A Photograph of God? An introduction to the Biology of Belief
In a small, dark room at the lab of a large university hospital, a young man named Robert lights candles and a stick of jasmine incense; he then settles to the floor and folds his legs easily into the lotus position. A devout Buddhist and accomplished practitioner of Tibetan meditation, Robert is about to begin another meditative voyage inward. As always, his goal is to quiet the constant chatter of the conscious mind and lose himself in the deeper, simpler reality within. Its a journey hes made a thousand times before, but this time, as he drifts off into that inner spiritual reality-as the material world around him recedes like a fading dream-he remains tethered to the physical here and now by a length of common cotton twine.
One end of that twine lies in a loose coil at Roberts side. The other end runs beneath a closed laboratory door and into an adjoining room, where I sit, beside my friend and longtime research partner Dr. Eugene dAquili, with the twine wrapped around my finger. Gene and I are waiting for Robert to tug on the twine, which will be our signal that his meditative state is approaching its transcendent peak. It is this peak moment of spiritual intensity that interests us.
For years, Gene and I have been studying the relationship between religious experience and brain function, and we hope that by monitoring Roberts brain activity at the most intense and mystical moments of his meditation, we might shed some light on the mysterious connection between human consciousness and the persistent and peculiarly human longing to connect with something larger than ourselves.
In earlier conversations, Robert has struggled to describe for us how he feels as his meditation progresses toward this spiritual peak. First, he says, his conscious mind quiets, allowing a deeper, simpler part of himself to emerge. Robert believes that this inner self is the truest part of who he is, the part that never changes. For Robert, this inner self is not a metaphor or an attitude; it is literal, constant, and real. It is what remains when worries, fears, desires, and all other preoccupations of the conscious mind are stripped away. He considers this inner self the very essence of his being. If pressed, he might even call it his soul.
Whatever Robert calls this deeper consciousness, he claims that when it emerges during those moments of meditation when he is most completely absorbed in looking inward, he suddenly understands that his inner self is not an isolated entity, but that he is inextricably connected to all of creation. Yet when he tries to put this intensely personal insight into words he finds falling back on familiar clichés that have been employed for centuries to express the elusive nature of spiritual experience. "Theres a sense of timelessness and infinity," he might say. "It feels like I am part of everyone and everything in existence."
To the traditional scientific mind, of course, these terms are useless. Science concerns itself with that which can be weighed, counted, calculated, and measured-anything that cant be verified by objective observation simply cant be called scientific. Although individual scientists might be personally intrigued by Roberts experience, as professionals theyd likely dismiss his comments as too personal and speculative to signify anything concrete in the physical world.
Excerpted from Why God Won't Go Away by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene d'Aquili, and Vince Rause Copyright 2001 by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene d'Aquili, and Vince Rause. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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