According to Andrew Newberg, director of research at Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine, there are a mere five steps to reaching enlightenment. This is something he’s studied, using 250 brain scans of people during prayer and meditation. With this research, Newberg has come up with a more practical way to help people find their own style of prayer and meditation, their customized path towards enlightenment.
The first step is pretty obvious – deciding to start the journey. Many programs start things off in a similar manner; admitting you want something is the first step to try to get it. It’s not possible to fall into enlightenment on a whim, it must be deliberate and chosen. And like most programs, after deciding that you want something, it can lead you on a hard and confronting journey.
After that, it’s important to know why this is important? Why should a person want to go on this journey? If there isn’t a solid reason for a person to try meditation, it’s likely not to work.
One of the largest problems with meditation is that there is no one way to do it, and a single meditation strategy doesn’t work for everyone. Some people may try the traditional legs crossed, deep breaths meditation and it will work for them. Others might sit there for hours and feel nothing from it. So it takes a commitment to try several if not dozens of different kinds of meditation, before finding that one that works.
But perhaps after trying so many types of meditation, the mental exhaustion of trying, and trying again can make it actually work for the first time. And when it works, it can be obvious, as the peace comes in. Newberg says that in the brain scans of those who are trying to meditate, they find that the frontal lobe activity increases at an astonishing rate, but once the enlightenment starts, that high activity drops suddenly. It is this change from high to low rates of activity that is the significant part of meditation.
The last step in reaching enlightenment is being able to reflect on what’s changed. From that drop in frontal lobe activity, to surrendering to meditation. A person needs to reflect on their decisions, and make new ones. This reflection is what allows for new knowledge, new challenges, new epiphanies that can change a person’s life through enriched spirituality or religious connection.
Dr. Newberg's latest book is How Enlightenment Changes the Brain: The New Science of Transformation.
Andrew Newberg: When we look at all of the data that we now have. When we look at the several thousand descriptions that people have of the enlightenment experiences. When we look at over 250 brain scans that we’ve done of people engaged in different types of prayer and meditation practices, I think one of the things that we can ultimately distill out of this on a very practical level is how do we actually help people down their own path to enlightenment? What are the steps that people need to think about taking so that they can find their own path? I think one of the important aspects of all of this is that on one hand we can talk about this in generalities. There are certain basic elements. There’s certain basic approaches that people can take, certain basic aspects of the experience that people are going to have. But it ultimately is also a unique phenomenon and for each person part of what we need to try to encourage them to do is to find their own pathway, to find that own uniqueness that makes it an experience that’s meaningful for them. So when we start to think about the actual steps that people take we’ve been able to define that into five different specific steps that we think are relevant for this process.
The first step we usually talk about is the desire to make this kind of change in your life. The desire to have enlightenment. Now on one hand that may sound like a silly thing to say because on one hand why wouldn’t everybody want to have it? And to some degree that’s true. I mean if you went up to anybody on the street and say hey, would you like to have the most incredible experience you could ever have? Change your life, change the way you think about the world and you’re happy for the rest of your life. I think most people would say yeah sure, that sounds great. Sign me up. But the bottom line is that they are difficult experiences to get to. They’re certainly not impossible but they are difficult. And they are a little scary when you think about it because it’s rearranging the normal way you thought about the world up till now which for the most part has worked for you. And when you think about how our brain works, our brain usually doesn’t like change very much. So when you say well we’re going to radically change your brain, your brain is thinking well wait a minute, you know. Things are going pretty okay so far. I don’t really want to have these kinds of big changes going on in my life. So I think part of the whole process to start with is saying yes, you know, I really would like to have this kind of an experience. I’d like to change. I’d like to experience something that’s different than the way I normally thought about things.
One of the exercises that we often ask people to do is to go home, take out a piece of paper and just sit at the table or sit at your desk. Take a few deep breaths, get yourself into a nice relaxed state and what we suggest is that you write down a couple of reasons why you would like to have an enlightenment experience. Maybe write down two or three reasons why you would like to feel this enlightenment experience. And another related exercise is to sit down and write down what you think enlightenment means to you. What is it that you are thinking about? What is it that you would ultimately like to achieve through this type of process? These can be very good ways of beginning to get the mind open and engaged in the process. It helps the brain to say okay, yes, this is something that I really want. This is what I think it is. This is what I’m working towards and this is what begins us down that path towards enlightenment. The next step that we usually talk about is the idea of preparing for this experience. And what we mean by that is not only do you have to desire it but you have to start to get ready to do this kind of practice, do the kinds of practices you may need to do. Get yourself ready for this kind of an experience. Part of what we talk about in this context are relaxation techniques because as you start to go down this path sometimes it can be scary, sometimes there’s a lot of different issues that come up for a person. It can raise a lot of problems for the person. And so being prepared, being ready, thinking it through a little bit, trying to get yourself into a kind of mood that’s ready for this kind of an experience becomes very important, very helpful.
Relaxation exercises - that can be as simple as just sitting there quietly and taking deep breaths over a period of several minutes to five minutes or so. There are many different kinds of mantra-based meditation practices where you can start to focus on a particular image or a phrase that you can say over and over again. Those are the kinds of practices that people can do. Another very popular one is progressive muscle relaxation where you tense and then relax each of the muscle groups starting with the top of your head and your neck and your body and your arms, your legs and as you tighten them very intensely and then release them that starts to induce a greater and greater feeling of relaxation. So all of these, any of these can work very well for the individual. Again each person has to kind of come up with the ones that work best for them, that they like, that they feel good with. And this is part of that process of what prepares them for the experience of enlightenment. Now the third step to me is really the critical one in many ways and the one that people really have to think about what makes it kind of most unique for them. And that has to do with a particular practice, rituals, the process itself that will lead them down that path. Now this is where it does become highly individualized because some people may like to do prayer and some people may like to walk around.
Some people may take drugs. Some people may do transcranial magnetic stimulation of the brain. There are many different approaches that people can take but trying to find the one or ones that work best for you that is that individualized approach that will help to lead you down that path most effectively. Sometimes you have to try different things, you know. Sometimes people – I have so many people come up to me and say well, you know, I tried this meditation and it didn’t do very much for me but boy once I started to do this other practice it really was amazing. Sometimes people try all different kinds of meditation practices and they say I don’t know what’s wrong with me, it’s not working for me. And I say well maybe, you know, you need to think about a different kind of practice or a different kind of ritual. But part of it is something that you can kind of keep coming back to, that you can utilize. One of the key elements is frequently have some type of rhythmic process and that’s why we talk about rituals and whether that rhythmicity is part of meditation. Singing, creativity, you know, whatever it is, just thought processes, challenging yourself with different questions which is part of what I did in my own pathway. These are the kinds of things that really help to bring a person down their own personal path. The fourth step is ultimately this kind of feeling of letting it all go. This feeling of surrendering to the experience itself. To say that is simple. To actually let that happen in a profound way is not always the easiest thing for an individual.
Sometimes it has to be that you kind of keep challenging and revving and revving up the brain to such an extent that when you finally do say, 'You know what? Okay, I’m just going to let this happen now.' That’s what really just kind of pulls the rug out from under the whole process and that very sudden change in the way your brain goes through the whole process. That feeling of surrender radically changes the way your brain works at that particular moment. One of the areas of our brain that seems to be particularly involved in this whole process of the rituals and the feeling of surrender is our frontal lobe located behind the forehead. And what we found is that during practices like meditation or prayer that frontal lobe activity gets ramped up to a very, very high level. But then when you have this feeling of surrender it drops down to a very low level. In fact since the frontal lobe is involved in helping us do purposeful things when we ultimately give our purposefulness over to the process that frontal lobe activity starts to decrease very substantially. And part of what we’re determining here is that it’s not just being high and being low. It’s the difference itself. It’s the change from that peak to that very low level that really rearranges the way the brain works and sets up that very powerful experience. If you think about flying in an airplane when you’re on the ground you don’t feel very much and when you’re up in the air you don’t feel very much even though you’re going 400 or 500 miles an hour.
But it’s the takeoff or the landing where you really feel the change occurring. And that’s kind of what’s going on in the brain. It’s not being in one state or the other. It’s the change that occurs that really sets up the dramatic experience that people can have. And that drop of activity from that very high level in the frontal lobe to the very low level in the frontal lobe is, I think, a very important driving force at least biologically behind the aspect of that experience. But that feeling of surrender and giving oneself over to the experience is a very critical element down this process. And then the last step is really what we talk about as reflecting on what this experience is for you. And what that really means is that it’s not just enough to have the experience but how you then incorporate it back into your thought processes, your beliefs, your experiences in the world, the ways in which you think about the world. And being able to come back and reflect on that whether it’s just through thought processes or a practice like meditation this is a critical element because it’s what ultimately brings that experience into your life and makes it real for you and makes it something that changes the way you think about the world for the rest of your life.
So that ability to reflect is very, very critical. And part of this process can also be that people can have more of the small 'e' enlightenment experiences. These sort of little mini epiphanies that as they kind of buildup and as you keep bringing them back into your life that can set you up also for that very big enlightenment experience as well. So going down all these different paths to kind of keep coming back to them, to keep experiencing them and keep working on it that to me is probably the most effective way of trying to get to the enlightenment experience. Of course the bottom line is is that I can never guarantee to anyone that you’re going to have enlightenment. There is no button to push that just suddenly and magically transforms your brain or gives you that experience. And again if we look at our survey some people went through many, many years of meditation before they had their experience. Some people it happened while they were walking down the street. So we never really know how or when it’s going to happen but these steps I think at least for people who want to try to pursue that path and work towards it that can be a very – those five steps can be a very important way and a very powerful way of helping to get to that experience of enlightenment.
There’s a fairly large amount of data including data from our survey that talks about the downstream effects of all of this. When we asked people who had these experiences in our survey about how it changed their life overwhelmingly these were positive experiences. Ninety-five percent of people basically had something causative to say about this experience. And it inundated almost every aspect of their life. So when we asked them did it improve your relationships with people? They said yes it did because they felt more compassionate, more love, more open with the people that they were interacting with. When we asked them about their sense of meaning and purpose in life they all said yes, we have more, a great sense of meaning and purpose in life. I know what I need to do. I know why we’re here. I understand it. I get it, you know. And now I know what I need to do in my life. And it puts their job in perspective. It puts all the things that they, you know, how they interact with their family in perspective. So those are changes that are very, very important.
When we asked people about their psychological and physical health they almost all say yes, it was improved. They felt reductions in the stresses that they faced in their everyday life. They don’t think about stress the same way. They don’t think about all the things that they were worried about that stressed them out in the same way, you know. Obviously if you go down the path towards the Buddhist perspective of enlightenment the whole point of enlightenment is to end suffering. And to a large extent that’s borne out in the way people describe what these experiences do for them. It reduces their sense of distress, their sense of anxiety, their sense of depression. It helps to improve all of those issues that people deal with and even their physical health they felt better overall. When we asked people about their fear of death people no longer feared death in the same way that we typically do. So that seems to be something that people experience as an improvement from these experiences. And then ultimately when we asked people about their religious and spiritual beliefs again almost uniformly almost everyone says that they, that those experiences were also improved.
Now interestingly more people said that their spirituality was improved than their religiousness was improved. So these experiences tend to be considered to be more spiritual than religious. But still there was as substantial chunk of people who said that they felt that their religious beliefs were also improved. And I think it probably comes down a little bit to the nature of the experience. If somebody feels as part of their enlightenment experience that they have now intimately connected to God and maybe that’s based on their Catholic tradition for example or their Jewish tradition. Then they feel like that has been an experience which has deepened their religious beliefs themselves. But for a lot of people they have this experience and it almost seems to blow away their religious beliefs or at least their religious doctrines. And they feel that the religion itself is sort of too limited in terms of helping them to experience and explain what that feeling was when they felt that experience of enlightenment. So almost everybody feels more spiritual but many people also feel more religious. And the bottom line is that regardless of what aspect of a person’s life you’re talking about these experiences change it dramatically, change it for the better and clearly change the brain itself as well. So we see all of these kinds of changes reflected in the person after they have this kind of experience.