By Lydia Laurenson
Mar 21 2017 / / 2:45PM PST
Years ago, I met Robert during dinner with a bunch of friends. He’s a mathematician and research scientist, and he stuck in my mind because he spoke casually about “enlightenment,” and about different schools of thought about what it is. I had never met anyone who talked about enlightenment that way — he simply enumerated the characteristics of what enlightenment could be, based on research.
Then years later, in 2016, I had my Ridiculous Spiritual Experience (tm), and I reached out to everyone I could think of who might know anything about what happened to me. So I sent Robert a message and we became friends. And he’s been a natural ally as I developed Spirituality X.
These days, Robert has a tech startup inspired by his spiritual experience, and we mostly talk about tech and spirituality. For this interview, I met him at an ice cream shop. Since we are good friends, this interview was more casual than my other interviews — you’ll see that I interject my thoughts more….
ROBERT (not his real name): Ever since I had that awakening experience in 1993, I thought: Oh, this is just a different kind of brain process. So I knew that with sophisticated neurofeedback, it ought to be possible to help somebody get there by playing a game of warmer-colder with them. But back at that time, 1993, the science and technology I wanted didn’t exist. And then, twenty years later, I noticed that the science and the tech finally existed.
My job was great, and my team was great, but I wasn’t that into what I was working on. I wish I was, because it was a wonderful and prestigious work environment. But although everything was great and I walked away from a lot of money, it wasn’t a hard decision.
My dream is to have a consumer product. It will have to be a high-end product initially — many tech products start with rich people covering the R&D. But I would never have quit my amazing job to do this if I didn’t have the dream to bring this product to all people.
It was never a save-the-world thing for me. It’s just that I found this really cool thing and I want to share it. I don’t know if it will save the world or not.
LYDIA: Well, it probably won’t do anything bad.
Now, okay. Let’s dive into it. Tell me everything about your awakening experience. What led up to it?
ROBERT: I had been interested in Western philosophy from age 21. I looked at a lot of different stuff and got most interested in epistemology — no interest in Eastern philosophy at all. I thought of religion as “old stories that aren’t true” — a very classic Western scientist’s way of thinking about religion.
“I thought of religion as ‘old stories that aren’t true’ — a very classic Western scientist’s way of thinking about religion.”
The author Joseph Campbell turned me on to the idea that I shouldn’t think of religious stories as being competitive with physics, but more like psychology and maps of internal processes. That made sense to me and was the beginning of me looking at religion in a different way.
I met some people in my late 20s, early 30s, who were into spirituality, and I started reading different quote-unquote “spiritual books.” There were a lot of books that said a lot of contradictory things, but they all said you should meditate. That’s how I got into meditation.
I hated meditation at first. It was boring and I wanted to run out of the room screaming. But I stuck with it. I didn’t have a lot of vocabulary around it. I would now say I was taught a basic focusing meditation with a light embodiment component, focusing on my breath, my fingers, my forehead. After some months of practice, what happened is that everything got very quiet and still.
The language is frustrating because I feel like I’m using the terms all spiritual people use, quietness and stillness, when literally that’s not what’s meant because the actual sound level didn’t change. Some people say their minds shut off but that doesn’t seem right to me either. I guess you could say part of my mind got quiet.
I naturally progressed from there into open monitoring meditation, where you’re not focusing on the breath, but just sitting there in the experience. I now know that some schools teach that, but I learned it on my own before I ever heard about it. I learned that once things got to a certain point the focusing wasn’t needed anymore.
By 1993, I had only been meditating about three years, maybe four at the most. When I looked back at my notes later, I realized I wasn’t meditating every day. I wasn’t doing four-hour sits or anything; I was doing 20–40 minutes per day and it was haphazard. I smoked dope from time to time and worked a full-time job and I would never have called myself a seeker. That word was something I didn’t relate to, although I look back and that’s clearly what I was.
This cat is a serious meditator. Photo by Alan Turkus, via Flickr Creative Commons
“I smoked dope from time to time and worked a full-time job and I would never have called myself a seeker. That word was something I didn’t relate to, although I look back and that’s clearly what I was.”
I was always thinking about: What is enlightenment? I thought about it when I woke up, when I was in the shower. I was journaling daily, I was paying attention to and recording my dreams, and I was lucid-dreaming once every week or two, and reading “spiritual books,” including Sufi books [books by Muslim mystics].
But I was not really talking to anyone about these things. I wasn’t being a monk or hiding, but I didn’t know anyone else who was so interested.
So in late 1993 — I was getting a bit frustrated with life. I felt like there was this problem — I kept cycling back to the problem of life. Sad to say, I can’t even tell you now what I thought it was. But a few weeks before I had my awakening experience, I read something in one of the Sufi books about how life is not a problem to be solved —
LYDIA: But a reality to experience.
ROBERT: Yeah. And the sentence was underlined. There’s probably a lot of teachers who say things like that.
Anyway, I was having a difficult time struggling with meaning and purpose and things like that. And then in 1993, I believe on December 13th, at lunchtime on a work day, I was sitting in a park in my car by myself and I was really determined to solve the problem once and for all.
LYDIA: (laughing) That’s an intention right there.
ROBERT: (laughing) This is a little bit crazy, but I imagined that I had cast the problem of life as an infinite series, and I was sitting there summing the series — and that’s not an infinite task, by the way, there are mathematical ways to do it. And all of a sudden it just stopped.
I said to myself something like, “It is done.” A little dramatic, but I feel like I can be dramatic about something like this. (laughs)
I knew right away I’d entered into what I’d been trying to achieve. It was perfectly clear.
That experience lasted for a week.
LYDIA: What was it like for you?
ROBERT: At first, I wasn’t sure I would know how to do anything, including drive the car. When I got back to work I didn’t know if I’d know how to use the computer, much less do my job. I had a really profound sense of emptiness, or maybe a better word is freedom.
LYDIA: Acceptance, maybe?
ROBERT: Acceptance. And fluidity. A lack of internal constraints. It was really wonderful. I just went back to work and started working on my research.
I didn’t tell my best friend, I didn’t tell the woman I was living with, I didn’t talk to anyone. I think I made some oblique references, but I didn’t really tell anyone. I continued not telling anyone for twenty years.
It just seemed like, what was I going to say? I didn’t have a message for the world or anything.
Besides, during that week, I didn’t want to go around saying that I was enlightened.
“It just seemed like, what was I going to say? I didn’t have a message for the world or anything. Besides, during that week, I didn’t want to go around saying that I was enlightened.”
I was completely stunned. My expectation would have been to live out the rest of my life and never experience this. I didn’t expect it to happen to me. I lucked out.
During that week, it felt like everything had changed and yet nothing had changed. I remember sitting and looking at a table and being like: Okay, dude. What’s different about the table?
And I couldn’t think of anything. It was just a table. It was so totally ordinary. Like the Zen koan says, “Chop wood, carry water.”
The Zen koan goes like this: A student asks the Zen master, “What do you do before enlightenment?” and the master says, “Chop wood, carry water.” Then the student asks, “What do you do after enlightenment?” and the master says, “Chop wood, carry water.” This photo of wood-chopping is by O’Reilly Conferences, via Flickr Creative Commons
LYDIA: I love that koan! I thought about it all the time during and after my awakening experience, too. But go on!
ROBERT: There was the sense of oneness, which many people have written about. The distinction between my body and the rest of the universe was like a line on a sheet of paper. It’s a meaningful boundary, but it felt like it was all one thing.
Other characteristics… There’s a thing called loss of agency that some people get. They describe it as: “I wasn’t there anymore, I didn’t do anything, but stuff just happened. I would watch myself doing things.” Many people have experienced this, for example, while dancing — they’ll say “I wasn’t dancing, the music was dancing me.”
I didn’t experience complete loss of agency, but I did have substantial loss of agency. I remember going into the bathroom to brush my teeth, and wondering whether I knew how to brush my teeth, although by that point I kinda knew that I did. And then brushing my teeth, and seeing that tooth-brushing was happening.
I was kind of mildly amused all the time. I felt like I had a tiny smile on my face, and then I thought about those Buddhist statues with tiny smiles, and felt like I understood how they were feeling.
Part of my amused feeling was that I could remember what it was like before. I felt like I was a zoo full of animals. An animal would pop up, like anger — and the old way of seeing it was, I’d think the anger-animal was me. But all these little animals — or maybe a better metaphor is that they were pieces of software. These pieces of software would swap in, and do their thing running my body for a while, and then swap out.
So after I awoke, I could see all the animals, including my ego. They did their thing — they swapped in and out, when they were needed. But what seemed so funny was that I could remember thinking I was the individual animals, and that was amusing.
I wasn’t ecstatic or in bliss, but there was no sense of dissatisfaction. I had this ability to delight in everything that was happening. I was not in a high-arousal state. I was very chill.
Before that, I had never understood what Buddhists meant by suffering. I just didn’t get it. But then, when it went away, I was like: Oh. That suffering.
Buddhist statue in Hong Kong. Photo by shankar s. via Flickr Creative Commons
My experience seemed to fit what Maslow calls the plateau experience, rather than the peak experience. And yet it only lasted a week. I stopped meditating — it seemed pointless to meditate. But it didn’t even occur to me that it could go away.
It’s common for people to say that if it goes away, you weren’t really enlightened. That’s a common thing for teachers to say.
Now, I should also note that in the past I’ve used enlightenment and awakening as synonyms. But now, knowing more about this than I did, I can see that what I experienced was what some people call a head awakening. Some people say you can be awake in the head, but not in the heart or the body.
Today, I would agree with that. I’ve now had glimpses of what it would feel like to be awake in the heart and the body, and I’m like, Wow, I wouldn’t want to leave that out. So I wouldn’t say I was enlightened during that week, but that I awakened. But I haven’t found any terminology that works everywhere.
Once I had my awakening experience, I recognized it immediately as the quote-unquote “awakened” or “enlightened” experience that I’d read about. But I was very unhappy with all the descriptions I’d read. I could see why someone would say that if they’re feeling this, I can see why those words would come out. But I don’t find the descriptions very satisfactory.
I intended to come up with better descriptions, but I haven’t really.
I can avoid all the really obviously woo-woo words, but… I mean, in saying I was at one with everything, what does that mean? If I was one with everything, wouldn’t I know what was going on on the backside of Jupiter? But I knew I didn’t.
Tangentially: This seems to be very rare, but the experience didn’t change my cosmology at all.
LYDIA: Wow! That is rare.
ROBERT: Yeah. I didn’t see any need to update my scientific worldview, which is a very mainstream scientific view of what’s real and what’s not real.
“I didn’t see any need to update my scientific worldview, which is a very mainstream scientific view of what’s real and what’s not real.”
I thought about what happened in terms of a mental change or brain change. I could be wrong, but that’s how I think about it. I haven’t done any experiments to tell if I could really account for it experimentally, using science — or whether I’d need to resort to some of the other things people talk about. But I can at least outline explanations that don’t require anything outside a mainstream scientific worldview.
So I don’t feel very motivated to look at “stranger” explanations. I can see why people would think they could never die, or why people would say we’re all connected, because it’s a felt sense. But I don’t think those things are literally true.
LYDIA: What about God? One thing you studied was Idris Shah’s tradition of Sufism, and Sufis believe in God.
ROBERT: The Sufi path is difficult to talk about. Idris Shah’s tradition talks about how Sufi teachers shouldn’t call themselves Sufi teachers, and if any of them call themselves teachers you should run. These teachers should be secretly embedded in society all over the place — they might be running an ice cream store, for example, like this ice cream store we’re in right now. They could be anywhere.
In this tradition, students shouldn’t even be aware they’re involved in a teaching situation — it might take them many years to realize. And the mystics of that tradition also talk about how easy it is to convince people you’re not enlightened, because people have so many preconceptions.
All you have to do is smoke a cigarette, or eat some sugar, like you’re doing right now. And people won’t think you’re enlightened.
So I got into this with everybody I interacted with, from my friends to the people at the gas station — I got into this habit of wondering about people all the time. I went into this altered state where more and more people seemed like Sufi teachers, and then everybody became Sufis, and then everything was God.
I mean, God in some sense. I’m saying that as an atheist. There’s just no other description for it.
It was like the entire universe was a virtual reality system and everything was teaching me, on a split-second basis, and it was fascinating and really fun, but not where I’d want to spend my whole life.
This ice cream is concrete evidence that Lydia is not enlightened. Photo by James, via Flickr Creative Commons
LYDIA: Why not?
ROBERT: Because everything was God except me, so it was like a hyper-dual experience. All this separation. Everything I saw was like this big eye looking at me.
Were the authors of these books trying to generate such an experience? I still have no idea.
I’ve never talked much to anyone about Sufism. It’s not a secret, but I wasn’t trying to convince anyone they should go read these books or do anything about it. It was hard enough to explain what I was doing.
But it looked to me like what Idris Shah was trying to do was to help people see how this stuff is embedded in our culture, and become a sophisticated enough thinker that you could recognize real teaching, regardless of the outer form.
LYDIA: I can relate to a lot of what you’re talking about. There were elements of all those things in the experience I had last year. But I’m curious about God. One thing that I have wondered a lot since my own awakening experience is: How does this happen to anyone and they don’t believe in God?
To me, it’s like — I see it now. I see what mystics are talking about when they describe God, and I get it. I wouldn’t necessarily have described God the way they describe it — but it’s there, it’s a thing, it’s real. What an interesting thing to know!
So I’m very curious, when I talk to people like you, who have had similar experiences to some of the experiences I’ve had. You say you’re an atheist, but how is this not God?
ROBERT: Well… let me say that I’ve had other experiences that… didn’t make me believe in God, but which I found God to be the most handy way to describe.
And I see your point. When you feel connected to everything and there’s just that one thing, why wouldn’t you call that God? I don’t know, is it just a matter of aesthetics?
LYDIA: (laughing) Maybe!
ROBERT: Many things I’ve learned in different fields have taught me about the beauty of bottom-up self-organizing structures. I’m a big fan of that, as opposed to top-down hierarchies. Markets are one example, life is another one, and languages don’t get designed by anybody. And much of the order in human society is a bottom-up thing.
So for me, it’s partly this aesthetic sense that the word “God” describes a top-down thing. Whereas for me, the bottom-up, self-assembling stuff is just so much more beautiful. I love thinking about atoms and molecules and how they’re just doing their little thing and nobody’s telling them what to do. It’s amazing how order emerges from that. Sometimes when I talk about molecules I cry.
Cells. Picture by marcos fernandez, via Flickr Creative Commons
But… I know that you’re not really talking about the conjecture that God made the universe in a top-down way. You’re trying to describe an experience, a felt experience. It’s the oneness and unity and all-inclusiveness of it.
To me it feels like… if God is everything, it seems like God has an incredible taste for diversity. And God kinda likes everything — the good, the bad, the ugly.
You could just say that’s the way reality is. Reality just loves all the diversity. But I feel the diversity side of it more. The more I feel the diversity and the different intentions, the less I want to call it God.
“The more I feel the diversity and the different intentions, the less I want to call it God.”
LYDIA: For me it’s also partly the language element, the feeling I’m in communication with something. Like what you were talking about with the virtual reality experience, but without that sense of being separate. I felt like I was connected to the oneness, and communicating with all of it. I almost think of it like cells communicating with cells in your body.
ROBERT: More peer-to-peer style.
LYDIA: And that’s interesting, the idea of God being top-down versus peer-to-peer. I recently had a conversation with a mystic from the kriya yoga tradition who also works in technology. He said that in his experience, many Western religions describe God as a central server, whereas traditions like Hinduism cast it as a peer-to-peer model.
There’s a beautiful metaphor I’ve heard of from Hinduism and Buddhism, Indra’s Net. A net full of jewels that all reflect each other. A lot of people use this metaphor as an expression of how a single action in the universe ripples out to the rest of the universe, since moving one jewel would move its reflection in the other jewels.
And that seems like a reasonable interpretation. But I also think about how this could express a peer-to-peer model of reality, where reality is co-created in all places where there are conscious beings.
A photo with the title, “Indra’s Net.” (Although this photo doesn’t have any jewels. So it’s arguably not the most accurate depiction of the concept of Indra’s Net, but I really like it!) Photo by haRee, via Flickr Creative Commons
ROBERT: Regarding belief in God — there’s this thing in psychology called state-dependent beliefs, similar to state-dependent memories. It’s been documented by the neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, among others.
Usually you go into a different mood, and you see things a little differently, and when you come out of the mood you see things the way you normally do in your baseline. That seems true of almost any state or mood. But there are two different experiences — enlightenment experiences and psychedelic experiences — when the temporary experience passes, people often still believe the things they believed in those states.
I know a few other people like me, where that’s not the case with these profound experiences, where we don’t feel the need to adjust our cosmology. I hope we’re being open. At least I think I’m open about it.
LYDIA: So this brings me to something else you and I are both interested in — enlightenment research. We’ve discussed “enlightenment failure modes” and “dead end modes.” Ways the spiritual process can “go wrong,” or end up in places where I would not necessarily want to end up. What are your overall thoughts about that?
ROBERT: Firstly, many traditions have documented that there’s a failure mode that looks like horrible depression that lasts a long time.
LYDIA: The Dark Night of the Soul, so named by Saint John of the Cross and now being studied by Dr. Willoughby Brittain.
ROBERT: Yes, and Saint John was in the Roman Catholic tradition. My understanding is that other traditions have an equivalent phrase. But my understanding is that Hinduism has less trouble with that, because it’s more of a devotional path.
In Buddhism you go through a process of how everything you thought was important, isn’t. One thing I’ve heard is that it’s built into Buddhism that you’re going to go through the Dark Night, although I’m sure some scholars would disagree with that. Then, in Christianity, you have this whole “God is everything and I’m just a worthless sinner” thing — that’s kind of a tricky setup from the beginning.
But if you’re on a devotional path where it’s all love and God is love, I can see that being less dangerous from a depression perspective.
Other failure modes? There are a lot of failure modes where people have a bit of an insight, a bit of awakening, and they become convinced they’ve seen the whole thing and they’re qualified to tell everyone about it.
Over the past four years I’ve had a peek behind the scenes at the guru and spiritual teacher world, and it’s amazing how many of them will say that other teachers aren’t truly enlightened. You could draw an incredible graph of how everyone thinks everyone else isn’t enlightened.
“It’s amazing how many spiritual teachers will say that other teachers aren’t truly enlightened. You could draw an incredible graph of how everyone thinks everyone else isn’t enlightened.”
I don’t know what’s going on with that. Maybe you could explain it as everyone has a little piece of the elephant.
LYDIA: You also looked into dissociation, didn’t you?
ROBERT: Yes. If you look at a conventional medical account of what dissociation looks like, it looks a lot like what being awake looks like. You can go down a list of characteristics for both dissociation and being awake, and it’ll be like, match, match, match — until you get to the last thing.
The last item on the list is whether someone “absolutely loves it,” where the other option is “hates it.” And people who are dissociated check the second box instead of “absolutely loves it.”
(Here are some scientific papers on dissociation: one, neurobiological perspectives on depersonalization; two, depersonalization and transcranial magnetic stimulation; and three, depersonalization as a selective impairment of self-awareness.)
Buddha statue with dying flowers. Photo by Zen Diary, via Flickr Creative Commons
I’ve had so many discussions about this. If you’re just awake in the head, you haven’t necessarily dealt with your psychological problems, and you don’t necessarily have an open loving heart. But — and I can say, from having met some of these people — it is possible that you can be awake in the head and honestly not be suffering. I’ve met people like this. I can see the twinkle in their eyes, but as an external observer, it feels like there’s something missing.
The spiritual teacher Shinzen Young talks about this, and he calls it “Enlightenment’s evil twin.” When his students get into a terrible dissociative space, he knows how to coach them back into something better. But he doesn’t know how to do it generally, for people who didn’t study with him.
It’s easy to imagine that one way to not suffer is to dissociate yourself from your suffering. But that’s not a state that I’d want to experience for the rest of my life.
“It’s easy to imagine that one way to not suffer is to dissociate yourself from your suffering. But that’s not a state that I’d want to experience for the rest of my life.”
LYDIA: It’s interesting. I feel like I’ve looked at a completely different set of spiritual emergence failure modes from the ones you’ve looked at, like mania and psychosis. I guess there are a lot of them.
ROBERT: I guess.
Learn more about Lydia Laurenson and Spirituality X by clicking here.