Abraham Maslow was one of the towering figures of 20th-century psychology. Along with Ida Rolf, Fritz Perls, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Carl Rogers, and many others, Maslow helped create and define the “human potential” movement of the 1960s. His most famous contribution is the “hierarchy of needs.”
Maslow’s pyramid has physiological needs at the bottom and self-actualization at the top. Basic survival needs such as food and water must be met if a human being is to focus on higher level needs such as friends, family, and community (the need for belonging).
Maslow’s concept of a hierarchy of needs became enormously influential in psychology and popular culture. At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization. This represents the highest order of motivation. It drives us to express our full potential and actualize our ideal self.
What few people realize, however, is that Maslow, near the end of his life, revised his hierarchy of needs. As he inhabited that state of self-actualization, he began to experience extraordinary states of consciousness. This led him to the realization that there was a step above self-actualization. He called it “self-transcendence.”
Maslow associated self-transcendence with peak psychological and spiritual experiences. These are filled with “great ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placing in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened” (Maslow, 1970, p. 164). It’s realizing that you’ve won the lottery. These are the same characteristics identified in large-scale studies of ordinary people who’ve reached peak states (Newberg & Waldman, 2017).
Maslow came to see self-actualization as “a step along the path to the transcendence of identity” (Maslow, 1961). This language echoes both the “the annihilation of the ego” of the Sufis and the “release of self-referential thinking” that occurs as the DMN shuts down in deep meditation.
The early stages of the Short Path as described by Paul Brunton focus on these peak experiences. Brunton’s many exercises guide you to the experience of the elevated states described by Maslow. The later stages of the path, however, have a different focus. PB emphasizes practices that bring self-transcendence to everyday living.
Maslow recognized this progression as well. He wrote that ecstasy, awe, and release of self-preoccupation need not be confined to periods of meditation. He said that they “transformed and strengthened even … daily life” (Maslow, 1970, p. 164).
Maslow began to formulate his ideas on self-transcendence in 1967. But later that year, he had a major heart attack. Weak and convalescing, and preoccupied in his role as president of the American Psychological Association, he had little time or opportunity to develop it. A second heart attack in 1970 meant that he was unable to publish this critical development to his theory before his death.
While other psychologists like Ken Wilbur, Michael Washburn and Robert Assigoli developed models of the stages of transformation, Maslow’s remained the most influential. Even today, most people still believe self-actualization to be the top of Maslow’s pyramid. Neuroscience research and the writings of the ancients are now coming together to point us toward the greater capstone of self-transcendence. PB’s exercises, articulated in his books and this Course, give us a path from one to the other.
Harvard University’s adult psychology department has performed many studies mapping the stages of human mental development. The longest running of these has been going for over 80 years and includes several generations of participants.
Robert Kegan, former chair of the department, says that making the shift from an identity embedded in self to viewing self from above — self-transcendence — is the single most powerful driver of personal transformation. Kegan calls it the “subject-object shift” (Kotler, 2014).
That’s because you’re now seeing yourself from a transcendent perspective, objectively. You’re no longer enmeshed in subjective experience, a miserable ego stuck in a dark basement, deludedly believing that’s all you are. PB calls this stage awakening to your “witness-self” (NB 23-6-88).
Andrew Newberg says that “neurological enlightenment [is] our ability to observe ourselves being separate from our daily thoughts and feelings” (Newberg & Waldman, 2017, p. 19). The “witness-self” identified by PB is its neurological equivalent.
These inner states are thus not just the pinnacle of spiritual evolution, but of psychological maturity as well. Enlightenment is more than an esoteric spiritual aspiration. It’s the summit of human psychological evolution and brain development.
“At first, having my eyes closed was annoying. I could feel every little scratchy itchy feeling in my skin. My throat tickled, and I wanted to cough. I could hear the guy next to me breathing, and that was annoying too. But then I began to forget about all that stuff, and a feeling of peace came over me.
“I could feel the breath going inside my body. And going out again. It felt like a river flowing. I started to float, like I was a helium balloon or something.
“I seemed to go to another place, and it was beautiful. I could feel the rocks and trees and ocean, and I seemed to be part of it all, like I was absorbed into this perfection of everything there is in the cosmos.
“These four huge blue beings drifted near me, and I felt incredible love and connection flowing out of them. They were like outlines of people but transparent and about 15 feet high. Made out of a beautiful royal blue mist.
“I’ve been so worried about all the stuff going on in my life lately, but one of the beings drifted close to me and I felt reassured. Like she was telling me everything is going to be okay. My heart filled up with love, and I realized that love is everything.
“She gave me a shiny diamond crystal to remind me that she’s always there for me. I put it in my heart. It melted all the miserable, depressed pain that’s been living there for too long, and the pain became drops of water that fell into the ground.
“When you told us to come back into the room, I felt like I was a million miles away. I brought that feeling of peace back into my body. It was hard to come back, and I realize part of me is there all the time.”
That kind of subject-object shift, where you ascend in awareness to a beautiful place, often brings with it a sense of peace. You discover powerful resources there, like Julie’s blue beings. They frequently leave you with gifts that symbolize transformation, like the shiny crystal. When you return from “a million miles away,” you have a new perspective on your life.
The fields of both psychology and neuroscience distinguish between states and traits. A state is a temporary experience. A trait is an enduring characteristic.
For instance, bad news might put you into a state of anxiety, but after a while, you recover. You entered into the state of anxiety, then left it. Anxiety was a temporary phenomenon.
That’s quite different from having the trait of anxiety. That trait means you’re an anxious person. Anxiety is an enduring personality characteristic.
When you experience a psychological state, the neurons associated with that state fire in your brain. That’s what allows scientists to measure the brain activity of the DMN, the Task Positive Network, or the Enlightenment Network
As everyone now knows, neurons that fire together wire together. Light up a particular network often enough by experiencing a state, and you begin to hardwire the neural tissue in that part of the brain.
In this way, you can create a trait. Your personality is now stable in that configuration. Meditators produce extensive rewiring in their brains. The process starts after just a few minutes. It’s measurable on an MRI within days. Brain anatomy can change substantially in as little as four weeks.
The Sufis made a distinction between states and traits. They called traits “stations” to indicate that they were permanent. On the Short Path, states are temporary glimpses of the Infinite. Stations are stable and continuous characteristics. They regarded the “annihilation of the ego” as a key station.
That sounds terrifying to most of us. Annihilation of the entire local self? The death of everything that makes “you” you? It seems extreme, and the harshness of such language has deterred many people from even starting the Quest.
Neuroscience, however, gives us a much more detailed picture. What the Sufis called “annihilation of the ego” today’s science would call the “downregulation of the DMN” and the “cessation of self-referential thinking.” It’s the release of that old “you” that threw the winning lottery ticket in the pile and continued living in the gloomy basement. You’ve stepped from suffering subjective self to the objective “witness self.” That’s a much more reasonable way to view this milestone on the Quest.
Once you’ve practiced that state for long enough, firing those neurons enough to wire them together, you reach the first station. A low-activity DMN, coupled with a high-activity Enlightenment Network, is now one of your brain’s enduring traits. The first set of exercises in this Course are designed to fire the circuits of the “witness self” repeatedly, wiring them together.
In this way, you can create a trait. Your personality is now stable in that configuration. Meditators produce extensive rewiring in their brains. The process starts after just a few minutes. It’s measurable on an MRI within days. Brain anatomy can change substantially in as little as four weeks.
Stepping out of the ego-self brings an end to all the suffering it encapsulates. You experience ecstatic emotional states, the “Bliss Brain” that we measure in MRI scans of adepts.
Once you can light up your Enlightenment Network at will, like the Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns studied in MRI research, you’re “reborn in your Higher Self.” The metaphor of rebirth is found in virtually all religions. In the book of John, chapter 3 verse 3, Jesus says: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Sufis use the same language. A key station is “Rebirth in the Beloved.” Once you’ve attained that station, getting to union with your Higher Self is easy and routine. You’re now on the Short Path, and your Higher Self guides you from there. While you’re still living an ordinary life as a local self, rebirth confers union with your Nonlocal Self and the ecstatic states that go along with it.
PB characterizes the rebirth stage as a step beyond the “witness self,” and says that our “next task is to discover that [we are] not merely the witness of the rest of existence but essentially of one stuff with it” (NB 23-6-88). That leads to the final stage of union, in which “we can feel our own source to be the single and supreme principle” of the universe. We embody our “oneness with the entire universe in its real being” (NB 21-5-178).
When you describe yourself, who is it doing the describing? When you say, “I am a gardener … a sister … a football player … an engineer … a Christian … a Spaniard” … or any other characteristic, who is it identifying the self in that particular way?
Who is the “who” describing who you are?
The Masters know that it is the universe. It is consciousness describing itself, but few people living in a body understand that. This Course brings you to the awareness that you are the universal web of wisdom expressing as an individual human being. Its exercises train you in how to live as that every day.
Consciousness can be considered in three distinct forms. One is universal consciousness. That’s the infinite intelligence inherent in the universe. It makes the planets spin and the seasons change. You don’t need to understand it, though we all know it’s inherent in everything.
The second form is the consciousness that is describing yourself. That’s the “you” that says “I am a…” and ends the sentence with a noun. You recognize a self that is different from the undifferentiated consciousness of the universe. It’s the Nonlocal Self that says “I am.”
The third is the self being described: “…a gig worker … a foodie …a lover …an historian …a yoga teacher” and so on. That’s the local self.
Paul Brunton calls the middle form of consciousness the “Overself.” It’s the part of yourself that is beyond the body, beyond time, and beyond space. It’s the perspective from which you say, “I am…” In this Course I call it the Nonlocal Self. The distinction between local and nonlocal consciousness was first articulated by my esteemed friend Larry Dossey (Dossey, 2013).
The Overself is what connects the nonlocal consciousness of the universe with the local consciousness of self as a gig worker or a foodie. PB also uses other terms for the Overself, such as the Soul, your Higher Power, Infinite Intelligence, the Presence, the Knower, and your Higher Self. He describes the Overself as:
“That element in [a person’s] consciousness which enables him to understand that he exists, which causes him to pronounce the words “I Am,” … the spiritual element …” (NB 8-1-1). The Overself is “the life-power from which we derive our capacities and our intelligence.” (NB 22-3-175).
The Overself is an eternal presence, pure essence, not bounded by time, and “does not have or need thoughts” (NB 8-1-143). It is simultaneously “infinite spirit” and also the “holy presence” in the individual human heart. It is every human being’s “nonpersonal identity” (NB 28-2-89). The local self is always connected to the Overself, whether or not a human being is conscious of that fact.
According to Brunton, most people are unaware of the Overself. Instead, they live their lives as time-bound egos. Believing that local self is all they are, they’re unaware of the gold mine of love and bliss that is Nonlocal Self. The local ego is wrapped up in self-referential thinking, and usually suffering. Activated by the brain regions of the DMN, it is obsessed with the past and future. Quieting the self-absorbed chatter of the ego, the “monkey mind,” is the first step toward enlightenment.
The Overself is one with the nonlocal universe. When you join in passionate union with your Nonlocal Self, you’re automatically one with the universe. Eckhart Tolle says: “You are not in the universe. You are the universe.”
This is a shift from the “subjective you” to the “objective you” — the type of leap described by the Harvard project’s former director as the most important accelerator of transformation.
That elevated perspective changes your consciousness, much like astronomers looking at the vastness of space. There’s even a name for the consciousness that results from stargazing: Galaxy Brain (Koren, 2020). It overwhelms viewers with a sense of awe.
“Some people do have the sense when they’re looking across millions of light-years, that our ups and downs are ultimately meaningless on that scale,” according to David Yaden, a psychopharmacology researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Yaden has researched self-transcendent experiences, including the Galaxy Brain experienced by astronauts. This perspective makes you aware of meaning and purpose you can’t perceive when enmeshed in your local reality.
Research has shown that gaining distance from the local self is associated with delta waves, the slowest waves our brains produce. They oscillate between 0 and 4 times per second, or 0-4 Hz. In delta sleep, our brains prune old neural pathways that are no longer being used.
If your focus is on your Higher Self, and you’ve stopped using the old self-referencing pathways that used to process your misery, they start to disintegrate in about three weeks. One researcher calls 0-4 Hz the “IP address of the Sublime” (Wheal, 2020).
One morning after I had just begun writing this Course, I woke up to find a piece of paper next to my bed. I must have perceived this insight as so important that during the night I got up, stumbled about for pen and paper, and wrote these words in the dark:
There is a SINGLE THING in life that is important. Everything else is unimportant.
CONSCIOUSNESS KNOWING ITSELF is important.
Everything else is unimportant. You can divide all of life into these 2 categories.
When we’re asleep, our brains alternate between delta and theta. Most of the night, we’re in delta. Our eyes are also stationary during these periods. About once an hour, for a few minutes, our brains speed up into theta, 4-8 cycles per second. Our eyes move around even though our eyelids are closed, so this stage is called “rapid eye movement” or REM sleep. We then drop back down to delta. Our eyes stop moving as we fall into deep sleep, so delta is also called non-REM or NREM sleep.
While delta is the state in which our brains are pruning old unused neural pathways, theta is the state in which it’s creating new ones. It’s the learning, problem-solving, and integration phase of sleep. In these brief theta periods, we have vivid dreams. Dreams are the brain’s way of solving problems symbolically. We also turn short-term learning into long-term memory as our brains hardwire new connections.
Most people are unaware that this process is going on in the brain every second of every day, reinforced by dreaming during REM sleep. Neural pathways that you use frequently are reinforced. If you’re using your brain to conduct the signals of peace, joy and love, you build up those neural highways. If negative emotion, you reinforce those circuits. MRI research shows that within 4 weeks of starting a daily EcoMeditation practice, significant rewiring occurs.
Pruning is not as rapid, but is occurring continually nonetheless. If you stop using a neural bundle, it begins to disintegrate within three weeks. This process of wiring and pruning is reshaping your brain on an ongoing basis. The states you cultivate in your mind become the traits you hardwire in your brain.
This Course is designed to speed up both wiring and pruning. We want to integrate new learnings, like the insight I wrote on that scrap of paper. Writing that statement meant that while I slept, my brain was integrating, during my theta REM sleep periods, the insights I’d gained reading PB before I went to bed.
Secondly, we want to prune old habits and behaviors that no longer serve us. That’s what your brain is doing during NREM delta sleep. A Course like this one is a way of taking conscious control of the process of wiring and pruning.
Delta is also the foundation of gamma, the fastest brain wave. A truism in meditation research is that “big gamma rides on big delta.” When we hook people up to EEGs, we often see flares of delta first, followed by flares of gamma.
That’s one of the challenges of explaining these states to people who haven’t experienced them. The degree of bliss you feel is so enormous that it’s impossible to explain to people who don’t share it. An ancient Hermetic axiom states: “To the person who has had the experience, no explanation is necessary. To the person who has not, no explanation is possible.”
The experiences of awe produced by Galaxy Brain and other ways of gaining perspective are also associated with gamma. We know from EEG research that your brain is likely to begin producing much greater amplitudes of gamma as you journey along the Short Path.
While one task of the DMN is to create our sense of “self,” with all the suffering that usually accompanies it, this brain network also performs other important functions. It can integrate information from different regions to produce insight. Once we’re done with a task and the TPN powers down, the DMN can light up and produce “aha” moments during times of reverie when we’re “lost in thought.”
In adepts, when the ego-bound self is no longer running the show, the DMN can produce these flashes of integrative insight, accompanied by gamma brain waves, during everyday consciousness. EEG studies of mystics show sustained gamma even when the eyes are open in ordinary awareness.
Richard Davidson has been studying meditators at his neuroimaging lab at the University of Wisconsin since the 1980s. In one study, he tested 21 adepts. The most experienced of these, a Tibetan monk called Mingyur Rinpoche, clocked over 62,000 hours of meditation before the age of 42.
When Davidson first hooked up Mingyur to an MRI, he gave him a number of exercises to complete in order to determine which brain regions were engaged by each one.
When Mingyur was given the cue to engage compassion, Davidson and the other researchers in the lab’s control room were stunned. The level of activity in Mingyur’s empathy circuits rose by 700%. “Such an extreme increase befuddles science,” wrote Davidson (Goleman & Davidson, 2018, p. 78). On average, the adepts had 25 times the amount of gamma as the control group.
Take a breath and think about that research finding for a moment. Wouldn’t getting twice as happy as you are today be great? Perhaps three times? Can you even imagine being 25 times as happy?
Most of us cannot even imagine such a possibility. Yet that’s exactly what science shows us is possible when we shift our perspective from the ego-bound sense of self that suffers in the basement and ascend to the palace above.
The Short Path is called short because it involves seeking enlightenment directly from the Higher Self. The Long Path is one of self-improvement. It involves steps, techniques, initiations, skills, and self-purification. It is a gradual and incremental process.
The Long Path uses practices to advance the Seeker’s spiritual development. These take the form of physical exercise such as yoga or qigong; dietary restrictions like vegetarianism, fasting, and abstinence; mental training in various forms of meditation; study of the Scriptures; obedience to a spiritual teacher; moral awareness; vows, and other forms of discipline.
On the Short Path, you abandon your attempts to improve your local self and turn your attention inward, to focus exclusively on your Higher Self. PB quotes Rumi’s spiritual teacher, Shams of Tabriz: “Keep God in remembrance until the self is forgotten.”
Though PB taught the Short Path, his work emphasizes the value of the Long Path. We need to discipline our urges, refine our character, and prepare our minds for the Short Path. The Long Path accomplishes this. The Short Path and the Long Path are not alternatives. They’re complementary.
During a personal interview, PB explained the Short Path to Jeff Cox, one of his students, as follows:
“In essence the short path is this. Rather than concerning oneself with the ego and its developments, the struggles with its ups and downs as taught on the long path, one should inwardly turn 180 degrees and attend to the light of awareness which is the Overself (our true identity in PB’s language). As we turn away from egoic processes to the Overself as our refuge and reality, we invite the Overself to take its rightful place in our lives and we surrender that which we are not. The path is called “short” because it considers the goal to be present here and now, and the Overself to be the self we have always been instead of us being the person struggling to attain something bigger and better. This orientation acts as a catalyst and provides an opening for the Overself to reveal itself in a temporary glimpse or permanent awakening. It is a powerful act to remember its presence and surrender to it with loving attention as we go about the endless details of our daily living. Even the briefest glimpse of our true nature makes the short path easier to understand and more compelling because we actually taste something of what the goal is.
“PB explained that the ego is perpetuated on the long path by the very act of seeking, which thereby keeps it in control. By design, the long path does the essential work of preparing our personalities to become suitable vehicles to express reality, since it reduces the power of obstructive complexes. But by itself it will not take us to enlightenment—no matter how ‘spiritual’ the ego becomes it will not enter the light but stays in the gray. The ego is literally a whirlpool, a vortex of thoughts, feelings, impulses; and it is the non-recognition of our true self as distinct from this vortex that holds the masquerade together. Especially mesmerizing is the ‘I am the body’ thought.
For thousands of years, adepts have been curating the knowledge of enlightenment in monasteries, secret societies, and religions. Experience by experience, they worked out the steps on the path. This body of knowledge constitutes the first great realization. It gives us the awareness of self as consciousness—a self infinitely vaster than a skin-bound ego locked in a perpetual struggle for survival.
PB’s enormous contribution was to summarize and integrate all this knowledge. He gathered teachings public and private from East and West, North and South. His genius was to show us how it all tied together. He understood, then taught, that despite how very different religions look on the outside, they all have a common core. That core is the direct experience of the Infinite.
Aldous Huxley defined this core in his book The Perennial Philosophy. Evelyn Underhill, Alan Watts, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Paul Brunton, and other notable teachers popularized this second great realization in the West. While the first realization took tens of thousands of years, the second realization took just a single century.
The third great realization is that the mystical experience is not simply spiritual. It is biological too, and is thus the domain of science. As researchers have discovered how the brain and body work, we’ve come to understand that mystical experiences aren’t confined to consciousness. They produce direct and measurable effects in our bodies and brains.
Our brains in turn have structures, such as the brain’s Enlightenment Network, that facilitate mystical experiences. Andrew Newberg finds that “Enlightenment appears to involve a sudden shift of consciousness that temporarily interrupts the way the brain normally responds to the world” (Newberg & Waldman, 2017, p. 25).
Body and consciousness dance in an upward spiral. During the first month of walking the Long Path, the anatomy of our brains begins changing. Having a brain more capable of carrying the signals of bliss accelerates the process, and we jump to the Short Path. Though the second realization required 100 years, spiritual evolution has produced the third great realization in just a decade. We’re now able to harvest the fruits of all three great realizations in just a few weeks of practice.
Trying to accomplish spiritual development using willpower and intention is hard. Many people try to establish a meditation practice and fail. We all know we “should” devote time to prayer, contemplation, altruistic endeavors, and the other hallmarks of a good life. But we can rarely turn our intentions into reality using self-talk and motivation.
Knowing how your brain works is a game changer. You now have biology on your side as you leverage thousands of years of human wisdom and PBs powerful exercises to accelerate the process of turning states to traits.
Many of PB’s terms are esoteric and non-intuitive. They’re unfamiliar to most readers. One example is “Overself.” When I first read his work when I was 13 years old, words like that made PB’s work unapproachable for me.
In this Course, I use contemporary terminology. For “Overself” I substitute the terms “Higher Self” or “Nonlocal Self.” It’s quite easy to grasp that you have a local self, because that’s who you think you are for everyday practical purposes. But when you’re describing that local self in a phrase like “I am a florist,” it’s also easy to see that there’s an “I am” presence behind that identity. That’s the Nonlocal Self or Higher Self.
Various traditions have other names for this “I am” presence. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is “Buddha nature”; in Zen Buddhism, it is called “original nature”; in Sikhism, it is referred to as Sat Naam or “Ultimate Truth”; and in Sufism, it is Haq or “truth absolute.” The understanding that there is an “I am” presence behind our ordinary experience is universal, obvious, and intuitive. Without getting into theological distinctions, we can simply consider the Higher Self as the “ground of being” from which our local identity springs.
Another term I use for the Nonlocal Self is the “Beloved” or the “Divine Beloved.” This lyrical concept of the Higher Self as the Beloved is found in many spiritual traditions. St. Teresa of Avila wrote about her relationship with God in terms of marital bliss. Rumi exclaimed, “I learned how to be a lover of God … All I hear is the call of my Beloved.”
When Saint Francis of Assisi had a vision of light, he cried out, “Oh my dear husband, You have wedded me.” Similarly, Saint Catherine of Siena declared, “I am already wedded to a most noble spouse” (Vidich, 2015, p. 39). In the next section, I’ll share with you how passionate yearning is more than a sexy metaphor; it’s one of the three practices that changes your brain the fastest.
I adapt other terms used by PB. He used the word “mystic” to refer to someone who occasionally touches the ecstatic experience of union, but then falls away, and spends most of his or her time searching for the next spiritual high. He uses the term “philosopher” for someone whose local self—body, mind, and emotions—comes fully into unity consciousness.
In the century since PB recorded his insights, these words have acquired different meanings. The word “philosopher” is usually used to indicate a person who remains focused on theoretical understanding, not practical application. So instead I use one of PB’s synonyms, “Sage,” which has stood the test of time.
I also use the word “mystic,” in its modern form, to describe a person who has not only “touched the face of God” but is there on a continuous basis.
PB uses the masculine form throughout his work, as in “he” and “man.” I’ve changed this to use either “your” or “his and hers” and similar modern terminology. When there are long passages where the use of both genders would be cumbersome, I use either the feminine form for the entire passage, or the masculine form, alternating between the two.
The references you will find throughout this course, such as (NB 23-1-92; SPE p. 15), are there to indicate where in PB’s many books these concepts are to be found. The first set of numbers indicates the category, chapter and item number of The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (abbreviated NB) from which the idea is sourced.
My book Bliss Brain covers the neuroscience of enlightenment. It focuses on the practices that get you there quickly. There are three of these: intensity, community, and compassion. MRI studies show that these spark growth in the brain regions associated with bliss and enlightenment more quickly than other practices.
Intensity of emotion is one of the three. It’s fine to feel good during meditation. But to stimulate fast neural growth, crank up positive feelings to the highest possible intensity. Mild attraction to your Nonlocal Higher Self produces mild results. The kind of wild infatuated passion the saints talk about produces rapid brain remodeling. Rumi said, “I once had a thousand desires. But in my one desire to know you, all else melted away.” That’s the kind of abandoned yearning you can bring to the Quest for your Higher Self, your Divine Beloved.
The second accelerator is community. Studies of monks show that those who meditate together have greater and faster neuroplastic change in the Enlightenment Network than the hermits who meditate in solitude.
Community is the reason we go through this Course as a group. You’ll begin with a cohort of like-minded travelers. Connecting with others will spark insights and speed your journey. You’ll also have a Mentor who serves as a guide for the journey. Even when done virtually, connecting through apps and video classes, connection with others accelerates your progress.
The third accelerator of positive neural growth is compassion. MRI studies show that compassion sparks neuroplastic growth in the brain’s Enlightenment Network more quickly than other types of meditation. Although forms of meditation that do not include compassion can be useful, our goal in this Course is to make rapid progress in firing and wiring the neural circuits of joy and peace in your brain.
When we read about monks who’ve spent 10,000 hours and do the math, the time commitment required to become an adept is daunting. That equates to eight hours a day for five years. If you meditated for an hour each day and never skipped a day, it would take you over 27 years.
Traditional Tibetan Buddhist retreats last three years, three months, and three days. Participants meditate for at least 12 hours a day. That’s the degree of commitment required to reach the 10,000-hour goal. These numbers put advanced spiritual states out of reach to ordinary people.
So how can you get to Bliss Brain without leaving your everyday life, cloistering yourself in a monastery, and spending years in meditation?
The answer is obvious yet completely overlooked. You can use your sleeping hours to change your brain.
Several of the exercises PB recommends have you slip into communion with your Higher Self just before falling asleep. Once you make this a routine practice, you increasingly sleep and dream in Bliss Brain. During delta sleep, when your brain is pruning unused neural circuits, you dissolve the hardware of suffering. During theta sleep, when your brain is wiring, you construct the hardware of bliss. You “reconsolidate” experiences — like the nocturnal note I wrote myself — in your neural network.
After a year of this, you’ve racked up almost 3,000 hours of practice. That’s almost as much as Tibetan monks who go on a three-year retreat!
The numbers get even better from there. The exercises in this Course will prompt you to inhabit the identity of your Nonlocal Self often throughout the day. You’ll quickly find yourself moving into this perspective spontaneously.
By practicing PB’s exercises consistently, you’ll quickly start spending hours of each day in a meditative state. In this way, you wire and prune not just during sleep, but also during many of your waking hours. You shape your brain by pruning the circuits that activate the DMN, while building those that engage the Enlightenment Network.
As you exercise this stealth superpower, you rapidly remodel the cells inside your head. You find yourself becoming a whole new person even though you haven’t taken the traditional 10,000-hour route.
I had many challenges in my early childhood. My father was a minister, first in the Baptist then in the Episcopalian church. He and my mother went on many missionary journeys, and our family was rarely in the same place for more than a few months. The religious cults in which they were involved believed in a punishing God who would judge us all after our deaths and damn sinners eternally to a lake of fire. Damnation didn’t wait till the afterlife, however; God was judging us constantly each day. My parents’ child-rearing philosophy was drawn from the Bible: “To spare the rod is to spoil the child.”
During our travels, we stayed at the homes of other clergy. I saw the behavior of priests and bishops up close. I marveled at the gap between their public and private behavior. On Sundays they would be preaching inspiring sermons from the pulpit at church. On Mondays they would be abusing their wives and children in the privacy of their homes.
By the age of five, I was disillusioned with God, the church, and everything to do with spirituality. Living in an intolerant and dogmatic fundamentalist community, I had to hide my atheism and my pain. I spent the next part of my life anxious and depressed.
When I was 12, I made my first real friend, a boy named Michael Harris. His older sister Wendy was a voracious reader of spiritual books. She shared Paul Brunton’s ideas with me. At 13 I tried reading them, but found them, in one of PB’s own favorite words, “impenetrable.” Another of her favorite authors, mystic Lobsang Rampa, was more approachable. I devoured his books.
They showed me a lived spirituality, not a dogmatic black-and-white set of commandments against which a stern God judged us. I would sometimes sit in Wendy’s room for hours, listening to her insights. Occasionally, her mother drove us all to meetings at “New Thought” centers. This group of philosophies became popular in the mid-1800s. It includes Unitarianism, Science of Mind, Unity, and dozens of similar churches.
Their common thread is summarized by the 1916 mission statement of the International New Thought Alliance:
“To teach the Infinitude of the Supreme One; the Divinity of Man and his Infinite Possibilities through the creative power of constructive thinking and obedience to the voice of the indwelling Presence which is our source of Inspiration, Power, Health and Prosperity.”
The “indwelling Presence” of New Thought is the “Overself” of PB and the “Divine Beloved” of the Sufis. New Thought believes in a single universal consciousness of which individual human beings can partake. They emphasize the importance of thought in creating reality (Duignan, 2020). They focus on an orderly and loving universe, and see traditional Christian concepts like hell and sin as states of mind in the here and now rather than the afterlife.
Stuck in my personal teenage misery, I found New Thought concepts idealistic and unrealistic. My family soon moved again, and I lost touch with Michael and Wendy.
Then, one afternoon, when I was 13, I had an experience that changed my life. I was sitting on my bed doing nothing in particular. Suddenly, I felt as though I was floating weightless in the universe. I was looking at an infinite web of light. I understood at a level beyond mind that the universe was love itself and that nothing but love was real.
When I returned to ordinary consciousness later that day, I didn’t need proof or explanation. The direct experience was enough.
However, I could not relate this transcendent experience to my daily life. There was no one in my family I could talk to about it.
After high school, I went to live in a spiritual community. We studied the Perennial Philosophy of Aldous Huxley and the works of great Masters. When Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now was published in 1971, it inspired me and millions of other people. I took mail-order courses in psychology from a distance learning university.
I soon discovered that the hypocrisy and abuse that characterized the church was also rampant in my spiritual community. Though I spent decades in loose association with various spiritual schools, they all suffered from the same gap between their lofty ideals and their dysfunctional reality. My experience of light and love had no echo in this dismal environment.
When I was 45 years old, I was still far from happy. I had kept a journal since I was 15, and reading 30 years of journals showed me how little progress I had made, despite decades of studying psychology and spirituality.
In crisis, I made a commitment to meditating every day. That’s when my life truly began to change. Within a few months, every part of my life showed signs of change: money, relationships, health, and career. I was an imperfect meditator, my mind wandering constantly. But my practice was consistent, and I often felt the earlier sense of the light and love inherent in the universe.
I continued my study and practice of New Thought, taking many courses on topics like Charles Fillmore’s Dynamics for Living (Fillmore, 1967) and Ram Dass’s The Journey of Awakening (Ram Dass, 1990). I was especially inspired by a group called Teaching of the Inner Christ. Like PB, they emphasized cultivating a relationship with one’s inner Master. In my 50s, I was ordained as a minister at Unity Village, Missouri.
I became involved in the field of Energy Psychology and retrained myself as a researcher. Over the next 20 years, I conducted a series of scientific studies of increasing sophistication.
I wrote a series of award-winning popular science books, including The Genie in Your Genes, Mind to Matter, and Bliss Brain. I developed EcoMeditation, which suppresses the wandering mind and uses physiological cues to move people into deep states quickly. I trained thousands of people to acquire advanced “flow” states. I also served as science columnist for Unity magazine.
As a best-selling author, I was privileged to share the stage with many transformational leaders. I became friends with some, while others mentored me. I basked in the information and energy of luminaries like Donna Eden, Jack Canfield, Joe Dispenza, David Feinstein, Marci Shimoff, Tony Robbins, Lissa Rankin, John Gray, and Lisa Nichols.
While writing Mind to Matter I reviewed the science of transcendent states. I intensified my own practice of the techniques of meditation Masters. That led to a deep dive into the brain changes these produce. I wrote Bliss Brain to dramatize just how quickly these techniques can change the brain. I was also amazed at how consistently happy I’d become over the previous few years of practice, and I wanted to share that possibility with as many people as possible.
After the turn of the twenty-first century, an increasing number of studies used sophisticated imaging devices such as high-resolution EEGs and MRIs to study the brains of adepts. These showed that as their consciousness changes, their brain function changes too. Firing produces wiring and, within a few weeks, the anatomy of their brains alters.
As I reread Paul Brunton 50 years after I’d sat in Wendy Harris’s room, I was excited to realize that many of the exercises he had advocated a century earlier were aligned with modern neuroscience. They weren’t just inducing altered states; they were producing altered traits.
Altered Traits is the title of a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson. Davidson and his lab at the University of Wisconsin have more than three decades of experience researching the brains of adepts, primarily Tibetan monks. I incorporate their key findings in my book Bliss Brain. Davidson pioneered the discovery that neural firing produces neural wiring. As we practice elevated emotional states consistently, temporary states of bliss and creativity become hardwired traits (Goleman & Davidson, 2018).
Another source of empirical information is neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, one of whose books is How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain (Newberg & Waldman, 2017). In 2008, he began running a web-based survey of ordinary people who have had “enlightenment” experiences. Participants provided accounts of their personal experiences as well as data about their belief systems and personal history.
When designing the survey, Newberg also collected information that correlates with brain states. If a participant described a state of bliss, he assumed that there was intense stimulation of the positive emotion areas of the brain. If a person became lost in oneness with the Infinite, he assumed that the parietal lobe was involved. If a participant felt indescribable love and compassion, Newberg expected that the insula and other areas of the brain associated with insight and positive feelings would be engaged. These associations correlate subjective phenomenological states with objective brain function.
Neuroscience also allows us to evaluate which traditional practices make the greatest contribution to brain change. That’s how we know that group meditation, emotional intensity, and compassion are the three components that accelerate neuroplasticity the most.
With talented colleagues at Bond University in Australia, I performed a randomized controlled trial of EcoMeditation (Church, Stapleton, Baumann, & Sabot, 2021). We used high-resolution MRIs to study the brains of people before and after four weeks of practice using a 22-minute audio track. Compared with a group using a mindful breathing control track, two key areas of their brains changed.
The mid-prefrontal cortex, one of the two nodes of the DMN, was quiet. The suffering self had gone dark. Simultaneously the insula, which is central to our feelings of love and compassion, lit up.
Like other researchers, Martin has found that people can be trained into this evolved state. His research demonstrates that, using effective exercises, over 60% of people can reach this state within a couple of months of practice.
In other research I’m conducting, I show that people can be trained to reach flow states routinely. After just seven days of practice, their scores on the Flow States Inventory improve significantly. They have transcendent experiences. Their sense of a meaningful life, at one with the universe, increases dramatically. A study of a group of 208 people at an EcoMeditation workshop found that their happiness levels increased significantly in just a single day. On three-month follow-up, they were even happier (Church, Stapleton, & Sabot, 2020).
Re-reading Paul Brunton after completing my MRI study reminded me of just how valuable his techniques can be, and how quickly they can help people change their basic brain function. However, scattered through dozens of volumes, out of sequence, and couched in often-obscure terminology, PBs exercises are hard to implement. I decided to organize them into a logical and sequential program, along with EcoMeditation tracks and video instructions.
That way, people wouldn’t have to stumble about for decades as I did. People could apply PBs techniques quickly and easily, using a series of clearly articulated steps to elevate mood and spark rapid brain change.
This Course uses a selection of PB’s exercises that are most aligned with the discoveries of modern neuroscience. I’ve added other exercises that I’ve found effective in the workshops I’ve offered over the years. I’ve also fleshed out PB’s often-sparse instructions with elaborations based on EEG research.
For instance, we now know that “sensualizing” an experience by adding information from all five physical senses engages many different brain regions simultaneously. This whole-brain engagement promotes rapid learning. So when PB advocates “remembering” an experience of the Beloved, I expand that recommendation to have you “sensualizing” the memory using five or more senses.
Another example: One of the milestones on the Short Path that PB identifies is when the Nonlocal Self reveals itself fully to the local self. He describes it as a revelation of light. Light is indeed an experience common to all mystical traditions. One study found that 65% of people are visual (Busan, 2014), and light engages their dominant visual sense. Other studies using different methodology find visual learners are a minority, with just 16% having a primarily visual learning style (Venkatesan, 2015).
However, the brains of other Seekers process information through channels other than visual. At least 25% of the population is auditory, having hearing as their primary modality, while for a significant percentage it is touch (Busan 2014, Venkatesan, 2015). So the section on the Revelation of the Beloved includes experiential channels not mentioned by PB.
Some of the exercise instructions in this Course are designed to induce gamma brain waves and promote the integration of information from disparate brain networks. Brain hacks like these enhance the effectiveness of the exercises.
The deception, hypocrisy, exploitation, and abuse I witnessed in the church while growing up is not unique to Christianity. Every year, stories emerge of abusive teachers from other religious traditions. The teacher-student relationship is fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding and power differentials. Mystic Andrew Harvey believes that “Most of those the new age calls enlightened gurus or avatars are not divine or divinized beings at all, but powerful and unscrupulous occult manipulators” (Harvey, 2000, p. 55).
In the case of PB, he did not call himself an “adept” and never claimed to be a guru; instead, he referred to himself as a “philosopher” and “spiritual researcher.” He emphasized that the true teacher is your own Higher Self. Yet many of those who interacted with him personally treated his words as gospel, rather than the opinions of a fallible fellow-Seeker. Some became angry at him when their projections failed to materialize.
One of Brunton’s acolytes named Jeffrey Masson wrote a book called My Father’s Guru. Traveling with Brunton in India, he met famous gurus who attracted thousands of followers. For the most part, he found them to be self-important frauds. He eventually became disenchanted with PB and the very concept of a spiritual teacher.
Teachings come in many forms, and one of the traditions I’ve most enjoyed is the Native American sweat lodge. In my thirties, I did a “sweat” with a Lakota Sioux medicine man I’ll call “Red Hawk.” Laurie, a friend of mine, had invited him to stay with her for a week. He gave several talks and Laurie collected donations for his work
I and a group of five fellow-journeyers met with Red Hawk early on a Saturday morning. I listened carefully to his teachings and tuned in to his energy. He was soft-spoken and self-deprecating, yet wisdom, sincerity, and compassion flowed from the depths of his words. I felt that Red Hawk was a teacher I could trust through the intensity of the sweat that lay ahead.
After the talk, he led us in lining a big outdoor pit with rocks. We mindfully stacked wood on top, and lit the sacred fire.
By early afternoon the rocks were red-hot and the sweat began. Red Hawk took us through the “four directions”—North, South, East and West—as he threw particular herbs on the fire for each stage of the journey. Late that night, we emerged together from the lodge, feeling profoundly changed. Laurie had arranged beds for us all in her house and we were grateful to transition quickly to sleep.
In the morning, Laurie took the six of us out to breakfast at a nearby restaurant. Red Hawk’s wife, Sara, who had not attended the sweat, joined us. Sara was a young Jewish woman from Brooklyn, New York, who had recently married Red Hawk. During the meal, she asked Red Hawk and Laurie how much money had been received from the donations. The amount was modest and Sara became agitated. “You do all this work,” she chided her husband, “and never earn any decent money.”
Energized by long-held grievances, Sara became angrier. Eventually, she was screaming at her husband. After trying unsuccessfully to placate her, Red Hawk withdrew into embarrassed silence. The rest of us watched the scene with horror, the sacred atmosphere of the day before shattered.
A few days later, I talked to Laurie about the incident. She’d hosted many teachers and gurus over the years. She shrugged her shoulders and summarized her experiences with them in five succinct words: “Take the teachings and run.”
The teachings in this Course represent thousands of years of accumulated wisdom. But they’re not entwined with any particular guru, religion, or cult. They’re the Perennial Philosophy that underlies and transcends all teachings and teachers. You’re connecting with your own Higher Self for guidance, not depending on a fallible human being.
Your Higher Self resonates with all the love and intelligence of the infinite universe. As your local self cultivates a conscious and continuous relationship with your Nonlocal Self, all that love and intelligence flows into your local experience.
Though there is plenty of chicanery in the guru business, there are also genuine spiritual teachers. One of the exercises that PB recommends is to find a living human being who, to you, represents Higher Self embodied in local self. This becomes a person on whom you can model your personal journey.
Howard Goodman, one of the New Thought teachers I studied with when I was 15, was just such a person. While I gathered a great deal of information from Howard, what was more important was his living embodiment of wisdom, humor, and compassion.
I was also close to an uncle of mine, Alan Butler. Alan served in the Anglican (Episcopal) church for decades, mostly as a missionary priest in the African country of Botswana. Alan and my aunt Hilda occasionally stayed at our house.
One visit, when I was 19, changed my life. Part of the dinnertime ritual was to invite visiting clergy to “say grace,” the mealtime prayer, and my father asked Uncle Alan to do so.
This was usually a dry and meaningless exercise to my ears. I’d heard so many hundreds of empty prayers from so many dozens of empty souls that I hardly listened anymore.
But as Uncle Alan prayed, I realized something extraordinary. Uncle Alan wasn’t praying to God. Alan was with God. He was speaking from inside the experience of union with the All That Is. In the ensuing years, I observed him closely. I realized that he seemed to be there all the time.
The year before Alan’s death, I asked my aunt Hilda, “Do you think Alan is enlightened?” I figured that if anyone had the dirt on a saint, it would be the spouse!
Hilda thought for a long moment and answered yes. She then described many instances of Alan’s consistent anchoring in that place, despite the many difficulties he’d faced in his life. My book Bliss Brain is dedicated to Alan.
Having such a “living example” of mastery can inspire, motivate and direct us. But we have to do the work of awakening ourselves; we cannot outsource it to a guru, coach, therapist or hero. PB wrote: “Ultimately, there is only one real Master for every spiritual seeker, and that is his own divine Overself. The human teacher may assist him to the extent of giving him a temporary emotional uplift or a temporary intellectual perception, but he cannot bestow permanent divine consciousness on another individual. All that the teacher can do is to point out the way through the labyrinth; the journey must be made by the seeker himself” (NB 1-3-102).
After college, I was a local organizer for the Human Unity conference. These conferences were started by Sant Kirpal Singh in 1974. Kirpal Singh was the lineage holder of a tradition called Sant Mat, and another example of a genuine enlightened Master. As I read his words, their timeless truth opened my mind and heart. I met one of his students, Andrew Vidich, who has been a lifetime friend ever since. Andrew has both a brilliant mind and a keen ability to explain the path to others.
His book Love Is a Secret (Vidich, 2015 ) was one of the first books to show how the mystical experience is common to all religions. Using hundreds of quotes from all the world’s religions, Andrew demonstrates the common features of all mystical experiences. When I edited the first edition in 1989, Andrew’s writing brought the concept of the Divine Beloved vividly to life, and imparted a new level of passion to my spiritual journey.
I’ve drawn heavily on Andrew’s wisdom as I’ve written my books and courses, including this one. The stages and stations of the Quest described below are illuminated by many inspired poetic quotations from adepts of every period and tradition. These are drawn from Andrew’s work. Though the language differs, these quotes show us that the Quest is a universal human journey.
During this Course, you’ll be asked if there’s an actual human being who can serve as a template for you (NB 23-6-177; SPE p. 92). It’s worth considering this question starting now. Make a list of names of people who’ve inspired you. They might be historical figures, archetypes, saints, or mentors you’ve known.
If you’re looking for a living Master, use the instructions in Andrew’s book. At the end of chapter three of Love Is a Secret, he provides a meditation that guides you through this intention. Just the way Alan Butler and others guided me, and the way Kirpal Singh gave Andrew a living example, an enlightened Master can catalyze your progress on the Quest.
I’m deeply grateful to Andrew Vidich and also to Jeff Cox. They read through the first drafts of this Course, and made many suggestions for improvement. They pointed out where I’d misplaced milestones or exercises, made me aware of new resources, and corrected my many errors of understanding of spiritual traditions and the Quest itself.
My inspiring EFT Mentor friend Jackie Viramontez helped me design the flow of the material leading up to this Course. We realized that people needed a clear Glimpse of these elevated emotional states, as well as the opportunity to clear their basic psychological trauma. I designed the seven meditations that generate dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and other neurochemicals in the brain to give novices a “felt sense” of what mystics experience. You’ll get these meditations at the very beginning.
I’m also grateful to a group of friends who were the first to go through the Course. I interviewed them at various stages of the journey, assisted by my friend Amanda Miller. These wonderful friends also became the first Mentors. Their feedback was invaluable in making the course user-friendly and engaging.
My gratitude also goes to Kapil, Shailendra and the rest of the Webmobril team. They built the Course in the Learning Management System during the worst of the 2021 covid pandemic in India. They managed to remain cheerful, professional and responsive in the most tragic of circumstances.
Many traditional paths focus on disembodied experience. Medieval Christianity refers to “mortifying the flesh” in order to find God in a realm more exalted than the physical body. Buddhism, Hinduism, and other ancient religions have a similar focus on asceticism as a hallmark of the sincere devotee. Extreme schools of Hindu nondualism regard the external world including the body as a delusion.
Today we’re called on to embody the light fully. That includes our bodies and our ordinary lives. No longer do we remove ourselves from human affairs by going to live in a monastery. We remain active in the world. The whole last part of this Course is focused on bringing the luminous self into ordinary human life.
We’re also called to live fully in our human bodies. We don’t need to become ascetics, denying or minimizing our physicality, our sexuality and sensuality, our enjoyment of food and drink, our love of play and dance, and all the delights of being in a body. We bring our Nonlocal Self fully into the body.
Judith Blackstone is a psychotherapist who has written insightfully about enlightenment. The subtitle of her book The Enlightenment Process is: A Guide to Embodied Spiritual Awakening. The key word here is “embodied.” She states that “enlightenment—the experience of one’s own nature as subtle, unified consciousness—is revealed through deeply inhabiting one’s body” (Blackstone, 2008, p. xxii).
In working with thousands of clients, she’s found that the Quest leads to awakening in the body, not transcendence of the body. She writes, “it is our own skin that awakens to touch, our own chest that softens and fills with love. It is literally that we have been numb … and now we are waking from that numbness” (Blackstone, 2008, p. 32).
That analogy of waking from numbness is a powerful concept. As we awaken, the consciousness of Nonlocal Self pervades our whole physical body, bringing our cells to full aliveness. It’s tuning fully into the body, the opposite of the body-shunning of traditional paths. This echoes PB’s philosophy. In this Course, you’ll do one of his exercises that has you inhabit all of your cells as living light.
In his book The Direct Path, mystic Andrew Harvey writes that, “Being conscious of the sacredness of the body slowly turns the whole of life into an experience of feast and celebration; every walk or meal or deep sleep or joy the flower or beautiful face becomes a form of praise and prayer” (Harvey, 2000, p. 169). In stark contrast to the body-denial of the ancient ascetic traditions, the Short Path brings us full circle, to experience oneness in delicious embodiment.
In Andrew Newberg’s database of over 2,000 people who’ve had transcendent experiences, he identified five of their common characteristics. One of these is a sense of meaning and purpose (Newberg & Waldman, 2017). It infuses the life of the Sage, whether she’s at home or at work. She doesn’t have to leave home and work to live in a convent to find meaning and purpose. She’s able to express them in ordinary life.
Likewise, in Jeffery Martin’s study of Finders, he emphasizes that most Finders seem “ordinary” from the outside (Martin, 2019). Going from a Seeker to a Finder does not often result in dramatic external change, even though the inner transformation is radical. The “numbness” is gone and they live fully present in their regular lives.
A thousand years ago you knew exactly where to look for Sages. They’d be in the cloister, hermitage, and other special places removed from the everyday world. Today you’ll find them in the classroom, bakery, office, library, gas station, and everywhere else in the ordinary world. We embody our transformation in the bodies, professions, families, and lives we already have.
In the later stages of the Quest, you’ll be bringing nonlocal awareness into your business, marriage, parenting, money, friendships, health, sexuality, and every other part of your ordinary physical life. That awareness will fill your material existence with delight, transforming it into the vehicle through which you express the Infinite in concrete physical form.
Sharing Your Experience: Write a paragraph or two about any epiphanies you’ve had about the awakening process while reading chapter one. What was surprising to you? What concept amplified your understanding of the process?