Most forms of religion, mysticism, spirituality, and philosophizing have a big drawback: they're wildly out of touch with reality.
Of course, for those who don't care about living a truthful life, imagining an illusory world where Jesus saves, a guru enlightens, karma bites you in the butt during your next incarnation, or whatever, can be appealing -- since a believer can substitute warm and fuzzy concepts for whatever hard realities he or she wishes to deny.
Those of us who are committed to experiencing life as honestly as possible have our own sources of solace, though. Since I'm a long-time meditator (over forty years) I was encouraged to read "How Meditation May Change the Brain" in today's New York Times.
The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.
M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.
What kind of meditation produced these benefits? Focusing on the here-and-now, not the there-and-then that is the Promised Land of religions and other sorts of other-worldly paths.
Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, said the participants practiced mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s. It traces its roots to the same ancient Buddhist techniques that my husband follows.
“The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations,” she said. “But it’s about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift.”
Now, it might seem that focusing on thoughts or emotions in mindfulness meditation isn't much different from contemplating God, heaven, spirit, or some other supernatural concept in a religious practice.
But here's the difference: mindfulness involves being aware of the distinction between what mental flotsam and jetsam is floating through our psyches, and what is actually out there in the world.
Sure, its possible to argue about what "actually out there" means. I'm not claiming that reality is solidly objective, with no inputs from subjective human cognition affecting our understanding of the cosmos. Clearly this isn't true.
My point is along the lines of what I see Hubert Benoit talking about, as described in my previous post. There is clear and present awareness of the present moment (Benoit's open door), and also there is our imagining, conceptualizing, abstracting, and fantasizing of what life is all about (Benoit's bars on the window).
Each has its place, the open door and barred window. We just should know the difference between them, not mistaking one for the other. Likewise, philosophical linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say in their book "Philosophy in the Flesh:"
We experience only the present. We have to conceptualize past and future.
Winifred Gallagher elaborates on this important fact of human awareness in her own book, "Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life," which I'm reading and enjoying. She speaks of the distinction between what we experience in the here and now, and what we remember about those experiences.
(Religiosity, of course, goes even further into Nowhere Land, because believers don't have actual experiences of the supernatural, only fantasies about what divine delights await them.)
How you decide to spend your time and make other choices that affect your quality of life is closely bound up with attention, which "governs how people think about well-being," [Daniel] Kahneman says, "and also governs the experience." To illustrate, he points out two ways in which focusing on the wrong thing can skew your choices about how best to live.
First, there's a gap between your real life and the stories you tell yourself about it, and you're apt to fixate on the latter. Stressing the importance of this divide, Kahneman says, "Attention both to what you choose to experience and what you choose to think about it is at the very core of how I approach questions of well-being." He traces this disconnect between reality and your thoughts about it to two different selves that pay attention to different kinds of things.
Your hands-on "experiencing self," which concentrates on just plain being in the here and now, is absorbed in whatever is going on and how you feel about it without much analysis. Your evaluative "remembering self," however looks back on an experience, focuses on its emotional high points and outcomes, then formulates thoughts about it, not always accurately.
...The key to understanding why you pay more attention to your thoughts about living than to life itself is neatly summed up by what Kahneman proudly calls his "fortune cookie maxim" (a.k.a. the focusing illusion): "Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it." Why? "Because you're thinking about it!"
If you want to better understand the distinction between our experiencing self, and our remembering self, including how happiness is related to these aspects of us, spend twenty minutes watching a TED video of Kaneman explaining this stuff.
I found it most interesting.