The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Brain / Mind ... Religion ... Zen ...

This is going to be one of those schizophrenic essays, where it is time to speak of many things: ships, shoes and sealing wax, walruses, etc. But actually, I want to start out with something about brain activity during meditation, and then talk about why I finally understand atheists (a little better, anyway). Just in time for the holidays! (Well, a little late for Hanukkah, admittedly . . . )

So, first off – meditation. There was an interesting article in the November 2014 issue of Scientific American about “The Mind of the Meditator”. The article was something of a puff-job about the many psycho-physical benefits of meditation. It cites all sorts of positive effects in the brain and with behavior; but despite the alleged focus of SciAm on hard science, the authors forgot to ponder which way the lines of causation were running here.

I.e., were these benefits the RESULT of the meditation practice, or did they help allow the meditator to meditate? The unsaid presumption behind the article seems to be that anyone can practice meditation and everyone should. But life is usually more complicated than what most “should” statements assume; some people just might not be able to sit in silence and focus their minds on a mantra or count their breath for 30 minutes to an hour everyday. And psychological and genetic factors may well have something to do with that. Strange that SciAm just let that slide.

But an interesting factoid about meditation that I gained from the article regards the specific form that Zen meditators are advised to use, i.e. counting the breath. In a nutshell, “the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex continues to retain a high level of activity as the meditator’s attention remains directed toward an object such as the breath” (see p. 42). Hmmm . . . so, to be a true Zennie, you’ve got to keep your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex revved up. I’ve heard Zen teachers say that meditation causes the mind to be stilled, akin to a lake where the winds subside and the surface of the water becomes clear and transparent. The implication being that you will be able to see inside your head, figure yourself out, and thus become a better person. But if your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex keeps humming away, isn’t that like floating on the lake in a boat with its motor running? How are you going to have such wonderful self-revelations when a fairly big chunk of your thinking brain is working on keeping you focused? (See the brain drawings on page 41 of the SciAm article).

Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been such a big fan of counting the breath when I sit. But hey, if it works for other people, then who am I to say? Everyone deals with their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex differently.

OK, now on to atheists and whatever I do or don’t understand about them. There’s an article in the December Atlantic entitled “Why God Will Not Die”, written by an English Professor named Jack Miles. The title of the article would make you believe that atheism gets the short end of the stick from Professor Miles. However, God really doesn’t get much play in his article. The main point is that “humans seek closure” on the existential level. Many, if not most of us, need to settle up with ourselves about “what it’s all about”. For many people, that means maintaining a religious belief in God, taking up the creeds chanted and repeated by the faithful, wherein a great book or a great prophet or a great revelation explains it all. Obviously, lots of people just don’t like existential uncertainty.

Admittedly, in modern times there are more and more “agnostic” fence-sitters. Where disease and famine seem under control and you can live 60 or 70 good years without daily reminders that death is all around you (very different from what life must have been like before say 1700, or maybe still is like in places like western Africa), it becomes easier to get by without taking a stand on this, on pushing the ultimate decision off as to what to hope or not hope for in the future. Still, a lot of people do feel the need to decide. And let’s face it, deciding upon God is not for everyone. So, for those who don’t want to sit on the fence but just don’t like what the religionists are selling, fervent atheism becomes the answer.

Ah, so now it makes more sense to me! Atheism just never seemed like my cup of tea; why give up all hope of a better after-life when it isn’t strictly necessary based on the earthly facts? Those facts really don’t point one way or another on ultimate questions like this. Why not look at the bright side; nothing guarantees that a better after-life is going to happen; sure, it might all just be a figment of wishful thinking. But nothing entirely precludes it either. Why not then see the glass as half-full?

Yes, I’ve heard the argument that it’s better to focus one’s hopes, dreams and energies on making this world a paradise instead of hoping for an after-life paradise; but there’s something about this world that just seems paradise-proof, despite humanity’s best intentions. And when humanity’s worst intentions kick-in, look out. More to the point, I’ve also heard that some people fear that God will turn out to be the ultimate sadist, and that any afterlife might be a living hell. For them, buying closure against this possibility by joining up with the radical atheists is the best means to get some comfort.

It seems that most people just don’t like half-full glasses. As Professor Miles points out, the need for closure is very powerful with humans. His ultimate point appears to be that atheists shouldn’t get down on religious people, and religious people should be a lot more understanding of atheists. He says that our common need for closure should make religious pluralists of all of us. Believers and non-believers should recognize that they both share this deep need for closure. I.e., they aren’t as dis-alike as it seems on the face of it.

OK, well . . . sounds good to me! Personally, I’m willing to keep sitting on the fence for now. I very much hope that the theistic religions (well, the nicer ones anyway) are correct in that there is a God, that God is ultimately about love, and that such love ultimately involves an afterlife available to all of us. But I know that it can’t be proven, and thus I understand humankind to be living in something akin to a quantum mechanics paradox. For now, hope but not closure is good enough for me.

However, as to Professor Miles and the rest of the world . . . if you all need closure, well, then everyone should try to be nice about it. The people who say that you are completely wrong in believing or denying God are saying this for sub-conscious reasons very similar to your own; why not respect that. And even if I’m not similar to either believers or atheists in that respect, I’m willing to be nice too.

But despite my niceness, I really don’t want to hear about miracles (I remember a religious young woman at work who told me not long ago about some candle that no one could blow out . . . I’m not in the mood for virgin births either, bah humbug!). Neither do I want to discuss teapots in space or creators in need of creators. Both are forms of limited thinking, whereas I prefer to look at the bigger questions, e.g. like why does anything exist at all. There ain’t no easy or simple answers to such questions . . . there may not be any answers at all. So please, don’t try to throw any half-baked answers at me.

Hey, I’m schitzo enough right now, after trying to digest questions about meditation and belief in and against God, all in one little blog entry! But nonetheless, I wish everyone peace on earth and goodwill towards men (OK, sorry for the sexism). And to all, a good night . . . atheist, believer, or anywhere in between.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:27 pm      

  1. Jim, I have some diverse comments to make that might not make too much sense, but what else is the case with me? First, this seems like a good essay on your tho’ts regarding Zen meditation (which seems to me to contain some TM and some other types of meditation too. I can’t remember a lot of the various types of meditation that have come up over the years; I just forget—or maybe store something else in its place and thus forget.)

    I have noticed for several decades now (I started noticing when the Beatles went to wherever it was to see the Guru about Transendental Meditation) that science has a way of taking something spiritual that people tend to “go for” and doing research on it and then saying, well, it’s not really spiritual; it’s the brain doing this or that. (What I remember of the Beatles’ situation was that soon after they became enamored of TM and somebody wrote a book on TM [can’t remember the order of these], Harvard did a study to show that anybody sitting quietly could achieve the same results.) They’ve done the same thing regarding other topics over the years; and here they are doing it again, yet, still with the SciAm article on “The Mind of the Meditator”.

    I totally agree with you that there are some people who just simply may not be able to meditate; I’ve known one or two (maybe three). But that does not mean they don’t have their own way of doing the same thing; it seems to take a different form.

    (I have to add tangentially that, when it comes to me, put a “should” in a statement and it is sure to trigger a “No, I won’t” from me—referring to your comment that science implies a “should” or not. Perhaps that’s why I have difficulty with science so often, too many “shoulds”, similar to another religion with all the “shoulds”.)

    As to “God not dying”: Well, I admit this is my poor idea, but I tend to think that there are some individuals who 100% *need* a structure when it comes to almost anything in their lives. They need this structure for one reason than that it often gives them something to give them strength to deal with the vagaries of life; others need for a different reason: they have something more or less “real” to rebel against. Depriving them of the structure needed in life may be a serious mistake. (Come to think of it, almost everybody has some structure, even if it’s Science.)

    As to hell: I’ve often tho’t that I surely hope there is not one in whatever the next life will be as this life has more than enough hell; we can do without hell in the next life. Virgin births seem to me to be an insult to women in general. Why must a woman be a virgin to be holy? Makes no sense to me. So, we agree!

    Then there are the various visions of Jesus or Mary that appear on toast or in the water dripping on the wall of a viaduct (both recent ones I remember from the last few years), similar to the “candle that couldn’t be blown out”. Again, while these make little sense to me as they also seem to make little sense to you, still for the individuals who need/want to believe in those things, it gives them something ideologically? spiritually? internally? (one or all of those and maybe a lot more) to hold on to in a world that’s often a “who could imagine that would happen in an instant/a few days”, etc., that is, a world very unstable that can rock one’s boat and change everything about life in a flash.

    As to Christmas this year, I just have to add that I’ve become just so sick of hearing about the commercialism of the season. Frankly, I’d be all for canceling Christmas with the way it’s been handled this year. Maybe I’m reading it wrong. Maybe Commercialism has become the “new spiritual (in its way) approach to life”. Stores starting “Black Friday” just before Halloween, having “Super Saturdays” (talk about making up something to get people to spend money!), an endless competition for getting people’s money and strangely enough it seems that it’s become an endless pitch to the “little guys” to give the “big guys” their money. Seems almost like the way the big religions have become — putting the guys with the power in charge of everybody else and issuing “shoulds”. But I digress.

    I agree 100% again with your saying that we really need to “wish everyone peace on earth and good will towards {hu}men{s}” and even all the creatures on the earth. That I’m up for in a big way. And a few other unspoken ideas of my own. MCS
    P.S.: The minute I saw the content of your post, I tho’t of the comic Frazz today (be sure you get the one for Dec. 24, 2014): It would seem that even kids have a tendency to wonder the same things you do. So I just had to include that. No disrespect here, only a compliment to the honest thinkers in this world; you are probably in good company if the kids can figure this out. Merry Christmas. M

    [MARY — it’s OK not to make sense when replying to an essay that is “schizo” in the first place! Merry Chrismas! ]

    Comment by Mary S. — December 24, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

  2. hope you had a nice Christmas Jim.

    I must confess to smiling to your conclusion that while some people need closure on the question of God, that that you will remain a “fence sitter”. Well it seems obvious that if anyone needs closure, it almost certainly includes you. Me – I find it more useful to think of things such as ” Will the Bears win on Sunday” as a more useless endeavor for my thoughts.

    I recall going to the Jersey shore as a kid. I would try to make a little pond in my sand castle. I would run to the ocean with my cup and run back to pour it into the middle of the sand castle only to find that all of the water was gone before I came back with the next cup. it didn’t stop me though I would go back to the ocean with another cup and do it again- only to be disappointed again – and again. You keep coming back to this topic again and again. You can discuss whether the size, shape or color of the cup makes a difference – if it helps you. Likewise, you probably can’t figure out why I wonder if the Bears will win on Sunday.

    [Steve — yea, it’s all about Sisyphus, ain’t it. I seem to keep on writing about it, and you seem to keep on reading what I write about it. Until one day one of us won’t. And eventually neither of us will. So let’s just enjoy the day, while we’ve got it. And I hope your Bears do OK against the Vikings this Sunday, looks like a pretty even match. I’m something of a Jets fan, talk about Sisyphus!! The green rock is all the way at the bottom once again, but some new GM, coach and QB will probably start rolling it uphill once more, come next September. Jim G]

    Comment by Zreebs — December 26, 2014 @ 10:03 am

  3. Jim, the problem with brief replies – such as mine – is that the tone often comes out differently than intended. Unfortunately, I usually don’t have the patience or desire to write – or even often read – longer essays so I usually keep my commentary on blogs relatively pithy – and it sometimes comes off as being sarcastic.

    I don’t spend a lot of time thinking as to whether I am an atheist or agnostic. I do know I wouldn’t consider myself a theist. I attend a church with a lot of atheists and agnostics, but I don’t think most of us spend a lot of time thinking about this issue. So I guess I disagree with your conclusion that atheists need or needed closure.

    My inartful point on the Bears is that is my own Sisyphean (is that a word?) interest. Of course you don’t share the same interest as me and the Bears – who just fired their GM and coach.

    Keep writing away on the things that interest you. When I reply with pithy comments, please don’t take them as an attack- which is how I inferred you took it given your “let’s just enjoy the day” comment. Actually, me replying at all is a sign of respect – at least from my perspective. I can assure you that if I thought you were consistently making off-the-wall comments, I wouldn’t reply at all. Your essays are thoughtful, but I am far more likely to write about areas of disagreement, than areas of agreement. Perhaps I should hold any future divergent thoughts to myself?

    [Much respect, Steve, and thanks for your considerate reply and continued interest in my thoughts and writings. I’d like to think this is an open public forum (well, within limits — I’m not exactly ready for UFO conspiracy theorists). Thoughtful comments, even when a bit sharp, are quite welcome. And hey, I sit weekly with a Zen sangha, and “just enjoy the day” is our religious doctrine. So, I was doing a little bit of Zen evangelizing there, no disrespect intended. Thanks again. Sorry that the Bears lost to the Vikings. Do you like Cutler? I’ve heard that he’s a bit of a controversial figure, and is currently in the lurch. Jim G]

    Comment by Zreebs — December 30, 2014 @ 4:47 am

  4. No – I don’t like Cutler. But he is guaranteed too much money, so the Bears can’t realistically cut him. Maybe your Jets would want to trade for him?

    [Never know with the Jets. Bears need a coach? How ’bout Rex?]

    Comment by Zreebs — December 30, 2014 @ 10:36 pm

  5. They aren’t talking about him here. More likely, Ryan goes to SF or Atlanta.

    Comment by Zreebs — January 1, 2015 @ 4:16 pm

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