This article is part 1 in Dr. David Orme-Johnson’s series on the Scientific Quest for Enlightenment.
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.
One night while I was falling asleep… suddenly the bottom fell out, and my mind instantly expanded into a vast space of unbounded bliss, a most comfortable, nourishing, and cozy feeling.
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.
I knew there was more to it than [Behaviorism]… 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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
The Launch of Scientific Research on Enlightenment—Physiological Markers of Transcendental Consciousness
Maharishi used the word “habituation” to describe how Cosmic Consciousness develops. He said that repeated experience of Transcendental Consciousness (TC) “habituates” the nervous system to maintain TC more and more in activity, outside of meditation.
Habituation was a term that I, as a scientist, could relate to. In the laboratory of my own experience, I was feeling that the blissful effects of meditation were indeed lasting into activity. Maybe the mind could not be directly measured in the laboratory as psychology had found, but perhaps physiological changes associated with transcending and Transcendental Consciousness could be. But what were the effects of TC?
Habituation was a term that I as a scientist could relate to. In the laboratory of my own experience, I was feeling that the blissful effects of meditation were indeed lasting into activity.
The answer came on March 27, 1970, two weeks after I learned TM, in the historic publication in Science, the flagship journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of Robert Keith Wallace’s paper “Physiological effects of Transcendental Meditation.”(4) This research was based on Dr. Wallace’s doctoral dissertation at UCLA, in which he showed that Transcendental Consciousness has a unique physiological pattern that distinguishes it from waking, dreaming, and sleeping. It was a fourth major state of consciousness, just as the ancient Vedic literature had said.
Dr. Wallace found TC to be a state of restful alertness, combining characteristics of sleep and waking states. It was similar to sleep in that breathing and heart rate slowed down, metabolic rate and plasma lactate decreased, and skin resistance increased, but these changes occurred much more quickly during TM than sleep. Even more importantly, the brain waves indicated a state of inner awareness, not sleep, specifically, frontal dominant 9 Hz alpha1 EEG increased. This was the first time such a state had been scientifically described.
In one stroke, the 500-year-old world of Western science had begun to catch up with the thousands-of-years-old wisdom of Vedic India. Dr. Wallace quickly nailed the point home by publishing papers in two more of the world’s top scientific journals, the American Journal of Physiology(5) and Scientific American.(6) Scientists had already worked out the physiology of waking, dreaming, and sleeping, and now here comes a fourth state of Transcendental Consciousness to be added.
Dr. Wallace found Transcendental Consciousness to be a state of restful alertness… This was the first time such a state had been scientifically described.
Science was now expanding to embrace enlightenment into its fold. Maharishi’s descriptions of higher states of consciousness were research hypotheses that could be tested in the laboratory. Moreover, as Dr. Wallace pointed out, because TM was taught in the same systematic and effective way worldwide, subjects were available everywhere. Dr. Wallace’s lead was being followed around the world with research springing up in 33 countries. We were off and running in a global scientific exploration of enlightenment!
The First Scientific Hints of Cosmic Consciousness: Autonomic Stability
At the time, I was teaching experimental psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso, and some of my students were TM meditators. I found an old lie detector machine in the department storeroom, fixed it up, and did a class demonstration on habituation of stress to loud tones. I was studying the startle response and measuring the skin resistance response (SSR). The meditators startled alright, but not until I blasted them with a 100 db 1,000 Hz tone—as my wife Rhoda can attest.
But with repeated presentations of the tone, the TM meditators soon stopped responding, whereas the non-meditators in the class tended to keep on showing stress responses over and over again. We were seeing more rapid habituation of the stress response among people who practice TM. This was the first evidence that meditation of any kind could change the way a person responds to stress.
Then I found something else as well. If you increase the sensitivity of the measuring apparatus, there are spontaneous skin resistance responses (SSRs), which occur independently of ambient noise or movements by the subject. I began to read everything I could find on the subject and discovered that the frequency of spontaneous SSR is one way of defining the stress level of an individual. Studies showed that when a person is angry or fearful, or when levels of the stress hormones adrenaline or noradrenaline increase, the frequency of SSRs rises. Moreover, some individuals consistently show lower frequencies of SSRs than others. We all know people like that—calm, collected, happy.
We were seeing more rapid habituation of the stress response among people who practice TM. This was the first evidence that meditation of any kind could change the way a person responds to stress.
The implications were huge! Studies show that people with fewer SSRs are better able to withstand stresses of various kinds, such as g-force acceleration in a human centrifuge in a U.S. Air Force study. They also score higher on Barron’s Ego Strength scale, a psychological test that measures the general ability to cope with environmental pressures. Other research showed that they are less impulsive on motor tasks and more field independent, a measure of the ability to quickly find a target stimulus camouflaged in a complex background.
Other studies correlated people with greater autonomic stability, defined in terms of the frequency of SSRs, with being more self-organizing and clear-thinking, as well as with being leaders, not followers. They were also found to be less prone to aversive conditioning—that is, they could not be pushed and pulled around as much by threats. This corresponded to my experience that I no longer felt compelled to clean my plate when I felt full. This was a small experience, but it was just the tip of the iceberg of a total transformation that was going on.
Rapid recovery from stressors and fewer SSRs were just two different ways of measuring the stability of a system. It made sense. The amount of stress people carry around with them interacts with how they respond to the environment. If we are feeling harried and our computer breaks, we are much more likely to throw a tantrum than if we are well rested and calm when it happens.
I expanded my classroom demonstration to a full study and published it in 1973 in Psychosomatic Medicine, the oldest and most prestigious journal on mind-body medicine.(7)
I now saw in autonomic stability that my personal experiences, the traditional knowledge of enlightenment (such as equanimity in pleasure and pain), and the scientific research (becoming more independent from one’s conditioning history), all began to converge on something that was measureable in the laboratory: autonomic stability. Autonomic stability was a way to measure reduction of stress in a person and the growth of the stability aspect of Cosmic Consciousness—Nirvana. It was also a way to track the progress towards “he whom these contacts do not disturb,” as the Bhagavad Gita puts it.(2)
I now saw in autonomic stability that my personal experiences, the traditional knowledge of enlightenment (such as equanimity in pleasure and pain), and the scientific research (becoming more independent from one’s conditioning history), all began to converge on something that was measureable in the laboratory: autonomic stability.
The Science of Enlightenment Begins
One day I had all my reprints spread out on a big conference table and my office mate, a graduate student in literature, asked me what I was doing. I explained and then boldly told him “this is the beginning of the end to psychosomatic disease.” His eyes widened, and he was impressed.
Two years later, while on my TM Teacher Training Course in Fuiggi Fonte, Italy, I had an opportunity to present this research to Maharishi along with Dr. Wallace, who by that time had become my good friend Keith. Maharishi was very impressed that autonomic stability was correlated with so many benefits. He commented that I had grabbed the eagle of enlightenment by the toe; if you’ve got it by the toe and pull it, the whole thing comes along with it.
By that time several young Ph.D. scientists had gathered around Maharishi. Collectively we would go on to establish two universities: Maharishi International University (now Maharishi University of Management) and Maharishi European Research University, both dedicated to the experiential, theoretical, and empirical study of enlightenment.
In the next part this story, I will take you on a whirlwind tour, from my bird’s-eye-view as director of the research,* through the next 45 years and over 600 studies. I’ll highlight our key findings, the scientists who made the discoveries, and our interactions with Maharishi—who informed the research, ever expanded our minds, and kept us laughing, as the science of enlightenment unfolded at a rapid pace.
I didn’t have to become a rock star after all.
I’ll highlight our key findings, the scientists who made the discoveries, and our interactions with Maharishi—who informed the research, ever expanded our minds, and kept us laughing, as the science of enlightenment unfolded at a rapid pace
* I 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, I 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.
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.
4. Wallace RK. Physiological effects of Transcendental Meditation. Science. 1970;167:1751–4.
5. Wallace RK, Benson H, Wilson AF. A wakeful hypometabolic physiologic state. American Journal of Physiology. 1971;221:795-9.
6. Wallace RK. The Physiology of Meditation. Scientific American. 1972;226:84-90.
7. Orme-Johnson DW. Autonomic stability and Transcendental Meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine. 1973;35:341-9.