Preparing our brains for spiritual awareness

To engage our innate capacity for awakened attention, we first quiet the “little me,” turning down our achieving awareness so that our awakened awareness can emerge. There are many conscious ways to do this – through chanting, prayer, creative expression, meditation, and more.

One way into awakened attention is to start through mindfulness practice, and a large body of scientific research examines the neuroanatomy of mindfulness. When we intentionally detach from the tight grip of our thoughts, two important things happen in our brains: we activate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex; and we deactivate the posterior cingulate cortex, which is the start of the default mode network. In other words, mindfulness helps us turn up command control at the front of the brain, focusing and strengthening our attention, and turn down the default mode network, quieting the negative hold of runaway thoughts. We turn down the ruminative racket, readying our awareness for fresh insights. 

Mindfulness has been shown to decrease our emotional reactivity, rectify distorted views of the self, and loosen the hold of addiction. In one study, people interested in quitting smoking used mindfulness practice to detach from feelings of craving. Mindfulness, as attentional control, didn’t make the craving go away, but it interrupted the loop of habit, allowing participants to experience craving and still change their behavior, choosing not to light up a cigarette. By interrupting and quieting obsessive thoughts – turning up the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex, and turning down the posterior cingulate cortex – mindfulness takes us to the doorway of a new perceptual capacity.

The same is true of spending time in nature. Gregory Bratman, an ecologist at the University of Washington, has investigated how the environment influences human well-being. Concerned about the link between increased urbanization and increased rates of mental illness, he wanted to measure the emotional and cognitive impact of exposure to nature, and examined the effects of a fifty-minute walk in nature and a fifty-minute walk in an urban environment. He found that the walk in nature had significant, measurable benefits: decreased anxiety, rumination, and negative affect; preservation of positive affect; and increased working memory performance. In another study, this time investigating the effects of a ninety-minute walk in nature versus an urban setting, he found that along with a decrease in self-reported rumination, the nature-walk participants showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, quieting thoughts and inner chatter. 

Mindfulness and exposure to nature, as examples of “quieting” practice, prep our brains for spiritual awareness. In other words, quieting the racket makes more possible, it brings us to the front door. Now at the threshold, we have the option to take another step. We can choose to practice awakened attention. 

From “The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life” by Lisa Miller, PhD