Archive for the ‘evolution’ Category

An exploration of HOW mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation transform the body and mind seems inextricably tied to the question of, “WHY, in the first place, would anyone want to sit for days and meditate?” What was it that motivated early humans and early civilizations to engage in these so-called “spiritual” practices?  Why does a practice like yoga engage people on a self-reflective or spiritual level?

As a biologist, I’d like to explore the mental and physical transformations that occur when one practices (and practices) yoga and meditation – so perhaps a place to begin this exploration is with a scientific hypothesis about the WHY, that in some ways might be testable insofar as it might point to certain mental and physical processes – which themselves – might function as targets or recipient processes that are engaged in the course of practice (the HOW).

As a humble start, here is one such hypothesis suggested by the biologist E. O. Wilson which is reviewed in the essay entitled, “The Biological Roots of Religion: Is Faith in Our Genes?” by Morton Hunt.  Some highlights:

Religion thus met the newly evolving human need to understand and control life. Religion serves the same purposes as science and the arts – “the extraction of order from the mysteries of the material world,” as Wilson puts it – but in the prescientific era there was no other source of order except for philosophy, which was comprehensible only to a favored few and in any case was nowhere nearly as emotionally satisfying as religion.

Still another major function of religion was to act as a binding and cementing social force. I quote Wilson again: “Religion is … empowered mightily by its principal ally, tribalism. The shamans and priests implore us in somber cadence, Trust in the sacred rituals, become part of the immortal force, you are one of us.” Religious propitiation and sacrifice – near-universals of religious practice – are acts of submission to a dominant being and dominance hierarchy.

For all these reasons, says Wilson, “Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving.” The human mind evolved to believe in the gods even as religious institutions became built-ins of society.

And so, to sum up the sociobiological theory of the roots of religion: genetically built into early human beings was a set of mental, emotional, and social needs that caused culture to develop in certain ways – including the development of various religions – and caused culture, reciprocally, to favor and select for evolution those human traits that provided sociocultural advantages to the individuals possessing them. “Religion,” says Burkert, “follows in the tracks of biology … [and] the aboriginal invention of language … yield[ing] coherence, stability, and control within this world. This is what the individual is groping for, gladly accepting the existence of nonobvious entities or even principles.”

The picture above is a seal unearthed in the 5,000-year-old Mohenjo-daro excavation, showing a human-like form sitting in a yogic pose.

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Yoga Relaxation Pose - Savasana
Image by myyogaonline via Flickr

Am having a great time reading David Gordon White‘s  The Alchemical Body (here also)  – an incredibly in-depth exploration into the interplay of yoga with spiritualityalchemy and the local political economics of India from 1,500 years ago and even earlier.

Man, there is just so much to learn about the early history of yoga and the origins of the rituals and practices of today.

One basic and central theme that emerges early in the book is that ancient religious practices are rooted in a fundamental notion of “body-world”, “spirit-world” and various “in-between” or “transitionary” states.   This 3-fold view of the world is rather universal to human cultures and perhaps extends very far back in human history – perhaps emerging early in our evolutionary tree as humans/neanderthals evolved a mental capacity to recognize and contemplate their own mortality.  For instance, evidence for religious behavior and burial rites reach as way far back as 300,000 years ago in the Middle Paleolithic seems to suggest that early humans acknowledged “something” beyond the physical earthy body.

So it seems that the concepts I personally contemplate in my own practice – my inner self, reaching for a deeper connection to something beyond, etc. – are the very same issues that our ancient ancestors struggled with as well. Clearly the contemplative practices – like those borne out in yoga are old – Mohenjo-daro old – which makes it hard to know their ancient history.  In some way though,  it feels wonderful to partake in this very old, very primal tradition – to push my gaze inward as humans have been trying to do for millennia.

With a recognition of our mortality in mind, many contemplative and religious practices – just like yoga – are very much centered around making transitions or connections from the earthly body to the more pure and immortal spirit world.  White points out that for millennia, one universally intuitive way that humans would make such bridges was via ritualized sacrifices.  By offering animal, blood or other types of sacrifices to spiritual beings, early human cultures attempted to open a connection, offer appeasement or other intermediate linkage with the spirit world.

Interestingly, what seems to have happened at some point on the way to our modern yoga is that ritualized sacrifice morphed from the outward slaughter of an animal to an inward-looking type of self-sacrifice.  From Chapter 1 of TAB:

Within a few centuries of the composition of [the Satapatha Brahmana], a revolution in Indian thought would issue into the notion that humans too could internalize the sacrifice and thereby entirely bypass the mechanism of external sacrifice.  This inward turn, which would ground the entire gnostic and nondualist project of the Upanisads, also sowed the seeds for the innovation of a body of techniques for internal bodily transformation – i.e. for the practice of hatha yoga.

And from Chapter 9:

Of vital importance to the yogic tradition is the fact that the sacrificial fires in question are gathered together in one’s body.  There they serve as both a cremation pyre – by which the now-obsolete mundane, social body is shown to have truly died to the world – and, in the post-crematory existence of the sannyasin (the “renouncer”), as the seat of sacrifice, which has now been internalized.  It is here, in the inner fires of tapas, which fuel the offerings of one’s vital breaths in the inner sacrifice known as the pranagnihotra, that the practice of yoga very likely had its theoretical origins.

So perhaps at a very deep, very primal level, my yoga practice is a type of sacrifice – an ancient, hopeful attempt to make a connection with a spirituality or something larger and more everlasting than my flabby, aging body.  To recognize – most poignantly during “corpse pose” – that I am mortal, but wish not to be so.

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Samadhi Statue
Image by koolb via Flickr

In some ways, the 8 limbs of yoga described in the yoga sutras, seem a bit like a ladder, rather than a concentric set of outreached arms or spokes on a wheel.  It seems like I’m working toward something.  But what?  I certainly feel healthier, and also enjoy the satisfaction of getting slightly more able (ever so slightly) to shift into new postures – so am quite motivated to continue the pursuit.  Perhaps this is how yoga got started eons ago?   Just a pursuit that – by trial and error – left its practitioners feeling more healthy, relaxed and more in touch with their outer and inner worlds?  But where does this path lead, if anywhere?

I was intrigued by a report published in 1973 by an 8-day study carried out on the grounds of the Ravindra Nath Tagore Medical College and Hospital, Udaipur, India and subsequent letter, “The Yogic claim of voluntary control over the heart beat: an unusual demonstration” published in the American Heart Journal, Volume 86 Number 2.  Apparently, a local yogi named Yogi Satyamurti:

Yogi Satyamurti, a sparsely built man of about 60 years of age, remained confined in a small underground pit for 8 days in what according to him was a state of “Samadhi,” or deep meditation, with all bodily activity cut down to the barest minimum.

The medical researchers had the yogi’s heart and other physiological functions under constant watch via electrical recording leads, and watched as the yogi’s heart slowed down (their equipment registered a flatline) a remained so for several days.  Upon opening up the pit, the researchers found:

The Yogi was found sitting in the same posture. One of us immediately went in to examine him. He was in a stuporous condition and was very cold (oral temperature was 34.8O C) [the same temperature as the earth around him].

After a few hours, the yogi had recovered from the experience and displayed normal physiological and behavioral function – despite 8 days underground (air supposedly seeped in from the sides of the pit) with no food or human contact!

An amazing feat indeed – one that has some scientists wondering about the psychology and physiology that occurs when advanced meditators sink into (very deep) states.  John Ding-E Young and Eugene Taylor explored this in an article entitled, “Meditation as a Voluntary Hypometabolic State of Biological Estivation” published in News Physiol. Sci., Volume 13, June 1998.   They  suggest that humans have a kind of latent capacity to enter a kind of dormant or  hibernation-like state that is similar to other mammals and even certain primates.

Meditation, a wakeful hypometabolic state of parasympathetic dominance, is compared with other hypometabolic conditions, such as sleep, hypnosis, and the torpor of hibernation. We conclude that there are many analogies between the physiology of long-term meditators and hibernators across the phylogenetic scale. These analogies further reinforce the idea that plasticity of consciousness remains a key factor in successful biological adaptation.

Practice, practice, practice – towards an ability to engage a latent evolutionary adaptation? Sounds hokey, but certainly an interesting idea worth exploring more in the future.

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3rd Dalai Lama,
Image via Wikipedia

Just a few excerpts from a lecture by the renown social psychologist Paul Ekman who is known for his work on the biology of human emotion.  Here he relates conceptual bridges between the writings of Charles Darwin and HH The Dalai Lama.  Ekman notes that both Darwin and HH The Dalai Lama intuit the existence of an organic natural source of compassion wherein humans are compelled to relieve the suffering of others so that the discomfort we feel when seeing others in pain can be relieved.  HH The Dalai Lama further suggests that these emotions are spontaneous, but compassion can be enhanced through PRACTICE!

Seems that science and ancient traditions can have a fascinating way of re-informing each other.


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