Quieting the Monkey Mind
When I was in college, I moonlighted as an EEG tech in a sleep laboratory in a Chicago hospital. (My undergraduate thesis was related to sleep research, so I was comfortable spending the night watching brain waves, eye movements, and other activities.) When I arrived at seminary, this work caught the attention of a professor who had supplemented his study of visions of biblical prophets and desert monks with research on brain states and prayer, using a personal Alpha Wave detector. Alpha waves are a regular pattern of waves that occur in the period between wakefulness and sleep, known as the hypnagogic state. Since the 1970s, scientists have been aware that an Alpha state can be induced by prayer and meditation and that – using tools like my professor’s machine – a person could use biofeedback to learn to induce Alpha waves very quickly. My professor, for example, managed to induce an Alpha state every time he said the Lord ‘s Prayer. His theory was that God is always speaking to us but that, as in the case of the prophets or ascetic monks, we need to quiet our brains enough to listen. Most often, he said, this happens in a hypnagogic state, induced in Christian and other religious traditions through prayer and in the 1970’s (when much research was done) through psychedelic drugs. I am not advocating the use of drugs but am suggesting that what Christianity calls centering and Buddhism calls “quieting the monkey mind” are worth giving a try.
This is counter-cultural. I heard on the news today about a new startup outside Boston that markets recordings of background noise (the sounds of a coffee shop, for example) that people can play while they work in order to help them focus. Sounds interesting, but a few minutes of quiet, a little self-induced Alpha state, might work even better. As my professor discovered, there is science behind this spiritual practice. I am not talking primarily about what we do on Sunday morning together. The church service is a time of communal prayer, meant to complement, not replace our personal devotions. Do your own experiment. Turn off the distractions. Quiet the monkey mind and listen. You may discover that God has been speaking to you all along.