"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Higher Consciousness May Alter Genetic Structures: Deepak Chopra

Deepak Chopra, M.D.
In a fascinating, progressive and optimistic article in the San Fransisco Chronicle, Deepak Chopra - a spiritual icon who is by training a medical doctor - commented on the results of a recent study that showed as little as eight weeks of meditative practice alters brainwave patterns and, most likely, the structure of the brain itself.

The notion that the brain is "plastic" and continues to grow and evolve through the lifetime of an individual is a relatively recent finding. It is only in the past several decades that biologists, like Rupert Sheldrake, have examined how consciousness itself (or, perhaps, the quality of consciousness) shapes the brain. The so-called 'mind/body problem' is whether consciousness itself gives rise to the brain as the organ of consciousness, or whether the brain gives rise to consciousness.

Eastern traditions dating back to the mists of time clearly expound the consciousness-birthing-brain view, while Western science (at least until recently) implicitly and explicitly embraced the brain-birthing-consciousness model. In most instances, Western science ignored questions of what consciousness "is" because it is inherently a subjective phenomenon which lies beyond the purview of science's objective methodology. Consciousness studies were therefore confined as a branch of metaphysics, philosophy or theology, rather than a part of the 'hard sciences.' It is only very recently that vastly improved technologies have allowed researchers to study the quality of consciousness objectively.

The study reviewed by Chopra followed up years of research which showed that the brainwaves of Buddhist monks steeped in years of meditative practice differed significantly from the brainwaves of non-meditators. The recent study at the Massachusetts General Hospital is profoundly optimistic and novel in that it shows how rapidly adoption of a meditative practice alters an individual's brain functions. Implicitly, it demonstrates that the potential for higher consciousness is a universal, built-in human trait. It infers that the level of consciousness changes the brain's physiology - which would support the consciousness-birthing-brain view - and begs the question of just "how" higher consciousness and awareness alters both functionality and brain structure.

Chopra's comments embrace the rather radical notion (from a Western scientific viewpoint) that consciousness is an evolutionary force that operates not only across generations, but during the lifetime of the individual him or herself. Chopra specifically comments on how the experience of higher states of consciousness may change an individual's genetic structures over the lifetime of the meditator. He writes:
"I imagine the next step will be the discovery that meditation changes the expression of your genes. Dr. Dean Ornish, who has championed meditation, along with diet and exercise, as a proven way to reverse heart disease, recently discovered changes to the expression of more than 400 genes among those who followed his program of positive lifestyle habits. The link between the brain and genes does come as something new, and it shows promise of overturning the most basic ideas about both. For decades it was taken as gospel in medical school that neither the brain nor our genes could be altered in any significant way (except negatively, through aging and disease), but now we know that the brain is far more dynamic and susceptible to change than anyone ever supposed. Moreover, any change inside the brain must be mediated by genetic expression. That is, a brain cell does things like grow new connections and heal itself only through the production of proteins and enzymes, and these require genetic signals — they don't happen on their own"
Chopra calls the implications of the recent study's findings "startling." He asserts that "(t)here is a direct path that begins in the mind — with meditation, mindfulness, or more basic things like beliefs and emotions — and then the path leads to the genes, where signals are sent that modify the brain cell, which in turn sends its own signals in the form of neurotransmitters to every cell in the body."

"The old phrase, "biology is destiny," will have to be seriously re-examined," he writes. He suggests that "(a) good replacement would be "consciousness is destiny," which is the guiding reason that meditation arose in the first place," and foresees "enormous opportunities for personal freedom."

"Instead of being dictated to by your genes and (the) chemical processes in the brain," Chopra suggests that "it may turn out that you are the author of your own life, capable of change, healing, creativity, and personal transformation." It is a fascinating, progressive and optimistic view that embraces and seeks to explain the findings of thousands of years of Eastern meditative teachings.

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