“Unchanneled spiritual longing is a powerful force. It has been successfully manipulated throughout history in ways so hypocritical and repressive that religion has earned a bad name. But spiritual longing came before religion. ” 1
By now, it’s difficult even to use the name, God, without provoking argument. Now, suddenly, brain scan studies are confirming that God is good for us!
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A new book, How God Changes Your Brain by neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and therapist Mark Robert Waldman, informs us that, “God is great—for your mental, physical, and spiritual health. It is based on new evidence culled from brain-scan studies, a wide-reaching survey of people’s religious and spiritual experiences, and the authors’ analyses of adult drawings of God.” 2
Over the years, they concluded:
“• Not only do prayer and spiritual practice reduce stress, but just twelve minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process.
• Contemplating a loving God rather than a punitive God reduces anxiety and depression and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love.
• Fundamentalism, in and of itself, can be personally beneficial, but the prejudice generated by extreme beliefs can permanently damage your brain.
• Intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain, altering your values and the way you perceive reality.” 3
Let’s start with the first conclusion, that prayer and spiritual practice are healthy habits. “Not rocket science” might be your first reaction but it’s profound how, for instance, an Eastern custom – meditation – has penetrated the western world. Meditation is said to have begun in seventh century China. While it’s migration westward began centuries ago. The Beatles highly publicized involvement with India guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi predictably accelerated adoption, first in the counter culture and then into the mainstream. For some it’s always been a spiritual practice, for many more, it’s become a mainstay for keeping themselves healthy.
The author’s contention that meditating can reduce stress is an unfortunate mis-speak. It would be more accurate to say that meditation can improve your ability to manage stress. The stress itself is going to continue to be what it is. This is more than semantics. It clarifies that while we may not be able to change our challenges, we can change how we react to them. And certainly the cultivation of a peaceful mind will equip us to do that.
The following idea that meditating can slow the aging process makes sense. What makes the body age? There are various theories relating to DNA and cell damage, environmental impacts, etc. but, again, it’s not rocket science to suggest that being calm and learning how to manage stress better would have a positive effect on aging.
Such benefits are enough to sell millions of people on meditating. But is it really meditating? Yes and no. If we use the word to describe any kind of relaxation technique where the mind is stilled while sitting… OK, that’s meditation. But for many, real meditation is relaxing into … here we go again, God, or a more truthful reality. A connection with the truth is essential for these meditators, in fact, that’s what the practice is for. Improved health is a byproduct.
It’s sadly ironic that a practice originally conceived as communion with the Divine has been so quickly commercialized and transformed into a health aid. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with using relaxation techniques to improve health, but what about the spiritual component? If we agree that God is good for us, are we limiting the benefits to our health only?
What about our souls? What about discovering the meaning of our lives and dissolving individual separateness through a life-long journey of awakening into oneness? Here’s a benefit that might just be of more lasting value!
Many millions of people in the 21st century (especially Millennials) are turning away from organized religion and embracing a spiritual practice of one kind or another, often centered by meditation. This is hardly surprising, when religious institutions are under increasing fire. Note the film of the year, Spotlight, that exposed long term child abuse in the Boston Roman Catholic Church. Millions of people have already seen that film. Will they still feel safe to send their children off to Sunday School?
As the opening quote affirmed, spiritual longing came before religion. Increasing numbers of us are satisfying that longing with a genuine spiritual practice, like meditation. Words can’t explain the connection we culture with the Divine, yet we can’t stop talking and writing about it. “You know that Ultimate Reality is ineffable, and yet you cannot help yourself: the unsayable is all you can talk about.” 4
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1. The New American Spirituality by Elizabeth Lesser
3. How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg Mark Robert Waldman
4. God of Love by Mirabai Starr