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.

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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.

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Self-centred Buddhism

Mark Vernon: Guardian

Western Buddhism can be a serious business. If you travel to Newton Abbot in Devon, and then make your way a few miles further west – through the village of East Ogwell, and then the hamlet of West Ogwell – you arrive at Gaia House, one of the places in the UK where western Buddhism is being forged with impressive commitment. It’s a meditation centre. Run by volunteers, who offer a year at a time to manage the place, it hosts retreats – periods of time, running from a single day to many weeks, during which retreatants meditate.

Silence is the watchword of the house. It’s a mark of the seriousness of the place, and the element visitors are quite sternly asked to respect. Even the library was out of bounds on the three day retreat that I booked in for, along with about 30 others (accommodation is comfortable though lacks privacy). Reading would disturb the inner stillness that the outer observance is designed to engender. It would spoil the quality of the silence that together we were pursuing.

Meditation is the central activity of this style of Buddhism, and insight meditation in particular, the kind in which you are encouraged to develop an ability to hold your attention on one thing, usually your breathing. Apart from mealtimes and an hour doing household chores, the day is devoted to it: three quarters of an hour sitting in the meditation hall, followed by three quarters of an hour doing walking meditation – the same activity of concentration conducted whilst walking very slowly, and focusing on the sensations in your feet. Then back to sitting meditation. Then more walking. It adds up to about 7 hours a day.

The mind repeatedly and routinely wanders, of course. But you’re not asked to attempt to control it. Rather, you are to become aware of the fact, and then draw your attention back to the breathing or the walking. Most of the meditation periods pass easily enough. A handful were a struggle. One was a real joy. But what’s it for? What is meditation supposed to deliver?

The retreat was led by two teachers. They topped and tailed the sitting sessions with a few helpful words, and were also on hand lest any participants develop problems, an important safeguard as prolonged silence can be unsettling. One of them also gave a talk on the second evening, and she explained the central Buddhist doctrine that meditation is designed to address: the reality of suffering.

Suffering here is meant in a broad sense, everything from the faintest feeling that something is wrong, to the profound injuries that human beings inflict on themselves and each other. It’s a worldview that is humanistic and tragic. The first of the Buddha’s noble truths is that life is suffering. It’s called a “noble” truth since that realisation is also the first step towards an ennobled life, namely one in which the suffering can cease.

That’s where meditation comes in. It’s a technique designed to develop mindfulness, the awareness and acceptance of suffering existence. Meditation itself needn’t always be painful. It might be pleasant, even elating. But the aim is neither to cling to experience, nor to reject it, but rather to know it as it is. Hence, the “insight” in insight meditation. “To understand all is to forgive all,” the proverb says, and the Buddhist version would be, “To understand all is to let go of all”. It just takes practice.

It’s religion as a kind of therapy, and points to one of the reasons that Buddhism is finding such a ready audience in the west. Modernity has damaged many egos, perhaps as a result of the Enlightenment teaching that we are autonomous selves, capable of self-creation, control and consolation. Only, it turns out that we are not so self-sufficient. Hence, if that’s right, the spread of loneliness and alienation, stress and depression. Western Buddhism is developing a radical remedy for this condition. Look closely, it says, and you’ll see that the self is an illusion. Let go of that, and liberation follows.

It is a plausible gospel to many, and committed Buddhists, like those at Gaia House, are devoting themselves to deepening the insight. My time in the place was good: how can a city-dweller not gain much from the silence? However, I did come away with questions. And they sprang from the nature of the project.

The raison d’être of Gaia House is the wellbeing of the those who come to stay in it. That seems like a pretty good raison d’être, and it is. However, it comes with risk. Meditation-as-therapy flirts with narcissism when it is devoted to observing yourself, for that can lead to self-absorption and self-obsession. It’s a danger inherent in any community devoted to a particular task, though perhaps more so in one that lacks a reference point beyond the individuals taking part.

Religious houses in a Christian tradition would be different, in theory at least. Ultimately, they don’t exist for the wellbeing of the occupants, but for the glory of God. That nurtures a way of life that has less to do with the self, and more to do with the service of something greater. You have to believe in God, of course. That many don’t, and might say they are “spiritual but not religious”, must be another reason why Buddhism appeals. But I did wonder whether a God-centred spiritual practice might offer a better way to get over yourself, and in turn offer a more satisfying “therapy”.

I suspect this is a key paradox with which western Buddhism is currently grappling: the practice that tells you the self is a delusion could, in the modern context, deepen the very attitude it seeks to dislodge. It’s a risk compounded when self-concern is arguably the secret of western Buddhism’s current success.

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Act Normal: The origin of suffering

Robert T. Edison was born and raised in Nottingham, England. When he was fourteen years old he began to practice Buddhism. At eighteen he became a monk and went to Thailand where, for a decade, he spent his time in monasteries.

He became the first Buddhist monk in Iceland when he moved there in 1994 and founded a Buddhist sect.

In this clip, from the documentary, Act Normal, directed by Olaf de Fleur, Edison, at that time a monk in Thailand, contrasts the Buddhist explanation of the cause of suffering with the explanations from theistic religion.

Act Normal can be purchased from Poppoli Pictures.

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Three lies and a half-truth

United Church Observer: When it comes to understanding meditation, Christianity and neuroscience are closer than you might imagine

When I teach about cognition and prayer, I often start with an exercise designed for failure. I ask the class to cross their legs and arms, slump in their chairs and think of nothing for two minutes. During this period, I remind them regularly and harshly how much time is left and that their minds should be empty.

Afterward, participants invariably speak about their frustration and discomfort. For me, it’s the longest two minutes of the course. But I love this exercise. It illustrates the three biggest lies and one half-truth about meditation: that meditation means getting our minds totally quiet; that if we get distracted we’re doing it wrong; that there’s only one correct, Christian way to meditate; and finally, the half-truth at the root of much suffering, that our goal is inner peace.

Neurobiology presents a problem for the first assumption, that our minds should be totally quiet in meditation. The human brain is made to be anxious; it’s designed to scan for incoming danger. Three seconds is the longest we usually concentrate on any single thing unless we exert serious effort.

The stilling of the mind that happens in deep meditation is not a normal state of being, and even seasoned meditators can’t sustain it continuously. There is a good reason why Buddhists call meditation “the noble failure” and Christians speak of contemplation as a gift rather than an achievement. There is no way to force one’s self into silence and stillness. Force actually makes repose more difficult to find.

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Rather, the work of meditation is to find a balance between effort and release. We use willpower to maintain our practice and simultaneously let go of straining. Like all balancing acts, it takes time and repetition. Some days I’m good at it, some days I’m not.

A neuroscientist looking at my brain while I’m attempting to concentrate might say I am activating the parts that govern attention. Doing this repeatedly will strengthen my capacity to attend to myself and others. A religious person watching my practice would tell me that I am engaged in an act of co-creation with the Divine, letting God be in charge. Both of these ways of describing meditation are true.

The second big lie is if I can’t concentrate, I’m failing. However, both brain scientists and contemplatives will agree that all my distractions are actually running continuously. The mind is never empty. It’s simply more or less engaged with its own busyness. We don’t notice all the chatter until we get quiet.

In the past, I’ve thought that the incessant noise meant I was a rotten meditator. I’ve beaten myself up for being distracted and at times even ditched the practice altogether.

But these days, I’m convinced that living through the mess between my ears — looking at it with the compassion of Christ, gently setting it aside, returning to my practice — is what actually transforms me.

This is the work: with great self-forgiveness, we point ourselves back to centre. The experience of anxiety and discomfort is so common in meditation, there’s even a phrase for it: taking out the trash. But distractions come and go. Losing the way and coming back are just part of the process.

If I want to know whether or not I’m making progress, I don’t look at what happens when I meditate. I look at my daily life. Am I better able to imagine the feelings of someone I don’t like? Do I lose my temper less frequently, conduct myself more generously in intimate relationships? If so, meditation is working.

A neuroscientist might say that when I bring myself back from distraction to a meditative state, I am increasing my neural integration; that is, I am growing new neuronal pathways from the prefrontal cortex down to the limbic system and the brain stem. This brings my normally automatic reactions more closely under conscious control. A Christian might call these changes in behaviour “fruits of the Spirit” — slow-growing, humble results revealed in daily living — and note that accepting God’s love and forgiveness for myself enables me to love and forgive others. Both of these ways of describing meditation are true.

Now the third lie, that there’s a single correct form of Christian meditation. I’d argue that our early Christian forebears would heartily disagree — as would hundreds of thousands of Christians around the world.

If we believe that God made each of us in our lovely and surprising diversity, then that diversity must also include the ways in which we approach the Divine. Walking a labyrinth, prayerful journalling, reciting a mantra, practising loving kindness, contemplative Scripture reading, developing breath awareness, becoming attuned to the presence of God: each of these is a valid way to meditate.

What makes Christian meditation Christian is not the particular method we use, but the focus and centre we bring to it: Jesus Christ.

Whether you chant, concentrate on your breath or sing, “Oh thank you, God,” to the tune of O Tannenbaum, if it’s Christ to whom you dedicate your practice, you are engaged in Christian meditation.

A neuroscientist might point out similar brain activations associated with different forms of meditation when we label them Christian. A person of faith might say that each practice allows God into another corner of his or her life. Both of these ways of describing Christian meditation are true.

And now the half-truth: the purpose of meditation is inner peace. Unfortunately, I’m not in charge of what bubbles up in my mind during meditation. Trying to think comfortable thoughts only makes those thoughts more elusive. But if I’m willing to receive whatever comes, I get what’s given: some things hard, some joyful. Unpleasant insights into my own character or a call to a difficult situation come accompanied by an invitation to deeper peace.

Here’s an example. After experimenting with several different practices, I joined a group from the World Community for Christian Meditation. There was one leader who recited a little prayer that ended “so let your God love you.”

This phrase stunned me. I had several mental frames for meditation — trying to love God, trying to contact the Divine, trying to please the Holy — but never before had I thought of meditation as a chance to let God love me. I was too busy beating up on myself every time I fell asleep or found myself worrying. I’d judge each thought, judge each session and then judge myself for judging. It wasn’t fun.

I had kept at meditation for years because I am stubborn. But if you had asked, I’d have rated my experience as generally lousy.

When I heard “so let your God love you,” I realized that I could relax. This wasn’t about showing God anything or trying to make contact; it was simply soaking in the love that was always present. The purpose of my practice could be resting in the love of God and letting it fill me up.

Over time, I found the place inside where I felt that love. I even began to be able to feel it when I wasn’t meditating, and began to bring that love to my work and relationships.

A cognitive linguist might say that I built a substantial neural net that was available for activation in many situations. A religious person might say that I learned to trust. What I say is that I learned to let my God love me.

All of these ways of describing my meditation are true.

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They Freed Their Minds. But Some Wound Up Trapped.

Washington Post: At my local bookstore on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, 1960s nostalgia is in high gear. A display table is stacked high with pricey coffee table books, each with its own variation on psychedelic rainbow lettering, each claiming to reveal the untold story of the “peace and music” festival. I understand the lucrative business of selling those hazy memories — the Woodstock museum, Cherry Garcia ice cream, even the new movie “Taking Woodstock.” I just can’t buy into it.

It’s not because, as a Gen-Xer, I feel slighted that I missed out on all the fun. It’s because for me and many other children of the flower children, our rose-colored glasses are not just slightly tinted, but darkly tainted.

Along with the iconic music and fashion of the era came myriad new religions and a foolish rush to embrace peddlers of spiritual snake oil. The countercultural wave brought a flood of swamis, yogis and self-proclaimed enlightened beings. They preyed on the longings of hippies who were disillusioned by mainstream religion and in search of an alternative path.

By the time the mud had dried at Woodstock, Swami Prabhupada had created the Hare Krishnas and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon had founded the Unification Church — the Moonies. Communes and ashrams sprouted across America. In the 1960s, the decade now mythic for its anti-conformity, flocks of people conformed to the dictates of self-proclaimed prophets.

In 1968, the Beatles sat at the feet of the Maharishi, soaking up his teachings. Consciousness-raising went mainstream. Reciting Sanskrit chants, wearing japa beads and finding a guru became trendy and chic. Everyone who was anyone read “I Am That” and “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Many free spirits obediently changed their names, dropped out of college and abandoned their families. Ironically, their wild-child rebellion landed them in rigidly structured cults that controlled their lives — and those of their children. For many, that life eventually grew old. They retired their mantras and moved on. But for others, my parents included, the intrigue never faded.

Like the Beatles, my hippie parents met their guru in 1968. Sri Chinmoy, based in New York, promised them enlightenment — if they obeyed his dictates. All they had to do was surrender their lives to him. To my trusting and vulnerable mother, and to my eccentric and contemplative father, the offer sounded like a bargain.

Arriving in the United States in 1964, Sri Chinmoy had vast ambitions. He aimed to infiltrate the United Nations, win a Nobel Prize and gain a worldwide following. His disciples were to lead austere, celibate lives, devoting themselves and their financial resources entirely to his mission. In 1970 when my mother became pregnant — a clear breach of the rules — the guru saved face by divining me as his chosen soul.

I was born and raised in the ashram of this man who declared himself an incarnation of God. Before I could walk, my parents dressed me in a sari and took me with them on their recruiting trips. Instead of acting in school plays and going to soccer camp, I distributed leaflets proclaiming the guru’s divinity from parade floats that wound through city streets. I spent summers scrubbing the cages of the zoo housed in the basement of the guru’s Queens home.

When Chinmoy wanted to attract more media attention, he staged elaborate weightlifting feats, hoisting elephants, helicopters and even Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev — a smoke-and-mirrors spectacle that I never understood. How could lifting elephants illuminate and ultimately transform the world? When I was a teenager, the guru’s strict rules banning all contact and relationships with the “outside” world provoked questions and longings for everything he forbade — college, career and family. When he told me to neglect the mind and forever remain in the heart “like a 7-year-old,” I finally realized that he was a narcissistic charlatan, shamelessly exploiting the faithful.

At 25, older than my parents had been when they renounced the world to serve the guru, I was formally banished from his cult. I lost all my connections to the community I’d known since birth. Fortunately, I was young enough to venture into the “outside” world and forge a life on my own terms.

For years, I have struggled with the reckless decision of some in my parents’ generation to entrust their present and future to those who claimed to be spiritually enlightened. Cultural historians today portray the ’60s as a unique time. I hope they are right. That is, I hope that the cast of corrupt opportunists — gurus, prophets and messiahs — who profited from others’ naïve belief is indeed a unique ’60s phenomenon, safely encapsulated in those glossy anniversary books.

Jayanti Tamm is an English professor at Ocean County College and the author of “Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult.”

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How God (or more precisely, meditation) changes your brain

Reuters: Some book titles are too good to pass up. “How God Changes Your Brain” is neuroscientist Andrew Newberg’s fourth book on “neurotheology,” the study of the relationship between faith and the brain. All are pitched at a popular audience, with snappy titles like “Born to Believe” or “Why God Won’t Go Away.” Anyone reading the latest one, though, might wonder if the title shouldn’t be “How God Meditation Changes Your Brain.” As he explains in an interview with Reuters here, the benefits that Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns derive from meditation and intense prayer are also available to atheists and agnostics. The key lies in the method these high performing believers use, not in the belief itself. But that would have made for a more awkward title.

That’s not to say Newberg doesn’t have some interesting points to make in this book. His brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe — the area that directs the mind’s focus — is especially active while the amygdala — the area linked to fear reactions — is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. And his treatment of a mechanic with a faltering memory showed that a traditional Indian meditation method, even when stripped of its spiritual trappings, could bring about these changes in two months.

The book goes on to ascribe a list of positive results from meditation and offer advice on caring for the brain. Newberg’s “number one best way to exercise your brain” is faith. As he puts it, “faith is equivalent with hope, optimism and the belief that a positive future awaits us. Faith can also be defined as the ability to trust our beliefs, even when we have no proof that such beliefs are accurate or true.” Critics, especially clerics, would probably protest that this is not really theology, but psychology. If we’re talking about God, where’s the religion?

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That brings up another interesting aspect. While he is clearly favourable to faith and spirituality, Newberg remains a scientist eager to study the religious feelings he calls “among the most powerful and complex experiences people have.” He studiously avoids promoting any one faith or closing the door to atheists who might be reading the text. The tone is upbeat, the approach inclusive and the conclusion optimistic. There’s a touch of Eastern mysticism, too, with sections on how widely practiced meditation could foster compassion and understanding among people and peoples. Thanks to this open-minded approach towards both religion and science, Newberg teaches radiology, psychology and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania and speaks frequently to church groups or in religious media.

Newberg gave me a few SPECT brain scan images that illustrate the changes he finds in his subjects’ brains. The image above left shows the brain of a Buddhist monk before and during meditation. The increased yellow in the lower right of the right-hand image shows reduced activity in the parietal lobe, the brain area responsible for orientation in space and time. Below right, the image shows a nun before and during prayer, with increased activity in the frontal lobe, the area for concentration and analytical thinking, and in areas linked to language.
Newberg, a cheerful and optimistic man who was brought up in a Reform Jewish family and says he is still exploring his own beliefs, told me his next book will be an academic work on neurotheology. He stresses that the field is in its infancy and its brain scanning methods are still “incredibly crude. We really don’t know which neurons are firing in that little three-millimeter space” captured in fMRI scans. “If we can ultimately say something epistemologically interesting, then that’s great,” he told me. “But it’s going to take me a long time before I get to saying something like that.”

What do you think about “neurotheology”? Do you think brain scans and neuroscience can tell us anything significant about religion?

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Faith rites boost brains, even for atheists

Reuters: Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns boost their brain power through meditation and prayer, but even atheists can enjoy the mental benefits that believers derive from faith, according to a popular neuroscience author.

The key, Andrew Newberg argues in his new book “How God Changes Your Brain,” lies in the concentrating and calming effects that meditation or intense prayer have inside our heads.

Brain scanners show that intense meditation alters our gray matter, strengthening regions that focus the mind and foster compassion while calming those linked to fear and anger.

Whether the meditator believes in the supernatural or is an atheist repeating a mantra, he says, the outcome can be the same – a growth in the compassion that virtually every religion teaches and a decline in negative feelings and emotions.

“In essence, when you think about the really big questions in life — be they religious, scientific or psychological — your brain is going to grow,” says Newberg, head of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu, or an agnostic or an atheist,” he writes in the book written with Mark Robert Waldman, a therapist at the Center.


In his office at the University of Pennsylvania’s hospital, Newberg told Reuters that “neurotheology” – the study of the brain’s role in religious belief – is starting to shed light on what happens in believers’ heads when they contemplate God.

Science and religion are often seen as opposites, to the point where some in each camp openly reject the other, but this medical doctor and professor of radiology, psychology and religious studies sees no reason not to study them together.

“The two most powerful forces in all of human history have been religion and science,” he said. “These are the two things that help us organize our world and understand it. Why not try to bring them together to address each other and ultimately our world in a more effective way?”

Atheists often see scanner images tracking blood flows in brains of meditating monks and nuns lost in prayer as proof that faith is an illusion. Newberg warns against simple conclusions:

“If you see a brain scan of a nun who’s perceiving God’s presence in a room, all it tells you is what was happening in her brain when she perceived God’s presence in a room.

“It may be just the brain doing it, but it may be the brain being the receiver of spiritual phenomena,” said Newberg, whose research shows the short prayers most believers say leave little trace on the brain because they are not as intense as meditation.

“I’m not trying to say religion is bad or it’s not real,” he added. “I say people are religious and let’s try to understand how it affects them.”


Another notion Newberg debunks is the idea there is a single “God spot” in the brain responsible for religious belief: “It’s not like there’s a little spiritual spot that lights up every time somebody thinks of God.”

Instead, religious experiences fire neurons in several different parts of the brain, just like other events do. Locating them does not explain them, but gives pointers to how these phenomena occur and what they might mean.

In their book, Newberg and Waldman sketch out some of the “God circuits” in the brain and their effects, especially if trained through meditation as muscles are through exercise.

Meditation both activates the frontal lobe, which “creates and integrates all of your ideas about God,” and calms down the amygdala, the emotional region that can create images of an authoritative deity and fog our logical thinking.

The parietal-frontal circuit gives us a sense of the space around us and our place in it. Meditation suppresses this sense, giving rise to a serene feeling of unity with God or the world.

“Even 10 to 15 minutes of meditation appear to have significantly positive effects on cognition, relaxation and psychological health,” the authors declare in the book.

Newberg, who grew up in a Reform Jewish family and has studied many religions, said his work might help both believers and atheists understand religious feelings, which he said were “among the most powerful and complex experiences people have.”

But he cautioned against expecting “neurotheology” to come up with surprising insights soon: “As good as our techniques are, they are still incredibly crude. We have a long way to go.”

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Buddhism strengthens ties to church

The Denver Post: What in the recent past seemed exotic and foreign is now almost routinely folded into “the fold.”

Buddhism is not only accepted as a mainstream American religion, it is a path increasingly trod by faithful Christians and Jews who infuse Eastern spiritual insights and practices such as meditation into their own religions.

When John Weber became a Buddhist at age 19, his devout Methodist parents were not particularly pleased.

In recent years, however, they’ve invited their son, a religious studies expert with Boulder’s Naropa University, to speak at their church about Buddhism.

“That never would have happened before,” Weber said. “They would have been embarrassed.”

The Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey in 2007 found that seven in 10 Americans who have a religion believe there is more than one path to salvation. A growing number of people are contemplating more than one each.

And they are contemplating contemplation itself.

There are Jubus — Jews who bring Buddhism into their practice of Judaism — and Bujus, who are Buddhists with Jewish parents. Then there are UUbus, or Unitarian Universalist Buddhists, and Ebus, or Episcopalian Buddhists. There are Zen Catholics.

“There is a definite trend and movement that will not be reversed,” said Ruben Habito, a laicized Jesuit priest, Zen master and professor of world religions at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “We are in a new spiritual age, an inter-religious age.”

Search can lead back home

People are hungry for a deeper spiritual experience — meditation, mindfulness, personal transformation, deep insight, union with God or the universe.

Habito, who calls himself a Zen Catholic, is one of the experts who say the search is a little like Dorothy and her ruby slippers. The quest for meaning ultimately leads some, like Dorothy, to their own backyards.

Judaism, Catholicism and Islam have rich traditions in contemplative practices, yet these had all but disappeared from everyday congregational life.

For many Christians cut off from the past, or alienated from the faith of their upbringing, Buddhism has served as the bridge to ancient wisdom.

“The problem is the contemplative tradition in the Christian Church has had its ups and downs over the centuries,” said Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and leader in the Centering Prayer movement, a modern revival of Christian contemplative practice.

“We sensed that the Eastern religions, with their highly developed spirituality, had something we didn’t have,” Keating said. “In the last generation, 10 to 20 years, some didn’t even think there was a Christian spirituality, just rules — do’s and don’ts and dogma they didn’t find spiritually nourishing. It’s important to recover the mystical aspects of the gospel.”

Christian contemplative practices were lost or weakened in the Protestant Reformation and later in the Great Awakening — religious revolutions in colonial America that advanced the themes of Protestantism.

“There is growing permission to turn back to some of the early church practices and pieces that helped us to be whole,” said the Rev. Stuart Lord, an ordained Baptist minister and new president of Naropa University, a Buddhist-founded institution. “I’ve been studying Buddhism and meditation for about seven years. I look at it as helping a person lead a fuller Christian life.”

Cultivating an inner life

Buddhist scholar Judith Simmer-Brown, a professor at Naropa, said Christian denominations are working hard to rediscover contemplative traditions as one way to combat people leaving their churches.

“They literally have rebuilt their Christian meditative forms,” Simmer- Brown said. “Some borrow heavily from Buddhism.”

Lord said the interdenominational yearning for meditation and deeper spiritual experience is not reflective of a desire for different doctrines or ethos — or a taste for Asian cultural trappings.

“It’s about cultivating an inner life, not the outer appearances,” he said. “You don’t have to shave your head.”

The Buddha was non-dogmatic and non-authoritarian — a compassionate guide, not a god, Buddhist texts say. The Buddha was silent on the subjects of a supreme being and the immortality of the soul.

“Buddhism is more about spiritual practice than believing in certain doctrines,” Habito said. “There are more definitive and particular requirements for saying ‘I am a Christian.’ ”

Yet the fusion of strong Buddhist elements with mainstream Christian religion has created a backlash, Simmer- Brown said.

The nomination early this year of the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester to become an Episcopal bishop in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula created a stir when it was learned he also practiced Zen Buddhist meditation.

Forrester’s nomination failed.

Problems of religious rivalry

Blogger Greg Griffith, of StandFirminFaith.com, criticized the “progressivism” and the church’s willingness to fuse differing religious beliefs that paved the way for Forrester’s nomination in the first place.

“It starts with labyrinths, continues with Buddhist monks constructing mandalas in a cathedral, and over the background noise of pagan priests and books about love spells, proceeds to Muslim priestesses and now a Buddhist bishop,” Griffith wrote .

Methodist Rev. Toni Cook, a founder of St. Paul’s Buddhist Christian InterSpiritual Community in Denver, said religious rivalry creates more problems than reconciliation.

About 14 years ago, a gang member had laughed when Cook and a group of clergy asked how they could help get young people out of gangs.

“How are all the religions any different from street gangs?” he asked. “You mark off your own territory and defend it to the death.”

Cook decided: “There’s got to be a way to share sacred space without trying to convert one another.”

By the numbers

12,000 Approximate number of adult Buddhists in Colorado, according to Pew survey

2,600 years Age of the world religion Buddhism

170 percent Increase of adherents during a Buddhist “boom” between 1990 and 2000, according to the American Religious Identity Survey

1.5 million Estimated total number of Buddhists in the U.S. in 2004

5 million Estimated number of Buddhists in the U.S. currently, not counting the numbers of Christians, Jews and others heavily influenced by Buddhism

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God on the brain at Penn’s Neuroscience Boot Camp

Reuters Blogs: Neurotheology – the study of the link between belief and the brain – is a topic I’ve hesitated to write about for several years. There are all kinds of theories out there about how progress in neuroscience is changing our understanding of religion, spirituality and mystical experience. Some say the research proves religion is a natural product of the way the brain works, others that God made the brain that way to help us believe. I knew so little about the science behind these ideas that I felt I had to learn more about the brain first before I could comment.

If that was an excuse for procrastination, I don’t have it anymore. For all this week and half the next, I’m attending a “Neuroscience Boot Camp” at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This innovative program, run by Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Director Martha Farah, aims to explain the latest research in neuroscience to 34 non-experts from fields such as law, business, philosophy and religious studies (as well as to a few journalists). The focus is not only on religion, but faith and issues related to it are certainly part of the discussion.

After only two of 8-1/2 days of lectures, one takeaway message is already clear. You can forget about the “God spot” that headline writers love to highlight (as in “‘God spot’ is found in Brain” or “Scientists Locate ‘God Spot’ in Human Brain”). There is no one place in the brain responsible for religion, just as there is no single location in the brain for love or language or identity. Most popular articles these days actually say that, but the headline writers continue to speak of a single spot.

“There isn’t a separate religious area of the brain, from what we can tell from the data,” said Dr. Andrew Newberg, an associate professor of radiology and psychiatry at the Penn university hospital and author of several books on neuroscience and religion. “It’s not like there’s a little spiritual spot that lights up every time somebody thinks of God. When you look at religious and spiritual experiences, they are incredibly rich and diverse. Sometimes people find them on the emotional level, sometimes on an ideological level, sometimes they perceive a oneness, sometimes they perceive a person. It depends a lot on what the actual experience is.”

In their research, Newberg and his colleagues have scanned the brains of Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns to see if their long experience of meditation and prayer had left its mark on their brains. One thing they noticed was that their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain linked to concentration and decision making, seemed to be more active than usual even in a resting state, and more active still while meditating. Some studies showed it was even larger in long-term meditators than other people. “It’s almost like a muscle,” he said. “If you exercise it every day through meditation, you enhance and increase its function.”

Rather than being located in separate areas, religious and spiritual phenomena “tend to be built upon the existing framework of how the brain works”, said Newberg. “So if we have an experience of the love of God, there is an underlying biology of that experience that is probably the same as how you feel love for your wife, for example. On the other hand, what we also tend to find is that there seems to be a larger network of structures that do tend to get involved. The data seem to suggest that (faith) probably activates these structures to a slightly stronger degree.

“If you’re doing math, your frontal lobe turns on. If you’re doing meditation, your frontal lobe turns on. But if you’re solving math, the frontal lobe turns on and that’s about it, you solve the math problem and then you’re done. With meditation, the frontal lobes turn on, but based on our research, then there’s activation in the temporal lobes, the parietal lobes are changing, and then it starts to activate the limbic system, the emotional drivers of your brain. So a lot more is happening.

“There are some people who say this is evolutionarily adaptive,” Newberg observed. “I try to get away from that because, unfortunately, there’s no real way to prove that. You don’t know what happened 100,000 years ago, whether religion became a part of us as human beings because of the mystical experiences people had, because people were afraid of dying and wanted to know what happened afterwards, or because it created a system of morals and ethics for people and helped enhance socialisation. It does all of those things, sure, but we don’t really know if it was all of those things or one or two of them. To some degree, I get worried about how much we can take that argument.

“My favorite discussion is what does this really mean. Does it mean we’ve found how God interacts with our brain or have we found that God is nothing more than a manifestation of our brain? I don’t have an answer for you yet …”

It isn’t all just lectures at the Boot Camp. We’ve also visited the university hospital’s fMRI scanner, where patients are slid into a narrow tunnel surrounded by a huge and powerful magnet. That’s me in the picture above entering the hospital’s mock scanner used to accustom patients to the claustrophobic feel of the machine before they actually enter the real one to have their brains scanned.

I’ll have more from the boot camp in coming days about religion, ethics and other issues. Anyone interested in getting a closer look at the conference can follow the Bloggin’ from Boot Camp entries by Francis X. Shen on the Law and Neuroscience Blog. Shen, a lecturer in Harvard’s Department of Government, is writing daily wraps on the day’s discussions for the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project.

Original article no longer available…

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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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