God

Religion: with god on our side

Psychology Today: Psychologist Nick Epley explores how we attribute beliefs and attitudes to other minds, including those of deities. In ongoing research at the University of Chicago, he and his collaborators are finding that people’s own beliefs line up much more closely with the beliefs they attribute to their gods than to those they peg on other people. If you manipulate people’s views, their gods’ assigned views change, too. Read more here.

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Aldous Huxley: “Uncontrolled, the hunger and thirst after God may become an obstacle…”

Aldous Huxley

If meditation practice leads to the cessation of desire, then how are we to pursue spiritual goals? Are there good and bad kinds of desire? Can desire be spiritually helpful? Bodhipaksa explores a saying by Aldous Huxley in an attempt to shed some light.

“Uncontrolled, the hunger and thirst after God may become an obstacle, cutting off the soul from what it desires. If a man would travel far along the mystic road, he must learn to desire God intensely but in stillness, passively and yet with all his heart and mind and strength.” – Aldous Huxley

When an American university asked me to give a talk on Buddhism and mysticism I was, well, mystified. Buddhism, for me, was an immensely practical and mostly logical approach to the problem of living a satisfying life, while I understood mysticism to consist of an escape from day-to-day living and a retreat into a realm of sometimes confused and confusing inner experience. I’d no idea what I was going to say.

But then I decided to look up the dictionary to find out what mysticism was, and to my relief found that it directly overlapped with my understanding of what Buddhist practice entailed. The definition I came across was something like:

Mysticism: the belief that the spiritual apprehension of knowledge unavailable to the intellect may be attained through contemplation.

While Buddhist practice is indeed very pragmatic and involved with the minutiae of how we respond to our moment-by-moment experience, it does of course involve meditation, and meditation is a very practical way of changing our experience so that we can come to a deeper understanding of our lives. In other words, through “contemplation” we come to the “spiritual apprehension of knowledge.” Furthermore the insight we achieve through meditation, while it can be directly perceived through the intellect, can’t be completely understood by the intellect alone. For example, I can know intellectually that all things are impermanent, but it’s only when I sit quietly and observe the impermanence of my experiences, my thoughts, my emotions, even my body itself, that the truth of impermanence starts to sink in at a deeper level.

So Buddhism was, I found rather to my surprise, a mystical religion.

…we absolutely must wish passionately to be Enlightened if that’s ever going to take place

Of course there are different varieties of mysticism. Huxley saw mysticism as being the way to experience God directly through one’s experience, rather than through one’s intellect. I don’t believe in the existence of Huxley’s God and in my own mystical practice I pursue a different goal. Or perhaps what we experience is the same, but we interpret that experience in different ways, Huxley calling it “God” while I call it “Reality.”

But Huxley’s quotation is not primarily about God anyway. It’s about different kinds of desire, and how they can help or hinder us in our quest for direct experience of Reality (whether or not that Reality is understood as involving a God).

What Huxley is saying, in effect, is that you need to have a desire for the realization of spiritual experience, but that the wrong kind of desire will actually get in the way of that experience. So what’s the right kind of desire and what’s the wrong kind? How do we tell them apart? How to we make sure we cultivate the right kind of desire?

The difference is not in intensity. Huxley describes the unhelpful kind of desire as “hunger” and “thirst” while the necessary kind is experienced “intensely” and “with all [one’s] heart and mind and strength.” One can passionately wish to be Enlightened. In fact we absolutely must wish passionately to be Enlightened if that’s ever going to take place.

The difference lies, most fundamentally, in the quality of consciousness that is doing the desiring. On the one hand we have unhelpful desire, which is like “hunger” and “thirst” in that it’s a relatively primitive kind of desire. It wants to grasp and possess. It sees something it wants and it tries to appropriate that object to itself. It thinks of itself and the thing desired as separate and real entities. Its grasping is a kind of survival mechanism; it thinks that its own perpetuation will be made more likely by having appropriated the object of its desires.

In Buddhism you sometimes get the image of trying to catch a feather on a fan.

On the other hand we have the spiritually helpful kind of desire. This is the opposite of grasping. It involves, in Huxley’s words, “stillness,” and it must be receptive (Huxley says “passive,”which has unfortunate connotations) as well as active. It might be useful to have a metaphor here.

In Buddhism you sometimes get the image of trying to catch a feather on a fan. Now obviously if you make a vigorous effort to catch the falling feather with the fan (if you have a “grasping” attitude) you’ll simply push the feather away and achieve the opposite of what you intended. To catch a feather on a fan you have to be subtle and intelligent. There has to be activity, so that the fan gets into the right place for the feather to land on it. Then there needs to be stillness, so that the fan can approach undisturbed. There has to be receptivity; you have to let the feather come to you. This combination of activity, stillness, and receptivity allows us to achieve the goal.

Likewise, in approaching mystical states of mind we have to make an effort. We have to want to approach the goal. And the desire must be intense. But it also must be intelligent. It must lead to the still point where we have done what has to be done (and no more) and where we are positioned to simply wait, with openness and receptivity, for the feather to land.

At different times different approaches are needed. At first we might need to take relatively vigorous action, holding ourselves back from grossly harmful actions and working to pacify the unruly mind. Desire itself, as Huxley says, must not be “uncontrolled.” We need to grasp the fan of the mind. We must move it decisively yet gently to intercept the path of the feather of reality. We need to intelligently observe how our own actions affect the feather’s course — observe how the very act of meditating can distort our ability to experience reality — and make increasingly subtle movements to compensate. At last as the fan becomes perfectly positioned we can become still, and we need simply to wait.

Both activity and receptivity need to be blended. When we have activity towards a goal without also having receptivity we are in the grip of mere “hunger,” while activity intelligently blended with receptivity leads us down the path of practical mysticism and, ultimately, to the direct apprehension of reality.

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“Healing Breath: Zen for Christians and Buddhists in a Wounded World,” by Rubin Habito

healing breathZen and Christianity may have much to offer each other and to learn from each other. But is it possible to be both a Christian and a Zen Buddhist? Author Ruben Habito seems to think so. Reviewer Samayadevi is more skeptical.

Ruben L F Habito was for many years a Jesuit priest serving in Japan. He studied with both Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, a spiritual pioneer in inter-religious dialog and with Koun Yamada, a renowned Zen teacher. He thus brings a fascinating perspective on the interplay of Christianity, as experienced in Catholicism, and the practice of Zen.

Healing Breath is aimed at those seeking a healing spirituality in their own lives and guidelines for a practice that integrates the personal, social and ecological dimensions of life. He assumes a familiarity with Christian concepts, beliefs and traditions and an unfamiliarity with Zen practice. These are fortuitous assumptions on his part as they allow Habito to explain and teach the four characteristics of Zen and the three fruits of that practice.

The overarching thesis of Healing Breath is that the Zen practice of being still, listening to the breath, and calming the mind all conduce to an experience of the interconnectedness of all life, to “seeing things are they really are.” The healing begins with a (radical) change in how we see the world, a “shift not of strategy but of cosmology”.

In this “right view” the spiritual path is “one with the path of active socio-ecological engagement,” and “healing the world is not unrelated to healing our personal woundedness.” Zen is presented as a practice that resonates with a Christian belief system and is compatible with a Christian faith commitment. “Christian expressions and symbols and practices point to transformative and healing perspectives and experiences opened to on in Zen practice.”

There are many lovely gems in this little tome. In writing about the second mark of Zen practice, not being limited by words or concepts, he writes: “The human capacity to name things takes its toll on our mode of awareness.” The implication is that Zen practice leads to the limitless spaciousness of the Heart Sutra. What an invitation to go beyond our analytical mind (our comfort zone), and, to go deeper into pure unfettered awareness!

Habito sees the violence and destruction in the world being caused by the illusion of “I” and “other”, and Zen sitting, following the breath and calming the mind, as leading to the dissolution of that false dichotomy. “The fruit of concentration is that the separation between subject and object is overcome and we can see our true nature.” It is from that dissolution that compassion for all beings flows.

The “art of living in attunement with the breath” is how Zen is described. These are all appealing insights and pretty much propel me to my cushion, or to my breath, as I sit here writing. On my first reading I was not so taken with the invitation to sit zazen (I tried that first in 1970), but on a second reading I could not help but be inspired. Especially in the midst of Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the image of quiet sitting to quietly realize an innate connection with all beings is pretty irresistible. It can even color and perhaps guide the potential frenzy of gift giving celebrations.

In discussing the Six Point Recovery to healing, Habito lists “integrating the shadow side.” Pema Chodron also often writes of befriending what scares us, what we want to hide, deny, or push away. It is an essential element in healing, in claiming our wholeness, and it cannot be said often enough.

In the section on Rekindling After the Burnout, Habito suggests that the very sense of “I” doing “good” to achieve good “results” is that cause of burnout! Again, we are reminded of the Heart Sutra: “Not even wisdom to attain, Attainment too is emptiness.” The practice is not to distinguish between the giver and the gift and the receiver. That is a high calling and a description of freedom.

So far, so good. However, I should admit that I was once a deeply committed Christian. I have a Master’s of Divinity degree from Weston Jesuit School of Theology. I am intimately familiar with Christian symbols and concepts. I am also a committed, practicing, ordained Buddhist. As Habito explains, the Christian corollary of “living in attunement with the breath” is found in Genesis, in the Hebrew word “ruah,” meaning “the divine breath that is at the base of all being and all life.” This breath inspired the prophets to speak the word of God. Christian spirituality is literally a life led in the Spirit or Breath, of Jesus Christ.” Zen practice is then (seemingly) used to access this Breath of Christ, to allow us to “…become an instrument of this Breath.” I clearly have trouble with this. I find a quantum difference between realizing I am not a discrete, inherently existing entity but rather deeply one in “interbeing” (Thich Nhat Hahn’s neologism) with all life, and believing that my ultimate truth is to be an instrument of the Breath of Christ.

Habito suggests that the koan practice of Zen is a means to “dissolve the opposition between subject and object.” The task of the practice is to remove obstacles to that realization. But this is followed by the suggestion that that realization is similar to glimpsing “the universe from the eyes of God; the one who hears is inseparable from the Word that is heard.” The concept of a creator God is so discordant with my Buddhist insights, I find it almost disturbing to try to mesh them together.

The implication throughout is that Zen practice and Christian commitment are not only compatible, but mutually beneficial. My own experience is that while Zen practice gives me the tools of sitting, following the breath, and calming the mind, the fruits of that experience exist in their own right without the need of a Christian world view. For a Christian, Zen may be beneficial in facilitating and fostering centering prayer, and a stillness of the heart.

Buddhists and Christians have so very much to learn from one another. Habito mentions at the beginning, that ‘Placing ourselves within differing religious traditions to discover mutual resonance, (leads) not only to inner healing, but to global healing.” I wish and hope that might be so. I just have trouble finding the resonance.


Samayadevi is a 65-year-old mother of six, step-mother of four, and step-grandmother of eight. She discovered meditation when she was thirteen and has been practicing (erratically) ever since. Her spiritual path has led her through Catholicism to the Episcopal church and finally into Buddhism. She was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order this summer on a three month retreat in Spain.

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‘A way to keep the mind focused’ (Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, Indiana)

Susan Hogan-Holbach: The religion professor’s foot was propped on a chair, his crutches on the floor. A few days earlier, he’d broken his foot. A spiritual lesson, he said. “I’m in this condition due to a failure in mindfulness,” said Ruben Habito, the spiritual guide at the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas. “But now, each movement can become something I cherish because I cannot take anything for granted.

“I’m finding my way and learning how to walk again on three legs.”

Dr. Habito, 56, is a former Jesuit priest who practices Catholicism and Zen. He teaches world religions and spirituality at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

A native of the Philippines, he holds a doctorate in Buddhism from Tokyo University. His most recent book is “Living Zen, Loving God” (Wisdom Publications, $14.95).

Dr. Habito and his wife, Maria Reis Habito, have two sons.

He spoke recently about mindfulness with the Dallas Morning News.

Q: Define mindfulness.

Being aware of the dynamic reality of the present moment.

Q: How do you cultivate mindfulness?

It involves different formats, depending on an individual’s disposition – maybe counting one’s breath or just sitting without any specific agenda.

That sounds easy enough. You just sit. But there’s really a lot more involved in just sitting than just sitting. It’s a way to keep the mind focused on the present rather than letting it wander, thinking about the past or the future or issues in our lives. The invitation is to try and see how it goes.

Q: What makes mindfulness meditation different from other forms?

It’s not a practice of thinking about something. It’s an exercise in being fully present with each breath. Just being still and being aware in the moment opens up a treasure house of spirituality and resources.

In our ordinary consciousness, we are hardly in the present moment. We are always chasing after our lives ahead of us and never really living our life while it’s happening.

Q: Why is mindfulness popular in the mainstream?

People are trying to fill their inner spiritual hunger. They are finding that material things are not really satisfying. So maybe this is the next thing they can try. Hopefully, they will find something substantial.

Q: What are the most common misconceptions?

Some people take it to be self-consciousness. That’s the exact opposite of mindfulness. It doesn’t mean that I must be conscious of doing this and doing that, but simply aware.

Q: What’s the difference?

There’s a way of washing the dishes where you’re aware of just being there washing the dishes. You’re aware of the knives and the fluffy bubbles and lukewarm water. Being self-conscious is more like, “Hmm. Am I doing it right?” It’s almost like you’re critiquing yourself.

Q: A lot of people learn about mindfulness from books and tapes rather than a teacher or meditation center. Does it make a difference?

You can get a cookbook, follow a recipe and learn to cook. But it’s much easier to learn if you have a culinary expert to help you.

Q: Are Christian meditation and Zen meditation compatible?

In Christian meditation, we seek God’s presence in each and every thing, each and every moment, each and every act. It’s not different from what Buddhists call mindfulness, though it comes with a lot of theological underpinnings.

Q: Why is the living in present moment important?

Be there and you’ll see.

Original article no longer available…

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A place for pondering (Newsday)

Pat Burson, Newsday: Mona Bector, a New York City employee who lives in Fresh Meadows, says meditation has given her a deeper peace, even in troubled times.

“You’d be amazed at how many people at work are always asking me how I can be so calm when things are going crazy,” says Bector, 33, a budget officer for the city’s Department of Education. “The more you meditate, the stronger your faith is. It helps me, and it helps other people to appreciate the path that I’m on.”

Bector, raised a Hindu, belongs to the Science of Spirituality, a worldwide nonprofit organization that teaches that meditation is at the core of all religions.

Last week, the first Science of Spirituality center in the Northeast opened in Amityville. The organization’s worldwide headquarters is in Delhi, India; its U.S. headquarters is in Naperville, Ill.

Almost 1,000 people from different backgrounds, cultures and religious traditions from New York City, Long Island and New England, and parts of South America, Europe and Africa, flocked to the weekend- long opening ceremonies at the County Line Road center. Many participants from the area, such as Bector, had been meeting for years in local churches, synagogues and homes….

Wherever they have met, they say the organization’s teachings have put them on the path to peace and tranquillity in their lives and in the world.

The spiritual leader of the Science of Spirituality is Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj, a Sikh who travels around the world to teach people of all beliefs and walks of life how daily meditation and ethical living can improve their lives, their connection with God and their relationships with others.

Singh, former president of the World Fellowship of Religions, has written more than a dozen books, including “Inner and Outer Peace Through Meditation,” which includes a foreword by the Dalai Lama.

‘All walks of life’

Last month at a tour of the center, Singh said, “In our organization here, we have people from all walks of life and all faiths of life. It is not about propagating any one religion as such…. We focus on the meditative aspects of each one of our teachings.”

The Amityville center, in a renovated synagogue, was purchased in late February. The main sanctuary will be used for weekly meetings, meditation workshops and large interfaith gatherings. A library contains books on mysticism and the world’s leading religions. The building has a high-speed Internet connection to allow participants to watch Singh’s monthly live broadcasts.

For now, members meet at noon on Sundays to meditate and read from religious teachings. Another meeting is offered in Hindi on Wednesdays, and organizers say they want to expand to other languages.

“We celebrate what we have in common through meditation, and appreciate differences in our religious and cultural backgrounds,” says Stephanie Goldreyer of Merrick, who has been a member of Science of Spirituality since 1971 and now works as the communications coordinator at the meditation center.

“That gives us a deeper understanding of our religious traditions.”

The tenets of Science of Spirituality include the belief in one God. “We feel there is one God, whether we call God by the name of the creator or we call God Jehovah or we call God Allah or by any other name,” Singh says. “There is one creator and all creation came into being from that creator. We feel there are many paths to God, and each could be going in whatever way makes sense to them, but the goal is the same. So we consider ourselves to be members of one big family of God, and we try to experience that oneness with God.”

Singh says participants don’t have to give up their religion to become a participant in the Science of Spirituality. The organization is funded with voluntary donations from its members.

The heart of the Science of Spirituality is Sant Mat, a method of meditation that was born centuries ago in India. Goldreyer says, “It becomes a universal appreciation of people and whatever tradition they practice because we realize the universality of humankind through meditation. Meditation is a very tangible way to connect with that.”

The purpose of meditation is to go beyond the physical to a deeper spiritual place, Singh says. “Right now we’re living at the level of our senses. We want to go within because we feel that God is not up in the sky but God is within each and every one of us… and we are able to experience God in our lives and that is what gives us joy and peace and tranquillity.”

Singh’s background Born in 1946 in New Delhi, Singh completed his undergraduate work in engineering at Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, followed by graduate school at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. He worked 20 years in engineering and communications.

He studied with two of India’s greatest spiritual luminaries, Sant Kirpal Singh Ji Maharaj and his successor, Sant Darshan Singh Ji Maharaj. Sant Kirpal Singh was the first Sant Mat teacher to come to the West.

Singh, who says he receives no money from participants, teaches that meditation helps individuals to know themselves and God. Healthy rewards of an hour or two of meditation each day also include improved concentration, reduced stress and better efficiency, he says.

Science of Spirituality also promotes a vegetarian diet, chastity and sobriety.

Such teachings appeal to Michael Mott, raised Catholic, who says he got involved with Science of Spirituality 16 years ago when he was at a crossroads.

“I went through a change in life, and I was looking for an answer,” says Mott, 54, who holds Science of Spirituality meetings on alternate Wednesdays at his East Hampton home. “It’s you and it’s me, and if I can be a peaceful person, I will affect other people, and I will affect myself. … It’s a beautiful message.” His wife, Tina Saposhnik, 57, who was raised Jewish, says she loves the multicultural atmosphere within the organization and at the new meditation center. “It’s so international that you really start understanding other people,” she says.

“Nobody’s ever excluded.”

Read the original article…

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Meditation: A timeless tool for a changing world (Lompoc Record, California)

Joe Belton, Lompoc Record: With wars, terrorism, and the sluggish economy constantly in the news, people seem to be feeling less certain about the future, and more certain about the need to find a greater sense of well-being in their lives. Accordingly, there has been a renewed interest in meditation all across this country, and many studies have shown that there certainly are physical and mental benefits of meditation in reducing stress and stress related illnesses. The physical and mental benefits, however, while obviously desirable to increase our sense of well-being, have traditionally been treated as merely secondary to the real purpose of meditation: to increase our ability to be able to pray deeply and actually realize the Presence of God.

Most, if not all, of the mystical traditions of the world/s religions have always included meditation (deep prayer) as an essential tool in practicing God/s presence and experiencing the reality of that presence. Among the psalms in the Bible, for example, we find one attributed to King David of old wherein he wrote, ” Be still and know that I am God.” In another, he wrote, “Be still upon your bed and commune in your heart.” This is the essence of meditation: learning to be still enough to perceive the presence of God within us, and learning to express the love in our hearts in communion with God…

Christ Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is within us. We can learn to become aware of it through the use of a proper tool of meditation. Imagine how it could change your life if you could actually know your Creator as a loving being of light. Many people who have had near-death experiences have returned to tell us that this is in fact what occurred for them. They passed through what appeared to be a tunnel of light and found a being of light waiting for them at the other end, a being that they immediately recognized as a manifestation of God’s light. Amazingly, over 6 million cases of near-death experiences have now been documented in this country alone.

What if it were possible to meet this being of light without having to go through the trauma of a near-death experience? What a wonderful thing it would be to be able to know where you came from before this life, where you will going when you leave this life, and be able to really communicate with your loving Creator while you were here. Is an experience like this only possible for certain people, like Moses and Jesus? Jesus himself said, “These things that I do, ye can do also, and greater things.”

So, meditation is not just some esoteric art practiced by yogis in the Himalayas. It has now moved into the main stream of western life. People are attracted to it for varying reasons, but its traditional purpose is one that is as applicable today as it was two or three thousand years ago. When you actually know, not just believe, that God is alive and loves you very much, it brings a sense of well-being and peace of mind like nothing else can.

For people that desire such a sense of well being and peace of mind, and the possibility of realizing God/s Presence, an ancient meditation technique, which has been called Kriya Yoga by some, has recently become available in the Lompoc area with the formation of a meditation group that will be meeting on Tuesday evenings. Interested people can contact the Solar Logos Church of Self-Realization for information (736-6528). The meditation technique is a non-denominational tool that can be used by anyone, regardless of religious affiliation, and can be a great aid in finding our way in a troubled and changing world.

Read the rest of the article…

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Running feeds seminarian’s body, mind, spirit (The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pennsylvania)

Bobby Ross Jr., The Daily Item (Sunbury, Pennsylvania): In what he calls his “Mother Teresa Run,” Roger Joslin looks for the divine in the faces of everyone he meets. When “Running With Alms,” the Austin seminarian takes along a few dollars to help those in need.

In Joslin’s view, a spiritual experience – even an encounter with God – is as likely to occur along a wooded trail as in a church, synagogue or mosque.

The 52-year-old master of divinity student at Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest relates his experiences in the book “Running the Spiritual Path: A Runner’s Guide to Breathing, Meditating and Exploring the Prayerful Dimension of the Sport.”

Published last year by St. Martin’s Press in New York, the book combines Joslin’s insights from 30 years of running with the spiritual journey that guided him toward the priesthood.

Joslin maintains that through chants, visualization and attention to the most obvious aspects of the present moment – the weather, pain or breathing – the simple run can become the basis for a profound spiritual practice.

“When running, search for the divine in the ordinary,” he writes. “Each run is not a pilgrimage to Chartres, to Mecca, to Jerusalem, but it is a pilgrimage nonetheless.

If the intention is to converse with God, you are a pilgrim. It is the very ordinariness of the run that enables it to become a central part of your spiritual life. When God appears in the midst of the mundane, we are making progress toward him.”

In a recent interview, Joslin described how he prepares for a workout, trying to get himself into a state in which he is keenly aware of everything around him.

“Before I go for a run, if I’m driving, I’ll turn off the radio on the way, so I can begin to prepare,” he said. “When I’m putting on my T-shirt and my shorts, I’m going to do it very methodically, very consciously, in the same way that a priest might put on his vestments in preparation for celebration of Mass.”

In California, a group from the Rev. Jimmy Bartz’s church gathers each Thursday at the Santa Monica beach to run and pray based on the guidance in Joslin’s book.

Bartz, associate rector at All Saints’ Beverly Hills, an Episcopal church, said Joslin isn’t the first to combine meditative spiritual practice with physical exercise.

“I think there are a lot of people that have thought about it, but it just hasn’t been quite expressed the way Roger does pretty clearly in his book,” said Bartz, a longtime friend of Joslin’s.

Joslin’s book advocates “running meditation” as a way to quiet one’s mind and engage the body.

Hunt Priest, a friend and fellow seminarian, said Joslin’s book “just really blurred, in a necessary way, the line between the sacred and the everyday.”

“It helps you understand that you can be praying or meditating all the time,” said Priest, 39. “It doesn’t have to be one hour on Sunday.”

Joslin’s spiritual path to the seminary was more a marathon than a sprint.

He entered the seminary two years ago after 20 years in the architectural woodwork business. He’s not alone in pursuing the priesthood later in life; many of his fellow seminarians are in their early 40s.

“I am sure that I will be a far better priest now than I would have been had I entered the ministry at an earlier age,” he said. “I may not be wiser, but I am more compassionate. I have a better sense of how difficult life can be.”

Perhaps fittingly, running helps Joslin deal with that difficulty. But that wasn’t always the case.

As a high school football player in Alvarado, south of Fort Worth, he – viewed running simply as punishment. In his 20s, he ran just to keep in shape.

Then in his late 30s, the father of two dealt with a painful divorce. Running became an escape – but that escape gave way to a transformation.

As Joslin paid more attention to his immediate physical environment, he started seeing God, he said. A running journal that he kept from 1993 to 2001 formed the foundation for his book.

“God exists in the present, and to the extent to which you can find yourself fully engaged in the present, I think you can call that an experience with the divine,” he said. “It’s not always spectacular and mystical, although it can be on occasion.”

Joslin said his “original encounters with the divine” occurred in natural settings such as Big Bend National Park and the Pecos Wilderness.

“But I probably wouldn’t want to be a priest if I couldn’t experience God’s presence through the sacraments in the sanctuary,” he said. “I can’t say that one’s easier than the other. God exists all around. It’s a matter of being intentive and being receptive in either setting.”

Roger Joslin, 52, a master of divinity student at Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, holds a
copy of his book, “Running the – Spiritual Path: A Runner’s Guide to Breathing, Meditating and Exploring the Prayerful Dimension of the Sport.”

Original article no longer available.

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Hard-wired for God (The Globe and Mail, Toronto)

ANNE McILROY, The Globe and Mail, Toronto: Only something extraordinary could entice the Carmelite nuns of Montreal to break their vow of silence and venture out of the cloister, ANNE McILROY says. They have joined forces with science to look for a concrete sign from God — inside the human brain.

The Carmelite nuns live a life of silent prayer, separated from the modern world by the high stone wall that surrounds their monastery in an industrial part of Montreal. Except for medical care, they rarely leave their sanctuary. But that changed late last month, when they began to make periodic visits to, of all places, a science lab.

The sisters arrive at the neuro-science laboratory in the University of Montreal’s psychology department two at a time, wearing habits sewn from thick, dark cloth, high white collars and veils that frame their faces and flow down their backs. On their feet are sensible brown laceups that appear to have never seen the outdoors before.

They come to take part in an experiment that will probe a mystical and very private part of their lives. Sister Diane, the monastery’s prioress, and Sister Teresa admit to being nervous as they peer curiously into a dark chamber about the size of a walk-in closet and equipped with an old barber’s chair.

It is here that they have agreed to try to relive unio mystica, a religious experience so intense that Christians profess to sense their Lord as a physical presence. The nuns hope to help Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard uncover just what happens in their brains when they feel the hand of God.

Their openness to scientific examination is a sign of a relatively recent rapprochement between science and religion, especially in the new field of neurotheology, which uses the tools of psychology and neuroscience to probe the neural underpinnings of religious experience.

This is only a dry run, but the formidable Sister Diane suddenly looks vulnerable as she takes off her veil and loosens her thick grey hair. Research assistant Vincent Paquette gently helps her put on what looks like a red bathing cap full of holes. Inside the cap, electrodes below each hole will be attached to her scalp to measure the electrical activity of her brain.

“This isn’t,” she says, “what we are used to.”

Indeed, life inside the monastery has changed little since the Carmelites founded it in 1875. Sister Diane and her nuns rise at 5:20 for breakfast and an hour of silent prayer that they liken to meditation. The days are filled with chanting the Psalms, attending mass and more silent prayer.

When they aren’t praying, they are working; cooking, gardening, baking hosts for communion, washing and sewing habits, making crafts to earn money. They are permitted to talk to each other only during two 20-minute recreation periods, after lunch and after supper. In the evening, they must write notes if they have something pressing to say.

“We are hermits, living in a community,” Sister Diane explains. They even pray in separate wooden compartments.

There are 19 nuns now in the monastery and all plan to stay until they die.

Now, they have agreed not only to venture out of the cloister, but also to relive perhaps the most intimate moment of their lives while researchers watch what happens to their brains.

Sister Diane says unio mystica, the mystical union with God, is difficult to put into words. St. Teresa of Jesus, the Spanish nun who established the Carmelite order in 1526, described it as talking lovingly to God as though He were a friend and sharing a divine intimacy. The experience happens only once or twice in a lifetime, typically before a person turns 30. Sister Diane had it happen twice in the same year — 1977, when she was 29 — and not again since. She has never talked about it before, she says; it was too private, too intimate. She was at a religious retreat, praying silently and recalls entering an altered state, with an intense sense of God’s physical presence. She lost herself in it.

“I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how much time had passed. It is like a treasure, and intimacy. It is very, very personal. It was in the centre of my being, but even deeper. It was a feeling of fullness, fullness, fullness.”

Sister Teresa, 43, also experienced her unio mystica when in her 20s. “It is more than a feeling,” she says. “It is more intense than feeling, but you sense God is physically there. It brings intense happiness, even bliss.”

When Dr. Beauregard and Mr. Paquette, his doctoral student, first approached Sister Diane about using three of the most powerful brain-imaging tools available to learn more about unio mystica, she was intrigued. She had heard about other experiments investigating the biological basis of religious experience.

The researchers were hoping the nuns would have a mystical experience right in the lab. Sister Diane told them that this would be impossible — God can’t be summoned at will. “You can’t search for it. The harder you search, the longer you will wait,” she says.

So the scientists came back with an alternative: Would the nuns be able to remember what it felt like? Dr. Beauregard is certain that when they recall such an intense experience, their brains will operate the same way as when the nuns actually felt God’s physical presence.

He says there is plenty of evidence that this is likely. When we think about doing something physical, such as hitting a forehand in tennis, the same parts of the brain are active as when we are actually make the shot.

Similarly, he has conducted experiments with actors and found that dramatizing a sad experience causes intense activity in the parts of the brain that process emotion.

This approach pleased the nuns, and so far six have agreed to participate in the experiments, which will take two years to complete.

The first step is to measure their brain waves, or electrical activity, using an electroencephalographic (EEG) recording device as they re- live unio mystica as best they can.

The second, using functional magnetic imaging, will provide a living picture of their brains at work by showing which regions of their brain are active and which aren’t.

In the third experiment, the nuns will be injected with a low-level radioactive chemical so that the scientists can use positron emission tomography, better known as a PET scan, to measure levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in different parts of the brain. Serotonin is involved in regulating a person’s moods, and there is evidence that psychedelic drugs such as LSD mimic it to produce hallucinations.

Some cultures use hallucinogens to communicate with God, and Dr. Beauregard believes that serotonin may play a role in unio mystica. Not that he is trying to prove that unio mystica is all in the head. Every human experience occurs in the mind, he says. The “experience is real, but the manifestation is in the brain.”

When the analysis of all three experiments is done, he hopes to have a clear biological picture of an experience that mystifies even those who have lived it. Ultimately, he would like to know enough about how it works to be able to offer the same experience to anybody seeking spiritual growth.

Sister Diane says she is certain that Dr. Beauregard will discover a biological basis for the Carmelites’ spiritual experience, one she says is shared by all human beings. God equipped people with the brains they need for a spiritual life, she insists. “Our body has a spiritual component. To be a human being is to be a spiritual being. I’m convinced this will show in the results.”

Sister Teresa seems less sure. “It will be up to God,” she says.

Dr. Beauregard is not the only researcher probing the neurobiology of belief. In September, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, took part in a high-profile meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology held to compare Buddhist and scientific views about how the mind works.

Buddhists believe that they can regulate their emotions through meditation, and studies conducted on Buddhist monks have shown intense activity in specific parts of their brains when they meditate. Which part of the brain appears to depend on the type of meditation — whether the person is focusing on compassion or on the details of a mental image of Buddha.

The sold-out MIT session attracted many respected scientists, including a researcher from the Royal Ottawa Hospital who is interested in whether meditation may be useful in treating anxiety disorders.

The study of meditation is no longer considered the flaky fringe of science, thanks to researchers such as Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin who helped to organize the session with the Dalai Lama.

In 1992, he travelled to northern India equipped with electrical generators, computers and machines that could measure the electrical output of the brain. In the foothills of the Himalayas, he wired up monks to learn more about their brains.

New, more powerful brain-imaging equipment has drawn other researchers to the field, including scientists at Harvard, the University of California at San Francisco, the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Beauregard at the University of Montreal.

They are trying to answer a number of intriguing questions: Are humans hard-wired to have religious or spiritual experiences, which are common to almost every culture on Earth? What happens in the brain when they do have them? Is it something that non-religious people might be able to replicate with the right stimulation? Is a transcendent Buddhist experience, often described as feeling connected to everyone and everything in the universe, the same as Christians’ unio mystica? Can religion and spirituality make people healthier, as some studies suggest?

Work with the Buddhist monks shows that meditation results in decreased activity in the parietal lobes, which are located at the top and back of the brain, and help to orient a person in time and space. (For example, they tell you that your hands are on the steering wheel and you’re driving to the store.)

The theory is that a lack of parietal activity reduces the sense of self, and makes a person feel there is no boundary between his or her body and the rest of the universe. As well, there appears to be increased activity in the limbic system, which helps to process emotion.

Dr. Beauregard says Christian mysticism may involve a different biological mechanism. His is the first study to use three techniques for monitoring the brain activity of religious subjects. The two-year, $100,000 (U.S.) project is financed by a foundation created by John Templeton, the mutual-fund titan who is now in his 90s and wants to know more about God.

Mr. Templeton is investing $16-million to $30-million (U.S.) a year in the scientific study of spirituality, everything from whether prayer can heal to how primates exhibit forgiveness.

Dr. Beauregard’s goal is to understand the neurobiology of Christian mysticism, and he has won over the Catholic establishment. Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, the Archbishop of Montreal, has written in support of the project in a publication read by Quebec’s other contemplative orders. The researchers hope to attract as many as 15 volunteers from four other Carmelite communities in the province.

It is not clear, however, that God is on-side. Sister Diane and Sister Teresa arrived at the neuroscience lab for their EEG tests only to find that someone had broken in and stolen key pieces of equipment. Although frustrated, the researchers walked the nuns through the process so they would know what to expect. The more relaxed they are, Mr. Paquette says, the easier it is to monitor their brains. A week later, the researchers were ready to go, but Sister Diane called in sick at the last minute, prompting another delay.

But the two nuns already tested were moved by the experience. One in particular, Sister Nicole, seemed to come especially close to recapturing unio mystica while perched in the barber’s chair (used because it is comfortable — and solid, even more vital to the research results).

When Mr. Paquette opened the door to the soundproof chamber, she was surprised that 20 minutes had passed sp quickly. Asked what it was like, she began to describe the unio mystica she achieved as a child; the two experiences had become blurred in her mind. She also told him that she had heard music, Pachelbel’s Canon.

In the tape Mr. Paquette made of their conversation, her voice sounds dreamy and content. “I have never felt so loved,” she says.

It is far too early to draw many conclusions from the experiments, but the researchers say they already find the data intriguing. “We are seeing things we don’t normally see,” says Marc Pouliot, an engineer who is analyzing the EEG results.

The two nuns experienced intense bursts of alpha waves in the brains, common in a reflective and relaxed state such as meditation. They also had intense activity in the left occipital region at the back of the brain — which is not what the scientists were expecting in the wake of research by Michael Persinger, a controversial researcher at Laurentian University in Sudbury who has developed the so-called God helmet. He uses the device to stimulate the right side of the brain, including the parietal lobe, with low-level electromagnetic radiation. In 80 per cent of subjects, this induces the sensation that there is a presence in the room. Many weep and say they feel God nearby.

However, the real “God experience” may be different, according to the nuns. Rather than crying, they say they felt intense joy and looked forward to the lab experience since there is little chance they will ever enjoy a true mystical union with God again.

This may seem sad, but Sister Diane compares her love for God to the way two people love each other. When they fall in love, they feel a physical rush. They blush. They feel tingly. That, she says, is the kind of love young nuns feel for God when they experience unio mystica. But over time, the love deepens and matures. It isn’t as thrilling, she says. It becomes more of a day-to-day relationship.

This is an intriguing observation, because some researchers have speculated that the human capacity for mystical experiences may have co-evolved with the brain networks involved in sexual pleasure.

At 55, Sister Diane describes her relationship with God as more like a marriage, solid, secure, but without the rush. She says she knows God has been present by the peace he leaves behind, not from the excitement of a mystical union.

“That feeling of peace flowing through you — pacification — tells you He has been here.”

Anne McIlroy is the Globe and Mail’s science reporter.

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