God

“The Buddha’s Wager”

In the 17th century, the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal outlined his famous “wager,” attempting to make a case for why we should believe in God. Briefly, the wager rested on the assumption that their either is or is not a God, that no logical proof can be make for either proposition, and that believing or not believing is a coin toss that we can’t avoid making. Weighing up the consequences of the coin toss, Pascal pointed out that “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.” Therefore, he argued, we should unhesitatingly believe in God, in order that we might win an “infinity of an infinitely happy life.”

Better minds than mine have picked over the premises of this wager, but we could consider perhaps that we might worship the wrong God (this is Homer Simpson’s Wager: “Suppose we’ve chosen the wrong god. Every time we go to church we’re just making him madder and madder!”). Or we could consider that God might have a thing against people who try to game his system, and might have a special place in hell reserved especially for them.

The Buddha, over 2,000 years earlier, had proposed his own wager. The wager is found in a famous discourse in which he helped a clan called the Kalamas who were confused because they encountered many spiritual teachers with conflicting messages and were unable to decide which to listen to. The Buddha’s answer is rightly famous because he told the Kalamas not to rely on conjecture, tradition, holy books, habit, and even logic. Instead, he said, they should rely on experience — evaluating experientially whether teachings, when put into practice, are praised by the wise and lead to welfare and happiness. (The wise are those, presumably, who you have observed experientially to be right about such matters.)

That’s the part that the Kalama Sutta is well-known for. The wager is found a little further on, where the Buddha tells the Kalamas that his disciples acquire four assurances in the here and now. The first two of these assurances are as follows:

  1. If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.
  2. But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.

We’re not told why the Buddha decided to say this, but given that he was talking to a bunch of people who were skeptical and confused about the claims of spiritual teachers, it seems likely that they had asked him whether the system of practice he taught made sense if rebirth wasn’t a reality. And clearly, he thought it did.

This is of comfort to those us of who are agnostic, at best, about the likelihood of rebirth. On the one hand, I find it hard (to say the least) to imagine how consciousness could survive the death of the brain, exist independently of a body, and transfer itself to another body. On the other hand, we live in a universe where there are things like quantum entanglement and in which 95% of the matter that constitutes it is unknown, so who knows? The evidence for rebirth rests largely on supposed memories of past lives. In some cases it does seem there is such evidence, but on the other hand that evidence might be tainted by the belief systems of those conducting the investigations, especially where children are concerned.

As a result of such considerations, I describe myself as “profoundly agnostic” on the matter of rebirth, and this annoys some of my fellow Buddhists. But the Buddha himself seems to have suggested that it’s acceptable for a disciple to practice with rebirth being an open question, so I’m happy with my agnosticism. And more than that, the Buddha clearly held that belief in rebirth wasn’t necessary in order for us to experience the benefits of practice. So whether I come back (or something comes back) after death, I have this assurance, that my practice benefits me and others, right here, right now.

Read More

The Mind, the Brain, and God – Part III

Universal MindIn Part I and Part II of this series, we discussed the meaning of the words: mind; brain and God, and looked at the interdependence between the mind and the brain.

In this last part of the discussion we’ll examine the neural correlates and morality and summarize the discussion.

Do Neural Correlates Mean There’s No Soul?

The last sentence in the article on the NPR site really caught my eye: “If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, [the scholar said], it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.”

First, to repeat the point made in the previous blog post, it’s simplistic to claim that morality has a “mechanical explanation”– in other words, that morality boils down to “just” the operations of the material (= mechanical) brain – simply because there are neural correlates to moral experience and action.

Second, to the heart of the matter, the closing sentence refers to the view, held by different religions and philosophies, that the fundamental source of morality – and by extension, human goodness, compassion, altruism, kindness, etc. – is transcendental, such as a proposed soul, divine spark, or Mind of God. In the culture wars of the last few decades, studies on the neural substrates of the loftier realms of experience and behavior (including the one discussed here, on moral judgment) have been taken as evidence by some that we don’t need transcendental factors to account for those aspects of a human life – and by extension, that such transcendental factors do not exist: in other words, that “people do not have or need a soul.” Let’s try to unpack this.

Human psychology alone – without reference to transcendental factors – can fully account for morality, or it cannot. (And as we’ve seen, that psychology is inextricably intertwined with our neurology.) Separately, either there are transcendental factors or there are not. If we do not make the assumption that morality is based on God, then evidence that morality requires only a mind and brain is not evidence against the existence of God.

You see a similar fallacy in the cultural conflicts over the implications of biological evolution. If one believes that “God created Man,” then evidence that modern humans gradually evolved from hominid and primate ancestors sounds like an argument against the existence or importance of God. Those who think that evolution would somehow eliminate God consider evidence for it to be a kind of blasphemy, so some school boards have tried to slip creationism into science textbooks.

Yes, the evolutionary account of life on this planet does undermine the story of God the Creator in the book of Genesis, but that’s just one portrayal of the nature of God. Setting aside that particular portrayal leaves plenty of other ways that God could work in the world. Evidence that God did not create Man is not evidence that there is no God: in principle, God could exist and not have created Man. In other words, a reasonable person could believe both that evolution has unfolded without being guided by the hand of God and that God exists – and similarly believe that morality does not require God and that God exists. It is a category error, and a deeply unscientific one, to think that evidence for the neuropsychological substrates of morality is evidence against a soul (or against other transcendental factors).

In this light, one does not need to resist evidence for evolution, or for the neuropsychology of morality or spiritual experiences. This point has significant social implications, because the resistance to scientific findings out of a fear that they somehow challenge faith has dramatically lowered scientific literacy in America. For example, in the 2008, biannual survey by the National Science Board of scientific understanding, only 45% of respondents agreed that, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” Th is percentage is much lower than in Japan (78%) , Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). Similarly, only 33% of those surveyed agreed that, “The universe began with a big explosion.”

Summing Up

To be clear: I am not asserting that there is or is not God; nor am I asserting that, if God exists, he/she/it/none-of-the-above plays a role in mind, consciousness, or morality. I am asserting that attempts to draw inferences from neuropsychology about God’s existence or role in human affairs are usually a waste of time. At most such inferences can refute a particular theory about God’s role in life – such as God is necessary for human morality, or for the existence of our species altogether. But that leaves all sorts of other theories about God that are not yet disproved – as well as the fundamental matter that God is by definition categorically outside the realm of proofs or disproofs within the material universe.

God may or may not exist. You have to find your own beliefs in that regard – and brain science will not help you.

Read More

The Mind, the Brain and God – Part II

Universal MindIn Part I we discussed the meaning of the words mind, brain and God and saw how the mind and the brain are interdependent.

In this segment we’ll go into the popular arguments for and against God and further into the link between the mind and the brain.

Proofs and Disproofs

Lately, numerous authors have tried to rebut beliefs in God (e.g., The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins), while others have tried to rebut the rebuttals (e.g., Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case against God). The intensity of these debates is often startling; people commonly talk past each other, arguing at different levels; and the “evidence” marshaled for one view or another is often hollow. (A delightful exception is the dialogue between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris.)

For example, it’s an error to conflate religion and God. Whether religions are wonderful or horrible or both is not evidence for or against the existence of God. Critiques of religion (e.g., the Crusades, fundamentalism) are not disproofs of God. It’s also an error to think that biological evolution is evidence for the nonexistence of God. Just because a creation story developed thousands of years ago turns out to be inaccurate does not mean that God does not exist. Evolution does not need to be attacked in order to have faith in God.

Then there are so-called proofs of the existence of God within the material universe (e.g., burning bushes, miracles, visions, psychic phenomena). But that “evidence” must be experienced via the brain and mind. Therefore, in principle, that experience could simply be produced by the mind/brain alone, without divine intervention. (You could assert that God is known by some transcendental faculty outside of materiality, but then you’d still have to explain how the knowing achieved by that transcendental faculty is communicated to the material brain, so you are back to the original problem, that the ordinary brain could be making up information purportedly derived from a transcendental source.) So you can’t prove the existence of the transcendental through material evidence.

On the other hand, since any God by definition extends beyond the frame of materiality, nothing in the material universe can disprove its existence. You could endlessly rebut apparent evidence for the existence of God, but those rebuttals can not in themselves demonstrate that God is a fiction. At most, they can only eliminate a piece of apparent evidence, but in terms of ultimate conclusions, so what? As scientists say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Further, a God outside the frame of materiality (particularly a playful one) could amuse herself by fostering rebuttals of seeming evidence for her existence in order to bug some people and test the faith of others: who knows? Most anything could be possible for a transcendental being, ground, something-or-other.

Bottom-line: You can’t prove or disprove the existence of God. So the fundamentally scientific attitude is to acknowledge the possibility of God, and then move on to working within the frame of science, which is plenty fertile as is, without resorting to God.

Let’s explore an illustration of how these issues often play out in the media.

Is the Mind “Just” the Brain?

Recently a friend sent me an article on the National Public Radio (NPR) website, titled “Study Narrows Gap between Mind and Brain,” about some new research. The investigators had found that suppressing neural activity in a part of the brain (on the right side, near where the temporal and parietal lobes come together) changed the way that subjects made moral judgments: they became less able to take the intentions of others into account.

The study itself is interesting, and takes its place in a growing body of research on the neuropsychology of moral reasoning and behavior. But the article about it on the NPR site contains comments from a scholar from a leading university that are worth examining. He is initially quoted as saying: “Moral judgment is just a brain process.” Hmm. What does the “just” mean? He could have said something like, “Moral judgment involves processes in the brain,” but instead he seemed to assert that the psychological subtleties of ethics, altruism, hypocrisy, and integrity, are just epiphenomena of the brain. Whether this is exactly what he meant or not, let’s consider this idea in its own right: that our thoughts and feelings, longings and fears, and subtle moral or spiritual intimations are “just” the movements of the meat, to put it bluntly,between the ears. This is a common notion these days, but there are numerous problems with it.

First, neural processes certainly do underlie mental processes. For example, as the study showed, normal right temporal-parietal function underlies reflections about the intentions of others in moral reasoning. But those neural activities are in the service of mental ones. That’s their point. We evolved neural structures and processes in order to further psychological adaptations that conferred reproductive advantages, which is the engine of biological evolution. Mind is not an epiphenomenon of brain: mind is the function of the brain, its reason for existence.

Second, mental processes pattern neural structure. Morality-related information – in other words, mental activity – has shaped the brain of each person since early childhood. As Dan Siegel puts it, the mind uses the brain to make the mind. In a basic sense, it would be just as accurate to say that “the brain is just the mind writ in neural tissues.”

Third, the neural substrates of conscious mental activity are continually changing in their physical details (e.g., neurons involved in a substrate, connections among them, and neurochemical flows). This means that the thought “2 + 2 = 4” on Monday maps to a different neural substrate than it does on Tuesday; in fact, that math fact would have a different substrate if you re-thought it only a few seconds later on Monday! Similarly, reflections on the Golden Rule on Monday will have a different neural substrate than on Tuesday. Consequently, it is the meaning of the thought that is fundamental, not its neural substrate. Taking this a step further, the ideas that two and two are four, or that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us, can be represented in many sorts of physical substrates, including marks on a page, patterns of sound waves, and magnetic charges on a computer hard drive. Here, too, it is the information, the meaning, that is the key matter, and the physical substrate, whether brain or something else, recedes in significance.

Fourth, and most fundamentally, the mind and the brain co-dependently arise. It’s kind of
silly to make one causally senior to the other. Psychology shapes neurology shapes psychology shapes neurology, and so on. These two are distinct – immaterial information is not material neural tissues – but they are also interdependent and cannot be understood apart from each other. There is indeed a dualism between mind and matter, but they also form one coherent system. When people try to de-link mind and brain, and then argue that one rather than the other is primary – The mind is really just the brain at work! or The brain is really just the mind at work! – there is usually some sort of agenda going on: typically either an attempt to argue a strongly materialist, even atheist view, or to argue a fundamentalist spiritual view. But arguments about the primacy of either mind or brain are just not productive: all they produce is smoke and heat, but no light.

In the last part of this series we’ll discuss neural correlates and morality and summarize this discussion.

Read More

The Mind, the Brain, and God – Part I

With all the research on mind/brain connections these days – Your brain in lust or love! While gambling or feeling envious! While meditating, praying, or having an out-of-body experience! – it’s natural to wonder about Big Questions about the relationships among the mind, the brain, and God.For instance, some people have taken the findings that some spiritual experiences have neural correlates to mean that the hand of God is at work in the brain. Others have interpreted the same research to mean that spiritual experiences are “just” neural, and thus evidence against the existence of God or other supernatural forces. These debates are updated versions of longstanding philosophical and religious wrestlings with how God and nature might or might not intertwine.What’s your own gut view, right now, as a kind of snapshot: Do you think that God is involved in some way in your thoughts and feelings? In your most intimate sense of being?

In this essay, we’ll explore what mind, brain, and God could be, how they might interact, and what studies on the neuropsychology of spiritual experiences can – and cannot – tell us.

What the Words Mean

The more profound the subject, the murkier the discussion. There’s a lot of fog and illogic in books, articles, and blogs about the potential relationships among the mind, the brain, and God. In this territory, it’s particularly important to be clear about key terms – like mind, brain, and God.

So – by mind, I mean the information represented by the nervous system (which has its headquarters in the brain – the three pounds of tofu – like tissue between the ears). This information includes incoming signals about the oxygen saturation in the blood and outgoing instructions to the lungs to take a bigger breath, motor sequences for brushing one’s teeth, tendencies toward anxiety, memories of childhood, knowing how to make pancakes, and the feeling of open spacious mindfulness. Most of mind is outside the field of awareness either temporarily or permanently. Conscious experience – sensations, emotions, wants, images, inner language, etc. – is just the tip of the iceberg of mental activity. The nervous system holds information much like a computer hard drive holds the information in a document, song, or picture. Hardware represents software.

Immaterial information is categorically distinct from its material substrate. For example, often the same information (such as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony) can be represented by a variety of suitable material substrates (e.g., sound waves, music score, CD, iPod). Therefore, at one level of analysis, Descartian dualism is correct: information and matter, mind and body, are two different things. Nonetheless – as we will see – at another, higher level of analysis, it is clear that the mind and the nervous system arise interdependently, shaping each other, as one integrated process. (And perhaps at a lower level of analysis – that of quantum phenomena – information and materiality are inextricably woven together; but I’m not going there in this essay!)

Mind, as I define it here, occurs in any creature with a nervous system. Humans have a mind – and so do monkeys, squirrels, lizards, worms, and dust mites. More complex nervous systems can produce more complex minds. But just as there is a spectrum of complexity of the nervous system, from the simplest jellyfish 600 million years ago to a modern human, there is a similar spectrum of complexity in the mind. Or to put it bluntly, there is no categorical distinction between the mind of a millipede and a mathematician. The difference is one of degree, not kind. (And how many mathematicians – or anyone, for that matter – could move dozens of limbs together in undulating harmony?)

By God, I mean a transcendental Something (being, force, ground, mystery, question mark) that is outside the frame of materiality; materiality includes matter and energy since E=mc2, plus dark matter/energy, plus other wild stuff that scientists will discover in the future. God is generally described in two major ways: as an omniscient and omnipotent being “who knows when a sparrow falls,” or as a kind of Ground from and as which everything arises – with many variations on these two view, plus syntheses and divergences.
By definition, while God may intersect or interact with the material universe, it is in some sense other than that universe – otherwise we don’t need another word than “universe.” For example, if someone says that God is the same thing as nature, that begs the question of whether God exists, distinct from nature.

The Interdependent Mind and Brain

Let’s review three facts about the mind and the brain.

First, when your brain changes, your mind changes. Everyday examples include the effects of caffeine, antidepressants, lack of sleep, and having a cold. More extreme examples: concussion, stroke, brain damage, and dementia.

Without a brain, you can’t have a mind. The brain is a necessary condition for the mind. And apart from the hypothetical influence of God – which we’ll be discussing further on – the brain is a sufficient condition for the mind. Or more exactly, a proximally sufficient condition for the mind, since the brain intertwines with the nervous system and other bodily systems, which in turn intertwine with nature, both here and now, and over evolutionary time; and as you’ll see in the next paragraph, the brain also depends on the mind.

Second, when your mind changes, your brain changes. Temporary changes include the activation of different neural circuits or regions when you have different kinds of thoughts, feelings, moods, attention, or even sense of self. For example, the anterior (frontal) cingulate cortex gets relatively busy (thus consuming more oxygen) when people meditate; the caudate nucleus in the reward centers of the brain lights up when college students see a photo of their sweetheart; and stressful experiences trigger flows of cortisol into the brain, sensitizing the amygdala (the brain’s alarm bell).

Mental activity also sculpts neural structure, so changes in your mind can lead to lasting changes in your brain. This is learning and memory (as well as lots of other alterations in neural structure below the waterline of conscious awareness): in other words, neuroplasticity, most of which is humdrum, like remembering what you had for breakfast, or getting more skillful at chopsticks with practice.

Examples of neuroplasticity include:

  • Meditators have a thicker anterior cingulate cortex and insula (a part of the brain that tracks the internal state of the body); a thicker cortex means more synapses, capillaries (bringing blood), and support cells.
  • Cab drivers have a thicker hippocampus (which is central to visual spatial memory) at the end of their training, memorizing the spaghetti snarl of streets in London.
  • Pianists have thicker motor cortices in the areas responsible for fine finger movements.

Within science, it has been long presumed that mental activity changed neural structure – how else in the world could any animal, including humans, learn anything? – so the idea of neuroplasticity is not news (though it’s often erroneously described as a breakthrough). What is news is the emerging detail in our understanding of the mechanisms of neuroplasticity, which include increasing blood flow to busy neurons, altering gene expression (epigenetics), strengthening existing synapses (the connections between neurons), and building new ones. This growing understanding creates opportunities for self-directed neuroplasticity, for using the mind in targeted ways to change the brain to change the mind for the better. Some of these ways are dramatic, such as stroke victims drawing on undamaged parts of the brain to regain function. But most of them are the stuff of everyday life, such as building up the neural substrate of well – controlled attention through meditative practice. Or deliberately savoring positive experiences several times a day to increase their storage in implicit memory, thus defeating the brain’s innate negativity bias, which makes it like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. (You can learn more about self-directed neuroplasticity in Buddha’s Brain.) Third, the mind and brain co-arise interdependently. The brain makes the mind while the mind makes the brain while the brain makes the mind . . . They are thus properly understood as one unified system.

Stay tuned for the next two parts in this series where we’ll discuss the proofs and disproofs for God, the co-dependance of the mind and the brain, and neuropsychology’s role in understanding the existence of God.

Read More

“There Is No God and He Is Always with You,” by Brad Warner

There Is No God and He Is Always with You, Brad Warner

Brad Warner is an unconventional American Zen teacher, who seems sincerely to believe that he has found God, that God should be — or even is — an intrinsic part of Buddhist practice and realization, that others would benefit if they found God too, and who thinks that that believing in God might actually help us solve the world’s problems. He outlines all this in his latest book, There Is No God And He Is Always With You, in which he offers “straight talk about why this ‘godless religion’ [Zen Buddhism] has a lot to say about God.”

Some of the above will be as confounding for you as it was for me. After all, Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. The Buddha was not God, his spiritual realization had nothing to do with finding God, and the teachings that Buddhists follow have nothing to do with God. Buddhism in fact is attractive to many of us because it’s a spiritual tradition that is non-theistic, but Warner stands this on its head:

…in my opinion it’s entirely wrong to say that Buddhism is a religion without a God. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. To me Buddhism is a way to approach and understand God without dealing with religion.

The God that Warner believes in is not the anthropomorphic deity who, in popular imagination, sits in the sky making judgements about us and choosing, on Saturday afternoons, which college football team he will favor. Warner’s God is the entire universe, is us, is essentially indefinable, and is the supreme truth and ground of all being. For example:

Title: There Is No God And He Is Always With You
Author: Brad Warner
Publisher: New World Library
ISBN: 978-1-60868-183-9
Available from: New World Library, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

  • “I believed that the nonmaterial aspects of our existence were real elements of the natural universe, and that we might call those aspects of the universe God.” (page 138)
  • “I’m not talking about God as the first cause of everything. I’m saying that our direct experience of life is God. Life is God experiencing God.” (page 81)
  • “God transcends any attributes we could imagine. Attributes, qualities, and characteristics all distinguish something from other things. But one of God’s attributes is that he is everything.” (page 122)
  • “…the Chinese word inmo … refers to the ineffable substratum of reality, the ground of all being and nonbeing. To me, this is just another way of saying God.” (page XIV)
  • “The supreme truth is, to me, another name for God.” (XIV)

Warner feels qualified to teach God as a part of Buddhism because he has, he believes, had an experience of God. One time when Warner was crossing a bridge in Tokyo (although he stresses that his experience was outside space and time) he experienced himself as being “spread throughout the universe and throughout all of time.” It sounds like a powerful altered state of perception, although it might seem odd that a Buddhist — someone practicing in a nontheistic religion, would interpret such an experience in theistic terms, which he does: “This was God. Is God. Will always be God,” and “I came away from the experience knowing certain things for absolute fact. I know now that God exists.”

Now, having an experience is one thing, but having had experiences we want to “explain” them in some way, often in terms of our previous beliefs and mindsets. In fact, Warner actually points out, in the context of how spiritual experiences such as this can be dangerous, “You need to work through a lot of your personal shit before you get into something like this, or you’ll only be able to experience it in terms of your own personal shit.”

So the question that arises for me, as a Buddhist who feels no need to interpret his own experiences in theistic terms, and with reluctance to be reductionist and psychological, is whether God is part of Warner’s “shit” that he has not worked through. Interestingly, it seems that he had been searching for God through his Zen practice. For example, “I got into [Zen] for a number of other reasons … but the biggest one was that I wanted to know if God really existed.” So, it does sound rather like Warner had a pre-existing notion of God — wanted to believe in the existence of God, in fact — went looking for God in Zen (an unlikely venue, I would have thought) and then ended up interpreting a powerful experience of nonduality in terms of God.

There are clues in the book suggesting why Warner felt the need to see his spiritual quest in terms of God. In discussing an early Christian theory that God is beyond concepts like existence and non-existence, Warner points out:

“…in order to agree with the logic, you have to first accept that there is something called God who is infinite and omniscient and transcendent and so on. But what if you don’t believe in that in the first place? What if you’re coming to this discussion from the standpoint that all matter is essentially dead and that consciousness is just an accident arising from the movement of electricity in the cerebral cells of animals who think far too highly of their own random brain farts?

So we have a classic false dichotomy here: There is either a God, or we live in a dead universe in which consciousness is nothing more than meaningless “brain farts.” God or meaninglessness. Some of us don’t feel the need to be trapped in that dichotomy and in fact see the Dharma as a middle way — as providing a sense of the life and the universe as containing meaning without recourse to the terminology of “God.” Certainly the Buddha seemed to have no need of such concepts, and I think he knew a thing or two about his own realization.

Similarly we find (on page 188) “When we forget God we treat one another and the world we live in as objects.” This is a classic argument: if we don’t believe in God we can’t be good. God or meaninglessness. And yet many of us — Buddhists, atheists — find that we are perfectly capable of not treating others as objects. Lovingkindness and compassion are virtues that, in Buddhism, don’t rely on God. Morality in Buddhism does not rely on God. In fact morality, in Buddhism, arises from the very structure of the mind, in that our suffering or lack of suffering depend on our volitions, and the thoughts, words, and acts that spring from them. Thus, morality is intrinsic to the mind, and therefore to the universe.

Warner apparently cannot disengage life having meaning, a sense of the universe being alive, and morality from the concept of God. It’s not, therefore, surprising that he went searching for God, nor that he found Him.

On the whole I find Warner’s writing to be very interesting and endearingly honest. For example he’ll tell you something about quantum physics and then say he doesn’t understand it and so isn’t a good person to explain it. But often his talk strikes me as less than “straight,” and he repeatedly uses phrases suggesting that God is an established part of Buddhism. It’s fine when he says something like, “To me Buddhism is a way to approach and understand God without dealing with religion.” But then he’ll say something like “I think it expresses the Zen Buddhist approach to the matter of God very succinctly” (emphasis added). That Zen Buddhism has an approach to the matter of God is a surprise to me.

Similarly:

“There is no God and he is always with you” may sound like a simple non sequitur or a typical pointless Zen riddle. But it expresses the Zen point of view about God very succinctly. Even though what you think of as God can’t possibly exist, there is a real spiritual dimension to this world. There is something that can be called God. [Emphasis added.]

So again we have “the Zen point of view about God,” which seems to be suggesting that God is a part of Zen Buddhism. This Zen point of view, we’re told, is that “there is a real spiritual dimension to this world” (which few would argue with), but also that “there is something that can be called God.” That there is something that can be called God is not, to the best of my knowledge. a part of traditional Zen teaching, although Warner’s choice of words suggests that it is.

And again, he states that the book is an “attempt to make the Zen approach to the question of God comprehensible to a contemporary Western audience steeped in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions.” Not “one Zen Buddhist’s approach to the question of God,” nor “my approach to the question of God,” but “the Zen approach to God.”

If this is a technique for trying to give the impression that Zen (or Buddhism generally) has a position that is favorable to God, then it’s one that I’m disturbed by. It strikes me as talk that is the opposite of straight.

A similar pattern is found in Warner’s discussion of Dogen’s Shobogenzo. At first we have clarity: “Dogen’s writing never mentions God specifically.” Then Warner states his contradictory opinion, making it clear that it is an opinion, “In spite of this, I believe that Dogen’s Buddhism directly addresses questions about the nature of God.” That’s Warner’s belief. That’s fine.

But then the slippery slope begins: “Whenever I read this chapter I tend to substitute the word God for inmo. I don’t know what else Dogen could possibly be talking about other than God.” I don’t know any Japanese, but “inmo” (in other places I’ve seen it as “immo”) seems to be the Chinese or Japanese translation of the Sanskrit “tāthatā,” which is usually rendered as “suchness” — an odd-sounding word meaning something like “the way things are” or “reality.” In a Buddhist context it never means anything like “God.”

Then the momentum of our slippery slope grows: “it’s useful to look at what Dogen wrote about his concept of God” (emphasis added). Now we’re being told that Dogen has a concept of God, although he wrote about no such thing; he wrote about tāthatā, which Warner imagines must be God because he doesn’t know what else Dogen could possibly be talking about. I guess if you have a hammer and are desperate to use it, then everything starts to look like a nail.

Also:

This is where [Dogen] starts to talk about God. He says that another name for “it” [i.e. “inmo/immo, or tathatha/suchness] is the “supreme truth of bodhi.” The word bodhi means “enlightenment” or “awakening.” Dogen says, “The situation of this supreme truth of bodhi is such that even the whole universe in ten directions is just a small part of the supreme truth of bodhi: it may be that the truth of bodhi abounds beyond the universe.”

“This is where he starts to talk about God.” I see no talk about God in that passage, or in anything else Warner quotes from Dogen. I see some deep and intriguing talk about tāthatā and about “the supreme truth of bodhi.” But there’s nothing about God.

And later, “the Buddhist view of things is that God is neither spirit nor matter.” I was unaware that Buddhism had such a view.

These statements seem to me to fly in the face of Warner’s claims to be delivering “straight talk.”

I’m not arguing, of course, that Buddhists, especially in modern times, have talked about God one way or another. Warner gives examples, such as Nishijima Roshi (“God is the universe, the universe is God”), who has taught a lot of westerners and thus has had to deal with questions about God. The expression “There is no God and he is always with you” comes ultimately from Sasaki Roshi, who has also spent a long time (in the US) teaching westerners. But these are responses to people trying to reconcile their existing belief in God with their explorations of the non-theism of Buddhism.

So I’m just saying that God is not an established part of Buddhist teaching — in fact is alien to Buddhist teaching — but that Warner’s choice of words suggest he’s trying to give the impression that Dogen and other traditional Buddhist teachers have a view of God. But even in discussing contemporary teachers, Warner again tends to insert God where he hasn’t been mentioned:

“In Kobun Chino’s words, ‘You are held by the hand of the absolute’: that is, God holds his own hand.” But Kobun’s statement had nothing at all to do with God. He was again talking about tāhtatā, or something similar.

Warner admits that his use of the term “God” is problematic. He says more than once that it’s “dangerous” (page 175) and that it’s also divisive:

I think it would be better for us as Westerners to start using that dangerous and divisive word God when we talk about what happened to Buddha all those centuries ago and what continues to happen to contemporary people who follow his way.

He also accepts that the term God is eternalistic (that is, it contradicts impermanence) and dualistic, but seems to see that — somehow — as a plus:

The fact that eternalism/dualism is enshrined by the word God is one of the many facets of it that makes the word so useful, I think. The nature of my practice has always been that whenever I believe I’ve finally figured out what things mean, there ’s always another aspect that I’ve missed. Just when I believed Buddhism was all about getting rid of eternalism and dualism, there it was in the very fabric of the universe itself, something eternal and dualistic.”

Why does Warner think that this problematic, dangerous, divisive, eternalistic, and dualistic language is useful? Partly because there’s too much talk about enlightenment being something easy to attain, in contrast to “seeing God,” which is not easy to attain:

This is one reason that I’m trying to introduce the word God into the Western Buddhist dialogue. The word enlightenment, or substitutes such as transformation, seems to suggest a psychological state that one might induce with some kind of seminar or fancy technique or drugs. If we start talking in terms of “seeing God,” it might become clearer to everyone that we’re talking about something much grander and much more difficult.

I think this is an insightful identification of a problem, combined with one of the worst conceivable suggestions for a solution. In traditional Christian terms, “seeing God” was indeed a task for spiritual heroes, who would have to go to extreme lengths (sometimes literally — they were often hermits) and commit to challenging and sometimes dangerous practices (some saints starved themselves almost to death in order to see God). And Buddhist teachers touting workshops that promise help you to “realize a deep experience of True Self” (In only two days! For $5000!) are clearly presenting a misleading account of what enlightenment is and how it is attained. But perhaps rather than introducing an alien and problematic concept to Buddhism we should be trying to promote a better understanding of enlightenment and of the difficulty of attaining it. My own equivalent of “seeing God” is my quest to “know the mind of the Buddha,” which is something I see as a lifelong quest, and not something that can be done in a two-day event at the Embassy Suites, LAX South (10:00 AM Monday to 6:00 PM Tuesday).

I’m actually sympathetic to what Warner is trying to achieve. As well as wanting to get away from the idea that enlightenment is easy to attain, he wants people to escape the notion that the universe is “dead” and meaningless. He wants people to see the world as alive, and to have personal connection with reality. He wants people to see themselves as being vaster than they can possibly imagine. These are all excellent aims. But you don’t need God for any of this. Buddhist teachings and practice already lead to these perspectives, and in fact it was presumably Warner’s Buddhist practice that provoked realization of connectedness, timelessness, and a profound sense of meaning. But he’s unfortunately interpreted that experience in terms of (to use his expression) the “shit” that he hasn’t worked through about God.

For an example of the universe as a loving, living presence, here’s one of my favorite quotes from Jan Chozen Bays’ book, How to Train a Wild Elephant:

Seeing with loving eyes is not a one-way experience, nor is it just a visual experience. When we touch something with loving eyes, we bring a certain warmth from our side, but we may also be surprised to feel warmth radiating back to us. We begin to wonder, is everything in the world made of love? And have I been blocking that out?

A sense of the world being imbued with a loving presence is not uncommon when we practice the brahmaviharas which, unfortunately, are an aspect of Buddhist practice that has been dropped by the Zen tradition.

Or in the Indo-Tibetan tradition we have the teaching of the universe as the manifestation of a primordial, living reality. Here’s the Dalai Lama:

I understand the Primordial Buddha, also known as Buddha Samantabhadra, to be the ultimate reality, the realm of the Dharmakaya — the space of emptiness — where all phenomena, pure and impure, are dissolved.

But His Holiness also clarifies: “It would be a grave error to conceive of [the Primordial Buddha] as an independent and autonomous existence from beginningless time.” In other words don’t think about this primordial reality as a separate God. Actually, that’s pretty similar to what Warner says, but without the problematic language. Which is my point; Buddhism already has it covered.

The Indo-Tibetan approach is subtle because it allows for us having a personal relationship with reality — a sense that the universe is imbued with compassion and wisdom — but at the same time it has a non-dualistic view. As the Dalai Lama puts it, “we do not visualize this source as a unique entity, but as the ultimate clear light of each being. We can also, on the basis of its pure essence, understand this clear light to be the Primordial Buddha.” We can even feel a strong sense of personal connection with the Dharmakaya (primordial reality) as it manifests through the Sambhogakaya — the forms we perceive as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, with whom we can have a personal connection, all while not seeing them as separate from the nature of our own mind.

This may need some unpacking, or even some struggle, for many peple to understand it, but it seems clear to me that Buddhism already has, in non-theistic terms, what Warner sees as God, but without using the term God.

I think real problems emerge when you try to force God language into Buddhism. Warner at one point says that God is a good term to use for what Zen is about because “shoving the word God into a tidy intellectual container would be like trying to shove a live octopus into a Kleenex box.” But shoving the word “God” into Buddhism is equally problematic.

One practical problem is that many people are in fact looking for a religious tradition that doesn’t hinge on belief in a God, and will be put off by God-talk.

Another is that there’s a serious danger that once you force God into Buddhism, you no longer have Buddhism, but some kind of New Age quasi-Hinduism, or even something barely distinguishable from some of the nicer forms of Christianity.

And the very term “God,” as Warner points out, is divisive, dualistic, and dangerous. He thinks this is a good thing for Buddhism; I don’t. And once you start thinking of your spiritual quest in terms of wanting to know “what God wants from you” (the title of one of the chapters) you’ve opened the way to some dangerous delusions.

Despite my many reservations, there were things I liked about this book. I could write a lot about themes he raised, but I’ve already gone on longer than I’d intended. Short version: Brad Warner is a funny and interesting teacher. He’s endearingly self-deprecating. There are some great discussions about the nature of faith, about the need to be ready for awakening, about the nature of time, and about the problems of translation. Having read his book I definitely want to hang out with Dogen’s Shobogenzo.

But on the whole, the last thing I think Western Buddhism needs is the intrusion of God.

Read More

What is at the center of your life?

zen circle

In the 12-step tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous it clearly states in the third step that we need to make a decision ‘ to turn our will and our lives over to the care of a God as we understood him’, if we are to maintain sobriety and abstinence.

Buddhists whether in recovery or not, or have an addiction or not, turn their lives over to the Buddha, Dharma the Sangha. When we surrender to this action, we are placing positive refuges at the center of our lives. We are placing the ideal of liberation and freedom, the teachings of the Buddha and the spiritual community at the center of our lives.

What this means is that we surrender to the potential of waking up to reality and begin to see things clearly, without the story, judgments or interpretation. This is what helps to take care of our lives.

‘In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.’ From the Bahiya sutta.

It is a different way of experiencing the world one that helps to dissolve our obsessions and addictions.

detox your heart
[si-contact-form form=’2′]

Inevitably what we often go to refuge to will bring about suffering. Those of us with addictions know that all to well. Our addiction has been the thing that has been at the center of our lives.

‘We are likely to have used our addiction as a refuge to cope with difficulties, and we may have engaged in other damaging behavior, such as self-harm or getting involved in destructive relationships, to manage painful emotions. We call these refuges that don’t help us in the long run, false refuges. False refuges look like they are going to be reliable, are going to relieve our pain, but they let us down. They don’t work, except perhaps in the short-term.

They are like a derelict house, empty, no life, or breath, with weak walls and a leaky roof. We flee from the storm only to find that the rain starts to come through the roof. Then as the wind picks up, the whole structure blows over, and we are left exposed to the elements with pieces of the building falling on us. We are no nearer to safety. Instead we are soaked and have cuts all over from the fallen timber.’

‘When we reflect on what is truly valuable to us, what we really want our lives to be about, and what sort of person we deeply want to be? If we are clear about what is important to us and what we really value, it is easier to steer our lives in a meaningful direction, and it helps us to keep going when the going gets tough.’ Eight Step Recovery – Using the Buddhas Teachings to Overcome Addiction – Publication date 2014

A God of our understanding does not have to be a person – do not let that fool you. A God of our understanding can be the compassionate care of practices, like mindfulness, loving kindness or ethics. Far better to have qualities like these at the center of our lives rather than relationships, people and teachers, because inevitably one day these relationships will cease. We may abandon the practice of mindfulness, loving kindness and ethics for a while, but we can always go back to them and cultivate them again in our lives. They will not let us down in the same way people will. They are far more reliable.

  • What is at the center of your life?
  • What do you spend most of your time thinking about?
  • The answers to these questions will tell you what you go to refuge to.

  • How reliable are the things you put at the center of your life?
  • Are they a false refuges or positive refuges?

Next month we will look at one of the reliable Buddhist teaching that is helpful to put at the center of our lives.

Read More

Steve Jobs’ private spirituality now an open book

Daniel Burke: He considered moving to a Zen monastery before shifting his sights to Silicon Valley, where he became a brash businessman.

He preached about the dangers of desire but urged consumers to covet every new iPhone incarnation.
“He was an enlightened being who was cruel,” says a former girlfriend. “That’s a strange combination.”

Now, we can add another irony to the legacy of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs: Since his death on Oct. 5, the famously private man’s spiritual side has become an open book.

A relative recounted his last words for The New York Times. A new biography traces his early quest for enlightenment …

Click to read more »

Read More

Avalokitesvara: The heart of the rainbow

As a child growing up in Scotland I had a strong relationship with the Holy Spirit. I would pray for the Holy Spirit to fill me with the love that existed between God the Father and God the Son. I have no idea where I got this sophisticated understanding of the Holy Spirit — but he was the personification of the love that enabled God to let his son be sacrificed to redeem mankind. I prayed that this mighty love would free me and others from the suffering I saw around me. Perhaps it made sense of how God could be a god of love and yet, alongside the beauty and marvels of the world, he could allow so much violence and poverty to exist.

I would escape from home and go to our local Catholic church. I sang in the choir, and climbing up to the choir loft was more than taking a few steps, it was entering a world far from Glasgow’s gang-fights, alcoholism, and pain. High Mass on Sundays, Ave Maria at weddings, masses for the dead — we sang them all. The Holy Spirit was certainly there: I begged for his divine help and was blessed by his presence. (The Father held no promise for me, and the son was too pained.) Sometimes a white dove of peace hovered over me, sometimes tongues of fire, but always the Holy Spirit was love. I had experiences of bliss, of grace, and a burning love for humanity — states of mind that I now understand as the absorbed state of dhyana.

Then came the fall from grace. Aged 13 1 could use reason to question, and Roman Catholicism no longer satisfactorily answered me. I lost my faith. I hid my skepticism and continued in the choir and doing charitable deeds for the sick and elderly. I carried on with everything except God until my integrity stopped me. I argued with everyone about the mysteries of religion and the existence of a creator god. At 15 1 declared myself an atheist and joined the Young Communist League. The rhetoric and sense of comradeship was even better there, but I did miss the Holy Spirit.

So, I put the opiate of the people behind me and concentrated on making the world a better place by other means. Ten years later, disillusioned by the political options and nearing a nervous breakdown after a series of bereavements, I found myself in the Glasgow Buddhist Centre. I was listening to a taped lecture by an English gentleman with a somniferous voice. The lecture had an electrifying effect. I had come home. I immediately immersed myself in Buddhism.

Here was a more rigorous analysis of the world’s wrongs than anything I had so far discovered. Here was the possibility of change: personal and global — and, in meditation, the methods to bring about that change. Here, too, was the possibility of religious experience. I set about examining Buddhism under the spotlight of philosophical questioning. I was suspicious of devotional practices but at the same time I loved them. I felt transported as I chanted mantras. My voice could again be lifted in worship.

I am glad I encountered the Dharma in Glasgow. I heard it in a voice which, not only in accent but in discourse and rhetoric, sounded enough like my own to reach me. Yet what it was saying was new enough to intrigue me. Most importantly I learnt about the Bodhisattva Ideal, that most sublime of human ideals. The heart of this ideal is the desire to gain Enlightenment not only for oneself but for all beings — with the purpose of ending the world’s suffering. So, I met the true love of my life: the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

Our love affair began with immediate recognition, followed by periods of less interest and then a growing appreciation and deepening love. At least on my side. As he is an archetypal Bodhisattva, existing outside time and space, I can’t speak for him. From the start I loved his mantra: om mani padme hum — homage to the jewel in the lotus. As I understood more layers of meaning to the mantra I loved it even more, but initially it was just the reverberating sound. And I was delighted to learn that while chanting his mantra practitioners imagine each of the six syllables entering the hearts of suffering beings in the six realms of existence.

A few years later, when I committed myself through ordination, I decided to take up visualising Avalokitesvara The quintessence of Compassion, he is one of the best known Bodhisattvas and is worshipped all over the Buddhist world. He is contemplated in many forms, the most popular variations having either four or 1,000 arms. And each of the hands has an eye to ensure that the altruism informed with clarity.

He appears in various Mahayana Sutras, for example in the Karanda-Vyuha Sutra where he is the typical Bodhisattva who will ‘enter Nirvana’ until all beings are saved. His task is to ‘help all sufferers, to save them from every distress, and to exercise infinite pity that does not even shrink from sin nor does it stop at the gates of hell’. In the Surangama Sutra Avalokitesvara gains Enlightenment through deep meditation on sound. Interestingly enough the Bodhisattva of Compassion is the principal figure in the Heart Sutra, one of the Perfection of Wisdom texts — a reminder that Compassion is not separate from Wisdom.

Just before pledging myself to his practice, however, I had doubts — he seemed a bit white and wimpy, and the mantra (as we chanted it) sometimes sounded like a funeral dirge. But these doubts evaporated when I heard a talk on ‘The Glorious Array of Bodhisattvas’. I was waiting with anticipation to hear about Manjushri; but as the speaker began to talk about Avalokitesvara, I felt transported to another world. And I wept.

I recalled an experience from an earlier solitary retreat. During a Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness) meditation, as I became concentrated and peaceful, I was filled with bliss. Then a sound arose, from both outside and inside me. It was like the sound of keening, of a thousand lament,.; for the dead from ages immemorial down to the present, and into the future. It was the sound of battle cries and children wailing with hunger. It was the sound of women being raped and men being slaughtered, of small whimpers and loud clamors It was the sound of all suffering — and my heart felt fit to break.

I could not listen to this sound nor could I stop listening. It filled me and it filled the universe. I wanted to escape but there was nowhere to go because this sound was universal — of all times and all places. The pain in my chest became so unbearable I thought I might die.

Then I remembered some verses about Avalokitesvara from the White Lotus Sutra:

In quarrels disputes and in strife,
In the battles of men and in any great danger,
To recollect the name of Avalokitesvara
Will appease the troops of evil foes.

His voice is like that of a cloud or a drum
Like a rain cloud lie thunders, sweet in voice like Brahma.
His voice is the most perfect that can be.
So one should recall Avalokitesvara.

Think of him, think of him, without hesitation,
Of Avalokitesvara, that pure being.
In death, disaster and calamity
He is the savior, refuge and recourse.

As these verses came to mind, the sound changed and my breathing calmed. I saw the four-armed figure of Avalokitesvara and felt a white light stream from him towards me. It was like being bathed in warm rain, which cleansed and soothed me. It probably lasted only seconds but it was powerful. I chanted the mantra aloud and slowly hope returned.

So, recalling that experience during the talk, I decided: OK, I am yours. At my private ordination ceremony I told my teacher Sangharakshita about these experiences, and he laughed. He thought Avalokitesvara was appropriate for me as a visualisation practice primarily because Compassion is the core of the Bodhisattva Ideal and Sangharakshita recognised that this ideal was my North Star and guiding light.

As an ideal it is precious and beautiful, while as a practice it is demanding and, in a way impossible to fulfill. How can we ever relieve the suffering of all beings? How can we overcome our embedded ego-identity and reach out lovingly to all — beyond all likes and dislikes? How can I embrace the abuser and rapist with the same tenderness as the abused and raped; Avalokitesvara is the answer.

He is the end and the means. It doesn’t matter that the ideal seems impossible to realise. What matters is the willingness not to put a limit on what we will give. And believing that by trying to alleviate suffering, we can render the world a better place. As ecologists remind us, we can ‘think global and act local’. Moved by Avalokitesvara’s beauty, by his mantra or by what he symbolises, we can be inspired to approach each small act in our daily lives with loving-kindness.

For two decades I have visualised myself as the four-armed Avalokitesvara, seated in meditation and made of luminous white light surrounded by rainbows. He holds a jewel within one pair of folded hands before his heart while the other hands hold a rosary and a lotus flower. The jewel is the mani of his mantra and is the highest part of us, a jewel to be found within the lotus of our lives. The lotus flower grows out of the muddy bottom of a lake yet blossoms to .1 beauty that far transcends its soiled origins. So, too, can we blossom and shine, regardless of our beginnings. Our own jewel is found in the down-to-earth experiences of worldly life. Avalokitesvara suggests a way of being within the world but unsullied by it. This is the significance of his mantra: om mani padme hum, the jewel of our aspirations covered in the mud of the mundane.

The sounds of suffering are all around. True compassion means opening tip to those cries and being neither overwhelmed nor indifferent. Avalokitesvara’s name means ‘he who hears the cries of the world’. This is the attitude of the Bodhisattva: one who hears and acts upon that hearing.

Avalokitesvara’s jewel also signifies the Bodhicitta: the will to attain Enlightenment for the sake of all beings. The arising of the Bodhicitta is the ‘experience’ that makes one a Bodhisattva and as such it is of crucial importance in the life of every practitioner who has taken the Bodhisattva Ideal as their guiding star. It is not merely the wish for Enlightenment but a reorientation of one’s whole life and being in that direction. It is a burning love for all humanity and a commitment to acting in accordance with it, purifying all those unskilful acts that prevent us embodying the vision.

I have now come full circle. I am no longer the frightened child of the 1950s seeking divine help, but I still want to open my heart to a love that can alleviate the ills of our world. In Buddhism I have found a philosophy that acknowledges suffering and gives it a framework. When necessary I can articulate that philosophy — but that is not enough. I am inspired by the love of Avalokitesvara to help create a world without suffering.

I want to be transformed. I want the tongues, of fire to descend and to serve the dove of peace. When I imagine myself as the rainbow figure of Avalokitesvara, I offer my flesh-and-blood being as a vehicle for his transcendent qualities. In the end, with all my imperfections, I try to serve him, not as a god but as Compassion manifest in the universe.

According to the legend Avalokitesvara saw he could not save all beings through will-power alone — so great was his despair that his body shattered and he cried out for help. The Buddha Amitabha appeared and healed his broken form, giving Avalokitesvara 11 heads to see in all directions and 1,000 arms to act more comprehensively. This is a beautiful symbol for spiritual community. We are each an outstretched hand offering our unique talents. We’re also joined together in something much greater than ourselves — a true spiritual community which fosters both diversity and unity.

This is the body of Avalokitesvara, in whose heart is the jewel of the Bodhicitta. We need the Bodhisattva of Compassion because the battle cries are loud and the world is aching. May his mantra sound ever more clearly throughout our suffering world.

This article was previously published in Dharma Life magazine.

Read More

Matter of Faith: Meditation, prayer can help find God

In many Eastern traditions, and growing in popularity in the Western world, more and more is being written about meditation. And some of us are at least thinking about meditating – especially as we hear Western medicine voicing its value with some physicians even writing prescriptions for meditation. The practice is being given credit for better health, relaxation and even lowering blood pressure.

Similarly, there is a discipline called Centering Prayer, a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. While Centering Prayer is attributed to the Rev. Thomas Keating, all faith traditions – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – practice some form of prayer; with Quakers and Buddhists honoring the silence.

In our world of technology and the use of cell phones, radio, CDs, TV and the Internet, silence becomes more and more difficult to find. Silence between two or in a group of people can even make us uncomfortable. Today, there is less time in our busy lives…

Read the rest of this article…

to experience the power of an inner world.

Winter, with leanings to hibernation, is probably the best season to “awaken” to that world. Wrapped in fleece, watching a fire makes the journey inward a bit easier. It is our head that gets in our way. While solitary meditation brings inner peace, group meditation has proven to change society as evidenced in a drop in the crime rate in Washington, D.C. during research using large numbers of people meditating at the same time with that intention.

My first experience with group meditation was at the Christine Center in Willard, south of Thorp, where I believed I had booked a long weekend of rest and relaxation. When registering I was asked if I’d like to join others in a retreat experience for just an extra $25. I said, “Sure.”

I found out after I arrived I had signed up for a four-day silent retreat – a form of meditation that called for no writing, no reading, no music the entire time, alternating between sitting and walking meditation with a one-hour morning lecture. Of course food and sleep rounded out the days. It was an incredible experience to just be with my thoughts.

The word center contains the word enter. Brian Luke Seward in “Quiet Mind, Fearless Heart” connects the center of the labyrinth to the experience of centering ourselves in prayer and meditation. He writes, “Walking the labyrinth – as you walk from the entrance of the circle’s perimeter through a gentle maze of smaller concentric circles to the center, a divine stillness quiets the soul and a transformation takes place to prepare you, the student, so that the inner teacher will come. With the word center, like the path of the labyrinth, there is an implicit invitation to enter the heart.”

If the spiritual path is truly 12 to 14 inches from the head to the heart, then look no further than the meditating/centering process to get you there.

McKinney is a pastor at Unity Christ Center in Eau Claire. Matter of Faith, a column on faith and ethics, is printed periodically.

Read More

Belief in God changes our brain, physician says

Dr. Andrew Newberg, author of the book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” and other books in the field of neuroscience, is a physician in internal medicine and nuclear medicine as well as director of research in Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia. Newberg has pioneered study of the brain during religious and spiritual experiences.

Newberg was a guest Friday at the 11th annual Spirituality and Health Seminar. His lectures focused on how our health and happiness is affected by spirituality and by our emotions.

Read the rest of this article…

How does your brain interpret the image at right?

The image shows four circles with one part of each cut out. There are no connecting lines but many people see a square, said Dr. Andrew Newberg, because the brain fills in the blanks.

Newberg, author of the book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” and other books in the field of neuroscience, is a physician in internal medicine and nuclear medicine as well as director of research in Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia. Newberg has pioneered study of the brain during religious and spiritual experiences.

Newberg was a guest Friday at the 11th annual Spirituality and Health Seminar. His lectures focused on how our health and happiness is affected by spirituality and by our emotions.

The seminar was sponsored by Summit Health and Menno Haven Retirement Communities.

As a basis for his lectures, Newberg presented results of brain X-rays of people during prayer and at other times.

“Our frontal lobes are what sets us apart from other species,” said Newberg as he pointed to X-rays showing that the frontal lobes of brains are more active during prayer. His research found that those parts of the brain activated by prayer in believers were not activated by prayer in atheists.

“Prayer and meditation affects the brain differently, depending on a person’s belief in God,” Newberg said.

In a study of Franciscan nuns engaged in deep prayer, X-rays showed increased blood flow in the part of the brain where we perceive ourselves apart from the rest of the world.

He also learned that those who have been meditating for a long time have more activity in their frontal lobes compared to those who do not meditate.

A study of older people with memory problems and who didn’t meditate showed changes in the brains of those who, after eight weeks, meditated for 12 minutes each day.

Newberg said positive emotions activate areas in the brain involved with happiness and reward, and lower stress responses in the brain improve memory.

“Emotional pain activates the same areas of the brain as those activated from physical pain,” he said, adding that people are more likely to recall things related to emotional incidents because emotions help us remember.

We use cognition to help create and maintain beliefs, and memory is an important part of that process, Newburg said.

He said the more people focus on their beliefs, the stronger their beliefs become. Repetitive meditation and rituals are useful in reinforcing our beliefs.

“The brain is a belief making machine,” Newburg said. “Beliefs affect every part of our lives, and every part of our lives affect our beliefs. When people hold a certain belief system, if research comes out against it, people will find reasons to hold their initial beliefs — their reality,” he said.

Read More
Menu