SPIRIT IN VARIOUS WALKS OF LIFE
Our growing understanding of these altered states of consciousness is having a profound impact throughout life today. The following summaries highlight evidence and trends toward spirituality in medicine, business, politics, sports, religion, and science:
Discovering the Mind-Body Connection
More than 200 medical studies have amply demonstrated the effects of mental attitudes on health. Consider the following relationships that have been demonstrated:
- The classic example is the placebo effect, which is so well established that all good medical research controls for its influence. The mere belief in a medical treatment, therefore, creates a strong tendency toward healing.
- Social studies make it clear that "control over life," feeling "connected to others," "optimism," and "joy" are statistically related to health. For instance, people without close relationships die three times more frequently than those with social supports.
- Studies show that those practicing some form of religion live longer, have lower blood pressure, less arterial damage, less depression, and other health benefits. These effects hold even after controlling for smoking, drinking, exercise, and other lifestyle differences.
Dr. Steven Locke at Beth Israel Hospital called this new
understanding a "revolution" akin to the advent of surgery and
penicillin, while Dr. Sandra Levy at the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute
claims the evidence is now "indisputable" and "could change the entire
face of medicine."
Spirituality is Productive
Another body of evidence is appearing in management circles. Business Week reported "A spiritual revival is sweeping across Corporate America." Here are a few examples:
- Executives at Aetna, Silicon Graphics and other companies meditate daily to calm the mind. A woman executive put it best: “I feel plugged into the fundamental power of the universe."
- AT&T, Boeing, Xerox, and Lotus established programs to examine and shape company values. At Lotus, it was called "The Soul Committee."
- Spiritual practices are being integrated into business life. One organization starts every meeting with a minute of silence. An executive lights a candle when a visitor comes to talk.
Such practices are not common, of course, and they raise
questions of religious indoctrination. But spirituality is entering the
workplace because it can produce results. Lawrence Perlman, CEO if
Ceridian Corporation, said, "Ultimately, the combination of head and
heart will be a competitive advantage." A "spiritual audit" of 200
corporate leaders found "spirituality is one of the most important
determinants of performance."
Playing the Mind Game
In sports, a move away from the former tough model of coaching was highlighted when Indiana University’s basketball coach, Bobby Knight, was fired for being abusive. Brenda Bredemeir, a coach at Notre Dame, described the new approach: "We use words like ‘holistic’ and ‘spiritual’ to describe our programs. We consider players to be people who are spiritually hungering." The new model is coach Phil Jackson of the Los Angeles Lakers who helps players achieve their best by reading Nietzsche.
This approach recognizes that strength, timing, and other athletic skills emanate from the mind. That's why athletes, such as Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, and Nancy Kerrigan, "practice" by going through hundreds of mental repetitions in which they visualize perfect executions in vivid detail. Tiger Woods forms a mental image of each stroke being played out. "Mental practice increases strength and performance," says neuroscientist Ian Roberston.
The New Religiosity
The pervasive nature of religion is especially striking. All societies have observed some form of belief system throughout history, and, even now in high-tech America, religiosity is widespread. One may not share these views, but religious behavior is an observable, enduring, and universal aspect of social life.
Surveys continually report more than 90 percent of Americans believe in a supreme being whom they pray or talk to, and roughly one-third have had a mystical experience: feeling touched by a spiritual force, contact with dead loved ones, out of body trips, or being bathed in light. Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest who holds a PhD in sociology and is a well-known author, summed up the evidence: "To pretend that [spiritual experiences] do not occur in everyday life is like Victorians pretending that sex does not occur."
Today's trend is away from the dogma of old-time religions, however, and toward "Private Spirituality" – personal faith and practice involving care for family, community, and the environment. Richard Cimino and Don Lattin have studied this new form of religiosity, and they conclude that “Spirituality and religious faith are increasingly viewed as private matters.”
Science Meets God
Physical scientists are especially skeptical because science is based on a conservative epistemology that places the burden of proof on new ideas. Today, however, 100 new courses on "Science and Religion" are being introduced each year, in addition to dozens of conferences, books, research centers, and journals.
This is occurring because science is coming up against phenomena with mystical origins, such as recent discoveries about the nature of the universe. The size, mass, composition, expansion, and everything else being learned about the universe are so precisely perfect that it is inconceivable the Big Bang could have originated randomly. British cosmologist Fred Hoyle claims the laws of physics appear so contrived that the universe is a "put up job."
Max Plank, one of the fathers of modern science, saw this long ago: "For religion, the idea of God is at the beginning; for science, the idea of God is at the end. Those who go deep enough to see the marvelous relationships among universal laws also recognize a creative power."
WHAT REALLY IS SPIRIT?
The evidence summarized above certainly seems to confirm the rise of a personal form of spirituality. I understand that some may find this troubling, but they should note that this analysis has been firmly rooted in observable facts and practical consequences. As we’ve seen, the human spirit is simply that sense of awareness we strive to enhance for coping with various walks through life: maintaining a sense of mind-body wholeness, working effectively with others, participating in politics, directing our energy to perform well, practicing some type of devotion, and trying to understand a mysterious universe.
Now let’s attempt a rigorous definition of spirit, focusing on the relationship between this human spirit and what I call “universal spirit.” What really constitutes the miracle of human consciousness that we take for granted? Are the effects noted here simply a playing out of the brain's normal thought processes, or is something more involved? In short, what distinguishes humans from that other sapient species we have come to respect so much -- the computer?
If we polled scientists today, the majority would probably agree that human intelligence, the mind, and consciousness are simply manifestations of the physical brain. For instance, Box 2 summarizes arguments supporting this “biological” view held by respected scientists in related fields. Human thought may be exceedingly complex from this view, but everything we experience can in principle be explained as a logical outcome of our "wet computer" -- the brain.
Support for the Biological View
- Marvin Minsky, arguably the world’s most famous computer scientist, thinks human thought, consciousness, and even emotions are produced by a vast array of brain structures, body chemistry, and mental programming, all interacting in subtle ways that we do not understand. “Consciousness is a big suitcase,” he said.
- This biological explanation has recently been buttressed by findings from neuroscience showing that a particular region of the brain is activated during spiritual experiences. Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist working in this field, said “Religion is a property of the brain, only the brain, and has little to do with what’s out there.”
- Edward Wilson, the zoologist who established the field of sociobiology, won two Pulitzer Prizes for his research tracing the biological origins of social behavior. Wilson expressed the conclusion drawn from his work as follows: “Scientific knowledge holds that the powerful emotions of religious experience are entirely neurobiological.”
- Bill Gates, Microsoft’s famous chairman, claims we are basically machines: “I don’t think there’s anything unique about human intelligence. All the neurons that make up perceptions and emotions operate in a binary fashion. We can someday replicate that on a machine.”
- Ray Kurzweil, another famous computer scientist, backs up Gates. Kurzweil’s studies have extrapolated the well-established trends of increasing computer power (Moore’s Law) to forecast that computers will surpass human intelligence at about 2020 AD.
Now, it is clearly true that human consciousness depends
on all this marvelous biological machinery. But that does not mean life
is reducible to the machinery. Daniel Bateson, a psychologist, sees the
issue differently: “The brain is the hardware through which
religion is experienced. To say the brain produces religion is like
saying that a piano produces music.” The question is thereby
raised, Who is running the machinery? Box 3 summarizes some arguments
from the opposing point of view that attributes consciousness to some
form of “universal spirit.”
Support for the Spiritual View
- We’ve all heard moving stories about the power of prayer, but now empirical data is emerging. A large medical study found that praying for patients produced health effects 3-5 times greater than a control group -- even though the patients were unaware of the study! Other experiments seem to confirm this finding.
- Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist at Cambridge University, has spent years testing a theory of “Morphogenetic Fields,” postulated as some form of energy organizing all life. Sheldrake and others have shown, for instance, that learning occurs more easily after others have mastered the task, and that pets can sense the unexpected return of their masters.
- More than 35 studies published in mainstream journals by scholars at Maharishi University report improvements in social indicators when groups are mediating; there even appears to be a correlation between the size of the meditating group and the strength of the social effects.
- Intuition, creativity, and vision seem to originate from an external source. Creative people are usually mystified by their work, often attributing it to a “muse.” Einstein said a “sense of the infinite” guided his insights. And J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, described her inspiration this way: “It feels as if someone zapped the ideas into my head.”
- Parapsychology remains highly controversial, yet the U.S. and Russia devoted two decades to “remotely viewing” enemy activities, often with great success. Warrant Officer Joe McMoneagle, one of the best “psychics” in the U.S program, was first to identify the existence of Russia’s Typhoon submarines.
- Studies of those who returned from death reveal intense spiritual experiences. Eight million Americans have had been to the brink and back, consistently speaking of “souls” passing to the afterlife and seeing intense light: “The light is the brightest ever seen,” said a sergeant who was wounded. “It’s like a mother’s love for her child, only a million times stronger.”
These two sets of supporting evidence and arguments are
hardly definitive, but they illustrate how vastly different views are
commonly proposed to explain the origin of human spirit. Both are
appealing in their own way.
The biological view claims that the higher-order mental functions we puzzle over – emotion, religiosity, and spirituality -- are a result of physical phenomenae that science simply does not yet understand. There is an assuring quality to this view because it suggests that science will somehow allow humankind to gain control over these troubling “inner” spheres of life. But this may be a touch naïve, as we’ll see in a minute.
In contrast, the spiritual view envisions a far more subtle, complex universe in which behavior is guided by some unknown form of spiritual energy. Philosophers like Willis Harman, Jeremy Narby, and Robert Rabbin, for instance, all describe an ethereal plane of reality suffused with the animating force of spiritual awareness. The universe is created and held together by this spiritual energy pulsing through all life, and humans both transmit and receive it. Asian philosophers called this spiritual energy “chi,” Western scholars once thought of it as “elan vital,” and for the Catholic Church it is “grace.”
These two theories are not mutually exclusive, and they support one another quite nicely. Freeman Dyson, a famous scientist, said: “Speaking as a physicist, scientific materialism and religious transcendalism are not incompatible.” Other scientists, such as psychologist Roger Sperry, claim the mind is a higher-order “emergent” system that arises out of our genetic programming, sensory input, learning, and other lower-order systems where it then assumes control of the body and the mind itself. In short, yes, the human spirit is produced by the physical brain, but it then goes on to exert higher powers beyond the material world.
A similar hierarchy pervades the universe. Cells are organized into bodies, people are organized into societies, and stars into galaxies. Likewise, life seems to be stratified into a hierarchy of power ascending from physical matter, to social behavior, to intelligence, and finally spirit. Many philosophers claim this hierarchy operates from the top-down. For instance, Emmanuel Kant concluded that “will” and “idea” form the basis of reality, while the Buddha summed it up in his famous aphorism, “With our thoughts, we make the world.”
This self-control vested at higher levels of all systems accounts for the remarkable freedom humans enjoy. Unlike machines, we possess the free will to act autonomously. Patients choose thoughts that affect their health, business executives decide which practices to adopt, athletes strive to train mentally, and so on. The philosophical basis of the American Constitution hinges on the claim that we are endowed with rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The hierarchical nature of life also seems to explain why the biological and spiritual views are so strongly held in opposition to one another. A central feature of hierarchy is that the consciousness of a higher level can comprehend lower levels, but the reverse is not true. In other words, the biological view is limited because it is based on a bottom-up form of determinism, while the spiritual view from the top-down is more encompassing. For instance, we humans possess the power to understand the intricate workings of that wondrous colony of cells we call our bodies – but these cells have no conception of the larger system they comprise. That’s why those who’ve had transcendent experiences are rarely satisfied with the biological view thereafter.
Although I find the evidence fairly convincing that human spirit flows out of a universal form of spiritual energy, let us frankly acknowledge that the issue is far from settled. True believers were humbled in 1979 when a world-wide experiment applied massive “psychic energy” in a failed attempt to boost the Skylab satellite into higher orbit. Even the NASA project director went along, saying “I hope they can help us out.” Yet despite this enormous effort by millions of well-intended souls focusing their thoughts skyward from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and Australia -- the satellite didn’t budge. “I have a feeling of failure,” said the radio announcer who coordinated this 7 _ minute meditation over 42 radio stations.
This reminds us that nothing beats reality, and the universe is a very complicated place. On the other hand, a few decades ago who would have believed that living images accompanied by sound would be transmitted through space and displayed with utter clarity on screens in our homes? Yet now we all know that the universe is alive with invisible radiomagnetic energy used to convey information. One more step in this unbroken line of intellectual progress may carry us to a universe pulsing with spiritual energy.