Free the Mind: Meditation and PTSD

I saw the documentary Free the Mind this evening. It’s a profile of Richard Davidson’s research into “contemplative neuroscience.” I heard Davidson speak last fall on many of the topics addressed by the film. In that talk, Davidson claimed that even relatively brief training in meditation can help to change the brain in positive ways. Although I am convinced of the benefits of meditation (whether or not I practice myself) I found that particular claim a bit farfetched.

The documentary profiles a study of vets with PTSD. Working intensively over a seven-day period, the researchers were able to quantify the benefits. Several of the participants in the study were at the showing tonight and answered questions from the audience. For example, one participant said that while participating in the study, he didn’t need sleep medication and all of them continued to see benefits in their lives from meditation.

In 2011 and 2012, Grace provided space for a related study that sought to use meditation to help stop smoking.

For more on the movie:

The organization is also involved in these efforts to deal with PTSD.

The film is showing at Sundance and is well worth seeing.

Atheism and Belief: Some recent articles

A couple of weeks ago, the Sunday Times had a profile of Jerry DeWitt, a Pentecostal pastor in Louisiana who “came out” as an atheist. It’s a sensitive profile of a sensitive man and I couldn’t help wondering if DeWitt’s spiritual journey turned out the way it did because he was doing it on his own. He never attended college but clearly is bright, thoughtful, and wanted to make sense of his faith. Unfortunately, there weren’t mentors who could help him along the line and when his doubts got the better of him, he ended up jettisoning all of Christianity. I was particularly taken by this paragraph:

Afterward, we met with the church’s founding pastor in an elegantly appointed office adjoining the main auditorium. He was a 79-year-old man named George Glass, with a wrinkled face and a magnificent deep voice full of warmth and gravitas. He hugged us both as we came in, chiding DeWitt for having stayed away for so long. We sat down, and over the course of an hour, he spoke movingly about his own struggles as a younger man, when he lost his first ministry and had to start from scratch. He reassured DeWitt that he understood his doubts and did not think any less of him. As we said our goodbyes at the door, Glass spoke again in his slow, Southern cadence, fixing DeWitt with his gaze. “The thing of it is,” he said, and we all waited as he allowed a weighty pause to fill the air — “you’ve just got to keep your mouth shut.”

As if keeping one’s mouth shut can keep the doubts away.

The article points out the growing network of atheist organizations, including the Clergy Project which seeks to help clergy who no longer believe. This communal aspect of atheism is called into question by Andrew Brown, who writes in The Guardian that atheism is impossible as an organizing force because of its individualism:

If I’m right, then liberal, individualistic atheism is impossible as an organising principle of society because any doctrine that actually works to hold society together is indistinguishable from a religion. It needs its rituals and it needs its myths. A philosophy will grow around it in due course. Now perhaps you can have, at least on a small scale, a society committed to the principles of rational and tolerant disagreement and the sovereignty of reason.

Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and himself on a journey away from traditional Christianity, reviews Francis Spufford’s recent book (a previous post on it is here) and has this to say:

He is also good at describing what it feels like to sit silently in front of the resonant absence and feel beckoned beyond it. This is not a book about religious theory; it is a record of religious experience. Like the rest of us, he doesn’t know if there is a god. “And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone. It not being a knowable item. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if he’s there, to dare the conditionality.” His book itself is an act of daring, a message from the frontline of an old and bruising war.

Thomas Nagel reviews Alvin Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. The heart of Plantinga’s argument seems to be here:

Plantinga discusses many topics in the course of the book, but his most important claims are epistemological. He holds, first, that the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do describe reality. He holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating. However, Plantinga thinks we can reasonably believe that we are the products of evolution provided that we also believe, contrary to naturalism, that the process was in some way guided by God.

Nagel concludes:

Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.

I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.

The Scientific Study of Religion

Tom Bartlett explores the “new science of Religion” discussing the New Atheists and those, like David Sloan Wilson (Darwin’s Cathedral) who try to explain Religion’s origins scientifically and especially through Evolution.

Bartlett begins with the question whether religion has been a force for good or evil. The new atheists assert its malevolent influence in human culture, while Wilson and others attempt to prove the opposite.

One of the authors cited by Bartlett, Scott Atran, disproves the widely-held belief that religion has been responsible for most wars in human history:

Moreover, the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored “God and War” audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Atran is especially critical of those scientists like Dawkins and Dennett who try to argue religion away:

In an age where religious and sacred causes are resurgent, there is urgent need for scientific effort to understand them. Now that humankind has acquired through science the power to destroy itself with nuclear weapons, we cannot afford to let science ignore religion and the sacred, or let scientists simply try to reason them away. Policymakers should leverage scientific understanding of what makes religion so potent a force for both cooperation and conflict, to help increase the one and lessen the other.

Embodied faith

One of the fascinating questions for theologians and scientists is the relationship between our brains and religious experience or religious faith. The underlying question goes back at least to Descartes (you know, cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”). But, in fact, the question lies at the heart of Christian anthropology, the relationship of body and soul. Whatever the traditional understanding of that relationship, it is profoundly challenged by contemporary neuroscience and philosophy.

Mark Vernon points to the problem:

A diverse group of philosophers and scientists are now arguing that the dominant 20th-century view of cognition, as a capacity of brains or minds, is inadequate. The alternative is often called embodied cognition. It examines the evidence that our bodies play a vital role in how we engage with the world. According to this view, bodies are not just life-support systems for the brain or sources of sensory inputs. Rather, bodies are integral to human thought.

The implication is clear. If bodies are integral to human thought, they are also integral to our religious lives.

He concludes:

if a religious sensibility needs an embodied foundation, this would explain why spiritual directors advise individuals to make pilgrimages, to experience liturgies and rituals, and to discipline and pattern their lives. These are activities that are about letting go, which is also a letting in. Something opens up to a new experience of life. Illumination is gained. Faith known first in the body may be the result.

Vernon is writing in response to a  series of posts by Julian Baggini, “Heathen’s Progress.” Baggini responds directly to Vernon’s views in another post, “The modern believer is not suspicious enough:”

A persistent pain is a pretty good indicator of the presence of bodily damage; the feeling that you have been touched by the Holy Spirit is only a good indicator that you have had a generic religious experience, shared by many the world over, and you have interpreted it according to the narratives and belief systems familiar to you.

Wherever one stands on this issue, and to the extent that every thought, including a religious idea or experience, is in some sense embodied (at the very least it is the product, in some sense, of neural activity), religious faith, or experience, is embodied.

But this raises another question: “Why might our minds be better suited to religion than science?”

Religion involves cognitive representations and cognitive processing that come naturally to human minds, while science traffics in radically counterintuitive representations and in forms of cognitive processing whose acquisition and mastery require disciplined reflective activity across many years of formal education.

For me, among the intriguing questions, apart from the theological and scientific questions, is the significance of all this for contemporary Christianity. We are seeing radical change in the nature of Christian community, with the decline in attendance and membership in mainline denominations and the rise of social media. What does embodied faith look like for young adults who connect via texting or facebook but may not attend services? Even more important, given the importance of embodiment in Christianity, the incarnation, the notion of the community as the body of Christ, embodied practices from the Eucharist to shared outreach, how do we make the connections with the bodies that shape and are shaped by belief?

They didn’t ask me!

Results of a survey done by the Southern Baptist Convention:

When asked if “God used evolution to create people,” 73% of pastors disagreed – 64% said they strongly disagreed – compared to 12% who said they agree.

Asked whether the earth is approximately 6,000 years old, 46% agreed, compared to 43% who disagreed.

Scary stuff!

The effects of meditation–on the mind and on the self

A new study on the effects of meditation may explain why it helps improve focus and minimize pain.

Mark Vernon explores meditation in a different way, writing about his experience of Buddhist meditation on retreat:

But I became increasingly struck by how myself and my fellow retreatants placed one concern above all others: ourselves. We were there to attend to our own wellbeing. The practice was presented as a kind of self-administered therapy for the soul. There was an occasional ‘metta’ meditation, to develop an attitude of loving-kindness towards others. But the task was basically to observe yourself, and that set up a dynamic with which I grew increasingly uncomfortable – one of self-absorption and self-obsession.

He concludes:

Western Buddhism offers a model of the self that is, in fact, complicit with modern individualism. Christianity, though, can claim to be radically different. Its discovery is that we are who we are in relationship, with others and with God. To be human is to be the creature for whom our own existence is too small for us. That, it seems to me, is both true and avoids the narcissism and the nihilism with which western Buddhism flirts.