My best friend and I went to the same school in Goa before joining the Medical College.
We were poles apart in characteristics. I was naive and easily influenced by the wrong crowd while he was mature and spiritually initiated at a young age by his Spiritual Master.
When I was doing my postgraduate course in Psychiatry, he would spend the evenings with me discussing subjects such as the purpose of human existence and wisdom.
He would tell me stories of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (the famous 19th Century Saint), Chaitanya , Sant Tukaram and Sant Dhyaneshwar, the significance of being on a spiritual path, experiencing divine love and the benefits of Seva (Service) in enhancing spiritual growth.
Unfortunately, most of his narratives failed to impress me as I would accept only facts based on logic and hence tell him that he was wasting his time following fake Gurus.
I was a rote learner used to compartmentalising signs and symptoms into categories based on Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM, American Classification) or International Classification of Diseases (ICD, European Classification) of psychiatric disorders.
When my friend described spiritual experiences of the saints of ancient India, I would often argue with him and tried hard to fit them in to either ‘Schizophrenia’ or ‘Bipolar Disorder’ categories. Our debates and discussions would continue endlessly for hours.
Much later in my life, meeting my own spiritual master changed my whole perspective of life and human existence!
After many years of practice and having become a facilitator of mindfulness workshops and reviewing literature on brain changes and mindfulness practices, I am now able to say that enlightened masters perhaps rise above the collective madness of the culture and society in which they live.
For the greater part of their time, they live internally in a purificatory spiritual trance, detached from the worldly desires and experiences.
It is a fact that some respected historians of religion have eagerly embraced Freudian methodology in an attempt to understand Ramakrishna and mystical phenomena in general.
Psychoanalysts seem to be at a loss to find a better methodology by which to understand saints and their religious experiences.
Interestingly, unlike Sigmund Freud and his followers, Jungians tend to treat spiritual beliefs and behaviours in a positive light. Among them was Carl Gustav Jung, a famous Swiss Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist who founded analytical psychology visited India in 1937.
Hindu philosophy became an important element in his understanding of the role of symbolism and the life of unconscious. He avoided meeting Ramana Maharshi but admitted that his field of psychology is not competent in understanding the eastern insight of the Atman (the Self).
Dr V S Ramachandran, a famous neuroscientist states:
“Especially awe inspiring is the fact that any single brain, including yours, is made up of atoms that were forged in the hearts of countless, far-flung stars billions of years ago. These particles drifted for eons and light-years until gravity and change brought them together here, now. These atoms now form a conglomerate- your brain- that can not only ponder the very stars that gave it birth but can also think about its own ability to think and wonder about its own ability to wonder!! With the arrival of humans, it has been said, the universe has suddenly become conscious of itself. This, truly, is the greatest mystery of all.”
University of Missouri researchers completed a study recently indicating that spirituality is a complex phenomenon and multiple areas in the brain are responsible for many aspects of spiritual experiences.
The new work is based on a previously published study that indicated spiritual transcendence is associated with decreased right parietal lobe functioning.
The results of the previous study were replicated. In addition, the researchers determined that other aspects of spiritual functioning are related to increased activity in the frontal lobes.
It was argued that spirituality is a dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain.
In a recent study, Professor Brick Johnstone studied 20 patients with traumatic brain injuries affecting the right parietal lobe, the area of the brain situated above the right ear.
Interestingly, neuropsychology researchers have consistently shown that impairment on the right side of the brain decreases one’s focus on the self.
Although Johnstone studied people with brain injury, previous studies of Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns with normal brain function have shown that people can learn to minimise the functioning of right side of brains to increase their spiritual connections during meditation or prayer.
The right side of the brain is associated with self-orientation while the left side of the brain is associated with how individuals relate to others.
In beings we have to accept with humility that the question of ultimate origins will always remain with us, no matter how deeply we understand the brain and the cosmos that it creates.
Dr Anand Sastry is Director, Area Mental Health Services at Counties Manukau Health.
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