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I’m not given to making grand predictions, but in this case I can’t resist: the very real spiritual transformation at the heart of mysticism is about to explode into the secular mainstream, and the consequences may just revolutionize our scientific understanding of the mind.
For expediency’s sake, I’ll define enlightenment as a complex and multi-faceted process by which the mind comes to know – and over time rest more securely in – its own ground. As this happens, our habitual sense of being a separate and bounded self begins to fade. Ultimately, the person for whom this happens no longer feels themselves to be an autonomous entity looking out at an external world; rather, they feel themselves, more and more, to be an intimate part of that world’s humid expression, an unfolding natural process no different than anything else in nature. As a result, practitioners report a liberating sense of freedom, ease, spontaneity. The volume of self-referential thought often decreases, although, since enlightenment happens along a deepening continuum, they are still routinely trapped in old habits of dualistic thinking.
Despite the fact that this transformation has been painstakingly described in virtually every contemplative tradition – from Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism through to the mystical branches of the Western Abrahamic religions – and is the central drama in the lives of thousands of lucid and intelligent human beings, here in the West there is zero mention of the phenomenon in any of our bastions of intellectual respectability. You’ll never read about spiritual enlightenment in a Malcolm Gladwell book, or the pages of The New York Review of Books. This is true even in most Western Buddhist books, where enlightenment may be mentioned as a general principle or orientation, but almost never as a tangible transformation that happens to real 21st-century human beings.
In the multidisciplinary world of consciousness studies, the buzzword is nonduality, a translation of Advaita (literally “not two”), an ancient branch of Hindu philosophy. I’ve presented at two ‘Toward a Science of Consciousness’ meetings, a terrific annual assembly of the biggest names in neuroscience and philosophy of mind, among them Antonio Damasio, David Chalmers, Wolf Singer, Susan Greenfield, Stuart Hameroff and others. For the past few years nonduality has been a popular subject of discussion. There is even a dedicated ‘Science and Nonduality’ conference - now in its fourth year – that features some of the same speakers, many of them offering straight-to-the-bone “Direct Path” instruction in books and DVDs and weekend workshops.