Dear reader

Why do I write about pitfalls of spirituality?

My purpose with this blog is to crystallize and share my thoughts and experiences, in the hope that you and I may benefit from them. From 1993-2005 I practiced a so-called spiritual method (Sahaj Marg). Ultimately I realized that this method - and especially the organization around it (Shri Ram Chandra Mission or SRCM)- was contrary to some deep spiritual layer in myself. I came to some clear conclusions, and also to some still developing insights.

One still developing insight is that almost everybody is looking for some form of spirituality in their life. Therefore there are many spiritual methods and movements, often with similar pitfalls to the ones I experienced.

Many people follow a well-trodden path which is defined by the group in their immediate vicinity. Others are prompted by their heart and/or head to look for spirituality that makes sense on a personal level. Spirituality gives fulfillment -humanity as one, universal love growing, one with the buddha- as well as direction through life's tough questions.

I write about the pitfalls of spirituality because so many others seem to write mostly about the bliss of their own approach to spirituality. This bliss to me actually seems a pitfall.

Understanding the pitfalls I deem essential to gain more spiritual insight. For me this actually translates into a lighter and more loving heart. I do not believe that understanding is the key issue in spirituality. But I do believe that misunderstanding can block key issues (although to which degree probably varies with each person).

Please bear with my frequent use of I feel, seems to me, in my not so humble opinion and so on. It is to emphasize that I do not consider any of my opinions to be more than that. I cannot bring you universal truth. In my not so humble opinion [imnsho] universal truth is a major pitfall in spirituality.

Dear reader, I hope you find something worthwhile on these pages. Friendly reactions, which may be as critical as you like, are always welcome.

Tips how to read this blog

* Please start with the closing remarks (click on the link), they should provide a balanced perspective on this blog.

* There is a list of 20 pitfalls in the sidebar. Clicking on a pitfall will provide a number of posts in which that pitfall is discussed to some extent.

* If you have time, consider starting with the oldest post, and simply going through to each next post. This probably gives the most faithful ;-) reading...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bliss & pain, spiritual energy & meditation, unique selling points

Continuing from the previous train of thought, there are some other attractions offered by spiritual movements which to me appear to contain a number of pitfalls. In other words, these attractions add to the temptation side of the sequence `fear<-->temptation-->manipulation'.

If one looks at various spiritual movements, the common denominator of these attractions could be called `bliss'. Or `reprieve from worldly pain', `reprieve from the fundamental loneliness of being an individual' or something similar. Or: `union with the Divine', `going back to my Home' etc.

Since it is easy to be misunderstood in these matters, I repeat that I personally do not consider myself capable to say anything absolute about these characterizations. A feeling which cán be described as being cut off from some `Spiritual Origin' is actually well known to me personally.

And I find that a certain (personal) form of meditation helps me to keep a certain `spiritual' feeling, connection, whatever you wish to call it.

#####

There, I've admitted it, I'm as nuts as everybody else! Or perhaps even nutser. Sorry if your hopes for a completely rational author of this blog have been dashed. But I never promised you a rose garden, did I?

On the contrary, that's what many spiritual movements do, by and large. Apart from promising Salvation, Redemption, Heaven, Liberation, ... in the afterlife (for which noone has to my knowledge ever produced any tangible, incontrovertible evidence), they also offer Bliss...during certain elements of the Spiritual Practice.

During ecstatic chanting maybe, during intense praying sessions, during meditation sessions, during some purification session, by being in the presence of the Leader who just Radiates Love, by sitting on the Leader's Holy Maternal Lap where she Cradles you for 10 seconds, leaving you Completely Transformed...

That kind of thing.

Or Holy Food, charged with Special Energy. Or Holy Water, please donate freely to the Fund to make it available for everyone on the planet, because only This Holy Water is the Real Holy Water.

#####

From personal experience, I think I `know' what I would call a spiritual atmosphere. Being with other people who are not looking for entertainment but for such a spiritual atmosphere, already gives a rare reprieve from what one usually encounters when people gather. Exchanging with other people on `spiritual' matters - I would rather say `daily life matters from a spiritual point of view' or something like that - helps to feel less cut off, for me at least.

But none of this is the Special Merit of the Spiritual Movement or the Method or the Leader. Still, many movements would claim this effect as uniquely theirs, as a proof that Their Method is effective, producing Very Spiritual People.

This is a broader tendency: many movements would claim as their `unique selling point' (you know, from marketing) what is actually a quite general phenomenon, and can be found in many different places, in or out of many spiritual movements.

#####

For example, meditation (unlike afterlife and beforelife etc.) has a basis in science. In the past three decades say, research in the electromagnetic fields which are produced by the electric impulses in our brain has shown that meditation has a clearly detectable influence on the type of electromagnetic waves that the brain produces.

More specific, a certain increase in what is called alpha-waves, is found to accompany feelings of `bliss', deep `spiritual connection', `religious ecstasy' even [[All references are welcome. See comments]]. Other studies show that various forms of meditation can help reduce stress, anxiety, and a host of other stress-related physical ailments.

Well, good, wouldn't you say?

Yet many spiritual movements try to claim these beneficial effects as Uniquely Due to their Method. `Oh no, beware of charlatans trying to influence you with gross hypnosis. Spiritual energy must be of the Purest Form. Our Leader, who was Specially Designated, can transfer His Light onto you. In order to bring this Light to Mankind, He has enabled special Helpers around the world. They have been trained to bring you the same Pure Light during special asnahamsi meditation sessions. The technique of asnahamsi is what sets our Method apart from all other movements.'

Now we're in the temptation business. Suppose one believes this unique selling point. `I feel so wonderful during and after meditation! Therefore what the Leader says must be true. Oh, yes, this surely is the only practical Way to reach the Ultimate.' Then the guilt/fear/... part creeps in automatically: what happens if I do not follow the Leader's instructions? I might be cut off from this wonderful feeling. I'm shaming Him in his Endeavour to save Humanity, which can only be saved by Our Method of course. Etc. etc.

#####

Many people have written about these types of pitfalls, like I said earlier I'm not sure if what I say brings anything really new or more insightful. But perhaps it will be of some benefit to someone. At the very least it helps me to analyze my experiences and my uneasiness with these experiences.

So let me continue. There is, I believe, another pitfall associated with meditation which is less frequently pointed out. And that is the following.

If meditation affects our brain, as science shows, then how do I know that all types of meditation are beneficial to all people practicing that type of meditation? Brain science is still only an emerging field, because our brains are very very intensely complex, and the cause-and-effect chains are mostly still largely uncharted territory.

For this reason, all sorts of neurological afflictions are still largely ununderstood in their working, their genesis, their treatment etc. To mention some: anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, psychosis, migraine, epilepsy, chronic fatigue, obsessive compulsive behaviour, well the list goes on.

So, if I start some form of meditation, what guarantee do I have that the influence of this meditation on my brain patterns is beneficial to me?

But even apart from `too much in general', brain science shows that each brain is unique and reacts in its own unique way to for instance medications, but also to other stimuli. So who is to say if a particular type of meditation is beneficial to me, especially in the long run? Because I may feel really Fine during meditation, but if after a few years I'm stuck with a splitting migraine...

#####

In my not so humble opinion, most spiritual movements who advocate some form of meditation do not have a good checks-and-balances system to evaluate possible adverse health effects on the practicants. They may have some form of spiritual counselors, who keep an eye on things, but have these people been trained in spotting possible adverse effects? Are they even open to the idea that their particular form of meditation is not `Always Beneficial since it is under His Guidance'?

But what to do then, to avoid possible adverse effects? I still think the remedy is partly the same as in the previous post. Self-reliance. Observe your mental and physical health. If you get headaches, contemplate stopping the meditation for some time and observe the effect of this. If you get lethargic, similar. Don't blindly trust what you cannot observe for yourself. (This goes for doctors too, and taking medication. But remember that doctors have been thoroughly vetted by society in a long scientific tradition. And look how many mistakes they still make.)

#####

Finally, it seems to me that moderation is an understated virtue. So if a Spiritual Movement consciously or subconsciously advocates a lot of meditation, and more, until a Blissful Condition has been achieved...then I start wondering. Is my brain designed for such amount of meditation, for such a quantity of alpha waves? Is my purpose in life Bliss? Is this natural, or should I simply accept that life is not Bliss?

`So many questions from the Mind...' is what a true Believer would respond. `You must feel with the Heart'...

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Frank,
I was interested to read your comment about how too much meditation can cause lethargy. Can you talk more about that? How much is too much? Do certain types of meditation cause more lethargy than other? How to prevent lethargy?
thanks, Renee

frank waaldijk said...

hi renee,

nice to see you taking an active interest! immediately however, i find i have to research a bit more.

too much meditation causing lethargy i believe has been reported with zen/buddhist monks. i also frequently experienced lethargy myself after meditation seminars, but that hardly counts as objective.

but having cursorily tried to refind my `reliable' information on `too much alpha waves', i do not find it quickly.

let me get back on this to you. if i cannot find good information, i will edit this post to keep up some standard ;-) of verifiability.

kind regards, frank

frank waaldijk said...

hi renee, i cannot find any good references on internet.

i remember reading about these things in science magazines, but to verify i will have to go out and locate these magazines again...time consuming.

i have decided to edit the post to reflect my lack of sources, my own personal experiencing of lethargy isn't enough.

relations between certain types of meditation and various brain wave patterns have been described scientifically, i'm sure. but i cannot find the studies easily.

since i wish to cut down the energy i spend on this blog, i will wait until i come across something, or perhaps some kind commentator will point us all in the right direction.

frank waaldijk said...

ok, my perfectionism kicks in again undesirably...so i have been searching, and found two recent articles from the scientific american.

they reflect what i wrote earlier, except for the lethargy part.

first link here: uncovering brain scams

the relevant text is:

"3. We can achieve a deeper sense of con­scious­ness and relaxation by boost­ing our alpha waves.
Purveyors of “alpha consciousness” have encouraged people to undergo brain-wave biofeedback—in some cases using commercially available devices—to increase their production of alpha waves, brain waves that occur at a frequency of about eight to 13 cycles per ­second. Yet research shows alpha-wave output is largely or entirely unrelated to long-term personality traits and short-term states of contentment.

As Barry observed, the myth of alpha consciousness reflects a confusion between “correlation” and “causation.” It is true that people tend to display a heightened proportion of alpha waves while meditating or relaxing deeply. But this fact does not mean that an increased production of alpha waves causes heightened relaxation. Moreover, research shows that elevated levels of alpha waves are found in some children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, who are anything but relaxed."

second link is here:
searching for god in the brain

relevant text (among much more)

"Brain scans alone cannot fully describe a mystical state, however. Because fMRI depends on blood flow, which takes place on the order of seconds, fMRI images do not capture real-time changes in the firing of neurons, which occur within milliseconds. That is why Beauregard turned to a faster technique called quantitative electroencephalography (EEG), which measures the voltage from the summed responses of millions of neurons and can track its fluctuation in real time. His team outfitted the nuns with red bathing caps studded with electrodes that pick up electric currents from neurons. These currents merge and appear as brain waves of various frequencies that change as the nuns again recall an intense experience with another person and a deep connection with God.

Beauregard and his colleagues found that the most prevalent brain waves are long, slow alpha waves such as those produced by sleep, consistent with the nuns’ relaxed state. In work that has not yet been published, the scientists also spotted even lower-frequency waves in the prefrontal and parietal cortices and the temporal lobe that are associated with meditation and trance. “We see delta waves and theta waves in the same brain regions as the fMRI,” Beauregard says."

Anonymous said...

Wow! this is great information. Thanks for finding it. Best, Renee

frank waaldijk said...

you're welcome renee. however, i'm not really satisfied. there is a lot more information on this subject, but much of it is behind scientific journal's semi-closed doors.

i found some interesting tidbits on the relation between melatonin, serotonin and meditation. melatonin and serotonin also affect the brain's functioning in many complex ways.

but there is no easily accessible, clear scientific source available to me, as far as i can see.

but i stand by my cautioning in this post: the brain is an extremely sensitive and subtle organ. meditation has scientifically measurable effects on key parts of the brain. do not assume too lightly that what is beneficial for most people, is beneficial for all. and be careful with overdoing it.