Thursday, January 6, 2005

Religion (and other things) Without Fear

The world’s religions are based on fear. Fear is as necessary to being a Muslim or Christian as water is to fish. All of which prevents much forward motion in the religions of the world. And that’s what makes the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet’s Buddhists, such a cool guy.  He’s absolutely fearless and leads his practitioners with none of the usual guilt trips of fear-based beliefs. That fearlessness spills over into science, which has always had a tenuous relationship with religion.

Marc Kaufman’s Washington Post article talks about Richard Davidson’s research at the University of Wisconsin on how mental discipline and meditation actually juice up the brain’s ability to function. The Dalai Lama saw something about Davidson’s work thirteen or fourteen years ago and invited him to his home in India.

Is that cool? Can you imagine getting a call from the Dalai Lama?  C’mon over and let’s discuss what you’re working on.

So, the two of them have been collaborating since 1992 on how brains actually work and the Lama made available a number of his monks as (dare we say it?) guinea pigs. The Cliff Notes on all this is that Davidson has pretty much proved the relationship between brain exercise and brain function and nailed down the exact area in the brain where all this action takes place---turns out to be the left prefrontal cortex, an area just behind the left forehead. Like athletes tuning their skills by the repetitive exercises of putting a ball or throwing a pitch, thinkers can train their brains to work better and take a shot at becoming the Tiger Woods of thinking. Okay, maybe not Tiger, but certainly the equivalent of the club pro.

Which leads me to the next logical conclusion---our national tendency to be couch-potatoes in the workout rooms of the brain is creating a nation of duffers. The Dalai Lama’s monks flattened all comers in the mental-enhancement-performance department because of their fifteen to forty years of training in the Tibetan traditions of meditation. But in the fifty short years since I left school, our educational system has pretty much abandoned
·    debate
·    rhetoric
·    advanced mathematics
·    chemistry
·    philosophy
·    literature
·    writing in all its forms
in favor of less and less demanding studies that produce a less and less mentally skilled graduating class.

Arguably, the 8th grade education of the mid-nineteenth century one-room school produced a more learned and better-disciplined graduate than today’s media-distracted product.  Arguably as well, today’s educational system (at least in America) is so fearful and guilt-ridden that it more closely resembles a voodoo religious cult than an enlightened academia. With science now proving that the exercise of the mind is essential to its well-being and productive use, one can only wonder at the price we pay laying all these young minds to rest in the cartoon-like environment of TV, video-gaming and consumerizing. It’s revealing to me that Richard Davidson’s major support hasn’t come from the very academia in which he works, but from a gentle monk in Dharamsala, India.

Who just happens to be the Dalai Lama.