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Posts Tagged ‘Religion and Spirituality’

The Jerk
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If you’ve ever watched Steve Martin’s movie “The Jerk“, you may chuckle at the notion of having a “special purpose”.

Nevertheless, you may have wondered about your own special purpose … what are YOU meant to do?  What are some things that give meaning to YOUR life – you know – social connections (having friends and family)?, a sense of purpose (changing the world)?  a sense of self-control (earning a good wage, being healthy and having a modest home)?  satisfaction that comes from a sense of mastery (playing piano sonatas, perfecting yoga poses)?

Yes, yes, yes and yes … according to this research … these are avenues well worth exploring … keep going!!

Ask your genome, however, and it will surely give you a different answer.  By genome, I mean the long chemical strings of A, G, T, C’s that encode the machinery that constitute YOU – your brain and body.  It may have a different agenda.

The biochemical problem for the genome is that it is so damn unstable.  The long string of A, G, T, C’s has an unfortunate chemical tendency to want to break, slip, loop, slide and in so many other ways come unhinged.  We call this process mutation – and for the most part – its something that f**ks up the lives of perfectly good organisms.  Damn genome instability!

What’s a genome to do?  Apparently, one solution to this problem of mutation and the unfortunate load of mutations that can accumulate within an organism or population of organisms, is to exchange one’s DNA with other similar (but non-mutated) stretches of DNA.  Just ‘cut’ out one stretch and ‘paste’ in another, just like you might ‘cut and paste’ a revised paragraph into an essay you are writing.  No problemo!  Now all those deleterious mutations can no longer continue to pile up in the genome, since they can be cut out, and then new bits of DNA pasted in.  This process is known as genetic recombination.  In humans this process takes place in the reproductive system … its hypothesized to be the reason that sex evolved in the first place.

Yes, the genome loves genetic recombination (which necessitates having male and females who want to, um, get together) to lower the load of deleterious mutations.  What a selfish genome we have (although I’m not complaining)!

OK, so happiness research tells us that we need to have friends, self-direction, purpose, mastery etc …  and the genome tells us we need to have (ahem) sex.  So who’s right?

Check out this article  “Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study” (referencing “Measuring the Quality of Experience”, Princeton University, 2003).

… among a sample of 1000 employed women, that sex is rated retrospectively as the activity that produces the single largest amount of happiness. Commuting to and from work produces the lowest levels of happiness. These two activities come top and bottom, respectively, of a list of 19 activities.

Hmmm.  Are we a whole lot less sophisticated that we want to admit?  Perhaps.  Its not a simple answer, but interesting to think that amidst all the effort we make to attain health, close relationships, security, inner-peace, etc … at the end of the day … we just want to have sex.

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In his new movie, former Harvard psychology professor turned spiritual teacher Ram Dass (Dr. Richard Alpert), hails us to, “love everybody and tell the truth”.

Tell the truth.  Not only a great rule to live by, but one of the things that I’ve always loved about science … its a way to discover and face the objective “truth” as separate from our subjective wants and wishes.

Take the latest scientific data on happiness.  I mean, from a – scientific point of view – what really makes us happy? Daniel Gilbert (another) Harvard psychology professor has published a research article entitled, “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind” [doi:10.1126/science.1192439].  The researchers used a cool mobile web application trackyourhappiness.org to collect:

an unusually large database of real-time reports of thoughts, feelings, and actions of a broad range of people as they went about their daily activities. …  The database currently contains nearly a quarter of a million samples from about 5000 people from 83 different countries who range in age from 18 to 88 and who collectively represent every one of 86 major occupational categories. … what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing. …  The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost. (the figure from the paper shows the happiness scores of mind wandering vs. not wandering)

As covered very nicely in the NY Times, it turns out that when folks’ minds were engaged in focused activities, they were happier as compared to when their minds were wandering.  So, it seems that scientific data support the ancient teachings (and Dass’ 1971 book) to Be Here Now!

Here’s the new movie clip found on RamDass.org:

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Peter Mark Roget (Roget's Thesaurus)
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On Fridays, after a regular practice session, our shala is open for quiet meditation.  This is a new experience for me, even as I’ve read much about the mental and physical health benefits accrued by experienced practitioners.  As someone who is totally exhausted after practice – indeed, I couldn’t move another muscle even if I wanted – I always think it will be easy to settle in, and pass 30 minutes  in quiet stillness.

Sure enough though, even as my body is spent and motionless, my mind starts to wander, and wander, and wander some more.  “Damn”, I think, “here we go again”. Just a few minutes in, and I’m losing a battle – with myself.  “This is going to be the longest 30 minutes of my life!” What to do?

Some experts say to simply LABEL your thoughts and feelings.  Just find a word to place on the thought or feeling – and then – let it go.  Does this really work?  How does this trick work?

Recent brain imaging studies seem to show that when a word is applied to a negative emotion,  the brain changes how it processes that emotion and shifts processing to neural systems that avoid centers of the brain (the amygdala, in particular) that send neural projections to our face, gut and heart (areas where we tend to physically “feel” our bad feelings).   It seems that our ability to use words is an important tool in how we cope with emotional experience.  Either we succumb to the storms of negative emotions that can well up inside us from time to time (and feel lousy inside), or we can manage these feelings – using our words – and feel less lousy inside.   Apparently, the use of words, alters neural processing – leading us to experience less tightening in the chest, clenching in the gut, etc.,  etc. than we would otherwise feel when negative emotions come over us.  One of the researchers, David Cresswell, remarks: “This is an exciting study because it brings together the Buddha‘s teachings – more than 2,500 years ago, he talked about the benefits of labeling your experience – with modern neuroscience.”

But this is easier said than done.

How do I label a thought?  How do I label an emotion?  I mean, “I feel, um, um, frustrated, lousy, anxious … crap … I’m not exactly sure how I feel?  What’s the word I’m looking for?

Indeed – the words – the words – as in, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” WORDS.  Do I know enough words?  How many words are there anyway to describe all the possible feelings that a person can feel?  How many do you know?

Check this list out.    There are more than 3,000 words in the English language to describe various feelings.  Thank you Peter Mark Roget (who, ironically, worked on the first thesaurus as a means to cope with negative feelings associated with depression).  I will bring my thesaurus – full of these tools to help me label my feelings – to meditation practice from now on!

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signaling (animated)
Image by Genista via Flickr

One thing I’ve learned doing yoga is that introspection – like the postures – takes a lot of practice.

Here’s a pointer to a great new science article on the basic brain biology of introspection, or “thinking about thinking”.  The article, Relating Introspective Accuracy to Individual Differences in Brain Structure by Fleming et al., describes experiments where participants had to (a) make a rather difficult perceptual observation and then (b) self-report how confident they were in that judgment.  From the introduction …

Our moment-to-moment judgments of the outside world are often subject to introspective interrogation. In this context, introspective or “metacognitive” sensitivity refers to the ability to discriminate correct from incorrect perceptual decisions, and its accuracy is essential for the appropriate guidance of decision-making and action.

… sounds a lot like the way people describe meditation as being an active or “aware” state where (a) very basic perceptual information (sounds, feelings, vibrations) are (b) seamlessly coupled, labeled or processed with more abstract and/or deeper thoughts.  As Thomas Metzinger suggests in his book, The Ego Tunnel, the ability to become “aware” of early sensory perceptions is an important aspect of understanding the so-called “real world” as opposed to the world that our ego, or conscious mind normally builds for us.  Metzinger points to Paul Churchland‘s ideas on “eliminative materialsm” as emphasizing the importance of (a) early sensory experience and its (b) coupling with introspective abilities.  Churchland’s ideas (from p53 in Metzinger’s book):

“I suggest then, that those of us who prize the flux and content of our subjective phenomenological experience need not view the advance of materialist neuroscience with fear and foreboding.” … “Quite the contrary.  The genuine arrival of a materialist kinematics and dynamics for psychological states and cognitive processes will constitute not a gloom in which our inner life is suppressed or eclipsed, but rather a dawning, in which its marvelous intricacies are finally revealed – most notably, if we apply [it] ourselves, in direct self-conscious introspection.”

Churchland’s notion of a revelation of our true inner lives (via an understanding of sensory processes) – loosely – reminds me of some of the ancient yogic notions of a gap between the “real” world and our everyday “mental” world.  These notions are a core of yoga spirituality.  As covered in-depth by Mircea Eliade in Yoga: Immortality and Freedom:

For Samkhya and Yoga the problem is clearly defined.  Since suffering has its origins in ignorance of “Spirit” – that is,  in confusing “Spirit” with psychomental states – emancipation can be obtained only if the confusion is abolished. (p14)   …   Yoga accepts God, but we shall see that Patanjali does not accord him very much importance.  The revelation is based on knowledge of the ultimate reality – that is, on an “awakening” in which object completely identifies itself with subject.  (The “Self” “”contemplates” itself;  it does not “think” itself, for thought is itself an experience and, as such, belongs to praktri.)(p29)

So it seems that both the ancient yogis and some modern scientists suggest that there is indeed a gap between the way the world really “is” and the way we “think” about it.  To close this gap, it may help to train ourselves to the difference between “contemplating” – which emphasizes basic sensory information (listening, feeling, etc.) – rather than just “thinking” about stuff.  I think this aspect of our mental life may be, in part, what Churchland is emphasizing and also is one of the most basic tenets of vipassana meditation.

Just focus on the basic sensory perceptions … live in this moment!

The brain scientists who performed the research on the relation of (a) basic sensory perceptual processes to (b) judgments of its accuracy used brain imaging to examine correlations in brain structure (gray matter volume and white-matter integrity) with performance on the (a) and (b) tasks and found a number of brain regions in the very front of the brain that were correlated with “introspective ability” (more on the science here).  I wonder if they were thinking of mediation when they wrote:

This raises the tantalizing possibility of being able to “train” metacognitive ability by harnessing underlying neural plasticity in the regions that we identify here.

I suppose a few old ascetic yogis out there might have chuckle at the thought of a western “training program” (just 10 minutes a day, no batteries required etc.) … methinks it takes practice – A LOT of practice!

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The Buddha as an ascetic. Gandhara, 2-3rd cent...
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One shorthand way I’ve come to think about yoga and other eastern religions is that its practitioners become adept at turning their attention away from stress, conflict, tragedy, etc. of mortal life and towards inner sources of tranquility and peace.  Basically, the meditative training helps one to experience a less conflicted and stressed-out life.

With this in mind,  I started Mircea Eliade‘s tome Yoga: Immortality and Freedom where,  in Chapter 1, Eliade – an academic authority on the topic – gets right to THE main point of Yoga and its historical antecedents found in the writings of ancient mystics, ascetics and Samkhya philosophy that sought to understand mortal and immortal components of man:

For Samkhya and Yoga the problem is clearly defined.  Since suffering has its origins in ignorance of “Spirit”  – that is, confusing “Spirit” with psychomental states – emancipation [from suffering] can be obtained only if the confusion is abolished.

OK, so Yoga will help emancipate me from suffering.  In plain-speak,  I will become (with practice) less stressed by the aches and pains and viscisitudes of life, which, in turn, yields a great many health benefits.  Sounds reasonable from a pure science point of view.  Nevertheless, Eliade emphasizes:

From the time of the Upanishads India rejects the world as it is and devaluates life as it reveals itself to the eyes of the sage – ephemeral, painful, illusory.  Such a conception leads neither to nihilism nor to pessimism.  This world is rejected, this life depreciated, because it is known that something else exists, beyond becoming, beyond temporality, beyond suffering.

Reject this world?  Really?  Is it so horrible?  If this life is so ridden with “universal suffering”, then why do yoga teachers always remind us to, “live in the moment”?  In the past months, I’ve been trying to embrace these passing moments … the rays of sun falling through the branches, the sound of the breeze, a momentary expression on my child’s face … you know … the moment.  I was really digging this aspect of yoga and its emphasis on the here and now and embracing the myriad small pleasures in life.  This effort has made my life more peaceful and full.  Eliade pops my yoga bubble further:

Intrinsically, then, this universal suffering has a positive, stimulating value.  It perpetually reminds the sage and the ascetic that but one way remains for him to attain freedom and bliss – withdrawal from the world, detachment from possessions and ambitions, radical isolation.

Is this where a yoga practice leads?  Radical isolation?  Avoiding all these precious so-called “painful” moments (children laughing, birds singing, waves splashing, etc. etc.).  Say it aint so Mircea!  I was really enjoying these moments.  The meditative practice of yoga has brought joy and calm to my everyday experience – an experience of a hundred passing, ordinary moments.

Hope to come to a deeper understanding of this central “Doctrine of Yoga” in the chapters to come.  I suspect that the purpose of Yoga is (from the philosophical point of view) somewhat loftier than to simply make its practitioners more joyful and calmer.  The super hard-core yogis of the past were probably seeking something more profound – full freedom, emancipation, immortality, samadhi etc.

Worthwhile to be sure, but, for me, for now, not at the expense of all the ordinary passing moments in life.

Post script: A closer look at the word “suffering” shows that it is translated from the sanskrit “dukha” which really just means discomfort or tension.  From wikipedia:

“It is perhaps amusing to note the etymology of the words sukha (pleasure, comfort, bliss) and duḥkha (misery, unhappiness, pain). The ancient Aryans who brought the Sanskrit language to India were a nomadic, horse- and cattle-breeding people who travelled in horse- or ox-drawn vehicles. Su and dus are prefixes indicating good or bad. The word kha, in later Sanskrit meaning “sky,” “ether,” or “space,” was originally the word for “hole,” particularly an axle hole of one of the Aryan’s vehicles. Thus sukha … meant, originally, “having a good axle hole,” while duhkha meant “having a poor axle hole,” leading to discomfort.”

So I need not remain hung-up on a tradition that tells me to both “live in the moment” and also “that these precious moments are chock full of suffering”.  Even happy experiences come with some underlying tension and uncertainty.  Indeed, the mind can easily wander its way from a happy to a troubled state in a few seconds.  Yes, there is constant tension to varying degrees in life.  How is it that yoga can help a person minimize their experience of this tension?

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Are they practicing breath control?  No.  Are they practicing postures?  No.  Are they desperately seeking meaning and a connection with divinity?  Yes.  Are they pulled in one direction by the wants of the body, and in another direction by the wants of the spirit?  Yes.  Do they cope day to day with grim realities of suffering and loss in a place where, “gravity is stronger and you can feel it pulling you closer into the earth everyday”.  Yes.

These are the very themes of yoga.  Beautifully captured in picture and sound in the 2003 film “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus“.

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