TEDxCambridge – Jeff Lieberman on science and spirituality
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?
So lets do a second experiment that is even more subtle than that one. Read this sentence twice, silently to yourself…
…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.
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.
Einstein 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.
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.
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?
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.