Title: Infinite Awareness: Infinite AwarenessThe Awakening of a Scientific Mind
Published by: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Release Date: October 15, 2015
As a neuroscientist, Marjorie Woollacott had no doubts that the brain was a purely physical entity controlled by chemicals and electrical pulses. When she experimented with meditation for the first time, however, her entire world changed. Woollacott’s journey through years of meditation has made her question the reality she built her career upon and has forced her to ask what human consciousness really is. Infinite Awareness pairs Woollacott’s research as a neuroscientist with her self-revelations about the mind’s spiritual power. Between the scientific and spiritual worlds, she breaks open the definition of human consciousness to investigate the existence of a non-physical and infinitely powerful mind.
This book is both a memoir and an exploration of her experience, first, as a neuroscientist and professor, but later, also as a meditator, with mystical experiences unexplained by my scientific understanding. The book describes her discoveries as she worked to meld these two parts of her life together. In the beginning of the book she recounts her first encounters that molded her into a neuroscientist, including the excitement of learning about the way the brain influences our conscious experience. And she then tells of her abrupt discovery of meditation, and finding a world of experience she never believed had existed, which led to a schizophrenic existence with one foot in the world of neuroscience and the other in the mystical experiences of meditative energy within her.
Finally, she took the time to go back and get a degree in Asian Studies, learn Sanskrit and study Asian mysticism and parapsychology in depth, so that she could integrate the two halves of her life. Later chapters in the book recount her discovery of the compelling research on meditation, near death experiences, reincarnation, energetic healing, and psi phenomena, which argues for consciousness being considered primary, rather than a product of brain activity. She also includes her interviews of the scientists who performed this research, discussing their early training and what motivated them to “think outside the scientific box.” The last chapter offers her new approach to viewing mind-brain interactions as a result of the research, both her own, and of others, that she covers throughout the book.
Winner, New England Book Festival, Spiritual Books, 2016
“One of the most deeply ingrained myths in modern western science is that the brain creates consciousness out of purely physical matter. This lies at the heart of conventional reductive materialist science, yet no neuroscientist on earth has even the vaguest notion of how that linkage might work. In her book Infinite Awareness: The Awakening of a Scientific Mind, neuroscientist Marjorie Woollacott recounts her own fascinating lifelong journey in pursuit of deeper understanding of the relationship between mind and brain, with the sharp, probing intellect and open mind of true scientific inquiry. Her beautifully rendered and personal story of discovery mirrors what is happening globally as science finally begins to address the deepest mystery known to all of human thought — the nature of consciousness itself. As Dr. Woollacott suggests, this emergent revolution in scientific thinking and acceptance of the primacy of consciousness will fundamentally change how we view our own individual lives, humanity and the universe. The implications are world-changing!”
—Eben Alexander, MD, Author of Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife and The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People are Proving the Afterlife
“This remarkably engaging account by a prominent brain scientist of her personal spiritual odyssey both describes and contributes to a rapidly emerging revolution in how we think about our minds, our selves, and our existence.”
—Edward F. Kelly, professor of research, Division of Perceptual Studies, University of Virginia, and co-editor of the books Irreducible Mind and Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality
“In Infinite Awareness, Marjorie Woollacott provides an admirably lucid survey of the challenges various phenomena pose to the materialist paradigm, leading persuasively to a new worldview in which consciousness is primary. It is a wonderful introduction to this material, one filled not just with important information, but also with heart and considerable wisdom.”
—Jim B. Tucker, MD, Bonner-Lowry Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences and Director of Division of Perceptual studies, University of Virginia and author of Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children who Remember Past Lives and Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children's Memories of Previous Lives
“Woollacott has written an intellectual adventure story of the highest order. Drawing on her own experience as a highly regarded neuroscientist and a long-term meditator, she skillfully and engagingly invites readers to reassess the common scholarly prejudice against parapsychology. In doing so, she brings us to the threshold of a genuine paradigm shift in thinking about the mind and the brain.”
—Thomas B. Coburn, visiting scholar, Brown University; president emeritus, Naropa University
“Woollacott takes us on a voyage of discovery as she integrates her neuroscientific expertise and meditative insight. A candid, lively exploration in which scientific curiosity and spiritual seeking nourish each other, and in which mind is revealed to be much more than brain.”
—Paul Marshall, scholar of religion; author of Mystical Encounters with the Natural World
“Woollacott has written a gripping account of her evolution after an unexpected experience forced her to question her neurophysiological training and explore the scientific research on expanded consciousness. What she learned challenged her basic assumptions about who we are, and it may permanently change yours as well.”
—Bruce Greyson, Carlson Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences Division of Perceptual Studies, University of Virginia Health System
1. What is consciousness?
Neuroscientists traditionally define consciousness as being solely the product of brain activity. Consciousness is considered the result of activity within specific neural circuits within the brain. Some researchers, however, are questioning whether consciousness may be more than the simple product of brain activity. This is due to data from a number of research studies, including those on near-death experiences, which indicate that there are times during an NDE when persons may have no brain activity and yet be aware (van Lommel et al, 2001; Parnia et al, 2007).
2. Is it possible to be a meditator and still stay objective in pursuing scientific research on consciousness? Does this bias you?
This is a great question. And I think the answer is both “yes” and “no.” First, I think you need to understand that many, if not most, scientists have biases regarding their research interests. Researchers in pharmaceutical companies, for example, may hope that the new drug they are investigating will truly reduce the growth of cancer cells, or that another will help reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia. And I may hope that my research will show that meditation helps improve attentional focus.
Since most researchers, including myself, know they may have subtle biases regarding their expected research outcomes, they apply the scientific method rigorously. This includes creating alternative hypotheses, blinding themselves to the identity of groups they are testing, and never giving their own theories the weight of Holy Writ. And when presented with a new scientific result, which some might conclude is a new truth, they immediately ponder how one might attempt to disprove it.
3. Is meditation quieting the mind? And if so, why would you want to quiet the mind?
One of the Oxford American Dictionary definitions for meditation is to “focus one’s mind for a period of time, in silence.” From my own experience, I would agree with this, and add that meditation does involve quieting the mind. But I had the same question, too, when I first began practicing meditation: Why would you want to quiet the mind? In fact, I wasn’t sure I knew what it meant to quiet the mind.
As a scientist, I had always valued thinking and it seemed to me that thoughts were essential to my work. I loved coming up with creative solutions to scientific problems, writing up carefully designed grant proposals, debating the significance of our latest research results with colleagues. Why WOULD I want to quiet my mind? Yet in the first meditation workshop I participated in, my mind had become still and that first experience of meditation had been extraordinary, full of joy and peace. In the coming years, as I began to meditate regularly, I found that my mind was less turbulent during my day and I was more able to step back from situations and see them from a neutral point of view. And I found I had much more peace of mind, which actually enhanced my creativity as a scientist.
4. What does research show about the effects of meditation on the mind?
Many, many studies, including ones from my own lab, have been performed examining the effects of meditation on mental activity and behavior. The studies have shown that meditation does improve attentional focus, giving persons the ability to focus with single-minded attention for long periods of time. In addition, it improves what is called “emotional regulation,” meaning that people who meditate tend to be happier, and feel less stress, though their outer circumstances have not changed. (For more information, see the studies by my own lab, and the labs of Sara Lazar, Richard Davidson, Yi-Yuan Tang and Michael Posner, and many others.)
5. How do you know that NDEs are not simply hallucinations created by neurons that are not getting enough oxygen, when the heart has stopped?
At least two prospective studies of NDEs have demonstrated no difference between patients who had an NDE and those who did not in regard to their brain electroencephalogram (EEG) activity (Parnia and Fenwick 2002), their blood chemistry, or their brain-seizure activity (Lommel et al. 2001). The findings indicate that changes in brain activity or blood chemistry were not the cause of the NDE, or researchers would have seen differences between the two groups. In addition, critical care physician Sam Parnia notes that most studies on cerebral function in patients during cardiac arrest shows there is no electrical activity in the brain. Hallucinations should not be possible if there is no neural activity. Yet these patients were aware.
6. How do you know that the positive results of research on energy healing are not due to the placebo effect? Perhaps people simply expecting to feel better, so they do.
The most careful researchers in any field (including my own research area of rehabilitation) do controlled studies in which they include at least two groups, one which is given the experimental treatment, and a second group that is lead to believe that they have the same treatment, but do not receive the experimental treatment. This is considered the placebo group. When researchers see that the experimental group shows improvements that are significantly greater than for the placebo group, they know that the physiological improvements are due to the healing modality. I mention some of these studies related to Reiki, a type of energy healing, in my book Infinite Awareness.
A MINOR MIRACLE
As a postdoctoral fellow, I was given brief holidays, and the only practical way for me to spend Christmas with my parents in Sedona, Arizona, was to travel by air. Flying had always frightened me, I suppose because I could envision a crash landing with no hope of controlling the out- come. I didn’t fly at all until I was in graduate school, and then I flew with white knuckles and only when I had to. One Christmas—operating on a strict timetable and coming from Eugene—I had to. While I was with my family, there was news that two planes had collided in the airspace over California, and everyone onboard died.
So, I was particularly nervous about my return flight. My elder sister walked me to the gate—this was before stringent airport security—and I confided my fears to her.
Cathie said, “I have something that will help you.” I expected her to hand me a pill, but instead she gave me a mantra, so-ham. She instructed me to think so as I breathed in and ham as I breathed out. She said she’d received this mantra from her meditation teacher. It worked for her, so she felt it would work for me. “Try it,” she said.
My sister and I had never moved through life on parallel tracks. She now lived in a communal house in Hawaii, explored alternative lifestyles with other free spirits, and met whatever spiritual master arrived on the prevailing trade winds. Over the holiday she had been talking about one of these teachers in particular, a swami from India. While I loved my sister, I didn’t have a lot of respect for this latest turn in her life. My boyfriend always referred to her as Bubblehead, and I felt he might be right about that.
Walking down the ramp to the plane, however, I was terrified, and desperate. I started repeating Cathie’s teacher’s mantra—so on the in- breath, ham on the out-breath. What happened then was a minor miracle: with no faith whatsoever in the process I was engaging, I found that it worked. The physical tension I’d been experiencing all the way to the airport—a contraction in my chest and abdomen, almost as if my body were caught in a vise—relaxed, diminished, and, as I buckled my seat belt, disappeared altogether.
Throughout the entire trip I continued to repeat this mantra, feeling as light as if I myself were the one in flight. I watched the cloud forms out the window and wondered at their beauty. It occurred to me that, whatever else it is, flying is also magical.
But where had my anxiety gone? And why had it been replaced by delight—delight in the very activity that had always terrified me before? Could two syllables with no meaning for me do all of this?
When a mystery presents itself, I invariably investigate further. The next day, safe in my own cottage in the woods back in Eugene, I sat on my bed to repeat this mantra—so . . . ham . . . so . . . ham . . . so . . . ham—and I found myself, once again, deeply relaxed. This time I felt as if my body were sinking down, and coming to rest on a foundation that held it securely. It occurred to me that I had been holding myself in an adrenalized state of attention for quite some time. I poured effort into my life. I saw that I could allow myself to relax. I could be in my life. I could just be.
For about five minutes, that’s what I did. When I came out of this inner space, I knew that I had been meditating. I understood that mantra repetition is a technique of meditation, that sitting and silently thinking a mantra is itself a form of meditation.
Even though I liked the feeling of my short meditation, the demands and commitments of academia superseded any interest I might have had in relaxing. I didn’t think about meditation again for almost a year, when Cathie called to invite me to a weekend meditation workshop with her teacher. She and I were both on the East Coast, me teaching for a year at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and she on the staff of this meditation teacher. “Your birthday’s coming up,” she said. “Let me treat you.”
I accepted, but when I spoke with my boyfriend about her invitation, he didn’t want me to go. The whole Indian-guru thing sounded weird and cultish to him, and in the face of his opposition, I waffled. I called Cathie and told her it wasn’t convenient. Afterward, though, I remembered the deep sweetness I had experienced with that mantra—with meditation! I realized I wanted to try meditation again, so I called Cathie back, and she got me one of the last seats for the workshop.
The swami and his entourage of about five hundred were staying in a rural hotel his organization had rented for the summer. The workshop, two days, was held in the ballroom. I remember the room as darkened, fragrant with incense, and quiet.
The first morning, it was announced that during the meditation session the swami would walk around the room and initiate every individual there. The initiation was described as a spiritual awakening, and it was to happen through the swami’s touch. Obviously, the scientist in me was skeptical. Since I was there, however, I decided to put my skepticism aside for the weekend. Besides, I was curious to see what would happen.
For some time we chanted Sanskrit syllables repetitively, back and forth with a lead group of singers. This was another mantra, om namah shivaya. When the music stopped, I could hear the swami working his way down the aisles. I could hear a swish-swish-swish . . . the swish of what I didn’t know, but I could tell the sound was coming closer. When he reached me, I felt the brush of feathers—peacock feathers I later learned—across the top of my head with a gentle whoosh. I was enveloped in the sweet scent of hina. Then, firmly, I felt the swami’s thumb and fingers right between my eyes and on the bridge of my nose.
I was alert. My eyes were closed, but my senses were otherwise fully engaged, so that when in this moment I experienced a current of what felt like electricity enter from the swami’s fingers into my body, I had a sense of utter certainty about the event. It isn’t that I knew precisely what had happened. To this day, I can’t explain it. But it seemed as if a tiny lightning bolt leapt from his fingers to a point between my eyes and down to the center of my chest. I could feel the exact point where the energy stopped. I knew it was my heart, not the physical heart but parallel to the physical heart and more like a heart than my physical heart had ever been. I say that because for the first time I could feel energy pulsating from my “new” heart, which seemed to be at my very core. The energy that came from my heart radiated outward, filling my whole being and beyond. This energy was like honey—it was sweet, and it moved in a leisurely and steady flow. If it had a color, it must have been golden. It felt like nectar; it felt like pure love pouring through me.
Words went through my mind, and they had nothing to do with scientific analysis: I’m home, I’m home! My heart is my home!
As I flew back to Virginia from that meditation workshop, I was looking in wonder at the photograph of my sister’s teacher on the cover of his autobiography. I kept asking: Who are you? What have you given me? At some deep level inside of me I wanted more, and that part of me was determined to find a way for that to happen.
This was forty years ago.
A MATTER OF INTEGRITY
For me, what was most astonishing about that weekend workshop is what happened afterward. Without my effort or will or my even think- ing about it, I made a 180-degree shift in my habits, beginning the morning after I returned. I woke up at 5:00 am, spontaneously, and I got up to meditate. This happened day after day after day and, in fact, has never ceased.
The most significant change was the direction of my attention. The nature of neuroscience research is to enter the world of your subjects, to explore their nervous systems in order to plumb mysteries hidden within them. Now, through meditation, I attempted to do the very same thing in my own field of consciousness. I did this knowing that just beneath the surface simmered a quiet ecstasy. I had tapped it once; I felt it was there, waiting for me.
THE HEALING INTENTION
I could simply say the term “energy healing” to a group of UO science majors and watch their faces freeze. In the Complementary and Alter- native Medicine class I’ve offered for the past several years, students always have had the greatest difficulty with energy-based healing. These same students have no trouble accepting that various forms of exercise—tai chi, hatha yoga, even just walking—can accelerate healing and ward off disease. But the idea of one person transmitting energy that heals another? Initially, most of these scientists-in-training are not sim- ply reluctant to learn about such modalities; they’re opposed to learning about them.
As a trained neuroscientist, I can understand this response. A neuroscientist might say, “Of course, encountering someone’s anger can cause measurable stress for another person.” But the scientist thinks this anger—this emotional energy—will have an effect on the other person only if it’s physically apparent to him. It is quite a leap for a scientist to consider that the unperceived energy of one person might have an effect on the physiology of another. And this is, in fact, the claim of energy healing: that subtle energy transmitted from the one person has actually improved the physiological function of the other.
From the scientist’s perspective, it is virtually impossible to verify such a premise. A human being is a highly complex system. When our bodies change, there are infinite numbers of factors involved. Each of us has countless components to our physiology as well as our mindset, our emotions, our lifestyle, our environment—all of which influence our health. How could we possibly extract the effect of one factor—say, the intention of a spiritual healer—from the others? We have to take into account a subject’s stress levels, mood, diet, belief system, intentions, environment, and so on. This is why such a study is extremely difficult to carry out with what is considered to be scientific validity.
To be absolutely certain of the effects a spiritual healer has on a person’s health, a researcher would have to keep all the other factors that might influence that person’s life absolutely static. How could you possibly do that? You couldn’t. And even if you could isolate persons so that most of these factors are stable—where subjects, for instance, would receive no touch from another human being, where they would not be affected by changes in the weather, where they would receive no news from the world around them—such an antiseptic and isolated environment would not provide an ideal setting for energy healing.
So, the researchers interested in studying such subjects began by turning their attention to a simpler question: if human intention is directed toward a system that is simpler than another human being, will the intention itself affect a change in that system? In other words, can a person have an effect on a system, whether animate or inanimate, sim- ply by thinking about it? This sort of mind-to-body—or mind-to-object—influence, it turns out, can be verified. It has been verified. This phenomenon, called distant intentionality, has been explored extensively in scientific literature, yet the research is still at the margins of Western neuroscience.