Is There a Scientific Evidence for Spiritual Enlightenment?

I see a lot of people asking this question.. What does science say about spiritual enlightenment? Is it possible to prove it scientifically? What are the possible neural correlates of nondual awareness? Can there be a scientific way out of suffering?  I have explained the possible scientific explanations for spiritual awakening in my earlier articles  ‘Theory of Enlightenment – by Scientific method’ and ‘Awakening Through Mindfulness – Bridging Science and Spirituality’. But in this article, I am going to elaborate further on the scientific model for spiritual enlightenment and I will mention many significant studies that have been conducted on this topic.

Operational Definition for Enlightenment

Before we attempt to prove that something called enlightenment exists, we need to come up with an operational definition for enlightenment. If you are new to the term ‘operational definition’, I can explain it a little bit for you. First, Operationalization is a process of defining the measurement of a phenomenon that is not directly measurable, though its existence is indicated by other phenomena. Operationalization is thus the process of defining a fuzzy concept so as to make it clearly distinguishable, measurable, and understandable in terms of empirical observations.So, an operational definition for enlightenment should be defined in such a way that it can be easily distinguishable, measurable and understandable by observation.

spiritual enlightenment

The problem with that is, each tradition has its own definition for enlightenment. Even within a single tradition, there are various schools which define it in their own way. It is also very hard to put a lot of subjective aspects in words. Rather than defining enlightenment based on its subjective aspects, it may be easier to define it based on the neural correlates of enlightenment/non-dual awareness which can be observed.

Jake H. Davis, Postdoctoral Associate at New York University published a paper in 2013 titled ‘Can enlightenment be traced to specific neural correlates, cognition, or behavior?‘ in which he discusses this issue in detail. He says that by integrating evidence from neuroimaging with evidence of behavioral transformations specified in particular traditional descriptions of meditation practices, some important obstacles may be mitigated. He talks about various studies which have been previously conducted on people who claim spiritual enlightenment.

Here is what he concludes in the paper:

“It is therefore, necessary to responsibly unpack traditional constructs into common psychological and neurocognitive terms that can correlate with first-person experience with some consistency, but without unwittingly dismissing the deepest and most fundamental features of the practices from which they originate. We are, in the end, cautiously optimistic that progress can be made on well-defined projects in this area that integrate behavior and phenomenology with neuroimaging evidence, but not without a careful consideration of the methodological obstacles. Responsible scientific investigations of enlightenment can proceed only on the basis of rigorous understanding of particular experiential states or behavioral traits within a particular tradition as part of a whole value system, embedded in many other aspects of the models employed in that specific tradition of how the mind works and how awakening progresses.”

Another paper that was published in Scientific God journal was very interesting. Before I talk about the paper, let me tell you what this Scientific God journal does in their own words:

“The purpose and mission of Scientific GOD Journal (“SGJ”) are to conduct scientific inquiries on the nature and origins of life, mind, physical laws and mathematics and their possible connections to a scientifically approachable transcendental ground of existence – we call “Scientific GOD.” By “scientific inquiries”, we mean building concrete and testable models and/or hypotheses connected to hard sciences (e.g., physics, neuroscience, biochemistry and physiology) and doing the experimental testing.

We believe that in this golden age of Science the GOD in whom we trust should be spiritual as well as scientific. Indeed, since we are all made out of the same subatomic, atomic and genetic alphabets, the scientific GOD each of us seeks should be one and the same whatever our race, religion and other differences.”

The paper ‘A Natural Explanation of Spiritual Enlightenment’ published by James Kowal attempts to explain enlightenment and the ultimate reality (non dual consciousness) through quantum physics. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“ Recent developments in theoretical physics, which include attempts to unify the laws of the universe, as in string theory, and attempts to explain the origin of the universe, as in inflationary cosmology, are interpreted in terms of the theater of consciousness mental model of the world. This scientific paradigm dates back to ideas that Plato first discussed in the Allegory of the Cave, and is consistent with the holographic principle of quantum gravity, the many world interpretation of quantum theory, and the Gödel incompleteness theorems. This mental model of the world leads to a natural theory of the mind, and is consistent with spiritual discussions of creation, as found in Genesis, and expressions of nondual wisdom, as found in the Tao Te Ching. A natural explanation of spiritual enlightenment in the nondual sense of ‘no-self’ or ’emptiness’, and the concept of ‘nothingness’ as expressed in Buddhism, Zen and Hinduism, are also discussed.”

If you search for ‘James’ in Scientific God journal you fill find a lot of interesting papers published by him. In those papers, he has discussed many things regarding to consciousness and how the experience of world arises from consciousness.

Identification with the ‘Egoic self’ and the sense of duality

Based on my own experience and based on the essential teachings of various traditions that talk about spiritual enlightenment, there is one thing that I have found which is common in all these traditions. It is all about removing the duality, the solid psychological distinction between ‘me’ and the ‘other’ or ‘me’ vs ‘world’. People who are spiritually enlightened feel that their experience of the reality is nondual and they don’t derive a separate sense of an egoic self based on their life story and their self-concepts.

So, it all boils down to one thing – Change in the perception of self. Let us first discuss various brain functions related to this feeling of separate identity.

Your Brain – The Seat of your Conscious Experience

Before we go further, it is essential to understand the basics of your brain. Your brain has specialized cells called ‘neurons’ which communicate with other neurons through electrochemical signals called ‘Action potentials’. Everything we think, feel and experience is the result of the constant activity in the neural network of your brain.

Let us talk about two distinct parts of the brain – the higher and lower. The upper part of the brain, that is involved in higher cognitive functions is divided into four lobes – Frontal (just behind your forehead), parietal (second half of the top part of your brain, behind the frontal lobe), occipital lobe (in the back of your head) and temporal lobe (two sides of the head, near the ears). Frontal lobe is responsible for executive functions like planning, analysing etc. It has a structure called neocortex which is the recently evolved part of the brain. Your brain also has a lower part that includes limbic system, brainstem and hindbrain which take care of the basic functions of the brain like arousal, sleep, hunger etc. It also prepares the brain to face a threat and initiates the flight or fight response. Amygdala in this region is responsible for emotions such as fear; hippocampus is responsible for forming new memories. This whole lower part is the oldest part of the brain which reminds us that we are essentially animals.

Your upper brain, the cerebral lobes, can be divided into two hemispheres. Each hemisphere dominate the other in certain cognitive functions. This phenomenon is called lateralization of the brain. A very important distinction is language. Your left hemisphere plays a major role in language production and understanding the language.

The Left brain interpreter – The creator of duality and the cause of suffering

Now, let us try to understand what creates the separation between ‘you’ and the rest of the world. This basic categorization is done by our left brain and it can be explained by something called left-brain interpreter. This is what creates categories like ‘you’ vs world, self image vs ideal self, good vs bad etc. The categorization of ‘you’ vs ‘world’ becomes very solid in the long run, as a result of learning and neuroplasticity.

To give you a brief introduction of this left brain interpreter, let me quote from Wikipedia:

The left brain interpreter refers to the construction of explanations by the left brain in order to make sense of the world by reconciling new information with what was known before. The left brain interpreter attempts to rationalize, reason and generalize new information it receives in order to relate the past to the present. The concept was first introduced by Michael Gazzaniga while he performed research on split-brain patients during the early 1970s with Roger Sperry at the California Institute of Technology.] Sperry eventually received the 1981 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his contributions to split-brain research

The drive to seek explanations and provide interpretations is a general human trait, and the left brain interpreter can be seen as the glue that attempts to hold the story together, in order to provide a sense of coherence to the mind. In reconciling the past and the present, the left brain interpreter may confer a sense of comfort to a person, by providing a feeling of consistency and continuity in the world. This may in turn produce feelings of security that the person knows how “things will turn out” in the future.

However, the facile explanations provided by the left brain interpreter may also enhance the opinion of a person about themselves and produce strong biases which prevent the person from seeing themselves in the light of reality and repeating patterns of behavior which led to past failures.The explanations generated by the left brain interpreter may be balanced by right brain systems which follow the constraints of reality to a closer degree. The suppression of the right hemisphere by electroconvulsive therapy leaves patients inclined to accept conclusions that are absurd but based on strictly-true logic. After electroconsulsive therapy to the left hemisphere the same absurd conclusions are indignantly rejected.

Chris Niebauer is a neuroscientist who received his Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuropsychology from the University of Toledo where he specialized in left-right brain differences. He has written a book called ‘The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment: How the Left-brain Plays Unending Games of Self-improvement’ in which he explains this left-brain interpreter in detail. This book is based on the teachings of Eckhart Tolle and attempts to integrate his teachings with neuroscience. Let me quote a few lines from his book:

“The interpreter in the left brain has a preference for consistency and little tolerance for ambiguity. There are right and wrong answers and things need to be predictable and orderly.Paradox is a turn-off to interpreter. Left brain is so based in categories, it categorizes everything as right and wrong, good and bad. Categories divide and the interpreter has divided itself into ‘How i am’ and ‘how i want to be’ “

“The left-brain interpreter is categorical, it creates division outwardly and inwardly, so let it do its job, let it do its thing. Here we might ask why you want to go beyond your ego and more importantly, is it your ego that wants this? Because if it is, it can’t. Going beyond the ego is nothing like what the ego thinks it is, how could it be? When the ego tries to drag itself beyond itself it may bring along a little anxiety and conflict, so remember that all scary things are pretend. Also, Alan pointed out in the 70s that the biggest ego trip of all was in believing that one was beyond the ego. Today this is also true but with one more level to it, today there is the ego trip of pointing out that the 6i:4:est ego trip of all is in believing you have gone beyond the ego. The notion that you can improve yourself by going beyond your ego stems directly from the interpretive mind, and as such, is an interpretation that something is wrong and there is something that needs be done about it. Again, there is the interpreter created category of “me as I am” vs. “me as I want to be” which are both just thoughts bouncing around in the skull. So, ironically, if you are trying to improve yourself, you can’t. The notion that your self needs improving is an interpretation and we are going around interpretations. There is an irony in most bookstores called the “self help” section. I might suggest renaming this as “Books that reinforce the illusion that the left-brain interpreter can be what it isn’t free of itself.”

“The interpreter also creates and sustains our collection of categorical thoughts called our beliefs.”

Here the story of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is worth mentioning. She is a Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist who experienced a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain in 1996. This permanently changed her perception of reality.

She says, “It was as though my mind had shifted away from my normal perception of reality—where I’m the person on the machine having the experience—to some esoteric space where I’m witnessing myself having this experience.”

“My perception of physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air,” she has written in her memoir, “My Stroke of Insight”. The core message of the book is that people can choose to live a more peaceful, spiritual life by sidestepping their left brain. You can read here whole story here.

As we see, the interpreter plays a major role in dividing the reality. It also creates a split between our self-image and our ideal self. We all have a self-concept (called ‘Ahamkar in Indian traditions’) which consists of various beliefs about who we are and what we want to be. As clear borders have been defined for this egoic identity, there is a constant need to protect and enhance this identity. Most of our suffering results from our constant identification with this conceptual entity by giving it a solid reality in our minds. A threat to the self-concept or self-image is perceived by our body and mind like any other threat in the world (like a threat faced by an animal of being killed). So, all of such experiences create the same physiological reactions by activating the amygdala and initiating a fight-or-flight response.We are also in a constant pursuit of enhancing the self-concept by accumulating wealth, knowledge and beliefs about ourselves. We depend on our past to define who we are and we depend on the future to enhance it. Because of this, we are stuck in a hedonic treadmill.

Let me quote from Wiki again to define ‘Hedonic treadmill’

“The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. Brickman and Campbell coined the term in their essay “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society” (1971). During the late 1990s, the concept was modified by Michael Eysenck, a British psychologist, to become the current “hedonic treadmill theory” which compares the pursuit of happiness to a person on a treadmill, who has to keep walking just to stay in the same place’”

Spiritual enlightenment promises to end suffering by ending this hedonic treadmill. It leads one to resolve all the internal conflicts and to feel one with everything. It removes the idea that there is a separate entity inside which has to enhance itself for fulfillment. The left brain may still continue to categorize things, but they are not solidified in our consciousness and urge us to protect those solidified entities.

Neural Correlates of the egoic self

To study about the enlightenment in neuroscientific perspective we have to know about a neural network called ‘The Default Mode Network’ in the brain.

The default mode network (DMN) refers to the structures in the brain which are active when we are not focused on any task in particular. If you are idle, this network is activated by default. This network is activated when we are mind wandering, thinking about others, thinking about one’s self, remembering the past, and envisioning the future. This network has everything to do with the egoic self that we are identified with. The main structures of default mode network are precuneus, posterior cingulate cortex, medial prefrontal cortex and certain other areas.

This indicates that the solid entity of ‘me and my story’ categorized by the left-brain interpreter has a need to be enhanced and protected. The whole process of enhancing and protecting this entity can be observed as a constant activity in the default mode network during the resting state of the brain. This activity can in turn feed and activate the left-brain interpreter again.

Excessive activity in default mode network has been correlated with depression. It has also been found that decreased activity in default mode network correlates with increased happiness.

Based my own experience and according to various studies done on mindfulness meditation, I can say mindfulness reduces the activity in default mode network and changes the perception of self. The practise of Buddhist mindfulness and contemplating on the nature of reality ultimately leads to removing the psychological boundaries of ‘me’ and the ‘world’. The effects of mindfulness in improving emotional regulation and changing the perspective of ‘self’ has been discussed in detailed in the papers ‘‘How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective’’ and ‘Neuroscience of Mindfulness’.

Neural mechanisms of suffering

Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist, has written a wonderful book called ‘Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom’. In this book, he has attempted to bridge science with the traditional Buddhist teachings. He explains the neural mechanisms of suffering and explains how, by meditation, one can bring neuroplastic changes in the brain and end suffering.

So, what exactly happens when our brain perceives a threat to our self-image?. Our brain regards it as a danger and activates the amygdala. Here is how he describes it:

“Something happens. It might be a car suddenly cutting you off, a put-down from a coworker, or even just a worrisome thought. Social and emotional conditions can pack a wallop like physical ones since psychological pain draws on many of the same neural networks as physical pain (Eisenberger and Lieberman 2004); this is why getting rejected can feel as bad as a root canal. Even just anticipating a challenging event—such as giving a talk next week—can have as much impact as living through it for real. Whatever the source of the threat, the amygdala sounds the alarm, setting off several reactions: The thalamus—the relay station in the middle of your head—sends a “Wake up!” signal to your brain stem, which in turn releases stimulating norepinephrine throughout your brain. norepinephrine throughout your brain. The SNS sends signals to the major organs and muscle groups in your body, readying them for fighting or fleeing. The hypothalamus—the brain’s primary regulator of the endocrine system—prompts the pituitary gland to signal the adrenal glands to release the “stress hormones”epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol.

Within a second or two of the initial alarm, your brain is on red alert, your SNS is lit up like a Christmas tree, and stress hormones are washing through your blood. In other words, you’re at least a little upset. What’s going on in your body? Epinephrine increases your heart rate (so your heart can move more blood) and dilates your pupils (so your eyes gather more light). Norepinephrine shunts blood to large muscle groups. Meanwhile, the bronchioles of your lungs dilate for increased gas exchange—enabling you to hit harder or run faster. Cortisol suppresses the immune system to reduce inflammation from wounds. It also revs up stress reactions in two circular ways: First, it causes the brain stem to stimulate the amygdala further, which increases amygdala activation of the SNS/HPAA system—which produces more cortisol. Second, cortisol suppresses hippocampal activity (which normally inhibits the amygdala); this takes the brakes off the amygdala, leading to yet more cortisol. Reproduction is sidelined—no time for sex when you’re running for cover. The same for digestion: salivation decreases and peristalsis slows down, so your mouth feels dry and you become constipated. Your emotions intensify, organizing and mobilizing the whole brain for action. SNS/HPAA arousal stimulates the amygdala, which is hardwired to focus on negative information and react intensely to it. Consequently, feeling stressed sets you up for fear and anger. As limbic and endocrine activation increases, the relative strength of executive control from the PFC declines. It’s like being in a car with a runaway accelerator: the driver has less control over her vehicle. Further, the PFC is also affected by SNS/HPAA arousal, which pushes appraisals, attributions of others’ intentions, and priorities in a negative direction: now the driver of the careening car thinks everybody else is an idiot. For example, consider the difference between your take on a situation when you’re upset and your thoughts about it later when you’re calmer. In the harsh physical and social environments in which we evolved, this activation of multiple bodily systems helped our ancestors survive. But what’s the cost of this today, with the chronic low-grade stresses of modern life? “

This constant  ‘SNS/HPAA arousal’ (Sympathetic nervous system –  hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis) when a threat is perceived for this ‘egoic self’ is the reason why we go through unnecessary stress and suffering. Practices like mindfulness shrinks amygdala and inhibits SNS/HPAA arousal. Many years of mindfulness practise combined with insights of reality produces neuroplastic changes in the brain which results in spiritual enlightenment.

In addition to this Rick also explains how a duality is created:

 

  • “The parietal lobes of the brain are located in the upper back of the head (a “lobe” is a rounded swelling of the cortex). For most people, the left lobe establishes that the body is distinct from the world, and the right lobe indicates where the body is compared to features in its environment. The result is an automatic, underlying assumption along the lines of I am separate and independent. Although this is true in some ways, in many important ways it is not.

 

  • Since we are each connected and interdependent with the world, our attempts to be separate and independent are regularly frustrated, which produces painful signals of disturbance and threat.”

Neural Correlates of Non-dual Awareness

Now, we are going to look at another paper called ‘’Neural correlates of nondual awareness in meditation‘, which talks about a nonconceptual nondual awareness (NDA) that abides, ordinarily unrecognized, in the background of all conscious experiencing.

The paper gives a detailed  description of the non-dual awareness:

“This background awareness appears in meditation to be unitary and unchanging—a cognizance that is in itself empty of content, yet clearly aware and blissful—whereas various sensory, affective, and cognitive contents, and the various states of arousal appear to it as dynamic processes or, as a well-known metaphor states, like images in a mirror.NDA is characterized, among others, by its reflexive property—it knows itself to be conscious without relying on subsequent moments of conceptual cognition. According to some traditions,our inability to ordinarily detect NDA is due to an obscuration of this reflexive property by mistaken cognitions arising from substrate consciousness.

Although NDA is experienced in meditation as a vivid presence of empty awareness that knows itself directly without mediation by conceptual thought, substrate consciousness is experienced as a pleasantly restful absorbed state, akin to deep sleep yet not entirely unconscious, which one knows retroactively. The question of what may be the relationship of NDA to subjectivity and a sense of self has been a matter of considerable debate among various Asian philosophies and is beyond the scope of this review.”

The result of the studies suggest that ‘Precuneus awareness network’ is responsible for the non-dual awareness:

“Although our previous study did not find statistically significant differences in connectivity of individual ROIs, the connectivity of the central precuneus ROI was marginally higher for the NDA condition. The above statement has led us to hypothesize that the central precuneus network might be significantly involved in NDA. Our interest in this region was furthered by participants’ reports of the presence of two particular features of NDA: reflexivity, traditionally described as awareness being aware of itself; and spatial extendedness, described as the sameness of space inside and outside of one’s body.

Preliminary data from this study indicate that NDA resulted in an increase in connectivity between the central precuneus and the dlPFC, accompanied by a decrease in connectivity between the central precuneus and the right angular gyrus (rAng), whereas the connectivity of the rAng to the right dlPFC and left dorso-medial prefrontal cortex increased, and the interhemispheric connectivity between the left and right dlPFC decreased.

Interestingly, no significant changes in connectivity have been observed between the central precuneus and the medial prefrontal cortex, and between the dorsal anterior cingulate (ACC) and other ROIs.”

Following are the interpretations made based on the observation:

    1. An increase in functional connectivity between the central precuneus and dlPFC could be indicative of a degree of unity of awareness 95 and related to the reflexivity of NDA, as information from the central precuneus is maintained online in working memory.
    2. The observed decrease in connectivity of the central precuneus to the right angular gyrus may be contributing to experiences of spatial extendedness, as the two areas are together involved in integrating spatial reference frames.
    3. The absence of significant changes in functional connectivity between the central precuneus and the areas of the medial prefrontal cortex may indicate that during NDA, even with minimized phenomenal content, there is no active suppression of self-referential processing such as that seen in FA or OM meditations.
    4. The absence of significant changes in connectivity of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) may be indicative of the more effortless, less cognitively controlled nature of NDA meditation.

A Contemporary Theory of Awakening – by Richard Boyle

Another noteworthy scientist who did research on spiritual enlightenment is Dr.Richard Boyle. He has worked as a Senior Research Scientist at the Institute for Social Research, University of New Mexico. He has written a book called ‘Realizing Awakened Consciousness – Interviews with Buddhist Teachers and a New Perspective on the Mind’ which has a collection of interviews with eleven prominent Western Buddhist teachers (Shinzen Young, John Tarrant, Ken McLeod, Ajahn Amaro, Martine Batchelor, Shaila Catherine, Gil Fronsdal, Stephen Batchelor, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Bernie Glassman, and Joseph Goldstein) and one scientist (James Austin) who have experienced awakening.

He has published a paper called ‘Cracking the Buddhist Code:A Contemporary Theory of Awakening’ in  Journal of Consciousness Studies. Here is the abstract of the paper, which makes a lot of sense:

“The theory proposes that what Buddhists and others have called awakening is the same thing as “pure perceptual experience,” defined as the awareness our perceptual systems would present to us if they acted on their own, with no interference from conceptual systems. Two forms of interference are particularly apt to interfere with pure perceptual experience: uncontrolled inner speech (wandering thoughts, monkey mind) and distortion of perception to fit reified conceptual structures. Monkey mind has been shown to be caused by hyper-activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) of the brain, which happens whenever nothing else demands our attention. Reification occurs, especially, in three kinds of symbolic structures, all of which we acquire as part of the culture we are born into:

  1. Scripts, which describe situations and events and prescribe appropriate behavior.
  2. Conceptual systems – theories, belief systems, social reality, world views, theologies and ideologies, etc.
  3. The underlying construct of four dimensional spacetime, in which we think we live.

The fact that predispositions toward uncontrolled DMN activity and reification of conceptual structures are essentially universal among humans means (at least within the realm of science) that they must have evolutionary roots. However, some people have and do overcome these two biological predispositions by engaging in such special practices as meditation and forms of inquiry. The theory seeks to specify how all this works in more detail and a way that allows the predictions to be studied.”

Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences

Dr. Jeffery A. Martin is a founder of the Transformative Technology space, serial entrepreneur and social scientist who researches personal transformation and the states of greatest human well-being. He spent the last 10 years conducting the largest international study on persistent non-symbolic experience (PNSE), which includes the types of consciousness commonly known as: enlightenment, nonduality, the peace that passeth understanding, unitive experience, and hundreds of others. More recently, he has used this research to make systems available to help people obtain profound psychological benefits in a rapid, secular, reliable, and safe way.

He has done research on over 1200 participants (who claim to be enlightened) all over the world and he has made many publications. He has documented various traits that he has observed in enlightened people in his paper ‘Clusters of Individual Experiences form a Continuum of Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences in Adults’ . The list of his publications can be read at his website.

Other scientists who were involved

Apart from the ones that I have mentioned, there are many other scientists who have done research on this topic and have written books about it.

Arthur J. Deikman, who was a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California did a lot of research on the subject and coined a term called ‘Mystical psychosis’.This term is used to to characterize first-person accounts of psychotic experiences that are strikingly similar to reports of mystical experiences. When Arthur himself went through a mystical experience, he became more interested in this subject. You can find many of his articles on his website. One particular article ‘Awareness’ explains the non-dual awareness in detail.

Modern scientists like Culadasa and Sam Harris are also worth mentioning. They have written books about meditations and spiritual awakenings. Abraham Moslow’s theory of self-actualization is the earliest description in psychology of the ultimate human potential, which is very close to self-realization. Willaim James, an early psychologist have studied various spiritual experiences and have written a book about it.

Conclusion

What do we get from all these studies which have been conducted? They all offer various clues on the direction that we need to go, in order to do more research. While we can’t derive strong conclusions based on the existing evidence, they make it very easy to narrow down to the exact neural correlates involved in spiritual enlightenment.

Many neuroscientists are interested in researching spiritual awakenings, as they now know that it is about something that definitely exists as a possibility for human beings to end their suffering and live a more peaceful life. As Neuroscience grows, we will soon have many ways to study the brain and understand exactly how a spiritual process works.

You can read about my own spiritual transformation in the following two articles:

  1. The Journey of a Seeker
  2. Spiritual Enlightenment – Is it a Myth or Real?

 

 

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Apidhamma – An Overview of Buddhist Psychology

Buddha was one of the earliest psychologists of human history. Modern Psychologists are impressed by the vast psychological knowledge present in the Buddhist doctrine. When investigating the mind to find the cause and cessation of suffering, Buddha took an approach that is similar to the scientific method employed in modern scientific research.

The collection of canonical texts revered as exclusively authoritative in Theravada Buddhism is known as Tripitaka, which means ‘Three baskets’.

Here is a short description of those three baskets:

(1) The basket of expected discipline from monks (Vinaya Piṭaka)

It consists of rules and regulations of monastic life including dress code, dietary rules and prohibitions of certain personal conducts.

2) The basket of discourse (Sūtra Piṭaka, Nikayas)

This is the collection of discourses given by Buddha,

(3) The basket of special doctrine (Abhidharma Piṭaka)

This includes technical, analytical and systematic content with deep insights into the psychology human mind. It was taught by Buddha to his most eminent disciples.

buddhist psychology

Apidhamma talks about two truths: Ultimate truth (Sammuti Sacca)and Conventional truth (Paramattha Sacca):

Conventional truth: The world we perceive which appears to have individuals interacting with each other is the conventional truth. We use our conventional language to express different things in the conventional truth. The idea that there is an individual self which is the essence of a human being is an apparent reality but ultimately, there is no individual self or essence.

This concept of a relative truth also exists in Vedanta, which is called Vyāvahārika (vyavahara), or samvriti-saya.

Ultimate truth: When we look at the truth in ultimate level, there is no self or an entity in reality. All that exist are aggregates or skandhas. The five aggregates or heaps are: form (or matter or body) (rupa), sensations (or feelings, received from form) (vedana), perceptions (samjna), mental activity or formations (sankhara), and consciousness (vijnana). These five aggregates completely explain a sentient being’s physical and mental existence.

So, anything you think as individual is actually made up of these five aggregates each of which are “not I, and not myself”. According to Buddha, clinging to these aggregates as if they are real is what causes suffering.

When we negate all these aggregates as not self, that which remains is ‘sunyata’ translated as ‘emptiness’ in English. But Buddha chose to express everything in negative terminology and hence Sunyata just explains what it is not. According to that definition, the reality, the ultimate truth which exists is free of any essence, anything that can be conceived by mind or senses.

But this ‘Sunyata’ in Buddhism and the ‘Brahman’ described in Vedanta is actually the same. The problem with the word Brahman is that it lets one to imagine Brahman as something, an entity or an essence. But even the Vedantic texts say that Brahman cannot be described in words because it is not possible to objectify it in anyway. It is not possible to mentally conceive an image or description about Brahman but it can be realized and seen as the truth of everything we perceive, by direct experiential knowledge. There is a term called ‘Anubhava’ which has the aspects of both experience and knowledge of the absolute truth. In Vedanta, this absolute or ultimate reality is called as Vyāvahārika satya (vyavahara), or samvriti-saya.

Buddhism goes even deeper than Vedanta in explaining psychological aspects of human thought.

Dhammas

The reality can also be described in terms of Dhammas.Dhammas are the ultimate entities or momentary events which make up the fabric of our experience of reality. The conventional reality of substantial objects and persons is just a conceptual construct created by the mind on a constant flow of dhammas which appear and disappear.

There are four categories of dhammas:

Citta – It is one’s mindset, or state of mind but cannot be classified as an aggregate because it is neither an entity nor a process.

Cetasika (mental factors, mental events, associated mentality)- the mental factors are categorized as formations (samskaras) concurrent with Citta. There are 52 types of Cetasika.

Rūpa — (physical occurrences, material form), 28 types

Nibbāna — (Extinction, cessation). This dharma is unconditioned it neither arises nor ceases due to causal interaction.

Many other concepts such as svabhava and causality exist in Buddhist psychology. In Buddhism, a deep insight into a person’s mind stream to see the impermanence, suffering and anatta (non-self) in everything perceived in a person’s citta is stressed for the cessation of suffering.

The core practice of Buddhist path to liberation is mindfulness. Being mindful of one’s moment to moment experience including thoughts, sensations, volition, states of mind etc with non-judgemental attitude, openness and acceptance gives insights into workings of the mind and ultimately leads to cessation of suffering and Nirvana.

A simple outline of this spiritual path excluding all its complex theoretical structure is explained in my post ‘Awakening through Mindfulness’.

I have explained my own journey in the following articles:

1.The Journey of a Seeker

2.Spiritual enlightenment – Is it a Myth or Real

 

 

 

 

Spiritual Enlightenment – Is it a Myth or Real?

What the hell is this spiritual enlightenment or spiritual awakening? Can you come up with one definition that everyone in the world will agree with? Many words have been associated with it: Moksha, Mukthi, Brahmajnana, Atmajnana, Nirvana, Bodhi, Kensho, Satori, Samadhi, Kevali, Kaivalya, Salvation, union with God etc. Many of them have different definitions, paths (practices) and theories.

But, one thing this enlightenment implies is that it is the purpose of the human life…For example, Indian tradition lists four main pursuits of life; virtue (dharma), wealth (artha), pleasure (kama) and enlightenment (moksha)… Modern psychology has another word for whatever the human life is progressing towards; it is called self-actualization, which is similar to the concept of enlightenment in many ways.

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When I went through a spiritual transformation myself, I found that whatever that happened to me agrees with one aspect which is almost present in all these traditions. It is the liberation from the identification with your self-concept. It literally destroyed the psychological boundaries between me and the world. It resulted in a drastic reduction of self-referential thought and emotional reactivity and made me peaceful forever. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing I can do to add more to who I am…. It is, with no doubt, a complete irreversible transformation which left me complete and fulfilled in the present moment. I had blissful epiphanies for a couple of months when I was going through this transformation.  I felt like I was out of a prison. After that, I didn’t think about enlightenment for at least three years.. The life went on like a comfortable and joyful train journey.

Read my story of spiritual seeking, prior to this transformation: The Journey of a Seeker

But there are other concepts which are associated with enlightenment and mentioned by many of the enlightenment gurus we have seen so far…  Here is a list of some of those concepts:

  • Being enlightened is like being in ecstatic bliss 24/7.
  • Once you are enlightened, you will remember your past lives.
  • You radiate some kind of energy which can be felt by people near you.
  • You can recognize another enlightened person by sight.
  • You don’t have any cravings or ego anymore… You are just pure consciousness with no thoughts, no cravings, and no ego!
  • If you want to die, you can do it by your own will and by causing no pain or damage to the body.
  • You can see auras of other people.

Nothing like that ever happened to me after the transformation and it has been three years now. But some people used to say that I was the happiest person in the world. I had a smile in my face whenever I met any of my friends and I looked happy and full of energy all the time. But I did face challenges and even went through some suffering time to time. They were not at all felt personal and left no trace in my psyche but they did give me a hard time.

Another thing that is noteworthy is that I felt like I was born again. This is consistent with the concept of ‘dvija’ in Indian tradition. In a couple of months after transformation, I was left with no motivation. I felt like there is nothing more to do with this life. So, I had to create a motivation that would give me a direction for life.  For the time being, I decided to perform as well as I can at work.

But I noticed that when it came to social behaviour, I made no attempt to impress others, influence the behaviour of others or even gossip with others, which affected a few things in my life. I was running a family. So, it was very important for my dependants that I influence other people to get things to happen the way I wanted them to happen.  For example, I needed to get promoted soon so that I could take care of my family in a better way. Because of these demands, certain things began to change. I had to consciously create a subtle ego and personality. I also had to choose a mission for my life, (not a goal that I want to reach but a direction I want to go towards) which will keep me motivated to do things in life. These changes happened very gradually and soon I realized that I had been relearning certain things in life as a total new born. My brain was creating fresh associations with each stimuli and experience.  I started to get classically conditioned all over again. But all of this happened very consciously and I could see those changes for what they were. I also noticed that my genetic factors were intact and they still influenced the way I thought and behaved.

Around May 2016, I bought a book called ‘Psychology’ 5th edition written by Robert A. Baron and Girishwar Mishra. Learning psychology changed a lot of things. It was very interesting to learn about why people behaved the way they did and it offered a lot of new insights to my own transformation. (I was also using cannabis everyday during this time). At the same time, I also suffered from Insomnia because I always felt energetic and I could never get myself to sleep so easily. Sleep deprivation, vigorous study of psychology and hard work at office caused me to be active all the time. My highest record was set when I was awake continuously for 45 hours with maximum activity.

I started seeing many connections in totally disconnected happenings of my life in the past .Things were happening so fast that I was not able to keep myself balanced. It was like riding in a roller coaster most of the time.  Every bit of my body and mind was throbbing with energy. The valence of my emotions kept changing every hour. It would be miserable for an hour; then I would feel peaceful as if nothing had happened, for the next hour.

I started behaving like a lunatic and things got worse. Soon I left my job and went to my parent’s home. The roller coaster continued and I was admitted in a psychiatric hospital for 10 days. The doctor prescribed haloperidol and chlorpromazine. (They are usually prescribed for schizophrenia. But I know the symptoms and I was not schizophrenic. ) The doctors didn’t even bother to talk to me or counsel me. And, there was a serious side effect with these tablets; they cause Akathesia, the worst disorder one could ever get. If you have akathesia you cannot sit still or stand in one place for more than 3-4 minutes. You will always have an urge to keep moving your body. I suffered from akathesia for more than a month. It was cured by taking trihexphenydil  and clonazepam (The doctors were not helpful. I had to search in Wikipedia to find out which antipsychotic drugs were causing the problem and just skip them).

These symptoms that I underwent is actually known as spiritual crisis which was listed first in DSM-IV ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). They are supposed to be diagnosed and treated differently. But usually, a lot of psychiatrists who are not aware of this treat these symptoms as indications of a regular mental disorder.

Now, I feel like I have become a grown up boy in this new second birth. (I am talking about ‘dvija’; not about a previous incarnation). I have a better clarity of what exactly happened in me in the last three years. U.G Krishnamurti went through a similar transformation in his life and he used to call it a ‘calamity’. Also, he has said in his interviews that he had to learn certain things from scratch as well. I haven’t read his books much, but the word ‘calamity’ actually suits what I went through.

After I was cured from Akathesia, I settled down in my new job and everything became fine. Life is beautiful now. As far as my subjective well-being is concerned, there is no way it can be any better than this. I am not seeking anything anymore (as I already feel complete and liberated) but I am still interested in this concept of enlightenment and find out the neural correlates of it in the brain. I cannot do this alone. But my mission is to contribute towards a scientific research on human transformation. I spend my time reading psychology journals, science papers and articles, writing blog posts, reading about the awakening experiences of others etc.

My life is now full of awe and curiosity, and this awakening seems to be deepening; I see no limits for the depth. Whether this is enlightenment or not doesn’t matter to me. If someone says that this is enlightenment, I would probably say ‘oh, I see’… If they say I still have to work towards another shift called ‘enlightenment’, I wouldn’t bother about it. Because, anything beyond this will be an unnecessary luxury.

Even though I personally don’t have to worry about it, I still have to study about enlightenment and compare my experience with other authentic awakened people so that I can contribute something to the scientific research. I began to search in forums and Quora for personal testimonies of awakening. I found out that most of the testimonies are similar to my own awakening and it is very common as well. I also found that there is no scientific evidence for paranormal powers in spite of thousands and thousands of studies conducted on alleged psychics so far. A guy called James Randi even challenged people that he would offer millions of dollars to any person who proves he has such powers. Many people volunteered but nothing was proved.

I am not saying that nothing paranormal exists; I am just saying that I don’t know.. There is no evidence, I have no first hand experience and I don’t believe in ‘believing’ anymore!

At the same time, there are always cult movements showing up which cause a lot of controversies. Some of them do offer useful guidance towards self-realization, but they are often mixed with the authority’s own opinions. In some cases, there have been even abusive behavior towards the followers. If a public science of spiritual awakening is created and a way to recognize awakened people with brain imaging technology has been established, then all these problems will be solved.

At this point, all I can say based on my own experience is that freedom from self-concept does exist and it does liberate you and make you peaceful and free human being. Most of the people call this enlightenment. But a few people claim the ever-bliss, paranormal spiritual awakening as enlightenment. Whether such a thing exists or not, I don’t know yet.

As a young scientist, I want to take this very carefully and step by step. Even If I don’t manage to get the public attention in my lifetime, my findings and theories will remain in my blog forever, so that people can read it even after I am gone.

 

 

 

Awakening Through Mindfulness – Bridging Science and Spirituality

One of the reasons for much of the suffering that we go through in life is taking life too seriously. It is not uncommon though; almost everyone is so serious about the drama of life. So, everyone has assumed that there is no way out of it. But, there is a potential for a change in your attitude towards life which will make you to treat life as the lifelong movie in which we all are just characters. There is also a potential to remove all the unwanted suffering that we have imposed on ourselves by removing the serious identification with the character called ‘you’ and your story.. I went through a journey myself that helped me to realize this potential and make it possible. (You can read more about my journey here: The Journey of a Seeker). I will call that whole process as ‘Awakening Through Mindfulness (ATM)’.

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If you believe in God, you can use the belief itself as an aid towards changing your attitude. Many people consider themselves as a puppet of the God’s hands. That helps them change the way they react to the situations and stop taking everything personal. But it is just a coping mechanism; No one is actually sitting up there and directing your life. Life and the force of the life itself is a deep and interesting mystery. If you want to call that force God, you can. That is a beautiful personification. Warning! For many people,  beliefs have actually been a hindrance in the whole process.

There is a way to really experience life as a movie and to be not affected by your self-image. You can completely detach yourself from the identification you have with the self image.  .. Changing the attitude is the first step to ending the self created suffering and experience the life impersonally.. Your personality and your ego that projects the personality are just a part of the mask that you, as the character of this movie, are wearing. What hurts the mask doesn’t hurt you anymore, once you start experiencing life this way. Not only your ego and personality, but every thought, emotion, experience and knowledge that you witness in your consciousness is a part of that mask. Remembering this analogy of the mask and contemplating on it can help you to change your attitude to be favourable in the process of awakening.

As you proceed with this journey, you will eventually have to drop a lot of your beliefs and directly choose to know what you believed is true or false. Then, either you know or you don’t know. There is no need in believing something. The sense of security that we get from beliefs will not at all be needed anymore once you start experiencing the life devoid of self-created suffering. You don’t need any solace from the beliefs anymore. That life experience which stands apart and independent from your identity is what I call as an ‘awakened life’.

What you Call as Self is an Illusion!

The next step is just to realize and remember always that there is no self; I am not kidding! It is a scientific fact. What you perceive, think and experience every moment is the result of millions of neurons in your brain communicating with the neighboring neurons through electrochemical signals. This constant perceptual activity gives an illusion that there is a static self. This self which is experienced as being the one who inhabits the body, being the one who is thinking the thoughts, being the one experiencing emotions, being the agent of actions and having free will is an illusion. Also, every person you see is a complex network of forces communicating with each other in cell level, chemical level and atomic level. 2500 years ago, a man called Gautama Buddha revealed the truth of the no-self for the first time.

Seeing this in neuroscientific perspective, what you experience as you and your story is just a result of activity happens in a combination of brain structures called Default Mode Network DMN). This network is active when you are mind-wandering,thinking about others, thinking about yourself, remembering the past, and planning for the future. Hyperconnectivity of the default network has been linked to rumination in depression. Studies have shown that meditators and people who claim spiritual awakening have less or almost no activity in DMN.

This illusory  self is not consistent and static; it is ever changing. But the only thing which is consistent and constant throughout your life is your existence; the conscious, moment to moment experience that you are alive.

Three Aspects of the Absolute Reality

There are three aspects to what that is consistent: Existence, Consciousness and experiencing.

Existence can be defined as whatever that exists in the ultimate, absolute level. You perceive and know that objects exist because of this. It is the sense of being alive.

The objects may keep changing but the existence itself is something that is constant. It is not a ‘thing’ though. It is the basis of anything that is subjective.

Consciousness is like a light that shines up everything in the existence. It can be compared to the light in a movie screen using which your thoughts, emotions, perceptions and experiences are constantly being played. The movie screen is static all the time. It also exists in sleep, but there is nothing to show. Since consciousness is completely dark and since voluntary functions of the mind are shut off, there is actually nothing much is happening that is worth to be recorded in the brain and stored in long term memory.

Experiencing is not about various experiences that you go through every moment. It is the base of all experience, which is naturally peaceful. Peace is always the first and last experience of the lifetime. Even in death, the final moment is peace; a lot of scientists believe that a neurotransmitter called Dimethyltryptamine or DMT released in the brain during the last moment of death which gives peace and bliss. You are so peaceful during the birth too. You can obviously see that in the new born babies. Even throughout the life, you go through a lot of peaceful moments where you are ultimately content, all drives seem to be temporarily satisfied and you experience the ultimate peace and contentment. That peace is not really something that comes and goes. It is the subtle backdrop of all the noisy perceptions happening in the mind and never changes too. It is the base experience of all the experiences. An awakened person may often go through peak experiences (rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter – Abraham Maslow) when they touch the ultimate level of peace. During peak experiences, the boundaries of experiencer, experiencing and the experience dissolve and they all become one. The same happens with the knowledge as well. The  knower, knowing and  the known become one.

Note that, when I say experiencing,  I am talking about the ‘experiencing’ aspect of your existence; not about an independent experience. Any experience, including the peak experience com and go. But the ‘experiencing’ part of that which is consistent never changes.  It would be better to use a different word than experiencing but I can’t think of anything that comes closer right now.

So, whatever that is consistent which has the aspects of existence, consciousness and experiencing can be called with any  name you want to use. You can call it XYZ if you want! Some words that have been used in eastern traditions are absolute, Om, brahman, Sat-Chit-Ananda etc… Some call it as your ‘true self’. The problem with all these labels is that you start to see this XYZ as some object, a thing; Something that can be either perceived, experienced or known. But it is actually like the space or the field in which everything is perceived, experienced or known. So, it is very important to not to get too attached to the word.

Seeing the illusory self for what it is and completely removing the identification with it lets you to relax yourself in the truth of being alive and conscious. It will eventually let you free from hedonic treadmill and the pursuit of subjective self worth. You will feel liberated from the prison of this illusory self. This will give you a tremendous acceptance of what is; You will see life as a game with its own rules and challenges. But seeing that as just a game which will eventually end, makes you to play it with enjoyment and a great sense of peace.

Many practises have been suggested which help you to go through this process of awakening; self-inquiry, contemplation of the truth and so on. The practise that I can suggest for you is the one which worked for me.. It is called Sati in buddhism, Shikantaza in Zen, Shakshi bhav in Upanishads and mindfulness by buddhists as well as modern psychologists.  Mindfulness is used not only as a path to awakening, but also in modern therapies as a means to decrease depression and stress, increase well being, control addictions, slow down emotional reactivity etc.

What is Mindfulness and How to Practice it?

Mindfulness can be defined as focused nonjudgmental attention to experiences of thoughts, emotions, and body sensation in the present moment that is practiced by simply observing them as they arise and pass away. The paper ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ which was published by University of Toronto in 2014 suggests a two-component model of mindfulness:

1) Regulation of attention in order to maintain it on the immediate experience

2) Approaching one’s experiences with an orientation of curiosity,openness, and acceptance, regardless of their valence and desirability.

When you try to observe your thought process, you may lose your attention many times. Once you notice that the mind has wandered, you just bring it back to the awareness of thought process or body sensations again. No matter how many times the mind wanders away, you must take it easy and accept it. You can do this while doing whatever you are doing, like walking, eating, working out, waiting in a queue etc. Notice the flow of thoughts as if you are watching a stream flowing or traffic moving. Eventually you can extend the time that you practise mindfulness to most of the waking hours of the day. This may take years and years of practise.

When practicing mindfulness, don’t approach it as if you are working towards a goal. That would simply mean that you are enhancing the self-concept and strengthening the identification with it .Awakening is not an achievement. It is getting rid of the craving for any achievement that increases your self-worth or enhances your self-concept. Seeing mindfulness as a means for something to be achieved itself is a trap which may slow down the process of awakening.

In a couple of months of practise you may start noticing gaps in your thought process.You may also notice reduction in the number of thoughts. Also, a lot of unconscious patterns and repressed thoughts may start to come up and appear in the light of your conscious observation. It is quite normal. Just pay attention to whatever that comes up without reacting to it. But if you do react to it, that’s ok. Just notice that and wait to see what comes up next. As you do it more and more, the gaps will be more frequent and you may even start to wait for the next thought or feeling to arise. In a few months, you will start to feel more peaceful and relaxed. Your emotional regulation would also have improved.

While practising, become aware of the defense mechanisms of the ego whenever you notice them. Notice the repeated thought patterns and your attempts to maintain and protect your self-esteem.

Reading the authentic sources of Zen and Advaita can help you a lot in moving through the process. Personally for me, reading the transcribed talks of Osho and J.Krishnamurti were helpful in understanding how mindfulness works and how to go about practising it. Osho called it ‘witnessing’ and J.Krishnamurti called it as ‘Choiceless awareness’. The names are different but the meaning is exactly the same.

Once you have practised mindfulness for long term for a year or two, you may go through a crisis at times, usually called ‘Spiritual Crisis,’ a form of identity crisis where you experience drastic changes to your meaning system (your unique purposes, goals, values, attitude and beliefs, identity, and focus). It may cause a lot of disturbance, but don’t be alarmed. It happens to everyone but it will pass. The fruits of mindfulness always outweighs the disturbances caused by spiritual crisis.

Benefits of Mindfulness

I came across an interesting paper ‘How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective’ published in 2011 by Association For Psychological Science. It lists 4 major benefits of mindfulness and also lists the details of studies which support them.

Here are those four benefits:

  1. Attention regulation
  2. Body awareness
  3. Emotion regulation, including a. Reappraisal b. Exposure, extinction, and reconsolidation
  4. Change in perspective on the self.

The fourth one, ‘Change in perspective on the self’ is very important, which explains in detail about a lot of what we discussed about ‘Self’ in this post. You can search for this paper in ‘Academia’ and download it for free.

There have been many other studies done on mindfulness which show that mindfulness decreases suffering and increases subjective well being. Buddha prescribed mindfulness as the path to spiritual enlightenment. Whether you are looking for spiritual enlightenment or just improved well being, there is no doubt that mindfulness is the way to go.

 

The Theory of Enlightenment – by Scientific Method

Is there a way to  approach enlightenment scientifically and create a scientific doctrine of enlightenment? I think there is. We can derive a scientific definition of enlightenment and then do research to prove that the phenomenon called enlightenment  and enlightened people do exist…

Why science? Because science has a strong appeal. People don’t have issues in accepting anything that is scientifically proven..It is held that the knowledge in science is based on strong public evidence proven with careful, precise and systematic observation.

First, let me tell you something about scientific method.To be a scientist, you need to follow a specific approach in acquiring knowledge with some values and standards. The main values and standards are skepticism, open-mindedness, objectivity and accuracy.

The measurement of anything that you observe should be very accurate. You should also watch out for any cognitive bias that is affecting your objectivity. You should carefully avoid confirmational bias, availability heuristics, logical fallacies and relying on intuition rather than rational thinking.

Even if you are a spiritual seeker (or someone claiming to be enlightened) and have no knowledge in psychology, you can still play this game. To play this game, you need to put up a skeptic’s mask. That is the first thing.. That way you can also support a scientific research for enlightenment and be just an audience of the game and enjoy the game. If you are psychologist and have some interest in this research, then you can find various ideas to formulate a theory and hypothesis for enlightenment.

The goal of my article is not to create such a theory.. But I can probably help in giving you an outline of the theory or help you to create the outline and concepts in the theory.  I am not a scientist but I studied Psychology with authentic textbooks and found it fascinating. I acquired some basic knowledge on psychology and understand how a research in psychology works.

                                           Am I enlightened?

I went through a  major ‘change’ in my life when I was about thirty years old, which is similar to a lot of the reported awakening experiences. That ‘change’ completely changed my perspective of the reality, gave me contentment and peace which may be temporarily lost and regained, reduced about 80% of my involuntary thought process, assumably reduced much of the activity in my default mode network, brought a lot of subconscious tendencies into light, destroyed the obsession and attachment towards my own self-image and stripped away a lot of attachments that I had on the objects of everyday life. It stopped the feeling of cognitive dissonance and self-consciousness completely. (Self-consciousness is an acute sense of self-awareness. It is a preoccupation with oneself, as opposed to the philosophical state of self-awareness, which is the awareness that one exists as an individual being; although some writers use both terms interchangeably or synonymously – Wiki)

If you are wondering what is cognitive dissonance, then let me quote from Wikipedia:

“In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress (discomfort) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; when performing an action that contradicts one of those beliefs, ideas, or values; or when confronted with new information that contradicts one of the beliefs, ideas, and values. In other words, the term refers to the perception of incompatibility of two simultaneous cognitions, which can impact a person’s attitudes.

Leon Festinger‘s 1957 theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how human beings strive for internal consistency. A person who experiences inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and so is motivated to try to reduce the cognitive dissonance occurring, trying to “justify” their behavior by changing or adding new parts of the conflicting cognition, as well as actively avoiding situations and information likely to increase the psychological discomfort”.

Now, is the ‘change’ that I went through ‘enlightenment’? It need not be. It doesn’t fit into a lot of what is said about enlightenment. It neither made me a morally infallible person nor did it make me a person who is blissed out all the time like drugged with LSD or ecstasy. But it did give me some blissful experiences in the beginning which made me feel that  I had achieved the ultimate non-drugged bliss, peace and contentment one can possibly achieve. I remember walking on the road like a king one morning with a cool breeze of bliss flowing in my skull. A couple of months later, I noticed that It only made me aware of my egoic tendencies but those tendencies still exist as a part in my consciousness and can still influence my decisions. The ‘change’ did not happen in a single moment but in a process that lasted for about two to three months.But It reached its peak when I was in a Gurupurnima day satsang (July 12, 2014) with Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.

The change that I went through made me to look my self-image and the tendencies to keep it perfect and consistent as a subset of my own true reality, which seemed to be my true self (a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience, and a feeling of being alive)… It took away the distinction of feeling that there is an other and there is me… My definition of the true self and a false self is consistent with the theory of true and false self by  Donald Woods Winnicott, an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst. And also, to call that as a real ‘Self’ is metaphoric because the real self is not really a self – as the word is understood commonly by people. It is not an ‘I’ – as the word is commonly understood. The buddhist idea of Anatta fits more with it.

I can assume that the cause for the change is partially the catharsis and ‘meditation with action’ that I did ten years earlier to the change and mainly the constant practice of mindfulness or choiceless awareness that went on for a month before the change. Also, learning, understanding and assimilating the concept of Advaita about 5 years earlier to the change acted as a catalyst and help me to see things in a new light. There is absolutely nothing paranormal about it, no ESP, no auras and no memories of a previous incarnation…

By putting the skeptic mask on, the only word that I can use for these events with the limited vocabulary that I have is, ‘change’. But I am pretty sure that there are people out there in the world who actually use the word ‘enlightenment’ for a similar ‘change’ that happened in their lives. Psychology also has a word for a change in a person’s life which produces some of the results in a human being similar to the results that can be observed in a person who is believed to be ‘enlightened’; It is called ‘Self-Actualization’.

                                  The characteristics of self -actualization           

Psychology views ‘Self-Actualization’ as one of the human needs, the top one in the pyramid above physical and social needs. The term was originally introduced by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein for the motive to realize one’s full potential. Expressing one’s creativity, quest for spiritual enlightenment, pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to give to and/or positively transform society are examples of self-actualization.

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Below are the characteristics of self -actualization according to Wikipedia:

  • Efficient perceptions of reality. Self-actualizers are able to judge situations correctly and honestly. They are very sensitive to the fake and dishonest, and are free to see reality ‘as it is’.
  • Comfortable acceptance of self, others and nature. Self-actualizers accept their own human nature with all its flaws. The shortcomings of others and the contradictions of the human condition are accepted with humor and tolerance.
  • Reliant on own experiences and judgement. Independent, not reliant on culture and environment to form opinions and views.
  • Spontaneous and natural. True to oneself, rather than being how others want.
  • Task centering. Most of Maslow’s subjects had a mission to fulfill in life or some task or problem ‘beyond’ themselves (instead of outside of themselves) to pursue. Humanitarians such as Albert Schweitzer are considered to have possessed this quality.
  • Autonomy. Self-actualizers are free from reliance on external authorities or other people. They tend to be resourceful and independent.
  • Continued freshness of appreciation. The self-actualizer seems to constantly renew appreciation of life’s basic goods. A sunset or a flower will be experienced as intensely time after time as it was at first. There is an “innocence of vision”, like that of an artist or child.
  • Profound interpersonal relationships. The interpersonal relationships of self-actualizers are marked by deep loving bonds.
  • Comfort with solitude. Despite their satisfying relationships with others, self-actualizing people value solitude and are comfortable being alone.
  • Non-hostile sense of humor. This refers to the ability to laugh at oneself.
  • Peak experiences. All of Maslow’s subjects reported the frequent occurrence of peak experiences (temporary moments of self-actualization). These occasions were marked by feelings of ecstasy, harmony, and deep meaning. Self-actualizers reported feeling at one with the universe, stronger and calmer than ever before, filled with light, beauty, goodness, and so forth.
  • Socially compassionate. Possessing humanity.
  • Few friends. Few close intimate friends rather than many superficial relationships.

                           Spiritual Enlightenment and Human Evolution

Many people who are known as enlightened persons have said that a person can be either enlightened or not enlightened, there cannot be a partially enlightened person. But I don’t think that changes that enlightenment produces in the brain happens in a single moment. And I definitely believe that enlightenment brings changes in our cognitive process which can be observed through brain imaging techniques like MRI. So, it is possible that a certain change is initiated in the brain in the beginning of the process in which a person becomes enlightened. We can assume that the change is gradual until it reaches a certain point which is the ultimate point. The time it takes to reach the ultimate point may vary from a few days to many years. So, even in my case, it is possible that the change is still going on and not complete yet.

Modern day spiritual gurus have started to view enlightenment as a natural process that happens in human evolution. At this point it is just another made up theory created using rational thinking alone and as the spiritual gurus don’t have a way to know if it is true for sure.. It may be true but we first need to scientifically prove whether such a thing as enlightenment exists. If your skeptic mask is too loose, then you may shout out ‘No, the gurus have access to akashic records, they have some unique abilities to know certain things!’… Remember, we are discussing science.. Trying to prove that a so called enlightened person has access to some extraordinary internet called ‘Akashic records’ is a long way to go in science.

When we create the concepts in our enlightenment theory, it is necessary to create predictions based on the theory which can be verified by experiments and reproduced any number of time. Those predictions are called hypotheses. For example, a hypothesis can look like this: “There is only ‘x’ amount of activity in the DMN (Default mode network) in the brain of a person who can be defined as ‘enlightened’ according to science.” For this, we have to define ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘an enlightened person’. In the first place, we can only define an enlightened person by the parameters that can be measured.

I tried to create a couple of definitions for ‘Enlightenment’, making it as narrow as possible. Also, the definition must be something can be easily changed to a scientific definition.

                                           The True reality

Let us try with a first possible definition. This one is not really a scientific definition, but I have managed to strip it off a lot of concepts associated with enlightenment and put it in a very narrow window:

Enlightenment is the knowledge and experience of a person’s true reality which is realized by that person that permanently changes the outlook of the outside world for him/her.”

But what is a person’s true reality? Can we even explain that in scientific terms? A few comments on the true reality:

1) The true reality itself cannot be observed because nothing that is observed by a person is the person’s true reality. The person’s reality is neither his mind or nor his body because both can be observed by the person.

2) But there are things which are observable by science in the brain of the person who is enlightened (has realized his true reality). We can compare those observation  on people who are not enlightened and find out that difference. If there is a noticeable difference which make the enlightened ones stand apart from the crowd, then we can make those observable attributes to create a scientific definition of an  enlightened person.

3.The true reality is one. There are no two true realities. This implies that there is something common in the consciousness of every individual. Your true reality and my true reality are not two different things. This can only be a subjective experience. So, we can make a case study of the people who claim that this is how they see the reality. Then we can find out if they fit into our scientific definition of enlightenment by checking if they have the same observable traits we discussed. If there is any correlation, it will strengthen this theory.

May be we need to see enlightenment from a neurophysical perspective and define it in a way to make it easy for science to conduct research. How about this one?:

Enlightenment is a realization that happens to a person as a result of a cognitive event or a series of events which result in permanent changes in a person’s cognition and the perception of reality. It also increases the person’s subjective wellbeing and mental peace to the maximum possible level. It helps an individual to step out of hedonic treadmill.

This definition may not be a complete definition of enlightenment and people in spiritual practices may see think it doesn’t cover all aspects of enlightenment. But we are looking only at the aspects of the enlightenment which can be observed in an MRI scan.

If you are a psychologist, you can probably make a better one.

               Observable symptoms of enlightenment in the brain

I have come up some observable symptoms of enlightenment and meditation in the brain, that I derived based on the experiments done by scientists:

  1. Greater well being and reduced stress.
  2. High activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex
  3. Low or no activity in the Default mode network.
  4. Higher tolerance of pain.

These are the 4 main symptoms that I think which can be observed. I will go into these symptoms in a moment and explain them based on the scientific studies which have been done in the past.

We have to make accurate measurements of the values of these 4 traits  in people who claim to be enlightened and people who are not. First we need to make a comparison between the results of these two groups and confirm if the above observation is true. If it is true, then we can compare the scores of the people within the group of people who claim that they are enlightened. We have to look for the highest numbers in the scores. Then we can find out the maximum values of these scores and check if most of the people in that group have the maximum possible values. The experiments have to be repeated multiple times to get confidence in the results.

 The Role of Mindfulness and other meditation practices:

By observing the lives of people who are believed to be enlightened by the spiritual community, we come to know that they followed a course of various techniques called ‘Spiritual practice’ which resulted in the events preceding enlightenment. Among the practices like Self-inquiry, Yoga, love etc, one of the practices that is very common and scientifically proven to be  beneficial for mental health is ‘Mindfulness’ meditation.

According to Wikipedia, here are the scientific findings about mindfulness:

“Large population-based research studies have indicated that the practice of mindfulness is strongly correlated with greater well-being and perceived health.This is applicable to society at large as well as specific settings such as workplaces and schools.Studies have also shown that rumination and worry contribute to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and that mindfulness-based interventions are effective in the reduction of both rumination and worry.

Clinical psychology and psychiatry since the 1970s have developed a number of therapeutic applications based on mindfulness for helping people who are experiencing a variety of psychological conditions. Mindfulness practice is being employed in psychology to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions, such as bringing about reductions in depression symptoms, reducing stress, anxiety, and in the treatment of drug addiction. Recent studies demonstrate that mindfulness meditation significantly attenuates pain through multiple, unique mechanisms. It has gained worldwide popularity as a distinctive method to handle emotions.”

So, we can summarize what mindfulness does:

  1. It correlates with greater well being.
  2. Reduces rumination and worry, stress and anxiety.

So, we can safely hypothesize the enlightened people have increased subjective well being and less stress, anxiety and worry than common people.

It is essential to point out here that most of the enlightened people claim that they are in a constant meditative and mindful state. Several traits have been observed by brain imaging techniques on  meditator’s brains. So, we can also hypothesize that enlightened people are likely to have the same traits which were observed in meditators.

Here is a list of traits observed on the brains of meditators, according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain_activity_and_meditation :

  1. Decreased alpha blocking and increased frontal lobe specific theta activity.
  2. Recent studies have shown heightened activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, and prefrontal cortex, specifically in the dorsal medial prefrontal area during Vipassana meditation. Similarly, the cingulate cortex and frontal cortex areas were shown to have increased activity during Zen meditation.
  3. Greater sensitivity to emotional expression and positive emotion
  4. Increased density in grey matter regions and white matter pathways in the brains of individuals who meditate in comparison to individuals who do not.
  5. Higher tolerance for pain.

Low activity in Default Mode network (DMN):

Gary Weber is a scientist as well as somebody who has claimed to have become enlightened, has observed that most of the thoughts in his mind has disappeared after enlightenment.

In an article about Gary Weber, it says “Over time, Weber figured out that it wasn’t that all his thoughts had disappeared; rather a particular kind of self-referential thinking had cut out, what he calls “the blah blah network.” Scientists now refer to this as the “default mode network” (DMN), that is, the endlessly ruminative story of me: the obsessive list-maker, the anxious scenario planner, the distracted daydreamer.  This is the part of the thinking process we default to when not engaged in a specific task”. (Source: http://psychologytomorrowmagazine.com/jeff-warren-neuroscience-suffering-end/ )

It is also interesting to note that science has observed that DMN activation correlates with more unhappiness.

Here is a definition of DMN from Wikipedia: “The default mode network is most commonly shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering. But it is also active when the individual is thinking about others, thinking about themselves, remembering the past, and planning for the future”.

My own observation about my mind after doing years of mindfulness meditation is that most of my thoughts have disappeared. Based on the Wiki definition of DMN, I can confidently assume that there is a very less activity in the DMN of my brain.

So, we can also hypothesize that enlightened people have less or no activity in default mode network.

High activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex:

Here is an excerpt from an article about Matthieu Ricard, who is considered as the happiest man in the world by scientists  (Matthieu Ricard: Meet Mr Happy) :

“Matthieu Ricard, French translator and right-hand man for the Dalai Lama, has been the subject of intensive clinical tests at the University of Wisconsin, as a result of which he is frequently described as the happiest man in the world. It’s a somewhat flattering title, he says, given the tiny percentage of the global population who have had their brain patterns monitored by the same state-of-the-art technology, which involves attaching 256 sensors to the skull, and three hours’ continuous MRI scanning. The fact remains that, out of hundreds of volunteers whose scores ranged from +0.3 (what you might call the Morrissey zone) to -0.3 (beatific) the Frenchman scored -0.45. He shows me the chart of volunteers’ results, on his laptop. To find Ricard, you have to keep scrolling left, away from the main curve, until you eventually find him – a remote dot at the beginning of the x-axis.”

Here is another page that shows some pictures from the test which was done: Is this the world’s happiest man? Brain scans reveal French monk has ‘abnormally large capacity’ for joy – thanks to meditation

By doing the above research, this is what science has confirmed:

Meditation has been found to lead to high activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex, which in turn has been found to correlate with happiness.

So, we can hypothesize that enlightened people also have high activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex and hence they are happier than others. (I am not saying that all meditators are enlightened; But this hypothesis is based on the claim that enlightened people are always or mostly in a state of meditation.)

                                                   Conclusion

The only way to speed up a scientific research on this is by voluntary cooperation by all the gurus out there who say that they are enlightened and teach a way for others to become enlightened.  If these gurus tie up with scientists and are willing to have them checked with MRI scanning, science can make some useful discoveries. This is actually a good contribution that they can make to humanity rather than keep giving discourses, writing more books, conducting meditation retreats and mix their own views with the information which is already available on spirituality. As much as I have observed, enlightened people can still have various cognitive biases and still experience influence from the ego when making decisions or choices. When science can actually look at what is going on in their brain, why don’t they come up and volunteer? Many organizations associated with enlightened people are run by volunteers, but these enlightened people themselves have to volunteer to make this great revolution to happen. A scientific research on this can answer what we human beings are really up to and what are we evolving to be. At last, we can find out a scientific way out of human suffering.

Related links:

How Understanding the Process of Enlightenment Could Change Science?

What Really Happens In Our Brains When We Have Spiritual Experiences?

Science and Reincarnation

Does reincarnation exist? Well, there has been a lot of scientific research done on the topic of reincarnation and many psychologists are still doing experiments on this topic. Psychiatrist Ian Pretyman Stevenson was well known for his research as he traveled extensively over a period of forty years, investigating three thousand cases of children around the world who claimed to remember past lives.  He wrote many books on this as well. However, skeptics complained about a lot of issues in his experiments. But Ian Stevenson’s research about reincarnation is very popular in the scientific world and can definitely serve as a guide to do more experiments in the future.

Jim Tucker is another important psychiatrist who has done many experiments and studies. The reason I consider him as important is because of an unbelievable story of a boy named ‘James Leininger ‘.  Here is an excerpt of an interview between Jim Tucker and Rachel Martin (http://www.npr.org):

MARTIN: Let’s talk about a few of those. You mentioned your recent book. It’s called “Return To Life.” And you chronicle the stories of many children, including one that got a lot of national attention. It was the story of James Leininger. He was a boy who remembered being a World War II fighter pilot. Can you walk us through that case?

TUCKER: Sure. So James is the son of a Christian couple in Louisiana. And when he was little, he loved his toy planes. But also around the time of his second birthday, started having horrific nightmares four or five times a week – of being a plane crash. And then during the day, he talked about this plane crash and said that he had been a pilot, and that he had flown off of a boat. And his dad asked him the name of it, and he said Natoma. And he said he had been shot down by the Japanese; that he had been killed at Iwo Jima; and that he had a friend on the boat named Jack Larsen. Well, it turns out that there was an aircraft carrier called the USS Natoma Bay that was stationed in the Pacific during World War II. In fact, it was involved in Iwo Jima. And it lost one pilot there, a young man named James Huston. James Huston’s plane crashed exactly the way that James Leininger had described – hit in the engine, exploding into fire, crashing into the water and quickly sinking. And when that happened, the pilot of the plane next to his was named Jack Larsen.

MARTIN: And how old was James when he was making these claims?

TUCKER: Well, it started when he was 2 – and a very young 2.

MARTIN: That’s amazing.

TUCKER: Like with most of these cases, it faded away by the time he was 5 or 6 or 7, which is typical. But it was certainly there, quite strong, for some time.

MARTIN: And how do you know that these kids aren’t echoing things they have heard their parents talk about or making up stories, using their imagination, articulating dreams they may have had?

TUCKER: Yeah. Well, certainly with the imagination part – if we had never been able to verify that what the child said matched somebody who died, then you could certainly just mark it down as being fantasy. But in cases like James’, the previous person, James Huston, was so obscure – I mean, he was a pilot who was killed 50 years before; and he was from Pennsylvania, and James was in Louisiana – I mean, it seems absolutely impossible that he could have somehow gained this information as a 2-year-old through some sort of normal means. In fact, it took his dad a couple of years – well, really more than a couple of years; three or four years – to be able to track it all down and see that in fact, that what James was saying all did fit for this pilot who was killed.

(Read the entire interview here: http://www.npr.org/2014/01/05/259886077/searching-for-science-behind-reincarnation )

Jim Tucker thinks that consciousness would not necessarily be dependent on a physical brain in order to survive, and could continue after the physical brain and after the body dies.

Max Planck, Nobel Prize-winning German physicist and the father of quantum theory has stated “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.” Whatever Max Planck said is exactly what has been taught by various orthodox schools of ancient India for thousands of years. Even though it has not been proved scientifically, such an opinion from a Nobel Prize winning Quantum physicist certainly indicates that science is not far away from discovering this as a fact.

Since there are always skeptics who come up with arguments to prove that the findings of such experiments about reincarnation are not valid due to some flaws in the experiments, I searched for any such information regarding the case of James Leininger. I couldn’t find much. However, I found this blog article very interesting.

Here is another interesting account of reincarnation:  https://exemplore.com/paranormal/The-Reincarnation-Of-Anne-Frank-Barbro-Karlen-The-Amazing-Story-Of-Past-Life-Memories

I have heard many Yogis saying that everybody retains the memories of their previous lives until they are 2-3 years old. Then they are gradually forgotten once the memories of the current birth begin to add up. So, it is not surprising that all these scientists have documented about the cases of young children who have remembered their past lives.

I believe that the answer to the question of reincarnation lies in the field of Quantum Physics. May be in the next 50 years, scientists will finally discover a way to unite science and the metaphysical concepts of ancient religions.