This article first appeared in Megabrain Report.
The neuroscientific breakthroughs of the last decade have established beyond doubt that given the proper type of stimulation, the ordinary human brain has extraordinary or exceptional powers, that what we call "normal" consciousness is in fact a sort of sleep from which we "awaken" when we enter peak or heightened states. And, as the neuroscientific research has made clear, these nonordinary or "metanormal" powers are not mysterious, but the result of clear and quantifiable changes in the patterns of neurological activity of the brain.
We've all had the experience of shifting into a heightened or metanormal state - call it lucidity, insight, mastery, wisdom, enlightenment, grace, bliss, satori, creativity, learning, waking up -a state in which we know beyond doubt that our ordinary state is a deep sleep compared to this rich awakening. And we know too, this is how we should be all the time. After all, sleep is a fine and restful state, but who among us would choose to spend our entire lives in even the most comfortable bed? Most of us would like to be in this high gear, high-efficiency state as often as possible.
In fact, it has become clear that humans are genetically programmed to seek out these altered, awakened states. I believe, and recent evidence supports my belief, that a key to human evolution, to our species' rapid growth in brain size, and to our unique creative capacities, has been our instinctive drive to experience these metanormal or exceptional realms of consciousness and performance. From kids who spin themselves into dizzy altered states and euphorically roll down hills, to performers, surgeons, rock climbers, chess players or creative artists who find that the most vital and rewarding parts of their lives occur when they're in a state of "flow," humans naturally crave the experience of being awake.
Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, M.D., who has spent his career studying the effects of nonordinary states of consciousness, observes that "the transcendental impulse is the most vital and powerful force in human beings." This human impulse to connect with the spiritual domain, Grof has found, is so powerful that "It resembles, in its nature, sexuality, but is much more fundamental and compelling.''
Michael Murphy, founder of Esalen Institute, and author of The Future of the Body, a massive compilation of examples of exceptional human performance, has classified exceptional or peak performance into a dozen different realms, among which are:
All of us exhibit each of these attributes in an ordinary way. But we can also manifest these attributes in an extraordinary or metanormal way. In the right place, at the right time (when your child is trapped under a car, when you're under extreme pressure, when you suddenly fall in love, when you take a certain psychedelic substance) and soon.
We all perceive external events, for example, to take the first attribute on Murphy's list we perceive the doorbell ringing, we perceive the voice of a friend talking to us. But we've all had the experience of perceiving external events in an entirely different way - with a sudden cleansing of "the doors of perception," a seeing of "ordinary" reality with extraordinary new sense of clarity, significance and illumination.
We all have movement abilities, but many of us have experienced times - often in sports - when we are suddenly playing "in the zone," when the baseball speeding at you seems so big and slow you can count the stitches and see which way they're spinning, when you effortlessly drive the golf ball 50 yards farther than you ever have before, when you suddenly execute with ease a perfect and seemingly impossible backhand.
In virtually every aspect of our lives, humans are capable of performing exceptionally in a peak state.
There is now strong evidence that these experiences are essential. Without our moments of being awake, in the zone, we become sick. As Stanislav Grof observes, "human beings have a profound need for transpersonal experiences and for states in which they transcend their individual identities to feel their place in a larger whole that is timeless. This spiritual craving seems to be more basic and compelling than the sexual drive, and if it is not satisfied it can result in serious psycho logical disturbances."
A central thread running through human history has been the quest for effective and reliable techniques for entering these awakened states -"spiritual technologies." Humans have devoted an enormous amount of ingenuity and effort to finding gateways to this realm of lucidity. And in their compulsive pursuit of these transcendental experiences, humans have always used the most advanced technology available to them, from the earliest technology of creating and manipulating fire and light, to the technology of drums and chants, onward through human history. Technology, after all, comes from the Greek words technos and logos, meaning, in essence, an organized way of using reason, or the systematic application of a body of knowledge. Using technology, then, has much to do with what it means to be human.
One of the most ancient spiritual technologies is shamanism. This pragmatic system of mind-body techniques is, in the estimation of anthropologist Michael Harner, at least 30,000 to 50,000 years old-probably far older-and surely emerges out of techniques developed over the course of human evolution Out of shamanism and paralleling it have emerged a vast number of other spiritual technologies, including the mind-body exercises of yoga, and a rich variety of esoteric schools, mystery cults and technological rituals, including gnosticism, Sufism, Kaballism, trantricism, taoism, alchemy and meditation. In exploring these spiritual technologies, humans have pounded on drums, danced, chanted, fasted, tried different ways of breathing, stood on their heads, spent years in dark caves, prayed, muttered magic phrases, eaten wild herbs and plants, gazed into fires, devised odd sexual practices, contemplated symbols, created stirring rituals. And the ingenuity and effort paid off. Humans have devised a variety of technologies for entering peak states that really do work. One example is the vast array of meditative practices, including types of chanting, dancing, breathing, sitting still, moving, maintaining control over the mind. They work. But a problem is that for most people they only work imperfectly, unpredictably. It's interesting to note,- for example, that studies of the brainwaves of many people who claim to be "experienced" or "long term" meditators have revealed that a substantial number of these individuals are actually only in a state of light alpha - a relaxing, passive state, but quite different from the distinctive brainwave patterns of true, deep meditative states.
And perhaps t he most frustrating and discouraging aspect for many about the various spiritual technologies is that they often require enormous amounts of practice - hard, rigorous discipline -be fore they really work powerfully and reliably. Studies of Zen monks, for example, have shown that for the most part, virtually the only monks who can get into the deepest state of Zen meditation quickly and at will are those who have meditated for over 20 years.
So throughout human history, the awakened state lucidity, illumination, mastery, serenity, ecstasy, grace - has been for many a tantalizing goal.
Sometimes it emerges, out of nowhere, spontaneously, and for a few moments we are there. And then, it is gone again. As despite the wealth of spiritual technologies available, most of us have discovered, it's no easy thing to enter these peak performance domains at will.
All that has changed forever as a result of recent breakthroughs in neuroscience and technology. First, scientists have begun to discover what happens in our brain when we enter those nonordinary states, and they have found that the brain undergoes a number of clear and quantifiable changes, including changes in brainwave activity and patterns of brain activation.
What's more, it's now clear that it doesn't require years of training or mysterious meditative powers to produce these unique patterns of brain activity associated with peak brain states. In fact, the scientists have found that these changes can be actively and quickly induced using external mechanical stimulations or devices such as flickering lights, minute electrical current, flotation tanks, precise combinations of pulsating sound waves, or rhythmic physical movement.
Out of these discoveries have emerged a variety of high-tech gizmos that hundreds of thousands of people are now using regularly to experience altered, enjoyable and in many cases awakened or transcendent states. In other words, science has now revealed that mind machines can be seen as our own technological culture's spiritual tools: techno-shamanism.
It's important to note that a variety of studies emerging over recent years has suggested that the mechanically induced peak states seem to be as "real" in their psychobiological effects as the peak states attained through rigorous meditative practice. Because, of course, being able to produce the physical brain patterns of meditation in someone is interesting, but as we all know, there's a big difference between someone who's mechanically producing the patterns of a dance step, and actual dancing.
But repeated testing has made it clear that, for the subjects being stimulated, this mechanical stimulation of the brain could produce subjective experiences that seemed qualitatively identical to or indistinguishable from the heightened states attained by traditional techniques. For example, it's now apparent that people who use such brain-tech tools as light and sound (LS) devices, flotation tanks, cranial electrostimulators (CES), acoustic held systems (or "sound beds") and more, can undergo profound beneficial personality transformations, experience life-altering spiritual insights, and more.
Perhaps the most intriguing and important conflict throughout human history has been the continuing struggle between the forces of authority and those individuals seeking freedom to follow their own exploratory impulses. The forces of authority, aware that their power over others rests on maintaining the status quo, have throughout the ages attempted to restrict social change by controlling or suppressing the flow of information. The seekers of social change and individual freedom, on the other hand, have always attempted to spread new information as widely as possible. Compare, for example, the jealous guarding of information by ancient rulers, emperors and church authorities with the command of Jesus to his disciples to "go out into the world and spread the Gospel." In the area of spiritual wisdom and spiritual technologies, this has meant that throughout history those in positions of spiritual authority, those in control of the spiritual technologies, and who seek to maintain power, have attempted to keep the spiritual technologies secret. Thus they have perpetuated the tradition of spiritual "mysteries," known only to a small circle of initiates, passed down to selected individuals who will perpetuate the tradition and maintain the secrecy - and the authority - of the spiritual technologies.
On the other hand, the seekers of change, wanting to spread information as widely as possible, have always sought to tear away the veil of secrecy that has hidden the spiritual mysteries. Thus, one central impulse throughout history has been to find ways of systematizing and simplifying spiritual technologies to make them more easily taught, and to provide access to the core mystical experience to as many people as possible. As an example: for millennia, the mysteries of how to attain states of spiritual ecstasy was kept secret, passed down in monasteries and mystery schools from master to pupil.
But then, as Dr. Herbert Benson observes in The Relaxation Response, by the twelfth century... it was realized that this ecstasy could be induced in the-ordinary man in a relatively short time by rhythmic exercises, involving posture, control of breath, coordinated movements, and oral repetitions.
In many ways the western rationalist, materialist scientific tradition of the last five hundred years can be seen as an attempt to systematize and make accessible to all - that is, to democratize - these mystical experiences. Power to the people.
The development and explosive growth of printing, for example, made it possible to pass along to an infinite number of potential readers essential information about spiritual technologies that had previously had to be laboriously handed down from teacher to pupil, from generation to generation.
Yet there have always been those in authority from the hierarchy of the medieval Catholic Church, to dictators ruling large populations of "peasants" - who have feared the spread of literacy, and attempted to keep books out of the hands of the masses.
The development of modem science was to a large degree an attempt to reveal to human understanding-that is to the understanding of anyone who was interested, not just to an-inner circle of those in power - the coherent, mystical order or organizing principle of the universe. However, even in science the conflict between those who desire to maintain authority and power through secrecy, and those who seek the free flow of information, has continued. Science has always had its "mystery schools" of those who have tried to keep important scientific information secret, out of the hands of those who might use it to upset the power structure. Consider, for example, the extraordinary security measures taken by the U.S. government to keep the secret and maintain the "mystery" of making nuclear weapons, from the Manhattan Project until the present. On the other hand, the seekers of change, the scientists who believe in the free flow of information, that is the democratizers, have for many years believed that the best way to keep nuclear weapons from being used as tools of control by various power cliques or authoritarian power structures, is to spread the information to all.
However, despite its stated goal of understanding and revealing to all the essential mystery, the coherent order of the universe, modem academic and materialist science, with its emphasis on a limited definition of reality, has generally denied and repressed the transcendental impulse. As Grof notes, "Within the present century, academic psychology and psychiatry dismissed spirituality as a product of superstition, primitive magical thinking, and outright pathology. " But the spiritual drive is so powerful that orthodox science has been unable to suppress it. It now seems clear that this transcendental impulse is rooted in our genes, an instinctive and essential component of our human nature.
Abraham Maslow pointed out that virtually all humans report having a profound sense of "unitive consciousness" at some point in their lives. Even in this most secular and materialistic era, a recent survey of Americans found that nearly 90 percent of them described themselves as strongly "religious" or "spiritual."
More astonishing is the substantial number of Americans who report having what can only be called mystical experiences. A 1989 survey found that fully a third of them answered a resounding yes to the statement "You felt as though you were very close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of your self." And a full 12 percent claimed that they had experienced this transcendent feeling "often" or on numerous occasions.
Says Arnold Scheibel, professor of medicine at UCLA, speaking of himself and his wife, Marian Diamond, neuroanatomist at UC Berkeley, "We like to think that somehow the brain in a sense will become the religion of the future.. ." In many ways it makes most sense to see the Brain Revolution as a spiritual quest: a sudden blossoming of scientists driven by a compulsion to understand the mystery of the universe by understanding the workings of the "last frontier," the most complex system in the universe. SpirituaI seekers using all their sophisticated technology to uncover what happens in this mysterious human brain when it is going through the ineffable experience known as illumination or transcendence. As neuroscientists have learned in recent years, these experiences of awakening are linked to certain clear physiological changes in the brain, including alterations in the chemistry of the brain, and changes in the electrical activity of the brain.
It has been established beyond doubt that mind machines, can produce the very same dramatic alterations in brain chemistry and in patterns of brainwave activity that are found in individuals spontaneously undergoing transcendent, metanormal or transpersonal experiences. It makes sense to assume that by reproducing the same patterns or fluctuations in brain chemistry and electricity, the mind tools can actually induce these extraordinary experiences.
There is a wealth of evidence, in the form of scientific research, clinical evidence and ports by thousands of individuals, that the mind tools not only can but do produce spiritual experiences for many of their users.
The possibility of technologically induced peak performance states is breathtaking in its implications. But it's essential to emphasize that while it's clear that the mind machines allow users to experience these heightened states, they don't guarantee it.
A recent article about mind machines in Yoga Journal condemned them, claiming that "Plugging yourself into a machine is not automatically going to make you a deeper or finer person." The writer, a long time meditator, said he feared that to use them would mean that he had to "write off the last 20 years of [meditative] practice as a waste of time." In his opinion, they did not automatically produce a state that was identical to meditation, and' therefore were attempts to "cheat the Buddha."
If such cranky nonsense were not so dangerous it would be humorous. Condemning mind machines because they do not automatically make you a better person is like condemning airplanes because flying in one does not automatically turn you into a saint. Like airplanes, mind machines are simply tools: modem technology applied to expanding human powers and capabilities. Humans have always wanted to get from one place to another. The technology of movement has evolved from walking through riding animals, riding in carts, ships, steamships, trains and so on. So today, there are a lot of ways to get from New York to Los Angeles. You can walk, ride a horse, bicycle, drive a car, etc. If you walk, you'll definitely spend man)' weeks, meet a lot of people along the way and have a whole bunch of interesting and life-altering experiences. Or you can fly. But whether you walk for three months or fly for six hours, you reach the exact same place: Los Angeles. You will definitely arrive a different person if you walk than if you fly, but you're still at the same place. What you do there is up to you: you can seek God, go surfing, get high, or buy a gun and go shoot up a fast-food outlet. Mind technology, like air-planes, can get you places very quickly, and very reliably. just because many of us choose to fly doesn't mean we don't choose to walk sometimes, or condemn those who choose to walk all the time. just because l generally choose to fly between Los Angeles to New York doesn't mean, as the Yogajournal writer would suggest, that - I have to write off 20 years of walking as a waste of time." In the realm of human spiritual growths nothing is ever wasted. And choosing flying instead of walking in no way `cheats the Buddha." As the Buddha said, "Everything arises and passes away... When you see this, you arc above sorrow. This is the shining way." I believe the shining way is a path that can be hiked just as well on a 747 as on the Interstate Highways of America.
Such criticisms as those of the Yoga journal would be comical, like some old codger in 1920 yelling at people whizzing by in cars to "get a horse!" Except in this case, such ignorance can lead to the suppression of important technology, and the suppression of information that can lead to crucial social change and evolution. The writer of the article, after first claiming mind machines can't be of any value because they re too easy and too much fun ("True meditation... isn't blissing out in a chaise longue, but barely surviving in a house on fire"), then paradoxically claims they re too dangerous to be made available to the general public (they're so powerful they expose people to dangerous things hidden within their subconscious), and suggests that the FDA may soon move to regulate or control access to mind technology. Such a move would, in essence, make mind machines available only by prescription, or illegal, and have a disastrous effect on the serious scientific research into brain technology that is now underway and advancing at an accelerating pace. The FDA has already shown its willingness and eagerness to suppress "dangerous" performance-boosting technology in the form of cognition enhancing "smart drugs," despite an enormous body of evidence that such smart drugs are both safe and effective. It is now attempting the same sort of suppression of vitamins and nutrients. (see "The Problem with the FDA" elsewhere in this issue). Those who scoff at the possibility of the FDA making mind machines illegal should remember the fate of Wilhelm Reich, psychedelic drugs and other such dangers to the American people.
I believe that the flow of information should be unimpeded. Information, by one scientific definition, is inversely related to predictability: i.e. anything that's 100 percent predictable contains no information. Another way of saying this is that information related to novelty and unpredictability.
And information makes people behave in unpredictable ways. Information is also fun - neuroscientists have documented how the learning centers and the pleasure centers of the brain are virtually one and the same: having a new idea causes a rush of euphoria-producing neuro- chemicals, such as dopamine and endorphins. Evolution has given us a chemical reward system for behaviors that enhance our survival: this includes eating, sex and having new ideas. Wisdom (illumination, waking up) and mind machines are both also fun.
Both can make us behave in unpredictable ways The Buddha was a Laughing Buddha, who taught that wisdom emerged unpredictably.
As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, throughout history authoritarian systems or power structures have by necessity attempted to restrict the free flow of information. Why? Because information, or novelty, by creating unpredictability, threatens their stability and authority.
Authoritarian systems depend on people acting in predictable ways. For similar reasons such power structures also suppress fun. And sex: throughout history all authoritarian systems, from religions to armies, have attempted to control and suppress human sexual energies in one way or another.
There's no doubt that mind technology can be a powerful source of new information in the world. And while mind machines, as the Yoga Journal writer observed, may not automatically make you into a finer person, what the hell- neither does sex. But I'm not going to give it up on that account. Simply by plugging us in - to our selves and to others - they can provide us with an infinite amount of information. Sounds like fun to me. So obviously, mind machines (like fun and sex) constitute a threat to some in positions of power, who would like people to behave in predictable ways, and who would like to maintain the status quo. They also are a threat to individuals who have invested much of themselves and their lives in following authoritarian doctrines, dogma or ideologies. Such as fundamentalists - Christian, Muslim, Marxist. Such as those who must follow a Politically Correct agenda that automatically condemns the unexpected, the unpredictable, the novel and the unprecedented, since by their very nature they cannot come bearing the stamp of Political Correctness. And such as "enlightened" New Age folks like the writer at Yoga journal who've apparently spent 20 years of meditative practice learning only what they have been taught to learn, fearing to experience first hand the laughing Buddha's unpredictable shining path.