Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Thoughts on the pursuit of spirituality

I know it's not a popular topic among my regular blog readers, but I can't help it: Matthew Remski of Yoga 2.0 wrote a brilliant article questioning spirituality at Elephant Journal, which elegantly put together so many issues I've been thinking about lately. Please feel free to skip my brain-dump until I start reporting my struggles with supta kurmasana again :)  (Maybe I'll actually get this pose by the time I finish dumping my brain?)

Remski talks about Jill Bolte Taylor's story of "A Stroke of Insight", where this Harvard trained neuroanatomist had a massive hemorrhaging stroke that damaged the left brain region, which governed language ability, logic, time, and the boundaries of the body. Instead of fear of death and excruciating pain (or maybe on top of that?) she experienced euphoria and oneness with the surrounding. Remski compared her experience to that of Geshe Michael Roach, who also seemed to have experienced out-of-body type euphoria through persistent meditation practice. A third case was Charles Buell Anderson who seemed to have some sort of "wireless connection to god". It seemed that he obtained spontaneous ecstasy and joy by "actively destroying left-brain logic and grammar". For all three of them, being boundary-less seemed euphoric, while coming back to the body appear to be of great suffering. Remski puts the three cases together and asks if these people actually temporarily achieved samadhi or made actual connections to a greater deity, either through an accidental stroke, or using rigorous mental exercises? Alternatively, is it possible that the rigorous meditation exercises served to dull (or even damage, similar to a stroke) the control of the logical left brain, allowing the right brain to go wild, in which case, these people became temporarily delusional rather than achieving enlightenment?

Awhile ago I read The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures by Nicolas Wade, which hypothesizes that spirituality is an evolved biological trait that helped bind society together. People who developed spiritual tendencies were more likely to believe that there's a greater purpose for living and were willing to stick together and work as a team. Those who were more willing to work as a group were more likely to survive than the nonspiritual loners and therefore the spirituality trait got passed on down the generations to today.

Remski calls for scientific research on this topic. Now I'm no neuroscientist, but it's possible to get experimental support for the case of left brain suppression. If we can can pinpoint the areas of the left brain that gets suppressed and areas of the right brain that gets activated consistently when advanced meditation experts experience euphoria, and can reproducibly induce samadhi in lay people, then it's strong support that spirituality is just the product of messing with the brain. I'm not saying the experiment is easy or clear-cut, and I have no idea if currently technology permits this kind of experiment to be done safely. I'm just saying the hypothesis is testable.

What does this have to do with us, practically? Well, um, if they prove that spirituality is just a by-product of the brain (not with a single experiment of course, contrary to what media likes to report with screaming headlines over "scientists' unanimous conclusion" based on one single scientific paper), but if a series of experiments exploring this issue support the point, then there's going to be major unrest in society. But don't worry; experimental results are never as expected. Experimental design is just as important as the results. Is my perceived samadhi same as your perceived samadhi? Does the brain state of hardcore praying to the Christian God look the same as hardcore Tibetan buddhist meditation, vs Zen Buddhist meditation, vs. Vipassana meditation for that matter? Should researchers focus on brain regions or types of brain waves generated? If the experimental design is flawed then the conclusions are not trustworthy. The experimental results are usually more baffling and introduce more questions than initially anticipated anyway. Then scientists have to struggle to come up with 100 theories to try to explain the findings, and then more studies go on for decades. I've learned the hard way that when one embarks on a scientific journey to hunt down an answer, one could spend the entire career coming up with more questions and never reaching the answer they initially seek even at retirement. I'm not sure if I have the persistence and tenacity to choose this career.

For me, yoga teachings helped me get deeper in touch with my body, and taught me to calm myself down with a few deep breaths whenever I experience anxiousness, as anxiety, anger, fear and all states of mind are impermanent. After a period of yoga I found I could work my anxiousness out of my body and manage to sit still for a period of time without fidgeting. So then I started meditating. Not that I can keep my mind still for more than a few breaths at a time, but I find myself craving to practice meditation more often. I also want to read up more about the other limbs of yoga, to figure out this spirituality thing. Instead of being able to focus and work on my tasks at hand, I just want to spend all of my time practicing more yoga, reading more about yoga, learning more meditation and pranyama techniques. All this because of how good I feel after yoga practices and meditation sessions. Is this any different from sugar addiction? It's not quite as severe as a heroin addiction, but it's an addiction that interferes with daily mundane tasks nevertheless.

Not all advanced meditation practitioners achieve a state like Michael Roach and Charles Buell Anderson. I'm not saying their meditation practice actually damaged their brains. It's a tough struggle to decide how much you want to fit in with the social norm and how much you want to say "the hell with it" and pursue an extreme path to happiness at the expense of people giving you odd looks or calling you coo-coo. It's easy to say we just want to achieve a "balance", but is your balance same as my balance? Why do we pursue anything that we do? They say the pursuit of happiness is what drives everyone to get out of bed in the morning. Sure, some people end up stuck in a job that they hate, in a relationship that's not working, with children that they have to feed by keeping their hated jobs, but initially, we all find a job in order to make us money which is supposed to allow us to buy stuff that will make us happy. We pursue romantic relationships because that's supposed to make us feel loved and whole (or fun and exciting), and we have children because kids are supposed to bring us joy. So when things don't turn out they way they're supposed to, the spiritual teachings remind us that everything is impermanent, be grateful with what we have, and don't base our happiness solely on trying to please other people, etc etc. These teachings on their own help make life bearable, but here you have two gurus who have obtained the psychic power to invoke euphoric states at will! Their spiritual teachings no doubt also help them to not get upset by conventional criticisms towards them.

Sorry for being long-winded again. Basically, should I keep on practicing meditation, pranyama, yoga, chanting and other spiritual activities that are no doubt strengthening the spiritual neuro-pathways in my right brain, knowing that these activities make me happy, at the expense of non-yogi friends distancing themselves from me? Or should I reduce the amount of spiritual pursuit (or happiness brain exercise, if spirituality doesn't actually exist), so I can better relate to my old-time weekend-alcoholic friends, couch-potato friends, iPhone-addict friends and fitness-fanatic friends (as Evelyn discussed in her recent blog post)? If I firmly believed in an Almighty God, and that my existence is to serve and honor God, then there's no question that the pursuit of spirituality trumps all other activities. The biggest problem I have with this way of thinking is that so many religious people swear by this, but they do not constantly inquire within themselves, seriously asking the question: "Would my beloved God really approve of my actions (start a war, condemn people who think differently from myself, etc)?" Oh man, I just realized I can write another post on the topic of human-to-God communication mechanism. I better stop here before I go on for another 10 pages.


  1. Great post Yyogini!

    As a scientist (plant biologist) I'm a sucker for any kind of "study results"!

    You ask lots of really good questions that will keep me pondering for awhile... :)

    It reminds me of something I read in 'Light on Life' by Iyengar though. I'm paraphrasing because I don't have the book in front of me, but he said something about feeling he achieved something through yoga when he could go out with his friends and be comfortable with them eating or drinking what they liked, while he was able to maintain doing what he thought was best for himself and without any feelings of pressure to join in anything not "good for him". He was able to enjoy their company without judging their choices or feeling compelled to make similar choices if he didn't feel they were the right ones for him. I'm sure that was alot more eloquently said in Iyengar's own words! :)
    It was good to hear that kind of thing from someone like Iyengar. I read it as a suggestion that it is possible to follow the path that seems to fit us best without isolating ourselves from the world....that it's possible to be householders with equanimity.

    I guess I'll see how that goes as I keep practicing...lots of work to do there!

  2. Thanks Christine! I really needed to hear that! To be comfortable maintaining one's own choice of lifestyle without succumbing to peer pressure.. or to not feel bad about not conforming to the crowd - definitely something I need to work on!!

    ps. I'm a sucker for study results too :)

  3. Oh, this was so good. I'm going to elephant and then the 2.0 webpage check it out...

  4. Serene, definitely check out the article on Elephant. Way more elegantly composed than what I wrote here :)