Buddhist Meditation and Brain Waves
Buddhist Meditation, Brain Waves, and the Pathways to Liberation

I teach meditation regularly at the Manitoba Buddhist Temple. In the last few years there has been much research on the human brain and brain waves. Scientists are doing extensive research on spirituality and wellness. All of this was much in the news as I blithely went about my dharma activities for the temple community.

One day we were sitting in a Sharing Circle at the close of a meditation session and it suddenly hit me that Shakyamuni in the discussion of the Jhanas was talking about the experience of the brainwaves! Of course, there was no idea of brain waves 2600 years ago. Shakyamuni used words indicating levels of consciousness or awareness that arise according to causes and conditions. His jhanic experiences were actual experiences, not contrived intellectual theories. They overlapped with many meditation systems of his epoch. This included Hindu, Jain and independent systems. Shakyamuni claims to have united the best of these insights with his own experiences. The jhanic experience he describes does not, however, center on a God centered search, not even the acknowledgement of an eternal self-soul-identity. Shakyamuni’s experiences also overlap well with our current brain wave and brain structure schemes, as we shall soon see.

dalai_lama_mri
Psychology professor Richard Davidson, far right, with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, during a tour of the Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior in May 2001. (photo: Jeff Miller / © UW-Madison University Communications)

A major difference between Shakyamuni and modern science is that many scientists believe that they are perfectly objective and that this objectivity involves a detached amoral, uninvolved point of view. However, according to Shakyamuni, the ability to stand back and let reality speak to you on its own terms begins with the Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts. There is also the matter of personal cleanliness, followed by proper diet. It also involves a rest-activity cycle.

The results are a self-transcendent, transpersonal oneness with all being. There emerges a kind of detached, loving-kindness for all suffering beings. Only then can true objectivity emerge whereby knowledge and understanding take their toll. Then reality speaks to us its own terms. Something that science has promised us but failed to deliver as it becomes increasingly enmeshed in the power politics, military adventures and social theories of the day. Of course, Buddhism as an organized religion can fail to live up to its promise as well, and often for the same reasons!

BRAIN WAVES AND THE JHANIC EXPERIENCE
The brain wave activity of the daily mind is beta. It is very dynamic at about 15-40 cycles per second. The graph is sharp, pointy and compact. This is the waking brain involved in debates, daily work activities and engaged conversation, for example. In Shakyamuni’s terms, this it the world of individualized being interacting with individualized being driven by the karma of thought, word and deed. Before we can even begin to enter a jhanic experience, we first must get this network of individuals in relationship through the karma of thought, action and speech in focus and give it a new direction.

This is done by the Five Precepts: avoid killing, avoid possessiveness, avoid unfaithfulness, avoid perverting the flow of accurate data, and not to burden the mind-brain with intoxicants. In this way the flow of events are given focus and direction.

But these Five Precepts are only the beginning. There are the elements of the Eightfold Path: synergic ally effective views, mind activities, speech, bodily activity, livelihood, energy, mind balance and focus. These do not have to be brought to perfection, but practiced with sincerity and determination in all humility. I have had success using the metta, or loving kindness, meditation as the foundation of all meditation practices.

This is the motivation to practice those lists above within a reasonable range of opportunity and ability. Shakyamuni insisted that we could never attain that celebrated scientific level of objectivity as long as ignorance, hatred and greed drive our minds. The five Precepts and the Eightfold Path are antidotes to these three poisons, for they pollute our meditations, too. They make the attainment of any meditation goals highly unlikely!

So far we have brought our experience of the beta waves into a new context called the Access Concentration. It is a context that prepares us for the entry into the alpha experience. The access concentration is a kind of transition gateway. It carries us, sometimes unnoticed, from beta to alpha.

There are five features of the
First Jhana: thinking and wondering, unbroken attention on the meditation or the object of meditation, physical joy (piti) and emotional/psychological/ spiritual joy (sukha) and single-pointed ness of mind (ekaggata/isshin). “ Detached from sensual objects, o monks, detached from unwholesome states of mind, the monk enters the first jhana while still with ideation and analysis with the said detachment filled with piti and sukha.” (Note: all of these quotes are a paraphrasing of the sutras. There are many translations and some are online. Check them out for yourself.)

The change to the alpha or
second jhana is subtle and often happens unnoticed. This is because it maintains the detachment and the piti and sukha while abandoning analysis and ideation. “After the lessening of ideation and analytical thought he gains oneness of mind and enters into a state free of these two. Thus the Second Jhana is born of detachment and one pointedness of mind, filled with piti and sukha.” The alpha brain wave activity is typically 9-14 cps. These cycles are not as compact as the beta, but they exhibit higher peaks and deeper valleys in the graphic representations. If we have finished a task with satisfaction and are resting we often slip into alpha. Taking a quiet walk in a garden also can put us into this state of mind. Many meditation courses are geared to this experience. Alpha does indeed have positive physical and emotional benefits. Alpha (first and second jhana) is not, nor should it be, the sum and substance of meditation. There are many health benefits to the alpha experience, but the experience of alpha does not indicate that the mediator has seen God, nor dies it indicate the attainment of satori!! Meditation after all is said and done, should lead us beyond delusion, and not anchor us to it.

The
third jhana is entered when we have detachment with regards to piti and sukha. This leaves us with peaceful, balanced but attentive mind. This is called “aware equanimity.” “After the fading of joy, the monk experiences equanimity, mindfulness and is clearly consciousness. He can thus enter the third jhana.” This it the theta experience. Theta is usually 5-8 cps. On a graph they are more open and less pointy. When we take a mental timeout or daydream we often are in theta. Runners ‘in the zone’ are often in theta.

Thinkers and writers often create from within theta. Ideas seem to flow more readily. Everything seems to happen by itself, automatically and “as they should.” We seem to be riding a wave while our minds are in a state of quiet contentment. Actors and athletes feel that things are standing still while in motion at the same time, and their mind is in total selfless focus. They often explain that they lost both body and personal consciousness while totally focused so that everything happens spontaneously just as it should. This is the third jhana. People can dwell in theta for extended lengths of time. One such experience is when we just come out of sleep and lie there. It seems that our bodies are asleep, but the observing mind is wake, indeed more awake than ever. This is an important time and should not be rushed. Explore it. Then try to duplicate it in your meditations.

An important study in 1979, THE QUIET THERAPIES by D. Reynolds, is perhaps the first scientific study of brainwaves and Zen meditation. It showed that Zen mediators could indeed combine beta, alpha and theta in a new extended brainwave activity! This hints at the great plasticity of the human mind-brain that we dare now to explore. It is important to keep in mind that the jhanas and the brainwaves are perfectly natural events. In other times people thought they had been in the grips of a spirit, or had connected with the transcendent, divine. But Shakyamuni insists that we must not stop here, and that further these experiences lie with the nature of the mind. They are common, everyday experiences to anyone with a brain. We are here guiding them in a direction that will become clearer as we proceed with the brain wave/jhanic experience.

Each jhana could be misunderstood as the final goal of meditation. If you have read books on meditation you will recognize these states of mind. They are not mystical state that put us on a higher level than our fellow beings. This is delusion again. They are stages on the way to the other jhanas.
The fourth jhana is similar to the delta one brainwave experience. Delta is about 1.5 to 4 cps. When we fall asleep we enter delta. The transition between the third, theta and the fourth, delta one, is important for it is here that dream meditations can be achieved. Here we are relaxed, conscious and full of equanimity. It is a transition between waking and sleeping. Here we can remember our dreams and ‘sink’ back into our dream state and change them. This is dream therapy in which we become conscious actors interacting with the content and symbolic nature of dreams. But if we use this for power, status or spiritual entertainment, our dreaming becomes a trickster.

At each jhana there is the possibility to get misguided. Each has its dangers and temptations. This is the reason that a supportive community of like-minded individuals is important. As is of course some one as an experienced, nurturing, unself-preoccupied referent is so important. Also, this is the reason that Shakyamuni insisted that none of the jhana were to simply ‘hang out.’ “After abandoning both pleasure and pain, happiness and grief, the monk enters into a state beyond pleasure and pain with equanimity and an attentive mind, the fourth jhana.”

The fifth jhana is similar to what I call delta2. It is at 2-3 cps. This is dreamless sleep. People in a coma are often said to be in this state. It Shakyamuni’s day, it was thought that those in a coma were in this state and if they lived they awoke in their bodies and continued living in the accustomed state of individuation. If they died the body died, but the mind was reborn again into a new form depending on the karmic pattern of their thinking, actions and words. Thus they continued the cycles of individuation and re-individuation driven by karmic patterns. Here, of course, the experiences of Shakyamuni and modern science part company. He is also at odds with much of Judeo-Christian-Muslim theology. This fifth jhana is the jhana of Infinite Space. We experience here our boundaries expanding until the vanishing point. We have overcome our sense of individuality and experienced infinite expansion of boundaries in all directions. It is as if a pilot of a hang glider were to look down to discovering that the earth had vanished. But the karmic pattern of our lives need not bind us to re-individuation again and again. It is within our given abilities to go even further that the samsaric round of re-individuations carrying our karmic burden with us. The state of Infinite Space gives us an opportunity. It in itself is not the end of the spiritual quest, as is mistakenly thought. It is here, too, that Shakyamuni gives us a new insight into the brain-mind’s abilities. He insists that we still have further to go. There are more waves to experience!

The sixth jhana includes becoming detached from Infinite Space and the arising of the awareness of infinite consciousness. The mediator abides in this state, sometimes for a long time. If you have become one with infinite space your consciousness has, tacitly, become infinite consciousness. Here the cycles of re-individuation can be left behind. It is also at this time that one can enter the Bodhisattva path. We can experience a boundless compassion for al suffering beings and choose to re-enter the samsaric cycle to liberate all beings. In the traditional religious language, a Bodhisattva is one who refuses salvation for him/herself until all other beings are saved first, even unto the dust on the soles of the feet. This is the experience Albert Schweitzer had on the Ogowe River. All beings that enter this path experience an overwhelming oneness with all being. It results from an awareness of the shared pain of existence and the arising of universal compassion. Reverence for Life is the dominant theme of their mind way. People who have awakening experiences based on and intense awareness of finitude, suffering, and impermanence often slip into this jhana easily. Their re-emergence back into the world of individuation is never again based on the karma of the three poisons of ignorance hatred and greed that arise naturally out of egological mind ways. The danger here is the trap of feeling that we have become Divine, or are one with the Divine in fact and substance. Here we fall prey to spiritual hubris. It is depicted in Christianity as the Fall of the Angels. They all come crashing to earth. This means we have to start our spiritual work all over again, for we have actually reached bottom.

The seventh jhana of the base of nothingness states, “Through the total overcoming of the boundless consciousness there arises the idea “Nothing is there!” The monk abides in this “nothing is there.” Infinity and Nothingness are sister experiences, in a sense versions of each other. That is why it is possible to shift from infinite space to infinite consciousness to nothingness. The Heart Sutra and the Zen masters are adept at presenting this as an actual lived experience. The danger in this jhana lies in the wrong turn that leads us to a pathological condition wherein a person is devoid of all compassion. There are people who feel that they have reached a superior state of being by feeling nothing for other beings. It is similar to socio-psychopathology. The cure is to start all over again until this cul-de-sac is seen for what it is. Buddhist transcendence is an inclusive, accumulative transcendence. It is never an excuse for unfeeling, irresponsible relationships for other beings. Neither does our meditations (There are over 40 in the sutras.) bestow upon us a Ph. D. in World!! But then, we should go on to the next jhana!

The eighth jhana: “Through the total overcoming of the sphere of Nothingness, we enter the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception and abide therein.” It is difficult to explain because there is nothing to explain. The word perception used here is a translation of samjna. It refers to the compiling, universalizing aspect of consciousness. In the eighth jhana we let go of infinity, emptiness and indeed of having a mind and consciousness, of having an identity or an eternal soul. It is the emptiness of emptiness, reminding us that attachment to emptiness is also a form of clinging. Remember the human mind has a natural predisposition to experience these states.

All of the jhanas are naturally occurring. It is simply necessary to have the right conditions and the mind will find its own way to the jhanas. In some cases the jhanas arise in an individual for no apparent cause whatsoever. In some cases they are experienced as a gift of a particular Buddha. However they arise, they are still the antidote to the egological mind feed by ignorance, hatred and greed.

We express liberation with the words anuttara samyak sambodhi. If we were to look each particle of this line of words up in a Sanskrit/Pali dictionary we would be able to come up with the following phrase: There is no higher attainment than that which embraces both being and non-being and then goes beyond both being and non-being in a transcendent oneness arising out of the perfection of the great exquisite awakening. (Whew).

You cannot say this state of being exists. You cannot say this state of being does not exist. You cannot say this state of being both exists and does not exist. You cannot say this state of being neither exists, nor does not exist. This is nirvana, the Great Mystery (Dharmakaya) beyond all thought and no thought.... beyond all theories, ideologies and descriptions. These are exactly the words Shinran used to describe the Nembutsu.

But that is another story.

Sensei Ulrich

September 2004

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