Combining anecdotes, awareness exercises, and examinations of contemporary neurological research, Newberg and Waldman (How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, 2009) seek to identify pathways to enlightenment.
To clarify, that’s “small-‘e’ ” enlightenment, the “mini-experience that provides us with new insights about ourselves and the world,” and “big ‘E’ Enlightenment,” the “experiences…that ultimately relieve suffering and bring peace and happiness to the world.” Early on, the authors admit that moments of “e” and “E” are “almost impossible to relate in words”; ineffability hardly seems promising as a guide to either kind of enlightenment. Readers may be skeptical when the authors suggest they have discovered “insights into a faster way to experience the big ‘E’ forms of Enlightenment that are often described in ancient spiritual texts” or “some shortcuts that may speed up your own quest for a small ‘e’ or a big ‘E’ experience.” But step back, and remember this is a spiritual quest—characterized by the authors’ common elements of “E”: oneness, clarity, intensity, surrender, and permanent change—and a spiritual quest is nothing if not confusing and mysterious, perhaps even just an extension of wishful thinking. The authors are on more solid footing when they discuss their levels of awareness, which have merit as guides, though transcendence remains elusive. Their exploration of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” is furtive yet intriguing, and they offer a promising look into the working of the brain’s frontal lobe—an area concerned with compassion, empathy, and connection—and how it appears to be deliberately accessed by a wide variety of spiritual people, from Pentecostals to Sufis, when they practice “intense body movement.”
A heartfelt pursuit of enlightenment and its causes, a subject that calls for an even more dynamic treatment.