What 300+ Hours of Meditation Taught Me About Enlightenment

The idea for “enlightenment” or “awakening” has intrigued me since I was young. But for most of my life, I believed that it was reserved only for saints, freaks or hardcore spiritual practitioners. The odds of an ordinary guy, like me, winning the enlightenment lottery are probably 1 in a billion. However, my view was challenged after I discovered two very interesting YouTube channels – Buddha At the Gas Pump and ConsciousTV. These channels feature hundreds of interviews with everyday people who claim that they are now enlightened – or at least more awakened. Many of them report what is known to be the classical mystical transformation. One day they are struggling with life’s ups and downs and then BANG, they undergo a shift in consciousness, and find themselves in a persistent state of well-being, egolessness or union with everything.

Watching some of these interviews, and hearing about their organismic states makes me want to coin a phrase to describe my own emotional state – enlightenment envy.

But, what is enlightenment? If the condition does exist, how can it be measured? More to the point, how can ordinary folk like you and I go about getting it? If you have explored these questions at any length, you have probably found the answers to be as elusive as trying to catch a fly with chopsticks. The topic is highly subjective and also buried under tons of religious and cultural baggage. That is until recently. With advances in neuroscience and a growing interest in consciousness among academics, the phenomenon of enlightenment is finally being investigated by science.

The 10 Year research project on 1000+ enlightened people

Enter Dr Jeffrey Martin, a Harvard research professor. Dr. Martin started his research project wanting to know who are the happiest people in the world. It was a pertinent question for him personally, because as a middle-class American, he was tall, dark, handsome, and a successful entrepreneur; yet not quite happy. Ironically, he discovered that the people who scored the highest on his tests were not the social media celebrities and gazillionaires we most aspire to be. The highest results belonged to a special category of people, who had some sort of enlightenment that significantly changed their lives.

Dr Martin, knew he was onto something special. So he made it his mission to track down and research as many awakened people as he could find. Many of these people were kind of steeped in the dogma of their spiritual tradition. So to counteract their biases Dr. Martin used standardised cognitive tests. In his interviews, he didn’t allow his subjects to indulge in philosophy. Instead, he would ask them about their lifestyle, thinking patterns, mood swings, sense of self, emotions and sexual behaviour. In this way he was able to elicit responses that could be measured scientifically. He even avoided the words, “enlightenment” and “awakening”, because he felt they were loaded. In their place he borrowed a little known academic term, describing the same phenomenon, “PNSE – Persistent Non-symbolic Experience.”

After 10 years of trotting the globe, Dr. Martin ended up collecting a colossal amount of data from over 1000 enlightened individuals. As a result of his work, he made three breakthrough discoveries about enlightenment:

DISCOVERY 1. Enlightened people can be ordinary folk

As already mentioned, enlightenment happens to all different types of people. Dr. Martin started off his research seeking out famous spiritual gurus and holy monk types. You know, people who fit the stereotype. But he quickly found out that the same shifts in consciousness were happening to white collar types, labourer types, geeky types, and even social media flaunting types. In fact, it was happening to all types of people – women and men, atheists and religious, young and old, of all sexual orientations and backgrounds. Yet, despite their profound internal changes, from the outside these people can often look the same, speak the same and retain the same habits.

DISCOVERY 2. Enlightenment falls under 4 different categories on a continuum

During his research, Dr. Martin was also discovering that there were similarities in the way his subjects were experiencing themselves and the world. Over time he was able to group these similarities into four categories, or what he prefers to call, “Locations”:

  • Location One – Fundamental okayness
    Location 1 individuals focus a lot more on the present moment, and much less on the past and future. They still experience lots of ups and downs in life. Yet even though there can be turbulence on the emotional level – like anxiety, anger and hurt – there is a consistent sense of well being and imperturbability in the background. Consequently, when shit hits the fan, they tend to suffer a lot less psychologically than most people do. They are resilient and can quickly bounce back to their natural state of fundamental okayness.
  • Location Two – Positivity and non-duality
    For Location 2 individuals, the sense of fundamental well-being moves increasingly into the foreground until it becomes their default state. Negative emotions decrease and there is far less reactivity, although deep-rooted patterns can still be triggered. In Location 2, people also begin to experience the boundary between their self and the outside world soften, and in some cases, even disappear altogether. This union with the world is often referred to as “non-duality” (or “Advaita” by Indian mystics).
  • Location Three – Compassion, love and joy
    Location 3 individuals have freed themselves from most of their negative psychological conditioning. They predominately experience strong positive emotions like joy, gratitude and compassion. Those who are spiritually inclined will often describe their state as a deep devotion or merging with the divine, God or Universe. Location 3 people are usually socially active and motivated to help others in their community.
  • Location Four – Egoless bliss
    Location 4 individuals experience a radical shift in their cognition which they will describe as a loss of ego. In this location they are totally non-dual. They also report that they no longer possess a will and that everything happens as a result of the Universe, God or Divine Will. This loss of control may appear scary and fatalistic to us on the outside. But to location 4 people, it is an absolute blessing. Their sense of egolessness enables them to transcend personal suffering and be in a persistent blissful state.
  • Beyond Location Four
    The above four locations apply to the overwhelming majority of Dr. Martin’s 1000+ research subjects. But he did come across individuals who are beyond location 4, and a few who are way beyond. Perhaps there are locations that lie at the frontiers of human consciousness right before we disintegrate into balls of light. I imagine this is where the likes of Christ, Buddha and Ramana Maharshi hang out.

Even though there is evidence of a continuum from location 1 to location 4, Dr. Martin warns us against thinking of the locations in terms of hierarchy. Firstly, the locations are not fixed destinations. Enlightenment is clearly a fluid and ever deepening process. Secondly, there cannot be a one size fits all approach, because we are all so different and at varying junctures of our lives. For example, you may have a young family to feed, so being zoned out in location 4, probably won’t best serve your present life situation. Now, beyond location 4? Let’s face it, we can’t all be meditating in a cave, blissed out for 17 years, while rodents gnaw at our testicles. Humanity will literally die out.

DISCOVERY 3. There are proven methods that lead to enlightenment quickly

Now, the third discovery was the real clincher. After collecting all the data and analysing it from many different angles, an astonishing pattern emerged. Dr. Martin found only a small number of meditation methods that works. He calls these practices the “Greatest Hits”. Astonishingly, he observed that once someone found what works for them, they are able to transition very quickly. Contrary to the common school of thinking, you don’t need to practice for years or decades – shifts can happen within a few months.

Dr. Martin decided to experiment with the Greatest Hits himself and BANG. He was able to transition in and out of all four locations.

The Finders Course – Where Seekers become Finders

Thankfully, the man didn’t stop there. Dr. Martin wanted to share his bounty, so he created the Finders Course – an 18 week intensive online course incorporating the Greatest Hits. As he puts it, “The course transforms Seekers into Finders.” He makes the remarkable claim that over 70% of participants will transition to at least one of the four locations, during the course.

By now I imagine you are dying to know what the Greatest Hits are. So without any further ado. DJ, let the record play:

Dr. Martin’s subjects used one or a combination of these methods to awaken.

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Witnessing
Awareness
Being aware of awareness itself and noting its qualities.
Mindfulness
Being present to the moment in a non-reactive way.
Self Enquiry
Deconstructing the arbitrary aspects of ourselves and seeing what remains.
Prayers /
Affirmations
Daily prayers or affirmations to commit oneself to living from a principle greater than oneself.
Vipassana
Meditation with breath focus and body scanning.
Mantra
Repeating a sound or phrase to quieten the mind.
Noting
Being aware of and naming emotions, thinking patterns and sensations as they arise.
Gratitude, Kindness
& Forgiveness
On a daily basis, contemplating gratitude, practicing forgiveness and being kind to others.
Letting Go
Using practical tools to intentionally let go of negative thoughts and emotions as they arise.
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Inspired by Dr. Martin’s amazing story and promise, I enrolled to do the Finders Course in early 2017. Over the 18 week period, Dr. Martin gave us weekly video instructions on the various meditation methods we are to practice daily at home. We get to try all the Greatest Hits and they are sequenced in a very specific way. I was also put into a small support group with four fellow participants. We linked up via Zoom on a weekly basis to do group meditation and share our experiences.

The course is intense. You are required to do 1½ to 3 hours of meditation each day and log the activity on an app. On top of that, there are positive psychology exercises to practice and regular questionnaires to fill out.

So what did I learn after 300+ hours of meditation in the Finders Course?

All in all, I must say the course was positive. It was well structured and also allowed some flexibility to explore what works for us as individuals. I particularly liked the emphasis on practice over theory. Dr. Martin’s instructions were clear and I felt well supported by him and his team. I also enjoyed the comradery of my small group and being able to openly discuss topics I would never broach in my normal social circles. Post course, if you wish to continue the process, there is also a very active network of Finders Course graduates, who organise regular online meetings.

I am convinced that Dr. Martin’s research is authentic and that his course can rewire the brain towards greater wellbeing. In fact, early into the course, two of the five people in our group had ‘big bang’ type experiences and were confident they were on the continuum. It has been months since the course finished and they continue to report being in that transitioned space. For them the Finders Course was in their own words, the best thing they ever did.

On my side, however, I must admit it didn’t go exactly as I hoped. In many ways I was my own worst enemy. Being a spiritual seeker for years, I built up a grandiose image of what enlightenment should look like. I was hoping for explosions and fireworks, but they never happened. It’s funny, because Dr. Martin warns us against that exact thing. To him, shifts can certainly be dramatic for some people. But for most, it’s a more subtle and gradual ascension.

The other thing that worked against me was my family life, which was quite tumultuous at that time. Despite my best efforts to remain Zen, I often got drawn into reactivity with my wife and kids. I can see why people traditionally go off into monasteries to do this kind of work. In my opinion, if you are going through some serious personal stuff, the Finders Course may not have all the answers. I ended up dealing with my relationship issues through another process later in the year.

Now, for the billion dollar question. Did I get enlightened? Well, if by enlightened you mean, floating on lotus petals in a permanent ecstatic state – then I failed miserably. However, if we are using Dr. Martin’s locations as a measure, then I possibly made some headway into location one. There were glimpses of spaciousness during my meditation and I started to sense that underlying peace that’s always there, despite my oscillating emotions. Moreover, these days I have given up thinking of enlightenment as a miraculous event that will vanquish my suffering in one big whoosh. Instead, I am more focusing on my well being, from moment to moment.

The Finder Course is “The world’s first scientifically validated meditation course using biometrics to quantify states of awakening and provide persistent inner peace”. For more information visit: www.finderscourse.com. Here is the short video interview with Dr. Jeffrey Martin that actually inspired me to do the course.

Comments (1):

  1. Karl K

    October 21, 2018 at 6:13 am

    This review was an excellent clear, comprehensive evenhanded presentation and exposition of Dr. Martin and the Finders course. What I’ve been looking for for some time.
    Thank you.

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