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

“I am that”

“I am that”

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

This well-known phrase originated from the sage Nisargadatta Maharaj. When he was young his Guru ordered him to attend to the sense ‘I am’ and to give attention to nothing else. He embraced that instruction totally and devoted himself to meditating upon it. Upon his spiritual awakening he recognized “I am that.”

 

This simple phrase summarizes the core of most awakening experiences, seeing all as one. In this oneness experience the individual disappears and everything is seen as contained in pure awareness which is the one thing. “I am that” actually doesn’t recognize an “I” or a “that.” They are one. So, what we refer to as “I” is exactly the same thing as all other things or “that”. There is no distinction.

 

This is a seminal teaching. It’s so simple that its profoundness can be missed. Meditate on that, the I am-ness, the sense that is behind the senses, the awareness that is the very core of our being. Perhaps, just perhaps, that “you are that” will reveal itself.

 

If indeed everything is the same and simply an expression of the whole inseparable reality then everything should treated with great reverence. We should have as much regard for garbage as we have for ourselves. In fact, a notable characteristic of Zen Masters is that they gladly engage is mundane and seemingly distasteful tasks such as cleaning floors and toilets with the same joy and reverence that they treat meditation. If everything is one then there is no distinction between good and bad things or between engaging and distasteful activities.

 

The modern spiritual teacher Adyashsnti told the story of his first meeting with his Zen teacher. Before entering her home, she asked him to take off his shoes. He casually flung them aside. She instructed him to go back and pick them up and carefully place them in an orderly fashion on the porch. She taught that if he did not revere and respect his shoes, how could he ever revere and respect himself and have any hope of awakening. This was her way of teaching that “I am that” means he was also his shoes.

 

This also holds true for other people. If we are all one then there is no reason to act toward anyone any different from anyone else. The Great Commandment ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ makes perfect sense as your neighbor is yourself.

 

Acting negatively or destructively toward anything or anyone degrades the whole which includes the self. It makes no sense to do so. It is in essence self-injurious to harm a flea. The environment deserves the same reverence as people as there is no distinction between the two. To cut down rain forests is equivalent to amputating a leg they are equally injurious to the singular one.

 

In most spiritual teachings love is a focus. We are told to love our neighbor and even our enemy. If they and us are one, of course we should love them all. To the sage, the oneness of all things is the essence of love. Everything is love. The first Great Commandment to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ also makes sense as everything is the Devine and everything is love.

 

So, the teaching of ‘I am that’ is the foundation upon which most spiritual teachings rest. I we truly accept that ‘I am that’ then we will live our lives very differently, with reverence, love, and respect for everything.

 

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

Drugs Produce Loss of Self Like Spiritual Awakening

Drugs Produce Loss of Self Like Spiritual Awakening

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“People tripping on psilocybin can experience paranoia or a complete loss of subjective self-identity, known as ego dissolution”Annamarya Scaccia

 

Psychedelic substances have been used almost since the beginning of recorded history to alter consciousness and produce spiritually meaningful experiences. Psychedelics produce effects that are similar to those that are reported in spiritual awakenings. They report a loss of the personal self. They experience what they used to refer to as the self as just a part of an integrated whole. They report feeling interconnected with everything else in a sense of oneness with all things. They experience a feeling of timelessness where time seems to stop and everything is taking place in a single present moment. They experience ineffability, being unable to express in words what they are experiencing and as a result sometimes producing paradoxical statements. And they experience a positive mood, with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

 

It is easy to see why people find these experiences so pleasant and eye opening. They often report that the experiences changed them forever. Even though the effects of psychedelic substances have been experienced and reported on for centuries, only very recently have these effects come under rigorous scientific scrutiny. One deterrent to the research is the legal prohibitions for the possession and use of these substances.

 

The fact that experiences, virtual identical to spiritual awakening experiences, can be induced by drugs and that drugs have their effects by altering the chemistry of the nervous system, has led to the notion that perhaps spiritual experiences are simply an altered state of the brain produced by intense spiritual practices. An important observation in this regard is that alterations of the brain can make it more likely that an individual will have a spiritual experience. Spiritual experiences can occur occasionally with epileptic seizures. This may provide clues as to what neural structures are involved in spiritual experiences.

 

In today’s Research News article “Looking for the Self: Phenomenology, Neurophysiology and Philosophical Significance of Drug-induced Ego Dissolution.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5441112/, Millière reviews and summarizes the published literature on drug effects on the concept of the self. He reports that a number of different psychoactive substances produce similar effects of ego dissolution. This is a dramatic breakdown of a sense of self producing a sense of unity with all things. No boundary between self and other is felt. Instead, there is a feeling of oneness with everything.

 

All psychedelic drugs act on the nervous system. They appear to stimulate the serotonin system in the brain and appear to suppress the activity of a set of neural structures known collectively as the Default Mode Network (DMN). These structures include the cingulate and medial frontal cortices, the thalamus which have been shown to be important for the production of a sense of self.

 

Another class of psychoactive drugs are dissociative anesthetics. These also appear to produce a loss of the sense of self, but act on a different neurochemical system, tending to stimulate the NMDA glutamate receptors. Glutamate receptors are the brain’s primary excitatory receptors and are widespread throughout the nervous system. So, the effects of this class of psychoactive substances on the brain are quite different from those of psychedelic drugs.

 

A final class of psychoactive drugs that produce an ego dissolution are kappa opioid receptor agonists. These appear to act by affecting opioid receptors which in turn affect the dopamine neurochemical system. In addition, it has been shown that drugs that block opioid receptors tend to reverse the feelings of loss of self in psychotic patients.

 

These findings do not reveal a common set of effects on the nervous system that are associated with the loss of a sense of self that are produced by the three different classes of compounds that elicit an ego dissolution. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a common mechanism, only that none has been identified. But, if there is not a common neural mechanism, then it would appear that the sense of self is fragile and can be disrupted by widespread and different effects on the nervous system. In addition, thinking about the self appears to increase activity in a completely different area of the brain and paying attention to non-self elements of experience changes still another set of structures. Hence, a sense of self appears to be produced by widespread different areas of the nervous system and disruption of widespread different areas and neurochemical systems can disrupt the sense of self.

 

One problem with the research on the neural systems responsible for the notion of self may be that what we call self may actually be a complex set of different processes. What we define as the “self” consists of a set of components including physiology, behaviors, personality, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, memories, etc. It is not a single thing rather it’s a set of things that in their entirety are considered a self. In other words, the self is a concept that summarizes a set of experiences and is not a thing unto itself. If this is the case then it is not surprising that disruption of different process may be responsible for common feelings of a loss of self.

 

All of this suggests that spiritual awakening may be an entirely different process than the effects of psychoactive drugs. They may each disrupt a different aspect of the set of components that we describe as the self. They further suggest that the sense of self is fragile and can be disrupted by disparate activities and psychoactive compounds affecting widespread and differing neural systems. Until there is greater clarity about which exact components of self are affected by each of the activities and drugs that produce an overall sense of loss of self, it will not be possible to answer the question as to whether spiritual awakening is due to organic changes produced by engagement in spiritual activities, or that they are representative of a totally different reality.

 

“There is ‘objective reality’ and then there is ‘our reality. Psychedelic drugs can distort our reality and result in perceptual illusions. But the reality we experience during ordinary wakefulness is also, to a large extent, an illusion.” – Enzo Tagliazucchi

 

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

 

Millière, R. (2017). Looking for the Self: Phenomenology, Neurophysiology and Philosophical Significance of Drug-induced Ego Dissolution. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 245. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00245

 

Abstract

There is converging evidence that high doses of hallucinogenic drugs can produce significant alterations of self-experience, described as the dissolution of the sense of self and the loss of boundaries between self and world. This article discusses the relevance of this phenomenon, known as “drug-induced ego dissolution (DIED)”, for cognitive neuroscience, psychology and philosophy of mind. Data from self-report questionnaires suggest that three neuropharmacological classes of drugs can induce ego dissolution: classical psychedelics, dissociative anesthetics and agonists of the kappa opioid receptor (KOR). While these substances act on different neurotransmitter receptors, they all produce strong subjective effects that can be compared to the symptoms of acute psychosis, including ego dissolution. It has been suggested that neuroimaging of DIED can indirectly shed light on the neural correlates of the self. While this line of inquiry is promising, its results must be interpreted with caution. First, neural correlates of ego dissolution might reveal the necessary neurophysiological conditions for the maintenance of the sense of self, but it is more doubtful that this method can reveal its minimally sufficient conditions. Second, it is necessary to define the relevant notion of self at play in the phenomenon of DIED. This article suggests that DIED consists in the disruption of subpersonal processes underlying the “minimal” or “embodied” self, i.e., the basic experience of being a self rooted in multimodal integration of self-related stimuli. This hypothesis is consistent with Bayesian models of phenomenal selfhood, according to which the subjective structure of conscious experience ultimately results from the optimization of predictions in perception and action. Finally, it is argued that DIED is also of particular interest for philosophy of mind. On the one hand, it challenges theories according to which consciousness always involves self-awareness. On the other hand, it suggests that ordinary conscious experience might involve a minimal kind of self-awareness rooted in multisensory processing, which is what appears to fade away during DIED.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5441112/

Do Spiritual Experiences Reveal Ultimate Truth or Merely Brain Activity?

Do Spiritual Experiences Reveal Ultimate Truth or Merely Brain Activity?

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

Spiritual experiences, be they called awakenings, mystical experiences, or enlightenments, involve a shift in how the individual perceives reality. This could be viewed as a spiritual revelation. But it could also be viewed as a change in the neural systems integrating and interpreting experiences. So, are spiritual awakenings revelations of a reality beyond physical reality or are they simply hallucinatory experience evoked by changes in the nervous system?

 

One way of investigating this question is to study the brain-spirituality connection. Research along these lines has revealed that there is a clear association between spirituality and the brain. Modern neuroscience has developed methods, such as neuroimaging, to investigate the relationship. Applying these techniques it has been demonstrated that spirituality is associated with changes in the size, activity, and connectivity of the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/19/spirituality-mindfulness-and-the-brain/). So spirituality and changes in neural systems co-occur. But, this does not demonstrate a causal connection, whether spirituality alters the brain or brain alteration causes spirituality, or some third factor is responsible for both.

 

A better way to demonstrate if brain activity cause spiritual experiences is to investigate what happens to spirituality when the brain changes. One place to look at this is with accidental brain injuries incurred by humans that afford an opportunity to glimpses associations between brain change and spirituality. In general people who have incurred damage to the right inferior parietal area show an increase in spirituality. So, brain alteration affects spirituality. But, increased spiritual beliefs and spiritual seeking is not the same thing as spiritual experiences. So, we cannot conclude that these changes in the brain are responsible for awakening experiences.

 

Another manipulation of the brain occurs with drugs. Indeed, various hallucinogenic drugs such as mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, etc. have been shown to produce experiences that are extremely similar to spiritual experiences. These drugs have been shown to alter the activity in specific neurochemical systems in the brain and when that happens, experiences that are very similar to spiritual awakenings are evoked. Many people who have used these drugs are altered spiritually but vast numbers of people find hallucinatory drugs as fun recreation but are not affected spiritually.

 

Spiritual seekers who have used psychedelic substances report that they experience something like but not the same as spiritual awakening experiences. The following quote from Alan Watts is illustrative.

“Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse         which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs           are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For         psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones.       The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away      and works on what he has seen…”

Also a quote from Ralph Metzner

            “While psychedelic use is all about altered states, Buddhism is all about altered traits,     and one does not necessarily lead to the other.”

Hence, it appears that although there are great similarities between manipulation of brain chemistry with drugs and the experiences occurring with spiritual awakenings, they are in fact quite different.

 

So, what should we conclude regarding the clear relationship between the brain and spiritual experiences? It has been established that spirituality changes the brain and that changes in the brain are associated with spiritual experiences. Does this indicate that spirituality is nothing but a brain function? This would suggest that spirituality and spiritual experiences are nothing but physical events and don’t represent experience of true transcendence or an indication of a god. If this were true then it would suggest that there is nothing beyond the physical, that spiritual awakenings are nothing other than evoked changes in the nervous system.

 

It should be noted that reported spiritual experiences most frequently involve changes in sensory experiences. We know that sensory experiences are produced by the nervous system. So, it would be expected that if a spiritual experience occurs then there would be changes in the nervous system. As a result it is not surprising that nervous system changes would accompany spiritual experiences.

 

Neural changes may represent the effects of spiritual experiences on the physical body. After all, when we become aware of any kind of remarkable occurrence we react emotionally, physically, and thoughtfully. This would imply that the neural changes occur after the spiritual experience and not before it as a causal relationship would demand. In addition, changing the brain with drugs may simply induce the same effects as the sequela of spiritual experience and not the spiritual experiences themselves.

 

The most common report of spiritual experience is that everything is perceived as one. This oneness experience is not reported to be a change in the actual sensory information, but rather as a perception of the interconnectedness of all things such that they are seen as all a part of a singular entity, like seeing individual waves as all being part of one ocean. The more modern science studies events and their interconnections the more that the truth of oneness is revealed. The entire science of ecology has developed to study the interconnectedness among biological entities, meteorology has determined that atmospheric conditions over the entire planet are interconnected, and geology has revealed the interconnectedness of all movement of the planet’s surface and interior. Just think how interconnected everything is with sunlight. Without this energy, life could not exist and even the weather would not be changing. Everything about us and our planet is interconnected to the sun’s energy.

 

So, perhaps the oneness revealed in spiritual experiences may actually be a more accurate glimpse of the truth of existence. Perhaps, the changes observed in the brain may simply be the effect of this revelation rather than the cause. At this point we cannot reach a clear conclusion as to whether spiritual experiences are material and physical or true revelation of a non-physical reality. But the research is exciting and will continue to explore these ultimate questions regarding existence.

 

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

“I am that”

Image may contain: 1 person

“I am that”

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

This well-known phrase originated from the sage Nisargadatta Maharaj. When he was young his Guru ordered him to attend to the sense ‘I am’ and to give attention to nothing else. He embraced that instruction totally and devoted himself to meditating upon it. Upon awakening he recognized “I am that.”

 

This simple phrase summarizes the core of most awakening experiences, seeing all as one. In this oneness experience the individual disappears and everything is seen as contained in pure awareness which is the one thing. “I am that” actually doesn’t recognize an “I” or a “that.” They are one. So, what we refer to as “I” is exactly the same thing as all other things or “that”. There is no distinction.

 

This is a seminal teaching. It’s so simple that its profoundness can be missed. Meditate on that, the I am-ness, the sense that is behind the senses, the awareness that is the very core of our being. Perhaps, just perhaps, that “you are that” will reveal itself.

 

If indeed everything is the same and simply an expression of the whole inseparable reality then everything should treated with great reverence. We should have as much regard for garbage as we have for ourselves. In fact, a notable characteristic of Zen Masters is that they gladly engage is mundane and seemingly distasteful tasks such as cleaning floors and toilets with the same joy and reverence that they treat meditation. If everything is one then there is no distinction between good and bad things or between engaging and distasteful activities.

 

This also holds true for other people. If we are all one then there is no reason to act toward anyone any different from anyone else. The Great Commandment ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ makes perfect sense as your neighbor is yourself.

 

Acting negatively or destructively toward anything or anyone degrades the whole which includes the self. It makes no sense to do so. It is in essence self-injurious to harm a flea. The environment deserves the same reverence as people as there is no distinction between the two. To cut down rain forests is equivalent to amputating a leg they are equally injurious to the singular one.

 

In most spiritual teachings love is a focus. We are told to love our neighbor and even our enemy. If they and us are one, of course we should love them all. To the sage, the oneness of all things is the essence of love. Everything is love. The first Great Commandment to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ also makes sense as everything is the Devine and everything is love.

 

So, the teaching of ‘I am that’ is the foundation upon which most spiritual teachings rest. I we truly accept that ‘I am that’ then we will live our lives very differently, with reverence, love, and respect for everything.

 

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

Sat Chit Ananda 1 – Being

Sat Chit Ananda 1 – Being

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“When we go deeper into the character of the absolute, Sat. We are able to dig into it, because it is intimate to us, and when it is intimate to us, when it is our consciousness, because it is our consciousness” – Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

 

Many engage in contemplative practice in order to better function in their lives. But for many it is practiced to achieve a deep spiritual awakening. The phrase Sat Chit Ananda is a beautiful pithy descriptor of the state of being that is the ultimate destination of spiritual awakening.

 

Sat Chit Ananda is a classic Sanskrit phrase originating in Hinduism. It has been translated as “being, consciousness, bliss.” In Hinduism it is a description of the subjective experience of Brahman. It is a sublimely blissful experience of the boundless, pure consciousness. It is a glimpse of ultimate reality. Sat Chit Ananda is a beautiful pointer to our true nature.

 

The first component “Sat” describes an essence that is pure and timeless, that never changes. Sat is what always remains regardless of time or situation. When we awaken, we constantly recognize Pure Being. We are consciously aware of Pure Being as our true nature, the core and foundation of all life.

 

This concept arises in multiple religions. In the Bible when Moses asked the god who he was he responded “I am that I am”. This is often interpreted to indicate a singular god, as an indicator of monotheism. But from the standpoint of “Sat” what is indicated is pure being; “I am”. When the Christian, Muslim, or Jewish mystics indicate that they have achieved oneness with god, they are referring to the fact that they have experienced themselves as pure being; “Sat”.

 

In our everyday experience we are focused on the contents of our awareness; what we’re seeing, hearing, feeling etc. This is actually the essence of mindfulness, being completely in the present moment. But, if we look deeply we can begin to realize that the contents are interesting, but, what is observing these contents is the essence of our existence. What is seeing? What is hearing? What is feeling?

 

In our practice, it is very useful to focus on, not what we’re experiencing, as the mind wants us to do, but on what is having the experience. If you look at it deeply you will find an entity that is silent and peaceful, that is unchanged by whatever is occurring, and that is always present and in fact has always been present. This is “Sat”, you pure being, pure awareness. This is what you truly are.

 

Just experience it. Do not try to see it. Do not try to think about it. Do not try to understand it. The mind cannot grasp it. The more you try the more elusive it becomes. Simply experience it. Observe the mystery of the miracle of “Sat”, of being.

 

“Sat. That which exists in the past, present and future, which has no beginning, middle and end, which is unchanging, which is not conditioned in time, space and causation.” – Swami Sivananda

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

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Meditate to Pray. Pray to Meditate

Meditate to Pray. Pray to Meditate

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.” ― Thomas Keating

 

Prayer takes a number of different forms most of which are not meditative. Prayers of adoration are prayers focused on the worship of God, without any reference to circumstances, needs, or desires. They are often recited by rote. Prayers of thanksgiving are expressions of gratitude towards God, made in reference to specific positive life experiences. Prayers of supplication “taps requests for God’s intervention in specific life events for oneself or others”. Prayers of confession involve the admission of negative behaviors, and a request for forgiveness. Obligatory prayers are required prayers consist primarily of fixed prayers repeated at each worship time. All of these types of prayer generally don’t parallel meditation and might be characterized as self-serving.

 

The final type, on the other hand, prayers of reception are very similar to meditation. These are prayers in which “one more passively awaits divine wisdom, understanding, or guidance”. They are “characterized by a contemplative attitude of openness, receptivity, and surrender, resulting in experiences ranging from peaceful/quiet to rapture/ecstasy”. The following story exemplifies this form of prayer:

“Mother Theresa was once asked about her prayer life.

The interviewer asked, “When you pray, what do you say to God?”

Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.”

Believing he understood what she had just said, the interviewer next asked, “Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?”

Mother Teresa replied, “He also doesn’t talk. He also simply listens.”

There was a long silence, with the interviewer seeming a bit confused and not knowing what to ask next.

Finally, Mother Teresa breaks the silence by saying, “If you can’t understand the meaning of what I’ve just said, I’m sorry but there’s no way I can explain it any better.” –  David Matthew Brown

 

This is the kind of prayer described by Mother Theresa is the form of contemplative prayer engaged in by the Christian or Sufi mystics. Receptive prayer might be characterized as the deepest most profound form of prayer. In this prayer the mind is quieted and there is no specific goal as in meditation. The practitioner simply quiets the mind and patiently monitors experience, just like meditation. So, not only can contemplative prayer be viewed as a form of meditation, but meditation can be viewed as a form of prayer. Both involve quieting the mind and simply resting peacefully observing whatever transpires.

 

This idea is further evidenced by what is arguably the most famous definition of prayer from St John Damascene ,‘Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God’. It is also evident in the sermons of the highly regarded Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart. He states that

The most powerful form of prayer, and the one which can virtually gain all things and which is the worthiest work of all, is that which flows from a free mind. The freer the mind is, the more powerful and worthy, the more useful, praiseworthy and perfect the prayer and the work become. A free mind can achieve all things. But what is a free mind? A free mind is one which is untroubled and unfettered by anything, which has not bound its best part to any particular manner of being or devotion and which does not seek its own interest in anything but is always immersed in God’s most precious will, having gone out of what is its own. (Talks of Instruction 2 in Davies, 1994).”

 

So, prayers of reception are essentially meditations. They involve quieting the mind and simply observing what transpires. The difference is simply one of intent. In the case of prayer, the practitioner has the intent of becoming one with the Deity, while in the case of meditation the practitioner has the intent of becoming one with the universe. Simply thinking of the universe as the expression of the Devine makes contemplative prayer and meditation identical. It’s all a matter of the label put on it. The meditator calls the ultimate product of meditation as awakening or enlightenment while the contemplative prayer practitioner calls the ultimate product of the prayer Devine revelation. It could be argued that these two are identical except for the labels put on them. In fact, the mystical experiences reported by the Christian and Sufi mystics only differ from those reported by meditators in the labels put on them. In their essence they are identical and lead to effectively the same place.

 

So, meditate to pray and pray to meditate!

 

“Spiritual meditation is the pathway to Divinity. It is a mystic ladder which reaches from earth to heaven, from error to Truth, from pain to peace.” ~James Allen

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

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Do Spiritual Experiences Reveal Ultimate Truth or Merely Brain Activity?

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Spiritual experiences, be they called awakenings, mystical experiences, or enlightenments, involve a shift in how the individual perceives reality. This could be viewed as a spiritual revelation. But it could also be viewed as a change in the neural systems integrating and interpreting experiences. So, are spiritual awakenings revelations of a reality beyond physical reality or are they simply hallucinatory experience evoked by changes in the nervous system?

 

One way of investigating this question is to study the brain-spirituality connection. Research along these lines has revealed that there is a clear association between spirituality and the brain. Modern neuroscience has developed methods, such as neuroimaging, to investigate the relationship. Applying these techniques it has been demonstrated that spirituality is associated with changes in the size, activity, and connectivity of the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/19/spirituality-mindfulness-and-the-brain/). So spirituality and changes in neural systems co-occur. But, this does not demonstrate a causal connection, whether spirituality alters the brain or brain alteration causes spirituality, or some third factor is responsible for both.

 

A better way to demonstrate if brain activity cause spiritual experiences is to investigate what happens to spirituality when the brain changes. One place to look at this is with accidental brain injuries incurred by humans that afford an opportunity to glimpses associations between brain change and spirituality. In general people who have incurred damage to the right inferior parietal area show an increase in spirituality. So, brain alteration affects spirituality. But, increased spiritual beliefs and spiritual seeking is not the same thing as spiritual experiences. So, we cannot conclude that these changes in the brain are responsible for awakening experiences.

 

Another manipulation of the brain occurs with drugs. Indeed, various hallucinogenic drugs such as mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, etc. have been shown to produce experiences that are extremely similar to spiritual experiences. These drugs have been shown to alter the activity in specific neurochemical systems in the brain and when that happens, experiences that are very similar to spiritual awakenings are evoked. Many people who have used these drugs are altered spiritually but vast numbers of people find hallucinatory drugs as fun recreation but are not affected spiritually.

 

Spiritual seekers who have used psychedelic substances report that they experience something like but not the same as spiritual awakening experiences. The following quote from Alan Watts is illustrative.

“Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse            which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs   are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones.             The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away        and works on what he has seen…”

Also a quote from Ralph Metzner

            “While psychedelic use is all about altered states, Buddhism is all about altered traits,        and one does not necessarily lead to the other.”

Hence, it appears that although there are great similarities between manipulation of brain chemistry with drugs and the experiences occurring with spiritual awakenings, they are in fact quite different.

 

So, what should we conclude regarding the clear relationship between the brain and spiritual experiences? It has been established that spirituality changes the brain and that changes in the brain are associated with spiritual experiences. Does this indicate that spirituality is nothing but a brain function? This would suggest that spirituality and spiritual experiences are nothing but physical events and don’t represent experience of true transcendence or an indication of a god. If this were true then it would suggest that there is nothing beyond the physical, that spiritual awakenings are nothing other than evoked changes in the nervous system.

 

It should be noted that reported spiritual experiences most frequently involve changes in sensory experiences. We know that sensory experiences are produced by the nervous system. So, it would be expected that if a spiritual experience occurs then there would be changes in the nervous system. As a result it is not surprising that nervous system changes would accompany spiritual experiences.

 

Neural changes may represent the effects of spiritual experiences on the physical body. After all, when we become aware of any kind of remarkable occurrence we react emotionally, physically, and thoughtfully. This would imply that the neural changes occur after the spiritual experience and not before it as a causal relationship would demand. In addition, changing the brain with drugs may simply induce the same effects as the sequela of spiritual experience and not the spiritual experiences themselves.

 

The most common report of spiritual experience is that everything is perceived as one. This oneness experience is not reported to be a change in the actual sensory information, but rather as a perception of the interconnectedness of all things such that they are seen as all a part of a singular entity, like seeing individual waves as all being part of one ocean. The more modern science studies events and their interconnections the more that the truth of oneness is revealed. The entire science of ecology has developed to study the interconnectedness among biological entities, meteorology has determined that atmospheric conditions over the entire planet are interconnected, and geology has revealed the interconnectedness of all movement of the planet’s surface and interior. Just think how interconnected everything is with sunlight. Without this energy, life could not exist and even the weather would not be changing. Everything about us and our planet is interconnected to the sun’s energy.

 

So, perhaps the oneness revealed in spiritual experiences may actually be a more accurate glimpse of the truth of existence. Perhaps, the changes observed in the brain may simply be the effect of this revelation rather than the cause. At this point we cannot reach a clear conclusion as to whether spiritual experiences are material and physical or true revelation of a non-physical reality. But the research is exciting and will continue to explore these ultimate questions regarding existence.

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Sat Chit Ananda 3 – Bliss

In previous posts we discussed the first two components of the classic phrase from Hinduism, “Sat Chit Ananda”. The phrase means “being, consciousness, bliss” and is a description of a sublimely blissful experience of the boundless, pure consciousness, a glimpse of ultimate reality.

The third component “Ananda” is translated as bliss, but also implies love and happiness. Bliss is often thought of as an ecstatic state of extraordinary joy and exhilarating happiness. But this does not capture the true meaning of “Ananda”. It is much subtler and richer, but devilishly difficult to capture in words. It is probably better to simply conceive of it as the feelings one has when “Sat” and “Chit” are fully realized, when one has fully awakened. Paramhansa Yogananda, described bliss as, “a transcendental state of superior calm including within itself the consciousness of a great expansion and that of ‘all in One and One in all.’”

Bliss is a continuous state of inner joy that is constant and undisturbed by outward gain or loss or by external circumstances whether positive or negative or happy or sad. It is a feeling of oneness and connection with all of creation. Bliss is where happiness, meaning, and truth converge.

Bliss is found in every religion. It is the ultimate state of consciousness that every religion holds as its highest goal and achievement, though each uses different terminology to explain it. Whether we are Christian or Hindu, Jewish or Muslim, Buddhist or atheist, Wiccan or animist, Taoist or Native American, we all strive for bliss.

Bliss arises when the mind becomes quiet and calm naturally and effortlessly. A fully awakened individual does not need to “think good thoughts” to feel good. Feeling good is our natural state when the mind is calm and open. So “Ananda” is as natural and inherent as Pure Being and Consciousness; “Sat” and “Chit”.

We can catch a glimpse of “Ananda” in our everyday unawakened state. When we quiet the mind and simply watch a sunset or a sunrise, Bliss arises naturally. Awakened ones simply experience this regardless of eternal circumstances. But, by simply letting go, and paying attention to what is always present naturally we can experience the state of “Ananda”.

So don’t strive to become blissful. Don’t try to make it happen. It already is happening. Simply practice deeply, quiet and calm the mind, and you will understand the meaning of “Ananda”.

CMCS