Harvard, 2012

In March of 2012, myself and twenty other “adept” meditators participated in an experiment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. The experiment was a collaboration between a young Harvard neuroscientist named David Vago and a Buddhist scholar and mindfulness meditation teacher named  Shinzen Young.

where did my self go?

Over a period of one week, all twenty of us meditated in a makeshift retreat space inside the functional imaging laboratory. On a couple of the afternoons, we completed various behavioral and psychological tests. But the main event happened in the hospital. Every few hours, a meditator was selected from the larger group and taken down the road to the hospital’s MRI facility to have their brain scanned both functionally and anatomically (because of a metal plate in my neck, the result of an injury sustained years before, I did not particulate in the scanning portion of the experiment).

Vago and Young were attempting to tackle one of the biggest problems in neuroscience: what is the real resting state of the brain? In order to look at any kind of brain activity in an MRI study – the recalling of a memory, the movement of a body part, the focusing of attention – the neuroscientist must have a baseline resting condition with which to compare the active state. And so for years neuroscientists would tell subjects in the MRI to let their minds “just wander” between active tasks – as though “mind-wandering” were some sort of idle resting state. But recent research on the “default mode network” of the brain has shown that there is nothing at all restful about mind-wandering. In fact, the “resting” brain is massively activated; in particular, the networks that support something called “self-referential processing” – i.e., the endless ruminative story of me.

This is the all-too-familiar part of our brains that engages in constant comparison and scheming and worrying and fantasizing, the part that pours over conversations at a party the night before looking for insults and clues and conclusions. In other words, it is the thinking mind, or at least one aspect of the thinking mind, a mode most of us reflexively revert to when not absorbed by some specific task.

True rest, Shinzen Young argues, is something else, something meditators can demonstrate for sustained periods of time, in order to help identify the real ground of sensory experience.  And this was what our little group set our minds to doing.

Lying flat on their backs with the fMRI humming above them and three Tesla of magnetic activity scouring their brains, each meditator dropped into one of the four different rest meditations taught to them by Young: visual rest, auditory rest, body rest, and an open state known as “do nothing,” where the meditator surrenders all attempt to control his attention and just lets all thoughts come and go, while maintaining awareness. In an experienced meditator this creates a clear, open and spacious mind. When the subjects felt they had stabilized each of these states, they pressed a button. In between each of these active conditions, they would let their minds wander – again, in order to generate a contrast, but also in order to highlight how different mind-wandering was from these other flavors of deeper rest.

Always Meditating

Except … there was a problem, something Vago hadn’t foreseen. 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 turned out to be the least dramatic of Vago’s discoveries. With the two most experienced meditators, something even more surprising happened, something that, to the knowledge of the investigators involved, had never before been captured on any kind of brain imaging technology.

Lying on their padded gurneys in the center of the humming MRI in this famous research hospital in the heart of East Boston and Harvard Medical School, each of the two research subjects suddenly … disappeared.

The Mystery of Cessation

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 – 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.

This wasn’t rest – it was annihilation.

For Har-Prakash, the experience was utterly familiar. He experienced his first cessation in 2003, after a particularly intense meditation retreat, and now they happened all the time.

“Sometimes it happens just walking down the street,” he told me.

In and out of existence Har-Prakash would strobe, often multiples times a day. It was no wonder he could live “in the moment” – the moment was literally always new. It was like waking up ten times a minute.

When I asked Young about the phenomenon he told me they were called “cessations,” or Nirodha, and were a hugely important theme in Buddhist practice. In fact, one of Young’s main jobs as the teacher of advanced meditators, he said, was to help his students acclimatize to these disconcerting little deaths, which often happened more frequently the longer the students practiced.

“It may sound dangerous, but somehow you always continue to function just fine,” Young said.

He told me about his own cessations, which, for example, happened while driving his car from his home in Burlington, Vermont, to where he runs a regular meditation retreat in Waterbury, a half-hour away.

“I’ll go in and out of cessation a hundred times. Time and space punctuated with nothing. But I’ve never even gotten a ticket, let alone had an accident. And that’s not just my experience. I’ve never seen a Zen master bump into a wall because for a moment, perceptually, he wasn’t there. Remember the material world doesn’t go away, this is all events in sensory experience. It’s consciousness. Causality is still there. Force fields are still there.”

Enlightenment – A Fundamental Shift in Identity

Clearly, Young, like the two veteran practitioners in the MRI, no longer experiences reality the way most humans do. Attempting to describe how exactly his perception has shifted has become something of a journalistic obsession for me. In the mystical literature, commentators use one of a series of shorthands: “self-realized,” “awakened,” “liberated,” and, most loaded of all, “enlightened.” “A very clear experience of cessation,” Young told me, “would bring about classical enlightenment.”

Whatever you want to call it, after years of assiduous practice, Young’s sense of identity has shifted. Like the two experienced meditators in the study, he no longer has the same quality of discursive thinking. He spends more and more time in states of emptiness. And he no longer experiences himself to be a separate bounded self – rather, he feels himself to be part of a much larger selfless “doing.”

As both an observing journalist and a participating subject, I was in the MRI room while some of these events took place, and I watched Vago carefully. What would he make of these strange permutations of meditative experience? Although over the past ten years hundreds of scientific papers had been published on the neuroscience of meditation, few of them were brave enough to address the explicit goal of Buddhist practice, the end of suffering known as awakening or enlightenment (The name “Buddha” itself means “awakened one”).

There are signs that this may be shifting. Indeed, the year before, Vago and a consortium of Harvard colleagues published a paper in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science called ‘How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work?’ In its review of the different components of mindfulness mechanisms, the authors of the paper include an aspect they call “change in perception of the self.”

If in the early stages of meditation, the authors explain, there is a de-identification with some part of mental content. A more “drastic disidentification” around our core sense of self is said to happen at more advanced stages of practice. “In place of the identification with the static self, there emerges a tendency to identify with the phenomenon of ‘experiencing’ itself.” Both theoretical accounts and experiential reports, the authors write, “ascribe to the change in the perspective on the self a crucial role for development and maturity in meditation.” They then go on to summarize the few neuro-imaging and self-report findings that could shed light on what may be happening in this kind of brain. In a later paper, Vago asks ” Can Enlightenment Be Traced to Specific Neural Correlates, Cognition or Behavior?” His careful answer is “No, and (a qualified) Yes.”

In science, this is an interesting phenomenon to be explored like any other phenomenon. In someone’s actual living experience, it is a complex and radical re-orientation that time and again is described as the most important of that person’s life. And not just in Buddhism. Although the language is different, throughout history, this shift from self-thoughts to an entry into the stream of consciousness itself has been described in all the world’s contemplative traditions, as well as in the secular literature.

There are many ambiguous maps and contradictory descriptions of enlightenment. In Young and in Vago’s hopeful view, a true “science of enlightenment” might be able to bring together and illuminate all the paradigms and experiences that lie at the heart of serious spiritual practice.

What Might This, if Anything, Mean for Science?

Why is this endeavor important, and what might its effect be on science?

There are obvious mental health applications. As a person’s identity shifts through the practice of meditation, time and again practitioners report dramatic reductions in personal suffering. Pain does not go away, of course. Pain really is part of the human condition. But as, many have said before, one’s relationship to suffering can change.

What is the core dynamic here? It seems to involve an increase in space around all experience in general. Then, as practice deepens, that space pushes the practitioner out and away from a sense of themselves as a separate autonomous individual. In Young’s way of thinking, one of the skills the practitioner develops is equanimity, which he describes as a lack of gripping in the sensory system.

It’s All About Equanimity

Experiences move more fully through the meditator, stirring up fewer disturbances, returning them more quickly to homeostasis. A sense of lightness emerges, an internal balance and capacity for fulfillment independent of external conditions. As practitioners struggle less with themselves, energy is freed up that can – at least in theory – be directed towards helping others.  The desire to do so is one of the ways in which individual happiness and fulfillment is said to increase.

These changes seem to happen along a continuum. Right now there is a large scientific interest in mindfulness meditation because it is one way of moving people along this continuum, which even at the accessible end can have a dramatic effect on conditions ranging from stress-related complaints to anxiety, depression, addiction, pain management and more.

But as I’ve tried to show, more dramatic shifts can happen too. Any science of mind worthy of the name must try to isolate, describe, and understand the full continuum. Otherwise, the paradigm of the power of meditation is missing its cornerstone.

Once the full dynamic is better understood, then it may be possible to bring the benefits of serious practice to people who do not have the luxury of meditating full time for twenty years. We may be able to fine-tune our meditation techniques – or, more controversially, use some form of techno-boost, as Young himself has  suggested – in a way that allows us to literally change our minds and achieve a deeper level of fulfillment and connection in our lives.

A Cross-Fertilization of Science and Contemplation

As we get more clarity about the dynamics of human experience, we may reach a time when, in Shinzen Young’s words, “outer physical science could cross-fertilize with inner contemplative disciplines to create a sudden and dramatic increase in global well being.” Young describes this as his “happiest thought.” Such a cross-fertilization could leave us with an enriched neuroscience, new tools for addressing human suffering, and a vastly expanded sense of human potential.

How might this cross-fertilization work in practice? I’ve already suggested that scientific understanding could make the benefits of serious meditation more accessible. But this is a two-way street. There’s another possible consequence – namely, that enlightenment itself might affect the scientific practitioner.

Young often says the next Buddha may be a team of enlightened neuroscientists. What he means is that deep practice confers a quality of deep seeing. This is both literally true, in the form of extraordinary sensory clarity, and metaphysically true, in the form of deep insights about the nature of consciousness itself.

The Deep Experience of Consciousness

That these two may amount to the same thing is captured in a story Young tells about his own teacher, Jōshū Sasaki Rōshi(I’ll risk one last anecdote at this late stage in the column).

At 105 years old, Sasaki Rōshi is very likely the world’s oldest living Zen master. A good case could be made that he has been meditating longer than any other human on the planet.

One day in a public talk, with Young translating (Young began his monastic training at Mount Kōya south of Osaka and speaks fluent Japanese), the Rōshi asked an unusual question, “Do you know what the number one is?”

Before the baffled audience could respond, he answered, “The number one is that which has the number zero as its content.” He went on, “Do you know what the number two is?” and again answered his own question, “The number two is that which has the number one as its content. Do you now what the number three is?”

He continued in this vein, and as he did, Young, something of a math geek, had a revelation.

The Rōshi was articulating a fundamental dynamic of the experience of consciousness, one no scientist has yet reported, but has been described in slightly different language by Buddhists and other contemplatives for over two thousand years. In the Rōshi’s way of seeing things, each sensory moment emerges when an empty source (Zero) polarizes into an expansive force and a contractive force. Between them, these two powers shape each nanosecond of perception. Again and again they mutually cancel and reunite, pulsing sensory reality into existence, creating ever-richer states of Zero that experienced meditators can learn to observe and even to ride (Young once told me this accounts for the bouncy vitality and spontaneity of some Zen monks).

Young realized the Rōshi’s exposition was remarkably similar to the modern foundation of mathematics known as “set theory.” And yet the Rōshi knew nothing of math – his 19th century education was essentially feudal. When Young pointed out this similarity, there was a long pause before his teacher eventually replied, in an unimpressed Zen deadpan, “Ahh… so the mathematicians have seen that far, eh?”

Is This All Bullshit?

Of course, as Young himself is careful to point out, this similarity may be superficial and coincidental. Many people are eager to make comparisons between spirituality and science (usually involving quantum mechanics), a move that in most cases just annoys real scientists, who have a more nuanced view of these processes.

But then, the scientific tendency to make a vague generalization about “meditation” – a hugely complex set of techniques and processes – equally annoys contemplatives. This is one reason why the idea of investigators with training in both domains is so appealing.

One thing seems clear to me: there is something interesting to learn here about consciousness!

What might we find as we begin to carefully explore the intersection between our minds and the world? Any honest scientist or philosopher will tell you that the relationship between mind and matter is still a mystery, perhaps our greatest mystery.

Contemplatives from historic times to the present have argued that as we increase in perceptual sensitivity and openness, we begin to detect a more interactive and integrated relationship between our inner and outer worlds. Is this discernment or delusion? Only a genuine collaboration between science and advanced contemplation will tell us.


Afterword – The Relationship Between Insight and Ethics

I published this piece right before the whole Sasaki Roshi  scandal blew up. According to many many accusations, the man has been sexually assaulting women for years, sometimes in the name of freeing their ego, as this moving interview reveals. The whole thing is disgusting and depressing and has generated an enormous amount of suffering among the women he’s hurt and the community that trusted him. And of course, the million-dollar question is this: what can “enlightenment” possibility mean if a person can be enlightened and still act so inhumanly?

I don’t pretend to have anything like a full answer. But I do know that in Buddhism they talk about the “three trainings”: concentration, insight and morality. You can perfect the first two, but the third never ends – there is always room to become a better person, no matter who you are.

“Enlightenment” as a word has many facets and interpretations. Within insight meditation, one of these is a technical accomplishment: you have trained your brain to hack the perceptual balloon of sensory reality and collapse the subject-object illusion. This frees people in all kinds of ways. It is also said to synergize and amplify a person’s natural compassion. But not always.

There is apparently a word in Zen for “enlightened monster” – for people who get so free of their conditioning that they lose all sense of the human scale. They become a piece of vibrating cosmic rock doing whatever the hell they want. To me the story of the Roshi reinforces the absolute need for strong ethical training from the get-go, and – as important – the need for all this to happen within a compassionate and egalitarian community of practitioners.

It also highlights the need for more clarity around what serious practise actually does and how it works. People really do change their consciousness. If we ever hope to understand the mind – and diminish psycho-emotional anguish and suffering – we need to take these changes seriously. They are part of our human complexity.