Everything in the universe is connected. An ancient knowing, so easy to forget. It is the nature of the mind to do so. To make sense of the complexity of the world, the mind separates and categorizes. Simplifying through categorization, the mind is able to generalize and create a sense of order. This differentiation is not inherently negative or detrimental; in fact it supports us to make sense of and navigate the world with more ease than would otherwise be available. And yet, one’s identification with an in-group (which often also posits an ‘us v. them’ binary, with a strong influence on the way we perceive the world) can be predictive of bias.1 When these biased perceptions become polarized or imbued with power, conflict and potentially violence may ensue. This is not only true in situations of conflict. In our daily lives, if we are minimally aware, it is not difficult to see how often we function in a “self-other” dichotomy and how difficult it can be to move beyond the duality to feel others as an extension of ourselves. As firmly as we may believe in interconnectedness and the beauty of a diverse world, it is easy to forget in actually living our lives, in particular when we are triggered, one way or another.
Experiencing transcendence helps transform the separative energy
There is a key spiritual experience, however, that can help transform the separative energy for ourselves and others: transcendence. Transcendence of the ego is intrinsically linked to an experience of interconnectedness (the sense of being connected with everyone and everything around).2 Here, spirituality is truly approached as an experience, beyond the belief system and even the values one may hold. It is a genuine experience of being part of a larger, universal whole, of being moved by the same energy that flows through every other living being, and yet embodying and expressing it in a very unique way.
Two additional character strengths often associated with transcendence are the sense of hope and surrender that it generates. With hope, the experience of transcendence tends to support a general sense of well-being,3 which helps not only move away from fear but help the brain relax and function outside of automatic responses that might be maladaptive. In other words, the experience of transcendence can contribute to greater control over the stress response and help inhibit pre-potent defensive responses long enough to allow social emotions and social-bonding mechanisms time to operate.
Surrendering to a Wider Dimension
The experience of transcendence is also associated with an emotional decentering and distancing that comes from a surrender to something bigger than oneself. Its by-products generally are an increase in self-awareness, calmness, clarity, and trust. Initial research has been published on the study of the impact of prayer on reducing alcohol craving (a stress response) and also the brain activity that is associated with the physiology of the flight or fight response.4 This hypothesis is still fairly speculative at this stage of the neuroscience development; however, similar dimensions have also been highlighted when helping mitigate the effects of trauma.5
Surrendering to a wider dimension also generally comes with an experience of larger meaning making: it helps give sense to what happens in the world. When the experience is of collective nature, it can contribute to the adaptation of the larger systems of meaning, contributing to the reinforcement of cultural values that support resilience and a possible shift away from violence as an ongoing dynamic process.6 Imagining the future (prospection) and conceiving the vision of others (theory of mind) are all used to imagine perspectives and events beyond the immediate environment.
Transcendence as a Resource to Bypass Divisions
If effectively tapped into, transcendence can be a powerful resource to bypass the divisions that tend characterize social and political existence, particularly through the pairing of spiritual values and rituals that help embody and anchor the experience in our daily lives. Transcendence is, indeed, an aspect of some spiritual values, such as benevolence, that are present across religions and cultures around the world.7 Benevolence has often been researched through the lens of compassion, which entails a sense of concern for the suffering of another, a connection to the circumstance, and the motivation to take action to alleviate the suffering. An important dimension of this is the ability to take different perspectives, nurturing an ability to navigate the web of relationship that constitutes our world, to move into different spaces of experience outside of one’s own or that of one’s in-group.8
Rituals or other forms of deliberate practice serve to reaffirm and strengthen the alignment between the spiritual values we hold and the behaviors we enact. To promote cooperation across difference, values such as benevolence must be re-remembered and embodied, which ritual practices offer through their repetition and regularity. Rituals provide a rhythmic returning and remembrance, affirming values, supporting the alignment of values and behavior, and offering experiences of the transcendent.
In this short video, listen to Dr. Marc Gopin share about his experience using ritual to foster connection between Syrian refugees.
Wherever you are in your life and in your journey, it might be helpful to identify the practices that can help you anchor this sense of interconnectedness. They don’t need to be complicated to be powerful. For instance, simple contemplative practices, repeated deliberately, can have a lasting impact on the neuro processes:
- If you live close to a stream: sit and watch it, listening to the water and letting all other sounds recede. Allow the sound to merge with the sounds of your own body, as you simply observe your experience;
- Allow an image of interconnectedness or unity to form in your mind’s eye. Stay with it, perhaps long enough to allow yourself to merge with the image . When you are ready to transition out of this practice, gently open your eyes and slowly start looking at your surroundings;
- While walking in the street, allow yourself to truly see someone you don’t know who is smiling and smile in response.
Such experiences help nurture the sense of transcendence and deep interconnectedness, with all its benefits. Practiced with intention and attention, they help foster a quality of relationship that is inclusive and resilient.
1 Mina Cikara and Jay J. Van Bavel, “The Neuroscience of Intergroup Relations: An Integrative Review,” Perspectives on Social Science 9, no. 3 (May 2014).
2 White Paper: Key Research Hypotheses, Rewiring the Brain for Peace: Bridging Neuroscience, Spirituality, and Peacebuilding (Peace ReWire, 2017), 38.
3 A review of existing research is provided in Charles R. Snyder, David R. Sigmon, and David B. Feldman, “Hope for the Sacred and Vice Versa: Positive Goal-Directed Thinking and Religion,” Psychological Inquiry 13, no. 3 (July 2002): 234–238.
4 Marc Galanter et al., “An Initial fMRI Study on Neural Correlates of Prayer in Members of Alcoholics Anonymous,” The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse 43, no. 1 (January 2017): 44–54. For a summary, see for instance: http://www.medicaldaily.com/alcoholics-anonymous-reduce-cravings-prayer-385092
5 In 1988, Richard Mollica and the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma (HPRT) were commissioned by WHO in 1988 to do a study of internees at Site 2, the largest IDP camp sited on the Thai-Cambodian border. It housed 190,000 refugees, was closed, and work was not allowed. The study lasted for a year and interviewed the heads of 1000 households. Results: 37% of the population sample had PTSD and 68% had depression when screened by validated instruments (HSCL-25 and HTQ). Malnutrition, kwashiorkor, and marasmus were endemic as was suicide with 20 deaths per month. Internees reported that work, altruism and spirituality decreased the prevalence of symptoms and maladaptive behaviors by 50%. The HPRT study was a landmark; it represented the first in-depth public health study of the epidemiology of the psychological wounds of wars. Mollica et al. “Science-based Policy For Psychosocial Interventions in Refugee Camps” in J. Nerv & Mental Dis. (2002) 190(3):158-66, Harvard Guide to Khmer Mental Health. ed. Lavelle Harvard University Press 1996 and “The Effect of Trauma and Confinement” JAMA (1993) 270:581-86. See also Richard F. Mollica, Healing Invisible Wounds: Paths to Hope and Recovery in a Violent World, 1 edition (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008).
6 Béatrice Pouligny, “Resilience, Trauma and Violence, Flagship Study on Societal Dynamics and Fragility” (World Bank, 2010).
8 Ibid., 30.
Written by Dr. Béatrice Pouligny, co-founder and co-director of Peace ReWire, and Laura Webber, research associate at Peace ReWire. A previous version of this post was published on the blog at Allowing the Light, https://shamanicspiritualhealing.com/.