Meditation Produces Mental Emptiness by Lowering Phasic Relationships in the EEG

Meditation Produces Mental Emptiness by Lowering Phasic Relationships in the EEG


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


Meditation research explores how the brain works when we refrain from concentration, rumination and intentional thinking. Electrical brain waves suggest that mental activity during meditation is wakeful and relaxed.” – ScienceDaily


Meditation training has been shown to improve health and well-being. It has also been found to be effective for a large array of medical and psychiatric conditions, either stand-alone or in combination with more traditional therapies. A characterizing feature of meditation is that it can produce periods of thoughtless awareness also known as mental emptiness where thinking is minimized. Little is known, however, about the underlying brain activity during thoughtless awareness relative to cognitive processing, thinking.


One way to observe the effects of meditation is to measure changes in the electroencephalogram (EEG), the rhythmic electrical activity that can be recorded from the scalp. The recorded activity can be separated into frequency bands. Delta activity consists of oscillations in the 0.5-3 cycles per second band. Theta activity in the EEG consists of oscillations in the 4-8 cycles per second band. Alpha activity consists of oscillations in the 8-12 cycles per second band. Beta activity consists of oscillations in the 13-30 cycles per second band while Gamma activity occurs in the 30-100 cycles per second band.


In today’s Research News article “From thoughtless awareness to effortful cognition: alpha – theta cross-frequency dynamics in experienced meditators during meditation, rest and arithmetic.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at:, Rodriguez-Larios and colleagues recruited adult, highly experienced, meditators and recorded the electroencephalogram (EEG) while they were at rest, engaged in breath following focused meditation, and doing mental arithmetic (counting backward by 7. They analyzed the EEG signals for alpha and theta rhythms and investigated the phasic relationships between them.


They found that during meditation the phasic relationships between alpha and theta rhythms in the brain were at a minimum where they were at a maximum during mental arithmetic. Since during the cognitive task of mental arithmetic the phasic relationships were high, it appears that these phasic relationships between alpha and theta rhythms are associated with cognitive processes, thinking. The fact that they’re minimized during meditation suggests that during meditation cognition, thinking, is minimized. This suggests that awareness is occurring without thought; thoughtless awareness.


These results make sense in that the goal of breath following meditation is to relax the mind and focus it on simple sensory signals and thereby minimize thinking. Meditation focuses the mind on the present moment and the sensory experiences occurring in the moment. The deeper the focus, the less room there is for thought to occur. The present results indicate that this thoughtless awareness can be seen in the electrical activity of the brain during meditation.


So, meditation produces mental emptiness by lowering phasic relationships in the EEG.


A theta wave cycle lasts about as long as the human eye blinks, or about 4/10 of a second! They are also associated with deep meditation. . . Theta waves are associated with dreaming sleep, super learning, creativity, daydreaming, and deep meditation. And with emotional surges, self-reprogramming, and spiritual experiences.” – Mindvalley


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Rodriguez-Larios, J., Faber, P., Achermann, P., Tei, S., & Alaerts, K. (2020). From thoughtless awareness to effortful cognition: alpha – theta cross-frequency dynamics in experienced meditators during meditation, rest and arithmetic. Scientific reports, 10(1), 5419.



Neural activity is known to oscillate within discrete frequency bands and the synchronization between these rhythms is hypothesized to underlie information integration in the brain. Since strict synchronization is only possible for harmonic frequencies, a recent theory proposes that the interaction between different brain rhythms is facilitated by transient harmonic frequency arrangements. In this line, it has been recently shown that the transient occurrence of 2:1 harmonic cross-frequency relationships between alpha and theta rhythms (i.e. falpha ≈ 12 Hz; ftheta ≈ 6 Hz) is enhanced during effortful cognition. In this study, we tested whether achieving a state of ‘mental emptiness’ during meditation is accompanied by a relative decrease in the occurrence of 2:1 harmonic cross-frequency relationships between alpha and theta rhythms. Continuous EEG recordings (19 electrodes) were obtained from 43 highly experienced meditators during meditation practice, rest and an arithmetic task. We show that the occurrence of transient alpha:theta 2:1 harmonic relationships increased linearly from a meditative to an active cognitive processing state (i.e. meditation < rest < arithmetic task). It is argued that transient EEG cross-frequency arrangements that prevent alpha:theta cross-frequency coupling could facilitate the experience of ‘mental emptiness’ by avoiding the interaction between the memory and executive components of cognition.


Content Free Awareness is Associated with Increased Brain Attentional Activity and Decreased Self-Awareness Activity

Content Free Awareness is Associated with Increased Brain Attentional Activity and Decreased Self-Awareness Activity


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“While scientists do not yet fully understand the true origin of consciousness, many agree that it can be measured within the brainwave patterns of the individual.” – EOC Institute


In meditation there occurs a number of different states of consciousness. One of the highest levels achieved is content free awareness. In this state there is nothing that the meditator is aware of other than awareness. The meditator is aware and aware of being aware, but nothing else. Changes in awareness are associated with changes in the activity of the brain which can be seen in the Electroencephalogram (EEG) and also in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). But content free awareness is elusive and what activity in the brain accompanies it is unknown.


In today’s Research News article “Content-Free Awareness: EEG-fcMRI Correlates of Consciousness as Such in an Expert Meditator.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at:, Winter and colleagues recruited an meditator with 40 years of experience and over 50,000 hours of formal meditation practice. They simultaneously recorded heart rate, respiration, and brain activity with an electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) during rest, attention to external stimuli, attention to internal stimuli including memories, and during meditation in a state of content-minimized awareness. After the content free awareness “he reported that he had no awareness of any mental content or any sensory event, including the noise of the MRI scanner. Similarly, he reported having had no experience of self, time, or space of any kind whatsoever at this stage.”


They found that heart rate and respiration decreased over the various states reaching its lowest levels during content free awareness. They found that there was a sharp decrease in EEG alpha rhythm power and increase in theta rhythm power during content free awareness. Finally, they found a decrease in functional connectivity in the posterior default mode network and increase in the dorsal attention network during content free awareness.


These are interesting results but it must be kept in mind that this was from a single adept expert meditator. Nevertheless, they provide a glimpse at the state of the nervous system during the deepest mental state occurring during meditation. The default mode network is involved in mind wandering, daydreaming, and self-referential thought. The fact that the connectivity within this system was markedly reduced during content free awareness suggests that non-specific mental activity and the idea of self are greatly reduced if not eliminated. The fact that connectivity within the dorsal attentional network increased while there was no increase in the sensory areas of the brain suggests that during content free awareness there was a focused attention that was decoupled from sensory experience. Hence, the brain activity observed in this meditator markedly corresponds to the mental state achieved.


So, content free awareness is associated with increased brain attentional activity and decreased self-awareness activity.


“The higher state of consciousness is somewhere in between the waking, sleeping and dreaming states. Here, we know we “are” but we don’t know “where” we are. This knowledge that I “am,” but I don’t know “where” I am or “what” I am, is called Shiva.” – Ravi Shankar


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Winter U, LeVan P, Borghardt TL, Akin B, Wittmann M, Leyens Y and Schmidt S (2020) Content-Free Awareness: EEG-fcMRI Correlates of Consciousness as Such in an Expert Meditator. Front. Psychol. 10:3064. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.03064


The minimal neural correlate of the conscious state, regardless of the neural activity correlated with the ever-changing contents of experience, has still not been identified. Different attempts have been made, mainly by comparing the normal waking state to seemingly unconscious states, such as deep sleep or general anesthesia. A more direct approach would be the neuroscientific investigation of conscious states that are experienced as free of any specific phenomenal content. Here we present serendipitous data on content-free awareness (CFA) during an EEG-fMRI assessment reported by an extraordinarily qualified meditator with over 50,000 h of practice. We focused on two specific cortical networks related to external and internal awareness, i.e., the dorsal attention network (DAN) and the default mode network (DMN), to explore the neural correlates of this experience. The combination of high-resolution EEG and ultrafast fMRI enabled us to analyze the dynamic aspects of fMRI connectivity informed by EEG power analysis. The neural correlates of CFA were characterized by a sharp decrease in alpha power and an increase in theta power as well as increases in functional connectivity in the DAN and decreases in the posterior DMN. We interpret these findings as correlates of a top-down-initiated attentional state excluding external sensory stimuli and internal mentation from conscious experience. We conclude that the investigation of states of CFA could provide valuable input for new methodological and conceptual approaches in the search for the minimal neural correlate of consciousness.


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


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+ 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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

Sat Chit Ananda 3 – Bliss

Sat Chit Ananda 3 – Bliss


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Ananda is that bliss which is eternal, uncaused and unexcelled. It is the real nature.” – Swami Sivananda


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”.


“Sat is divine Existence, Chit is divine Consciousness, Ananda is divine Bliss. When we go deep within we feel these three together, and when we acquire the inner vision to perceive them all at once, we live verily in the Kingdom of Heaven. Otherwise, Existence is at one place, Consciousness is somewhere else and Bliss is nowhere near the other two. When we see and feel Existence-Consciousness-Bliss on the selfsame plane, each complementing and fulfilling the others, we can say that we live in the Kingdom of Heaven. Yes, the Kingdom of Heaven is within us. Not only can we feel it, but without the least possible doubt, we can become it.” – Sri Chinmoy


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Sat Chit Ananda 2 – Consciousness

Sat Chit Ananda 2 – Consciousness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“The argument unfolds as follows: physicists have no problem accepting that certain fundamental aspects of reality – such as space, mass, or electrical charge – just do exist. They can’t be explained as being the result of anything else. Explanations have to stop somewhere. The panpsychist hunch is that consciousness could be like that, too – and that if it is, there is no particular reason to assume that it only occurs in certain kinds of matter.” – Oliver Burkeman


In the previous post we discussed the first component 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 second component “Chit” is translated as consciousness. It is our minds eye. It is our everyday experience of reality. Consciousness is actually the first manifestation of our true nature.


What we are striving to do in our contemplative practice is to make consciousness aware of itself. It is like looking in the mirror at your own eyes or looking into the eyes of another. There is a simple and deep recognition of the absolute as yourself, your essence.


We have become so used to consciousness that we habituate to it and take it for granted. It’s quite startling to realize that we are frequently unaware of something so essential to our existence. We are not conscious of our consciousness. This is what is meant by being lost in our mind; completely unaware of awareness.


In contemplative practice we strive to quiet the mind. When we have achieved this stillness we allow consciousness to simply gaze upon itself. This is a recognition of “Chit”. In a deeper state this consciousness seems to be streaming from all of creation, not a thing called “me” or “I”. It contains the “me” as part of consciousness, but not its center. It is only one component of an infinite reality. This is Sat Chit Ananda realized.


Pure being and consciousness are always present although they may not be recognized. And it is mostly the mind or ego which distracts us from the direct experience of this divine presence. So, use contemplative practice to quiet the mind and allow “Chit” to be fully present.


“Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon… Nothing worth reading has been written on it.”  – Stuart Sutherland


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ 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


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

Where Can Permanence be Found?

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Where Can Permanence be Found?


By John M. de Castro


“We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. It is almost banal to say so, yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.” – Alan Watts


There is a prevalent delusion that there is permanence and stability in our existence. In fact, we so expect it that we are upset when things change. In truth, permanence is hard to find when one looks. Our immediate experience is constantly changing. As the Buddha taught, it’s impermanent. This is clear as sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and touches come and go constantly. They never stick around for long.


It’s a little harder to notice that our bodies are also constantly changing. It happens at a slower rate than immediate experience, but is constantly happening nonetheless. Over time every cell in our body degenerates and is replaced. We take in new molecules in the forms of air, water, and nutrients, using them to fuel the body and grow and replace tissues and excrete old and toxic molecules in the breath, sweat, and elimination processes. These ongoing processes mean that we are physically different than we were just a few minutes ago. This is most evident in the maturation process, growing, developing, maturing, and aging. Hence, not only our experience but also our physiology is impermanent and constantly changing.


The mind seems reasonably constant. But, with a little study and reflection, it can be seen that it too is constantly changing. We learn and change as we grow, acquiring language and mathematics, fundamentally changing the mind, from purely experiential to conceptual, from present moment to future planning, and as we acquire memories, from present to past. Increasingly the mind moves away from raw present moment experience to memories of the past and images of the future. From moment to moment our thoughts and images are changing. Hence, not only our experience and physiology but also our mind is impermanent and constantly changing.


But, surely there is permanence in our world. The ground we stand on is solid and unmoving. It is apparently unchanging and permanent. But, this is an illusion produced by the limited time spans that we directly experience. Every aspect of the earth itself is also changing and impermanent. We recently spent a week exploring the National Parks in Utah. The rock formations and canyons teach lessons that are written in a time frame that extends, not days or years or decades, or even millennia, but in billions of years. It’s recorded in geological time. To see the impermanence, it is necessary to view the parks from the perspective of this time frame. When one does, it becomes clear that everything about the earth is in motion, including the very ground under our feet.


We learned that the sand under our feet in Utah was formed from eroding sandstone that itself was formed from the erosion of the Appalachian Mountains, being washed westward by erosion into the rivers, forming a shoreline that millions of years ago was located in what is now Utah. As the Colorado Plateau raised up these sands formed into sandstone. This sandstone has been in turn eroding and washing toward the west coast. In fact, it has already formed sandstone in California. Hence, it has moved and reformed only to have it eroded moved and reformed again. It has, is, and will be in constant motion. But, not in human time rather in geologic time.


I spent reflective time looking over the Sulphur Creek Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park. It was carved 800 feet into the Colorado Plateau by erosion from the movement of water in Sulphur Creek. It took over 6 million years to carve the canyon. Here were 280 million years of geological changes right in front of my eyes. The lowest layers near the current creek bed were formed over 280 million years ago when this was the edge of the Pacific Ocean and the layer is composed of ancient sand dunes which as stated above originated in the sandstone of the Appalachian Mountains. Looking carefully and contemplatively at the canyon walls, I could see the aliveness of the earth, its impermanence. To put this in perspective, what I was looking at was actually only a small part of the 4.5 billion years of geological changes that we call the Earth. Hence, not only our experience, physiology, and mind but also the earth itself is impermanent and constantly changing.


Again, not apparent in the human life timeframe, but the entire universe itself is impermanent. Throughout its 13.8 billion-year history it has been constantly changing. Starting with the “Big Bang” itself to the present moment, stars have been created, matured, aged, and died, sometimes spectacularly in supernova, sometimes forming nebula, and sometimes collapsing into black holes. During their lives they’ve been moving further apart from each other as the universe continues expanding. Around the stars, planets, comets, etc. have formed each of which constantly changes and their fates determined by their constantly changing stars. Eventually, they all will cease existence in their current forms and their matter and energy will be redistributed into other forms.


This is disconcerting. There doesn’t appear to be any permanence whatsoever, anywhere. Everything is in constant motion. In fact, one might think that the only thing that appears to be permanent is impermanence itself. But, wait a second, what a revelation! This is actually a helpful mindset. If impermanence is embraced, then the effort to keep everything the same ceases. Instead, impermanence is accepted. Once it is embraced, the beauty and grandeur of the constantly changing internal and external landscape becomes evident. Change is beautiful and wonderful when one ceases to fight it. Knowing that we are constantly changing means that there are always opportunities to reinvent ourselves, to move in new and exciting directions, to grow and develop, and to be happy with life. Knowing that others are constantly changing means that we can discard our stereotypes and expectations about them. They will be different tomorrow than they are today. They can reinvent themselves, grow, develop and learn to enjoy the ever changing life they’ve been given. Seeing the impermanence can make our mortality more evident, focusing us more on the present moment and what is most important in our lives. In other words, accepting, indeed relishing, impermanence can transform our lives, making them happier, richer, fuller, and with deeper meaning than ever before.


Adopting this, we are now positioned to observe the one thing that does appear to be permanent in our existence; our awareness. Not what we are aware of, as that’s constantly changing, but, that which is aware of that content. It never seems to change. The content changes but the awareness itself does not. It’s been the same from our earliest memories of being aware, to the present moment, unchanging and ever present. Because it doesn’t change, we have a hard time becoming aware of it. Our minds have evolved to detect change as changes are the most significant events in the environment. They can contribute to or threaten our very survival. So, they stand out. But, in the background, mostly unnoticed, is this mysterious, magical, spiritual thing, awareness.


Grasp it, enjoy it, observe the wonder of it. It was seeing this that led the Buddha to his enlightenment. This has also been true for countless sages, mystics, saints, and yogis. Clearing away the delusion of permanence of everything else opens the eyes to the primacy of awareness in all of existence. This revelation is itself a spiritual revelation, opening a path to ultimate understanding of existence.


So, find permanence by seeing impermanence.


“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

― Robert Frost


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts arealso available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch



It’s the Awareness, Stupid!

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It’s the Awareness, Stupid


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“The greatest human gift is to be aware, to be in touch with oneself, one’s body, mind, feelings, thoughts, sensations.”– Anthony de Mello


The vast majority of the human race is, and has always been, on a spiritual search, to find greater meaning in life and beyond. We expend time engaging in spiritual practices, going on retreat, visiting sacred sites, attending religious services, watching televangelists, etc. We expend resources supporting churches, temples, mosques, monasteries etc. supporting priests, ministers, evangelists, missionaries, gurus, rabbis, imams, spiritual teachers, and we may even tithe a considerable fraction of our wealth. And we expend cognitive and emotional resources philosophizing, studying sacred texts, ruminating about the health of the soul, listening to sermons, having conversations about spirituality/religion, etc.


Why do humans do this? Why do we feel such a strong pull toward spirituality? On a rational level we would do substantively better in our lives if we invested the time and resources on our careers, families, relationships, secular issues etc. rather than on spirituality. But there is something inside of us that demands attention and makes us feel that there is more to life than just the physical. Most people can’t identify what it is, but they feel strongly that there is a spiritual component of their existence. They sense something about themselves that is more than a biological machine, something enduring, something outside of the earthly realm.


The answer is actually right there and obvious, but they can’t see it. As Jesus said “The kingdom of heaven is spread upon the earth, but men do not see it.” They don’t understand that the one that’s doing the seeking is what they’re seeking. Sometimes I want to just scream out, “it’s the awareness, stupid.” It’s what’s seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting, and even what’s feeling that there’s something more. It’s the awareness they experience. It’s so obvious that most people miss it. It seems that they’re looking for something different than what is already present. So, they don’t see the most obvious, constant, and important experience of all; awareness.


It’s our awareness that’s responsible for all the spiritual seeking. But, we don’t seem to see that that’s what we’re seeking. Instead, we look everywhere else for something else. To some extent it’s the fault of spiritual teachings which often promise or portray a realm of existence that is far different from what is currently being experienced. The iconography portrays realized beings as altered and otherworldly, not as someone just like us. So, we constantly look for something different from what we’re experiencing and missing the oh so obvious. “It’s the awareness, stupid!”


Another reason why we miss it is that our nervous systems are programmed to detect change. That makes sense as they adapted to protect us from danger and a change in the environment may signal a threat that needs to be addressed as a priority and immediately, so we do. A change may also signal an opportunity, perhaps prey, and we need to react quickly to take advantage. Attention is grabbed by new things. In fact, we tend to ignore stable stimuli, like the constant hum of a ceiling fan, the feeling of our clothes on our bodies, or a persistent constant odor in the room. The retina of our eye only sends a signal to the brain when there’s a change. So, a constant image on a constant place on the retina disappears. Our awareness has been constant and unchanging throughout our existence. So, it’s no wonder we miss it, the entire nervous system is designed to ignore such things.


Our attention is also attracted by strong stimuli, loud noises, bright lights, strong odors, etc.  Awareness is totally quiet, deeply silent, always in the background, never in the foreground. It doesn’t produce anything. It just registers what is. So, there is nothing to bring attention to awareness. How would we ever recognize its significance when it is mostly not on the radar screen?


If awareness is like this, what leads to the conclusion that it is what we’re seeking in our spiritual search? What evidence do we have that it is our true nature? After all, how can something so low key and unassuming be the spiritual key to understanding birth, life, death, and the nature of reality? To answer this question, it is important to look at what would be the characteristics of something that was indeed our true nature. Firstly, the truth doesn’t change or fluctuate. If it’s really the truth, it will always be the same. Secondly, it will always be there. Our true nature can’t come and go. It must be forever present. And lastly, our true nature could not be affected by temporary conditions. It must withstand all nature of changes in our environment, our physiology, and our psychological processes, remaining steadfast, constant, unaltered.


The idea we have of our self doesn’t live up to these criteria. The idea of self has been in constant change from the earliest moments of life to the present moment. It comes and goes depending upon what we’re doing and thinking about. And it is very much affected by our experiences. In fact, it is to a large extent built upon them. So, the self cannot be our true nature. Is our immortal soul, as taught by many religions, our true nature? Well, we can’t tell if it changes, but religion teaches that it does, as it’s blemished by sin. This also suggests that it’s affected by experience. In addition, we can’t detect if it comes and goes as no matter how hard we look, it can’t be found or observed. So, how could an immortal soul that we cannot find or observe be our true nature?


Awareness, on the other hand, has never changed. We are never more or less aware. The content of awareness is forever changing. The sensory stimuli in the environment are in a constant flux as are the contents of our ever changing minds, sometimes in the present moment, sometimes lost in memory or fantasy, sometime planning for the future. But the awareness of these changing mental states and sensory experiences is always the same. It always just silently registers whatever is transpiring. Awareness has always been there, never coming or going. It was there at birth, throughout development, and right now and has always been the same. Finally, awareness, isn’t affected by the external or internal environments. It’s the same when we’re ill as when we’re health, when we’re upset as when we’re calm, when we’re bombarded by intense stimulation like at a rock concert as when we’re in silence, when our minds affected by drugs as when totally sober. It’s always present and never changing regardless of circumstances. So, our awareness fits all of the criteria of being our true nature.


Even with this being true, how can we be sure that it actually is our true nature? Many religious and spiritual teachers and realized beings tell it is. But, if it’s the truth we need not take someone else’s word about it. We should be able to see for our self. Indeed, that is what the Buddha taught, “Do not believe anything, even my teachings, go and see for yourself.” He even told us how to, by meditation and deep contemplation, looking inside, not outside for the key to understanding our existence. It is here that we can clearly see that at the center, the core, of all experience is an unchanging, immortal awareness.


When you go see for yourself, you will see “it’s the awareness, stupid.”


“Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence.” – Anthony de Mello


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+


Relativity of Time and Awareness

“But Einstein came along and took space and time out of the realm of stationary things and put them in the realm of relativity—giving the onlooker dominion over time and space, because time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live.”- Dimitri Marianoff


Einstein’s theory of relativity is based upon the notion that everything that is observed has to be viewed relative to the observer. Indeed from the perspective of an observer on earth, the moon appears to be orbiting the earth. But, from the perspective of an observer on the moon, the earth appears to be orbiting the moon. One of Einstein’s great insights was that not only the position of things is observed relatively, but so is time. He postulated that time is not constant but also changes relative to the observer. In other words, time is not constant, but is variable. Indeed as an observer is moving relatively approaching the speed of light time slows down and at the speed of light time stops entirely. In other words space-time is not a constant but varies with relative position and speed of the observer.


It should be noted that an observer is a conscious entity. So, how might we look at the experience of the observer? Perhaps, we might look at awareness in a relativistic way. The observer’s awareness is of the present moment and only of the present moment. The past is gone and the future isn’t here yet, so all the observer has is the present. What the observer experiences in the present can be viewed in two very different ways. It can be looked at that the observer is moving through time and viewing the changes that occur in time. The observer’s awareness is of the different things that are occurring at different moments in time. The observer is simply watching the stream of different sensations. This is the usual and typical way that humans look at their internal observer, otherwise known as awareness.


Alternatively, we can look at the experience of the observer as time has stopped but things are moving in observer’s awareness. The observer’s awareness in the present moment is the movement in the observer’s awareness.  Experiences then are arising and falling away in that singular moment. Time is defined as change. Because the observer detects things changing, the observer concludes that time must be passing. But as Einstein said “time is an illusion.” It is only because change is observed in the present moment that the observer concludes that time has passed. Perhaps time hasn’t passed but awareness has moved.


Let’s translate these ideas to the meditation cushion. When meditating the individual can sit and watch things happening as time passes. Maybe it’s the movement associated with the breath, or the sounds of a bird song, or the light penetrating our eyelids, or the odors wafting through the room. That is how most people meditate. But, in essence we’ve just translated how we view the everyday world to the cushion, making meditation just like everyday experience. Perhaps that’s why many people meditate for years without becoming awakened. How can we expect to see things differently if we’re looking at them the same way?


On the other hand when meditating we can sit and observe things moving in our awareness at a fixed point in time called the present moment. This is a radically different approach that is unlike our everyday way of experiencing the world. The rising and falling of the breath, the bird song, the light, odors, are simply movements of our mind that awareness observes in a stationary present moment. Time has stopped, but things are moving in our awareness. Perhaps this could lead to a redefinition of experience as the product of a moving mind being observed by a stationary awareness. Now this is different. It is unlike our usual way of experiencing everyday life. Perhaps this change in the perspective of the observer can lead to a different view of reality. Perhaps this can lead to an awakening.


This perspective then needs to be broadened and employed with our everyday experience and not just in the cloistered environment of meditation. All that is happening in the “real world” should be viewed as sensations and thoughts simply arising in our awareness in a present moment that does not move in time. There is no time, only things entering, changing, and leaving in our awareness. From this perspective it is possible that we will begin to see that time is an illusion and our essence is pure awareness in which experiences are created. This may take a while, as lifelong mental habits of viewing everything occurring outside in time with us as simply an observer that is also moving along through time, has to be unlearned and replaced with the new perspective. For some this happens suddenly in a life altering opening termed an awakening experience. For others, it is a slow progressive change that is hardly noticeable, but move inexorably to the same point, awakening.


So, try looking relatively at your awareness and see where it leads.


“I had a sneaking suspicion that time was not constant, but I guess I could never prove it…. I even had a theory that time didn’t go in straight line at all…… I had the sneaking suspicion that everything had happened, was happening, or would happen was really happening all the time. There was no past, present, and future. Everything was going on all at once and forever. If that was true, then each moment was eternity.”  ― Mark A. Roeder


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies