Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Subliminal and the Spiritual

I completed two books this week that overlap significantly. Leonard Mlodinow's Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior  and George Vaillant's Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. Both involve a review of research around what we know about our brains and how they work. Mlodinow, a physicist and author of  A Drunkard's Walk  in often humorous and engaging prose unveils how what we believe to be true about our thinking, just ain't necessarily so. Readers of this tome will be hard pressed not to look at ourselves and our actions in much more humbling ways. Conversely we may be able to accept others more easily as we see how the brain works it's complex magic on each of us.

Vaillant is a senior MD from Harvard who has done long-term work (35+ years) with patients and has, like Mlodinow, followed the development of science's most recent understanding of the brain. He writes from a compassionate and empathetic voice about what he calls the 'positive emotions' - compassion, forgiveness, hope, love, joy, faith/trust, awe and gratitude - and their evolution in humanity writ large as well as over the individual lifespan. His work and study leads him to believe, despite some contrary evidence, that humans are evolving towards the more 'positive' emotions. His examples and his thesis are laid out clearly and with the same compassion and empathy he believes and his evidence supports grow as we age.

Vaillant also wrestles with the tug-of-war between spirituality and science. He offers some useful distinctions between religion and spirituality in the process. For example he offers Maren Batalden's definition of spirituality as a guidepost:

Spirituality is derived from spirit, which is from the Latin "breath." Spirituality, like breathing, is a participation in this animating energy that cycles through time and space to create and sustain all life. Through spiritual practice we come to know ourselves in interdependent relation to the universe. We learn to live as radically responsive to the needs and desires of others as we come to see ourselves as integrally connected. Through this discipline of understanding our connectedness to all life and the source of all life, we grow in humility, reverence and openness. Inevitably, a deep and abiding gratitude awakens.

Each book, in its own unique way was uplifting. They provide a glimpse of humans as having the potential to build better relationships and communities with less strife and stress. Neither professes a silver bullet theory to follow, but each opens up our understanding of who we are and how our capacity for empathy and compassion offer a hope that we may yet steer away from tragedies that appear ahead. Of course, the decisions in the past couple of days by the Michigan legislature and governor don't exactly fuel that belief.