The Science of Enlightenment: A New Model for Enlightenment and New Perspectives on the One Reality

Previously, I have transcribed some of my favorite tracks of The Science of Enlightenment series by my teacher Shinzen Young. Those tracks were about the “esoteric” side of Buddhist practice.

love this show

love this show

In this post I’ve transcribed Shinzen’s uber-geeky vision of a future when science and meditation will date and mate and give birth to a new kind of something — a new kind of knowing and learning. Keep in mind that the Science of Enlightenment series was recorded more than ten years ago, yet Shinzen’s vision, due to the advancement of neuroscience, is more feasible now than it was before.

Those who are familiar with Ken Wilber’s AQAL meta-theory would be in familiar territory. But I find Shinzen’s lucid articulation of his vision more appealing to the geek and meditator in me. I hope that my newborn son would get to see this frakkin‘ vision come true someday.

Session 24: Track 4 – A New Model for Enlightenment

Now let’s talk about the most significant thing, which is: We’ve talked about what science could contribute to meditation; we’ve talked about what meditation could contribute to science; What can come out of both of these things? What can they come up with together? What can the scientist and the meditator, if they are indeed different people, come up with together? Or what can a single person who is both a deep meditator and a scientist come up with bringing these two worlds together? Seems to me that it lies in basically two areas.

The first is very practical. As our brain-imaging technology advances. And as our knowledge of psycho-physiology, perceptual psychology, neuroscience, etc. advances, at some point it would be feasible to really look at the physiological concomitance, number one of high concentration, and number two of enlightenment itself. Now of course in the early part of this series I mentioned that we know some very gross and general things about the physiology of meditators in terms of their alpha wave, their electrical skin conductivity, these kinds of stuff. But this is general. It’s not specific at all because at this point we can’t really look at a real-time functioning brain.

The deep and subtle changes that must take place physiologically when a person goes into high states of concentration and when a person goes beyond concentration to enlightenment, those we cannot yet view objectively, but someday we’ll be able to. When we can we can talk about creating an entirely new model for enlightenment, one completely different from anything that anybody ever came up with including the Buddha. The Buddha could still only describe, brilliantly, subjective experience. The Buddha was not in a position to say something like, “when the rate of processing of the hypothalamus falls beyond a critical ratio to the rate of processing of the amygdala then the fixated self dissolves.” I’m not saying that that’s true, ok. What something that links function, structure, on one hand, to mystical experience on the other hand, no human being at this point in history has been able to make a statement along those lines. Someday we will be able to. That will represent a tremendous contribution that science will have made to the meditative path. Because if we have really precise description of the relationship between physiological changes and mystical experience, then we can start to talk about using biofeedback to facilitate the process of meditation.

Now, I’m quite aware that biofeedback is a technology that we now have, but I would suggest to you that the biofeedback that we now have is almost useless in terms of enlightenment. It may help people relax, and get a little more in contact with themselves, and it has good effects for sure. However, the kind of thing that I have in mind would require and exceedingly precise kind of biofeedback where we knew exactly what kind we were dealing with, we knew the necessary and sufficient physiological correlates of enlightenment itself, and then we could use biofeedback to train those correlates more efficiently. Now, having said that much, please do not think that I am so naive as to think that that in it of itself is going to bring a person into enlightenment. However, I would strongly suspect that it could cut the time required to a tenth. There’ll be all sorts of other ancillary trainings and learnings and life experiences that would have to go around that. You’re not just gonna hook somebody up to a machine and just because their physiology emulates enlightenment think that they’re gonna get enlightened. But boy, it could sure make my job a lot easier, if we could do stuff like this. And that’s what I’m looking towards from practical point of view. Why?

Well, this planet is going to hell in a hand basket. We may not last long enough to discover all these neat things. And when the patient is mortally ill you start considering heroic treatments. What I’m describing is, I realize pretty radical, may seem pretty radical, but meditation addresses, as I have endeavored to point out, the fundamental problem on this planet, the fundamental cycle. It addresses it directly. And it is able to crack the fundamental cycle — the cycle that underlies all of the specific problems. It is able to crack that. Great, but, it’s an elitist thing at this point. Only a small number of people participate in the meditation endeavor. Not elitist because meditators don’t want to spread it. Meditators do their best to spread it. But it’s too hard, it takes too much time, people aren’t interested, it doesn’t seem relevant. If we had a way of bringing deep experiences more easily, then we could reach a significant portion of the population, and we could start to make a change on this planet.

I have an acquaintance who is a brain wave scientist who also speaks Tibetan and is a many decades meditator, and he knows the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama told him a personal conversation, “You’re a scientist, you work with brain waves. I wish you would create a device that would make it easier for people to meditate. A scientific device of some sort.” No less than an authority than the Dalai Lama, who if anyone on this planet speaks for world Buddhists, is thinking along these lines too. This would be one important thing that could come about as a cooperative endeavor: Scientists using advanced tools — not what we’ve got now but what we may have someday — to really understand what goes on with the neurophysiology of a person as they go through the different stages on this path.

Session 24: Track 5 – New Pespectives On the One Reality

The other area where science and meditation come together is, it may turn out that they’re both investigating the same reality from different angles. The parallels are rather striking. One can’t help think that it’s not just a coincidence, it’s not just projection. But when we see parallel after parallel in the deep areas of modern science and in the things that meditators and mystics report, we have to at least take seriously the conjecture that this might not be a coincidence, and that what we might be talking about here is finding a paradigm that is broad enough to include both science and spirituality as a single new discipline, that is neither science nor spirituality but the next human paradigm. Once again the Dalai Lama has called for something like this, something very much along these lines.

Spiritual teachers in general, and meditation teachers specifically, like to use parables or metaphors to describe aspects of the path. And for me personally, my best metaphors, the ones that speak to me most directly, are all derived from science. The issue is: Are these just useful metaphors, or is there a little bit more to it than that? Is the fact that there seems to be so much parallelism, an indication of an underlying common reality that both the scientist and the meditator are viewing, one from the subjective world of studying consciousness (which is the meditator’s world), and the other from the objective world of looking at time, space, matter and energy. If it is the case that the experts in the subjective world and the experts in the objective world are agreeing because they’re seeing the same thing then this gives us some very important information about the nature of reality. In the sciences one always works for greater and greater generality. Generality doesn’t mean vagueness in science as it does in colloquial English. Generality means universality. So they speak of GUT — The Grand Unified Theory. And they even speak of TOE — The Theory of Everything.

Certainly, any theory of everything would have to include mystical experience because that is a major part of human experience around this planet and in all ages. If nothing else, for sure, the sciences provide wonderful metaphors for situations and experiences that come up in meditation. But as I say, there’s so many of them and the parallelism is so consistent that it may mean something, and certainly this is something that will be interesting to see as it develops in the future.

Comments (5)

  1. Vince Horn wrote::

    I love what Shinzen is saying here, especially with the desire to create more advanced biofeedback devices to that support awakening. Very cool. I did, however, have questions about this statement:

    “And it is able to crack the fundamental cycle — the cycle that underlies all of the specific problems. It is able to crack that.”

    There seems to be some pretty big assumptions and leaps made in this one statement. Does enlightenment really end the cycle that underlies all human problems? Isn’t that an old-school formula for enlightenment = end of all suffering? I’m surprised that Shinzen would make this leap, as he himself acknowledges that enlightenment isn’t a cure all. Weird then that he would base his reason for wanting advanced meditative technologies to be developed on a cure-all hypothesis.

    Everything else he said made total sense, but that piece struck out at me as far more naive than I’m used to from him. Perhaps his view has changed since then, or it is more nuanced than he is communicating here.

    I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt here, but for me I would speak about the role of enlightenment in helping “solve” the world’s problems much differently. It could perhaps be one factor in reducing individual human suffering (not eliminating it), and it could have a widespread effect, but it’s not clear at all that what this effect would be on the whole, and what it would be accompanied by. To make the leap of logic that helping a significant number of people get enlightened would necessarily solve problems that are culturally or systemically based (therefore having very little to do with our individual levels of human suffering) is one that, for me, is speculative at best.

    Monday, March 29, 2010 at 6:56 am #
  2. c4chaos wrote::


    thanks for the comment. good point you bring up. it does sound like “old-school formula for enlightenment.” i’m not gonna speak for Shinzen here since only he could explain what he really meant by that statement. however, i’ll offer you my own interpretation of his statement.

    regarding the statement: “And it is able to crack the fundamental cycle — the cycle that underlies all of the specific problems. It is able to crack that.”

    i believe Shinzen’s position is not a cure-all. i believe that his position is more nuanced than that. i’m not sure if you’ve listened to the entire Science of Enlightenment series but there is a track there wherein he expounded on this very topic (i might transcibe that when i get the chance). my interpretation on it is that, the meditative path or ultimately enlightenment will enable one to have an insight into the root of one’s *unconscious* or “programmed” reactions to life conditions.

    so instead of going through life *driven* by one’s “karma” an enlightened person is able to crack the fundamental cycle and is more free to choose to live their lives, contribute to society, compared to most people who live their lives without the enlightened mindset. then imagine people having this kind of mindset reaching a critical mass and we can presume that it could change society for the better, especially if these people are the influential ones in our society. using the integral lingo, this is similar to getting people up the developmental ladder (e.g. turquoise and beyond in the AQAL model).

    from an individual perspective, the more a person is enlightened the more she is conscious of causing less suffering to herself and others. this is Buddhist teaching 101. it may sound old-school, but it’s still the foundation of buddhist practice and ethics, as i understand it.

    that said, i agree with you that “To make the leap of logic that helping a significant number of people get enlightened would necessarily solve problems that are culturally or systemically based (therefore having very little to do with our individual levels of human suffering) is one that, for me, is speculative at best.”

    yes, it is speculative, but it’s damn worth a try 🙂


    Monday, March 29, 2010 at 9:58 am #
  3. Mumon wrote::

    Part of the problem people have with the “difficulty” of meditation is that they expect something from it, and they expect it to be other than what it is, and they have an expectation regarding “effort” and meditation.

    The stuff here about devices for meditation remind me of the Holosync controversy, and the fact that these guys misrepresent at least zazen in order to sell their wares.

    I am deeply skeptical of any endeavors that try to make this all scientific, and, I regret to say, I’m also skeptical of explicit efforts to enlighten many people.

    Better top use the method of Yun-men (Ummon) and risk having one’s lineage die out and profoundly affect future generations for enlightenment than to explicitly chase for students.

    IOW, the best way to enlighten the most people is to cultivate a profoundly deep practice for one’s self, and to welcome all without regard to rank or merit or standing or understanding, and to meet them on the terms in which they need to be met.

    Tuesday, March 30, 2010 at 10:00 am #
  4. Thanks wrote::

    Thanks I enjoyed these comments. Having listened to the CD’s at least 3 times and still getting much from them, I am happy to find this blog.

    I was thinking that Shinzen is saying that we will have pain and that mindfulness awareness and teasing out a “complete experience” is not a cure-all for pain or discomfort – just for the lessening or cessation of the suffering. I remembered that he is saying that the teaching and the technology (old malas or new zap-o-matics) is to lessen or end suffering in any circumstance. I thought the “cure” he spoke of is the relief from the disease of endless wandering away from concentrated states. Technology would be an aid, another tool, not a substitute for the consciousness that must do the actual work of precise awareness and equanimity. Whether or not a person who has succes in this way considers themselves “enlightened” is not the point. The idea of enlightenment is a conceptual religious or philosophical notion that the unenlightened will hold dear and which will ultimately get in the way of the cessation of suffering. With luck maybe the temptation of “enlightenment” will not be exported along with the technology.

    Well, that’s my two cents anyway. Now I’m going back to listen again!

    Thanks, Yin-neng

    Wednesday, May 19, 2010 at 3:56 pm #
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