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Is Enlightenment Achievable?

Evidence suggests that meditators experience a distinct state of awareness.

Key points

  • In spiritual traditions, meditation is thought to lead to "enlightenment," a state in which one permanently experiences calm, restful alertness.
  • Meditators who claim to have achieved enlightenment have distinct patterns of brain activity while awake and asleep, studies show.
  • Long-term meditators also have less activity in parts of the brain linked to rambling thoughts, distracting emotions, and fear.

In the late 1960s, college students around the world began meditating in search of enlightenment. What if, more than 50 years later, they are finding what they were looking for?

What is enlightenment? Why would those college students spend more than 50 years looking for it? Is there scientific evidence that at least some of them found it? Here are my thoughts.

What Is Enlightenment?

Buddhist tradition says that Siddhartha Gautama sat under the bodhi tree meditating, without getting up, for 49 days in search of enlightenment. When he arose, he was the enlightened Buddha Gautama. What is it that he found?

In 1901, a Canadian psychiatrist, Richard M. Bucke, published a book called Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. Bucke gathered 36 examples of people he believed had attained enlightenment. Bucke identified the main characteristics of enlightenment as joyfulness, a profound connection with the universe, a sense of immortality, a deep satisfaction that they now had direct knowledge of life’s mysteries, and a sense of being in the light. If that’s what enlightenment is, then it seems reasonable for those college students to have spent more than 50 years trying to attain it.

When Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation in search of enlightenment, what was he doing? Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement, says that the goal of meditation is to become aware of our own awareness or consciousness. Doing so, he said, we enter a distinct fourth state of consciousness, different from our ordinary waking, dreaming, and sleeping states of consciousness, but also one that is natural and normal for us to experience. He called this fourth state of consciousness "transcendental consciousness" (TC), or restful alertness, and said it was a direct experience of the all-pervading field of pure consciousness. Maharishi spoke of experiencing TC during twice-daily meditations as the basis of becoming enlightened. Philosopher Jonathan Shear argues that this fourth state of consciousness is the “mystical experience” that has been described throughout history and in every major culture.

Some have proposed that the “mystical experience” is equivalent to a hallucination caused by decreased blood flow to certain parts of the brain. Or could it be, as mystics have historically claimed, an actual experience of the one reality underlying the human experience and all of creation? Does the mystical experience make sense based on what modern science tells us about consciousness and its connection to our universe? It turns out that modern physics, whose foundation is quantum mechanics, views our universe exactly how mystics have been telling us it is for thousands of years.

In an article on quantum mechanics appearing in Scientific American, French physicist Bernard d'Espagnat summarized this issue by stating, “The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with the facts established by experiment.” According to quantum mechanics, everything in our universe is inseparably, instantaneously, connected to everything else, without exception. That means your consciousness is connected to, or a part of, my consciousness, and to everything else. So, if mystics say they have had the experience of “being the universe,” or “being a part of the universe,” such an experience is not necessarily in conflict with science and could be real.

Scientific Evidence of Enlightenment

According to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, enlightenment is a fifth state of awareness where the fourth state, TC, is continuously experienced at the same time one experiences our world. He said that enlightenment is permanently experiencing “that inner calmness, that quiet state of least excitation, even when we are dynamically busy,” and experiencing TC during all phases of sleep, which he called witnessing of sleep.

A study comparing long-term meditators who reported experiencing TC continuously (and claimed to have achieved enlightenment) to a control group showed significant EEG differences consistent with experiencing TC continuously during awake, cognitive tasks. Another study of self-reported continuous TC experiencers showed EEG evidence of TC experience during all phases of sleep. These studies, and others (see two below), are evidence that the subjective reports of enlightenment may not be just wishful thinking or delusions. Subjects reporting enlightenment appear to be in a unique, measurable, physiological state that makes sense according to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s theory of what enlightenment is and how it occurs.

Long-term meditators claim that long-term, daily meditation can lead up to a permanently calm mental state of enlightenment. If that is true, then we should be able to find measurable, physiological evidence that backs up such a bold hypothesis. Here are two studies that support their claim. A research article comparing expert, long-term meditators to novice meditators showed less brain activity in parts of the brain that cause rambling, discursive thoughts and emotions, and more activity in parts that cause quieting of the mind and increased attention. This seems to confirm what expert meditators report: They have fewer distracting thoughts and emotions, and they are able to attend to reality without superimposing their own extraneous thoughts and emotions.

Researchers utilizing functional MRI brain scans showed that long-term meditators as compared to short-term meditators, and non-meditators, while not meditating, had lower activation in their amygdalae in response to being shown negative pictures. The amygdala is a component of the limbic system and plays an important role in regulating emotions and behavior, especially in the processing of fear. This finding helps explain why long-term meditators report more positive emotional reactions and less fear.

If enlightenment is the permanent establishment of what happens as the result of long-term meditation, as many have suggested, what does the scientific literature show happens to long-term meditators? A review article looking at the research on meditation concluded that long-term meditation “brings about various positive psychological effects, including increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity, and improved behavioral regulation.” And an article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that there is a growing base of empirical literature that shows that long-term meditators have “enhanced functioning including elevated physical health and resistance to disease, increased immunity to aging and improved cognitive processing, greater resilience and fearlessness, more self-less and pro-social behaviors, some control over normally autonomic responses…”

So, even if there is no such thing as enlightenment, there is a large body of research that says those college students who have spent years doing daily meditations are finding something quite valuable.

Long-Term Meditation and Enlightenment

If we assume that enlightenment is a real, distinct, permanent fifth state of consciousness that results from long-term meditation, then we should be able to find measurable physiological changes associated with long-term meditation that are the same regardless of the meditation tradition.

A study comparing long-term, expert Tibetan Buddhist meditators to practitioners of Transcendental Meditation found that both produced remarkably similar mental and physical changes. The research demonstrated many parallel levels of improvements and benefits between the two different meditation practitioners “in sensory acuity, perceptual style and cognitive function, indicating stabilization of aspects of attentional awareness. Together with observed increases in EEG coherence and aspects of brain function, such changes are consistent with growth towards a state of total brain functioning, i.e., development of full mental potential,” or, in another word, enlightenment.

In summary, there is some evidence that long-term, daily meditation can result in a distinct, permanent state of consciousness that is consistent with the historical concept of enlightenment. Extrapolating from studies of long-term meditators, this fifth state of consciousness, if real, would appear to be quite beneficial mentally, emotionally, and physically. The research suggests that progress toward enlightenment via a long-term meditation practice produces the benefits gradually and progressively. This is why, as a primary care physician for more than 35 years, and one of those college students who went in search of enlightenment, I recommend a meditation practice to my patients.

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