Studies of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) are taking off, with the recent addition of a study to be published in Neuroimaging today.  Will more people be nudged to meditate if they can measure and visualize the impact on their physical and emotional well-being in increasingly compelling ways?

Here is an accessible description of the research from Friday’s New York Times titled “How Meditation May Change the Brain” by Sindya Bhanoo:

The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.

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Note:  Also posted on the IFTF blog, FutureNow

Can outsiders understand a religious tradition not their own?

This question fascinates me.  I wrote an essay on this very question when I was studying at Trinity College Dublin’s Irish School of Ecumenics.

For example, can a Christian scholar of Buddhism ever truly understand the sublime, mysterious and endless depths of that religion if she herself is not Buddhist?

Can he grasp the constructs of an entire worldview if he is still an outsider of that belief system, even if an historian and scholar of it?

So when I saw Lesley Hazelton‘s TEDX Ranier talk titled On Reading the Koran, I was intrigued.  In 9 1/2 mere minutes, Hazelton tackles a book that is easy to misquote, the Qur’an, and describes her journey as “an agnostic Jew reading someone else’s holy book.”

Punctuated by descriptions that evoke rolling laughter every 3 minutes or so, her story about her journey through the Qur’an is packed with insights.  Among them:

  • She, as all who read someone else’s holy book, was at times “disconcerted by its otherness.”  In my opinion this is one of the most important things to acknowledge, to name your own perspective and situatedness as you approach the text
  • the Qur’an is incredibly easy to misquote, and often it is described in the “highlighter version” (proof-texting) by both Muslim fundamentalists and anti-Muslim Islamophobes
  • the musicality of the Qur’an is meant to be heard moreso than read, felt moreso than analyzed, as she learned years ago in the Sinai desert when she listened to Bedouin elders reciting hours-long narrative poems from memory
  • People overlook how the Qur’an often describes God as subtle…”The whole of the Koran is altogether more subtle than most of us have been led to believe”

Yesterday, I got to hear Krista Tippett (of Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith) at a meeting of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes.  She shared delightful stories on how her life path led her to create Speaking of Faith, and how she believes that there is a space in our public life to discuss religion and meaning-making in such a way that no one has to check their intellect at the door.

Tippett‘s reflections centered on 3 guiding assumptions that lurk in journalistic depictions of religion, and then refutes or nuances these assumptions one by one:*

Assumption 1:  Religion is a crutch

This assumption comes from misunderstandings of religion as a retreat; towards supernatural comfort an away from the complexity of real life.  To debunk this assumption, Tippett makes the following points:

  • The energy around spirituality today is not a rejection of “rational” disciplines like law, politics or science, but rather is a recognition that those disciplines have limited scope.
  • Religion has a function–to help fill the gaps in the areas those other disciplines can’t teach us:  what matters in life, what matters in death, how to love, how to be of service to one another
  • Religious & spiritual traditions also function as keepers of conversations–especially intergenerational conversations–about discerning truth in everything we do

Assumption 2:  Religion is subjective

Religious convictions have been treated as “soft” in the realm of the public sphere, because it is assumed to be subjective, in distinction from other (also subjective) realms like political analysis or even economic forecasting.

  • Take the example of the economic turmoil we’re in.  The kind of subjective perspective offered by a religious lens in all of this is to help us make sense of the aspects economists weren’t talking about–what the economic crisis meant in terms of what had happened in human and cultural terms…beyond the dichotomies set up by seemingly “subjective” disciplines (the economic turmoil is about predators & victims, about greed & gullibility etc.
  • Tippett & her team pursued these questions and found a lively community of response in a project called Repossessing Virtue.  She referred to an insightful response offered by Martin Marty who draws from Ephesians in making sense of the moral and spiritual dimensions of the economic turmoil:  we are all members, one of another, and we forgot that.
  • Another powerful response from Repossessing Virtue came from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, who makes sense of the economic turmoil through the use of a Hasidic legendTippett claims that stories like these are in fact very practical tools in a world so full of images of suffering that would otherwise overwhelm us if we couldn’t do this kind of sensemaking.

Assumption 3:  Religion is about what people believe

Equating religion with belief is one of the most narrowing instincts in American culture.  Yes, convictions are one part of religion, but religion is also about how you live–when and how you work and pray.

  • Religion is more often about the questions people find themselves asking than about the answers (beliefs.)  These questions help us to live more peaceably with the ambiguity all around us that will not go away, regardless of what we believe about it.
  • The risk of the belief language is that it puts religion solely in the marketplace of certainty–a place where religious passions become flattened out, and can be used as blunt instruments.
  • Religion is something that must be understood in its totality–it can’t be treated as an object

*I paraphrase here from the notes I took during her talk, including some of the delightful gems of language that Tippett used (those are as close to verbatim as I could get them.)  I invite fellow conference attendees to tweak my recollection or share a different perspective on what she said.

As my colleagues at Institute for the Future have forecasted, more & more people–particularly in North America–are beginning to track, quantify, and visualize data about themselves–from simple pedometers to track fitness, to complex genetic code to monitor chronic conditions and health probabilities.  One of the clearest expressions of this movement is the Quantified Self.

Some of the most exciting developments of this Quantified Self movement come when you consider a mashup of Quantified Self and neuroscience with tools like fMRI technology.  Are we on the way to beginning to quantify faith and its impact on our health?  The connection between physical health and spiritual practices has long been proven, and most recently featured in the popular PBS series, This Emotional Life.

Soon, we’ll be able to see the affect of meditation and faith community connections on our mental, emotional and physical health in a way that we never have before.  By 2020, quantifying faith will become increasingly possible, and this new potential has the potential to catalyze better health outcomes, as well as serve as a driver of growth and revitalization of faith communities.

Some questions immediately arise.  When you can quantify your faith…

  • How much more frequently will you perform your spiritual practices?
  • How likely are you to share about your faith with others, especially if you had discomfort with evangelism before?
  • What products, services, or tools will you use to measure your faith?
  • How will you monitor the feedback loops between your faith, health, emotions, and relationships?
  • With whom will you share your quantified faith data? What is that data worth to you?

Came across a fascinating article by anthroplogist & Intel fellow, Genevieve Bell on Techno-Spiritual Practices, the full text of which can be downloaded here.  Ultimately, she argues for the need to design ubiquitous computing for spiritual life, not just secular life alone.

Here are some particularly insightful highlights around the interplay between technology shaping spiritual expression as well as spiritual practices demanding technology be developed to meet new needs:

However, it is my contention that these examples of the ways in which new technologies are delivering religious experiences represent the leading edge of a much larger re-purposing of the internet in particular, and of computational technologies more broadly, that has been underway for some time…These techno-spiritual re-purposings are important for the ways in which they highlight alternate paradigms for technology creation, deployment, consumption and resistance, as well as pointing to different communities, practices and habits that could be supported. Furthermore, these re- purposings seems to be of critical importance as the realm of technological infrastructure extends progressively beyond the office, into the home, and many other points of social and cultural significance, including one presumes, places of worship, ritual and meditation. After all, life also happens in the sacred domain.

To have been there for Computer-Human Interaction conference she describes at the question under consideration was simply:  “Can we have spiritual experiences online?”

She highlights several examples of techno-social practices, including:

  • Pew research stating that 64% of online Americans have used the internet for religious or spiritual purposes.
  • Buddhist practice in China of having your mobile phone blessed
  • texting messages to be printed & placed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, to enable remote participation
  • virtual confessions (quite controversial in Roman Catholic circles, especially)
  • online memorial halls such as “Earth Village” in China to support ancestor worship
  • a Mecca-finding phone app in Malaysia so Muslims can respond accurately to the call to prayer

Bell concludes that

If it is indeed the case, that religion is a primary framing narrative in most cultures, and then religion must also be one of the primary forces acting on people’s relationships with and around new technologies – one could go as far as to suggest that there can be no real ubiquitous computing if it does not account for religion.

What an impressive article by someone who comes from an experience design perspective with an anthropological lens–this article is not new, but it is extremely relevant!