August 21, 2009

Meditation without borders

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I just finished reading "How God Changes Your Brain." (One of the authors is Dr. Andrew Newberg, associate professor of radiology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania). I was about to blog about it when I found this Reuters article. Not wanting to wear out my own brain, I am going to quote the Reuters article and then add something of my own.

According to the book, meditation and similar practices (repetitive prayer, or contemplating a benevolent God for example) can change your brain in a positive way. Conversely, you can stimulate the part of your brain involved in such emotions as anger and fear by focusing on a vindictive God. Newberg verified the changes with MRI scans.

From the Reuters article:

"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."

So even if you don't believe in God, it's possible to experience what some religious people are experiencing by following their practices. Sam Harris, an atheist, and Robert Wright, an agnostic, have similar views about meditations as Newberg, who meditates but has never practiced a specific religion (link).

Sam Harris, who is a well-known atheist who's also working on a Ph.D. in neuroscience, touched on this in an article entitled Killing the Buddha. He advocates dropping the religious aspects of Buddhism and saving the good parts.

If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world — truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence —these truths are not in the least “Buddhist.” No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not.

Robert Wright, the author of "The Evolution of God" and an agnostic wrote a New York Times article entitle Self, Meditating. He describes his experiences at his first week-long silent meditation retreat.

The experience changed the way he looked at the world.

"When I first got there, I didn’t understand why some people were closing their eyes while eating. By the end of the retreat, I was closing mine. The better to focus on the source of my ecstasy. I wasn’t just living in the moment — I was luxuriating in it."

So we have an atheist, an agnostic and someone who has never practiced a specific religion — all enthusiastic about meditation. They each approached the subject from different points of view, but they come to the same conclusion

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