Councilwoman wants wants prayer back in Philadelphia schools

The U.S. Constitution may prohibit mandatory prayer in public schools, but it doesn’t prohibit schools from allowing students to pray on their own initiative, says City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who wants to encourage the practice.

“Students are free to pray alone or in groups as long as the activity is not disruptive and does not infringe on the rights of others,” according to a resolution adopted unanimously in Council yesterday at Blackwell’s request.

It calls for Council’s Education Committee, headed by Blackwell, to schedule hearings on prayer in Philadelphia public schools.

“We want to discuss the policy, see if it needs to be amended and certainly let the citizens know that the issue does exist,” Blackwell told reporters. “There is a way people can have free religious expression within schools.”

The U.S. Supreme Court issued several landmark rulings in the 1960s, first outlawing required prayer in New York State’s public schools and then overturning a Pennsylvania law that mandated Bible readings, as well as the Lord’s Prayer.

“In the relationship between man and religion, the state is firmly committed to a position of neutrality,” wrote…
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Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark.

The case originated in the Abington school district, where a student was reprimanded for reading from the Quran instead of the Bible.

Shana Kemp, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia School District, said that its current policies date to 1976, when the Board of Education required every school day to begin with the Pledge of Allegiance and one minute of silent meditation.

“During the period of silent meditation, pupils may choose to meditate or to remain silent, but school authorities may not suggest or direct the subject upon which pupils may meditate,” according to more detailed rules issued in 1979.

The rules for secondary schools were changed to require the Pledge of Allegiance and meditation period sometime during the school day, not necessarily at the beginning.

In other business, Council voted unanimously to put a question onto the May 17 primary election ballot, asking voters whether to create a 17-member “Job Commission” in a bid “to create and preserve private-sector jobs for Philadelphians.”

Both the mayor and Council would name commission members within 30 days. The panel would meet monthly to identify and evaluate the entities and factors affecting private-sector jobs, and then make recommendations for reform by early 2012, said Councilman Darrell Clarke, prime sponsor of the jobs proposal.

Council also approved a major rewrite of the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance, strengthening its penalties and extending it to discrimination based on genetic information, familial status or status as a victim of domestic or sexual violence.

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Kaiser’s new meditation room reflects shift away from chapels in U.S. hospitals

wildmind meditation news

Roseville Press-Tribune: Books on Buddha, prayers printed in different languages, moveable chairs, kneeling stools, a glass prayer bowl, space for Muslim prayer rugs and a stained glass installation with a nature design fill the 180-square-foot room.

As intended, it’s a hodgepodge scene.

But for patients, visitors and staff of the hospital at Kaiser Roseville Medical Center, the room represents a quiet, sacred space where people of all religious backgrounds and spiritual beliefs are welcome. This meditation room also illustrates a growing recognition by health care providers throughout the United States that mind, body and spirit go hand in hand.

“Healing comes in many ways and we do a great job with the physical healing, but there’s the emotional and spiritual wounds, as well,” said Kaiser Chaplain Alice Anderson.

Gylnda Hardin happened upon the meditation room during its public unveiling Jan. 19. She traveled from Oakland to visit a family member receiving treatment in the hospital. As she tried reading her Bible in the patient’s room, she grew distracted by other family members conversing and noise from the television.

“I love it,” Hardin said of the meditation room. “It’s beautiful and it’s very much needed.”

Although Kaiser Permanente opened for public enrollment in 1945, their hospitals did not include chapels until about a decade ago. Now they have about 30 chaplains serving the northern California region. When Kaiser built the local medical center in 1998, they set aside a meditation room, tacking a sign on the door.

But no one oversaw the space and the room devolved into a waiting lounge.

“It felt like a conference room and wasn’t really meeting the needs of our patients,” said Keith Hoerman, director of continuity of care, during the opening ceremony.

In June 2009, Connie Johnstone, former spiritual care manager for Kaiser Roseville Medical Center, grew frustrated telling people there was no spiritual sanctuary on hospital grounds.

A particular family had struck Johnstone as one that could really benefit from the presence of a meditation room. She talked to her boss and got the ball rolling.

“There was a pastor and a retired pastor who had a loved one in the hospital,” she said. “They had huge spiritual resources available to them. They didn’t need me to gather at the bedside with them. They needed a place to go draw on their own strength.”

Everything about the meditation room is intentional. The stained glass gives people a visual object to observe. Chairs are arranged so visitors don’t sit looking at one another. The furniture is comfortable but doesn’t enable people to curl up and read a novel.

The prayer bowl gives visitors something to interact with — they can leave prayer requests and spiritual care volunteers will keep these in their reflections, Johnstone said. The room feels set apart from the rest of the hospital.

Most importantly, elements in the room don’t privilege one religious tradition over another.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Catholic, Baptist and Methodist churches built many hospitals, which typically incorporated chapels with crosses and pews.

“It’s just not like that anymore,” Johnstone said, adding that Roseville has a big Sikh population and many Buddhist practitioners.

Not to mention Muslims, including medical personnel, need a place to pray five times a day.

“The person brings their own resources, their own spirituality (to the room),” Johnstone said. “We understand this is a diverse world and we don’t want to diminish any one practice or put focus on any one.”

UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento made the transition to a nondenominational room recently with an “all-faith chapel.” Sutter Health’s Women’s and Children’s Center plans to open a 40-seat meditation room in 2013.

Closer to home, Sutter Roseville Medical Center has boasted a meditation room since 1996 when the hospital opened, although they call it a chapel. The interfaith space has a stained glass piece and nature motif, but Sutter uses “chapel” because people recognize the term’s meaning, said Chaplain Gerald Jones.

“It’s a place where anybody can come — religious or not — to feel connected with their sense of the divine,” Jones said.

Even people who don’t follow an organized religion may need spiritual renewal and reprieve from the surrounding stressful situation.

Prior to Kaiser’s meditation room, Anderson said intensive-care unit nurses came to her asking for a quiet place to recover from the illness and death they experience daily. Spending time in a hospital whether as a nurse, patient or visitor takes a toll.

“People are facing death and serious illnesses,” Anderson said. “There are many loses every day, so they’re dealing with these great emotional stresses, as well as spiritual stress, like, ‘Can I go on? Did I deserve this?’ They’re really wrestling with God during this time.”

The meditation room, she said, provides a place to seek wisdom, express fears, ask for mercy, grieve and find the strength to carry on.

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Can’t get the hang of meditation? Relax a minute, it’ll come to you

While medical science remains uncertain whether prayer has the power to heal, experts are pretty sure meditation works.

Yet another study released last month — this one in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging — reports that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in brain density in areas related to memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.

Exactly what those brain changes mean is not clear, but there also have been studies confirming that meditation can reduce blood pressure — in healthy people as well as in those with heart disease. And those who meditate report that at the very least it improves their sense of the quality of their lives.

Trouble is, meditation can be frustrating. And many of those who try it, quit.

We are all tangled up, I think, in a distinctly American idea of meditation. We believe there is a right way to do it, a method to be mastered and something to be achieved.

Meditation is, in fact, exactly the opposite of those things. It is not about doing. It is about being. Being still, being quiet and being with yourself for a few minutes each day.

There are a couple of videos on YouTube of yoga students in the resting pose at the end of a class, with hilarious voice-overs of what is going through their minds. Mashed potatoes. Chinese food. That dress on eBay. The guy who hasn’t texted back.

Anybody who has ever tried to meditate will relate immediately. You can drive home from work and upon arrival have absolutely no memory of the commute. But trying not to think about anything pretty much guarantees that you can’t…

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stop thinking about everything.And there are plenty of everyday distractions, too: the cat, the phone, the kids, the husband. All of them are reasons to get up before the rest of the house in order to meditate — another reason to quit.Meditation requires only a seat in a quiet spot, but there is lots of meditation help out there. There is guided meditation in which the voice on the CD or on your iPod talks you through. Concentrating on the instruction helps to shut down at least part of your mind.

And there is music that is perfect for mediation. It not only sets the mood, it helps you concentrate if you try to follow the notes or the voice. And there are sounds to help you meditate: the ocean, rainfall, a brook, birds. Saying prayers or the rosary can be a form of meditation. You can simply follow your breath, in and out.

Meditation has another side effect — besides a healthy resting heart rate or a lower blood pressure. It teaches something called mindfulness — the ability to be in the moment wherever we are, whatever we are doing. A kind of zone in which we are only aware of the person or the task in front of us.

Those people we love can certainly benefit from a little more of our mindfulness — our attention, our focus, our interest in what they are saying or doing. It is what they deserve from us.

There are shelves full of books on meditation written by experts. I am not one of them. And I have started and stopped meditating about as many times as I have started and stopped dieting, but with this difference: I have stopped beating myself up about what might seem like failure in any other endeavor.

In meditation, my yoga teachers tell me, there is no succeeding because there is no doing. There is just being.

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The quest to sort out competing and comparable religions

Whether one is a Sikh, a Catholic nun, a Buddhist monk or a Sufi Muslim, the brain reacts to focused prayer and meditation much in the same way.

Kathleen Parker, Washington Post: As thousands prayed across the nation Thursday in celebration of the National Day of Prayer, the Rev. Franklin Graham held his own vigil in the Pentagon parking lot.

Oh well, it doesn’t matter where one prays, right? All prayers lead to heaven. Or do they?

Not if you’re Graham, who lost his place at the Pentagon altar after he mocked other religions, specifically Islam and Hinduism. A plea to President Obama to reinstate him apparently fell on pitiless ears.

Graham’s offense was expressing his belief that only Christians have God’s ear, that Islam is evil, and that Muslims and Hindus don’t pray to the same God he does.

“No elephant with 100 arms can do anything for me,” Graham said in a USA Today interview, referring to one of the five main Hindu deities. “None of their 9,000 gods is going to lead me to salvation. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can have some big kumbaya service and all hold hands and it’s all going to get better in this world. It’s not going to get better.”

It’s not? If the whole world prays for a common good, will no good come of it? If so, then what’s the point of a National Day of Prayer? Oh ye of little faith.

Perhaps Graham was feeling cross after his rejection. As honorary chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private evangelical group, Graham was to have led a prayer for the U.S. military. His son is on a fourth tour in Afghanistan.

But Graham’s views didn’t sit well with secular Americans or even non-evangelical Christians, who protested that the government is endorsing a certain flavor of Christianity. A Wisconsin court apparently agreed and ruled the day unconstitutional, appeals pending.

Graham isn’t alone in his views. A survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors, conducted by an evangelical polling firm, found that 47 percent agree that Islam is “a very evil and a very wicked religion.” But such opinions may be confined mostly to an older generation. Evangelicals under 30 believe that there are many ways to God, not just through Jesus.

David Campbell, a professor at Notre Dame and co-author (with Harvard’s Robert Putnam) of “American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives,” conducted surveys showing that nearly two-thirds of evangelicals under 35 believe non-Christians can go to heaven, vs. 39 percent of those over 65.

When it comes to whose prayers carry more weight in the heavenly realm, well, who really knows? But new brain research supports the likelihood that one man’s prayer is as good as any other’s.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, the award-winning National Public Radio religion reporter, participated in a peyote ceremony in Arizona, meditated while wearing a brain scanner at the University of Wisconsin and donned a “God helmet” in a neuroscientist’s lab in Canada in her quest to discover the secrets of prayer and, possibly, proof of God.

In her book, “Fingerprints of God,” Hagerty tries to answer a question that has plagued her for years: Is there more than this? She couldn’t accept mainstream science’s answer that we are “a collection of molecules with no greater purpose than to eke out a few decades.” Instead, she sought out spiritual virtuosos (people who practice prayer, religiously), as well as neurologists, geneticists, physicists and medical researchers who are using the newest tools of science to discern the circumstantial evidence of God.

Her research led to some startling conclusions that have caused no small amount of Sturm und Drang among those who believe theirs is the one true way. She found that whether one is a Sikh, a Catholic nun, a Buddhist monk or a Sufi Muslim, the brain reacts to focused prayer and meditation much in the same way. The same parts light up and the same parts go dark during deep meditation.

Apparently, we have a “God spot” and “God genes.” And though some are more generously endowed than others, spiritual experience is a human phenomenon, not a religious one. Different routes to the same destination.

Understandably, these are not glad tidings to some. Centuries of blood have been shed for the sake of religious certitude. But transcending the notion that only some prayers are the right ones might get us closer to the enlightenment we purportedly seek.

Hagerty is optimistic that science eventually will demonstrate that we are more than mere matter. In the meantime, it would seem eminently rational to presume in our public affairs that God does not play political favorites with His creation.

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Resolution seeks appeal on Day of Prayer ruling

Almost two dozen members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, came together Wednesday to issue a resolution calling on the Obama Administration to strongly appeal the recent ruling by a Wisconsin federal judge declaring the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional.

The members of Congress say they are willing to take the legal fight all the way up to the Supreme Court.

It was Congress in 1952 that designated the National Day of Prayer as a time to “turn to God in prayer and meditation.”

Now, it is current members of Congress who are trying to save the tradition.

“This decision is not representative of a vast majority of Americans regardless of their faith or even their non-faith,” Virginia Congressman Randy Forbes said.

Forbes, Chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, and Democrat Ambassador Tony Hall are rallying bi-partisan support for the National Day of Prayer in the wake of the Wisconsin ruling against it.

“The key phrase here it says on which the people of the United States may, m-a-y, may turn to God in prayer and meditation,” North Carolina Congressman Mike McIntyre said. “And when you think about that, that’s not forcing anybody. The last time I heard that you may do something, that’s not you shall, that’s you may.”

The Freedom from Religion Foundation sued the government in 2008 under President Bush, claiming the National Day of Prayer violated the separation of church and state.

The Obama administration asked the judge to dismiss the case, but she didn’t.

The suit was updated and amended before U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, who ruled, “It’s because the nature of prayer is so personal and can have such a powerful effect on a community, that the government may not use its authority to try to influence an individual’s decision whether and when to pray.”

Barry Lynn is the Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He said, “The United States Congress has no business, no authority, and frankly not a great deal of talent, in telling people how to be better Americans.”

Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus are challenging the ruling, saying it’s discrimination against America’s foundation.

“This judge basically says that her opinion is more important than the historical statements and actions of the people who drafted the Constitution,” Forbes said.

This year’s observance is set for May 6th, with millions of people expected to participate around the country, and this legal fight may just be one of the things they pray about.

[via CBN]
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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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Richard Wagner: “We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word.”

richard wagner

Wagner’s advice, that we need to learn to die, may bring up thoughts of our mortality: thoughts we may not be comfortable dwelling upon. But Bodhipaksa suggests learning to die really means learning to live fully, embracing the ungraspable flow of life.

“We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word. The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness,” wrote Richard Wagner.

In Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, Siegfried is the hero precisely because he lives by a code: never to let your life be shaped by fear of its end.

Religion is often supposed to free us from fear of death, and yet that doesn’t always happen. A recent study of patients with terminal cancer revealed that those who regularly prayed were more than three times more likely to insist on receiving intensive life-prolonging care than those who relied least on religion. Those who prayed most were most afraid of dying.

That’s rather sobering. Those who you think might be most happy to meet their end — so that they could meet their God — were those who most resisted death and clung desperately to life.

 …never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind.

This is ironic, and not just in the obvious sense; those who insist on heroic measures being taken to prolong their lives experience greater levels of psychological and physical distress because of the invasive nature of the medical and surgical interventions they insist upon. Clinging leads to suffering. Seems like I’ve heard that before, somewhere.

Siegfried’s code could, I think, be expanded into something wider — never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind, with death being just one particular thing to be afraid of.

Life is full of “little deaths.” There are million things in each and every day of our lives that we can either cling to, or let go of.

Every thought we have, every sensation we experience, every feeling and emotion that arises is an opportunity for either clinging or for letting go. There are a million opportunities for experiencing fear: a million opportunities to live heroically, in small ways.

Examples: I’m driving to a class I’m teaching, going smack on the speed limit. A car behind me is driving too close, looking for an opportunity to blast by me. I’ve lost the “safe space” that I like to have between my car and the vehicle following. Fear arises. Will I just let this discomfort arise and pass, or will I tense up, start cursing the other driver, or speed up to try and put some distance between us, or slow down in order to get revenge? If I just keep driving, allowing the fear to exist, I find I can be comfortable with discomfort. I don’t, after all, have to fear the loss of the sense of ease that I previously had.

The driver passes me. I experience the loss of the sense of being in front of someone. I fear a loss of status. It seems absurd, but that’s what happens. And it’s OK. I remind myself that driving’s not a competition (a useful mantra, I find). I wish the other driver well.

We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.

A few minutes later in the same drive, and I feel a little bored. I’ve lost my sense of enjoyment. I fear the boredom. Will I turn on the car radio and see what’s on?

Maybe instead I’ll go deeper into my experience, take enjoyment in the quiet sensuality of driving, notice the movements in my body, the scenery passing by.

The vast majority of the time we don’t even notice these opportunities, nor do we notice when we capitulate to fear. These examples may seem trivial, but my point is that life is composed, in the main, of these supposedly trivial things.

“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness.” In each of the examples I gave above there’s an opportunity to love. I can relate to my own fear and discomfort with love. I can cultivate lovingkindness for the driver who tailgates and then passes me. After all his bad driving habits are no doubt being fueled by his own suffering. I can remind myself to appreciate (love) the ordinary experiences involved in driving, rather than assuming that I have to look outside of myself for fulfillment.

Wagner said we have to learn “to die in the fullest sense of the word.” I wonder if the fullest sense of the word “dying” is to die in every moment. Every time some experience arises that we can cling to or push away, we simply accept it and allow it to pass. And in doing so we have an opportunity to create moments of love that fill our lives.

Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to let clinging and aversion die. Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to live in the fullest sense of the word.

If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling.

“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness” because when we attempt to hold on to something that can’t, by its very nature, be held on to — and ultimately nothing can be held on to — we’re unable to appreciate. We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.

Wagner, in the same letter where he talked about the necessity of learning to die, pointed out that the lesson we must learn is “to will what necessity imposes.” If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling. In order to live fully we have to learn to let go completely, to make it our “will” to embrace change and to cease clinging.

But what about “real” death. Siegfried embraced life, but the death that he didn’t fear was a literal one. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, frequently reminds us that “meditation is a preparation for death, and that death is a state of enforced meditation.” Learn to let go in life and we won’t end up like those sad terminal cancer patients, unable to accept the inevitable. We’ll perhaps be able to love death itself and see it as another opportunity to let go.

The next time you’re meditating, look at what’s going on as an illustration of the truth that you can either try to hold on, or you can love. When you feel frustration because your mind’s busier than you want it to be, realize that you can instead simply appreciate and love the sheer busyness of your mind. When you find yourself longing for some joy that has now passed, realize that you can instead simply love whatever happens to be present in your experience, and in that way experience a renewed joy.

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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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From Heart to Heart: Prayer at center of your life has power to transform (The Register-Guard, Oregon)

Rev. Nola Woodbury, The Register-Guard: Twenty years ago, I went through a devastating divorce. The pain and sadness forced me to look at life differently and to seek out a truth on which I could rebuild my life. Although I was raised as a Christian, I turned to the teachings of Buddha, chanted Hindu prayers at retreats with Ram Dass, and read the three-volume commentary on the Bhagavad Gita written by Sri Eknath Easwaran.

I started meditating on my own, and then I attended The Blue Mountain Meditation Center in California to deepen my practice.

There, Sri Easwaran taught what is known as “passage meditation.” He teaches you to memorize an inspirational passage from any sacred text. Then, in your meditation, you go through the words of the passage in your mind as slowly as you can, letting each word drop singly into your consciousness.

Your repetitions drive the words deeper and deeper into your consciousness, so that they eventually become an integral part of you. The secret of this meditation is that you become what you meditate on.

I began my practice using The St. Francis Prayer. This simple prayer is one of the most well-known of all the prayers in recorded history. In it, St. Francis describes the essential content of our highest self. He expresses the deep yearning that we all have to be the spiritual being who inhabits our physical form. It expresses a wish to be an instrument for God’s will.

To ask for the strength to sow love where there is hatred, hope where there is despair, and light where there is darkness is to ask to be free from the pettiness and judgments that so often imprison us. This prayer is a way of seeking to practice in everyday life consoling, understanding, pardoning and giving. It is a request to be an expression of the powerful love that we attribute to the Creator and that is part of our own being.

Each morning for 20 years, I have recited the words of this prayer. It has become a touchstone for me, connecting me to the highest, most sacred aspect of my being – and connecting me to God.

When I first started memorizing the prayer, I had to start from the beginning again and again. Hundreds of times I began with the words, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

It finally dawned on me that this was the essence of the prayer. The rest of the prayer is all “how-tos.”

Seeing myself as an instrument of peace and holding that pure intent in my heart started dissolving thoughts that were not peaceful.

Those eight words alone can improve every relationship we have, starting with our relationship with ourself. They can help promote peace in our family, our workplace, our community and our world.

The practice of prayer is an incredibly powerful force for transformation in our lives. Imagine a world in which all people lived The St. Francis Prayer.

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The St. Francis Prayer

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life

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Christian Meditation: Death of the Self (The Times of India)

Christopher Mendonca, The Times of India: Christians the world over celebrate the Sacred Triduum, the three holy days that form the core of their spiritual calendar. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter mark the commemoration of events that literally changed the course of history. The word ”memorial” in Hebrew means to relive the event; so the celebration of the Eucharist is much more than a mere commemorative event. The practice of Christian meditation dates back to the beginning of Christianity; its objective is to daily ”empty the self” to experience the fullness of God. It is consonant with Jesus”s invitation to his disciples to take up their cross daily and follow him. It is central to Easter celebrations, ”dying” to rise to a New Life.

The way of meditation is the way of silence. Silencing the ceaseless chatter of a mind buzzing with thoughts is not easy. The way to silence is the way of the mantra. Choosing a sac-red word and repeating it from the beginning to the end of the period of meditation forms part of the essential teaching of Christian meditation. It is advisable to choose a word of four syllables and pronounce them with equal length. The recommended word in the Christian Tradition is Ma-ra-na-tha. In Aramaic, the language of Jesus’s time, it means ”The Lord comes”.

Once we commence this daily practice, a few guidelines can enable us to go deeper. Firstly, we are not to assess our progress. The feeling of success or failure may be the biggest distraction of all. We are not to look for ”experiences” in our meditation. We come to meditation in poverty of spirit. So be faithful to the recitation of the word/mantra during the period of meditation, and to the daily practice, twice a day, morning and evening. The minimum time prescribed is 20 minutes, the optimum 30 minutes…

The way of saying your word, your mantra, is the way to stillness. Eastern Christians call it hesychia. It is pure prayer, worship in spirit and truth. It purifies the heart of contradictory desires and unifies us. The place of unity is the heart where we find our deepest and most natural orientation towards God as our personal source and goal.

A still mind creates conditions for receptivity. We open ourselves to God”s presence, so that his life can pour into us, making us channels of his grace. There is a Zen story about receptivity. A Japanese professor went to a Zen master. They talked and had tea together. The teacher took a cup and handed it to the visitor. He poured in the tea until the cup was full. He went on pouring and the tea spilled everywhere. It is overflowing, cried the professor. The master replied, “Yes, when something is full you can”t put anything else in. So I can give you nothing because you are already filled with yourself and your own ideas. We cannot receive God”s love and it cannot grow in us unless there is some space. When we meditate we are creating space within us, space that God can fill.

Jesus is the personification of this “emptying of self” who, though God, did not think equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself (Phil. 2:6). When you have nothing more to live for; when your own righteousness ceases to count for anything; when you are knocked down, battered and bruised; when rituals cease to work their magic for you and observances fail to appease; when words become meaningless and the logic of your syllogism proves nothing; when the silence of the empty tomb beckons you, only then can you be filled with the fullness of God.


(Today is Maundy Thursday.)

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