Experience changes the brain – that’s the only way I can understand how my lifestyle has changed so drastically during the 4 years in college. The motivation for change first started after an experience in the car with my mother in 2008. We were 4 hours into a long ride down to southeast Virginia to visit Christopher Newport University, which I hoped to attend after graduating that year. I was behind the wheel, and once again my mother’s wisdom had a CD playing a man named Eckhart Tolle, who was speaking to a group at a spiritual retreat center. His calm, intelligent voice took my unsuspecting attention to a place I never expected: the present moment. As he spoke, he guided my attention not just to the words but also to the silent space between the words, and to my great surprise I found something there. As I listened and drove my mind became still, his teaching became clear, and the reality of “me” expanded way beyond the ego-personality that is confined to a human body. The awareness in me noticed itself and the infinite nature of its presence. I felt peace and freedom like I had never known before.
This experience propelled me into a new world, one that was enlivened by inner-silence, mystical experience, and meditation. To my surprise, the pleasure of this sense of inner awareness and freedom was more expansive and interesting than any altered state I could conjure up with drugs. As weird as I seemed to others who had no reference for this strange behavior, my interest in the Eastern traditions of Vedic, Taoist, and Buddhist meditation was justified by the peace, freedom, and clarity I felt during and after meditation. Today at age 23 I sit down to meditate as part of my daily routine. The simple and natural process of transcendental meditation brings me to a stress-free place where there is nothing but pure subjectivity – I am a witness – and infinite silent space pervades. After twenty effortless minutes I emerge as the exceptional thinking-feeling individual who I knew myself as before, but something is different: My brain. Even though the content of my waking experience had disappeared, my brainwaves revealed that something significant was occurring during the process of transcending.
As a student at Maharishi University of Management I’ve been literally required to learn all that brain scientists have discovered about the positive correlation between Alpha 1 coherence in the brain and transcendental consciousness (meditative state). These well-established findings include other unique physiological markers, which establish the transcendental state of consciousness as distinct from simply sitting with eyes closed or contemplative practices. Alpha brain waves are a sign of relaxed activity in the brain, and are defined as waves that cycle between the frequencies of 8-12 hertz. Alpha 1 brainwaves are active during “peak experience,” and are associated with the feeling of “being in the flow” and operating at a highly creative level. This provides neuroscientific understanding as to why daily meditation is such a good thing to be doing. The repeated experience of Alpha 1 coherence throughout the cortex during consistent meditation practice changes brain circuitry to support optimal brain function. Each new experience in meditation strengthens and reinforces the Alpha 1 coherence, just as the effects of any other behavioral pattern or habit is encoded in the brain. So the science is out – The experience of transcendental consciousness changes the brain in a special way, yet the mystery and intrigue of this deep state remains.
The ancient Vedic knowledge of Indian yogis explains that the state called “Cosmic Consciousness” (CC for short) is the inevitable progression of a person experiencing transcendental consciousness over time. This state of consciousness is what others refer to as “Enlightenment.” Aspects of this state of consciousness include total brain integration with alpha coherence as described above, as well as some subjective markers like experiencing the unbounded, stress-free awareness of meditation simultaneously while functioning as an awake individual in the world – being “in the world, but not of the world,” as the Indian mystics say. One additional prediction was made about life in CC that can actually be studied scientifically: witnessing sleep. Strange as it may seem, neurophysiological markers of alpha and beta brainwaves are found in coexistence with delta patterns during deep sleep in long-term practitioners of transcendental meditation reporting subjective experiences of being consciously aware that the brain and body are asleep. The coexistence of alpha-beta-delta deep sleep patterns are currently beyond the acceptable scientific paradigm; the studies done on “witnessing sleep” are immature and thus considered protoscience, which calls for replication and further analysis of new findings. Nonetheless, so-called “higher states” of consciousness do appear to be a real and inevitable development of human potential.
Before coming to MUM I only read about “higher states” of consciousness in terms of philosophical or psycho-spiritual theory, and individual anecdotes seemed to point to glimpses of potential for experiencing an unexplainable reality. The framework of brain research used to support the understanding of transcendental consciousness and “higher states” of consciousness as distinct from waking, dreaming, or deep sleep states is very informative. At first I could only relate to my meditation and other spiritual practices in terms of philosophy and the great wisdom traditions that teach about them. Coupling experience of transcendental consciousness with knowledge of brain development has influenced me to refine my paradigm once again. I am beginning to realize just how powerfully our minds limit and constrain the range of experience that is available to each of us.
Given what is known about paradigm blindness I must make it a practice to seek novelty on a daily basis, which can be as simple as opening my mind wider to what is possible and present in this moment right now. What if I really can consciously communicate with others without word or sign? What if illness and disease in the body can be prevented and reversed by believing I am healthy and immune to disease? Based on the nature of the brain I have realized that an emotionally-supportive and loving environment infused with wisdom, honesty and openness is conducive to the type of growth I am seeking. I can intentionally create a lifestyle overflowing with beautiful and pure food for all the senses, as well as challenging activities that draw out my higher capacities and talents for Self-mastery. As self-organizing systems (humans) our unique physiologies determine which stimuli in the environment disturb us and warrant response; the influx of new information from this course has created a disturbance that I have chosen to respond to. As I continue to digest and assimilate new ideas and information I realize that my brain is changing accordingly. The more open I am the more flexible and resilient I will become. If I refine the filters of my reality to accept the whole range of experience as growth promoting and evolutionary, the way I interpret and perceive my reality will change; this inevitably shapes the flavor and nature of my experience. How far can we go as human beings? How much are we capable of? What limitations do you hold yourself to? What will it take for you to thrive?