Section One: Mind is the chief instrument of spiritual practice: Premananda: All bondage is in the mind. All freedom is in the mind. Swami Ramakrishnananda: The more we try to fix our minds on God, the more quickly shall we forget ourselves and the more quickly shall we reach freedom. The best way to do this is not to think of ourselves in any way, and try to keep our minds on the presence of God. Et. Comp. He is beyond the reach of mind and intellect. And yet, if one earnestly prays to him, he becomes attainable to the pure mind. The Body and mind are closely related. When the Body is disturbed, the mind also becomes disturbed. Emotions also play a part Fear – comes from feeling separate from others. Love – feeling at one with others. Fear and Spiritual Practice: Shivananda: Once the mind becomes absorbed in His lotus feet there is no fear anymore. Love and Spiritual Practice: Shivananda You have to get your mind fixed. Develop a love for God in your heart, be earnest, and call on Him. Then you will find that everything will be fulfilled in time. Make your mind ready. When the flower blooms, the bee comes of itself. Section 2 When we use our minds for our spiritual practices, how does it affect us – our body/brain? Mystery of Consciousness and the interplay of the Brain/body and Mind – words that are used somewhat loosely in the same way. How can they interact unless they are both material? Need a non-materialistic world view to account for the facts. Somehow they interact. A nonmaterialist view can help us see how. We will be assuming that mind, brain, and body are all different expressions of Brahman as experienced through Maya. Brain activity and related bodily functions are what we can measure scientifically. We can measure brain waves, neurotransmitter levels, and see which parts of the brain are using more blood when a person does different things with their mind. There are correlations between the mind and the brain/body complex. Section Three Spiritual practices, religious rituals pre-date civilization itself. Implies that there is something innate in the human being that drives us to be religious. Easy answer from the Vedantic point of view. Not so easy from an evolutionary, psychological, or sociological point of view. Why do people do spiritual practices? What do people report subjectively? Report greater peace and calmness, clarity of thought, improved health, strength of will, Et. Comp: By constantly performing japam the mind can easily be made calm and steady, and finally it will lose itself in God. Therefor I ask you to perform japam regularly and often and at the same time meditate on the Chosen Ideal. This combined practice brings quick success. From Et. Companion: One’s health also improves if one meditates. Mystics report in addition to these, Loss of sense of self, expanded awareness, merging of pairs of opposites, oneness with all things, or God, understanding of the meaning of life. Section 4 Certain mental states correlate with measurable things in the body and brain. Neurotransmitters A particular profile of neurotransmitters is seen in the presence of pain, depression and to immune function. Joy and comfort produce different unique neurotransmitter profiles Key to understanding the influences of certain practices on the body/brain is the autonomic nervous system How the autonomic nervous system regulates our stress response The autonomic nervous system is connected to physical processes such as digestion, respiration, heart rate, immune function, peristalsis, This system has two branches, the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is our fight-or-flight response. It helps us to mobilize energy to complete a task-- The SNS is essential, but when it goes into overdrive, the body and mind suffer. The other branch of the system is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), often called the “rest and digest” or “calm and connect” system or “chill and bliss out”. This system activates certain parts of the brain, which allows for more reflective, conscious behavior and action; an increased feeling of calm; flexible and creative thinking. Stress resilience is a balance of these two systems. Goal is to be able to use each when called on without getting stuck in over-drive. The SNS in overdrive can lead to hypertension, pain and inflammation. This correlates with increased norepinephrine, reduced cholinesterase and depressed beta endorphin, Calming the SNS down via the hypothalamus leads to decreased norepinephrine, elevated cholinesterase and elevated beta endorphin emerge. When the PNS is active (Relax and digest) people report: 1) reduced pain 2) reduced depression, 3) reduced cravings for addictive substances 4) better healing Section 4 A What effects do spiritual practices have on the brain? Visualization: Focusing one’s attention on a physiological outcome has been shown to have a potential effect on physiological function, Mentally circulating Qi in the Micro-cosmic orbit or Kundalini through the Ida and Pingala may work through the hypothalamus to reduce SNS and increase the PNS to bring feelings of calm and peace and move brain waves to slower alpha and theta waves. Even imagining performing musical exercises rewires and strengthens nerve connections. Section 4B Breathing Yogic Breathing: brings calmness, increases stress resilience, probably by activating the PSN. Breathing is the one system of the ANS over which we have conscious control. The brain responds to the respiratory system with urgency. Coherent Breathing, = full yogic breathing 3.5 to 6 breaths a minute optimizes the calming effects. Through coherent breathing, the electrical rhythms of the heart, lungs, and brain become synchronized. Breath rate can “induce up to a tenfold improvement in heart-rate variability,” a measure of stress resilience. Opens the capillaries to optimize blood flow, bringing more oxygen to the body. The impact of the body on the mind Coherent Breathing, is linked to an increase in cognitive performance and a decrease in stress.
Yogic breathing causes a “trickle-up” effect on the mind to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Possibly because of stimulation of the vagus nerve (part of the PNS) Practice coherent breathing coupled with the intention to relax for best results. Groups of elders who received relaxation training had significant increases in the activity of “natural killer cells” while control groups did not. Not the same as complicated pranayama techniques which can be dangerous if done improperly. Swami Brahmananda Pranayama and other Yogic practices are not suitable to the present times and conditions. One must observe complete Brahmacharya in order to practice them. One's food must be absolutely pure, Sattvika, and one must be guided by an expert teacher. (Apos. p. 113, Spir. Talks p. 32 sim.) Section 4 C Our main practices: Meditation mantras, Chanting and Prayer Meditation often involves 1. focused attention, 2. diminishment of the sense of self, 3. loss of the sense of space and time, 4. ecstasy, 5. experience of absolute unity. Prayer is similar to meditation, but prayer is more conversational, more verbal. Prayer also usually has the goal of connecting with God. Prayer and meditation result in decreased heart rate and blood pressure, decreased body metabolism, and hormonal changes. In addition, they result in increased serotonin, dopamine, and GABA and decreased cortisol and norepinephrine. Studies have shown that central dopamine is released during yoga meditation and GABA increases during yoga asana meditation. There are findings suggest that the long-term practice of mindfulness leads to emotional stability. Another study showed that meditation can cultivate positive emotion including empathy. Study of Kirtan Kriya and Memory Older individuals with memory problems but no history of prior meditation. Taught Kirtan Kriya – Sa ta na ma repeated with finger mudras 2 min aloud, 2 minutes whisper, 4 minutes silent, 2 minutes whisper, 2 minutes aloud. Control group – listening to music 10% improvement in memory task after 8 weeks – correlated with changes in activity in the frontal lobes and thalamus 10 – 20% reduction in stress anxiety depression fatigue – These changes correlated with changes in activity in the limbic and emotional control centers of the brain. Overall increase in the frontal lobes, not just during the practice, but even at rest. This attention-focusing area can block information from moving back and forth within other parts of the brain one of which is the hippocampus—a part of the brain’s limbic system and involved in the ability to remember. Brain Scans of Franciscan Nuns Centering Prayer showed decrease activity in the parts of the brain that create a sense of self in space and time and an increased activity in the frontal lobe “focused attention” area The brain scans showed many different changes, including: Substantially increased activity in the frontal lobe during the prayer practice. Substantial decrease of activity in the parietal lobes. An increase in the activity levels in a very central structure called the thalamus. An eight-week study conducted by Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Meditation literally rebuilds the brains grey matter in just eight weeks. It’s the very first study to document that meditation produces changes over time in the brain’s grey matter. A Harvard study found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Thalamus helps connect various parts of the brain and coordinates interpretation of sensory information. Prayer: prayer might increase anyone’s ability to resist temptation. The source of such control might be social connection. “strength model” of self-control. We have a cognitive reserve. Prayer may help replenish our cognitive reserve. Task 1 Emotion-suppression task, watch a funny video but stifle all emotional responses, verbal and non-verbal, to the content. Task 2, stroop task, asked participants to indicate the ink color of various words flashed to them on a computer screen. Words spell the names of various colors that are either consistent or inconsistent with the ink they are to identify Participants who were asked to pray about a topic of their choosing for five minutes showed significantly better performance on the stroop task after emotion suppression, compared to participants who were simply asked to think about a topic of their choosing. And this effect held regardless of whether participants identified as religious (70 percent) or not. Theory is that people interpret prayer as a social interaction with God, and social interactions are what give us the cognitive resources necessary to avoid temptation. Brief social interactions with others can promote cognitive functioning, and the same seems to hold true for brief social interactions with deities. Saradananda Swami Saradananda says “If the mind continues to be unsteady, pray to the Lord, 'Lord, kindly make my mind steady!' Know this for certain—He hears whatever you say and knows whatever passes through your mind.” (Glimpses p. 117) If the mind does not become steady, pray to him fervently, 'Lord, make my mind calm/ Know that the Master hears your words and understands your feelings. Whatever you ask of him earnestly, you will get. (Glimpses p. 165) Mantra: Om chanting reduced activity in the limbic system, which is the portion of the brain associated with stress, emotions, learning, and motivation. By monitoring brain activity using a functional MRI machine, researchers found that Om chanting relaxed the brain, and thus could reduce stress. Another studyfound that it could be used to treat depression. Improves Concentration Balance Your Emotions Chanting Om resulted in a combination of both mental alertness and physiological rest. This makes sense given the fact that meditation and chanting can improve concentration! Helps Rid Yourself of Negativity Creates a positive vibration in the body, which can then attract positivity into your life. Chanting OM for just a few minutes each day for a few days gave participants dramatic improvements in focus, concentration & steadiness, peace, reduction in mental stress which correlated with their sound wave forms becoming more regular. Chanting Mantras can be done vocally, sub-vocally (whispering) or silently in the mind. It is recommended to start aloud, and then proceed with the more silent variations. Section 4D Yoga and other movement based practices In the practice of Qigong and Yoga, the hypothalamus regulates the autonomic nervous system function toward a lessening of the sympathetic activity, which is associated with the stress response. Noradrenaline and dopamine tend to increase. The aspects of Qigong and Yoga that quiet the mind and relax the body induce a neurotransmitter profile that is conducive to healing. Section 4E Speaking in tongues Lessons from Professor Newberg’s Research The frontal lobes—the part of our brain that makes us feel in control of our actions and words—actually shut down. The scans also showed increased activity in the thalamus and basal ganglia. Section 4 H Lasting Effects Having a spiritual experience: People who have had intense religious or spiritual experiences show that those have had a direct impact on the brain. Meditating on the light of a near death experience – increased activity in the brainstem, prefrontal cortex, right superior parietal lobule, and insula. Carmelite nuns asked to mentally relive the most intense mystical experience of their lives: increased activation in the orbitofrontal cortex, temporal cortex, parietal lobules, caudate, prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulated, and brainstem. Section 4 F Rituals – act to synchronize emotional, perceptual-cognitive, and motor processes within the central nervous system of individual participants. – rhythms of ritual physically affect your body – body rhythms synchronize with the prayer or song. Fast music revs you up. Slow music calms you down. As it drives your body and brain, the rhythmic activity drives your hypothalamus and ultimately your amygdala to generate emotional response. Rhythmic activity causes interesting changes in the brain. Rhythm of ritual drives the brain causing increased activity in the hypothalamus, thalamus, and limbic system. Decrease in activity in some parts of the cortex, particularly in the parietal lobes which helps us form a sense of self and a sense of space and time. – This leads to a sense of connectedness or oneness with God or the religious group. The brain is designed to act out thoughts. Rituals act out myths. Rituals are structured or patterned. Important aspects of rituals. They are rhythmic in that the same music, phrases, dances, and ideas are repeated over and over. What makes rituals particularly powerful is how the repetition occurs on many different levels. Repetition during a particular practice Repetition on a regular calendar basis. Repetition through generations Connecting with people around the world performing the same rituals Group rituals help to synchronize many brains to the rhythm. Our brains have neurons that mirror what other people do and are called mirror neurons. When a group of people engages in a ritual, they all feel the rhythm and each other. Section 5 Why do different meditation and prayer techniques have some of the same results and how do they differ? Concentration – activates the frontal lobe – shuts down parietal lobe. Visual practices activate the visual areas of the brain Conversational prayer activates the language parts of the brain Remembrance of spiritual experiences initially does not shut down the parietal lobe which gives a sense of self.
Section 6 Some other fascinating questions Are spiritual experiences an abnormal or false perception of the world? Our senses and our brain under normal conditions give us a limited picture of reality, but it is a picture that allows us to function in the physical world. Just as we can change our visual perception of the world by putting on glasses, using telescopes or microscopes, or using night googles to see in the infrared, spiritual practices allow our brains to experience this relative reality in deeper more profound ways. Are spiritual experiences just brain states caused by brain chemicals? Spiritual practices work top down. Mimicking one or two of the effects at the chemical level will not translate into the same experience at the spiritual level. How can we Use this information to improve our spiritual live? Motivates practice – practice with intention and belief that these effects will be there.
References: The Teaching Company Course The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious ExperienceProfessor Andrew Newberg Zen and the Brain by James H. Austin The Neurophysiology of Enlightenment by Robert Keith Wallace What the Disciples Said About It – Edith Tipple Plus numerous articles on the internet.