09/04/2014 01:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

From Stress to Spiritual Growth

James E. Porter

Last week I attended what is arguably the premier spiritual growth conference in the United States. It's called the Wakeup Festival and it's sponsored by SOUNDS TRUE, a publisher of books and CDs by authors like Ram Dass, Eckhart Tolle, Jon Kabat Zinn and Tich Nhat Hanh. Now, if you don't recognize any of those names, you probably have never been in a "new age" bookstore, or even in the self-help section at Barnes and Noble and you almost certainly have never been to Sedona, Arizona or Boulder, Colorado for that matter. This kind of "open-minded," mostly non-Christian form of spirituality includes increasingly popular subjects like mindfulness, meditation and yoga in addition to a broad range of spiritual traditions from Shamanism and Sufism.

At $1000 each, the tickets to this five-day festival weren't cheap. Add in the cost of your transportation to Estes Park, Colorado, plus the hotel and meals, and you could easily wind up spending upwards of $3000. But for many of the attendees, the chance to hear people like psychologist turned Buddhist meditation teacher, Jack Kornfield, Harvard-trained neuro-anatomist and author of the book My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte-Taylor, singer and devoted student of Buddhism, k.d. lang, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert and yoga guru Seane Corn presumably made the steep cost of attending seem well worth the price.

I personally came to experience at least some measure of inner peace. As a so-called stress management expert, I must admit I haven't done much for myself in the area of spiritual growth. And I liked the idea of going to this conference because it seemed to be addressing the mind, body and spirit. So I arrived on Thursday morning, the first full day of the conference with high hopes and high expectations.

The building at the Y where we checked in and registered for the Wakeup festival. This Y isn't like other Y's.

I have to admit though; I was somewhat dubious about the fact that this event was being held at a YMCA. But the minute you come in through the front gate, and see the elk resting by the side of the entrance way, you quickly realize that this Y is different. This Y has lodges and hotels, individual cabins, conference facilities, 3 restaurants, a US Post Office, a miniature golf course, a gift shop, horseback riding, hiking, a Zipline, 3 tennis courts, playing fields, and all this on 600 acres nestled in a valley at 8000 feet above sea level. As you gaze out at the 15,000 foot snow-capped mountains that surround you, it's a spiritual experience in every direction.

As I headed over from my lodge to The Assembly Hall, where much of the conference was taking place, I passed a car in the parking lot festooned with bumper stickers. One read: My Goddess gave birth to your God. Another one read: Sorry I missed church: I've been busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian. I snuck into the back of a large room that clearly had seating for about 1000 but the back of the hall was empty. It turns out that there were just over 700 attendees registered for this event.

In the first afternoon breakout session I heard Dr. Rick Hanson, author of the book Hardwiring Happiness. Rick calls himself a "neuropsychologist" and has an easy way of talking about the brain which he describes as "three pounds of tofu trapped inside a coconut." And yet, with its billions of neurons and trillions of connections between neurons, Rick is quick to remind you that the human brain is BY FAR, the most complex thing in the universe.

Rick talks a lot about a concept called negativity bias. Negativity bias explains why the brain is like "Teflon for the good stuff and Velcro for the bad stuff." It's an evolutionary hold over from our prehistoric ancestors. Whenever we hear an unfamiliar noise in the bushes the primitive part of our brain assumes the worst: "It's probably a threat!" This automatic assumption provided an extra second of reaction time, which often meant the difference between life and death for our ancestors. For us, where threats are seldom real ones, it's more likely to be just one more thing to get unnecessarily stressed about.

Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor on stage at the Wakeup festival.

Jill Bolte-Taylor, the keynote speaker that evening, was the perfect follow up, to Dr. Hanson. She talked a lot about the amygdala, the part of our brain that is the center for vigilance, fear and anxiety. Wearing a bright blue pants suit, with silver gray hair that hung down almost to her waist, she moved around the stage like the energizer bunny. It was easy to see why her TED talk had been viewed on You Tube over 15 million times. She's a dynamo.

She so thoroughly convinced us how much she loved the brain (she makes sculptures and stained glass windows of brains just for fun) that it was possible to believe that she really did LOVE having a stroke! "This was amazing," she shouts out with unrelenting glee. "I, a BRAIN SCIENTIST, got to experience the whole left side of my brain shutting down. My thinking mind just stopped. It was incredible spiritual moment that changed my life forever."

What followed were numerous stomach-churning pictures of real brains that she herself was holding in her purple- gloved hands. "This is one where I cut the corpus callosum so you could see what the brain looks like when it's cut in half," she says joyfully. "This is a healthy brain from a person who has just died. This is an unhealthy brain from someone who died of Alzheimer's." Both pictures were disturbing, but the second one even more so, kind of like before and after pictures of someone with a severe eating disorder.

Neuroplasticity -- or the ability of the brain to change itself -- was one of the buzzwords of this conference. "I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for neuroplasticity. I wouldn't have recovered from my stroke, if the healthy parts of my brain hadn't taken over for the parts of my brain that had died. Neuroplasticity allows you to shape your own brain and choose how you want to think," she explained. Don't let a small part of your brain run your life. Use all the other billion neurons in your head to fight back."

James Porter is president of and author of the book STOP STRESS THIS MINUTE