Guest writer - Richard Williams
People of faith, as the religious call themselves now (both as a generic delineation from the secular and perhaps to hint at a certain God shaped void in the heathen), disagree about a lot. Often the more nuanced the subject matter, the more vociferous the arguments, Protestants and Catholics, Sunnis and Shiites. Violence has even flared up between Buddhists who wish to continue worshipping a deity called Dorje Shugdan and those who defer to the Dalai Lama's edict banning the practice. It's all rather depressing.
However, there is one practice that appears to unite disparate and not so disparate religions, attracting the secular, the sceptic and the merely confused: that is, the ability to induce positive change in the human mind (or brain, if you prefer) using meditation, prayer or similar contemplative practices. The religious ascribe this to the divine, to contact with the sacred, but perhaps the answer is more prosaic, albeit just as fascinating and exciting. Recent research into the effects of meditation on the physical structure of the brain may shed light on the religious and transcendental experiences that often form the bedrock of faiths.
From the Sufi practice of Muraqaba to the Abulafian system of meditations in Judaism to the Christian mysticism of Saint Teresa of Avila, the practice of meditation alongside prayer is common to all the great religions. However, it is Buddhism, with its lack of a supreme being to communicate with, and its distrust of the absolute, which has focussed most on the transformation of the inner self. It has refined a bewildering array of meditation techniques and, refreshingly - given the dogmatism of some faiths - the Dalai Lama has actively welcomed and promoted scientific research into the physical and psychological impact of such practices. Even going so far as to say that 'if science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.'
The secular, in historical terms only relatively recently free to express an opinion at all, are starting to appreciate the physiological benefits from these religious practices, with classes spreading from communes to colleges to workplaces. Scientific studies, including several conducted on Tibetan monks, are providing concrete evidence that the brain is far more malleable than we previously thought. The cards we were dealt at birth are not marked forever, but can to an extent be shuffled, discarded, switched. The nature versus nurture debate of old has been replaced by an understanding that our personalities are the result of complex inter-actions between our genes and the environment. Meditation has been shown to alter the synaptic pathways of the brain: it can thicken parts of the cerebral cortex and reduce sensitivity to pain. A recent Danish study has shown that meditation releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter that regulates our conscious states. It can even, according to Harvard based research, change our DNA, switching genes on and off.
The psychological manifestations of the physical changes wrought by meditation are now well established and tested. My first experience of meditation, many years ago, was an initial, euphoric, epiphanic rush of happiness that is, apparently, relatively common. An overwhelming sense of well being, all the senses heightened, a warm cocoon of comfort and security. It is understandable that such an experience could be taken for a divine revelation.
The longer term effects are more diffuse; sharper concentration, less anxiety, better ability to detach from life's worries and woes, to stand back and observe troublesome thoughts rather than let them run wild. Randomised, controlled trials have also shown improvements in conflict resolution, anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue and vigour.
These benefits are more and more used in therapeutic settings. For instance, Carnegie Mellon University released the results of a recent study into loneliness in older adults (a major cause of health and mortality problems in the elderly) which used mindfulness meditation to show statistically significant decreases in loneliness. Ironically the use of meditation was more effective at reducing loneliness than organising get-togethers - it is often the feeling of being socially disconnected that is the problem rather than the external reality. Meta-analyses of mindfulness meditation studies have shown benefits in relieving suffering in cases of cancer, coronary artery disease and fibromyalgia ( a condition where patients experience chronic and widespread pain). Perhaps religions, like most human social constructs, have all too often been obsessed with the promotion of their own particular (absolutist) dogma and the maintenance of hierarchical power structures at the expense of the personal. Perhaps the newly enlightened faithless have been too ready to reject any religious practice as mired in superstition and ignorance. Perhaps the best place to turn our collective future attention for spiritual or personal sustenance and development is not outwards, or upwards to the heavens, but within. Perhaps it was ever thus.