The path to enlightenment is open to everyone.
By Andrew Newberg | Enlightenment appears to involve a sudden shift of consciousness that temporarily interrupts the way the brain normally responds to the world. These experiences can spontaneously occur or they can suddenly erupt after years of contemplative practice. They can also be triggered by a dramatic or traumatic event, but there appears to be an underlying common thread: Enlightenment can be induced by radically altering the blood flow in different parts of the brain. When this happens, you’ll see the world in a new way, often with an incredible sense of awe.
From the survey results I’ve gathered, from the people I’ve scanned, and from my own personal encounters with this mysterious realm of consciousness, I have come to realize how powerful and positive these experiences are.
Our research shows that when people have sudden spiritual or mystical experiences, they often describe a state of consciousness where everything feels deeply interconnected. These can be powerful but for most people, they are brief. What, exactly, is enlightenment? Perhaps the easiest way to define the little “e” experience is in the term itself: to shed light on our ignorance and bring ourselves out from the dark. The partial insights and epiphanies we have change our beliefs in small ways, often preparing us for the rarer big “E” experience where our entire worldview and values are radically transformed.
The big Enlightenment is typically associated with a permanent shift of perception, awareness, and knowledge. For some, the separation between God and one’s self completely dissolves. For others, they feel a sense of absolute oneness with life, nature, or the universe. And for nearly everyone, the experience often feels more real than anything else in the world. “Truth” has been discovered, “God” has been touched, and insight has been gained.
Based on research I’ve done for the past two decades, I’m convinced that the search for Enlightenment is hardwired in our brain. Perhaps because we are born with so little understanding of anything, we are conditioned to learn and grow, and as we change, our notions of reality continue to evolve. Reading or hearing about specific ideas or experiences helps your own brain to recall similar events in your past, and when you reflect on earlier transformations that improved the quality of your life, you stimulate your brain to seek more of them. Now there’s no guarantee that any one exercise or meditation will bring you enlightenment, but our research has uncovered a few basic steps that can speed up the process:
First, you must genuinely desire insight and change, knowing that it could shake up some of your most cherished beliefs. Beliefs are principles that you formed in the past, and enlightenment—going by the dictionary definition—means “to bring new light to ignorance.”
Second, you need to prepare yourself by engaging in gentle relaxation and awareness exercises. This will help prevent you from being overwhelmed by the next step.
Third, you’ll need to engage in an intense ritual that will interrupt your old habits and everyday consciousness.
Fourth, you must completely surrender and immerse yourself in the ritual experience.
Finally, after you’ve completed your ritual, you must set aside 10 to 20 minutes to deeply reflect on all of the feelings, thoughts, and sensations that occurred while you were in an altered state.
Step 1 is crucial because it relates to the desire to change and the willingness to acknowledge doubt in the very beliefs you have held for most of your life. Are you ready and willing to accept an entirely different way of thinking? Are you willing to challenge your own beliefs—moral, political, or religious—and to be open to the possibility that your existing beliefs might be wrong? This is the state of mind that appears to be most conducive to triggering insights and the wide range of experiences associated with enlightenment. The desire to change may potentially protect you from feeling overwhelmed if and when an Enlightenment experience shatters your old worldview.
Step 2—preparation—is also essential because any form of physical or mental stress will stop you from entering into the creative and self-reflective mindset needed in the following step. That’s why it is important to spend a few minutes relaxing your mind and all the muscles in your body. Yawning, slow focused breathing, and very slow stretching are the fastest ways to prepare for what comes next.
Step 3—engaging in a ritual practice—can be done in many ways. All you need to do is create a repetitive movement or sound, or assume a specific posture (our research shows that it doesn’t matter what you choose as long as it feels pleasant). However, the more unusual it is, the more your brain will become absorbed in the activity. This interrupts habitual forms of thinking and behavior that can stop you from entering into relaxed states of creativity and imagination.
Step 4—surrender—can be compared to what has been called “flow,” a state of intense awareness where you become so immersed in an activity that your sense of self begins to disappear. In that state, you can easily lose track of time, and so being in flow—surrendering to the experience itself without judgment or expectation—appears to be a precondition of enlightenment. Brain-scan research shows that there are significant drops of neural activity in the frontal lobe when you are in this state of flow.
Step 5—deep reflection—is needed to integrate your experience back into your daily life. All you need to do is mindfully observe, without judgment, all of the feelings, thoughts, and sensations that naturally flow into consciousness. After 10 or 20 minutes of reflection, ask yourself this question: “What insight—large or small—can I glean from this experience?” This helps to integrate the experience in ways that will change future behavior and beliefs.
Your everyday consciousness will initially resist any attempt to alter your sense of reality because it requires a lot of metabolic energy for the brain to accept and integrate new experiences, especially those that might change your beliefs and your perception of reality. Also, the human brain doesn’t like ambiguity or surprises. It’s willing to go after pleasurable experiences, but anything new and intense stimulates the danger circuits in your brain that are designed to shut down the higher states of consciousness, creativity, and imagination. But once you understand the process of resistance, it’s easier to overcome.
The brain is always balancing permanence versus change. While changes in the brain are inevitable and the drive toward the radical transformation related to Enlightenment is part of the brain’s processes, there is always a competing desire to resist change, especially if it contradicts an old cherished, and useful, belief. Enlightenment may be attainable, but it is equally laced with trepidation. In fact, the stronger your belief system, the less likely you are to be open to other people who espouse different beliefs. But sometimes life’s stressors are so strong that your belief system fails to relieve your suffering. In that deep despair, you may realize that it is time to try something new. And when you do, you’ll influence everyone in your life, starting with yourself.
Enlightenment is for anyone. The question becomes a matter of how to get there. Should we allow it to unfold naturally and spontaneously, or nudge it along through discipline, spiritual practices, or drugs? That is your personal choice, but no matter what form of Enlightenment you may seek—religious or secular—there seems to be a basic neurological rule: you must suspend, at least for a moment, every habituated belief you have previously held about yourself and the world. You have to interrupt the memories that constantly flood your everyday consciousness controlled by your frontal lobe and allow your existing belief system to break down. You’ll experience the present moment with greater intensity as powerful neurochemicals are released throughout your brain. Your thoughts will change, your feelings will change, and new memories will be formed. It’s not always easy, but your life, as you once knew it, will never be the same.