Science and the Spirit
The intersection of neuroscience and spirituality seems preposterous to some. Generations have passed between the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment period and the present day, each passing decade seeming to garner more followers of scientific determinism: the idea that we are no more than constellations of atoms that behave in predictable and unchanging ways.
According to such fundamentalists, belief in any power greater than the self—or rather the decaying mass of cells we happen to call the self—is incompatible with our discoveries in the areas of consciousness, evolution, genetics, and even physics. A growing camp of scientists, however, are beginning to more fully understand the detriments of subscribing to any sort of extreme fundamentalism, whether it be political, religious, or scientific. By closing the door on other perspectives, we limit our view of the world. Simply put, we cannot learn if we are not willing to see.
Interdisciplinary scientific research has allowed us to observe that the biological processes of the human body do not occur in isolation. Whether we are discussing disease, development, or reproduction, we now acknowledge the importance of extrinsic factors—such as environment and social status, among others—in shaping the course of our physical existence. Throwing the human brain into the mix complicates the matter.
We move beyond the idea that these biological processes are linear and unidirectional. We come to the conclusion, after having first traveled so far in the opposite direction, that everything seems to be connected to everything else, and the flow of information progresses along the threads of a complicated spider web in which every point of intersection can be influenced by every other point.
If this sounds familiar, don’t worry. We’re still talking about science here. And so much more. We’re talking about existence itself. (But as a scientist, I have to admit that I am biased toward the opinion that they are one and the same.)
Spirituality seems to be a universal construct in societies across the globe. Indeed, research has indicated that we may be predisposed as a species to believe in something greater than ourselves. Note, however, that spirituality exists apart from any specific religion to which one might subscribe. I mean to discuss spirituality as a philosophy—a way of seeing and interacting with the world around us—without delving into the religious doctrine or practices of any particular group
Spirituality is then the filter through which we come to process our reality, and much of what we have learned from research into cognition, mindfulness, and meditation presents us with an interesting twist: Spirituality in this context may involve conscious effort to avoid the kind of consciousness we have evolved to experience.
Flourishing with Mindfulness
Buddhism is a term well-known to the Western world, yet few understand it as separate from the myriad religious traditions that have existed across time and across the globe. Buddhism itself is not a religion but a collection of truths and principles meant to guide us on our journey throughout life. You do not convert to Buddhism from the religion into which you were born. You adopt the principles as part of your own personal spiritual experience.
The four noble truths of Buddhism do indeed have a connection to modern neuroscience. Mindfulness itself is a key component of one of these truths. In Buddhism, it is the key to unlocking the path to what is known as nirvana (an absence of worldly desire). In the burgeoning field of positive psychology, it is the key to unlocking the path to a state of flourishing.
The four noble truths of Buddhism are so simple that their profundity is exceedingly complex, requiring a lifetime of dedication to understanding them. Fortunately, that is exactly how much time we are given.
The truths can be summed up as follows: If you are alive, you will suffer. The cause of that suffering is attachment. But, as it turns out, you can end suffering. Mindfulness is one of eight components specifically mentioned that can help us to end our suffering. As far as affective, cognitive, and social neuroscience are concerned, Buddhism pretty much has it right.
As we begin to practice mindfulness in our daily lives, we come to understand that suffering is a part of human existence—that no person can be happy one hundred percent of the time. Such an expectation only leads to further suffering. We come to understand that all things shall pass, whether positive or negative in our eyes, since they and we ourselves are part of an ever-changing reality we may never fully know.
We end our suffering by becoming more aware that the world is filtered through a lens whose focus is constantly changing. Through mindfulness, we become aware of the constant flux. We may even begin to experience the peace that comes with simply existing in that state of flux without complex cognitive processing. This is the scientific reality of the concept of nirvana, research on the lasting mental and physical health benefits of which becomes more abundant each passing year. Again, in beautiful synergy, the change—the progress—is constant.