As I delved deeper into reading and learning on the subject, I was intrigued by Prof. Miller’s first diagnosis, which saw spirituality as a tool for protection from suffering. Therefore, the moment when she first points out that suffering and difficulty are in fact a process of building spirituality was particularly interesting. I wonder maybe this is actually the experience I feel during endurance racing? That, and the connection to the description of the case she brings began to make the picture clear to me.
In answer to her question “Have you ever felt spiritual?” One season patients “yes!”. She describes her feeling when she is in nature or just outside, appreciating a beautiful moment. The feeling as she stands in front of the sea and suddenly feels like she is a wave. A feeling of flow, like a slow motion movie, everything is dreamy and flowing. And then at that moment, she says, “I felt like I’m part of something much bigger.” And she thinks, “I’m here, I feel like I’m just myself. But then the patient added: But it is not scientific… and I believe in science… “. And again rationality strikes me.
Happily, Prof. Miller does not give up, and in a series of MRI studies she finds that the neural structure of people with a high spirituality or belief index is healthier than that of people with a moderate index. The same “red brain” of high spirituality with wide areas of cortical thickness – is related to the moderating effect of spirituality, how some of us are protected from depression as we go through a development window of risk. The conclusion we have at each step is greatly affected by our spirituality and ability to cope with the moment. Her interesting findings indicated that people who are sensitive to depression are also more sensitive to spirituality, and even benefit more from it. Furthermore, the research team found that the area below the baseball cap base – or if you will the dome – is essential to our ability to develop spiritual awareness.
In interviews with different people, she identifies a common narrative that is mainly ‘light’ and ‘sky’, and a sense of “one” between the individual and the environment. Common descriptions are “you are part of everything around you and it is all part of you” or “you are connected to trees, rocks, mountains, sky”, and more. Again, the emphasis is on a sense of being a part of something bigger than you. There was a unique meaning to the physical and emotional experience. Some interviewees explicitly referred to these feelings as part of attending a sporting event.
As they delved deeper into studies that incorporated questionnaires, experiments with advanced technologies of brain imaging and biological evidence increased. Deciphering findings leads them to the conclusion that the spiritual experience of the brain can be seen in three significant ways:
– Involuntary reorientation of attention
– A sense of love or a hug that is consistent with an intimate connection or attachment
– A sense of self that is both distinct and part of the greater oneness
fMRI studies have clearly shown that we have two forms of awareness, and that they are available to us simultaneously: achievement awareness and stimulus awareness. Achievement awareness is the same sense that our goal is organization and full control over our lives. It is a useful and even essential awareness of our existence. However, if we make exclusive use of this awareness then we are paving the way for anxiety, stress, and depression. We live our lives solely through our accomplishments.
On the other hand, when we involve the arousing awareness we use a different part of the brain, and actually shed more light, and perform information integration from many sources simultaneously. Instead of thinking that our path depends only on what we create ourselves, we become more “path seekers.” We explore a larger space and ask what life shows us now. In fact, in this way we open up to more possibilities, understand the connections between different dimensions in our lives, are open to leaps and insights, and are connected to purpose and meaning. Integration between things is the key. The same delicate balance between our two types of awareness.
As their research progressed, Prof. Miller and colleagues focused on an element of striving for long-term spirituality: the same connection between neural and perceptual abilities in the state of “Quest.” They characterize it as a propensity for a journey in life: the search for answers to meaningful decisions in life and meaningful existential questions; Openness to change and even more… Perception of doubt as a positive thing, openness to a fresh look at things, and using experience to drive change. All this to the point of change which is a kind of openness to a personal “version update”. Their study in the Diffusion tensor imaging technique showed that people reported that they were living on a journey – had a better brain connection than others. They showed this by the integrity of the white matter in the brain, including in the areas that connect the two hemispheres.
A good connection between the brain regions is a sign of health. The information flows, and the mind is open to receiving new inputs – a place to repeat the same old record over and over again. According to her, there is a lively dialogue between thought, perception, orientation and reflection. Many forms of perception work in parallel, all working together. In fact, she argues, a situation of a “journey” in which the mind performs the same vital integration between achievement awareness and stimulus awareness. As a result of the same integration – we literally see more.
Prof. Miller’s personal and professional journey has left me speechless. The cynical skeptic within me was embarrassed by the scientific evidence, supported by experimental research that brings biological and neurological evidence to the stage of spirituality and allows for a discussion that goes beyond the interpretation of observing behaviors. Wow. There is much more here than that moment in the desert. I find here many layers of explanations for life itself. And maybe that’s what running gives us?