The Variety of Transcendent States During Meditation

The Variety of Transcendent States During Meditation

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Ancient masters described intense transcendent states that result from meditation. A true awakening, transformation of consciousness, oneness with the ALL. Many esoterics have glimpsed these levels of consciousness, and for a few it became a persistent state – enlightenment.” – Future Thinkers

 

Millions of people worldwide seek out transcendent experiences by engaging in practices, such as meditation, yoga, and prayer. Others use drugs such as peyote, mescaline, LSD, ayahuasca and psilocybin to induce these experiences. Transcendent experiences have many characteristics which are unique to the experiencer, their religious context, and their present situation. But, the common, central feature of transcendence is a sense of oneness, that all things are contained in a single thing, a sense of union with the universe and/or God and everything in existence. This includes a loss of the personal self. What they used to refer to as the self is experienced as just a part of an integrated whole. People who have had these experiences report feeling interconnected with everything else in a sense of oneness with all things. Although transcendent experiences can vary widely, they all contain this experience of oneness.

 

I published a summary and review of these characteristics in a paper entitles “A Model of Enlightened/Mystical/Awakened Experience. It can be found on Research Gate at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281807307_A_Model_of_EnlightenedMysticalAwakened_Experience.

 

Because of their relatively rare, ineffable, and completely subjective characteristics, transcendent experiences have received only a small amount of scientific attention. This, however, flies in the face of their importance to humans of spirituality. They are central to the human search for the nature and meaning of existence. Hence, there is a need for greater scientific attention to transcendent experiences.

 

In today’s Research News article “A Systematic Review of Transcendent States Across Meditation and Contemplative Traditions.” Wahbeh and colleagues summarize the published peer-reviewed scientific literature on transcendent experiences occurring during meditation. They identified 25 studies involving a total of 672 participants that measured a variety of physiological, psychological, and experiential variables during or after the experience of transcendence during meditation.

 

They found that “as meditation progresses, a person’s sense of agency, location and boundaries in time and space become weaker and the sense of self dissolves”. This was associated with relaxed wakefulness which included decreased respiration, skin conductivity, and muscle relaxation, increase in the brain’s alpha rhythm power, alpha blocking, and changes in brain area interconnectedness and activity. The meditators report experiencing “a sense of timelessness, spacelessness, unconditional love, peace, profound joy, and loss of boundaries of the self. In Christian contemplative traditions, there is a “transformative presence of God” and religious ecstasy.” The meditators report changes in perception that are reflected in changes in brain activity in the sensory cortices. Phenomenologically these changes are reported to not alter the present sensory environment but transcends it producing a sense on oneness of all things.

 

The studies reported were very heterogenous with different methodologies, measurements, and focus and with great differences in scientific quality and bias. This is unfortunate, as this is such an important area of study. There is a need for more work under similar conditions with standardized measurements and tighter experimental controls. Rather than considering the published research as definitive, it should be viewed as a first step in the investigation of transcendent experiences during meditation. But, the published studies to date produce a tantalizing glimpse into these states, reflecting an altered interpretation of reality and perhaps insight into the nature of being.

 

“during transcendent states, we slip into an altered state of consciousness different from our ordinary waking or rational consciousness. “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” – William James

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Wahbeh H, Sagher A, Back W, Pundhir P, Travis F. A Systematic Review of Transcendent States Across Meditation and Contemplative Traditions. Explore (NY). 2018 Jan – Feb;14(1):19-35. doi: 10.1016/j.explore.2017.07.007. Epub 2017 Oct 23.

 

Background

Across cultures and throughout history, transcendent states achieved through meditative practices have been reported. The practices to attain transcendent states vary from transcendental meditation to yoga to contemplative prayer, to other various forms of sitting meditation. While these transcendent states are ascribed many different terms, those who experience them describe a similar unitive, ineffable state of consciousness. Despite the common description, few studies have systematically examined transcendent states during meditation.

Objectives

The objectives of this systematic review were to: 1) characterize studies evaluating transcendent states associated with meditation in any tradition; 2) qualitatively describe physiological and phenomenological outcomes collected during transcendent states and; 3) evaluate the quality of these studies using the Quality Assessment Tool.

Methods

Medline, PsycINFO, CINAHL, AltHealthWatch, AMED, and the Institute of Noetic Science Meditation Library were searched for relevant papers in any language. Included studies required adult participants and the collection of outcomes before, during, or after a reported transcendent state associated with meditation.

Results

Twenty-five studies with a total of 672 combined participants were included in the final review. Participants were mostly male (61%; average age 39 ± 11 years) with 12.7 ± 6.6 (median 12.6; range 2–40) average years of meditation practice. A variety of meditation traditions were represented: (Buddhist; Christian; Mixed (practitioners from multiple traditions); Vedic: Transcendental Meditation and Yoga). The mean quality score was 67 ± 13 (100 highest score possible). Subjective phenomenology and the objective outcomes of electroencephalography (EEG), electrocardiographyelectromyographyelectrooculogramevent-related potentialsfunctional magnetic resonance imagingmagnetoencephalography, respiration, and skin conductance and response were measured. Transcendent states were most consistently associated with slowed breathing, respiratory suspension, reduced muscle activity and EEG alpha blocking with external stimuli, and increased EEG alpha power, EEG coherence, and functional neural connectivity. The transcendent state is described as being in a state of relaxed wakefulness in a phenomenologically different space-time. Heterogeneity between studies precluded any formal meta-analysis and thus, conclusions about outcomes are qualitative and preliminary.

Conclusions

Future research is warranted into transcendent states during meditation using more refined phenomenological tools and consistent methods and outcome evaluation.

https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.shsu.edu/science/article/pii/S1550830717300460

What’s wrong with the Idea of an Afterlife

What’s wrong with the Idea of an Afterlife

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” – Stephen Hawking

I am not interested in the afterlife. Religion is supposed to be about losing your ego, not preserving it eternally in optimum conditions.Karen Armstrong

 

The idea of an afterlife has been important throughout history and is a dominant theme is most religions. It is also a recurrent theme in literature and the media. The question of whether there is an afterlife has been discussed, argued, and preached about for centuries. Yet we do not have clearly verifiable empirical evidence to confirm or deny the concept. Some rely on scriptures as their evidence, but many are skeptical of writings dating from primitive times. So, the argument rages.

 

The biggest problem with the idea of an afterlife is the word itself (I prefer to use the word afterexistence). The idea of an afterlife can be interpreted, I believe correctly, as referring to what if anything transpires after life is over. The problem is that it can also be interpreted as a life that occurs following death. This is where the problem begins. People think of it as a life. This should be easily seen a patently incorrect. Life ceases at death. All of the physical processes that make up a living thing are either terminated or in the process of termination at the point of death. Death clearly means life is over. So the belief that there is life after death is completely contradictory to what actually happens in death.

 

Much of the argument follows from this misinterpretation. Atheists see that the physical processes cease and conclude, with impeccable logic, that there is no life after death. But, theists believe, and I emphasize the word believe, that the deity will somehow preserve us, pretty much as we are (“in his own image and likeness”) and bring us to a reward for our actions during life.

 

Maybe the problem with answering the question of an after existence comes from a reliance on logic, reason, and concepts that have their origin and existence in the physical realm. We’re in essence using the tools from the physical processes of the brain to try to reach a conclusion about whether there’s a non-physical reality. These processes were developed to understand and control the physical world. So, they would seem unsuited to exploring whether there’s something beyond the physical. Perhaps if we rely instead upon what we’re experiencing in the present moment, not what we think about it, but experience itself, we might be in a better position to explore the questions.

 

There is an important reframing of the question characterized by the quote “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. What this quote captures is a notion to turn existence as we see it inside out. Rather than see the physical world as true and wonder whether there’s something more, whether the spiritual is real or imagined, we can see the spiritual world as true and wonder whether there’s something more, whether the physical is real or imagined. If you take the later interpretation it radically changes how we view an after existence.

What prompts the strong human tendency to believe in an afterlife is the sense we have from our experience that there is something more. That sense comes from a clear experience we have that there is a presence, an awareness, an essence, a spirit that is aware of all that is going on but is not part of it. We can see the impermanence of all things physical. They rise up and they fall away. But this presence, this awareness is unchanging. It has been the same since birth to the present moment. What it is experiencing has changed and is impermanent, but what’s experiencing it has not.

 

If something is always the same even as the physical makeup of our bodies change from birth, to maturity, to old age, then it’s a simple extrapolation that that something should continue when the ultimate physical change, death, occurs. The presence, the awareness, the essence, the spirit persists. What that would be like is hard to imagine, an existence without input from the senses, without thought or memory, without concepts or language, without motivations or choices, without a self or personality. But, this is exactly the conclusion that this logic leads to.

 

Could there be a rebirth or what some people call a reincarnation. Why not? If the spirit, the awareness, the presence, can create a physical existence once, why not do it again? For that matter, why not thousands of times? We don’t have an answer to these questions. We can only judge its logical possibility if you assume that “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

 

All of this leads back to the problem with the idea of an afterlife; that there’s continuing physical existence after death. This seems, to put it mildly, unlikely. But, if we simply look at our experience, our awareness, we can come to a completely different way of looking at life and death. We can see that the one core real thing that escapes impermanence, the awareness, the presence, the essence, the spirit, the essence, that is always the same and never changing will not stop or change due to death, but will continue into an after existence.

 

I don’t believe in any particular definition of the afterlife, but I do believe we’re spiritual creatures and more than our biology and that energy cannot be destroyed, but can change. I don’t know what the afterlife is going to be, but I’m not afraid of it.” –Alan Ball

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

What’s Behind the Curtain

What’s Behind the Curtain

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

The ego’s survival relies on the defeat of [spiritual] truth because it is dependent allegiance to falsity and illusion. For one thing, spiritual truth challenges the ego’s presumption that it is sovereign. “ – David R. Hawkins

 

In the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz” Dorothy is cowed by the wizard in the hall of the Great and Powerful Oz. But her dog, Toto, is not in the least bit intimidated and pulls back a curtain revealing a little man. Suddenly, the voice of the wizard says “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” But, the secret was out. Everything was controlled by the little man. He created an awe-inspiring illusion of a non-existent all powerful wizard. Everything that was believed was all an actively created illusion by the frightened little con artist. Once the illusion was revealed, then the essence of the Dorothy’s life problem could be directly addressed and rapidly solved, returning her home. But, first the illusion had to be unmasked.

 

This is a wonderful scene that can be viewed as a metaphor for our existence. There is something behind the curtain that is creating illusions that we believe and organize our lives around. Behind the curtain is the mind. It creates the illusion that there is a wizard; a thing called an “I”, a self that is in control. But, when we look behind the curtain we can see what’s actually there and see the illusion that the mind has created. The illusion is that there really isn’t a thing that was first named by Sigmund Freud, called the ego. The illusion of self is created by the mind by portraying an overriding integrated executive in charge of everything. We then identify with it totally, pledging allegiance and defending it without question. It is so effective that the first reaction people have when its existence is questioned is one of disbelief and incredulity. The concept of no-self is one of the most difficult to accept and understand.

 

When we look deeply and try to find the thing called self or ego, we are puzzled by the fact that we can’t find it. Meditate deeply, looking inside, and try to find a self. What’s revealed is that it can’t be found because it isn’t there. If there were a thing that was truly the self, then it wouldn’t come and go. It would always be there. But, when we’re not thinking about the self, it disappears. Here one second, gone the next. The key here is that the self only exists when we’re thinking. This suggests that it is a creation of the mind’s thought processes, a fiction and not a thing unto itself.

 

Reflecting about this thing we call the self and looking at it closely, it can be seen that it is not a singular entity, but a concept composed of multiple cognitive and memory processes. When one is asked to describe their self, they almost universally will recite a list of characteristics, gender, height, weight, eye and hair color, occupation, educational attainment, religious affiliation, ethnicity, place of birth, place in the family, etc. But, it is quickly clear that these are just labels and measures of the body and its history and not really a self. Upon further reflection, it becomes clear that the self is simply a creation of the mind, the thinking part of the being, a concept created from a composite of memories.

 

Years ago, I decided to try to understand the mind by looking in the dictionary at its definition. I found the mind defined as “that which thinks, feels, wills, perceives, the subject or seat of consciousness.” Upon reflection, I realized that this was simply pointing to set of processes that are carried out by the brain. After a while I had the insight to see that the key to the definition was the first two words, “that which.” It’s not what it does, but who or what carries them out. The next realization was that this didn’t solve the problem of where and what is the “that which.” The definition simply attempts to clarify the concept by renaming it as an entity called “that which.” It never really defined it, it just dodged the issue by calling it something else.

 

As it turns out the mind does not exist as a singular entity. It is a concept that ties together a number of mental processes, and memories as suggested by the definition. These mental processes are what assemble the memories, creating the illusion of self. Behind the curtain is not a little man after all, but rather simply a concept, called the mind, and it is that assemblage of memories and processes that creates the illusions that we use to guide our lives.

 

But, why does this all occur. Why do we need to create a self out nothing? First off, it’s adaptive. It helps organize our experiences into an organized whole, providing structure to them. Our minds are limited and require structure to properly process experiences. This also provides for the seeing of others also as selves, providing structure to the social community. This would have been very adaptive in the dangerous and difficult times of early human development. Seeing a unified self, motivates us to defend it. Seeing a group of selves to which we belong motivates us to defend the group and make our and the groups survival more likely.

 

These defensive functions of the ego, the self, are readily on display in deep meditation. It frequently occurs that as the mind quiets in deep meditation and the meditator begins to glimpse an insight, the self jumps in and changes the subject, eliciting discursive thought and mind wandering. Just when the meditator begins to touch upon the fringe of truth, the self pulls away. This is often accompanied by a little brief emotional fright. All of this suggests that the self is so important that it will be defended even from within the individual. The structure does what it has to do to defend itself and maintain the illusion.

 

This all raises a very important question, what is experiencing all of this? What is “that which?” What is seeing the illusion created by the mind? What is the “Dorothy” that experiences the illusion and at the appropriate time sees what’s behind the curtain. Many spiritual teachers have suggested that it is something called awareness. They have suggested that it is the essence of our being. It’s been called by many names, soul, Buddha nature, spirit, Atman, etc. But, is simply the unchanging ground of all experiences. All of this simply labels the phenomenon but does not explain it. At least it doesn’t explain it in ways the limited mind can understand. But it can be experienced. In fact, it is experienced all the time everywhere and always has been. It’s the self that has kept us from noticing it. It is the self that keeps the curtain drawn. It’s the self that is the frightened little many behind the curtain struggling to defend itself.

 

It is the function of meditation to set the stage to allow the curtain to be pulled back. By quieting the mind, meditation quiets the defenses. They are still there and most of the time rise up to prevent any real insight. But, every once in a great while the truth pops through. This can produce a breakthrough where the curtain is pulled back and the truth of existence is revealed. Meditation tricks the mind into letting its guard down.

 

What are the consequences of drawing back the curtain. For Dorothy, it allowed her to see that she always had the power to go home, to be fulfilled, to be happy, to be liberated. The same goes for when awareness pulls back the curtain on the self and sees that it really doesn’t exist, that everything was just an illusion. When that is fully penetrated, it allows us to see that we always had what we seek, we always were at home, we are already fulfilled, we are already happy, and that we always were liberated. We just had to pull back the curtain on the illusion of self to see the truth.

 

“This ego, this false pretender, whenever it arises grabs the seat of honor at the core of our being. It purports to speak for the whole of us, even though our various parts lack integration.” – Joseph Naft

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch