The Neuroscience of Enlightenment

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Who has the highest happiness and well-being on the planet – and why?

What can we learn from these people?

Why do some people experience a profound “awakening” at some point in their life, and others don’t?

What changes in the brain when this happens?

As a long-time explorer of truth, I’ve been getting interested again recently in neuroscience research.  It’s fair to say that for the past few years, I ‘dropped out’ of this particular aspect of the study of human potential.

Not because it isn’t interesting or useful, just that I discovered something even more fundamental than what’s going on in that three-pound lump of marvellous engineering called the human brain.

Some recent serendipitous conversations have led to me coming across some fascinating research going on in the scientific community into what happens in the brains of people who have had some kind of enlightenment or awakening experience.

Dr Jeffrey Martin is a PhD in Neuroscience and Psychology from Harvard, has been exploring the patterns and similarities between people who have had “enlightenment experiences” that are persistent, rather than temporary ‘glimpses’.

Various traditions have coined several different names for this enlightenment or awakening, including:

  • Enlightened
  • Non-dual
  • God consciousness
  • Unity consciousness
  • Transcentendal consciousness
  • Persistent mystical experience
  • Persistent shamanic ecstasy

He interviewed 1000’s of people, had them complete loads of gold-standard tests, and subjected them to fMRI scans.

When he asked them how they got there – there were various ‘techniques’ that rose to the top as being most useful, like meditation.  But there was no one technique as a one size fits all.  And for some people, it was completely spontaneous, unlooked for, and rather bewildering!

Since 2006 he has become the leading academic on what he’s decided to call PNSE, or Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience (a term first coined by Suzanne Cook-Greuter)

Here’s how the people who have achieved this state of consciousness describe their moment to moment experience:

  • Effortless peace of mind
  • Bliss
  • Clarity
  • Profound OK-ness
  • Safe, whole
  • Highly functional
  • Mind is clear of self-referential thoughts
  • A huge sense of spaciousness – and spare capacity
  • Mind becomes the servant, rather than the master
  • Increasingly positive emotions.  Negative emotions increasingly fall away, because you are not driving these with the old stories.
  • Uncontaminated by personal thinking.
  • Fully connected rather than separate.  Profound sense of connection with all people, animals and things in the universe.  The ego falls away.

(At this point, I can’t resist telling one of my favourite Zen jokes:

A Zen master visiting New York City goes up to a hot dog vendor and says, “Make me one with everything.” 
The hot dog vendor fixes a hot dog and hands it to the Zen master, who pays with a $20 bill. 
The vendor puts the bill in the cash box and closes it. “Excuse me, but where’s my change?” asks the Zen master. 
The vendor responds, “Change must come from within.”)

Interestingly, Martin and his team have found that there’s a dramatic shift starting to take place around 1996 where more and more people are transitioning to these states.

He suggests this could have coincided with the internet becoming much more mainstream, so these people had a way of sharing their experiences, and communicating with others about it, and building up communities.   It could also be partly the Sheldrake 100th monkey idea.  But it’s almost as if the membrane that you had to pass through is becoming thinner – and it’s much more easily pushed through than before.

Gary Weber – another academic researcher, has coined the term “blah blah”network to describe self-referenced thinking.  This is where all human suffering comes from.  Filled with judgement, lack, scarcity and anxiety.  Weber has also studied, through brain scanning, what happens when this ‘blah-blah’ network becomes switched off, either through training and meditative techniques, or spontaneously.  It is literally a Transcendence of the Self – and this is reflected in fMRI scans which are markedly different from those of people who have not reached this state of consciousness.

The experience I’ve had over the past seven years – since immersing myself in the Three Principles, has felt like a gradual erosion of self-referenced thinking.  My mind is quieter than it has ever been, and it’s wonderful.

Remember Maslow and his good old hierarchy of needs?

Most people would describe the pinnacle of Maslow’s Pyramid as Self Actualisation. I find it fascinating to discover that towards the end of his life, Maslow added a further level beyond self-actualisation – that of self-transcendence.  Maslow talked about the shift from dependency consciousness to BEING consciousness.

Maslow described Self Actualisation as peak experiences, whereas Self Transcendence is more of a plateau experience (another way of describing PNSE).

The ‘P’ is PSNE, or Persistent – means that you’ve experienced this state of mind for a minimum of one year.

The 4th Awakening

Dr Martin and others postulate that there is a 4th Awakening happening in human consciousness.  And you are taking part in it!

Human beings have evolved in all sorts of ways since we crawled out of the primordial soup.  Our brains, and our consciousness, and our hard wiring.  But this kind of psychological hard wiring and genetic make up, from an evolutionary point of view, takes a long time to evolve.

Tens of thousands of years ago, it made perfect sense to be hard wired for fear, scarcity and anxiety.  It may be true to say that today, in 2018, our deep psychological wiring is still predisposing us to that kind of psychology – even though it doesn’t really fit our current circumstances.

So, what exactly is an Awakening? It occurs when something so profoundly changes the world that all of the old rules no longer apply. A powerful new paradigm arrives and things are never the same again.
Here’s Dr Martin’s analysis of the different awakenings that have taken place so far in our development:
The First Awakening… occurred approximately 200,000 years ago when Homo Sapiens emerged in East Africa, but it took another 150,000 years for things to begin to get interesting.

The Second Awakening… saw the emergence of spoken language, early shamans, and great myths being told around the campfire. For the first time, early humans became self aware and while still considering themselves a part of nature they understood they were now different. In the middle of the Second Awakening we saw rudimentary art in the form of cave drawings and crude figurines…and with it the first indications that humanity is deeply interconnected.

The last great ice age ended with the perfect storm for human development. As is the case with every Awakening, something clicked on inside us. During the Second Awakening, humanity began to perceive the future and past in new ways that enabled planning. Fourteen thousand years ago, this allowed us to begin to plant crops and keep livestock which in turn allowed for larger fixed population centres. As the food supply grew and became more predictable there was a population explosion and a series of cultural revolutions.

During the last part of the Second Awakening the changes in mankind were stunning. In a clear example of universal consciousness, many completely independent cultures around the world went through their own Bronze and Iron Age at approximately the same time.

The Third Awakening began around 3,000 years ago. It saw the rise of all modern religions, as well as science. Between 800 BC and 400 BC, there was a religious explosion. Judeo/Christian religions.  At the same time as Judeo/Christian religions emerged, Taoism – and then Confucianism – emerged in China. The same was happening with Shintoism in Japan, and Hinduism and Buddhism in India, and later Islam.

There’s also been an explosion in Science, of course, and this has come to the fore in modern times.

The Fourth Awakening… is just beginning. This is the one you get to participate in (whether you like it or not). All of the previous awakenings have one thing in common, they relate to thought.

When we think, we think in symbols. The Fourth Awakening brings a new mode of being with it, one that goes beyond symbols and beyond thought. Glimpses of it have been written about and pointed to for thousands of years.

During the Fourth Awakening, we will discover who and what we really are, and that it has nothing to do with the Self, as most people think of it.

Are you ready?

Here are a few resources to explore for the curious:

Dr Jeffery Martin
Buddha at the Gas Pump Interview with Dr Martin
“The Fourth Awakening” a series of novels by Rod Pennington and Dr Jeffery Martin
Gary Weber – a presentation on “The End of Suffering”

I’d love to know your thoughts about all this!

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