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Meditation

Enlightenment Is Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

Our brains can shed their evolutionary restrictions, allowing us a fuller life.

Key points

  • Physics tells us that what we experience is not what reality is.
  • According to evolutionary biology, our brains evolved to help our ancestors survive and reproduce, but our brains can grow beyond that.
  • The core meditation experience is being unbounded by space and time, which rewires the brain to, over time, make that a constant experience.
  • Enlightenment can be physiologically characterized by an EEG pattern that shows evidence of being both unbounded and bounded by time and space.
This post is in response to
Defining and Seeking Enlightenment

Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum theory are arguably the most successful scientific theories ever. They explain how everything works and predict how everything behaves. Relativity theory and quantum theory describe reality. But we do not live in and experience the reality they describe. Neuroscientists tell us that what we experience is not reality (see here and here), it is a construction of the brain partly composed of external stimuli, while the rest is constructed by the brain.

metamorworks/Shutterstock
Source: metamorworks/Shutterstock

Our Brains Construct Experience Different from Reality

Evolutionary biology says that our brains evolved a skewed and incomplete perception of reality that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. Is it possible for our experience of reality to grow beyond the one we needed for survival and reproduction, to evolve to a higher, true perception of reality? A perception of reality in harmony with relativity theory and quantum theory? I will argue that the state of enlightenment, the state of mind extolled by the Buddha and the Vedas, is that higher, evolved state.

To get beyond the constraints evolutionary biology built into our brains would mean that we would have to uncouple and dissociate those neural networks that skew and filter our perception of reality and grow new connections that allowed a true experience. The wiring of our brains would have to change for that to happen. Is that possible? It turns out that a long-term meditation practice changes our brains and how they are wired, which occurs based on neuroplasticity.

Meditation Rewires Our Brains to Experience Reality

According to Walter Stace, a scholar of mysticism, the core of meditation is the experience of being outside, or transcendent to, time and space, which he calls the experience of being “non-spatial and non-temporal.” According to Stace, the Buddhist concept of experiencing emptiness during meditation, or sunyata, is an experience of “no time, no space, no becoming.” Similarly, in Vedic philosophy, transcendental consciousness, which is a state achieved through the practice of Transcendental Meditation or other Vedic meditations, the individual's mind transcends all mental activity, thereby having the experience of being unbounded in time and space.

Time and Space are Constructs of Our Brains

Long-term meditators commonly report that they have the experience of “no time, no space, no becoming” and “being unbounded in time and space” during their meditations. Are these experiences of reality? Relativity theory and quantum theory say that in reality there is no time, no space, and no boundaries. The theory of relativity tells us that time is not absolute and can, and does, stop. It tells us that somehow, past, present, and future exist together, now, all at once. Einstein said the following about time: “the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one,” and “the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”

Quantum theory tells us that everything in the universe is instantaneously connected. If everything is instantly connected this implies that at some level there is no space, there is no distance between objects, and therefore no boundaries between objects. This is how physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner put it in their book, Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness. "'Separability,' they write, "has been our shorthand term for the ability to separate objects so that what happens to one in no way affects what happens to others. Without separability, what happens at one place can instantaneously affect what happens far away—even though no physical force connects the objects…That our actual world does not have separability is now generally accepted, though admitted to be a mystery…Quantum theory has this connectedness extending over the entire universe."

Experiencing Reality Is Experiencing a Contradiction

The experience of space, time, and boundaries would be necessary experiences, according to evolutionary biology, for our ancestors to survive and reproduce, and, I will add, continue to be necessary experiences. To be able to live in our world and experience the reality described by relativity and quantum theory one would need to have both experiences at the same time—the experience of being unbounded in time and space and the experience of being bounded by time and space. Though these are contradictory experiences, science tells us that contradictions are how our universe works.

For example, relativity and quantum theory tell us that matter is two contradictory things at the same time. Relativity famously tells us that matter is also energy. Quantum theory tells us that matter is both a spread out, non-localized, unbounded wave and a localized, bounded particle. These theories are telling us that reality is experiencing two contradictory things at the same time. The research on the brains of meditators who say they experience enlightenment show they are experiencing two different and contradictory things at the same time. I think this is not a coincidence.

Research on the Enlightened

A 2002 study comparing long-term meditators who claim to have achieved enlightenment to a control group showed significant EEG differences consistent with the experience of being unbounded in time and space while performing various cognitive tasks. Another study of self-reported "enlightened" meditators found EEG evidence of the simultaneous experience of being unbounded in time and space and all of the usual phases of sleep.

These studies, and others, are objective evidence that the subjective reports of a permanent state of enlightenment may be related to neuroplasticity-associated brain changes that allow the experience of relativity’s and quantum theory’s description of reality and evolutionary biology’s necessary construction of the experiences of being bounded by time and space.

Experiences of Enlightenment

Experiencing two contradictory things at the same time might seem confusing or unpleasant. The enlightened report that it is anything but that. They say enlightenment is what the Buddha and the Vedas said it would be. In his 2016 book, The Supreme Awakening: Experiences of Enlightenment Throughout Time—And How You Can Cultivate Them, Craig Pearson, Ph.D., interviewed a long-term meditator about his unfolding enlightenment.

“Pearson: How do you experience the past and the future now, the flow of time?

Meditator: I feel I’m outside of time. That is to say, the convention we call time has ceased to exist for me…time has no reality for me, as it had in the past…This is very refreshing…Living in the now is just simpler and easier. It requires less energy.”

In the 2002 study cited above, the authors quote one of their self-proclaimed enlightened subjects about their experience of reality.

“The flurry of waking activity comes and goes; the inertia of sleep comes and goes. Yet, throughout these changing values of waking and sleeping, there is a silent, unbounded continuum of awareness that is me; I am never lost to myself.”

Summary

In summary, relativity and quantum theory say that reality is being unbounded in time and space. Evolutionary biology has built into our brains the necessary experience of being bounded by time and space. The experience of both at the same time is part of what it is to be enlightened. Enlightenment is experiencing reality.

References

Stace W. T. (1960). Mysticism and Philosophy. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher.

Rosenblum, B., & Kuttner, F., (2011) Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, second edition, Oxford University Press

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