Links to Spirituality Found in the Brain

Casual discussion amongst spiritual friends.

Re: Links to Spirituality Found in the Brain

Postby Hoo » Thu Feb 25, 2010 2:26 pm

I've been following the discussion of spirituality and Maslow with some interest and wanted to add a somewhat different take on it. Back in the 60s and 70s, when I was in college, Maslow's hierarchy was taught to us in an almost biological context. An organism had only a given amount of energy available at a given time, so it's use had to be devoted to unmet lowest level needs first. As lower levels were met, more energy became available for higher levels.

The needs Maslow identified were considered part of the makeup of the human organism, and defficiencies at lower levels interferred with meeting the upper levels. In dealing with people, one ignored the levels of need at risk of missing whatever purpose was sought.

So it got "spun" in lots of ways. In human services, including education, structuring your intervention according to the person's need sturcture was important. In advertising, communicating that one could meet needs via some product became a major thrust. Organizational theory became interested in the "happy workforce" and the damage to productivity if worker needs were being interferred with. Counseling and social work made it a point to address the full hierarchy, regardless of the presenting issues to be addressed, etc.

How that relates to loci of spirituality in the brain (to stay on topic) gets interesting. Humans have long known about halucinogens as a route to "altered states" of consciousness. We've long known that severe lack of food, water or air can produce altered states. The "god spot" or "god experience" has long been surmised, but it had not been found. Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that there is such a piece of biology to consider. We are, after all, a bag of biochemical reactions held in balance in a number of ways. But except for missionary training, I don't remember seing spirituality directly addressed. I wonder if that's becasue one could theoretically find religion in foxholes or in factories, whether starving or full. Crises, in fact, were another route to the experience in question.

As a student of Theravada (and a relatively new one at that) I don't see a reason to dismiss experiences as *merely* physical and thereby not real in some sense, any more than I dismiss a hunger pang as unreal. But it may add a piece of information as to why unusual experiences in meditation shouldn't be clung to - any more than clinging to a hunger pang?? The experience of awe, or of transcending, or of unity with something greater, may be a result of a string of causes???
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Re: Links to Spirituality Found in the Brain

Postby zavk » Thu Feb 25, 2010 11:05 pm

Hi Kim and Peter

Yes, you’re right. Russell doesn’t claim to be representing Buddhism as such. We should make that clear. What I am pointing to more specifically, as I wrote previously, is how mind-body-spirit/New Age/self-help discourses misappropriate Buddhist teachings (or Taoist, Hindu, etc).

Russell more explicitly calls himself a Taoist. But in his book I mentioned above, he is described as a self-help guru who draws on ‘Taoist/Buddhist/Shamanist/Humanist’ outlooks. So even though he cannot be described as ‘Buddhist’ as such, it is not unreasonable to say that he (mis)appropriates Buddhist ideas. What I was trying to illustrate in the previous post, then, are those instances where he evokes Buddhist ideas and orientates them in individualist/consumerist terms. I was illustrating how Buddhist ideas are implicated in this trend of individualist/consumerist spirituality.

Hi Hoo, thanks for sharing your understanding of Maslow. It is quite fascinating isn’t it to see how a certain set of ideas almost takes on a life of its own? Although in a way, I’m glad that his ideas got taken out of the biological context, because if his ideas are cultural specific (see earlier posts), then what do we make of those other biological human organism in other cultures (and there are many!) who do not reflect his ideas? In naming Maslow (or anyone else) in these posts, I’m not saying that they are solely responsible for the way things have developed. I single these figures out to draw attention to how their work was shaped by social, cultural, political, and economic ‘aggregates’, and how their work in turn reinforced those aggregates to produce certain dominant understandings of self (and spirituality).

Thanks for raising these points, Kim, Peter, and Hoo. These posts have taken some winding detours. I should probably restate the aim of these posts, and relate it back to the OP and Buddhism more generally. Will post later today after getting some work done....
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Re: Links to Spirituality Found in the Brain

Postby Kim OHara » Fri Feb 26, 2010 4:14 am

Ben wrote:It might be worth mentioning, and I am sure you know this, Maslow was a management theorist. So I think its interesting that Maslows ideas, originally developed for organisational development, have been adopted as some sort of near-universal meme in western social culture.
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Hi, Ben,
Where did you get that from?
My understanding was bit vague but I always thought of him as a psychologist interested in the well-being of the individual. Going back quite some time, I remember him as something of a hero to the hippie movement, which hardly seems likely for a management theorist. :tongue:
Recent reading, e.g. http://www.ahpweb.org/aboutahp/whatis.html, has reinforced that impression.
Could it be more correct to say that his theories have been hijacked by management theorists? And perverted into consumerism in the process?
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Re: Links to Spirituality Found in the Brain

Postby Ben » Fri Feb 26, 2010 5:02 am

Hi Kim
Kim O'Hara wrote:Hi, Ben,
Where did you get that from?


I remember studying Maslow in my management units in my Bachelor of Business back in the 1990s. It doesn't surprise me that he may have been a psychologist. If my memory serves me well, a number of management 'gurus' were leading figures in organisational psychology.
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Re: Links to Spirituality Found in the Brain

Postby zavk » Fri Feb 26, 2010 8:08 am

Hi Kim and Ben

Looked through my notes and found some relevant info. It turns out that there’s a publication of Maslow’s journal called Eupsychian Management in which he ruminates about such issues as 'management, self-actualizing work, creativity, leadership, and other pertinent business topics'.

See preface (p. viii) in The Maslow Business Reader: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=8Pv ... q=&f=false

A quick search of Eupsychian Management on Google found this article: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/Insight/v ... tId=881420

It would appear that Maslow was indeed interested in the well-being of the individual. And I suppose in the context of American post-war economic boom, it is understandable why he saw no problems in linking individual well-being with such corporate ideals as efficiency and effectiveness. But some 50 years down the road, we are now certainly in a better position to reassess such a view of human well-being.

As for the hippies adoption of Maslow, I’m guessing that what appealed to them were his ideas in Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences (1964). In the book, he examined individuals’ ‘wonderful experience’, ‘happiest moments’, ‘ecstatic moments’, ‘moments of rapture’ to propose the idea of ‘private religion’ that is characterised by the search for ‘peak experiences’ (p. 76).

I suppose these ideas resonated with the hippies, given how their approach to spirituality was associated with psychedelic highs and ‘free love’. So even though they had anti-establishment and revolutionary sentiments, their linking of spirituality with pleasure probably also opened up the space (even if unintentionally) for the linking of spirituality with consumerist pleasure.
Last edited by zavk on Fri Feb 26, 2010 11:37 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Links to Spirituality Found in the Brain

Postby zavk » Fri Feb 26, 2010 8:10 am

I started these posts to look at how the notion of spirituality had developed over time.

‘Spirituality’ is not a fixed thing. The meanings associated with ‘spirituality’ shift according to changing historical contexts and power relations. To quickly highlight what I wrote in previous posts:

    - In early 17th century France, Madame Guyon used spiritualité to defend inner authority against that of the Church.

    - In the late 19th century, the concept of ‘Eastern spirituality’ emerged. American and European audiences were looking for alternatives to Christian morality. Figures like Vivekananda and especially Dharmapala argued that Eastern spirituality is not only superior to Christianity but also to the secular philosophies of the West. ‘Spirituality’ for these Asian figures was a means of resisting colonial domination.

    - For theosophists like Helena Blavatsky spirituality was associated with occultism. Yet, others like Annie Besant associated spirituality with the pursuit of social justice. So spirituality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had multiple meanings. But they were also associated with wider anti-establishment, anti-colonial social movements--in other words, spirituality was socially-engaged, was willing to question structures of oppression, social injustice, and so forth. But around this time, the notion of individual spirituality (which had been gathering momentum) began to take shape.

    - With the rise to cultural prominence of psychology in the 20th century, the notion of individualist spirituality was solidified by the ideas of such figures as Gordon Allport and Abraham Maslow. And because of the environment in which such ideas were produced, spirituality became associated with consumerism and capitalism.

We see examples of individualist/consumerist spirituality in people like Stephen Russell. Such an understanding of spirituality is also evident in many mind-spirit-body/New Age/self-help discourses. I suspect this what most people are uncomfortable with when they say they don’t like the idea of spirituality.

Yet, as I have been trying to show, there is no easy way to simply dismiss them as the 'wrong' kind of spirituality because there is no fixed original spirituality that we can compare them to. What we can observe though is that ‘spirituality’ is always skewed towards some interest or another. So the way in which spirituality is defined has wider social, ethical and political implications.

Many popular forms of spirituality do draw on characteristics that were evident in the past—characteristics such as the emphasis on inner experience. What has receded into the background, however, are the socially-engaged aspects of spirituality that we see in the previous centuries. Many forms of spirituality today are oriented in individualist/consumerist terms. To this extent, these forms of spirituality subtly encourage self-centredness and acquisitiveness; these forms of spirituality also overlook the social injustices perpetuated by a single-minded pursuit of profit.

So to relate this back to the OP and Buddhism.....

If science is indeed now making ‘discoveries’ about spirituality, it is perhaps important to be mindful of how these discoveries would skew ‘spirituality’. In whose interests would these discoveries serve?

Contemporary forms of spirituality—insofar as they are based on self-centredness and consumerist desire—go against what Buddhism teaches. But the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions that have allowed for western Buddhism to develop have also shaped contemporary spirituality. Therefore, western Buddhism cannot easily disassociate itself from contemporary spirituality because it shares the same history and is located within the same social, cultural, political and economic conditions. There’s no way that western Buddhism can step outside of these conditions. In fact, the history of Buddhism shows us that it has always developed a healthy relationship with the conditions it moves into and has even transformed them.

So the vitality of Buddhism depends on how it responds to these conditions. As I see it, rather than dismiss ‘spirituality’ as something that is irrelevant to us, we should perhaps start to reclaim it as a concept that magnifies such things as ethics, kindness, compassion, generosity, rather than individualism and consumerism. We could do this by cultivating more socially and ethically engaged forms of Buddhism. This is not to say that we should all participate in protests and so forth. But in our own way, we can encourage more socially engaged understandings of spirituality.

Things will of course not change overnight. But as my posts have shown, whatever spirituality has become today, it developed gradually over time. To this extent, there’s no reason why our individual efforts won’t contribute to the conditions for ‘spirituality’ to change, as it always has.
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Re: Links to Spirituality Found in the Brain

Postby Kim OHara » Fri Feb 26, 2010 10:45 pm

zavk wrote:Hi Kim and Ben

Looked through my notes and found some relevant info. It turns out that there’s a publication of Maslow’s journal called Eupsychian Management in which he ruminates about such issues as 'management, self-actualizing work, creativity, leadership, and other pertinent business topics'.

See preface (p. viii) in The Maslow Business Reader: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=8Pv ... q=&f=false

A quick search of Eupsychian Management on Google found this article: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/Insight/v ... tId=881420

It would appear that Maslow was indeed interested in the well-being of the individual. And I suppose in the context of American post-war economic boom, it is understandable why he saw no problems in linking individual well-being with such corporate ideals as efficiency and effectiveness. ...

Thanks. That has certainly broadened my knowledge of Maslow.
I'm not sure my view of him is as positive as it used to be, though. :tongue:

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Re: Links to Spirituality Found in the Brain

Postby tiltbillings » Fri Feb 26, 2010 10:50 pm

Geez, you guys my original posting was meant as a bit of a laugh, but then it goes all serious.
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Re: Links to Spirituality Found in the Brain

Postby Kim OHara » Fri Feb 26, 2010 11:02 pm

Thanks for the summary, zavk.
zavk wrote:So to relate this back to the OP and Buddhism.....

If science is indeed now making ‘discoveries’ about spirituality, it is perhaps important to be mindful of how these discoveries would skew ‘spirituality’. In whose interests would these discoveries serve?

They will undoubtedly find what they are equipped to observe, and are quite likely to say 'we have seen it and that is all there is and we understand it.' They will be wrong, or only partly right, on all three points, because any real understanding relies on an understanding of the mind/brain relationship - and that seems as far away as ever.

zavk wrote:... the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions that have allowed for western Buddhism to develop have also shaped contemporary spirituality. Therefore, western Buddhism cannot easily disassociate itself from contemporary spirituality because it shares the same history and is located within the same social, cultural, political and economic conditions. There’s no way that western Buddhism can step outside of these conditions.

I'm not sure I agree with the sentence I have emphasised. Contemporary Buddhism 'shares the same history and is located within the same social, cultural, political and economic conditions' as contemporary football and hip-hop, too, but most of us have no trouble disassociating from them. We might have to be more careful in avoiding blurring of public perception, that's all.
zavk wrote:Contemporary forms of spirituality—insofar as they are based on self-centredness and consumerist desire—go against what Buddhism teaches. ... the history of Buddhism shows us that it has always developed a healthy relationship with the conditions it moves into and has even transformed them.

So the vitality of Buddhism depends on how it responds to these conditions. As I see it, rather than dismiss ‘spirituality’ as something that is irrelevant to us, we should perhaps start to reclaim it as a concept that magnifies such things as ethics, kindness, compassion, generosity, rather than individualism and consumerism. We could do this by cultivating more socially and ethically engaged forms of Buddhism. This is not to say that we should all participate in protests and so forth. But in our own way, we can encourage more socially engaged understandings of spirituality.

Agreed.

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Re: Links to Spirituality Found in the Brain

Postby zavk » Fri Feb 26, 2010 11:52 pm

Kim O'Hara wrote:I'm not sure I agree with the sentence I have emphasised. Contemporary Buddhism 'shares the same history and is located within the same social, cultural, political and economic conditions' as contemporary football and hip-hop, too, but most of us have no trouble disassociating from them. We might have to be more careful in avoiding blurring of public perception, that's all.


Ah yes, I see what you are saying here: that it is important to disassociate Buddhism from these forms of entertainment, consumerism, etc. That's certainly true. Indeed, as you say, most of us have no trouble distinguishing between them. Agreed.

But I was pointing to something else also: The historical forces and social/cultural/political/economic conditions that have allowed such things as football and hip-hop to spread globally and be widely circulated in DVDs, books, magazines, films, and Internet discussion forums, are the same forces and conditions that have allowed Buddhism to spread globally and be widely circulated in DVDs, books, magazines, films, and Internet discussion forums (such as DhammaWheel!). The same 'aggregates' (to use a Buddhist metaphor) that have shaped football, hip-hop, or whatever, are the same aggregates that have shaped Buddhism. These aggregates can sometimes lead to unskilfulness--e.g. the portrayal of women in some magazines, and as I've suggested, the portrayal of Buddhism in certain forms of spirituality. So to the extent that these aggregates are they same ones shaping contemporary Buddhism, Buddhism cannot pretend to be free from the influence of these aggregates nor ignore them.

That's what I was getting at. Or maybe I should have been clearer. Let me rephrase it: To be sure, Buddhism must distinguish itself from unskilful interpretations of spirituality and should not be associated with them--but it cannot disassociate itself from the forces that give rise to unskilful interpretations of spirituality because those forces are also acting on Buddhism itself. So as I go on to say later, rather than dismiss spirituality as irrelevant, it is perhaps more skillful to explore how Buddhism can help reconfigure spirituality.

Hope that's clearer. :anjali:
Last edited by zavk on Sat Feb 27, 2010 12:40 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Links to Spirituality Found in the Brain

Postby Kim OHara » Sat Feb 27, 2010 12:04 am

Much better - thanks.
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