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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Spirituality: Michael Gerson on Andrew Newberg's new "How God Changes Your Brain" book

In "A Searcher With Faith in Mind" in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson comments (April 15, 2009 ) on Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman's new book, How God Changes Your Brain:
Using brain imaging studies of Franciscan nuns and Buddhist practitioners, and Sikhs and Sufis -- along with everyday people new to meditation -- Newberg asserts that traditional spiritual practices such as prayer and breath control can alter the neural connections of the brain, leading to "long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness and love." He assures the mystically challenged (such as myself) that these neural networks begin to develop quickly -- a matter of weeks in meditation, not decades on a Tibetan mountaintop. And though meditation does not require a belief in God, strong religious belief amplifies its effect on the brain and enhances "social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions."
Gerson does comment, however,
"How God Changes Your Brain" has many revelations -- and a few limitations. In a practical, how-to tone, it predicts "an epiphany that can improve the inner quality of your life. For most Americans, that is what spirituality is about." But if this is what spirituality is all about, it isn't about very much. Mature faith sometimes involves self-sacrifice, not self-actualization; anguish, not comfort. If the primary goal of religion is escape or contentment, there are other, even more practical methods to consider. "I didn't go to religion to make me happy," said C.S. Lewis, "I always knew a bottle of port would do that." The same could be said of psychedelic drugs, which can mimic spiritual ecstasy.
Yes, that is a basic problem. To transform one's life, one must begin by wanting to know what is right and true, not what feels good. And to be fair to Newberg, he has emphasized elsewhere that one must work on meditation to see any results. Or, as I would say,

Neural Buddhists: The Buddha does not drop two grand for meditation gear and then forget it all two weeks later and take up tennis - and expect to see any lasting or important inner changes.

But this is one book I have got to get. Here's more on it.

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