Zen and the brain
Jundo made some very interesting points when talking about the neuroscience stuff. In fact, he hit on something that to me is essential.
I have a vascular malformation in my brainstem, which causes a variety of symptoms because of blood, following a bleed, that doesn't get reabsorbed, and is an irritant. This led me, about a year and a half ago, to get back into meditation, after a long hiatus, and, at the same time, to try and learn more about the brain. I noticed, for example, that when meditating long enough, some of my physical symptoms would fade away. I knew this was not that I had ignored them, because they are physical symptoms, not merely mental constructions that lead to physical sensations.
So I looked into this (notably with this astounding, though dense, book, Zen and the Brain - ). It turns out that meditation can affect levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, and that GABA is the main inhibiting neurotransmitter. Interestingly, the medication I take attempts to stimulate GABA production or enhance GABA neuroreceptors. That's the principal of most anti-epileptic or anti-convulsant medication. It slows you down a bit, but that slowing down prevents the brain from going into overdrive. (Obviously, that's not the only brain chemical affected by meditation.)
So why is this important? It showed me that meditation is not about faith or religion; that meditation is, or should be, first and foremost looked at as a "technique". I hesitate to say a "self-improvement" technique, because of the connotations of that term, but it allows me to look at meditation without "spirituality", which often suggests superstition. This fits with much of what Jundo says, such as how the Buddha was "just an ordinary guy", and all that, and it reassures me, because I'm not looking for faith - a blind acceptance of something - but rather experience.
Interestingly, I came across this article in today's science news, about how yoga increases GABA:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/20 ... 145516.htm
They're looking at medical applications there, but I think the point remains that meditation does things, not just in the mind, but in the brain as well.
All these scientific approaches to meditation and related subjects are very interesting indeed, but that's all about it really, it's interesting....judged from my personal point of view. The trouble with mechanistic approaches to internal processes is simply that certain tools will only ever give you certain answers.
For example: Arguably someone with a double Phd in Biology and Medicine from Oxford University sounds like a person who should know just about everything regarding the ways in which our bodies work...yet at the same time who do people actually turn to when it comes to making some kind of sense of all this "matter"?....we as humans turn to poets, philosophers, psychologists and religious leaders (in the broadest sense).
You can list all the molecules, enzymes, hormones etc.that play a part in creating the feeling we might label "love". Does that tell you anything about it or help you deal with a person you feel drawn to? No.
As far as describing second hand reality goes, poets etc. come closest to "it". And still you have to experience "it" yourself, to really know what's happening. If we as Zen practitioners conect our practice too closely to scientific discoveries, we're giving away the key to judging things ourselves and will be slaves to whatever science will discover next.
I'd rather like to say: "Based on my own expriences, I have verified the core teachings of the Buddha."
"I am practicing a "technique" that the current scientific status quo (that tends to change drastically every couple of decades) seems to support."
Really a lot of this "Tao of physics" stuff is also down to wishful thinking...
Don't get me wrong, a peer-reviewed scientist employing reason, Occam's razor and the body of actual evidence rather than a religous belief system is in my eyes a much more trustworthy source of information than let's say someone who just "channeled" the will of the Gods during his lunchbreak.
I am pro science, pro reason and pro evidence, but against placing too much emphasis on scientific notions coming from the outside dealing with things that happen inside, just because it may make me feel good (in the sense of: "science supports my religious practice....but not yours!")
It is very interesting nevertheless :)
I don't think it matters how things (in this case meditation and it's benefits) are described or by who. It's just words dividing the world again, whatever is happening during meditation, just let it happen. If it works it works.