How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain
by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman
I haven't written a book review since July. I feel bad, but there are two reasons: First, I didn't read much this summer; I was swamped with other things. I always read more in the winter (Kathy works for H&R Block, which goes from January to April, and when Kathy works, Bob has more time to read!) Second, I did a few polls to ask whether people would rather have OBE articles or OBE book reviews, and the overwhelming response was for the articles.
A funny thing happened with this book. I started reading it last March. I got 98 percent of the way done, but when I got to the "good chapters" at the end, I stopped. Why? I wanted to go through them slowly and carefully, but I never found the time until late December.
This book is not about OBEs. It's more geared toward brain and consciousness research, and for that reason, I almost didn't do a book review. Still, it takes a completely unique approach to altered states of consciousness (as opposed to traditional OBE books), and I liked that. The book is an approach to "enlightenment" and altered states of consciousness from the point of view of a neuroscientist or a brain scientist, so in a way, that's even better. In fact, I liked the book so much, I flagged a lot of pages. That means a long book review (sorry!), but one full of good exercises, which I hope makes up for it.
First, the authors tried to define enlightenment. They broke it into two categories: big "E" (Enlightenment) and little "e" (enlightenment). The little "e" is for "eureka" moments of insight. The big "E" is for life-changing experiences that completely rewire your brain and alter your way of thinking: radical transformation. They' are not talking about experiences of divine oneness, unity, Nirvana, or Satori. They're talking about radical rewiring of the brain: The difference between an ordinary person and a person like Buddha or Christ.
The authors studied the enlightenment experiences and altered states of several groups of people, such as Buddhist meditators, Franciscan nuns, mediums, and Pentecostals. They had some fascinating observations. For example:
"What makes these experiences so different from contemplative meditation is the time factor. In our studies from Franciscan nuns and Buddhist meditators, it takes about fifty to sixty minutes to create these same kind of neurological changes. The Pentecostals and mediums took far less time, sometimes only minutes, to enter such altered states. This suggests that it may be very easy to prep the brain for transformation simply by picking up a pen and asking for advice from an entity or sage, living or dead, imaginary or real. By giving up habitual control, we may gain access to deeper wisdom within and beyond the boundary of everyday consciousness." (pg. 120)For example:
"Another interesting finding arose from our research on automatic writing. My Brazilian colleagues analyzed what was actually written during the psychography practice and during normal writing. The results showed that the written content was much more complex during psychography. This is fascinating because you would think that more complex writing would require more activity in the usual language areas [of the brain.] But somehow the experienced mediums were able to produce more richness and variation--much like how a great poet composes a line of verse--even without the usual language areas." (pg. 122)Later in the book (page 220) the authors give instructions on how to do automatic writing.
Some of their findings are surprising, but they match both my experience and my understanding from other research and self-study I've done. For example, it might be tempting to think that enlightenment might be associated with increased (or decreased) activity in a certain region of the brain, like the pre-frontal cortex. But their research suggests that enlightenment is associated with a sudden drop in activity in the pre-frontal cortex.
I can't stress this enough, so I'm going to repeat it in bold type:
Enlightenment is associated with a sudden drop in activity in the pre-frontal cortex.
I've read brain research papers that suggest OBEs are also associated with a similar drop. So it's not the activity, or lack thereof, but the drop itself that's important. This is a revolutionary concept, and we can definitely use that to harness not only enlightenment, but OBEs and other mystical states. It's as easy as this:
- Increase the activity in your brain's pre-frontal cortex using some kind of brain and body exercises, then:
- Cause a sudden drop in frontal lobe activity. And the authors give clear instructions how to accomplish that.
"Step 3. Now for the fun part: write down the craziest sentence you can think of. Imagine that you are a lunatic, or stoned, or drunk, and write down something ridiculous (for example, there's an elephant wearing a diaper sitting in my refrigerator). Keep writing down crazy, wild, silly sentences until you feel a sense of abandonment. It doesn't matter if you scribble gibberish or make up meaningless words. You are now exercising Level 4, creative imagination. This, by the way, is a common warm-up exercise used by many writers to break through writer's block." (pg. 124)This quote struck home for me:
"...Now think about an issue or problem you are currently struggling with, and imagine that you are someone else--the world's greatest problem solver, like Freud or Einstein, or Harry Potter--and begin to write a response to your problem as if you were that other person." (pg. 125)What's remarkable about that quote is it's almost exactly what I was doing when I first learned to speak to my inner voice, as described in detail in my book Answers Within. In fact, later in the book (in the context of learning to do automatic writing) they suggest exactly what I did that first time, right down to the letter:
"If you still don't hear anything, ask yourself, 'What would ___________ say?" and fill in the blank with someone--alive or dead--who you consider knowledgeable and wise." (pg. 222)Needless to say, this got my attention! Later in the book, they also talk about your inner voice and how it relates:
"Listening to your inner voices increases frontal lobe activity, but the exercises in the next chapter turn them off. In order to create the greatest neurological shift, we recommend doing mindfulness immediately before and after the intense practices we are about to describe." (pg. 208)One of the exercises the book suggests is called Dhikr, which is an ancient Sufi practice, like a meditation or a prayer. I think I've mentioned elsewhere that the Sufis are an order of mystics from the religion of Islam. The most famous Sufi was Rumi, who is often quoted in New Age circles. Here is an example Dhikr meditation from another famous Sufi mystic, Hafez:
"I ruminate on God
And my old self falls away.
Am I a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, or a Jew?
I do not know for Truth has set fire to these words.
Now they are nothing but ashes.
I ruminate on God
And my old self falls away.
Am I a man, a woman, an angel, or even a pure soul?
I do not know for Love has melted these words away.
Now I am free of all these images
That haunted my busy mind. (Hafez)." (pg. 164)
"Throughout history, spontaneous experiences of Enlightenment have happened to people in every culture. And as we have seen in previous chapters, many different states of consciousness can provide paths toward higher state of consciousness (Levels 5 and 6 in our Spectrum). But our research suggests that people who actively seek Enlightenment are far more likely to experience it than those who don't believe in the concept." (pg. 165)Let me be honest here: A lot of the book is boring, even to me. Still, it has several very interesting ideas and new approaches to mystical states, and that makes it all worthwhile.
"But when we ask our students and subjects to listen to their intuition, we are guiding them into Level 4, creative imagination. The same person will often "hear" or receive a different definition, like this: 'I see enlightenment as a ball of light filling my consciousness.' or 'Enlightenment, for me, means to be free of my past.' Then, by reflecting on both the logical and intuitive answers, you engage in a more comprehensive form of self-observation associated with Level 5 awareness, where the brain processes information visually and symbolically rather than with abstract concepts and words. Sometimes this exercise alone can lead to a small 'e' enlightenment experience." (pg. 167)According to the authors, it's important to want to change:
"First, you must genuinely desire insight and change, knowing that it could shake up some of your most cherished beliefs." (pg. 194)It's always tempting to keep doing what you're doing and not change, because:
"...the human brain doesn't like ambiguity or surprises. It's willing to go after pleasurable experiences, but anything new and intense stimulates the danger circuits in your brain that are designed to shut down the higher states of consciousness, creativity, and imagination. But once you understand the process of resistance, it's easier to overcome. (pg. 196-197)As far as trying a life-changing transformation for yourself, they recommend specific steps. Step 1 is "The desire to change and the life transformation inventory." Basically, you use your own memories to prepare your brain for positive change:
"Visualize all of the past events that in some small or large way made your life feel more meaningful and purposeful. Think about books you have read that changed your outlook on life, or a teacher that showed you a side of yourself you had not recognized. Think about the people who have inspired you, or opened your heart, or taught you how to feel more connected to yourself and others. Deeply recall previous spiritual insights along with those 'aha' moments that occurred while studying something new." (pg. 199)Be cautious about negativity and counter it with something positive:
"As Barbara Fredrickson and other research psychologists discovered, if you want to build optimism and self-confidence, you have to maintain a 'positivity ratio,' where every negative feeling or thought needs to be offset by a minimum of three positive ones." (pg. 202)Step 2 is "Preparing your body and mind." Here's where things get interesting:
"Super-slow movement will increase frontal lobe activity, but the following exercise, which involves relaxing your mind, will cause it to drop (remember, the greater the change, the more powerful the experience). (pg. 204)So that might explain why slow-motion exercises like Tai Chi Chuan can help produce mystical states like OBEs (Remember that I practiced Tai Chi for 7 years and still do some of the exercises today).
"Very slow movements also rapidly increase frontal lobe activity, and if you do this before and after the more intense exercises described in the next chapter (which decrease neural activity), you'll generate more powerful shifts in consciousness." (pg. 205)Here's another surprising finding: yawning can help change your state of consciousness.
"Try this yawning exercise right now and notice how it changes your conscious awareness of your body and the environment. Begin by slowly yawning ten times, even if you don't feel like it. Fake the first few ones, making a sighing sound as you exhale, and soon you'll naturally begin to yawn." (pg. 204)Here's another exercise that I found very interesting:
"...All you need is a white sheet of paper. You can place it on your desk, or tape it to the wall, placing your chair in a way that you can comfortably look at it.That reminded me of an exercise I sometimes do where I stare past an image on my computer monitor with my eyes open. Somehow I can go into a somewhat deep trance just by doing that. If I close my eyes, I'm knocked out of the trance.
First, close your eyes, relax, and bring yourself in the present moment by paying attention to the natural rhythm of your breathing. Do this for several minutes, and then open your eyes and gaze at the paper using your fullest concentration. Explore it and study as many details as you can: the edge, the size, the whiteness of the paper, etc." (pg. 218)
Another exercise they suggest to "lower frontal lobe activity" is used by a lot of proficient meditators, including Jurgen Ziewe, which is repeating the sound of "Om" or "Aum" (One of my favorite meditations is Ziewe's "The Far Countries: Multi-Dimensional Man" meditation.)
They give several good suggestions, including things like Tai Chi.
"You now have a 'formula' for consciously raising and lowering activity in different parts of your brain, and if you alternate between slow and fast movements, slow and rapid breathing, and reciting sounds in either a melodic or monotone way, you can create the greatest increases and decreases in neural activity. You can, at will, deepen your consciousness or obliterate it, stimulate your brain or calm it down, thus giving you more conscious control over your feelings, emotions, and thoughts." (pg 226)Jason Kish recently posted in one of the Astral Projection groups on Facebook that he recommends taking several rapid, deep breaths before lying down. That definitely fits. "Breathe deeply and relax completely" are the opening words of one of William Buhlman's guided OBE meditations.
On page 228, the authors give instructions for what they question might be "The most powerful ritual in the world?" It involves combining several elements of rituals, such as:
- Rhythmic body movements (like Tai Chi, Hatha yoga, or Qi Gong)
- Repetition of a meaningful word or phrase (like mantras)
- Counting your breaths
- Intense concentration and immersion in the experience
- Meaningful sounds
"...you might feel strong emotions or tingling sensations in different parts of your body. When you reach this point, begin to slow everything down: your breathing, your movements, your chanting, etc. You can even go super-slowly, noticing the tiny shifts in feelings and sensations. This will increase neural activity, and it is during this swing between high and low neural activity that Enlightenment experiences are most likely to occur. Don't spend more than an hour, and when you've finished your ritual, do another series of relaxation exercises." (pg. 229)The authors also stressed that intention is important. You need to intend to have a mystical experience. The good news is that:
"I believe that Enlightenment is absolutely attainable by anyone. In fact, if the human brain is built to explore and understand our world, it would seem that the movement toward Enlightenment is an essential drive within every brain." (pg. 245)Perhaps my favorite quote in the book is from one of the author's students, who made this observation:
"We are all like un-popped popcorn sitting in the bottom of a pot on a stove. Then the heat of transformation is turned up. One person will pop first, and just like a bag of popcorn, everyone else will be encouraged to pop." (pg. 248)In other words, this isn't necessarily a solitary journey. By raising your level of consciousness, you affect the people around you and raise theirs as well. There's value in doing these exercises in groups.
I really liked this book because it's scientific, logical, no-nonsense, and gives outside-the-box exercises for radical transformation of consciousness. Some of it was slow, but I'll give it 4 out of 5 stars.
BTW, I'm still working on read Nanci Trivelatto's book and hope to review that next. But it's big and I'm still only halfway through it.
09 January 2018