The Only Place in the Universe

I had my first spiritual experience when I was 16 years old. I was sitting up late one night having a conversation with my mother about something I can’t remember, when for no apparent reason, the doors of perception opened WIDE. In no time I was swept up in an ocean of ecstasy that seemed infinite. I also experienced many insights that unfolded one after the other.

One of them was very interesting. It became apparent to me that all points in space are exactly the same place. In other words, from the temporarily enlightened perspective I was experiencing that evening, it became obvious that no matter where I went on earth or in the universe, at the deepest level, I would always be in exactly the same place.

At the time, intellectually, I had no idea what this meant. All I knew was that from this state of heightened awareness, what I was perceiving was absolutely true. Many years later, I came to understand what the universe was revealing to me that evening. The Buddha called the deepest dimension of the Self, and the deepest dimension of Reality, the “Unborn” or the “Uncreated.” In his profound teaching of meditation, the direct experience of this depth dimension was the source of spiritual liberation. In the Khuddaka Nikaya, the Buddha declared:

There is, O monks, an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unformed. Were there not, O monks, this unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unformed, there would be no escape from the world of the born, originated, created, formed. Since, O monks, there is an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, and unformed, therefore there is an escape from the born, originated, created, formed.”

The world of manifestation, the evolving universe, is believed to have emerged from primordial emptiness fourteen billion years ago. Through the experience of deep meditation, it’s actually possible to awaken to and touch directly upon that primordial emptiness that is the foundation of all of reality. Modern spiritual masters call that depth dimension the “Ground of Being.” In that ground, there is neither time nor space. Because there’s no time or space, there is no history. Because there is no history, there is only freedom. There’s only freedom, because at that deepest level, the universe has not yet been created. Nothing has happened yet, and therefore nothing could be wrong.

Deep meditation and enlightenment experiences give access to this timeless, formless dimension of infinite Being. As one cultivates this spiritual capacity, one begins to spontaneously have unusual kinds of feelings, sensations, and insights.

One manifestation of this primordial depth dimension has become a common occurrence in my own life. I’m a spiritual teacher, and I spend a great deal of time travelling around the world. More and more, I have the mysterious sense of not going anywhere as I move from place to place, from country to country, and from continent to continent. It’s as if the planes, trains, cars, houses, and hotels are all part of a passing show that’s happening “out there” somewhere. In here, in my subjective awareness, there’s a growing sense of non-movement.

When I used to travel from one continent to another, I would experience emotional responses to the different cultures I found myself in. Now when I travel from Boston to Delhi or from Amsterdam to Vancouver, I experience very little or no emotional response, even if the place that I have arrived holds much poignant history for me personally. This experience echoes the Buddha’s description of the “Unborn.” As he said, it is a state where there is “neither coming nor going nor standing; neither death nor birth. It is without stability, without change; it is the eternal which never originates and never passes away.”

Last week, one of my closest friends and students—someone who I’ve known for nearly thirty years and a spiritual teacher in her own right—moved from my center in western Massachusetts, where we’ve worked together for the last fifteen years, to live in Philadelphia where she and her husband intend to spark a new spiritual community in the City of Brotherly Love. Two days after she arrived in her new home, she called me and said, “I don’t feel like I’ve gone anywhere.” And I said, “You haven’t.”

When we meet other human beings at this level of depth, we have this same kind of experience of timelessness. Last weekend, I was invited by another spiritual teacher to visit him and his wife at their farm in Kentucky. We’ve known each other through correspondence, but had never actually seen each other in the flesh. The moment we met at the airport, it was like we’d always known each other at the deepest level. Instantaneously there was ease-of-being, profound trust, and love.

The Buddha was right. There is an escape from alienation, separation, and fear, and that escape is the awakening to the deepest dimension of our own self.  


Andrew will be speaking and leading retreats across Europe and the US this spring, including: London, Oslo, Paris, Copenhagen, New York, and Boston. Click here to see his full schedule. 

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

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The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

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The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

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"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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