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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 ™, 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….

Does this ice cream look spiritual to you? Just wait. It soon will. Photo by gordonramsaysubmissions, via Flickr Creative Commons

LYDIA LAURENSON: Let’s start with your company. Over two decades ago, you had an experience of being awake. And a few years ago, you left your job at a well-regarded organization, and started a company intended to help people awaken.

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.

This cat is a serious meditator. Photo by Alan Turkus, via Flickr Creative Commons

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.

“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?

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

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.”

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.

Buddhist statue in Hong Kong. Photo by shankar s. via Flickr Creative Commons

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.

“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.’”

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.