This Harvard-trained researcher is trying to unlock the secrets of enlightenment and put it into an online course.


In-depth study of those who claim to be enlightened.

Alex Tsakiris of Skeptiko interviews Dr. Jeffery Martin, Harvard-trained social scientist and researcher on enlightenment, about whether enlightenment can be taught.

Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Harvard-trained social scientist Dr. Martin. During the interview Martin discusses the goals of his research on transformational states:

Alex Tsakiris: Dr. Martin, what’s your goal in this? I hear you talking about engaging video game makers and other culture makers and I just scratch my head and go, really? Is that where we’re going with this? Or you talk about, equally kind of hard for me to grasp is you talk about engaging religious leaders which–in what way? To kind of tell them you’re wrong again? What is your goal in some of that culture making and culture war kind of stuff?

Dr. Jeffrey Martin: I think from our standpoint, you know, we’ve got a lot of data around a very different sort of sense of self than is traditionally researched and is prevalent in society today. So a question for us is, you know, how do we get that information out in meaningful ways that are able to significantly impact people’s lives? Because it does seem quite beneficial. I don’t think you release something that produces a permanent shift in someone without releasing the undo button for it right? I mean we’re not advocates that like everybody should want this and everybody should experience this and this should just be enforced from on high you know, by the powers that be or should be subliminally put into you know media or whatever else but it’s certainly…it’s certainly hard for anyone in our position seeing the data that we’ve seen over these years to say that it shouldn’t be widely and more reliably available.

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Read Excerpts From The Interview:

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Is discontent the impetus for personal transformation?

Offering some background about the motivations for his study, Dr. Martin defines the term “once-born” versus “twice-born” and how the latter influenced his inclinations to search for deeper meaning–[14min.25sec-15min.17sec]

Dr. Jeffery Martin: Once born people are, you know, essentially they’re not ever going to be seekers or searchers, or whatever else; there’s just something about them that they’re just OK with the way stuff is, you know, and they go through life and they don’t really feel any sort of great turning or emptiness or void of meaning or anything like that. And then twice-born people are, you know, in their first incarnation, in their first birth, there just seems to be something about them that’s just fundamentally uncontent with life. And so maybe it’s a huge void of meaning or can show up in so many different ways. But they basically need to find something that’s like this second birth that gets them to that more content place that the once born people just seem to sort of naturally inhabit. So I was definitely a twice-born person.


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Do different beliefs manifest various patterns of brainwave functioning?

Later, Dr. Martin breaks down the processes involved in his study, the approach he uses with interview subjects, and how their experiences are analyzed through the framework of cognitive science–[40min.19sec-43min.53sec]

Alex Tsakiris: So the subjects you’re talking to at this point are people who have both self-identified and been identified within their religious community, let’s say a Zen group, they’ve said hey, these three guys, they got it. What’s you’re talking about of this enlightenment, this non-duality, yeah, they are it. You know, they can do what you’re talking about. Those are the people you should talk to. So you have these different pockets of groups of people that meet these basic criteria that you’re looking for and now you barrage them with these psychology tests and now you’re interviewing them for the purpose of what? What is–you’re interviewing them about their thinking; about their mental–not their mental functioning but their mental experience, right?

Dr. Jeffery Martin: It‘s funny because the way we interviewed them wound up being an accidental necessity and that was really the thing that I think was the reason that our project has been so successful. So I first sat down with them right? And when you sit down with people in different religious traditions I mean they’re talking about their own iconography and dogma and ideology and all that. And so, you know, like if you’re sitting down with a Buddhist of a certain sect and a certain faction even within a sect they may be talking about spaciousness and the importance of spaciousness and you know maybe they can go on for hours about spaciousness, right? You’re sitting down with a Christian, they might be talking about, you know, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit or whatever their particular Christian sect is into. And it doesn’t take very long to realize that–that’s just not useful. Like, unless you’re actually having that experience, there’s no real way to create an analog to that like in the brain–and so what came out of that was basically a kind of a semi-structured interview format–not kind of–a semi-structured interview format that basically went like this–to just skip ahead a little bit for time reasons–sit down with somebody, give ‘em a half hour or an hour to just talk about that in their own words as much as they want to, right? But knowing that mostly you’re just letting them get it out of their system; getting a little bit of synchronization on language; getting a little bit of history and jumping off points on things like that. But you know, mostly what they’re saying is not stuff that’s going to be actually that useful in terms of correlative data and things like that. So then going into, I started, you know, just accidentally stumbling into it really. Just like with non-symbolic; just like with the word non-symbolic; just trying a bunch of stuff, trying to make some progress. Eventually I hit upon the notion of asking them questions around kind of a cognitive science framework. And so, you know, I asked them about changes in their thoughts and thinking ‘cause they seem to talk about their mind quieting down or all thoughts going away or whatever else so that seemed like an obvious place to dig into. They would talk about changes in emotion, a variety of changes in emotion so I started just sort of rigorously asking them questions around cognition, emotion, affect…perception and memory which really are kind of the heart of cognitive science.


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Do all roads lead to shared conclusions about consciousness?

Addressing the evidentiary research for near death experiences and reincarnation, Dr. Martin points to where his data overlaps with those areas of study–[1hr.08min.25sec-1hr.11min.07sec]

Alex Tsakiris: Let’s get to the real meaning questions. Let’s start with one of the wisdom traditions that you bumped into a lot: Buddhism. A couple of the claims of Buddhism are one, reincarnation and karma. They’re central to it and they also get to this idea of the moral imperative; of goodness; good versus evil. All these meaning questions that we want to pull apart. And we’ve looked at on this show the scientific evidence for reincarnation, which is quite strong. As you know, Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia now followed up by Jim Tucker. I mean anyone who looks at that says, wow, you know it’s really kind of hard to dismiss that. Reincarnation is true–seems to be true; evidentially strong. The idea of karma is supported by a number of different spiritual traditions, but is also supported by the near death experience data. You come back, and say there is this life review and it’s not a–it’s not imposed from the top down from a vengeful God but is more imposed internally–a sense that I do have to do good–and also from the near death experience research there’s a sense of choice which is left out of your research, or contradicts your research where there is no choice it’s just this unfolding. In particular there’s a strong sense from the near death experience literature of people having completed their life mission and can choose to go back or not go back. So I’ve thrown a couple of different things on the table there but how do we sort out some of that information that seems to contradict some of your findings?

Dr. Jeffery Martin: I don’t necessarily have a dog in a lot of those fights, to use the vernacular. Like for instance, Peter Fenwick’s a friend of mine. He’s a big wheel in the near death world; in the academic research into near death and all of that. And, you know, we have great conversations about his stuff; we have great conversations about my stuff. We have interesting conversations about overlaps in terms of–sometimes with sort of the post–especially like people who are way beyond location four, there are interesting effects in terms of, you know, mind-matter interactions type things and stuff like that. There are similar things that show up in his research into near death experiences and even the death and dying process itself or what happens even after death. Lots of interesting data that he’s collected around things like that so there are these overlaps.


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What are the pitfalls of following the path of highly-attuned spiritual teachers?

Along with the benefits that have been documented in his study of persistent non-symbolic experiences, Dr. Martin offers the flip-side: spiritual salesmanship–[1hr.17min.52sec-1hr.21min.13]

Alex Tsakiris: This is the part I can’t connect. You’re now venturing off into a totally different dimension that I can’t help but see how it kind of contradicts this continuum that you surprisingly discovered, right? So you don’t want to put them as hierarchical but Location One, Location Two, Location Three, Location Four. It’s this idea of less thinking, less selflessness, less all that kind of a good spiritual stuff that we normally attach that word leads to less of an attachment, less of a clinging, less of a materialistic worry about how it’s disseminated or who gets it or how good the virtual reality game is…there just seems to be a disconnect there a little bit to me between how we would productize it, or how we would role it out in technology with the basic finding which is that none of that stuff matters. I mean whatever does matter, maybe we can’t say, but what your subjects seem to be coming back again and again is saying that stuff certainly doesn’t matter and the extent to which our society and our culture demands that we think that matters the most, aren’t we moving in the wrong direction? Shouldn’t we all just go out with the nuns, and the Zen, you know…

Dr. Jeffery Martin: You know that’s a really interesting point because I think that–and we can talk about this probably in a whole–you could give its own show. So you can make a Part II out of this if you want to. That’s fine. But the–there’s a couple of things to say about that. First of all I think a lot of what’s been put around this type of thing is a lot of spiritual salesmanship. And so those types of notions, they’re not necessarily born out in terms of people’s actual lives but they are all over the place with people trying to sell the notion that you should pursue this. And I think that’s fine, you know, I used to have a lot of harsh judgement around that type of thing. It used to make me really angry that I would see these spiritual and religious leaders and stuff, just knowing that they were lying frankly about what this produced and the experience that this produced. Like you know they would talk about how like if you want an orange you just hold out your hand and an orange manifests in your hand right? Not so much. So you know there’s all sorts of attempts that have been made to sell this which I think goes to the other part of your question and that is that you don’t see a detachment around everyone who experiences this in terms of whether or not other people should adopt it. In fact, lots of times you see a tremendous passion come over these people such to the extent that they are willing to be deceptive in their practices of you know, trying to pull people in and they are willing to say, oh you know, once you’re in harmony with the universe, you’ll just live forever. You know, you’ll never be ill and yet they get old and die. Or you’ll just be able to manifest–you just hold out your hand and whatever you want manifests…okay well, can you do that for me right now? You know, while I have this video recording? Oh no, no can’t do that. And so it’s just, you know, there’s a lot of–in a way I’m very sympathetic to them.

Photo by Anant Nath Sharma

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