The marriage of meditation and neuroscience


Jeff Warren

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 weird and kind of dumb. 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.

One day!

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9 Comments. Leave new

  • Dharmamitra Jeff Stefani
    January 24, 2013 2:17 pm

    I’ve recently become a fan of Shinzen Young, via his work “The Science of Enlightenment” and this also marks the year anniversary of my own Stream Entry, and ~ the 6 month anniversary of “Coming Out of the Stream Entry Closet” in hope of inspiring others, and to share that process, and let people know that the experience is absolutely real, Here, closer than your own nose… waiting to be experienced, by anyone, or technically: No-One.
    When I began to practice, it was always talked about as some esoteric, taboo to talk about type of ordeal.
    But since then, I’ve heard Ajahn Chah quote from Jack Kornfield that if you’ve been living in the Thai Forest Monk tradition for more than a year, and have Not Experienced Stream Entry… that you’re probably doing something wrong!
    I have also heard from several others with their own experience of experiencing “Emptiness,” and “No-Self,” etc, that I’ve realized it’s not all that uncommon, and I personally would prefer to know such things.
    For myself it was a realization I had in relation to 12-Step recovery work, and announcing Yearly Anniversary was something I just didn’t want to do. (A sort of false humility, I suppose.) But I was reminded that we don’t celebrate our sobriety success for ourselves, we do it to show others that it really works.
    And with attitude, i started my blog, and “came out,” so to speak, and that has been met with “mixed reviews.” However, I think the few emails that say: “Thank You! I was going to kill myself, but after reading this, I decided not to…” far out weigh the few that want to challenge me, to which I have nothing to challenge.
    So, it’s a win-win, and a fascinating topic.

  • Shinzen’s an interesting guy, and I must look into his teachings further. Interestingly, he’s not all that far away from me. I’d assumed he was in California, but according to the article he’s in Vermont.

    It seems experiences of awakening are popping up all over the place, and I find this very encouraging. Once stream-entry has happened one of the most surprising things is that it took so long, because it’s not as if the truths of impermanence and anatta are hidden away! They’re right there all the time, staring us in the face.

    With better guidance I think many people could attain stream entry quite quickly. In fact in the last class I taught at Aryaloka I told the participants that my aim was to have them all reach stream entry by the end of the class. It doesn’t matter whether the aim is realistic or not — I think the aim itself is helpful, both for them and for me.

  • To talk arbitrary talk about accomplishment is simply to create tension between individuals. Quest? This is not a video game, not a sport, it is not “Lord of the Jhanas.” American Protestant exceptionalism is still evident in all this questing. Hence the greater need to marry meditation practice with moral and ethical grounding in the Buddhist canon. More sila, less world-record attempts at samadhi. Telling people what they are to accomplish is all very well, except for those who fail to do so. Everyone’s experience differs according to their kamma.

    • The spiritual life is not a quest? Why then did the Buddha describe his life in terms of an ariyapariyesana — a “noble quest”?

      Why should you seek to denigrate the practice of others — whom you do no know — as “a video game” or a “sport”? Why not assume that people who have devoted an extraordinary amount of time to spiritual practice are sincere in their efforts? Why so cynical?

      “American Protestant exceptionalism is still evident in all this questing.” I prefer not to reduce people to their nationalities, or to practice stereotyping. The Buddha was a relentless “quester” and encouraged others to quest. Was he exhibiting Shakyan Upanishadic exceptionalism?

      “Telling people what they are to accomplish is all very well, except for those who fail to do so.” Fortunately the Buddha thought differently from you. If he had refrained from teaching about Awakening because it might have hurt the feelings of those might fail to make progress, we would have no Buddhadhamma today. I would suggest that we don’t keep out practice at a shallow level in case others’ feelings are hurt. I would suggest that we vigorously pursue Awakening.

      I see this kind of suspicion of meditative attainment a lot in the Buddhist world these days. I see it as a form of doubt and confusion.

  • All this talk of cessation (nirodha) in the original articles sounds like plain old samatha to me. A wonderful, calm state indeed. A definite state of mind to be aimed at for some purposes within dhamma. But really – as the Buddha and all Arahants knew – this is just a trance state that any good hypnotist/mystic could induce in themselves or in others.The Buddha’s teachers were adept at these skills, right up to “the sphere of neither perception, nor non perception.” A wonderful place to be, but not yet nirodha, not yet nibbanna. Indeed it would be good to have a control group of people calmed by hypnosis measured by MRI next to self-calmers up to whatever calm level they believe they have reached.

    I am excited by studies demonstrating brain matter change. Both grey matter – the storage stuff – and white matter – the very stuff that makes the brain connections -are seen to change because of meditative action. This is “not possible” in any medical text-book of the past 50 years, yet there it is.
    But I would hope to avoid too much hyperbolic panacea talk. I fear the loss of the point of the path – which is to end dukkha. It is a process of emptying out (sunnata) not a process of filling up with a kind of pride at achievement. This is why Buddhist bikkhus of the tradition are forbidden by the Tathagata himself to talk about their own experiences. People love a carnival side-show and the temptation to turn seekers after the deathless into freaks and you tube charlatans is too tempting in this consumerist capitalist world, entangled as it is with greedy craving for the next big thing.

    • “Plain old samatha”? “Just a trance state”?

      The Buddha considered samatha to be an indispensable prerequisite for Awakening. Those who practice, absorbed in jhana: from Mara’s bonds they’ll be freed. (Dhammapada 276)

      There’s nothing “plain old” about samatha. And the jhanas and ayatanas are very far from being “trance states” anyway. The Buddha did not just teach jhana meditation — he praised it highly and thought it indispensable.

      I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening.’ (MN 36, emphasis added)

      There is no meditative concentration for him who lacks insight, and no insight for him who lacks meditative concentration. He in whom are found both meditative concentration and insight, indeed, is close to Nibbana. (Dhammapada 372)

      I’m puzzled why you seek to denigrate the Buddha’s teaching and the practices he advocated. What you call “plain old samatha,” the Buddha declared to be “the path to awakening.”

      “Buddhist bikkhus of the tradition are forbidden by the Tathagata himself to talk about their own experiences…” I’d love to see you provide a Pali canon reference for this statement. The monastic code states “Should any bhikkhu report (his own) superior human state, when it is factual, to an unordained person [emphasis added], it is to be confessed.” But there is a specific “non-offense clause” mentioned: There is no offense in reporting one’s own superior human attainments to another bhikkhu or to a bhikkhunī.

      Again, I notice a lot of this insistence that attainments not be discussed. Of course attainments should never be boasted about, but it’s certainly not traditional to keep one’s attainments a secret. They’re simply a fact. I find it inspiring to learn that others are more realized than I am. Some may find it depressing to learn this. But I’d suggest that those people need to work on eradicating doubt, not on trying to get others not to talk about their progress.

      The Buddha’s teachers were adept at these skills, right up to “the sphere of neither perception, nor non perception.”

      That’s a common misconception. The Buddha’s teachers were adept at the ayatanas, or formless spheres, (or at least one was, and the father of another was), but they had not mastered the jhanas. There is a common assumption that in order to attain the formless spheres (which just about everyone, but not the Buddha, calls the “formless jhanas”) one has to pass through the four jhanas. That’s not the case. The ayatanas can be entered directly, and this is what the Buddha’s teachers were presumably doing, otherwise the Buddha’s recollection of his childhood experience of first jhana and his recognition that this was the “path to awakening” makes no sense. The ayatanas are good for loosening up one’s sense of self, but don’t seem to be very amenable as vehicles for the arising of insight. The jhanas, however, are valuable tools in the pursuit of awakening. Jhana is what the Buddha said he was doing when he became enlightened. He attained 4th jhana, and then with his mind “concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability … ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed.”

  • It must be wonderful to know how the Buddha thought. It must be wonderful not to be bothered by the feelings of others. It must be wonderful to push on regardless of the harm one may bring to others. I am sure you meant no such harm, but such reactive self-assurance is the exact nature that flows as an outcome of the relentless quest that troubled me in the original article.

    I really have no doubt or confusion regarding attainment. I do recognise how the last of the hindrances can hold up progress and is common in the world.

    If you have attainment, even a small part, much mudita to you. I would be like Sariputta however and see that unless that really is the end, whatever has been attained is likely to be fabricated, hence painful, and should be seen with the attitude that “there is a further escape.” So with the mudita, much karuna.

    I would not denigrate anyone’s practice. I would only seek to have seekers temper their ambition with ethical humility and be able to see whatever they accomplish as fabricated, so giving them a gift of kindness by ensuring they have nothing sharp or painful to grasp on to. On the other hand, I would urge you to say “see what you may find” rather than merely setting a low-order idea like stream entry. You may be telling someone to curb the natural outcomes of their paramis! That may be much higher! Not what you would want I am sure. The opening passages of the Anapana Sutta outline this kind of diverse regime of accomplishments.

    On the quest: the Buddha, by definition had ended any quest, simply by reaching enlightenment. Where else would he go after that? Humans struggle on, and may their quest be worthy of the nobles – ariyapariyesana – tramping along the same path, and not merely looking for material success or self-inflating gain. I was drawing attention to the mind-set of our capitalist culture which puts endless striving in pursuit of profit and pleasure at the apex of social and intellectual ambition. We should be careful not to confuse the two extremes and recognise the middle path.

    I am always happy to be compared with the cynics – knowing you meant me to be sceptical, which equally does not apply. The so-called Cynics were Greek contemporaries of Buddhism and shared similar views on the self and materialism.

    As a sociologist, I can’t help but allow some references to reasonable historical categories. No one thinks they have an accent, yet we all do. Buddhism in America is unique because of the history of intellectual positivism and religious permissiveness that is enshrined in that culture and constitution. There is no stereotype involved. I meant no offence. To coin a stereotype, however, some Americans I meet tend to see themselves as “citizens of the world,” and feel offended when confronted with their parochial inclinations. But culture x always sees the world through the lens of that culture’s history, language, tradition, class differences, not through some other. To that extent, the Buddha indeed saw the world through the lens of a Sakyan prince, with a deep Vedic tradition as its frame and high expectations as its aim. Why is that a problem? Perhaps for that reason Dhamma has always been well received where there is considerable social ambition, particularly among the middle-classes. But this ambition has always had to be tempered with an ethical humility. Hence the primary emphasis on the precepts and the example of quietness of the Sangha, particularly regarding attainments. The wonderful, compelling reading of the opening and middle passages of the Brahmajala Sutta remind us of the way to act in the world.

    • So many words.

      So many straw-man arguments…

      “It must be wonderful to know how the Buddha thought. It must be wonderful not to be bothered by the feelings of others. It must be wonderful to push on regardless of the harm one may bring to others.”

      So many contradictions…

      See for example “I would not denigrate anyone’s practice” versus “This is not a video game, not a sport, it is not “Lord of the Jhanas.” American Protestant exceptionalism is still evident in all this questing.”

      But I thank you for your mudita and karuna. One can never have too much of those things.

  • Great article. Meditation and neuroscience have a strong link. Everything we do has a link to our neuroscience in fact. And although I have not been doing so for the many years like the men you speak of, I do practice meditation, yet it is not ‘religiously led’. But my concern lies in the fact that you spoke of a constant state of meditation. In which thoughts come and go and nothing stays. Where does this leave one? Not deep thoughts, ideas, or passions. Does the desire not to attach oneself to thoughts, ideas, and emotions become fleeting? It seems to be a life long journey to reach a state of consciousness like what you speak of. I am curious how people who posses this level of consciousness interact within our society.


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