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A Scientist's Quest for Enlightenment
by David Orme-Johnson, Ph.D.

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30 January 2017

Renowned researcher* shares his personal journey toward uncovering the science of higher states of consciousness

One day, as a child, I came across the word Nirvana, which was described as a state of heavenly bliss. I ran to my mother and asked her if such a thing was real. 'I don't know,' she said, 'Some people believe in it, I guess.' 'If it's real,' I asked, ''Why isn't everybody trying to get it?'' ''What do you think, Bill?'' she asked my father, a structural engineer and businessman. ''Um, maybe,'' he said, smiling benignly and not looking up from his newspaper. My mother, a reference librarian, said what she often did: ''Look it up!''

So I did. But Webster's definition of Nirvana was confusing to my young mind and limited experience. It said things like ''the final beatitude that transcends suffering'' and ''a state of oblivion to care, pain.'' It was synonymous with ''BLISS, HEAVEN'' but was a ''DREAM.'' Yet I also found this: ''A goal hoped for but apparently unattainable.'' If it was only apparently unattainable, maybe there was hope after all!

I couldn't discount the notion of Nirvana entirely because at the age of 9, I had an unforgettable experience. One night while I was falling asleep, my mind meandering with random thoughts, suddenly the bottom fell out, and my mind instantly expanded into a vast space of unbounded bliss, a most comfortable, nourishing, and cozy feeling. For weeks afterward, I lay in wait, ready to grasp that experience and never let it go. But it never came back.

I didn't tell anyone about my experience at the time. There was nothing to explain or no way to understand it in the world that I knew. It was not related to religion or to the God that I had learned about, and I had no words or concepts to talk about it. So eventually I forgot about it, until years later when I learned the Transcendental Meditation® (TM) technique.

My Quest Begins

But something in me kept me searching. In high school my friends and I formed a Philosophy Club, where we talked about how there must be more to life than what was offered by the materialistic culture we grew up in. I continued my search as an undergraduate at Columbia University by taking Oriental Humanities. We read the classics of India, China, Japan, and Islam. From the textbooks, I learned that a key idea of Buddhism was that Nirvana could be gained by giving up the world. How would you do that, I wondered, even if you wanted to? And I didn't. It was a great course, but it offered no practical techniques for experiencing or achieving enlightenment or higher states of consciousness.

I then went on to graduate school and my doctoral studies in behavioral psychology, the quintessence of a narrow interpretation of materialism. I thought most of the rest of psychology was too 'mushy,' full of unprovable theories. At least Behaviorism was quantitative. In this view, behavior is governed by reinforcement, not the mind. But I knew there was more to it than that. Behavioral interactions with the environment didn't account for the vast subjective experience we were always having, with its constant, simultaneous presence of multiple modes of sensory awareness, thoughts, and feeling. Mind was important, but with its ever-changing, infinite degrees of freedom, it had defied a century of psychology's attempts to measure it objectively.

That year, in 1968, I first became aware of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in an article about him and the Beatles that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. What struck me were their beaming faces as they came onto the stage with Maharishi. Formerly dour, John, Paul, Ringo, and George were totally transformed—glowing, radiant, and happy. I instantly wanted what they had, but how? My first thought was I had to become a rock star, but I didn't know how to play an instrument and found reading music to be painful!

Later that year I visited one of my high-school Philosophy Club friends, Clint Lee, in New York with my wife Rhoda, a Vassar girl who was working on her doctorate in comparative literature. When he opened the door, we saw a person glowing like the Beatles, brighter and more centered than the person I had known for 14 years. He told me all about learning TM from a teacher traveling with Maharishi. There were no TM teachers available to teach me, but the desire to learn was now planted in my awareness.

Observing the Effects of Transcendence on Stress

Two years later, the opportunity to learn TM finally arose, and I jumped at the chance. I was teaching experimental psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso. Rhoda decided she would wait to see what happened with me. That very afternoon after learning TM, in the kiddie park with our two-year-old Nate, I was so relaxed and in the moment that Rhoda was ready to learn too. Before, in open spaces, I had been paranoid and anxious. Rhoda knew this, and saw an immediate and profound change in me. Three months later our daughter Sara was born, and I was so happy that I would be bringing the vibe of TM into our growing family.

What I experienced in my first meditation is hard to describe. My mind was as if falling inward, with lots of swirling thoughts and an amazing sense of being at home with myself. And I was utterly calm when I came out. I had not completely plunged into the ocean of unbounded awareness I had experienced as a child, but I was definitely sitting on the beach, enveloped in that warm, cozy feeling of being in the vicinity of the transcendent, the same glow that I saw in the Beatles and Clint.

The TM teachers talked about how the deep rest of meditation normalized stress, and that was what I was observing from the perspective of my scientific training. This may sound strange, but even my smell changed, due to less ''stress-sweat,'' which indicated an alteration of my biochemical regulation of stress hormones. I also noticed I no longer felt compelled to eat everything on my plate, as I had been told to do since childhood. I was more aware of how full I was and allowed that to guide my behavior. In scientific terms, my homeostatic self-regulation mechanisms were becoming more independent of adverse conditioning history.

I also experienced a profound increase in my comprehension of everything I read—poetry, the Bible, statistics. I had no idea then how such a simple meditation technique could have this effect, but it did. At the time, I was pursuing a career as a sculptor and teaching psychology on the side, and my creativity started moving to a whole new scale. I sculpted a full-size figure in steel and a seven-foot ''scream'' in protest of the Vietnam War.

My social behavior also began to change. Before, I had been so shy and uncomfortable around other people that I found it very awkward to speak in groups. Now I found that when I attended a lecture and group meditation at the local TM Center, I felt grounded in a cocoon of well-being and loved talking with other meditators.

Discovering a New Field of Knowledge: Higher States of Consciousness

I began reading Maharishi's Science of Being and Art of Living(1) and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi On the Bhagavad-Gita: Commentary and Translation.(2) I learned there was a name for the unbounded awareness I had experienced as a child: Transcendental Consciousness. As a boy I waited in vain for the return of that experience. Now I had regular access to it through my TM practice.

I also found that there were experiences like mine recorded in virtually all cultures of the world for millennia. What a thrill it was finally to have some intellectual understanding about this experience and a community who understood what it was and loved talking about it!

I learned that, far from being ''unattainable'' or simply a ''dream,'' transcending to bliss is easy and effortless, and most importantly, completely natural. Once a person has learned the simple technique of TM, the mind naturally follows its tendency to go towards increasing charm. No mental control is needed because the ocean of blissful consciousness at the basis of every mind spontaneously draws the attention inward in an easy, natural way. In transcending, the meditator also experiences his or her essential nature as pure consciousness, another term for Transcendental Consciousness.(3)

By just the third day of the TM course of instruction, we learned that repeated experience of Transcendental Consciousness eventually would become an all-time, inner reality. This fourth state, restful alertness, would then be spontaneously present throughout the diurnal cycle of waking, dreaming, and sleeping. When this fourth state is established in this way, it would give rise to the fifth major state of consciousness, which Maharishi terms Cosmic Consciousness in his system of seven states of consciousness.

Maharishi also called this state ''24-hour bliss.'' (Mom, here it is! The Nirvana that Buddha had described, or the Kingdom of Heaven from within our Christian tradition!) I was excited, and I wanted to tell everyone. Enlightenment was not an unattainable dream or the sole domain of a few rare monks withdrawn from life. Maharishi provided a systematic technique that worked for everyone. Whichever lifestyle you choose will work just fine. You only need to add regular transcending to your schedule.

SOURCE: Enjoy TM News

In the coming days Global Good News will feature the second part of this article, in which Dr. Orme-Johnson goes on to describe ''The Launch of Scientific Research on Enlightenment—Physiological Markers of Transcendental Consciousness'', and related topics.


1. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Science of Being and the Art of Living. New York: New American Library Inc.; 1963.
2. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. On The Bhagavad-Gita: A New Translation and Commentary: Chapters 1-6. Baltimore: Penguin Books Inc.; 1969.
3. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Transcendental Meditation with Questions and Answers. Vlodrop, The Netherlands: Maharishi Foundation International, Maharishi Vedic University; 1967/2013.

* Dr. David Orme-Johnson served as Director of Research of the International Center for Scientific Research, and Vice Chancellor of Maharishi European Research University; and at Maharishi University of Management, was Head of the Psychology Department, Director of the Doctoral Program in Psychology, Co-Director of the Ph.D. program in the Physiology of Human Consciousness, and Dean of Research.

Copyright © 2017 Maharishi Foundation USA

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