Where my spiritual path and science meet

“Can enlightenment happen through meditation and practice?” Drawing on Eckhart Tolle, her personal experience and science, the answer is: Yes

By Anonymous — I began meditating about two and a half years ago, at the urging of a then-friend (translation: a fellow I was very briefly dating.) I was an avid journal-writer, and felt that was enough for clearing the detritus-of-the-day from my mind.

But a couple weeks later, when someone came into my office and was handing out flyers for beginning meditation classes, I decided to take up the invitation. My work ‘situation’ was super-stressful, and I thought that meditation might help ameliorate the effects more than what I saw people around me using to cope — from Ambien to alcohol.

I also have an intuitive faith that if something is put in front of my face two or three times, it’s probably a Moby Dick of a message from something beyond my mind trying to jog the latter.

I wasn’t immediately hooked. I think I fell asleep during one of the meditations that first evening.  But I did keep meditating and bought a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn (who seductively unreels his life-long gestalt at Google University in the video above). I devoured his book for data-points: mental pointers, correct posture and explanations of just what I should be ‘doing’ while sitting there.

I sat each morning for ten minutes. And what I began to experience was a pervasive sense of calm in an after-glow.

meditationSome mornings, my mind was like a scene from a Toys-R-Us mega-store during a two-hour sale at Christmas.

Other times, I was fatigued and barely-aware.

Then there were subtle and sublime passages: the things around me, and in me, calmed and settled. They somehow faded in their intensity.

I did it like a non-runner trains for a marathon: I showed up and I went through the routine for ten minutes, then for 20, and then for 30, day after day on my own for about two months.

I had no outcome in mind, except to show up and sit. If my mind happened to be calmer after, c’est la vie.

A turning point arose after my first meditation retreat, where I was exposed to Tibetan Buddhism. It’s the first time I came into contact with the concept of ‘enlightenment’. Curious, I began reading. And what I discovered was that meditation in its traditional forms does have a purpose, calculated through the machinery of thought.

Like running every day in preparation for a marathon, meditating is the ‘training’ for the process of enlightenment.

For the next two years, I found and worked with two spiritual teachers in the Tibetan tradition. I explored Advaita, insight or vipassana meditation and Kashmir Shavism with several different teachers.

Science, the brain and meditation

I also read, non-stop.

Eventually, through sites like this one, I began to grok studies on brain function and neurology that scientifically reflected a physical theory of consciousness, which could be fed by meditation.

headI was fascinated by the new studies from the 1990′s and the new millenium about the brain, and how meditation actually leads to a permanently-altered state of being.

I was also been intrigued and perplexed by the concept of spontaneous awakening, as in the transformations that have shown up in individuals like Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie and others.

Tolle said he was suicidal, on the brink of his psychic makeover at the age of 29, and Katie had hers in a halfway house recovering from alcoholism.

Hell, I have had my own time of troubles and tribulations in the Bush II economy, and yet the doors had not been blown off my conscious mind.

So what ingredient caused this opening in some people’s minds but had not occurred to, say, the people who have lost their jobs in the richest state in the universe at the rate of one million for each of the past eight quarters?

The science of enlightenment

Enlightenment has been described in many ways, but what is common to most descriptions of enlightenment is a change in the sense of ‘self,’ and a sensation of a release from suffering. An enlightened person is said to no longer identify with herself as the individual she once was. She is also said to no longer experience negative thoughts.

Science has identified our sense of Self as a thing with two constituent parts: our thoughts about ourselves; and, second, how we compute positive or negative feelings and emotions. Both of these components have been linked to distinct locations in the brain.

The thought part of our self-definition is a cognitive, thinking structure called the hippocampus which feels positive expectation on the right side of the brain and negative on the left.

Our feeling part of our Self is located in the limbic system, in this case the amygdala. In most people, the left side feels pleasure or positive emotions, and the right side experiences negative emotions. In each case, the right (positive) and left (negative) components are synaptically ‘wired’ to each other.  Thoughts and emotions are communicated back and forth between both sides of the the brain along the synapses.

Now here is where meditation impacts these processes. Most meditative practices  involve techniques to de-emphasize, defuse or reduce negative thoughts. Over the long term, what this means in the brain is that the transmission of electrical impulses into both the right side (negative) of both the amygdala and hippocampus is reduced. Fewer negative feelings and thoughts, less activity along those pathways.

Published studies support the idea that long term meditation works by ‘starving’ the brain of negative emotions and expectations. So meditation not only trains us not to respond as intensely and frequently to negative thoughts and emotions, it also causes an ‘atrophying’ of our brain’s ability to process those thoughts and emotions. But the caveat here, is that it takes a lot of consistent practice over the long term.

But what about spontaneous awakening?

theawakeningI was surprised to find that science has only one explanation for this phenomena, interhemispheric intrusion. In lay terms, what happens is that a very intense period of negative experience or emotions causes a permanent change in the ‘wiring’ of the brain. A so-called ‘dark night of the soul’ leads to permanent ‘awakening’.

Remember now, that long-term meditation suppresses activity on the right (negative) side of the amygdala and hippocampus. So what happens scientifically during a ‘dark night of the soul’ is that the formerly understimulated right side of the amygdala suddenly becomes overloaded by negative events, emotions or thoughts. Think of Buddha’s trials under the Bodhi tree, Jesus’ experience in the desert, Tolle’s and Katie’s life experiences.

But instead of trying to reopen the synaptical pathways back to the left (positive) side of the amygdala that have been closed off by meditation practice, it blasts open previous pathways to other parts of the brain, including into the right (negative) hippocampus. Remember that the hippocampus is the thought and language part of our ‘self’. This sudden flood of activity into this previously under-utilized area can cause hallucinations and dysphoria. With both the right amygdala and hippocampus overloaded, this surge of activity has nowhere to go but into the left (positive) amygdala.

As these pathways between the left and right sides have ‘atrophied’ due to meditation practices, these synapses are ‘blown out’ in the process of this transfer. Think of a 220v charge traveling through a 110v wire. This can lead to a permanent change in the brain’s ‘wiring’. Thus, the brain’s capabilities to experience and to process negative emotions, expectations and thoughts is effectively destroyed. An infrequent occurrence yes, but scientifically possible. And the studies also showed that there a few people whose brains are wired a bit differently from the rest of us, who may be more susceptible to this under the right circumstances.

Clearly what this doesn’t mean is that we should allow or encourage our lives to become so critical and out of control that we ‘blow out’ our brains, so to speak. What it does reinforce for me is that, meditation can lead to a calmer perspective on life and a greater ability to be less emotionally knocked off center by life’s events. And that over time I am slowly but surely, rewiring my brain to feel more pleasurable thoughts and emotions and fewer negative thoughts and emotions, thus reinforcing the felt sensation of being calmer I noticed upon first trying meditation. It is interesting to have the scientific explanation, but my own felt experience was more than enough to reinforce the practice for me.

For more in-depth information on the neurology of awakening see http://www.shaktitechnology.com/enlightenment.htm.

stacia topping head shot
Stacia Topping is a Soul’s Code staff member, with a BA in Writing and Acting and an MA in English and Education. She is currently participating in a year-long training program to teach relationship workshops with PAX (understandmen.com). Stacia is also studying Tantra with Charles Muir. Her practices included Advaita according to the teachings of Pamela Wilson and Adyashanti, and Tibetan Buddhism under Lama Tsultrim Allione and Chayim Barton.

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6 Responses to “Where my spiritual path and science meet”

  1. Very interesting article; I’ve explored some of the same teachings and practices and have maintained a daily practice & then based on a variety of experiences started reading the neuroscience and other clinical literature – not that any of this has to be understood – thanks

  2. Very interesting article, and hello again Daniel!

    To quote: ‘Published studies support the idea that long term meditation works by ‘starving’ the brain of negative emotions and expectations.’ I wonder if in your research you also found published studies that support the opposite?

    As a long time meditator, sitting is to be with any object in awareness, be that negative and positive. For when no-thing is finally observed, the merging of the subject (the observer) and no-thing (observed) is possible. To quote, JK, ‘In the gap between subject and object lies the entire misery of humankind’.

    Also, for those who are reading this article and just beginning a practice, 10-20 minutes per day is a great place to start. But, if you are really serious about getting a glimpse of who you are beyond thought/mind/emotions/body, then consider the idea of attending a meditation retreat in which the opportunity exists for 2-3 hour periods of silent and (most of all – physically still sittings.

    with kind regards,

  3. It’s called pre-reflective consciousness versus reflective consciousness, and both are valuable. The prereflective/reflective distinction comes from the phenomenological movement. You can read more about it and its relevance to the work I practice, Rolfing® SI, in Jeff Maitland’s excellent book Spacious Body.

  4. Hi Stacia ~
    This article gives a whole new meaning to “blowing your brains out”! LOL
    I go through periods of time when mediation comes natually and others like the “Toys R Us” times you describe. I’ve been much more of the latter these day. Thanks for the push back to where I feel most comfortable. I loved your article!
    ~ Mary

  5. Do you feel that highly spiritual beings or, so to say, enlightened beings, feel an obligation to pull others through the rabbit hole….? I mean is it not enough to achieve that conscious state of calmness rather than popularizing it?
    I am quite seious about mindfullness but it is confusing me a lot. I spend every second/ almost every moment of my waking life, questioning my own existence and to a large degree, I feel detached from the material world.

  6. Aseem,

    Thank you for your questions. We all struggle with the same feelings at varying degrees of intensity in our lives.

    First, regarding whether so-called enlightened beings feel an obligation to assist others in awakening. My understanding of the desire to share the gift of enlightenment for awakened beings is, from an Advaitic perspective, that we are all the Divine one and by helping to point others to home to a fully-embodied realization of that truth brings further freedom to the whole.

    There have probably been many, many sages throughout history who did not feel called to teach, but who contributed to the growing shift in consciousness in other ways. For example, there are many forest monks in Thailand, and monks in China and Tibet who spend much of their lives in solitary meditation. This is their calling and their contribution in this “physical” iteration of being.

    I do think that once we realize that “we” as separate individuals actually do not exist as we once thought we did, then our perspective shifts from the personal to a more universal one. We feel moved to contribute to the whole, to fully embrace what is our human experience of our universal divinity.

    About questioning and feeling separate, Advaitic teachings also show us compassion for everything we feel and everything we think. Compassion and acceptance for feeling separate, for questioning our existence. When our minds are caught up in questioning, we bow to them for all of their work and service and contribution. And I truly mean bow and honor with sincerity. Our one universal mind so loves our Divine being that it is willing to work and think, nonstop, 24/7 for our entire lives just to reassure itself that we exist. We ask, who are you, mind, that loves this being so much that you are driven to prove its existence? And we listen with our hearts. We accept whatever answer comes with compassion and acceptance throughout our entire bodies. If we listen with our hearts, we know we are beingness itself, and we can reassure our minds, from the depth of that, that it is safe to rest. Often the heart is the first to open, and the mind and the body just need to know they are welcome too in this awakened state. This is sometimes where the feeling of separateness comes from. If we really feel into our beingness and from there welcome the mind and the body, the whole system can move into alignment and open fully.

    My heart feels your longing deeply, and my being knows you are already awake, as we all are. And it is with love and acceptance and compassion that you are held. You, as are we all, are already Divine, and we can learn to feel deeply into that knowing with our hearts, and our bodies and minds, we serve not only ourselves, but all in whichever way the Divine moves us.