Science and Spirituality: Understanding the mystical experience

Jeff Lieberman at TEDxCambridge 2011

Jeff Lieberman, an MIT-trained artist, scientist and engineer, makes a scientific argument for mystical experience. He asks us to challenge our perception of what we are, our relationship to the universe, and our relationship to one another. Our minds are “thought-generating machines.” What we would happen if we could turn off the machine? If we could transcend our individual experience of the world?

HERE is the Transcript of above, from

Three years ago was a turning point in my life, because I finally had everything I thought I needed to be fulfilled, and I still had this voice in my head saying “I’ve got to do more to be happy”. The more that I looked at my own suffering deeply, the more I saw it in every single person around us. We have trouble standing in lines, we’re impatient with our own children. It’s as if we all think the future holds the promise for our fulfillment. I come from a scientific background, and so I wanted to use that background to understand the real root and source of why there is so much suffering. Where it’s led me has totally changed my views of the current scientific paradigm. More importantly than that, it’s changed my views on what it means to be a human being, and to be alive. I want to share this theory with you, and it is way out there, so I ask you to have a critical but open mind for the next 14 minutes, because you might not actually be what you think you are.

So who am I? I’m a human being, and I am 33 years old. But if you take a microscope and you look at any part of me, you see cells. I am a community of fifty trillion cells doing a magic dance, but if you look at any one of those cells with an even closer microscope, you see twenty trillion atoms. So I am also a community of a thousand trillion trillion atoms, but when you look at those atoms really up close they fade away, and all you see is energy. And 13.7 billion years ago, at the Big Bang, everything that we’ve ever found in the universe was was one infinitesimal, undifferentiated, pure energy.

All of us are energy. A human being is a very complex pattern of energy. I stand here as a 33 year old basically motionless, but when you look at any single part of me, I’m moving the speed of light, and I’m the age of the universe. So the question for me is: I know this conceptually, why don’t we feel it? Why do we walk around and we are so sure that we are a human being all the time, and we never feel like we are energy? Because it sounds awesome. I think the reason that we don’t notice it is because we are so distracted by the human levels of our experience that we fail to notice what is always sitting beneath. So I want to look at those distractions.

the tool of thought

Take five seconds, and think about something that you are going to do tomorrow. What you just did is something that as far as we understand, no other organism in the entire universe can do. You just built an alternate reality inside your head. You just made a prediction about the future that has never happened in reality. This power for prediction, when you can compare alternate realities, allows you to plan for the future. From agriculture to your retirement, this has changed the face of the planet. It’s probably the most significant evolutionary step forward since walking upright.

I want to look at this tool in your head, because your mind is a thought generating machine, to make, proliferate predictions about the future, to guide and goal-orient your behavior. What does this machine look like in all of our heads in 2011?

Another experiment: take 10 seconds and stop thinking…

…Did anyone make it 10 seconds? I make it about two and then I start strategizing about how I’m going to stop thinking and then I think about that the whole time. What this means is you have such an evolutionarily advantageous tool that it’s become completely compulsive, but you’ve got to remember, no other organism does this at all. And the side effect of having the most evolutionarily advantageous tool in the entire universe sitting in your head is that you have no control over it, and when you have no control and you compulsively generate all these possible realities, you always compare them to where you are, to try and goal orient your behavior. This creates an entirely new class of human suffering. Things like jealousy, and regret about something that happened in the past, and anxiety about your future, no other organism can feel. I want to understand if it’s possible to totally eliminate those sources of suffering from humanity.

This is just a brief list of all those possible sources of suffering.

In order to find out if it is possible to remove those sources, we have to take a kind of scientific experimental objective look at ourselves. We have to look at all the layers of our own experience and try to be as objective as possible about them. This is amazingly difficult because we’re so emotionally involved in our own lives. As any of you know, if you go to a movie and you are emotionally involved, two minutes into it you totally forget that you are at a movie, and the lights turn on at the end and you are shocked back into reality. So this is even more difficult because we have to look at our own movie, the movie inside our consciousness.

We are going to do two quick experiments, which will only give a taste of something that takes much longer to kind of understand the depth of.

The minds eye
The first experiment is with sight. From what we understand in physics, all light is a vibration of electromagnetic field. None of those light waves intrinsically have any color, there’s just this change in frequency. But once those waves go into your eye and into your brain, you create the subjective experience of color. What this means is that you all think that you’re seeing me out here with a red shirt on, but this red only exists in your head. This entire picture you are seeing is happening inside your head; in a movie inside your consciousness, and if you remove a little bit of the attention from me directly, you can start to have some attention on yourself – noticing that you are seeing me – inside your head.

So lets do a second experiment that is even more subtle than that one. Read this sentence twice, silently to yourself…

The voice in your head…It’s weird, right? But you can get this very weird, subtle perspective that you can look at your own thought process objectively. You are actually listening to the soundtrack of thoughts inside your head; in your movie of consciousness.

Now imagine that I do this process for thousands of hours, and I just try to look as objectively as possible at my thoughts, my emotions, my perceptions, and even the way that my brain has modeled space and time. The more I pull the attention away from the thoughts and perceptions, the more I seem to notice myself noticing these things inside my consciousness. Eventually maybe I can pull all of the attention way from all of those layers of thoughts, perceptions, my body, my sensations – and there’s nothing left to perceive. There’s nothing left that I can consider myself because I have seen it all in front as not me. Yet the one thing that remains is this feeling of existence. I am remains. This feeling of I am. What I find when I sit in that state is that what my identity is, is beyond perception. It cannot be perceived, but it is still experienced. This I am is the root of our entire existence. I am is latent in every single aspect of our existence, but just like a fish might never notice the water that it swims in, we might never notice the I am, because it’s covered.

I am is a completely empty experience. It’s devoid of any content, and when I experience it directly, on its own, there’s the possibility for a realization.

Maybe I’m not a human being that has consciousness. Maybe I’m consciousness that is shaped into a human being.

When I see this totally empty experience, there is no content, form, structure – there’s not even a model of space and time that is generated in the mind. We’ve seen those conditions before. 13.7 billion years ago when the entire universe was an undifferentiated pure energy. So just maybe there’s the potential to realize directly, I am that energy. I always have been that energy and I always will be that energy.

You are not what you thinkEinstein said that thoughts suffer from an optical illusion of consciousness. This illusion that there is a separate person inside an environment, when in reality there’s just energy in motion, everywhere. Just like an ocean is water in motion – we can call a certain part of that ocean a wave but that gives us the illusion that the wave is a separate entity in the ocean. A wave is not in the ocean, a wave is the ocean. Similarly we might not be waves, maybe we’re the ocean. Maybe all of us are energy and we can realize that directly.

This experience could never be reduced to words – because it makes words, but it could be experienced. I think that is such an important experience that people have been trying to name it for thousands of years. They call it spiritual enlightenment. I think that the first human beings started realizing that they were fundamentally energy about 2500 years ago. All of them say the same thing – it is the complete ending of human suffering. Of course it’s the end of human suffering! All suffering is based on the illusory separation that there’s an individual in the environment, that there’s a person that has to survive, that this specific collection of a thousand trillion trillion atoms has to hold itself together. However, if I realize directly that I am energy, and I realize that the body and the mind are a temporary manifestation of that energy, then I can fully accept that the death of the body and the mind was never something that happened to me, because I was always energy and I always will be.

If I were to experience that directly, this voice in my head that tells me I have to do certain things in order to be fulfilled loses all of its power. At this very moment I never have to listen to that voice again. Everything in life becomes a game, for fun; a play. We’ve all experienced that, but it’s very hard to remember, because we were so young. Maybe we were at the beach building a sand castle and the entire world faded away because we were only building it to build it – and we weren’t trying to get somewhere else. We hadn’t even learned how to plan, so the only moment that mattered to us was right now. I think that this experience is so important and powerful that every religious tradition at its core has been trying to convince us of its importance, and if it’s true. – if the true end of all human psychological suffering is actually possible – it is the most important thing science could be studying.

Enlightenment Engineering

When we look at monks and nuns who have meditated or prayed for thousands of hours we see remarkable shifts on their brain scans. Trillions of neural connections have changed configuration. Along with this quantifiable, objective change in the operating system of the brain, they describe a feeling of undifferentiated, infinite, oneness. To me that sounds like they are having the direct experience of being energy. Enlightenment science and enlightenment engineering would study these ancient technologies of prayer and meditation as data sets to understand what has to change in the structure of a human brain for a human being to understand that they are energy directly. We still have no idea how much modern technology could completely change our ability to understand that. Maybe it’s possible that within our lifetimes we could eradicate human suffering.

What would the world look like then, if every single one of us felt complete, felt whole, and felt interconnected?

Letting go

When you let go of individual survival, all of your priorities change because you actually see the entire world as your body. You see the suffering of others as your own suffering and you want to help. What is the actual power of a human being to really benefit the world, when they are able to put the priorities of the whole system in front of themselves, even if that means they have to die in the process? How many of us can do that right now?

What if seven billion of us did that?

Maybe the one thing that keeps us from actually solving all of the other problems in the world is this persistent, flawed thought that we are separate from the world. Maybe it’s time we change our minds

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