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Posts Tagged ‘Religion and Spirituality’

animated Young experiment demonstration, animo...
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A few weeks ago my guru passed along a video entitled, “What the BLEEP Do We Know” / “Down the Rabbit Hole” which explores the so-called Double-slit experiments.  In these experiments, it was found that single photons were able to travel through 2 separate slits simultaneously – thus violating all manner of physical laws (how the heck can an object be in two places at the same time?).  Furthermore, it was found that whenever the experimenters (reviewed here) were able to observe, detect, or deduce, which slit a photon travelled through, the typical “dual slit” interference pattern (shown here) instantly disappeared.

Strangely, it seems that interference patterns seem to appear only when a photon’s path is unknown.  Even weirder is that when 2 photons are sent to separate detectors, they seem to “know” whether one-another will generate a specific interference pattern.  This so-called phenomena of “quantum entanglement” and other such examples of spooky action-at-a-distance where 2 separate “widely separated objects share the same existence”  have spawned all manner of new-agey and spiritual endeavors to link these quantum-level phenomena with human spirituality.  Here’s just one example.

A recently published research article entitled, “How much free will is needed to demonstrate nonlocality?” explores the relationship between quantum entanglement and human thought.  According to Technology Review,

“if an experimenter lacks even a single bit of free will then quantum mechanics can be explained in terms of hidden variables. Conversely, if we accept the veracity of quantum mechanics, then we are able to place a bound on the nature of free will.”

Bounds on free will?  Apparently so – if you follow the quantum physics.  Is this a way to think about, or perhaps scientifically validate, the notion of karma?  Perhaps only in a general way – that our thoughts and actions are somehow bounded by the consequences of our choices and experiences as well as the choices and experiences of others in the present and past.

I’m not  free, but happily inter-connected.

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Manipura chakra
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More on CG Jung‘s famous “chakra lectures” …

In lecture 2 he opines on symbolic and psychological aspects of the 3rd chakraManipura – shown here with a yellow center and red triangle that symbolize fire.  Interestingly, the location of this chakra overlaps with what we, today, call the “solar” plexus – not because of its symbolic connections to the fiery sun – but rather, simply because the neural projections from this plexus, located between the stomach and the spine, radiate outwardly in a sun-like fashion.

Jung notes that fire symbolism often follows water symbolism – just as occurs in the chakra hierarchy where the previous chakra is symbolized by water.  This ancient pattern of symbolism is common across many religious traditions.

“One sees all that very beautifully in the Catholic rite of baptism when the godfather holds the child and the priest approaches with the burning candle and says: Dono tibi lucem eternam (I give thee the eternal light) – which means, I give you relatedness to the sun, to the God.”

So, I guess, after a person emerges from the murky depths of water, the next stage of their spiritual journey or subconscious “awakening” is a time in their lives when they grow to feel connected to something greater than themselves, to something eternal, beyond the everyday world, perhaps cosmic or goldly, etc.  Jung suggests that this initial connection to “god” has long been symbolized by the sun and by fire.

“This is a worldwide and ancient symbolism, not only in the Christian baptism and the initiation in the Isis mysteries.  For instance, in the religious symbolism of ancient Egypt, the dead Pharoh goes to the underworld and embarks in the ship of the sun.  You see, to approach divinity means the escape from the futility of the personal existence, and the achieving of the eternal existence, the escape to a nontemporal form of existence.  The Pharoh climbs into the sun bark and travels through the night and conquers the serpent, and then rises again with the god, and is riding over the heavens for all eternity.”

Furthermore, Jung suggests, there is a shared, underlying psychological reason why so many ancient cultures used the common symbols of fire for this phase of their development.  It would seem that for many, that once they let go of the closely-held, relatively petty details of their day-to-day life and acknowledge a connection between themselves and the wider universe and things divine – that, upon letting go – their own fires of passion and emotion become alight.

So it is just that – you get into the world of fire, where things become red-hot.  After baptism, you get right into hell – that is the enantiodromia.  And now comes the paradox of the east: it is also the fullness of jewels.  But what is passion, what are emotions? There is the source of fire, there is the fullness of energy.  A man who is not on fire is nothing: he is ridiculous, he is two-dimensional. … So when people become acquainted with the unconscious they often get into an extraordinary state – they flare up, they explode, old buried emotions come up, they begin to weep about things which happened forty years ago.

I think I can relate to this notion.  Perhaps when you accept that you’re just a part of a larger plan, or just a single link in a long continuum, you stop worrying about the petty stuff which then allows your own deeper passions and emotions to flow more freely.  Both the good emotions related to creativity and love as well as feelings of sadness and loss that come along with recognizing your fate and limitations  – all begin to emerge.  These feelings make a person feel more “alive” than they would just playing it safe, workin’ 9-to-5 payin’ the bills etc., etc. and never allowing themselves to embark on their spiritual journey.

So it seems, as suggested by Jung, that we begin our spiritual awakening as humans have for thousands of years, by “taking the plunge” and choosing – not the “safe career” path – but a path in life that “means something” to us.  From the dark, uncertain waters, we emerge – and then the inner fires begin to burn, to inflame our passions and give us energy, to live and to create.

… can’t wait to see what’s in store next!

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The most tenuous shaping breath were here too ...
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From wikipedia:

The Ātman (IAST: Ātman, sanskrit: आत्मन्) is a philosophical term used within Hinduism, especially in the Vedanta school to identify the SOUL whether in global sense (world’s soul) or in individual sense (of a person own soul). The word ātman is connected with the Indo-European root *ēt-men (BREATH) and is cognate with Old English “æþm”, Greek “asthma”, German “Atem”: “atmen” (to BREATHE).

The English word SPIRIT comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning “BREATH” (compare spiritus asper), but also “soul, courage, vigor”, ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European *(s)peis, as opposed to Latin anima and Greek psykhē. The word apparently came into Middle English via Old French. The distinction between soul and spirit developed in the Abrahamic religions: Thus we find Greek ψυχη opposite πνευμα ; Latin anima opposite spiritus; Arabic nafs (نفس) opposite rúħ (روح); Hebrew neshama (נְשָׁמָה nəšâmâh) or nephesh (in Hebrew neshama comes from the root NŠM or “BREATH“) opposite ruach (רוּחַ rûaħ).

Similar concepts in other languages include Greek pneuma from which is derived the term “Pneumatology” – the study of SPIRITUAL beings and phenomena, especially the interactions between humans and God. Pneuma (πνεῦμα) is Greek for “BREATH“, which metaphorically describes a non-material being or influence.  Similarly, Scandinavian languages, Slavic languages and the Chinese language (qi) use the words for “breath” to express concepts similar to “the spirit“.

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This picture depicts the seven major Chakras w...
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Am really enjoying reading  Carl Jung‘s 1932 lectures on The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga edited by Sonu Shamdasani.

Jung focuses on the chakra symbols – which have many different biological, physiological and psychological interpretations.  To Jung, the chakra symbols reflect a natural psychological process of self-awareness and spiritual development.  In the Kundalini Yoga tradition, there begins a “natural awakening” that occurs in life that motivates a person to pursue endeavors that have some sort of personal “meaning” rather than be content with just the basic ordinary existence.  I guess we all get tired of just payin’-the-bills, so to speak?

According to the ancient vedic texts, the “Kundalini” refers to a symbolic female serpent that awakens and starts to rise up inside of us.  In the very earliest stages of this awakening one goes from the low self-awareness of ordinary day-to-day life to a higher state of self-awareness – a more personal inner-awareness of our devotions, purpose or motivations.  His words from lecture 1:

Some strange urge underneath forces them to do something which is not just the ordinary thing.

This is a common, wonderful aspect of our lives right?  Don’t we all hit a point where we want to do something “special” with our lives?  I can’t help but think of all the coaches, music teachers, artists, etc. etc., that I’ve met in my life who weren’t happy just payin-the-bills and opted to do something “special” with their time.

But there lies some danger in trying to do something “special” !

If we step off the path of the ordinary, practical concerns of daily life to do something unconventional or “for the love of it”, we risk losing the safety and stability of our everyday life.  The banker who leaves work early to coach a little league team may put his career at risk.  The kid who chooses music as a major instead of accounting similarly trades a staid (boring) future for a more impoverished (but perhaps fulfilling) future.  And so on and so on.  We’ve all been there.

In terms of the chakra symbols, the shift from this lowest, ordinary, root, muladhara stage to the next swadhisthana stage involves a symbolic shift from earth to waterThis can be seen in the images on the chakra symbols:  a stable elephant in the root chakra and the sea with a leviathan as depicted in the next higher level chakra symbol (shown here).  Jung says the shift from “ordinary life” to the pursuit of a “meaningful life” is naturally fraught with psychological fear given the inherent risks, uncertainty and possibility of failure.

This very normal and common human psychological transition, he points out, has long been recognized by other ancient cultures.  Similarly, they characterized this very common psychological shift as one from earth to water.  I guess its not all that surprising if you think of the fear you’d have if thrown in the water and unable to swim (no such thing as swim lessons back in the day).  Jung opines:

The way into any higher development leads through water, with the danger of being swallowed by the monster.  If you study the beautiful mosaic pictures in the Baptistry of the Orthodox in Ravenna … you see four scenes depicted on the wall: two describe the baptism of Christ in the Jordan; and the fourth is St. Peter drowning in a lake during a storm …  Baptism is a symbolic drowning.

So perhaps the very first steps in taking on a new “meaningful” direction in life – from simply payin’ the bills to doing something personally fulfilling – is to face the inherent uncertainties and fears.  To move into the murky depths and confront the possibility of failure and loss.

OK.  I will try and ground my sit bones into the water – rather than the earth!

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The Monkey Baba
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Is there such a thing as a “true” guru?   A gentle sage atop a mountain who lives only to practice and nurture the spiritual growth of students? Like many students, I’ve always carried this idealized and universal notion close to my heart.  Back in school, my favorite professors were the genuine, off-beat ones who really lived for their work.  Today, as a new yoga student, I feel the same way about the teachers who genuinely seem to live and breathe yoga.

Nevertheless, in the real world, this ideal can, understandably, be hard to live up to.  Ask Jews, Catholics and Protestants as to which group is more “true” or follows the “real”, “orthodox” or idealized tradition.  Better yet – don’t go there.  Nor Sikh, Hindu, Shia or Sunni, etc. etc.  Since their dawn, spiritual pursuits have had a natural tendency to splinter and sub-divide as zealous followers strive to maintain the “pure”, “true”, “uncorrupted” ideals of their faith – hence, thousand years of religious war.  Indeed, the desire for spiritual purity is a powerful force.

Recently, the blogospere was buzzing about John Friend, a well-liked and highly regarded teacher and founder of Anusara yoga (nicely summarized here).  Some of the buzz centered on the age-old question of whether the new tradition of Anusara yoga is really, truly valid and also whether Friend is a “true” guru or more of a (now rather wealthy) profit-seeking entrepreneur.

True or phoney.  Its an age-old, passion-inflaming topic to be sure – great for driving blogosphere traffic!  Even for yoga, its an issue that is thousands of years old (see David Gordon-White‘s “Sinister Yogis“).  From his book page:

Combing through millennia of South Asia’s vast and diverse literature, he discovers that yogis are usually portrayed as wonder-workers or sorcerers who use their dangerous supernatural abilities—which can include raising the dead, possession, and levitation—to acquire power, money, and sexual gratification. As White shows, even those yogis who aren’t downright villainous bear little resemblance to Western assumptions about them. At turns rollicking and sophisticated, Sinister Yogis tears down the image of yogis as detached, contemplative teachers, finally placing them in their proper context.

Of course, the recent blogosphere buzz about John Friend is nothing of this sort – its just a few impassioned blog posts here and there (watch Yoga Inc. for a more intense debate).

Perhaps this reflects one of the great things about yoga.  Even with its own age-old debate of “true guru vs. showman”, it remains so uniquely free of the epic strife and hard feelings associated with other spiritual traditions.  Its bare-bones, bare-foot simplicity offers little for debate and intellectual hang-ups and makes it easy to accommodate its many splintered traditions within any given yoga shala.

I came across these remarks by Carl Jung made in 1936 in his work, “Yoga and the West” – who seemed to parse the issues quite handily and foresee the over-hyping to come:

“Yoga was originally a natural process of introversion. … Such introversions lead to characteristic inner processes of personality changes.  In the course of several thousand years these introversions became gradually organized as methods, and along widely different ways.”

“I can, however say something about what it [yoga] means for the West.  Our lack of direction borders on psychic anarchy.  Therefore any religious or philosophical practice amounts to a psychological discipline, and therefore a method of psychic hygiene.”

“Yoga is mainly found in India now as a business proposition and woe to us when it reaches Europe.”

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left parietal lobe(red) and corpus callosum, d...
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The brain and mind changes that come with extensive yoga practice seem to increase inner awareness and – as many practitioners report – towards a more “spiritual” awareness.  What is this? … in terms of specific brain systems? One recent research article,  “The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence” has much to say on the types of brain systems that are engaged when we are experiencing connections to each other, our inner selves and other deeper, broader perspectives.

The researchers measured the self-transcendence scores of individuals before and after the removal of brain tissue (gliomas) in various parts of the brain – specifically the posterior parietal cortex.  It was interesting that the – removal – of certain areas of the brain resulted in – higher – scores for self-transcendence.  Perhaps this suggests that the effort made in yoga – to silence and still our mental processes – might have a roughly analogous effect of taking certain brain areas “offline”?  Could this be what is happening in yoga and meditation? – a quieting of the posterior parietal cortex?  Much to ponder and explore.

Combining pre- and post-neurosurgery personality assessment with advanced brain-lesion mapping techniques, we found that selective damage to left and right inferior posterior parietal regions induced a specific increase of self-transcendence. Therefore, modifications of neural activity in temporoparietal areas may induce unusually fast modulations of a stable personality trait related to transcendental self-referential awareness.

It is relevant that the posterior parietal cortex is involved in the representation of different aspects of bodily knowledge.  Lesions of the left posterior parietal cortex induce selective deficits in the representation of the spatial relationships between body segments and delusions regarding body parts occur after lesions centered on the right temporoparietal cortex. Furthermore, illusory localization of the self into the extrapersonal space has been reported in patients with left (heautoscopic phenomena) and right temporoparietal damage (out-of-body experiences). Thus, we posit that the reduction of neural activity in the temporoparietal cortex during spiritual experiences may reflect an altered sense of one’s own body in space.

A great review of this article and the psychological assessments used to quantify “self-transcendence” can be found at NeuroWhoa! and also at Neurophilosophy.

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Nehru gandhi
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As much as I might fantasize, I know I’ll never attain the lofty state of Samadhi or enlightenment that purportedly comes with a lifetime of dedicated practice to yoga.  For one thing, my life presently revolves around raising my 2 children – meals, homework, sports practices, camps, yoga lessons etc. – leaving just a small amount of time to write and practice yoga.  This is, of course, far from the ideal ascetic life of a yogi on a mountaintop – even though the thought of all that peace and quiet seems, itself, rather divine.

Alas, I’m all too aware that to attain the “great inward awareness”, one must withdraw from the typical everyday routine and sequester to a place of solitude.  Mircea Eliade remarks in his book, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (p.45):

The resistance that the subconscious opposes to every act of renunciation and asceticism, to every act that could result in the emancipation of the Self, is, as it were, the token of the fear that the subconscious feels at the mere idea that the mass of as yet unmanifested latentcies could fail of their destiny, could be destroyed before having time to manifest and actualize themselves.

To me, this very dilemma – to step out of, or to renounce the world vs. to live and partake in it – is one that seems at the core of any aspiring yogi’s spiritual journey.  Eliade continues:

This thirst for actualization on the part of the vasanas is nevertheless interpenetrated by the thirst for extinction, for “repose”, that occurs at all levels of the cosmos.

Its a deep personal conflict for all of us.  The desire to focus oneself and seek simplicity and perfection vs. the desire to embrace the diverse workaday world with family, friends and always lots of fun stuff to do.  The conflict may even bubble up into discussions of national identity where some political leaders advocate a quiet, withdrawn, simple life (ie. Mohandas Gandhi) while others advocate an embrace of modernity and internationalism (ie. Jawaharlal Nehru).  Indeed, almost every country copes with some type of internal conflicts of religion vs. secularism – perhaps just a macroscopic side-effect of this deep personal conflict.

Of course, I’m not qualified to offer advice on these BIG questions, but much enjoyed a blog post by Mark Eckhardt’s Zen Bite column over at This Emotional Life.  He makes the case that attainment of “enlightenment” might not be THE final endpoint and that ascending the mountain is only HALF the journey.

Integrating your enlightenment is where the work really begins — this is “Descending the Mountain.” Doing so is humbling, often turbulent and requires that you face some tough realities. By this I mean that you accept the impact of your thoughts and actions on yourself and others.

Through regular practice, greater awareness, understanding and acceptance of ourselves develops. As this happens, the ability to detect a wider spectrum of emotional and psychological states makes it possible to take advantage of the small gap between thought and action.  In fact, neuroscience researchers have discovered that this is approximately 2/10 of a second — more than enough time to take or prevent action that otherwise would be unheard of. In Zen we refer to this as pausing and growing thoughtful, and it is the gateway to improved relationships, courage, inspiration and satisfaction.

So, it seems that I should try and climb the spiritual mountain (like Gandhi), and then come back into the world (like Nehru) and use the benefits – to live – rather than withdraw.  Perhaps just a little bit each day.

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