A new field of research explores how diverse spiritual practices use the same scents, sounds, and movements to tap into our deepest selves.
I am not, nor have I ever been, a Christian. But on a recent Saturday morning, I found myself in St. John's Cathedral, procathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. One of my dearest friends was being ordained as an Episcopal priest, and I was there to support her.
The sounds of shuffling feet and soft murmurs echoed softly off the stone floors and pillars, swirling around the domed ceiling. The potent odor of incense seemed to have an impact deeper than "smell." A mosaic of Jesus behind the pulpit glowed blue and gold with a light that appeared to come from within the tiles. As we rose and sat, rose and sat, I felt my body start to relax into this ritualized movement. The sounds of our voices and the feeling of the hymns resonating in my own chest connected me to the hundreds of other souls in the church.
I deepened my breath and let myself be drawn into the experience, much as I would do in my yoga practice. As the rite continued, I realized that this ceremony was not so different from any other aimed at deepening a spiritual connection. And a growing field of science is finding that, at their core, spiritual rituals consist of similar sensory experiences that influence our nervous system ― and our consciousness ― in profound ways.
From the chanting used in Eastern traditions to the familiar hymns sung over and over in Christian churches, rituals contain common elements. “Across the traditions, there are a lot of similarities,” says Andrew Dreitcer, associate professor of spirituality and executive co-director of the Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont Lincoln University.
The use of movement, scent, repetition of mantra or singing, and rhythmic breathing: "These appear again and again," he says, perhaps because they evoke a "neurophysiology that really responds to intimacy." When one examines these practices, Dreitcer says, "they do the same thing in humans no matter who they are or what the context." And this relaxed, focused state might be a doorway to spiritual growth, he says. "If you have that capacity to pay attention without condemning ― even unconsciously ― it opens up all kinds of possibilities."
A field of research called "contemplative neuroscience" has blossomed in the last ten years to investigate the effects of mindfulness practices on the brain. In pioneering work, scientists Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz at the University of Wisconsin-Madison used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks. Their findings then ― and in other research since ― reveal meditation’s striking effect on the brain’s structure and function. Even just a few weeks of mindfulness practice by a novice can shift the brain’s activity patterns.
Scientists are now using ancient rituals to unlock the mysteries of the human brain. The growing field of neuroplasticity is finding that our brains are not wired in a fixed circuitry, but are constantly changing and reshaping their connections and activities in response to our experiences. With repetition, the brain learns to associate ritual sensory experiences ― the sounds, smells, and feelings of ceremony ― with the spiritual practice. Once those links are formed, sensory cues can bring us back very powerfully and quickly. Thus, the soft, high voices of a choir, the burning incense, the murmur of parishioners all become signals that trigger our feeling of openness to God.
For some people, the close parallels between religious and secular rituals raise a troubling question. If you can evoke feelings of piety with nothing more than sounds, smells, movement, and a ritualized setting ― where does that leave a role for God?
Dreitcer described the dilemma faced by some of his Korean students who had come from a conservative Christian culture. During a Buddhist meditation practice, they experienced “all the powerful things they’re used to having happen” during a devotional Christian practice. “They associate these (feelings) with God or Jesus," Dreitcer says. “So if secular experiences can bring the same feelings, their question becomes, 'why do I need God?'"
Whether God exists outside the human mind is the topic of an entirely different discussion. But it’s no surprise that rituals the world over have evolved to resemble one another so closely, says Dreitcer. “Humans have discovered that embodied activities work regardless of context. And over time, people find them."
I found them that day in the cathedral. At first glance, my typical yoga practice looks quite different than the Episcopal ordination, with its robed priests and incantations. But in the end, I realized, the results were the same.
As a yogi, my concept of God can only be described as a pure awareness, independent of time and space. So the notion that I can make contact with this consciousness directly through my own mind, well, that doesn’t bother me a bit. In fact, my practice brings me great comfort in knowing that I can access God at any time ― at home alone, on a retreat with others, or even in a Christian church.