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June 03, 2010, 7:00 PM

The Politics of Ecstasy

Participants: Pearl Abraham, Michael Eigen (moderator), Larry Shainberg, Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Richard Sloan

Certain religious movements—Hasidic Judaism of the Lubavitch sect, strains of Islamic fundamentalism, and Pentecostal Baptism, to name a few examples—harness belief as a means of transcending the boundaries of the isolated self. Whirling dervishes, speaking in tongues, and meditative states in which the sitter becomes impervious to pain are evidence of the tremendous power certain kinds of doctrinaire behavior have on the brain. This roundtable will examine the factors that draw people into fundamentalist religious sects, while addressing the psychological transformations that occur through belonging to a group and attaining the states of mind rendered by highly invasive religious or ideological programs. The Dalai Lama has discussed the concept of neuroplasticity, and particular attention will be given to trying to understand changes in actual brain structure that may derive from an individual's adherence to millenarian spiritual programs.

Pearl Abraham is the author, most recently, of American Taliban. Her other novels are The Seventh Beggar, Giving Up America, and The Romance Reader. She is also the editor of an anthology of Jewish heroines in literature, Een sterke vrouw: wie zal haar vinden? Her stories and essays have appeared in literary quarterlies and anthologies. Abraham is an assistant professor of literature and creative writing at Western New England College.

Michael Eigen is the author of nineteen books, including Flames from the Unconscious, Ecstasy, Feeling Matters, The Sensitive Self, and The Psychotic Core. He is on the faculty of the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis and the New York University postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis.

Lawrence Shainberg is the author of three novels—One on One, Memories of Amnesia, and Crust—and of the non-fiction books, Brain Surgeon: An Intimate View of His World and Ambivalent Zen. His fiction and journalism have appeared in Esquire, Harpers, Tricycle, and The New York Times Magazine. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize for a monograph on Samuel Beckett, published in The Paris Review.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold began his Buddhist meditation practice in 1976, entered into full-time monastic training in 1986, and was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monastic in 1988 by John Daido Loori, the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. He completed his training in 1997 and became the abbot of the Zen Center of NYC located in Brooklyn.

Richard Sloan is Nathaniel Wharton Professor of Behavioral Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. He is also Chief of the Behavioral Medicine Division at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Dr. Sloan's principal work focuses on identifying the autonomic nervous system mechanisms linking psychological risk factors such as depression, hostility, and anxiety to heart disease. In addition, Dr. Sloan and colleagues have explored and criticized the purported links between religion, spirituality, and health that have appeared in popular and medical publications.

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.


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