Have you ever had a spiritual experience so profound that it felt like your life would never be the same after? Perhaps there was a moment where you felt overcome with the presence of God, or you felt love, peace, or unity more deeply than you had ever felt before. Perhaps you suddenly knew in your core that everything was simply going to be okay — that everything in this world was all one. Maybe you suddenly realized you were on the wrong path, and ditched habits that had been holding you back for years.
If you’re reading all that and thinking Who, me? Yeah, right, then there’s a book you need to read. And even if you thought, No — but I’d love to, you may also enjoy this read.
The authors of How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain believe that all of us can experience life-changing moments such as those described above. They define “enlightenment” as an experience that “transforms a person’s perception of reality and beliefs in a fundamental way.” And according to the authors, enlightenment is accessible to everyone — we simply have to know how to prime our brains to experience it. Based on decades of research, this book provides detailed, evidence-based strategies that readers can use to open themselves up to experience enlightenment.
Our Catholic tradition understands enlightenment in terms of grace, which is God’s gift of Himself to us. You might think of Michelangelo’s bearded God reaching out to touch Adam’s finger, but really it’s as simple as sharing in God’s life, which happens in ordinary ways (Thomas Merton famously experienced it at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville). And even the desire to seek enlightenment and prepare ourselves for it is itself grace — it’s the seeds of God’s presence already within us growing to completion.
Enlightenment matters because, as the authors explain, such experiences improve quality of life in lasting ways. What’s more, it’s quick — even just a few minutes of an enlightenment experience can alter the course of your life (just ask St. Augustine).
For example, a single enlightenment experience can eliminate unhelpful thoughts, such as anxieties, and replace them with positive ones that last for the rest of your life. Enlightenment experiences can improve relationships, increase inner peace, grow connection to others, and alleviate suffering. Why wouldn’t we want one more tool to feel better, more alive, more positive? And even better, one that really lasts? And in a world with increasing divisiveness, why wouldn’t we want to rewire our brains to feel more connected?
By writing this book, the authors promote the enlightenment process as a tool to transform the world into a more loving and peaceful place. They combine a cultural history of enlightenment with the latest findings in neuroscience research:
- Neuroscience aficionados will appreciate the explanation of the brain areas involved in enlightenment.
- The anthropologically-inclined will enjoy the cultural history of the search for enlightenment across time.
- Psychology fans will enjoy learning about how levels of human conscious awareness change based on the types of activities we engage in — as well as the way we engage in them.
- Those who learn through stories will love the dozens of accounts from people of all ages, cultures, and religious backgrounds who have found this type of transformation.
And these stories aren’t only for fun. The authors later reveal that even reading stories of enlightenment can prime the brain for our own such experiences.
The last section of the book provides practical strategies and exercises that everyday people can use to achieve an enlightenment experience. Nope, we need not all go meditate alone in a cave for 30 years in its pursuit. Rather, it turns out that enlightenment experiences are available to us as long we are willing to intentionally act and think in new ways.
The authors outline the following five steps that we can use to increase our chances of an enlightenment experience.
First, we must have the genuine desire for the experience and set an intention on what kind of insight we are looking to find. As one example, we can do this by examining our beliefs and considering how we might like to find new ways of thinking. Perhaps we’ve noted a pattern of selfishness or self-destructive behavior that needs to be changed. Or maybe we’re looking for direction in life.
Then we must relax our bodies and minds. The authors include several suggestions for simple relaxation processes.
Third, we have to deeply engage in ritual that will bring us from everyday habitual thinking into a more receptive, open, and creative state of awareness. As we open ourselves to let go of old beliefs, new ways of thinking emerge. It literally can open us up to rapidly rewire our brain. This opening is contingent on us surrendering to the ritual experience and prayer — similar to the way athletes in a flow state step into the experience of “unconscious doing.”
Then we have to be able to reflect on and integrate our experiences into our lives so that it actually makes a lasting change.
Finally, the authors caution us to be aware of resistance that can arise. Changing our beliefs so quickly through an experience such as enlightenment can accidently trip the circuits in our brain designed to protect us from danger. So we must practice self-care as we prepare our minds to be open to the new.
While these five steps above might seem simple, they take some practice. While I didn’t (yet!) find enlightenment from reading this book, I came away with the feeling that it is actually possible for me. I’m no longer asking whether I can ever reach an enlightenment experience. Now I’m pondering the intention I might set by asking, What would I love to learn and discover?