Why Spiritual Practices?
Before we set about fixing the world, we first have to fix ourselves. Before we fix ourselves, however, we first have to know what’s wrong with us.
The Path Back To Perfection - Or Somewhere Closer To It Than We Are
The rationale for the existence of every religion is that we are perceptually impaired; there are aspects of reality, such as God, religions tell us, that we're unable to perceive. A possibly biological reason for this situation has been described here - and in the sections below, I will be looking at how different spiritual practices set about rectifying the forces which cloud our perception.
Fasting, Veganism and Other Dietary Interventions
One of the main potential factors in our loss of perceptual acuity resides in diet.
In Tony Wright’s book, Return to the Brain of Eden, he details his theory that it was fruit that caused the human brain to suddenly triple in size, several hundred thousand years ago. Fruit, he explains, is the plant’s reproductive organ – a bit like a mammal’s uterus – and therefore contains a complex cocktail of sex hormones whose job it is to incubate and shape its progeny. Humans, it seems, ate more fruit, by weight than any other species – and in doing so, each caused their bloodstream to be so flooded with these chemicals that it became a bit like a reproductive environment. This in turn triggered hormonal switches on our DNA, altering the way it was realised and so in turn altering our physical bodies in a short space of time.
One of the potential effects here was juvinilisation - a trend towards human beings staying biologically younger for longer. Through this extension of our developmental windows, causing puberty to happen later in life, the brain would have longer to proliferate cells, causing it to gradually increase in volume across several generations. This could be the mechanism by which it appears our brains grew so rapidly in the forest.
The consequence of humans changing from frugivorous to omnivorous diets as a result of leaving the forest and having to resort to foods that required cooking to be edible – could be the brain shrinkage we see in the fossil record. Indeed it’s the suggestion of many spiritual traditions to omit meat and sometimes all animal products entirely from the diet and whilst this is often for reasons of compassion – in some contexts it is for the purpose of “purifying the body.”
The science of why a diet high in fruit and vegetables creates an elevated sense of wellbeing is very clear – plants appear to be the foods we evolved to eat. That isn’t to deny a large part of our history has included the consumption of animals, but although we may be able to tolerate animal products and utilise their nutrition, our bodies do seem to remain better suited to a plant based diet;
Our brains and muscles run on glucose, which also imparts the sweetness that our tastebuds are attuned to. Fruits also contain the most complete nutrition for the human body of any food group, beating vegetables by virtue of the fact they are higher in calories and so more suitable as a human dietary staple. Our sense of smell has adapted so that it detects and favours the perfumes of flowers and the fruits that follow; most would find pleasurable the scent of a peach or orange or mango for instance. This cannot be said for raw meat, which is at best, without a smell to our perception – and at worst, smells rotten and repellent. It's interesting that we respond well to the smell of meat cooking – but this is an artificial effect of heat releasing compounds in the meat so that the nutrition it contains becomes perceptible.
Our saliva and stomach acid have evolved to break down carbohydrates – and indeed we see the difficulty with which the body processes animal products, evidenced in the weight loss that high meat diets often induce. Thus the popular idea that it was meat that made the human brain suddenly grow to its largest iteration is a contradiction of well established science. In fact, if we believe there to be a correlation between brain size and intelligence, it seems illogical that in order to catch and process the animals required to create the bigger brain, humans would first have had to create tools and fire; innovative behaviours that we generally regard as a product of increased brain size rather than the cause. Furthermore, if we believe our brains to stand apart from other animals in the capacities they’ve afforded us – why hasn’t this phenomenon occurred in other meat eaters? If there has been a strong link between our apparently unique intelligence and our diet, it might be prudent to look at what it was that apes did differently to other creatures – at the point where the brain was expanding – and not at the point, following our move to the savannah where the fossil record suggests it appeared to stop growing and instead start shrinking.
In the trees, it seems, the behaviour that differed from that of other animals was our high consumption of fruit – and this certainly warrants more investigation into the veracity of Tony Wright’s theory. In the meantime, we wholeheartedly recommend you do your own empirical research into how eating a diet high in fruit and vegetables might improve your health and cognitive function. And if you do already engage in spiritual practices like meditation for instance, it may be interesting to record how these change, experientially in relation to your consumption of fruit.
Psychedelics/ Plant Medicines
A hypothesis of Terence McKenna’s was The Stoned Ape Theory – the idea that mankind was fairly boring until we started consuming psilocybin mushrooms, at which point, enthused by the psychedelic experience, we began creating art, language and culture. Whilst we wouldn’t refute the hypothesis that plant medicines such as mushrooms may well have shaped culture – this begs the question – how do plants create the experiences they do? It’s all very well putting on a show, but crucial to the audient’s reception is their capacity to receive it. In other words, plants can’t rebuild our brains in a single psychedelic trip – they can only use what’s there in a way that differs from its ordinary default-network mode of operation. Rather than originating the psychedelic experience, could it be that plants are simply able to kick-start circuitry in our brains that has over time become dormant? If this were the case, it would imply that ancient consciousness was something more akin to the psychedelic experience than our modern perceptual lens is today.
And so… if we subscribe to Tony Wright’s theory that the human brain has been shrinking for hundreds of thousands of years – why was it those states in particular, now only attainable through psychedelics, receded from our everyday awareness? Wright describes our inter-generational consciousness as concurring to a trend of reversion, moving away from the creativity, self awareness and empathy that define us as human and towards a more standard mammalian model of brain – one that operates primarily out of fear and control. The latter has proven to be a very good model for survival within the animal kingdom and the need for fear and control might be further amplified in humans, given our unique requirement to perpetually innovate ways that protect us from the hostile forces of nature as we trespass upon areas of the planet for which we haven’t evolved appropriate instincts or physicality.
In short, psychedelics may afford us a fast-track insight into archaic states of “right-seeing” that the other interventions listed here may be striving for more slowly. If we’re evolving out of our previous state of spiritual awareness, the process would probably involve the circumvention of certain neurological networks in favour of others, so that over time these areas would become dormant before starting to shrink away physically. This could be one interpretation of what the data on brain size is showing us. What spiritual practices do though, is attempt to engage and reactivate the dormant parts over time until they become functional once more – an experience that psychonauts and Buddhist monks alike, describe as some kind of awakening.
If the internal screen psychedelics grant us is a possible state, perhaps this was the original version of our modern imagination, that is now a mere spectre of its former incarnation. Perhaps the self awareness and empathy we sometimes gain from psychedelics was less conducive to us making the ruthless decisions we would have had to to stay alive, historically – such as killing other animals, despite feeling some kind of instinctive love towards them. In fact, once on the savannah, those members of our species who had higher concentrations of Monoamineoxydase – the stomach enzyme that prevents us from tripping when we eat everyday plant foods – may have enjoyed an adaptive advantage over others. If these members of the group were less present in the “psychedelic world” and assigned more brainpower to the physical and rational one, they may well have been better able to deal with the mundane priorities of survival that now required innovative strategic thinking for the first time. If so, this could account for why these old modes of perception were gradually bred out of subsequent generations.
If viewed in this way, it may be the case that the art and the culture that followed, were not innovations that only appeared at the point in history where we start finding their physical remnants – but that these were a reflection of a previously internal state who’s increasing evanescence forced us into externalising it physically. It may then stand to reason that art is not a sign of progress, but rather – reversion; our attempt to hang onto mental capacities that were dwindling. This may also account for our apparently innate need for religion. It indicates our ongoing desire for a remembered state of being whose sense of connectivity, wisdom and morality was far more functional than the strangely destructive behaviours we tend towards today.
Meditation is the concentrated practice of focusing on what is; the present moment and its perceptible contents – to the exclusion of what is not; those abstract mental conceptions of things that are not immediately present. What this essentially achieves is the full application of one’s mental and sensory perception to reality – that archaic condition before the invention of tools and language when our consciousness was like that of the other animals.
After the invention of speech, abstract concepts such as the past and future were now far more tangible than they previously had been. Because the novel environment of the savannah confounded the set of instincts we had developed in the trees, we adopted an ongoing practice of study, experiment and conjecture as we catalogued the new items around us, that we then applied to our future plans and behaviour.
To restate once more though, our shift to this way of being was too sudden for our brains to have time to evolve any dedicated areas for these kinds of calculations – and so to accommodate them, brainpower had to be borrowed from other sections, including mental and sensory perception of the present moment. The condition we strive for in meditation is such focused concentration on the present that if we’re able to achieve it – it registers as an altered state. Experiencing this surprising difference, we may hypothesise that in our everyday state of being, the brain is only taking those “snapshots” of our environment that it requires for survival, whilst simultaneously applying the spare processing power in between the snapshots to the abstract memories, thoughts and plans that we’re now routinely engaged in.
This is why mindfulness meditation – the concentrated practice of noticing what is around us – may work to soothe our anxiety – because when we fully apply our brains to taking “more snapshots of the environment per second”, that same processing power is simply taken away from our worries, causing them to recede.
**We might also speculate that there’s a further problem with abstract rumination due to the fact that we originally evolved to engage in this only when it was important to our survival.**
Before language – i.e. before symbolic thinking, it may have been that we were only presented with concerns when confronting them mentally would be genuinely useful. Our engagement with abstract concepts would have been largely confined to our desires such as hunger for food or longing for companionship or a mate – and each of these were important to act upon for a human to survive and procreate. Therefore it may be that when our brain entertains abstraction now, it still believes the contents of our thoughts are a crucial sign of required action – causing it to hormonally trigger us into pursuing what we’re imagining. Since devising our own mental language though, we now think of many concepts of wildly varying importance – and this may account in part for why our emotions are often unhelpful – because they’re fired off by areas of the brain that we’re “manually controlling” – which were previously more functional when locked into “instinctive automation.”
A man discovers that the woman with whom he hoped to develop a relationship has decided to go out with someone else. He becomes enraged, causing him to argue with her and also fight with her new boyfriend. Unfortunately for him, it’s to no avail so that ideally, he would move on from this setback and seek out another more suitable partner. Instead though, he feels unable to accept reality as it is – hoping that if he objects to it boldly enough… perhaps it might change… If he appeals to a Higher Power, his idea of justice, instead of theirs might come to pass… Under this amorphous aegis of false logic, vaguely communicated through feelings of ongoing investment in his own pain, he harbours a great deal of resentment towards the couple and finds himself running related scenarios, both real and imagined in his mind for weeks, months and maybe even years after the initial situation.
He draws conclusions on what the rejection might have meant about him personally, rather than accepting the truth that people’s desires are complex and highly individual – and that their preferences in a partner don’t necessarily relate to any measure of objective value. Instead of being able to abandon the failed situation fully and move on with an intellectual understanding of what happened, he carries the emotional torment with him into his future romantic pursuits.
We see the same jealousy, anger and conflict arising in the behaviour of animals but it does seem that those in the wild, live so exclusively in the moment that their upsets are forgotten very quickly, freeing them from the pain and energy expended by the states of emotional turmoil that continue to weigh us down, long after being useful.
Here again is a hint at why meditation might help us – if we become extremely adept at seeing and accepting what is and understanding our abstract thoughts and feelings may at times be unhelpful or plain wrong, we may move closer to a state where the body naturally starts to operate in this more optimal way.
An obstacle to this however, is the ubiquity of external media – which is like a physical extension of abstraction that appears to amplify our emotional confusion by distorting our bodies’ perception of what to prioritise.
When we spend time watching television for example, the brain may believe that if we’re consciously choosing to reject the physical world in the present moment in favour of information contained in a screen – then what’s on that screen must be of the utmost importance, and something we need to pursue. To help us achieve that, it may do what it does in response to our other more natural drives – which is again, to release hormones that compel us towards our goal and make inaction sufficiently uncomfortable to kick us into active pursuit instead.
This works well for primal preoccupations, as it’s a mechanism, shaped over eons to keep us alive. When it’s applied to media consumption however, we may find we feel inexplicably compelled to get into the screen ourselves somehow. For some people this may manifest as a feeling that the ordinary world is insufficiently rewarding and that the pursuit of fame or famous people might be the solution to this dissatisfaction. This trend that resulted from the rise of television, seems to have created the market for social media – as many youngsters from “Generation X” had a burning desire to make their own way into the screens that society was so obsessed with. This tendency was then further exacerbated by the conflation of our social behaviours with screens, as social media extended into more and more of our every day lives, eventually depleting the real world of attention so that meaningful connection to young people now may actually be more available online than it is in reality.
When using social media one is entrenched in a kind of anti-meditation, incrementally training the brain to reject what is for what is not and in doing so, more and more of the attention we could apply to apprehending the present, is spent on attempting to attain the vision before us. Because the vision conveyed is the product of scripting, acting and editing though, its advertised reward of enhanced connection will endlessly elude us – so that we become locked into an interminable state of pursuit, where what we’re pursuing does not exist. This may account for the seemingly disproportionate rates of mental illness amongst celebrities.
And it feels deceptively real. Many reading this might think – “That’s all very well, but I’m still convinced that the reward of gaining a large social media following/ becoming famous would far exceed any joy I could attain from ordinary life.” That’s not the case. To experience for oneself that a sense of contentment is attainable through the extended practice of meditation, one only has to commit to doing just that.
Meditation is the opposite of passive media consumption so that the hunger induced by the latter is assuaged and destroyed by the former. Instead of opening our minds and unfocusing, so that we may be dragged down many narrative rabbit-holes by media stories – meditation asks us to hone in, solely on what exists. In doing so we are physically strengthening the synaptic pathways and behavioural modalities required for a person to successfully “tune-in” to the present moment. Over time, as we become more adept at doing so, and see this change reflected in our everyday ability to “be in the moment” and “take joy in the small things” we come to feel, experientially that these instructions have never been attainable intellectually – but had to be striven for via a physical process that would help us restructure our brains.
Yoga is the physical, mental and spiritual practice of engaging with the present moment. Having originated in India, the term has been described in many ways by different schools of Indian philosophy;
The Bhagavad Gita from the 2nd Century says “Know that which is called yoga to be separation from contact with suffering” (6.23). The Vaisesika sutra from the 4th century explains that “Pleasure and suffering arise as a result of the drawing together of the sense organs, the mind and objects. When that does not happen because the mind is in the self, there is no pleasure or suffering for one who is embodied. That is yoga” (5.2.15-16). The Katha Upanishad from the 5th Century states that, “When the five senses, along with the mind, remain still and the intellect is not active, that is known as the highest state.” (6.10-11).
The American Indologist, David Gordon White describes Yoga as – amongst other things, a meditative means of discovering dysfunctional perception and cognition, as well as overcoming it for release from suffering, inner peace and salvation.” Yoga is in a sense a set of physical meditations that again brings our attention into the now and also prepares us, via stretching exercises for the practice of sitting in meditative poses for extended periods of time. In the same way that the mantra in some kinds of meditation is able to “jam the linguistic frequency” of our perception and thus reduce the rumination that this part of the brain is usually engaged by, Yoga provides a set of movements that can do the same. By engaging our physical being in this form of movement that is devotional rather than immediately practical – we refocus those parts of the brain that would normally contextualise our movements within a meaningful narrative, and so are able to set these normal concerns down and take respite in the physical experience of being completely in the moment.
Chanting, Sound Therapy, Sacred Drumming and Repetitive Rhythms
What makes Sound so effective at bringing our attention into the present moment is the fact that sound is a temporal phenomenon – meaning its form has to be perceived over a period of time… Well OK – you could say that goes for everything that exists – but put it this way – duration is intrinsic to sound, whereas with vision – a picture or a static image doesn’t require the brain to continually update its impression of what it’s perceiving, to get an accurate sense of its nature.
For this reason, it could be that sound requires the brain to interact with it at a higher “frame-rate” than is necessary with much of the visual world. And this requirement for ongoing “presence” when getting a sense of a sound might encourage more of our mind’s processing power to be assigned to capturing “what is” (physical sensation) to the point of excluding “what is not” (abstract thoughts of other times and places). Because this is also the aim in meditation – it may be that for many, sound can facilitate their attempt to reach a meditative state of tranquility as it robs the normal internal monologue we experience of the attention it needs to keep going.
Now of course, this is a very reductive explanation – and there are many visual phenomena that do require extended focus – for instance, moving objects – but our mode of perception with sight is clearly very different. Because we have to physically choose what we look at and don’t look at – it’s often sound – which we hear whether we choose to or not – that alerts us to danger and encourages us to look in its direction. And thus the body is attuned to finding sound, especially that which is novel, extremely compelling and worthy of heightened attention.
To see whether something like Sound Therapy can help you personally to get into the mind-state we seek with meditation (which is simply concentrated “presence”), listen to recordings of harmonious sounds with interesting “temporal envelopes” – such as singing bowls for instance. Then if you try meditation simultaneously or immediately afterwards and find that it’s easier to focus on the now to the exclusion of all other thought – it may be that sound, chanting and music, are useful tools for you in attaining those peaceful states of release from your internal monologue, when you want to.
In our regular waking, sober state, our brains are locked into a default-mode of operation. According to Tony Wright, our left hemisphere is, in this state, the dominant side – performing the executive functions needed for tasks like balance and speech. His hypothesis is that the right brain has many hidden functions related to creativity, empathy and an ability to see the bigger picture – that are usually suppressed by the left brain’s dominance. To awaken these dormant regions therefore, one option is to “tire out” the left brain and have it release its grip on the right – which may account for why sleep deprivation has been one of the means by which the ancients tried to attain spiritual states of being.
His own extraordinary experiments in sleep deprivation seem to closely reflect what the ancients were saying. In his book, “Left in the Dark” he describes several fascinating and mysterious effects that he experienced, including temporarily losing the capacity to speak before recovering the ability but finding he was only able to talk in rhyme. Whilst this sounds bizarre and perhaps even implausible – a reversion to this more musical way of speaking in which mouth noises are being categorised by the brain in terms of their sonic envelope – may hint at Darwin’s hypothesis that humans “sang before they spoke.”
Because the function of sleep is still poorly understood, and because Tony’s experiments included these and many more dramatic side effects, Sleep Deprivation is definitely not something we advise people to experiment with independently. It is however, an interesting area of scientific study.
What Does Modern Science Tell Us?
Modern Science essentially tells us that people who engage in many of the most common religious practices such as praying, fasting, meditation and giving thanks, have lower stress levels, improved recovery times from illness and better longevity. The Scientist, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake has discussed in detail a vast body of research in this area along with his conclusions in several of his books including “Science and Spiritual Practices” and “Ways To Go Beyond and Why They Work.”