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Monday, February 14, 2011

Encountering The Spirit #2: Your Brain on Prayer

When I first announced here at Telling Secrets that I was going to be spending time at the Episcopal Divinity School as Proctor Scholar, I promised to occasionally write about what I was learning and share some of that information in this particular neighborhood of cyberspace.

This week's journal assignment in "Spirituality for the Contemporary World" - the course I'm taking at EDS with Kwok Pui Lan - is to reflect on "Spirituality and the Brain Science". I am fortunate that Pui Lan has encouraged us to create a blog as our journal, and delights to know that so many members of the class have done just that. It's been great to read such a wide variety of perspectives on spirituality.

I must admit that when I saw the topic and the assigned readings when I first looked over the course syllabus, I was mildly surprised, if not slightly amused.

I suppose I viewed it as The Next Trendy Topic - the way Myers-Brigs Type Indicators or Enneagrams have swept some corners of the church like the "gospel of now".

Not that these two things don't have value, in and of themselves. They do. It's just that, in my experience, for some people they have become "the destination" rather than a vehicle to the path of deeper spirituality.

Oh, in the past, I have "dabbled" in the topic of Brain Science. I confess, however - with a modicum of embarrassment - that I have done so mostly for its "entertainment value".

As a busy - often frenetic - parish priest, a discussion of the topic of Brain Science is a compelling way to get the message out about the value of prayer. It makes for a fascinating (read: increased attendance) Adult Forum on a Sunday morning or a short series for weekday Adult Education.

I never took it as seriously as I ought to have because. .. . well, because what little I'd read mostly affirmed what I already knew or suspected about the benefits of a practice of prayer.

Having "bought" the premise, my reading on the topic was less about personal edification and more about presenting the information in a way that would inspire or encourage others to take their prayer life more seriously. (And yes, getting the "numbers" up for attendance at Adult Education for the Parochial Report.)

That was my goal. Not the study, itself, of brain science and prayer.

A few years ago, a small group of parishioners became interested in the book, The Intention Experiment: Using Your Thoughts to Change Your Life and the World by Lynne McTaggart

The book has become something of an international sensation. There's now an Intention Experiment Website where you can join "a series of scientifically controlled, web-based experiments testing the power of intention to change the physical world. Thousands of volunteers from 30 countries around the world have participated in Intention Experiments thus far".

This is not about praying to win the lottery or buy a new car. It's about healing the world. The website states: "The targets are only philanthropic: healing wounds, helping children with attention deficit or patients with Alzheimer’s, counteracting pollution and global warming."

We had talked about joining the project in some way, but, as it often happens in busy suburban parishes, we quickly got off track by other pressing matters that took precedence over the prayer project.

You know - like the basement flooded (Again!) or the roof leaked (Again!) but this time, really, really needed to be replaced. Or, someone was furious because the weekly service bulletins contained a typo (Again!) and someone else was threatening to leave the church (Again!) if the service didn't get pared down to sixty minutes. Not 65 or 70. One hour. So, how 'bout say, we cut down the Prayers of the People. It gets "so boring" hearing the same people's names week after week.


It is a wonderful gift and a blessing to be able to have the luxury of time to read a bit more in depth about this fascinating topic - especially as I consider revising my personal Rule of Life.

Pui Lan has had us reading some fascinating literature which has whet my appetite to learn more. Mind you, this is one lecture in a survey course on Spirituality. I suspect an entire course of study could be dedicated to this one topic alone.

And, these are not all the books we had to read for the course. I do want to highlight a few and encourage you to find them online and read them for yourself.

"Spirituality for the Cathedral and Bazaar Mind" is an essay by Pui Lan which was published in Project Muse: Spiritus A Journal of Christian Spirituality in 2010.

Kwok talks about the way architecture influences or is an expression of our spirituality. To summarize very briefly, The Cathedral is the spirituality of inhabiting sacred spaces. The Bazaar is the spirituality of the seeker.

Kwok makes the point that "virtual religion" - which has opened up to us in the vastness of cyberspace - ought not be dismissed as 'lesser' in some way. Rather, she argues that it has enormous value for those who are seeking a deeper relationship with God and, indeed, can be used to enhance Cathedral spirituality.

Ann Harrington's, "Making Sense of Mind-Body Medicine" is an essay from the book, The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine.

While Harrington gives a marvelous summary of mind-body medicine, for me, the power of Harrington's essay comes at the end when she talks about narrative and the power of story to help and heal. She writes,
"This book has shown that the stories of mind-body medicine do not merely describe experience and behaviors that are given in the world; they also help create behaviors and experiences that had not previously been there. Given this, it seems clear to me that the future of mind-body medicine should lie in seeking, not finally to escape from its stories, but to embrace them as part of its map and part of its territory alike - inextricably part of and fundamental to what it is all about."
Is this not part of the miracle of the stories of the miracle healings of Jesus? To "help create behaviors and experiences that had not previously been there"? To provide an avenue of hope when the road seems blocked by despair?

Is this not, fundamentally, what is at the core of prayer?

Edward Hallowell's essay, "Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform" is also not overtly about spirituality, but there is no doubt in my mind that the qualities and characteristics of Christian community have much in common with what he has to say about building a work environment that will be more satisfying and harmonious and, ultimately more productive.

The article was first published in January 2005 in the Harvard Business Review.

He talks about the problem of what he calls "ADT" - Attention Deficit Traits, which he defines as a pure response to the hyperkinetic environment of modern life. He adds, "Modern culture almost requires that we develop ADT".

The modern work place, with its assumptions on the ability to "multi-task" often places the frontal lobes of the brain on overload. This has the effect of producing anxiety and fear. Emotion, Hallowell says, is "the on/off switch for executive functioning". Rather than creating a structure which imposes accountability, building a trusting relationship with superiors and peers alike is key to increasing accountability which, in turn, increases productivity.

Makes sense to me. To my mind, the institutional church is at its best when it places a high value on developing trusting relationships over and above the 'bottom line' of any budget.

Alas, I fear many manifestations of the institutional church in many dioceses have lost sight of this. We could learn something from Hallowell's work in order to rediscover what we already know is at the core of our identity as the church, the Body of Christ.

I want to point you in the direction of just a few more resources before I stop and let you get on with your day.

Daniel Amen's essay, "In God's House: Brain Health and the Sunday Sermon" is from the book Healing the Hardware of the Soul

There's a fascinating report of a study that was done by the John Templeton Foundation at Harvard Medical School and the American Psychological Association which notes a link between going to church and being part of a body of believers with health benefits for both the body and the mind.

For example:
+ The mortality rate for men who attend church is 25% lower than men who don't. For women that rate is 35% lower.

+ Patients who depend on their faith for strength are three times more likely to survive open heart surgery.

+ Hip-fracture patients who attend church on a regular basis walk longer distances and have less depression at discharge than those who don't.
There's more - lots more - but that's enough to give you some very smart sounding information to add to your Sunday sermon or "fun facts" to toss around and impress people at the next dinner party.

Amen also has an interesting video on YouTube "Change your Brain, Change your Life 2/7" There are other parts of the program which you can find by clicking the videos on the right sidebar.

Finally, I want to encourage you to listen to the 30 minute NPR program on Talk of the Nation which featured Andrew B. Newberg entitled "Neurotheology: This Is Your Brain on Religion".

Newberg has also written a book, "How God Changes Your Brain"

Newberg, a neuroscientist and memory expert, has a special interest in spirituality; he has scanned the brains of worshipers ranging from Franciscan nuns to Pentecostals speaking in tongues (That's one of his brain scans at the beginning of this post).

His studies have convinced him of a a link between spirituality and cognitive health: The neurochemical changes that he observed during meditation and prayer appeared to improve brain function.

It is compelling and fascinating stuff - something those who are in leadership roles - lay and ordained - in congregations need to take seriously, whether they are in a community with either 'cathedral' or 'bazaar' oriented spirituality.

I want to leave you with this video, "Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight". Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions -- motion, speech, self-awareness -- shut down one by one.

It's truly an astonishing story, at the end of which she says, with audible emotion and passion in her voice,
"Who are we? We are the life-force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. We have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world."

"Right here, right now, I can choose to step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere, where I am - we are - the life-force power of the universe. . . at one with all that is. Or, I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere, where I become a single individual - separate from the flow, separate from you."

"These are the 'we' inside of me. Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when?"

"I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemisphere, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be."
Is this not the point of prayer? What is the point of religion and the spirituality that arises from a disciplined life of individual prayer if not increased compassion and deep inner peace which will positively impact and ultimately transform the world for the better with things like justice and mercy, reconciliation and walking humbly with God and each other?

This has laid the foundation for me to think about my Rule of Life in a very different way - which, I suspect, was Pui-Lan's intention in the first place.

It's like that old commercial about your brain on drugs. This time, it's 'This is your brain. This is your brain on prayer'.

Which will you choose?


Kirkepiscatoid said...

You just KNEW this post would attract my attention, didn't you, Elizabeth?????

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Absolutely, Kirke. You'd love this course, but especially this segment. I can't wait to get to class tomorrow to hear what Pui Lan has to say as well as the responses from my classmates, who are simply brilliant. I learn as much from them as I do the readings. Great stuff.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Oh, man...I wish I could be a fly on the wall!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Me, too. Srsly. You'd LOVE it here.

wdg_pgh said...

Another interesting book is Mystically Wired: Exploring New Realms In Prayer by Ken Wilson. It is particularly interesting in that it gives a perspective of contemplative prayer from someone of an evangelical Protestant background, whereas the modern reemergence of contemplative spirituality has generally been associated with the more Catholic strains of Christianity.

Doug Warn said...

Terrific posting.

A collorary: I've worked with people who struggle with mental illness and addiction for nearly 25 years, and have found, again and again, that a critical key to recovery is helping facilitate a process where the client moves from the isolation of left brain living to communal right brain living. Helping the client become grounded in a mindful, here-and-now therapeutic relationship, practicing meditation, and prayer (they are really all the same thing) are paths to regaining right brain function and living. Thanks for sharing!

Bex said...

I read Barbara Bradley Haggerty's "Fingerprints of God" last year. It's an overview of the kind of research that's more comprehensively treated in the the books you mentioned. I thought it was a good introduction to the subject.

Kwok Pui Lan said...

I am glad that you post has attracted comments from your friends and other suggestions of books and resources. This is a new topic for me, and I became very interested in the discussion of the elasticity of the brain. The programming of Watson makes us aware that how multifaceted and complicated our brain really is. Artificial intelligence pushes us to think what is human.

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