The sacred fills my mind a lot these days. I pray outdoors and read religious tracts each morning, spend time thinking about guidance from those tracts throughout the day, and ponder the day's gifts with prayers of gratitude before I sleep. And now I'm reading a book (Fingerprints of God by Barbara Hagerty) that is exploding my notions about the sacred. This book, you see, is about the science of spirituality.
The paths I'm going down as I read each chapter are intriguing. What is it about the human structure that allows some of us to have closer relationships with the sacred than others? What similarities in religious experiences span centuries and continents? What kinds of research has been done to learn more about humans' contact with their gods?
I'm astounded by some of the author's findings. First, there are basic similarities in folks' intense religious experiences, no matter what their faith. One key element is the presence of brilliant white light. Second, ingesting certain things (like peyote) can create experiences much like those described by those having intense religious experiences. Third, some people are more prone to be religious than others, with this finding coming from the study of identical twins who are raised separately.
Fourth, a specific part of the brain, located above the right ear, appears to be the "seat" of human perception of religious experience. This part of the brain has been modified surgically (in epileptics, for example) with results impacting the patients' description of religious experiences. Fifth, study of brains of marathon pray-ers, like Franciscan nuns and Tibetan Buddhist monks, shows remarkable similarities, including reduced activity in the parietal lobes, the part of the brain that helps us be oriented to and feel separate from our surroundings. These subjects describe their deep connection to all, including the sacred, while praying, which makes neurological sense, since their brains have scaled down the tool that helps make distinctions between them and their environment.
As I near the end of this important book, I'm pondering the many ways that humans respond to the sacred. As a child, I was given a solid Christian upbringing, but was not discouraged from exploring other faiths. As an adult, I've found study of religions fascinating and, at some times, troublesome. It bothers me a lot that some sects go to great lengths to assert the validity of their truths and the invalidity of beliefs held by others. It bothers me a lot that persons are persecuted and killed because of their religious beliefs. It bothers me that religious fanaticism has created the monster of terrorism in our world. It bothers me that devisiveness, rather than inclusiveness, appears to reign when it comes to religion.
Humans should, I think, be more grateful for their incredible abilities to recognize and respond to the sacred. We should use these neurological gifts in ways that improve the lot of all. That is my prayer this morning.