The marriage of meditation and neuroscience
Jeff Warren, who recently had an article in the New York Times about his quest for Stream Entry, which is the first stage of enlightenment in Buddhism (I call it “entry-level awakening”) has a truly fascinating column in Psychology Tomorrow magazine on How Understanding the Process of Enlightenment Could Change Science.
The launching point for his column is a study conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. As Warren says, “The experiment was a collaboration between a young Harvard neuroscientist named David Vago and a Buddhist scholar and mindfulness meditation teacher named Shinzen Young.”
Here’s an extract, about what happened when some meditators were asked to let their mind enter what the scientists call a “resting state” but which meditators would describe as “being distracted”:
…the twenty meditators in the experiment had been chosen for the length and the consistency of their practice. But even here there was a demarcation between intermediate meditators and a few older practitioners who had been meditating for over twenty years. Their minds were different, both in degree, and, it seemed, in kind. They were no longer like the minds of regular folks.
The veteran meditators could do each of the resting states perfectly, but when it came to creating a contrasting condition, they were helpless. They had lost the ability to “let their minds wander” because they had long ago shed the habit of entertaining discursive narrative thoughts. They no longer worried about how their hair looked, or their to-do lists, or whether people thought they were annoying. Their minds were largely quiet. When thoughts did come – and they did still come – these subjects reported that the thoughts had a different quality, an unfixated quality. The thought “This MRI machine is extremely loud” might arise, but it would quickly evaporate. Thoughts seemed to emerge as-needed in response to different situations and would then disappear crisply into the clear backdrop of consciousness. In other words, these practitioners were always meditating.
This actually isn’t the most interesting part of the article, which concerns the attainment of a state called “nirodha samāpatti,” or cessation of consciousness. This is a meditative state which apparently Shinzen and some of his students have attained. In it, the sense of “existing” seems to come, temporarily, to a halt. And yet the mind and body still seem to function, and Shinzen talks about how this “cessation” strikes him even while driving. I think any of us drivers who have had the experience of arriving someplace after a journey in which the mind was totally elsewhere can see how the mind and body can continue to function perfectly well in the absence of self-consciousness. But of course this is different, since our self-conscious awareness is not simply engaged in something else, but has ceased.
Years ago I read a book called Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience, by a philosopher called James P. Carse. I recall reading somewhere in the book that the Upanishadic texts describe the state of deep sleep as being closer to a state of “deeper wakefulness” than our ordinary everyday consciousness. At the time I simply found this puzzling. Now I come to realize they probably knew much more than I do.
I’ve experienced many different meditative states, including all the jhānas and almost all the so-called formless jhānas (they’re called the formless spheres, or āyatanas, in the Pali suttas, and if that term was good enough for the Buddha it’s good enough for me), but I haven’t yet experienced the nirodha samāpatti. It seems to be a deeply refreshing experience — or non-experience — however:
Har-Prakash Khalsa, a 52-year old Canadian mail carrier and yoga teacher – and one of the veterans to whom this happened – describes his experience:
“It’s a kind of pressure or momentum. I was in one of the rest states, and as I let go of it, I felt myself heading into a much bigger dissolution – a bigger ‘gone’ as Shinzen would call it. It felt impossible to resist. My mind, body and world just collapsed.”
A few moments later – blinking, refreshed, reformatted – Har-Prakash returned to consciousness, not at all sure how he was to supposed to fit this experience into the research protocol. He couldn’t indicate it with a button press even if he wanted to: there was no one present to press the button.