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Cultural shifts and brain scans: Is searching for spirituality the new American dream?
By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

(CNN) - To discover one’s self. To find enlightenment. To take a spiritual journey.

What does this language mean? Are these pursuits, these aspirations, really possible? And if they are, what do the results look like?

I can’t pretend to have the answers. What I do know is that I went to India this year on a journalism fellowship to write about religion and spirituality. I landed in a place called Rishikesh, a holy spot for Hindus and magnet for Westerners seeking inner peace.

For two weeks, I set judgment aside and dove in to see what this place was all about. What I found touched me more than I anticipated and left me feeling somewhat transformed. I chronicled all of this in "Indian Awakenings" last month.

Since then, I've had a different sort of awakening.

The flood of responses, including hundreds of long and thoughtful e-mails from readers around the world, made it clear: People are hungry for stories of spiritual discoveries – and for mainstream platforms willing to explore them.

No surprise there, said Lisa Miller, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, Teachers College, and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute.

“This is part of a huge cultural shift,” said Miller, who'd barely heard about spirituality in academia when she started out 20 years ago. “We’re evolving – as a collective – and finding something deeper, more true and more permanent.”

The story from India “stimulated not only my intellect but also awakened my soul,” wrote one of the readers.

“It inspired me to live my life with a more open heart,” said another.

“An energy forced me to read your article,” wrote a third. “While reading, I cried, reflected on my life, felt the wounds of my daughters, exclaimed pain from my sister’s suicide, gave thanks to my parents and even sent advice to a guy I just met. I’m not sure where this will all lead.”

Miller attributes this opening up, at least in part, to a loss of security, a response to challenges. Financial downturns and, for some, implosions. Natural disasters. School shootings. Domestic terrorism. Pick your pain.

“People who’ve never suffered aren’t very deep,” she said. “In this country, there’s been a shattering of the golden calf. Idolatry of the material side of the American dream is fading, and we need to come up with a new American dream.”

The letters, however, came from countries far and wide. People weighed in from all different faith backgrounds – Hindu, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Mormon, Buddhist, Jewish, atheist and agnostic.

Most shared enthusiasm about peering outside their normal perspective and learning about others' views.  But the ones who were least willing to bend or be open seemed to fit into two distinct categories, firmly set on opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum: those who believe the Bible is the literal word of God, and those who don't believe in God at all.

If sitting in front of idols and not sticking to the Bible wasn’t going to be the end of me, the literalists seemed to say, the devout atheists thought my gullibility and being a sucker would.

Those diametrically opposed criticisms made sense to Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist who helped pioneer a field called “neurotheology,” or the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences.

A person’s reactions come down to how the brain is wired, said Newberg, the co-author of books including “How God Changes Your Brain.” Those who can look outside their own views will do so. Those who are firmly wired may not be capable of challenging the information they hold dear.

“Our brains are belief-making machines, so we gravitate to different beliefs,” whether we find them in science, religion or art, he said. “Each of our brains is doing its best job to figure out the world.”

How we are raised, our genetics, even infections we had as children help shape how our brains work and how necessary it is for us to lock into a specific sort of mindset, Newberg said.

When we engage in rituals, we strengthen our connections to a belief. And this doesn’t just apply to religion. It plays out, too, in our politics and morals - even where we get our news.

“The connections that make sense to us or comfort us, we keep feeding them,” he said.

We are, as a result, drawn to the people and ideas that support our wiring, Newberg said. For those who may seem less flexible on either end of the spectrum, it can generate prejudice.

But for those who believe in a loving, non-punishing God, he says, the benefits of spiritual practice and prayer are real.  This sort of mindset, even just 12 minutes of meditation a day, can slow the aging process, scale back anxiety, reduce depression and increase compassion, security and feelings of love. He says the brain scans he's studied prove it.

I didn’t find my guru in India, nor did I develop a consistent yoga or meditation practice. But I returned feeling like something had shifted inside of me.

This recent Father’s Day, unlike previous ones since my dad died, didn’t wreck me. I’ve slept better. I’m in the healthiest relationship I’ve ever known. I don’t feel like I've failed because I didn't have children, nor do I have those days at work when I think, “I suck.”

And I like to think that my being open to possibilities, my looking at the world and people with wonder instead of judgment, helped bring me there. Whether I technically found myself or got enlightened, I can’t say. All I know is I’m in a better place.

Gauging from readers’ reactions, no matter where they come from, it appears many of them want to get there, too.