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The Stages of Enlightenment

by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD

When you thus cease to be finite, you become one with the Infinite.—Plotinus

Our brain is not static, but incredibly dynamic—altering with each experience.  The finest levels of its internal structure and function are constantly being modified by the metabolism of different experiences.  How we interpret and make some meaning out of sensory information depends on several factors, such as memory and past experience, our mental and emotional stability, and our level of alertness. Sensory information is transformed,  reassembled, and integrated by centers in the brain.

The brain is organized in a hierarchial structure.  At each layer, the convergence and integration of excitatory and inhibitory impulses from numerous cells leads to increased conciseness and intelligence of information. Like an efficient secretary, our brain files information in a precise and accurate manner. Cells which respond best to any one particular type of stimulus are arranged in columns that run radially from the surface of the cortex to its core.

The brain’s ability to extract and reinterpret information is extraordinary. We need only a brief glimpse of one feature of a friend’s face and we are able to reconstruct a complex image, including a wealth of memories and emotional overtones.  The final act of recognizing someone in a crowd is not accomplished by means of any one master area, but rather through a vast network of interconnected areas.  Perception is not a passive mechanical act, it is a highly intelligent and interactive process in which information is continually analyzed, integrated, and resynthesized.

All of this activity in the brain, in turn, affect our state of consciousness and our perception of the world.  The world is, indeed, as we are. It is important to remember that perception depends upon our level of consciousness, which depends upon the state of our nervous system.

If we are awake, this is one state of consciousness. If we are dreaming, we are in another state of consciousness and our perception changes. When we are deeply asleep, this is a third state of consciousness. Each of these states is regulated by a different center in our brain. One important part of the brain that plays a vital role in adjusting our level of awareness, is called the reticular activating system, which is located in a very old part of the brain called the brainstem. Also within the brainstem are groups of cells whose fiber extend many distant areas of the brain and secrete different types of neurotransmitters which have an important influence on states of consciousness.

The EEG of waking state is usually quite different from most stages of sleep. Waking is usually characterized by high frequency EEG waves while sleep is characterized by slower waves. There is one exception called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is associated with dreaming. The EEG of REM sleep activity looks like waking, and for this reason is known as “paradoxical sleep.” During any normal night we usually experience about four or five periods of REM sleep, which are short at the beginning of the night and longer toward the end. REM sleep is important for the consolidation of memory and also for the brain’s development.  A newborn spends more than 80% of total sleep time in REM.

In previous articles we have described a fourth state of consciousness different from waking, dreaming, or sleeping is described by many Eastern traditions. This state is achieved through transcending. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi referred to this fourth state as the state of pure or transcendental consciousness.

Atman, the Self, has four conditions…The first condition is the waking life or outward-moving consciousness….The second condition is the dreaming life of inner-moving consciousness…The third condition is the sleeping life of silent consciousness when a person has no desires and beholds not dreams…The fourth condition is Atman in his own pure state; the awakened life of supreme consciousness. It is neither outer nor inner consciousness, neither semi-consciousness, nor sleeping-consciousness, neither consciousness nor unconsciousness. [It] cannot be seen or touched, [it] is above all distinctions, beyond thought and ineffable. In the union with him is the supreme proof of his reality… [It] is peace and love.—Mandukya Upanishad

In waking state there is always duality between the subject—the person who is doing the seeing, touching, hearing, or tasting—and the object of his or her sight, touch, hearing, or taste.  In the midst of our most personal introspection there is always some quality of duality: “I see, I hear, I think, I feel.”  If, for instance, I see a rose then the subject, “I,” is separate from the object, “the rose.”  This dichotomy pervades every experience of life. But when we transcend the thought process, we experience consciousness by itself—a state which is called “transcendental” or “pure consciousness.”

When we practice TM we become more and more familiar with the act of transcending the superficial levels of thoughts to reach deeper levels of our inner self. Through continued practice we gradually refine our neurophysiological functioning and begin to be able to maintain a state of pure consciousness even when we are in our daily activity.  One result is a greater sense of “self-awareness” and heightened levels of perception.

All at once, as it were out of intensity of consciousness of individuality, individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state, but the clearest, the most sure of the surest, utterly beyond words, the loss of personality (if so it were) seemed no extinction, but the only true Self. I am ashamed of my feeble description. Have I not said the state is utterly beyond words.—Alfred Lord Tennyson

The repeated experience of transcending refines the style of functioning of the nervous system and gives rise to a state of enlightenment in which we simultaneously experience pure consciousness along with waking, dreaming, and sleeping states. At the same time that we are engaged in action, there is a sense of witnessing ourselves.

I see the source of all beauty. I see the cause of all things. I see the beginning that has no beginning, by which everything was brought forth and by which everything lives and receives nourishment…. —Symeon the New Theologian, 10th century

Maharishi tells us that there are three stage of enlightenment. The first is called cosmic consciousness. Cosmic consciousness is a state in which we experience all the activities of life without losing our deep sense of inner self, our big Self.

When we have any experience, our inner sense of Self, tends to be overshadowed. In many spiritual traditions this process of being overshadowed is referred to as “the bondage of experience.” In the state of cosmic consciousness, the mind and body are highly integrated, and action is performed spontaneously, with the actor as his or her own witness. One of the qualities of this state is a sense of total freedom.

During sleep the experience of cosmic consciousness is striking and the following quote gives an example of its remarkable nature:

Last night was the sweetest night I ever had in my life. I never before, for so long a time together, enjoyed so much of the light and rest and sweetness of heaven in my soul, but without the least agitation of body during the whole time. Part of the night I lay awake, sometimes asleep, and sometimes between sleeping and waking. …There was little difference, whether I was asleep or awake, but if there was any difference, the sweetness was greatest while I was asleep. As I awoke early the next morning, it seemed to me that I had entirely done with myself. It felt that the opinions of the world concerning me were nothing, and that I had not more to do with any outward interest of my own than with that of a person whom I never saw.—Sarah Edward, wife of the great theologian Jonathan Edwards

In one research study in which individuals practicing TM reported witnessing during sleep, there was a particularly interesting change in the EEG recordings of the brain activity. The pattern showed the normal characteristics of slow wave sleep, however, superimposed on the slow waves were alpha waves, indicative of the experience of pure consciousness.

Once these glimpses of cosmic consciousness become our permanent conditioning, as a result of refining and rewiring our brain, then we have reached in the first stage of enlightenment. We are free from the bondage of stress and suffering. We maintain a state of inner bliss consciousness all the time whether we are engaged in rigorous activity or asleep. Our actions are not hampered by this permanent state of bliss consciousness, rather they become more effective and more powerful.

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
All we can describe is their appearance.
They were careful
as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present and can welcome all things.—Lao-Tzu

Maharishi explains that the second stage of enlightenment after Cosmic consciousness is “God consciousness.” And it is in this state that the enlightened heart blossoms.

Love of God is the greatest virtue that a man can ever cultivate, and through that develops the love of the creation of God, for the children of God; kindness, compassion, tolerance, and helpfulness to others emanate when the love of God grows in the heart.

Fortunate are those whose hearts melt in love of God, who feel abundance in the love and devotion to God, whose hearts flow and overflow with the remembrance of God, with the thought of love for God, and with the name of God. Fortunate are those whose life is dedicated to the almighty God and to the doing of good to his creation. Increased happiness, contentment, glory and grace.—Maharishi

As a result of the purification of the nervous system through daily exposure to more subtle levels of awareness during the practice of TM, we are naturally able to appreciate finer levels of creation. These finer layers are more blissful, more radiant and more full of life.

To be capable of knowing God, and to wish and hope to know him, is the road which leads straight to the Good; and it is an easy road to travel. Everywhere God will come to meet you, and everywhere he will appear to you, at places and times at which you look not for it, in your waking hours in your sleep, when you are journeying by water and by land, in the night-time and in the day-time, when you are speaking and when you are silent; for there is nothing which is not God.—Hermetic Writings (anonymous Egyptian writings from the second and third centuries BC)

Scientists describe this finest level of life in their own language.

The scientist’s religious feeling takes the form a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, in comparison with it, the highest intelligence of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.—Albert Einstein

I belong to the group of scientists who do not subscribe to a conventional religion but nevertheless deny that the universe is a purposeless accident. Through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as brute fact. There must, it seems to me, be a deeper level of explanation. Whether one wishes to call that deeper level “God” is a matter of taste and definition. —Paul Davis physicist and broadcaster

Our interpretation of the phrase “the will of God” depends upon our viewpoint.  To a religious person, it may mean divine guidance. To a scientist, the phrase might be altered to “the will of nature,” which, if we are quantum physicists, refers to an underlying field of all the laws of nature, from which everything, both force and matter fields arise.

Maharishi distinguishes the highest and most complete state of enlightenment as “Unity Consciousness.” In this state, everything is perceived in terms of the unbounded Self. It is an experience in which we know ourselves to actually be everything and everybody. There is no sense of fear or isolation, rather one feels in perfect harmony with all beings. We see the world from the perspective of the underlying order and unity that upholds creation.  We perceive all diversity in terms of unity.

Over time, the daily experience of TM brings about a change in the style of functioning of our nervous system, enabling us to have a much broader and deeper experience of the world. We begin to understand that waking state consciousness is a comparatively limited consciousness.

Experiences of these various stages of enlightenment are rare, not because of any limitation on the part of our brain but because we have never included in our educational system an effective technology that allows us to achieve these experiences. By understanding the mechanism of how to refine the functioning of our nervous system and improve all aspects of mental and physical life we can open the “doors of perception” and begin to live life to the fullest.

The purpose of happiness is the purpose of life, and evolution is the process through which it is fulfilled. Life begins in a natural way. It evolves, and happiness expands. The expansion of happiness carries with it the growth of intelligence, power, creativity, and everything that may be said to be of significance in life.—Maharishi

Selected References

  1. Science of Being and Art of Living: Transcendental Meditation by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, MUM Press, Kindle edition, 2011
  2. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the Bhagavad-Gita, A New Translation and Commentary, Chapters 1-6, MUM Press, 2016
  3. One Unbounded Ocean of Consciousness: Simple answers to the big questions in life by Dr Tony Nader, Aguilar, 2021
  4. The Coherence Effect: Tapping into the Laws of Nature that Govern Health, Happiness, and Higher Brain Functioning by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD, Jay B. Marcus, and Chris S. Clark, MD, Armin Lear Press, 2020
  5. The Neurophysiology of Enlightenment: How the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi Program Transform the Functioning of the Human Body by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD, Dharma Publications, 2016
  6. The Supreme Awakening: Experiences of Enlightenment Throughout Time – And How You Can Cultivate Them by Craig Pearson, MIU Press, 2013