The Chemical Nature of Enlightenment
by Anne Hilliard
What is Enlightenment? Self-realization, satori, liberation, freedom, awakening, samādhi. I asked this question 20 years ago when I was writing my thesis in college. My advisor was Robert Thurman, famous friend of the Dalai Lama, so I hoped to have a direct shortcut to esoteric knowledge.
The Dalai Lama came to give a talk at Columbia University during my junior year. However, only senior religion majors were allowed access to this exclusive event. I lurked on the steps outside Butler Library, hoping for a glimpse of this enlightened being.
Perhaps the supreme knowledge could be transmitted to me by proximity. Like a lioness stalking its prey, I waited patiently. But then it all happened so fast: the Dalai Lama emerged, surrounded by a massive entourage. Professor Thurman hovered protectively on his left, leaning down and whispering in his ear as they descended to the promenade.
I transformed into a mere fly on the wall, a parasitic wannabe to a privileged club that would not have me as a member. If this being was indeed enlightened, I could not discern it. His blissful energy was obscured by the vortex of busy bees bustling about him.
I searched for articles on enlightenment and meditation in Medline, now a sophisticated database comprising thousands of medical research articles, but at the time a primitive DOS system with faint dot-matrix paper printouts.
All I could find were some abstracts of psychology articles suggesting that those who are mentally unstable or have mental illness should not practice meditation because they lack sufficient ego strength to survive the process psychologically intact. Because mental illness runs in my family – my aunt and great-grandfather had devastating paranoid schizophrenia – I worried that if I meditated I would be prone to some sort of psychotic break.
I voiced my concerns to my teacher about the possibility of losing my mind if I went too deep into meditation. Enigmatically, he replied to investigate the nature of that which I was worried about losing.
I have managed to muddle through the past couple of decades avoiding the family curse of schizophrenia. Because most cases are diagnosed in the early 20s, I felt reassured that if it hadn’t happened by now, it wasn’t going to happen.
And just when I thought I was out of the woods, I recently discovered another wave of diagnoses for women around the time of menopause.
If I could define enlightenment in scientific terms, this could provide an answer to the question on intellectual, if not experiential, grounds. A materialist theory of mind suggests that enlightenment is reducible to a physical state, a complex series of electrical and chemical impulses in the brain. It could be visualized in a brain imaging series – perhaps a real-time MRI with contrast – comparing active sites in the brain of an enlightened person to the brain of an ordinary one.
On the other hand, a dualist theory of mind would assert that enlightenment – like other mental states such as the sensation of pain or the perception of the color red – emerges from a complex physical system (the brain) but is in turn irreducible to physical explanations.
There are two forms of a dualist approach. In epiphenomenalism, enlightenment is like the visible discharges of static cling in the dark, arising from the physical matrix but unable to perform any useful activity. Therefore enlightenment would have no impact on the brain from which it arises.
The second approach, interactionism, does ascribe potency to mental states upon the physical realm, so an enlightened being might benefit from behavioral effects. For example, the enlightened one might be less apt to lose his temper if someone does not wait his turn at a four-way stop.
We had to present our thesis-in-progress to the other religion majors at a cozy get-together with tea at a professor’s apartment. I described my initial project. Tara, a fellow student who aptly shares a name with the great female Buddha, broke through the fog of illusion with a single question: Is enlightenment a permanent state, or is it a temporary experience?
To this day I have no answer. I had assumed that once a being attained enlightenment, it was a done deal. Now I had to reconsider. Does an enlightened being walk to the grocery store in an elevated state, or does she have to get back to the meditation cushion between errands? Does she experience the Great Awakening but then go back to sleep?
To make matters more complicated, Patanjali describes several levels of samādhi on a spectrum that is broken down into two basic subsets.
Sabeeja samādhi maintains awareness of a symbol in the mind. Nirbeeja samādhi transcends consciousness, moving toward stillness. Samādhi is the goal of yoga, but how do you know when you get there? When the consciousness becomes free from the physical sphere. Freedom from the physical sphere is conceptually consistent with a dualist approach in which there is a transcendent state irreducible to physical properties.
Does Enlightenment ebb and flow just like any other mental state, such as joy or sadness? Going back to my youthful personal fears, would a continuous state of enlightenment, if achieved, constitute psychosis? Would I become so internally preoccupied that I would not be able to interact effectively with others? That level of dysfunction is, after all, one of the hallmarks of schizophrenia.
I no longer fear enlightenment. The probability that I will get there is slim. It is the brass ring to reach for, getting asymptotically closer but never quite there. Enlightenment is a process. Whether physical, nonphysical, waxing or waning, it is a way of being in the world.
Anne Hilliard is a yogini living in Cleveland.