Neuroscience is catching up to Spirituality
Last fall I took a Mindfulness and the Brain course at the University of Virginia’s Mindfulness Center. It was a revelation; not in terms of the mind’s potential, or it’s power to change or its’ more esoteric capabilities. Nope. I learned those lessons from some twenty-five years of spiritual seeking and now teaching in the schoolhalls of new-age metaphysics, yoga, guru admiration, advaita vedanta, and zen mindfulness. Got it. What was revealing about this class was hearing about these same concepts sans the flowery-spiritual-new age speak. The clean vernacular in this class was culled straight from the departments of neuroscience, medicine, and biology. I was simply blown away. I had no idea neuroscience was that close, that broad, that courageous, and well, that spiritual. This jaded spiritual teacher was impressed.
It’s a new day Charlie Brown. As a spiritual teacher I cannot tell you how relieved I was to discover this. No more vibey, new age, lingo. It always felt inadequate to me. No more touchy-feely overly dramatic and long-winded explanations.
Can you say neuroplasticity? Really? You mean I no longer have to convince my students that they have the ability to think outside the box, to grow in wisdom or to “create” their own reality? Yes!- I can simply relax and say “neuroplasticity” : Your brain has the life long ability to grow and reorganize itself by forming new neural connections and structures, dependent upon what flows through your mind. Beautiful.
Can you say neurogenesis? Now I no longer have to convince anyone that activities such as yoga, meditation or mindfulness are good for you. Neurogenesis is the brain’s method of giving birth to new neurons, which research and clinical trials have proven, is supported and enhanced by stress-relieving activities such as exercise, yoga, meditation and mindfulness. Neat, clean and to the point. Thank you.
Can you say mirror neurons? Excellent. Now I no longer need to say “transmission” or “transference”or “your vibe picks up on my vibe”. No need to explain the need or benefits of meditation in terms of group empathic energy. Now I can simply point to a sub-group of brain cells called “mirror neurons”which perform a task called perception/action coupling. These neurons fire, grow and change dependent upon what they mirror. So, participating in a yoga set or watching a yoga set makes no difference to your mirror neurons; monkey see, monkey do. They will fire, grow and change in either circumstance. This means that simply being in a room with a teacher and students has an immense impact on your brain- whether you actively participate or not. Amazing.
Okay! Okay! Hold yer horses all yee spiritual believers!
-Lest you think I have gone over to the cynical, clinical, barren and bereft side of the force, hear me out. I am a poet, humorist, artist and musician at heart. I grew up in a musical, artistic household. I love eloquent, poetic language. I melt at the sound of a great pop song. I sigh at the sight of a beautiful abstract. And I love sitting in the energy of a great spiritual teacher. But- I am the choir and not the congregation. I don’t need no stinking science to show me the light. But many people do, and at one point . . . I did also.
Rewind twenty three years: I booked a week long retreat at The Monroe Institute in central Virginia, to learn about and hopefully have, an out-of body experience. I was skeptical, agnostic, and freshly burdened with the scholarly attitude of a college graduate. I needed scientific logic to provide a segue into the world of spirituality. It worked perfectly. The Monroe Institute was and is an excellent research, development and educational facility, steeped mostly in science with bite-sized portions of spirituality and mystery thrown in. No, it’s not NIH or the Neuroscience wing at the University of Massachusetts, but they constantly strive to stay ahead of the curve relative to science and spirituality. I had my out-of body experience. I got my proof. The Monroe Institute provided the perfect segue from science and skepticism into the vast world of spirituality.
This is how I look at neuroscience today. I don’t know the exact count, but there are something like two hundred and fifty plus colleges and universities across America with mindfulness divisions or programs. What!? -You say? Yep, that old seventh fold- right mindfulness– of the eightfold path of Buddhism is all grown up. But they’re not talking about Buddhism in those classes. Religion, spirituality and new age thinking have been meticulously, surgically and lovingly- removed. For many, in my humble opinion, this is a great thing; and I’m pretty sure Buddhism is not offended.
Here are several more amazing neuroscience gems from my class: Can you say …
Narrative-self reference? Nomenclature for the default way that most people perceive themselves- based on linking subjective experiences across time. In other words the “I -me-personality-project” is based on past, present, and future mental self reference.
Triune brain? With so much talk, explanation and “work” in spiritual schools oriented around fear, emotion, stress, relationships, ego and mind it might be of value to examine the brain scientifically: You’ll find all of these emotions and responses located in specific parts of the brain, and you’ll see that many of them- are natural and normal. So you just might stop beating yourself up about some of them.
Rational Dominance? We are most aware of the verbal rational part of our brains and wrongly assume that every part of our minds should be amenable to the pressure of argument and will. In other words, know this: two thirds of your brain doesn’t give a damn about your mental arguments and will not take orders.
HPA Axis Activation: Stress is physiological. Something really bothers you> The Hypothalmus triggers> The Pituatary Gland triggers> The Adrenal Gland releases > a chemical called cortisol> which suppresses the immune system, causes weight gain, reduces neurogenesis (change and growth), and, repeated over time, causes depression. Ouch.
Suffering, addiction, stress, compassion, empathy, attachment parenting and happiness? We discussed all of these things in my Mindfulness and the Brain class. Wow!
One final thought: I find it very interesting that in 2013 mindfulness and neuroscience took great leaps and bounds into the hearts and minds of mainstream Americans. Bravo! Politicians, moviestars and CEOs are all talking about this stuff. Funny though, didn’t the Mayans- eh, can you say 2012?– predict all this?