For centuries monks have practiced daily meditations, prayers, and sacramental rituals.
The daily rituals of meditation, chanting, and prayer of the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) Monks’ included:
5:30 – 6:30 A.M. Arise, private meditation
7:00 – 8:00 A.M. Group meditation in Monks’ Chapel
12:00 – 12:30 P.M. Meditation, group or private
6:00 – 7:00 P.M. Group Meditation in the Monks’ Chapel
9:00 – 10:00 P.M. Before bed, private meditation
To summarize, the time SRF monks’ spent in meditation, chanting, and prayer:
4½ hours daily
1,643 hours annually (1y x 365d x 4.5h)
30% of the monks’ waking hours are spent in these daily rituals.
More often than not, an SRF monk’s meditation resulted in nothing extraordinary. Practice of sacred rituals could easily turn into mindless, dull routine–when a monk neglected his spiritual “duty” or lacked self-surrender. Restlessness, anxiety, aches and pains of the body and mind, drowsiness, sleep, and daydreams were frequently the monks default experience during rituals. A monk learned to discipline his body, mind, and emotions. Or, a monk harshly judged himself, felt guilt, and slid into self-shame.
A monk could spend days, weeks, and years in meditation only to feel he’s made no progress whatsoever. Or, that his practices were getting worse instead of better. During these times a monk’s faith in god and his will to stay in the monastery was severely tested. Some traditions called these spiritual tests the ‘dark night of the soul’. An aspirant could feel totally lost and completely discouraged. (In the privacy of my room, I often lay myself prostrate on the floor before a makeshift altar on my dresser, and begged with god and guru to save me from myself. The only way out of my ‘dark night’, I was taught and thought, was the way through: surrender, faith to the divine). Monks are human.
Occasionally, though, a monk’s meditations would flow effortlessly into a deep state of awareness: his thoughts, breath, feelings–everything–ceased to exist. Momentary experiences of stillness, bliss, or nirvana. During these rare moments he received “proof” of god or rewards for his spiritual efforts. Though our sacred rituals were supposed to be conducted as pure offerings to god, given without attachment or desire to get anything back. Feelings of peace and bliss were attributed to efforts from meditation. Negative thoughts and feelings to our egos. To persevere for 4½ hours everyday for years, required occasional “signs and wonders”. Our spiritual investments had to pay off in “miracles” and salvation. Had to.
If God is universal energy, permeating the cosmos and all human beings, then everything is God. I believed. Human beings are a “spark” of Divinity, a soul. Religions, and particularly “spiritual but not religious” people, dearly hold these beliefs. Why? An intimate connection between the God Source and all human beings is considered natural and self-evident. But specific explanations are rare1. Instead, we find just a collection of suggestions that convey general beliefs without bothering with specifics, such as:
Divinity can be found “within”, in the soul;
Human beings contain a divine essence, a Higher Self, a divine spark or ray;
We have an intimate Cosmic connection, we are a droplet or wave of the Cosmic Sea;
We are Channels of the universe, potentially perfect expressions of God;
Human beings connect (or disconnect) with Source through sacred rituals, prayer, and meditation.
Catholic teachers promise us faith, prayers, and sacramental rituals will save our souls– so we swallow communion wafers and confess sins to priests. Eastern Spiritual Masters say we are gods, and that the Spirit dwells within2. (Though most of us appear to be sleeping gods in need of awakening through special initiations and meditations). Modern spiritual seekers crave initiation into mindfulness and meditation practices. Is it natural or self-evident that we have a connection with universal energy, Self, or God? Specific explanations are rare indeed.
If everything is universal energy and we are already connected with that energy or God, why are we separate? Why do we need meditation or sacred initiations to reconnect with our Self? Or, to disconnect from our self? More importantly, why are human beings fallen, sinful, or in need of salvation? Specific answers are rare. Instead, we find only a collection of suggestions that convey general beliefs.
Questions for readers: Any thoughts on “I am God” beliefs? Any key points I failed to mention?
pg 204 New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, Hanegraaff, Wouter J., State University of New York Press, 1998. Print.
“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” Bible, 1 Corinthians 3:16, King James Version
Newberg thinks it’s essential to examine how people experience spirituality to fully understand how their brains work. As to what’s going on in their brains, Newberg says, “It depends to some degree on what the practice is“. Prayer, speaking in tongues, or mantra-based meditation can activate our brains. Neurotheology, or spiritual neuroscience, attempts to explain religious experience and behavior in neuroscientific terms.
Neurotheologian, Dr. Andrew Newberg in his latest book, The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought studies the neurology of religious and spiritual experiences. He’s looked at 150 brain scans, including those of Buddhists, nuns, atheists, Pentecostals speaking in tongues, and Brazilian mediums practicing psychography—the channeling of messages from the dead through handwriting.
When study participants speak in tongues or function as a medium, activity decreases in the front of their brains and increases in the back of their brains. That is where incoming sensory information flow to many parts of the brain. Newberg’s findings suggest speaking in tongues is being generated from some place other than the normal speech centers.
Beliefs In the Brain
Believers could say this proves that another entity is speaking through the practitioner, a supernatural explanation. While non-believers look for a neurological or natural explanation.
It’s debatable whether these practices are more effective when founded on religious or spiritual beliefs. Dr. Dean Hamer, author of the book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, discovered that research subjects with a particular variation of a certain gene were more susceptible to self-transcendent, spiritual experiences.
This spiritual tendency also depends on a person’s environment, according to Hamer, which can direct their innate spirituality to particular religious beliefs, or steer them away from religion altogether. He says that science will never replace spirituality because a reliance on facts alone will never have as much emotional appeal.
If the euphoria a person experiences during a meditation practice can’t be integrated into their pre-existing belief system, these feelings may become disturbing. Newberg gave as an example a meditator who sought out a clergy member to talk about his practice and felt a bit brushed off by the cleric. When meditation practices enhance a rigid, authoritarian belief system, Newberg said they can lead to more intolerance and violence towards those of different beliefs. In the book he co-authored with Mark Robert Waldman, Why We Believe What We Believe, he writes that due to some overlap between spiritual beliefs and psychological disorders, patients with obsessive compulsive disorders often develop rigid religious beliefs.
Spiritual beliefs are influenced by a person’s genetics and environment, says Newberg, and meditation practices are more effective when they reinforce a practitioner’s belief system. “I got beyond my brain. I got beyond my ego self…” claim some mystics, channelers, and meditators. [How could a practitioner know this other than through their belief system in their brain?]
To obtain brain scans, Newburg uses functional magnetic resonance (fMRI), and single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT) imaging. The book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, lists their technological limitations. The authors, Drs. Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld, write that one limitation of brain imaging is that researchers can’t make a neat map of the brain centers. Satel is skeptical that knowing a person’s neurochemical and other physical processes will ever provide a detailed understanding of someone’s subjective beliefs.