Ever since I first came across the idea of enlightenment at the age of 12 I had a hunch that it might be for me. I picked up books on meditation from my parents’ shelves, tried out yoga, read all the books from the East that I could find and, at the age of 18, jumped on a plane to India.
I didn’t get enlightened
But really, who does?
I naively imagined that the great schools of Buddhism, in particular, laid down a road map for enlightenment. All you had to do was meditate enough, detach yourself from the world, sit under the right tree and eventually om mani padme hum! You’d be enlightened and walk for the rest of your life a couple of centimetres off the ground.
But I’ve yet to meet anyone who made it.
Ashrams are full of people being mindful or emptying their minds, chanting or sitting in silence, and meditation can give people a lot. We can even see with brain scans that meditation makes a difference.
But are they really any close to reaching nirvana, moksha or plain old Ultimate Truth?
Of course people are enlightened – look at Buddha! Look at Lao Tzu! Look at Rumi!
Most of the saints and mystic figures have the advantage of not being around any more. That lets us paint their portrait any way we choose – hence all those beatific paintings of Jesus whose tender white cheeks would surely have burned in half an hour of the Middle Eastern sun.
History mingles with myth and we forget that all these men ate, drank, burped, farted, snored and went to the toilet just like anyone else. We raise them up on a pedestal and we project our beliefs onto them.
But what evidence do we have that they were enlightened?
Yes, they might have said wise things. Beautiful things. But I’ll let you in on a writer’s secret: anyone who’s good with words can do that. Granted, not everyone is a poet like Rumi but you can always just recycle the teachings of those who went before you.
Yes, some of them also passed on spiritual teachings and practices. They might genuinely have understood a lot about the mind and how to control it. That shows they had a good intuitive grasp of psychology. Yoga for the mind. But so do many unenlightened people.
Yes, we want them to have been enlightened. I still cherish the idea that Lao Tzu and Buddha had discovered the secret of what it is to be alive.
So what, they were just pretending?
People do have intense religious experiences. That’s a fact.
The question is: what causes them?
In 1982, a woman called Suzanne Segal was getting on a bus when she suddenly felt a huge shift of consciousness.
‘I lifted my right foot to step up into the bus and collided head-on with an invisible force that entered my awareness like a silently exploding stick of dynamite, blowing the door of my usual consciousness open and off its hinges, splitting me in two.’
Far from feeling enlightened, the experience was quite unnerving and it changed and intensified over the years until the 90’s when she began to think her experience was part of a spiritual journey. She wrote a book and began to teach.
‘When asked who I am, the only possible answer is: I am the Infinite. The Vastness that is the substance of all things. I am no one and everyone, nothing and everything – just as you are.’
In 1997, it was discovered that she had a fatal brain tumour and she died soon afterwards.
Tumours can grow very slowly – was one pushing on her brain since the 80’s causing her to experience such dramatic shifts of perception?
What if all the great mystics of history simply experienced unusual brain dysfunctions?
It’s at least something to consider.
A stroke of insight – Jill Bolt Taylor’s experience
Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain researcher who suffered a stroke in 1996, losing the ability to talk, understand language or walk. But as the left hemisphere of her brain closed down she also experienced a sense of euphoria, an experience of bliss. A decade later when she had recovered she recounted:
‘Based upon my experience with losing my left mind, I whole-heartedly believe that the feeling of deep inner peace is neurological circuitry located in our right brain.’
She gave a TED talk that made her famous and her book A Stroke of Insight became a best seller.
Most people who have strokes don’t get a glimpse of nirvana. But Taylor says she did. And she made a successful career for herself out of preaching that we can all experience at least some serenity and bliss by training ourselves to use our right brain more.
Science tells us that the brain is indeed plastic – meaning that its structure changes according to what we do, how we live and what happens to us. That’s why when people talk about ‘practicing gratitude’ they’re right. It’s something we can do on a regular basis and get better at it.
Trouble is, as a neuroanatamist, Taylor really should have known that the brain doesn’t work like that. It’s not that the left side is the bloodless intellectual and the right side is the groovy mystic. That’s widely agreed by neuroscientists to be junk.
Which means that there’s no reason to believe that what happened to her really has anything to do with what might happen to us.
The God Helmet – enlightenment on demand
If there is a soul in us somewhere separate from the brain then science has yet to find it.
The brain remains pretty mysterious, too, for that matter but we do have a clearer idea these days for what different parts of it are responsible. We can even stimulate emotions like rage by implanting electrodes in the brain.
That’s right – we’ve stuck wires into people’s brains to make them angry. Go science!
An inventor and a neuroscientist even invented the God Helmet which applied electrical currents to the skull to stimulate the temporal lobes – the bit of the brain where we think religious experience lies.
People who have tried the God Helmet have reported sensing a ‘presence’ in the room, out of body experiences, even bliss. One person said:
‘I floated as close as possible to get near the great light, it was massive, pervading everything except the space we were in.’
It might just be that people were expecting to feel something. Just like how some people walk into a church and see God. Humans are very suggestible creatures.
Alright but is Enlightenment real or not?
We don’t know. Come on, you weren’t expecting me to tell you one way or the other?
We do know that injury or illness in the brain can give us amazing experiences (note: most of the time the experiences are absolutely awful).
We do know that some people have amazing experiences because they’re susceptible to candles, chanting or a hi-tech gizmo that you put on your head.
But suppose we had a pill or a device that could make you fall in love. It wouldn’t mean that people don’t fall in love by themselves. And it wouldn’t tell us anything about what love actually is. Or what it feels like.
Science is very good at working out why things happen and what stuff is made of. It’s less helpful when it comes to talking about what human experience is. That lies in the domain of personal knowledge.
When it comes to the brain it’s largely still a black box to science.
But there are many ongoing attempts to influence our brain states and maybe, just maybe, one day there will be an Enlightenment pill.
Would you take it?
I’m reminded of a story I heard from a friend who spent years meditating in the caves of the Himalayas in the 60’s: a crowd was gathered around a celebrated ascetic and someone asked: ‘Ji, if you are so powerful why can’t you just enlighten us all now?’
The monk replied: ‘Okay. Stand up who wants to be enlightened.’
No one stood up.
https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104291534 – a great essay asking spiritual experiences are all in the mind
https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/anxiety-type/depersonalisation – more about depersonalisation disorder
https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/what-does-mindfulness-meditation-do-to-your-brain/ – what happens to your brain when you meditate