The Evolution of Vedanta, Yoga and Buddhism – A Truth Revealed

The aim of this article is to show that  Vedanta as we know today and Yoga which is practiced today are incomplete when taught independently. They have lost a lot of essential teachings of ancient rishis by evolving into two separate schools.  It also  aims to show that these modern schools have deviated much from the teachings of Ancient India.

Vedanta and Yoga were never seperare during the time of Upanishads. There were not two different schools. Instead, the teachings of Ancient India mainly included the following two aspects:

  • Insight

This constitutes getting insight into the nature of reality and seeing that the separate self is illusory in the moment to moment experience. Practices like self-inquiry and  Buddhist mindfulness are essentially the same and are mainly insight practices. The Advaita Vedanta that we know now focuses mainly on insight.

  • Concentration

This is often neglected in traditional Advaita but it was once advocated as a necessary skill to develop along with insight. Concentration and insight complement each other. There are some seekers who can do well by focusing on concentration and developing the insight later. But there are also seekers who are comfortable in doing insight practices first and achieve one pointed concentration later. Upasana in Vedanta (which is not taught in the modern days), Yogic samadhi and Buddhist Shamatha are practices that develop concentration.

It is definitely possible to bypass concentration practices altogether and practice insight alone. Concentration will automatically develop as a by product. But this is not true for all people. Some people are more comfortable and capable of starting with Yogic practices.Also, practicing both of them together can be very helpful towards liberation.

Because of this, yogic concentration practices and insight practices were both taught in Upanishads. In fact, there are certain upanishads which are dedicated to Yogic practices alone. They were never considered as separate schools of thought. Even Adi Shankara has elaborated on yogic and tantric practices on his text Soundarya Lahari.

The theory part of both Advaita and Yoga were adopted from Samkhya karika written by an ancient rishi called Kapila. In Bhagwad Gita, Samkhya is mentioned as another term for Gnana yoga, which is nothing but self-inquiry practices  and Nidhidhyasana of Vedanta that we know today. The terminology of Samkhya appears to be dualistic but in essence, it was not; It was actually a path for non-dual wisdom. Otherwise it would not have been mentioned in Bhagwad Gita, which is actually considered to be an authoritative text of Vedanta, along with Brahma Sutras and Upanishads. Samkhya mainly focused on discrimination between Purusha and Prakriti (satya and mithya in Vedanta) and offered insight into the reality which actually resulted in  seeing Purusha and Prakrita as one non-dual reality, even though it was not explicitely stated in Samkya sutras.

So in essence,  Vedanta, Yoga and Samkya were not really separate schools of thoughts.  These were words used to represent the aspects of the same essential teaching.  But after the period of Upanishads, people started giving more importance to Vedic rituals rather than focusing on the core teachings that help individuals towards their liberation.

Wisdom by Buddha

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The first rebellion against this growing importance of pointless rituals was done by Buddha. He established the core ancient teachings of insight and concentration but just used different terminology. He categorized the teachings into two main paths, which are complimentary to each other.

1)Vipassana (Insight)

This is essentially the same as Vedanta. Buddhist mindfulness is a practice to examine each thought and experience that arise each moment and look into the nature of their absence of a separate self, impermanence and suffering. This is exactly what self-inquiry does when you inquire the nature and origin of each thought. What was called as Nirguna Brahman (absolute reality that is empty of attributes) in ancient India was named as ‘Sunyata’ (emptiness) by Buddha. Since Buddha took a psychological approach, he intentionally used negative terminology so that people don’t form mental concepts about the absolute reality.

2)Shamatha (Concentration)

Buddha didn’t ignore the yogic practices of concentration. He introduced Jhana meditations which are essentially the same as Dhyana, Dharana and Samadhi. But he also explained how practicing either insight or concentration can automatically improve the other.

Buddha took an empirical approach in understanding the nature of mind. The deep psychological insights found in Apidhamma in Pali Canon, is very unique to Buddhism which is completely absent in the traditional schools of Advaita and Yoga which developed later as separate schools.The psychological wisdom found in Buddhism is compared to modern Psychology because of so many similarities between the two.

Traditional Vedanta, Samkhya and Yoga talk about three gunas which are sattva (balance), rajas (restlessness , too much activity in the mind), Tamas (inertia or mental dulness) to show how rajas and tamas are hindrances to insight and concentration. Buddha went futher and added three more to the two hindrances (panca nivaranani): Restlessness, Dulness and sloth, sensory desire, ill will and doubt.

Finally, Buddha went one step above in handling the mere curious people who wanted to accumulate factual  and theoretical information. He very well understood that such an accumulation of unnecessary knowledge may reinforce the idea of a separate self. So, contrary to the ancient teachings which taught different theories of creation (Ajativada, drishti-shristi vada, shristi-drishti vada), Buddha asked people to ignore such questions and theories and told them that these questions do not lead people to true knowledge. These questions have been termed as ‘Avyakata’ (unfathomable)  by Buddha. Sometimes, he was silent when people asked such questions which is popularly known as ‘Noble silence’in Buddhism.

 

Wisdom by Shankara

Any form of teachings get clouded and polluted overtime by people when they add new interpretations, ideas and speculations. This is mainly done by curious scholars who were not enlightened and had no interest in liberation.

When it comes to Buddhism, it faced two major problems:

  • There was a strong political pressure in Indian kingdoms to eliminate Buddhism since Buddhists didn’t practice Vedic rituals. But people were clinging so much to Vedas that they were not able to accept or understand the revolutionary teachings of Buddha. Because of this pressure Buddhism was widely eliminated from India but became very popular in China, Japan and South Asian countries.
  • Due to lack of teachers and proper guidance, many Buddhists in India became deluded and began to misunderstand the core teachings of Buddha.

Adi Shankra was not against Buddha’s core teachings or Yoga. But he reestablished the core teachings of ancient India by writing commentaries and texts on both insight and concentration practices, debating with ritual oriented Mimamsa scholars and deluded Buddhist scholars.

Realizing that vedic rituals and worshipping personal deities could not be easily removed from Indian tradition, Shankara had no choice but to compromise on certain things. He accepted the worship of personal God but popularised the concept of Ishwara and taught people that they can revere their favourite personal deity as Ishwara. He divided the sects of such deity worships to six categories (shanmata), based on the six popular deities, but insisted that any personal God is the representation of Absolute reality.

But since he was pretty much aware of what was  happening to the core teachings of Buddha, he had to debate with the remaining deluded Buddhist scholars to make them accept his newly formulated teachings. But he never excluded Yogic practices that were meant to achieve one-pointed concentration and Samadhi. In fact, he praised Yoga Vashista, the text which contain both vedantic and yogic teachings and regarded Vashista, the author of Yoga Vashista as the first teacher of Vedanta. But apart from the terminology and certain culturally oriented concepts, his teachings were essentially the same as Buddha’s teachings.

Distortion of the Original teachings

Again, needless to say, Shankara’s orginal teachings were distorted. Scholars conveniently ignored the concentration oriented practices and maintained the school of Advaita based on the rest of Shankara’s teachings. Overtime, vedantins became mere intellectuals who kept repeating that all is maya. This led to 5 other subschools of vedanta which criticized vedantins as mayavadis.

At the same time, Yoga started evolving as a separate school which ignored a lot of insight present in  Vedanta. They became more focused on physical postures and chasing various experiences.

 

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You are the Truth – A Poem about Non-duality

Here is my recent poem about non-duality or advaita, which has some pointers to contemplate for anyone who is seeking the truth:

You are the Truth - The Essential Wisdom of Advaita
You are the Truth – The Essential Wisdom of Advaita

The poem in the above image is a part of the longer poem that I wrote later.. I expanded the above poem to make it a part of a story which is metaphoric and reveals the essence of the ancient teachings.. It combines the vedantic teachings, mindfulness and verses from the Bible:

You are the Truth

Carrying the weight of past in my head
And dragging the scenes which were old and dead,
I ran to grab the bliss of the future;
The more I ran, the more was the torture..

The torture of the hedonic treadmill
Followed me as I continued uphill;
I was caught in the prison of craving
With tedious thoughts, my mind was raving.

I met an ugly old man on the way
who had a long thick beard with shades of grey.
His face was shining with heavenly bliss;
In his eyes I saw an endless abyss!

“What makes you so happy in this rat race?”,
I asked him as he slowly turned his face.
He replied,”The answer is within you!
The grand kingdom of God is within you!”

“That’s a joke”, I said “Are you kidding me?”.
“No!” He said, “Turn inward, you’ll become free!
You’ve made your own boundaries inside your mind,
You’ve closed your eyes and think you’ve become blind”.

I said, “How can I get out of this trap?
I want to find the way, give me the map”
He said, “You’re the way, the truth and the life!
Be still and know you’re that, and end this strife!

You’re not your body and you’re not your mind;
Not knowing the timeless truth makes you blind;
You’re not your story and you’re not your thoughts;
You’re not those age old, buried mental knots.

You’re not that chattering voice in your head;
You’re not anything that you did or said;
You’re not anything that you have or know
You’re the truth that is watching all this show!

You’re not anything that can be perceived;
You’re not an object that can be observed;
You’re the screen where the world is being played;
You’re the emptiness where the form is made.

You’re the one witnessing the mind and breath;
You’re one without two, beyond birth and death;
Like the air trapped in a small round bubble,
You feel separate which brings all the trouble.

Inquire inside and wake up from this dream!
Let truth alone shine like a bright white beam!
By inquiry, your illusions will break;
You’ll stop mistaking the rope for a snake”

Hearing these words stopped my thoughts for a while.
Looking in, I slowly began to smile.
I watched my thoughts as they slowly passed by;
I observed my mind like a secret spy.

For years, I contemplated on his words;
I watched my thoughts fly like a bunch of birds.
One day, I woke up and realized the truth;
Since then my life has been peaceful and smooth!

 

Was Shiva the Real Adiyogi or Is that Sadhguru’s Nonsense?

Note: Read my recent answer in Quora for more detailed elaboration: https://www.quora.com/Who-taught-yoga-to-Adiyogi-according-to-Sadhguru/answer/Shanmugam-P-12

(Update: 11/06/2018:

Due to a lot of misunderstandings, let me make something very clear. If you call the Absolute, the Brahman and the inner light of all sentient beings as Shiva and if you refer to that Absolute as the first guru, I don’t have any disagreements at all. In fact, I insist people follow this inner light.

But Sadhguru’s version of  Adiyogi is about a human being who lived 15,000 years ago, who really married a human woman called Parvathi and who gave birth to two yogis called Skanda and Ganesha. 

In other words, he implies that all Puranic stories are real and not metaphorical. But his story of Adiyogi actually matches a folk story of Nandinatha which is prevalent in Kashmir Shaivism. Before you comment, I request the readers to fully understand the intention of the article.

For more details and clarity, don’t fail to read the above mentioned Quora answer and also this one: What is the derivation of the word ‘Shiva’?. In this Quora answer, I have clearly explained the derivation of the word Shiva. Also, read this post to understand the metaphorical meaning of Ganesha and Skanda: A Shamatha Meditation Based on Symbolism, Visualization, Mnemonics and Classical Conditioning)

Recently, a 112-foot Adiyogi statue was unveiled in Isha Foundation, Coimbatore by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The beautiful statue was designed by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev as a credit to the first yogi and as an inspiration for the world. But who is the actual first yogi revered by yogic tradition? Was it really the mystical Lord Shiva or someone else? Sadly, the original Adi yogi has been forgotten and has been replaced by a carelessly spun story by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.

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Let me first quote the story as it is narrated by Sadhguru.

Story of AdiYogi as narrated by Sadhguru

“When we say “Shiva,” there are two fundamental aspects that we are referring to. The word “Shiva” literally means “that which is not.” On another level, when we say “Shiva,” we are referring to a certain yogi, the Adiyogi or the first yogi, and also the Adi Guru, the first Guru, who is the basis of what we know as the yogic science today.

In the yogic culture, Shiva is not seen as a God. He was a being who walked this land and lived in the Himalayan region. As the very source of the yogic traditions, his contribution in the making of human consciousness is too phenomenal to be ignored. This predates all religion.

Over 15,000 years ago, Adiyogi appeared in the upper regions of the Himalayas. No one knew where he came from or what his origins were. He just came and went into intense ecstatic dance upon the mountains.

People saw that he was experiencing something that nobody had known before, something that they were unable to fathom. So they gathered around him wanting to know what it was. But no one had the courage to go near him because he was so intense, like a blazing flame of fire. So they waited, hoping something would happen. Some people waited for months and left and Only seven hardcore seekers stuck on. These seven were insistent that they must learn from him, but Shiva ignored them. They pleaded and begged him, “Please, we want to know what you know.”

At last after 84 years of intense sadhana,he decided to become a Guru. On a full moon day which is known as Guru Pournami because the Adiyogi transformed himself into the Adi Guru – the first Guru was born on that day. He took the seven disciples to Kantisarovar and started a systematic exposition of yoga in a scientific manner. He began propounding the whole mechanics of life to these seven people, not intellectually as a philosophy, but experientially. He explored every nut and bolt of creation with them. He brought forth yoga as a technology with which every human being can evolve himself.

The transmission went on for a long period of time. After many years, when it was complete and had produced seven fully enlightened beings, who are today celebrated as the Sapta Rishis, Adiyogi sent each one of them to different parts of the world. One went to Central Asia. Another went to North Africa and the Middle East, where certain schools exist even today. Another went to South America, and that is one culture that imbibed it in a deep way and made something big out of it. One went to East Asia.

One stayed right there with Adiyogi. Another one came to the lower regions of the Himalayas and started what is known as Kashmiri Shaivism. Another one went south into the Indian Peninsula. This one is very important for us because he is Agastya Muni. Of the seven Sapta Rishis, Agastya Muni has been the most effective in terms of bringing the spiritual process into practical life, not as a teaching, philosophy or a practice, but as life itself. It is the benefit of what he did that the Indian people are still enjoying because he produced hundreds of yogis who were like fireballs.” and it goes on.”

First, it looks like Sadhguru has mixed two different stories and made them into one story. I don’t mean that Sadhguru would have intentionally done that. Regardless of whether someone is enlightened or not, human memory has its limitations. Sadhguru probably heard these stories a long time ago and due to memory errors, he might have made the two stories into one, which narrates something that never happened. I don’t blame Sadhguru, but the blind followers who simply take whatever Sadhguru says as correct.

I think it is important to make a few things clear. Let me first discuss who this Shiva is and a story from mythology that talks about Dakshinamurthy. Then I will talk about the real Adi yogi, who initiated 8 sages and sent them to different parts of the world.

Who is Shiva?

First, the word ‘Shiva’ doesn’t mean ‘that which is not’, as said by Sadhguru. I have no idea how he came up with such a meaning. The word ‘Shiva’ means ‘auspicious’, which has always been used as an adjective in Vedas. The word has been used for many deities, not just Rudra, the earliest form of Lord Shiva that we know today. It was just a word used to honour someone. Slowly, the word ‘Shiva’ got associated with the Vedic deity Rudra.

Second, mythology is not history. The stories in mythology might have been created for various reasons: to convey deep mystic teachings in the form of a story, to help people to develop devotion for a personified form of the ultimate truth as an aid towards self-realization, to entertain people etc. A puranic story always has multiple contradictory versions, each of them created by people to glorify their own favourite personal God.

Sadhguru has many times indicated that this Adiyogi is the same as Dakshinamoorthy. But the story of Dakshinamoorthy and the story of the Adiyogi who sent 8 rishis to different parts of the world are two entirely different stories.

Let me narrate a puranic story. When Lord Brahma was doing his work of creation, he created many sons from different parts of his body. Four of his sons named Sanaka, Sanatana, Sanandana and Sanatkumara were born from the mind of Brahma. These four people became Brahmacharis against the wish of their father. It is also said that Brahma became very angry because of that, and out of anger Rudra, the earliest form of Shiva was born.

But in Shaivite traditions, it is said that these four people approached Shiva who then assumed the form of Dakshinamoorthy to teach them. He taught them about Self-realization using chin mudra that symbolically shows how a person realizes the ultimate truth. That was all his teaching! According to the story, he just taught the essence of all the scriptures by a small gesture. Note that this applies to all traditions, not just Yoga. Most of the Indian schools of thought like Advaita, Yoga, and Samkya have the same essence even though they use different terminologies.

There are different stories associated with these four kumaras. Some of them are contradictory. Each purana has its own version. So, it is very clear that Dakshinamoorthy is a pure form created for devotion and sadhana, not a historical being who walked on the earth. And Dakshninamoorthy was not shown as teaching traditional Yoga at all. He is clearly not the Adiyogi of the yogic tradition. But this is not to deny the significance of Dakshinamoorthy in anyway. He is a great symbolic representation of enlightenment.

Who is the real Adiyogi?

During 200 BC or 300 BC, a great yogi called Nandhi natha lived in mount Kailash. He was a real human being who walked this planet and was the guru of the great Patanjali. He initiated 8 disciples (Sanatkumar, Sanakar, Sanadanar, Sananthanar, Shivayogamuni, Patanjali, Vyaghrapada, and Tirumular) and sent them to various parts of the world including central Asia to spread Advaita Shaivism. The whole Yogic tradition goes back to Patanjali whose Guru was Nandi natha. Nandi Natha also composed a poem with 26 verses called Nandikeshvara Kashika.

Even today, the Nandhi natha yogic tradition regards Nandi natha as the Adiyogi. A school of this lineage called Adi Natha does regard Shiva as the first yogi, but that was just a title given to Nandinatha, since Shiva means ‘auspicious’.

Tirumular, a well known Tamil saint and the disciple of Nandhinatha was actually the one sent by Adi yogi to south India to spread this school (not Agasthiya). Shiva sending sage Agasthiya to South India to balance the earth was just another puranic story and even that story doesn’t say that he was sent to south India to teach Yoga, as Sadhguru narrates.(Again, this is not to deny the significance of Agasthiya; He was a great Siddha who made great contribution to the world).

Vigyan Bhairav Tantra – 112 techniques for Yoga

Sadhguru also says that Adiyogi statue is 112 feet high and this is to represent the 112 techniques given by Lord Shiva. These 112 techniques are from Vigyan Bhairav Tantra, which is claimed to be a part of ancient Kashmir Shaivaite text called Rudrayamala. It was composed by an unknown author sometime around 8th century AD as a form of imaginary conversation between Shiva and Shakthi.

So, this Vigyan Bhairav Tantra is in no way related to the Adiyogi  Nandhi natha or a historical man called Shiva. The whole text of Vigyan Bhairav Tantra was actually popularized by Osho all over the world. Vigyan Bhairav Tantra is a very rare text which was translated to English by Paul Reps based on the commentary given by Swami Lakshman Joo Raina, a self-realized mystic of Kashmir Shaivism. The translation of Paul Reps was used by Osho to give his own commentaries.

The credit of popularizing Vigyan Bhairav Tantra goes to these three people:  Lakshman Joo, Paul Reps and Osho. Without them, not many people would have known about this valuable text.

As I already mentioned in my previous article ‘The Journey of a Seeker’, Sadhguru uses so many anecdotes, information, views and ideas given by Osho but never gives him credit. Osho was an honest and courageous man who created a great worldwide awareness about self-realization. He was the first man to popularize the fact that there is nothing wrong for a self-realized man to live a normal life with all the luxuries of the world. If Osho didn’t have the courage to own 92 Rolls Royces and still claim enlightenment, we wouldn’t be accepting Sadhguru owning a helicopter or playing golf. It is easier to accept Sadhguru now because we have already seen Osho like this. Osho did all the groundwork but the poor man doesn’t get the credit.

The Adiyogi statue looks beautiful, there is no question. But he didn’t build this statue to give credit for whoever the adiyogi was. It is simply a statue of Lord Shiva built to attract crowds and tourists. If Sadhguru is the kind of man who gives credit to people, then he would have given credit to Nandhi Natha (the actual Adi yogi) and Osho already.

Update 18/02/2018

Read my recent answer in Quora for more detailed elaboration: https://www.quora.com/Who-taught-yoga-to-Adiyogi-according-to-Sadhguru/answer/Shanmugam-P-12

Update – Aug 5th, 2018:

As a response to the comments I have been getting from the followers of Sadhguru, I have started a video series. So, watch this series before you comment (4 videos in the playlist so far:

Here is the link to the entire playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLyvcEPSjKqOk8Evwhz5tSlm5whxfZswlQ

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 has studied various spiritual experiences and has 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?

 

 

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.

alexandre-perotto-98624

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.