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Hey, why aren't we doing more research about spiritual awakening
We know shockingly little about one of the most important human phenomena
This post is co-authored with Kathryn Devaney.
Imagine that there were a bunch of intelligent people trying to figure out how best to kill other people. This isn’t hard to imagine, since this is the world we live in. But let’s add another fun little wrinkle: imagine, also, that in this alternate world, some people are capable of killing other people by shooting deadly lasers out of their eyes. Not only that, but the laser shooters claim that this is a learnable skill, and there’s some old guy who hangs out at your local coffee shop who has laser eyes—he refrains from killing you because your silly jokes amuse him. And, according to historians, people have been shooting lasers out of their eyes for millennia.
But imagine that, for some reason, there wasn’t much interest in this in the mainstream combat community, and thus, laser-shooting remained underexplored and poorly understood. Imagine if you asked some professional martial artists about the death lasers and they said, “yeah, don’t know much about that, it’s not really my research area so I haven’t looked into it, anyway, spinning back kicks are cool.” That would be odd, right?
This is roughly how we feel about mainstream psychology and its relationship to the subject of spiritual awakening.
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For thousands of years, people have been like, “yeah, I meditated/prayed/contemplated for a while, and, one day, my mind metamorphosed, and now my relationship with the universe is a fundamentally constructive and peaceful one. I still have problems and get sad sometimes, I’m still a human, but it all seems much easier to deal with, and my day-to-day reality is luminous and beautiful in a way it wasn’t before, like God is ever-present, or the Godhead, or the Mystery of Being, or whatever I believe in personally.” That seems nice. That seems like something that should be available to as many people as possible.
Now, that is obviously a simplistic sketch of the phenomenon of spiritual awakening. Different mystical/contemplative traditions have different ways of conceiving of awakening, what it means, and how best to achieve it. For some traditions, it represents closeness with the divine. For other traditions, it means coming into contact with the illusory or transitory nature of experience. However, across traditions, there is a remarkable similarity in accounts of how contemplative practice can alter phenomenal experience. Anyone familiar with Buddhist accounts of “mirror-like awareness” and the omnipresence of “Buddha nature” will know what Christian mystic Meister Eckhart was talking about when he wrote, "the eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love."
And yet, we haven’t done nearly as much systematic study on spiritual awakening, as, say, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or other mainstream talk therapies. This seems backward and insane. Don’t get us wrong—normal talk therapies can be extremely helpful. But the median thing you hear from talk therapy patients isn’t “my entire phenomenal experience has been reorganized for the better.” Isn’t that what we should be spending a significant amount of our time studying if we assume that the point of individual psychology research is making people happy?
You might say to us, but, we have plenty of meditation science, we are studying contemplative practice. And yes, we agree, and that is great! The existing body of meditation science research has been really valuable. Decades ago, meditation was viewed, in the West, as something only done by hippie weirdos. Research by people like Jon Kabat-Zinn changed that to a large degree, such that one no longer gets ostracized at their Smart Person Job for discussing their affinity with some basic mindfulness practice.
However, the state of meditation science is in a weird place. Most meditation science slots into one of two categories.
The first category is studies of lightweight meditation programs on non-meditators. Such studies generally go like this: “we tried a pilot program of [x normal meditation technique] in [population y] and found positive effects.” These studies confirm something that we already know, which is that almost any contemplative practice, in a small dose, is pretty good, on average. Great! But this doesn’t tell us anything about the deep waters of practice, the transformational potential of contemplation.
The second category is studies of advanced meditators. Such studies generally go like this: “we looked at the brain of this long-term meditator, and it was extraordinary on a number of dimensions.” And that’s great too, in that it provides credible evidence of psychological changes described by these contemplative specialists.
But there’s a giant hole between these two categories. We know a lot about the base of the mountain, and a little bit about the top of the mountain, but not much about the way up. In other words, we don’t have an especially refined sense of what the path toward awakening looks like—how to navigate it effectively, where the dangers are, and whether there might be any reasonable, healthy ways of accelerating the process.
And that knowledge is exactly what we need if we want to make spiritual awakening available to more people. We need to answer questions like:
Is there any way to tell which practices will be most effective for which people?
Are there common properties we find among people who see a lot of success in meditation quickly?
Is there any way to accelerate meditation learning by providing beginning students with experiences of “reference states”?
How can we prevent adverse meditation effects?
Is there one kind of awakening, or multiple kinds?
Are there predictable effects we see in peoples’ lifestyles and priorities after spiritual awakening?
These are large gaps in our knowledge, and we want to elaborate on those gaps with the rest of the post, by going over each of them in turn.
By the way: we are starting a research effort that could help answer at least one or two of these questions, and we are currently fundraising.
If you are someone who is interested in funding research like this, please contact us! email@example.com is a fine email address to use.
Now, onto a diatribe about our vast cloud of unknowing.
We don’t know which practices will be effective for which people
Most meditation beginners begin in earnest when they stumble across a charismatic teacher who promotes a certain technique to the exclusion of others. This is a shame, because what we observe in the field is that different practices work for different people. Often, the difference is dramatic—someone might struggle for years with zen-style “just sitting” practice, for example, but then find nearly instant transformative results from mantra practice, or vice versa.
Moreover, often, different practices affect the same person differently depending on their stage of practice—people reach cul de sacs with a certain technique but then find that another provides sudden breakthroughs.
There is some knowledge about this in the meditation community—experienced teachers often have hunches about what will help certain students. But it is not systematic knowledge, of the kind that could potentially be gathered with a significant amount of longitudinal data gathered from practitioners. With such a dataset, we can begin to build a “practice matcher” in order to pair practitioners with techniques that have benefited others similar to them.
We’re not sure which factors lead to accelerated meditation learning
Even the best meditation teachers experience a frustrating amount of variation among their students. Which is to say: some students just sit down on the cushion and start experiencing intense positive changes, such that they can be said to have experienced some degree of awakening within weeks or months. Others toil for decades and don’t get much out of it.
What accounts for this variation? There are answers that would be less actionable, like, maybe it’s genetic. However, perhaps there is some set of important psychological or lifestyle precursors to meditation progress that we could promote in tandem with contemplative practice. Perhaps we could discover important things about what might be called “meta-practice”: the setting in which practice is conducted, the attitudes about it that are transmitted from teacher to student, and so on.
We don’t have great tools for creating reference states that can help people learn
If you’re not in the meditation community, you might not know that there is a notable LSD-enthusiast-to-dharma-teacher pipeline. Many of today’s foremost meditation teachers began their contemplative journey with transcendent mystical experiences induced by psychedelic drugs. These experiences left these teachers searching for a way to find transcendence that didn’t involve being on drugs all the time—their psychedelic experience became a “reference state” to steer and motivate further practice.
It would be great if everyone could have such transcendent experiences on demand. However, that is not yet the world we live in. It’s not wise or reasonable to expect everyone to do a bunch of LSD, and there’s also no guarantee that the average LSD-doer will have this kind of beneficial experience. So we should be interested in developing tools that can help provide experiences like these—it would be incredible if we could take someone off the street and give them a glimpse of awakening.
There are actually promising potential approaches here. Non-invasive neural stimulation—specifically, transcranial focused ultrasound (tFUS)—has shown promise as a method of generating these reference states. tFUS, also known as “sonication,” is a technique in which the brain is stimulated with ultrasound waves. Experimentation by Dr. Jay Sanguinetti and colleagues at the University of Arizona has revealed that tFUS, when administered to seasoned meditators, can induce deep meditative states in only a few minutes. We would like this work to be expanded, ideally eventually producing a protocol applicable to non-meditators, or new meditators.
As well, there is a kind of direct instruction in which a meditation teacher induces a non-normal state in a student via cues and pointers—it is called “pointing out instruction” in Tibetan Buddhism, and it exists in other forms in other traditions. This can be astonishingly effective, but it’s not entirely reliable. For this reason, many teachers have settled on a “shotgun” approach, where they try numerous pointing out instructions until something sticks. It’s possible that pointing out instructions could be refined, such that the process becomes more widely applicable—and that would represent a fairly large change in the meditation learning process.
We don’t know how to avoid meditation sickness
Unfortunately, a small but significant number of people who jump into deep contemplative practice experience serious mental disruptions. As well, it’s fairly common for people on the meditative path to stumble into periods of time when their reality is unpleasantly distorted in some way, periods that are often referred to as “dark nights”. How can this be avoided? And who is most likely to have a challenging experience? What does a “harm reduction” approach to meditation look like?
Meditation teachers working in the field have collected some data about which practices are most likely to be disruptive, and which personal situations contraindicate intense practice. But their knowledge hasn’t been combined and systematized. Having a more refined sense of meditation hazard could be of benefit right now, and its importance will only increase as meditation becomes more popular, particularly via app-based programs which do not involve the active participation/supervision of a teacher/community.
We don’t know whether there’s one kind of awakening, or multiple kinds
For thousands of years, some meditators have debated the matter of who is really awakened, and what real awakening is, and how you should spot an awakened person, and whether awakening is something that can be Done, or whether, instead, it’s an axis of development that extends indefinitely. While some of this has been petty squabbling, there is a legitimate and fascinating question here: is there a single kind of awakening, or are there multiple “genres?”
This is an important issue. If there is just one kind of “awakening,” if everyone is trying to achieve the same result, then there is a straightforward question of which practices are most effective in bringing it about. If there are multiple kinds, then the question becomes: what are the different benefits of different varieties of awakening, and how, in practical terms, does one choose a direction of practice?
These questions seem difficult but hardly impossible to study. One promising avenue could be assessing the brains and minds of advanced practitioners from different genres, to see if there are distinct and different patterns in psychological development. As well, ideally, we could follow intermediate practitioners closely and track what changes, and when.
We don’t know enough about what comes after awakening
We believe that awakening generally has a positive impact on people’s lives. But it can be complicated. Sometimes, awakening is followed by a dramatic change in lifestyle and a reordering of priorities. And, in the short term, sometimes awakening experiences can be destabilizing, though they are often blissful in the moment.
What do people typically do after awakening? How should awakening experiences be integrated into a healthy life? Is there any reason you might not want to do this? This is a major hole in modern contemplative literature. There is a lot of text devoted to techniques designed to accelerate awakening. There is much less devoted to the question of dealing with it when it arrives.
Is this feasible at all?
This list of potential directions is extremely ambitious, and coming up with definitive answers to all of these questions may be impossible. However, even a slightly more refined understanding of what awakening is, and how we can do it, would be of potentially massive benefit to humankind. Although the space race did not turn us into a spacefaring species (yet), we are still less lost thanks to the GPS technology that came out of it. Similarly, the search for a complete understanding of awakening, long before it’s over, will probably help a lot of people wake up.
Sasha's 'Newsletter' is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.