I don't believe in God.
Yet I also don't know that God doesn't exist. I just see no compelling evidence for God. So, like space aliens, I choose not to believe in something about which rumors abound without demonstrable proof of them being true.
I do believe in the value of meditation.
I've meditated almost every morning since I was twenty years old. Given that I'm sixty-one now, meditation has been part of my daily activity for two-thirds of my life. I enjoyed meditating when I was churched, and I still enjoy it in my churchless phase.
A book that I'm reading by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman helps explain why. Though it might seem from the title that "How God Changes Your Brain," would have a religious slant, actually it has a very different focus.
Contemplating God will change your brain, but I want to point out that meditating on other grand themes will also change your brain. If you contemplate the Big Bang, or immerse yourself in the study of evolution -- or choose to play a musical instrument, for that matter -- you'll change the neural circuitry in ways that enhance your cognitive health.
But religious and spiritual contemplation changes your brain in a profoundly different way because it strengthens a unique neural circuit that specifically enhances social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions. This is precisely the kind of neural change we need to make if we want to solve the conflicts that currently afflict our world.
And the underlying mechanism that allows these changes to occur relates to a unique quality known as neuroplasticity: the ability of the human brain to structurally rearrange itself in response to a wide variety of positive and negative events.
So with meditation, notions of God or any other supernatural entity are entirely optional.
Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics happily meditate away -- just as I do -- without bringing God into either the foreground or background of their contemplative practice. In the chapters I've read so far, Newberg and Waldman offer up numerous examples of this, including a guy who learned Kirtan Kriya meditation.
Gus had never meditated, and he wasn't interested in religion. He just wanted his faltering brain to function better. Gus was a relatively large man, a bit rough around the edges, but very pleasant. He seemed more like a plumber you'd meet on a construction site -- you know, someone who was likely to zone out in front of the television with a couple of beers by his side.
Nonetheless, Gus took to this practice, which Newberg had him do for twelve minutes a day.
Before and after brain scans showed that after just eight weeks there were noticeable changes in Gus' anterior cingulate, "a structure that is involved with emotional regulation, learning, and memory, and is particularly vulnerable to the aging process."
When I read that, I decided to give Kirtan Kriya a try. The book said that it involves chanting "sa ta na ma" either audibly or silently while performing a mudra with your fingers.
Detailed instructions are given on an Alzheimer's prevention web site. A much more religious'y explanation is offered up on this You Tube video by a Sikh-looking Westerner. I dutifully watched the whole ten minutes, but found his style unduly reminiscent of a holier-than-thou guru.
Anyway, for a few days I did twenty minutes of Kirtan Kriya (barely audible or silent version) during my morning meditation period. I liked it.
Having to simultaneously focus on moving my fingers in concert with the "sa ta na ma" (which must refer to sat nam, a central Sikh concept) seemed to bring my body and mind into closer than usual connection.
I'm sure that Gus didn't view "sa ta na ma" as having any meaning -- which those sounds do to religiously minded Kirtan Kriya practitioners. But they don't have to. And the benefit of exercising the brain in a certain way will be about the same (or exactly the same) whether or not one has a spiritual goal in mind.
Later in the book -- I peeked ahead -- Newberg and Waldman say that it's absolutely fine for someone to make up his or her own meditative practice, silently or audibly repeating any word or words that are meaningful, positive, and pleasant to the individual.
No God required.
If you custom design your own memory-enhancing program, you'll show even greater improvement, along with an increased willingness to practice. So why not apply this strategy and create a personalized memory-enhancement meditation?
The key elements are simple.
Maintain a state of relaxed awareness, regulate your breathing, and peform a simple or complex movement with any part of your body. As you do this, sing, chant, or silently repeat a sound or phrase that has personal meaning, and practice for at least twelve minutes each day.
And don't forget the most important step: Be clear about the goal you wish to reach. Make the meditation as simple or as complex as you like, and feel free to vary it from week to week.
However, the more complex your meditation becomes, and the longer you do it, the more you will strengthen the neural circuits that tend to deteriorate with age.