The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
. . . still studying and learning how to live

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Saturday, January 29, 2011
Brain / Mind ... Religion ...

One of the main tenants of Buddhism is that the self, along with our sense of self-awareness and our ego, is overrated. Buddhism teaches “annata”, the concept of “no-self”. We are earthly beings subject to perpetual change, and therefore there is nothing fundamental and unchanging within us, no matter how deeply you look within. Thus, we do not have a soul or a true essence unique to our own individual identity. We are just chaff blowing around in the wind.

Another key tenant of Buddhism is the importance of regular meditation, so as to realize the deeper truths (including the “fact” that our lives and selves are ultimately an illusion). Interestingly, there is a recent study on the effects of meditation on the human brain, that indicates this to be a bit paradoxical. The NY Times said of this study:

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.

More precisely, the study abstract in Psychiatry Journal states:

Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group [group that meditated regularly] compared with the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

So, it seems pretty clear that these researchers are saying that regular meditation beefs-up the areas of the brain where we form our self concepts, along with other things. Meditation would thus be expected to bolster our inner feelings of uniqueness and substance, making annata that much harder to accept.

Makes sense to me. I come out of meditation (on good days anyway) more aware of the miracle of my life and my being, more thankful for the gifts of consciousness and self-awareness. In regard to self-being, I believe that Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Hindus have the better view (even if I’m not completely sure that we possess eternal souls that will be reunited with their cosmic creator in the fullness of time). But Buddhism still says a lot of things that do make sense, that the other world religions (and Buddhism IS a religion, despite assertions by westerners who embrace it on their own secular-liberal terms) don’t capture. I think that the “religious buffet” idea is ultimately a good one — take a look at what all of them have to offer (including atheism / secular humanism, which again is ultimately a religion), and pick and choose the best of each. Just don’t pig out!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:18 pm      

  1. Jim, I guess all religions have their own contradictions.

    I do find it wonderful that meditation is doing such good things for you. I agree: Take what is good for you and leave the rest. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 31, 2011 @ 7:07 am

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