Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Neuroscience & Spirituality Interfaith Retreat

Marin Interfaith Council presented another retreat, this one on the topic of neuroscience and spirituality.  Well, I consider myself to be a spiritual person, in the sense of having an awareness of other dimensions and respect for those who seek to align their mundane lives with the Greater (for want of a better word).  Further, although I’m not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination, I believe in science and the scientific method of theorizing, experimentation, and being able to prove a fact by achieving the same result each time the experiment is performed.  So many times in talks about Paganism, Craft in particular, I have declared that we Witches have no quarrel with science, that science does not contradict any of our theology or praxis.  Hence, I was drawn to attend this retreat.

As is customary at these retreats, there were two presenters representing two different perspectives.  Usually the two presenters are representatives (usually clergy) from two different religions, but this time religious affiliation or denomination was irrelevant.

The neuroscientist, Linda Graham, told us that the study is only about twenty years old, brand spanking new as sciences go.  This means that most discoveries are very recent and have not yet been dispersed into society at large or the public mind.  She’s doing her part, however, to educate people about neuroscience and how we can understand and employ what we know of it in our lives, by way of her book, Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being. 

The other presenter, David Richo, although brought up Roman Catholic and seminary-educated, left the priesthood to marry, and thereafter became a psychotherapist and workshop leader, mostly at Buddhist and New Age venues.

We opened the session with a prayer of sorts:

May I show all the live I have
In any way I can
Here, now, and all the time,
To everything and everyone,
            including me,
Since love is what we are
            --and why.
Now nothing matters more
Or gives me greater joy.

            ~ davericho.com

They divided the day into three sessions, beginning with the topic of “More.”  Dave spoke of More as reaching in two directions.  On the one hand, More implies “beyond, more than meets the eye,” which is transcendental.  On the mundane hand, More includes what does meet the eye, the immanent.

Throughout the day each presenter amplified what the other was saying by adding his/her own commentary.  Linda in particular explained some of the ideas and phenomena we were looking at in terms of what happens in the brain.

Dave said the obvious, that most religions were more focused on the transcendental, yet some include both perspectives: transcendence and immanence.  We Witches often speak of our religion as being one of immanence, in the sense that we perceive the divine (or the Goddess) in everyone and everything and we consider life as sacred, yet in reality we also seek access to the transcendent, so I consider our religions, at least my personal version,[1] as encompassing both.

According the neuroscience, Linda explained, until recent years, behavioral scientists and medicine thought that by the time a child reached about age 6, her brain was fully formed and mature.  Now we know that this is not the case.  The brain is not fully grown until about age 25. 

The right hemisphere of the brain is connected to the lower brain.  As the right hemisphere is concerned with survival, it develops before the left side does.  There is a part of the brain[2] that connects the left and right lobes to each other, which allows for integration of the states and understandings of each lobe.  This section is thicker in women’s brains, which may account for the generally more relational and holistic nature of women’s understandings.[3]

My fragmented notes indicate that when the transcendental and the immanent combine, evolution results.  On the “more-beyond what meets the eye” level, evolution takes place on a planetary level; on the “more-mundane” level, evolution happens on the individual level.

Meditation creates the conditions for revelation. Throughout the day we were led in various meditative exercises.

Grace (1) is a gift not based on merit or effort; (2) comes from a source beyond ego; and (3) is something to the benefit of ourselves and others.  Grief can be a portal to Grace.

Gratitude goes with grace.  Again according to Linda, we humans are hard-wired to notice the negative; we developed a negativity bias for survival.  The left hemisphere of the brain, the later-developing side, keeps us more open to experiences, and is stimulated by positive practices.  Thus, when we practice and cultivate gratitude or kindness, we tend to live longer.

We did a brief exercise contemplating what and whom we were grateful for.  The primary subjects of my gratitude are my close family, of course (Deirdre, Corby, Ian) as well as several other close friends (Steven, Sparky, Kitty, Summer, who are among those still living, plus some who are gone: Christy, Sequoia, Bone Blossom, Judy Foster, at al.)  I’m also grateful for generally good health, a solid education, and for a reasonably stable childhood in a family that’s only minimally dysfunctional.[4] 

One thing for which I’m grateful that I hadn’t actually articulated in my thinking prior to the meditation, but I can now say that I’m surprisingly grateful for, is having been reared in a family with a mixed heritage.  Not drastically mixed, but enough so that no one from either of my parents’ families deigned to attend their wedding.  Perhaps this situation laid the foundation for my later inter- and multi-faith engagements.  The mixture was enough to allay a monolithic approach to life and religion.

Further, the brain is a social organism, thus we learn better with others.  When we learn with others, we suppress our fear mechanisms and minimize anxiety.  The right hemisphere processes emotion.  Working with others increases our relational intelligence and our emotional intelligence.

Linda also mentioned a phenomenon known as “primitive emotional contagion,” when we take on the “vibe,” if you will, the atmosphere of a group activity, and begin to share our experiences together.  If I’m understanding this concept correctly, it seems similar to the entrainment that arises among drummers.

Release in our brains of the hormone oxytocin creates a sense of safety, trust and wellbeing.  We can restore our sense of equilibrium and calm ourselves from panic attacks if we do things that release oxytocin. Touch and hugs release oxytocin in the brain.  So do remembrances of people, places and times when we felt safe and trusting. During labor, a woman’s body floods with oxytocin; and if it’s slow in coming, oxytocin is what’s given to pregnant women to hasten delivery.[5]

We did not discuss this in the retreat, or at least I don’t remember and didn’t note that we did, but I would add that interactions with pets also produce similar feelings of wellbeing.  In my case, petting my cats and feeling the vibration of their purring is an activity that I find soothing.

Finally, we looked at the notion of having a Sense of Accompaniment.  We thrive when we have companions, assistants, fellow questers.  We may also encounter individuals who present obstacles to our journey.  I definitely identify with the benefit of having companions on our journeys.  I know that my own seeking has been greatly facilitated, enriched, and blessed when I’ve done it with others.[6]  On a mundane level, I can work out harder and longer in an exercise class full of women hooting and yelling from the release of endorphins than I can when working out alone.

One participant brought to our attention a Jewish proverb:  “Love and mercy, justice and discernment, meet in the heart.”

Dave has an amazing memory for poetry.  He spontaneously recited poems and pithy quotes throughout the day, as appropriate.  I managed to capture two towards the end of the day --  From James Baldwin: “The moment we cease to hold each other, … the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”

All in all, I loved this retreat.  I learned a lot.  I felt accepted, respected, and appreciated.  And now I can draw upon what I learned as I go forward in life.

[1]  And in the end, isn’t all religious experience personal, even when sharing the same experience in a group?  It’s each of our own personal experiences from which we draw insights and comfort, understanding and perspective.

[2]   Sorry, scientific name not noted, but can be found in Linda’s book, Bouncing Back.

[3]   No need to take issue with me on this matter, since I’m not a scientist and I’m only repeating a fact as I understand it from someone who is.

[4]   Idiosyncratic might be a kinder descriptor. 

[5]   This last little tidbit was not mentioned at the retreat; it’s something I know from being a mother, from attending childbirths, and from coaching women in labor. 

[6]   I miss meeting in a coven.