Thursday, January 1, 2009

Brit Atheist Postscript + Hollywood Hajj

Disparate data on self-programming and faith:

This New York Times story goes nicely with the previously cited London
Times op-ed about religion's ability to transform people's minds and therefore their realities. Research shows that religious people (those who actively ritualize their lives, not just reflect 'pon matters ethereal) have higher levels of self-discipline and-- I would add a "therefore"-- higher levels of happiness and satisfaction. It's likely, given the areas of the brain typically activated by religious ritual, meditation, etc., that this self-control is less a product of commandments and moral precepts than a by-product of exercising brain regions related to "self-regulation and control of attention and emotion," in the words of Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami. I'm a Gator myself, but from my experience and observations I can endorse their findings, which are based on a review of "eight decades of research."

The brain evolves just as species and star-systems evolve. Cognitive pressure serves as the do-or-die influence, and we all know of those calamities, personal or social, that can darken our worlds like a Yucatan meteorite. These are the times when we grow or we die--but you can add to those times the slow, steady growth given by regular practice or the riskier, more steroidal growth afforded by hardcore sadhana, and there are plenty of stations between. John Lilly called it "metaprogamming"-- the practice of accessing, reviewing, and rewriting one's mental scripts. Lilly, of course, was aware that he was only the latest neuronaut in a long, long tradition of conscious evolution: meditation, magick,
dhikr, twelve-step programs, Kabbalah, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, bhakti, contemplative prayer, dreamwork, satyagraha... brain-editing software goes by many names.

One recent hajji is also aware of the interplay of ritual and neuroplasticity: the screenwriter Kamran Pasha has blogged a fascinating and moving account of his journey to Mecca, including some perceptive comments on pilgrimages in general and their ability to re-program us (I'll link to the latter, but track back to see all the posts).

With my constant emphasis on skepticism and the neurological aspects of spirituality, I imagine I would sound like damn near an atheist to the former fundamentalist me, the ancestor who began this journey 30 years ago not knowing where I was going, just trying to trust my Heavenly Father to keep the trespasses to a minimum since the daily bread was taken care of by my earthly father. And I probably would sound like a simp to the post-fundie atheist me, the least self-confident of my incarnations but the most fired-up... but to Dead Christian Me I'd have to say, "Get off your ass! [quoting Andrew Harvey] Reading is great; the Bible and Bible commentaries and church and C. S. Lewis and St. Augustine and all that stuff is fine, but
live your faith. You can't do that in books and you can't do it very well in a pea-pod of like-minded religious lazy-asses."

To Dead Atheist Me I'd say, "You're not sure of yourself because, unlike your shriller counterparts, you actually know a few things about religion. And not just the Abrahamic strain-- you've connected the dots between voodoo and shamanism and the Dreamtime and you can't unconnect them now. You have tasted the fruit, you have seen the dharmakaya light. And even if you hadn't, all you'd have to do was some serious spiritual practice and the doors would open a crack. Then you'd be free to conjure all the neurology you wanted to, invoke "the power of suggestion" until half-past dawn, but the reality would be there to do what thou wilted with. If you've been made aware of ways to brainwash yourself into being happier and leading a better life, don't you have a duty to use them, regardless of their ultimate origin?"

Looking back on it, this is pretty much what I did... engaged in spiritual practice sans belief or expectation until, one day, *poof!*: God sprang into door-yard existence. No worries with "duty" or any of that nonsense; I was just curious and wanted to keep an open mind. But... does this mean I was smarter
then than I am now?? I'm supposed to be evolving!!!

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