough, but what if they are the most virtuous people we know, yet still unhappy?

The relationship between intuition, reason and experience is not always simple, and it may be a long time before an intuition is confirmed in experience. This suggests that an essential aspect of faith is patience.

Finally, how does faith arise? A Buddhist teaching known as the 12 progressive links, which provides a positive account of the Buddhist spiritual path, offers some clues. The first element in this path is suffering, and in dependence upon suffering arises the second element, faith. To understand the link between these experiences better, I will introduce a term from Pali Buddhism: samvega or disillusionment. Bhikkhu Thanissaro expounds this term well:

Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.

The final dimension of the experience of samvega is crucial — the urgently felt impulse to escape from the emptiness of ordinary existence. That there is such a way out and that we can respond to it is what leads us towards the experience of faith and saves us from despair. The experience of samvega is not usually seen as a healthy response to the limitations of the world but as an inability to cope, even as mental illness. People may be told not to take life so seriously, to ‘make the best of it’, even given medication to dull their existential sensitivity. In this way a precious opportunity for faith is lost.

Perhaps it is only through a deep experience of samvega that faith becomes a serious possibility. Until we recognize that ordinary life is a problem, the possibility of a solution does not arise. As Wittgenstein remarked: It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it.

Intuition, reason and experience function concurrently as means of establishing and then testing faith. Faith is not an optional extra but the indispensable ground on which spiritual practice is based. It is the fuel that drives one forward. Faith is an upward leap of the heart; a joyful celebration of human promise.

Without faith we would never take up a challenge or would lose heart when faced with adversity. The conviction that Buddhism offers a path towards spiritual fulfillment is a mysterious impulse that each Buddhist must cultivate, cherish, test and ultimately realize.

nagapriyaNagapriya is a long-standing member of the Western Buddhist Order who, amongst other things, lectures on Buddhism at the University of Manchester, England. His first book, Exploring Karma and Rebirth (previously reviewed on Wildmind), is widely available. His next book, an overview of Mahayana Buddhism, is due late 2008. Nagapriya has a blog at

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Buddhism and the 12 Steps (Beliefnet)

Kevin Griffin (Excerpted from “One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps”): Both Buddhist practice and 12-Step programs encourage followers to have faith in their own experience.

How Can I Believe?

Buddhism offers a safe way to approach faith. The Buddha invited people to “come and see,” ehi-passiko—to come and see for yourself. In the same way, Twelve Step programs don’t recruit members but use their members’ success in dealing with addiction to speak for itself, a policy called “attraction rather than promotion.” Nobody’s trying to sell you something with Buddhism or the Twelve Steps—quite literally, since both are primarily supported by donation—but rather they invite you to see how they work for others and yourself before making a commitment.

The Buddha understood the challenge of faith. In the India of his time, many competing teachers claimed to be the repositories of Truth. One community of eager spiritual seekers, the Kalamas, were confused, and asked his advice. In his famous and fundamental teaching, “The Dilemma of the Kalamas,” the Buddha explains how to decide whether a teacher or teaching is useful.

The Buddha starts by sweeping away the past as the container of wisdom. It doesn’t matter what people tell you or what’s been written down; you don’t have to believe something just because it’s got the weight of history and tradition behind it, he says.

He goes on to assert that it’s not enough that a teaching appeals to our intellect, our logic. While the ideas behind a teaching may be appealing, that doesn’t mean they work in real life. What’s also implied here is that, just because a teaching “feels right” doesn’t mean it is right—a critical point, since we are often drawn to ideas that fit with our own preferences, whether accurate or not.

Finally, he warns against accepting an opinion just because your teacher holds it.

The Buddha takes away many of the standard routes to faith: scripture, tradition, logic, authority. And what he says then is that if you want to know the value of a teacher’s offering, you have to try it out and see what the results are. If the results are good, keep it up; if not, drop it. But, to guard against bias in your own interpretation of the results, you should also check with the wise. One way to determine if someone is wise is to see if they are living a skillful life. In Twelve Step terms, “Do you want what they have?” To check with the wise means to listen to the advice of those we trust: a sponsor, mentor, therapist, sibling, parent, friend, or teacher. (Although we don’t do something automatically because someone else said we should, we do not dismiss out of hand the suggestions of those who are close to us.)

For those of us skeptics who need proof of the value of a practice or belief, this is a helpful invitation. You can try out the practice, study the teachings, sit with a teacher, and see what happens. If your life gets better and if “wise” people approve, you know you’re on the right track. For those whose faith has been damaged, this is also a gentle approach that can rebuild trust and help to gradually open to the possibility of a renewed spiritual life.

Faith, the Spiritual Faculty

Alcoholism is a disease of faith. Alcoholics often develop a cynical attitude toward life, not seeing anything to believe in. When you persistently feel the need to change your consciousness through drugs or booze, you are expressing a lack of trust in life itself. And, in some ways, you are expressing a lack of trust in yourself, in your ability to tolerate life undiluted, to find value in your own, unadulterated experience.

This same difficulty confronts the beginning meditator. Meditation is even more unadulterated than sobriety. Intentionally stopping activity and any diversion can be intimidating. Many people say, “I could never sit still for that long—twenty minutes!” Even without drugs or booze, many of us are trying to control our consciousness with food, TV, music, reading, and other daily habits. Stopping all activity as we do in Meditation is like a new layer of sobriety: ultimate abstinence (a new X Game?). Trusting this process is frightening, whether you are an alcoholic or not.

Nick, an independent filmmaker, went through a remarkable process with faith. When he began meditation practice he told me that he’d never been able to sit still. Even as a kid he’d always gotten in trouble in school because he was always squirming in his seat. As an adult he’d been treated for anxiety and panic attacks. He was nervous about the idea of meditating for even twenty minutes. We talked about different ways to work with this, and he decided to try an unusual approach.

Each day he would go to a park on the UCLA campus near his house. He found a beautiful glen that was usually quiet. There he did walking meditation for twenty minutes. After developing some calm through walking, he then sat on a bench. In the beginning he would just try to sit for five minutes. After some time, he began to stretch the sitting period, first to ten minutes, fifteen, and up to twenty.

He was beginning to develop confidence in his own ability to sit still and be with his anxiety. He continued to practice in this way until he was able to skip the walking altogether. He bought a meditation cushion and began sitting at home, eventually taking daylong and weekend retreats that required longer and longer periods of stillness. Although in times of stress he still has feelings of anxiety, he’s learned to work with these feelings by opening to them and developing calm. In this simple, step-by-step way, he has developed faith in himself and faith in the power of the practice as well.

Although Buddhism and the Twelve Steps both require us to develop faith, thankfully neither requires that we swallow a dogma or belief system whole. Both allow us to take on the amount of faith we can handle, little by little. Step Two says we “came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,” not that this power could fix everything in our lives. Restoring us to sanity in this case, means helping us get clean and sober.

This isn’t a huge Step, and it is often initially made by accepting the group of sober people who you practice the Steps with as a kind of Higher Power. Seeing how the Steps have allowed these people to stay sober—sometimes for unimaginably long times, like six months—can give you the confidence to venture into the process yourself.

In the same way, when we begin meditation, like Nick, we may not feel much calm or insight ourselves, but joining a room full of peaceful meditators often convinces us that there’s some value to practice. Once we have this seed of faith, we’re on the way to developing our program and our practice.

We all need this seed of faith to weather the difficult early stages of practice when the mind seems to wander endlessly, alternating periods of restlessness and sleepiness leave us frustrated, and sensations we’ve never felt before appear in the body. And we all need faith to weather early sobriety, with its roller-coaster ride of emotions, awkward first stabs at living more ethically, and unfamiliar, deer-in-the-headlights clarity.

As you practice more, the meditative experience grows deeper and richer. At the same time, you may want to read and hear more of the Buddhist teachings or make a connection with a Buddhist teacher who seems to be living the teachings. In the Twelve Step process, as sobriety takes effect, things improve in your life. You begin to read the literature and gather with others who help you learn how to live without booze or drugs. Finally, when you find a sponsor, you begin to have regular support and inspiration from someone who has truly benefited from and fulfills the promise of sobriety.

These are three of the foundations of faith: practice, study, and contact with a teacher, guide, or spiritual friend. As you practice, you see for yourself the results; as you study, your own experience gets put in perspective of the dharma and the Steps; and, as you sit with a teacher or spend time with a sponsor, you are guided and inspired. In this way, faith develops organically, not based on threats from a punishing God or the mysterious, inscrutable teachings of a foggy past, but through direct experience.

Kevin Griffin is a writer, meditation teacher, and musician. He lives in Northern California with his wife, the novelist Rosemary Graham, and their daughter. He is a graduate of the University of California at Irvine MFA program and the Spirit Rock Community Dharma Leader program.

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