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.
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.
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?
I 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.