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What is Spiritual Practice?

October 8, 2008

When reviewing studies for my recent post on meditation research, I came across several that emphasized how meditation actually changes our brain, both in the long and short term. In the short term, when we are meditating, several chemical processes get triggered. One is the relaxation response, which – in addition to decreasing our blood pressure, metabolic rate and muscle tension – increases the levels of nitric oxide in our system, counteracting the impact of cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone. The other reaction, recently measured in monks experienced in meditation, is an increase in the blood’s level of oxytocin, a hormone most commonly associated with maternal activities like birth and nursing, but also associated with trust, generosity, compassion, and feelings of bliss.

This latter finding is especially interesting to me because I have just finished reading The Mommy Brain, by Katherine Ellison, which reviews a lot of the scientific research on how women’s brains change when we become mothers. As we go through pregnancy, birth and especially nursing, the levels of oxytocin in our system are at their highest levels, and help us to deal with the stress of new motherhood. Many ‘permanent’ changes in our brain functioning appear to occur, among them an increased ’emotional intelligence’ and general sense of empathy, as measured by mothers’ and non-mothers’ neural responses to others’ facial expressions and emotions.

These changes occurred in fathers and adoptive parents too, although to slightly lesser degrees. And, interestingly enough, there is evidence they also occur in regular meditators. A study at the University of Wisconsin found that individuals engaged in regular ‘compassion meditation’ experienced long-term changes in their neural functions making them more responsive to others emotions, and more empathetic overall, even when not meditating.

In other words, the more you practice compassion, empathy, caregiving, and the like, the more likely you are to be able to feel those things all the time. For many parents, the overwhelmingly emotional experience of caring for a child permanently increases their neural ability to feel compassion and empathy for others. For spiritual seekers who actively ‘practice’ compassion, generosity, and feelings of love both within meditation and in their daily lives, their ability to feel those things also increases. Not just on a philosophical level, but on a physiological one.

In other words, spiritual practice rewires our brain. It truly is ‘practice’ in the same sense of practicing the violin, your golf swing, or riding a bike. All of these activities also rewire the brain, creating new neural networks as we perfect the task at hand. Our brains evolve and adapt based on what we engage in. For example, one interesting study along these lines found that braille readers had significantly larger portions of their brain devoted to interpreting touch sensations than most people (for more info along these lines, read Sharon Begley’s excellent Train Your Mind, Change Your Thoughts.)

So spiritual practice is nothing less than an attempt to recreate ourselves, on every level – mental, emotional and physical. When we focus on peace, stillness, compassion, or love in our meditation, we are permanently increasing our capacity for these things. We are changing the ‘lens’ (our brain) through which we see and relate to the world. And when we focus on service, forgiveness, and generosity in our daily lives – our day-to-day spiritual practice – we are rewiring ourselves in favor of these all the time.

The implications in terms of humanity’s evolution are fascinating. To the extent that such changes may ripple through future generations, we are practicing not just for ourselves and our contemporaries, but for the future of the human race. Of course, the ‘practice’ of violence and hatred gets written into the brain too. Which one will win out? We are all creating the answer right now.

For information on meditation try Types of Meditation, or the meditation page.

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