MARGARET SCHENKMAN, ROSALIND PEARMAIN, HESTER O CONNOR, and KRISHNAMURTHY JAYANNA address some of the challenges of doing research on consciousness, and explore the various approaches that give them the best understanding of how consciousness evolves.
Throughout the ages, spiritual practices have helped to expand human consciousness. This expansion changes our relationships with our selves, with others, and with our environment. A few years ago, Daaji encouraged scientists in the Heartfulness community to study consciousness, so we took up this challenge. Here, a few of us wish to summarize some of what we have learned.
In order to describe and measure consciousness, we needed to define what we meant by the term. Consciousness is defined and measured in very different ways, depending on whether it is in medicine, philosophy, or quantum physics. Daaji has described consciousness as “the degree of awareness and unawareness,” which changes to a large extent according to the refinement of three other mental functions – mind, intellect, and ego. Consciousness evolves to the extent that mind, intellect, and ego evolve. Mind evolves from thinking to feeling, intellect from intelligence to intuition to wisdom, and ego from arrogance to love and humility.
We quickly realized that there were no available measures to capture consciousness from this perspective. Therefore, our first step was to interview people who practice Heartfulness meditation. Eleven Heartfulness practitioners were asked an open-ended question about how Heartfulness affected their everyday life. Their responses were surprising and brought new insights into how people experience a meditation practice.
The practitioners gave new insights into the experience of meditation as it permeates everyday life, and four themes emerged:
1. Tangible, deeply felt effects that give a sense of being true or real
Embarking on Heartfulness Meditation can lead to changes that are tangible, and recognized as authentic or real. For some, they include the experience of a new sense of inner spaciousness associated with the heart focus, and inner experiences that are described as sublime, profound, pure, and inspiring.
2. Groundedness and a deeper context of existence, altering relationships
Sometimes, inner changes led to a feeling of groundedness. Over time, some participants experienced a real and authentic inner source that supports a more solid sense of self and grounding within. This inner grounding allowed for more openness, trust, and honesty with others, and more empathy.
3. Focus on the heart as the center in the midst of flux and change
Over time, a focus developed on sustaining a connection with the heart center. As life brings inevitable tests and changes, this heart focus is like an anchor in a stormy sea. It offers a continuous presence, a peacefulness, a field of sensibility, and a deeper orientation, in the midst of flux. Reconnecting with the heart could be challenging when distracted by daily stresses and pressures.
4. Immersion in love with less sense of “I”
Increasingly, understanding emerged through the heart field, along with a feeling of no separation from others. It was possible to be in two states of consciousness at the same time: being completely immersed in the practicalities of work and life, and at the same time completely removed from daily preoccupations in the sense of expanded understanding, compassion, and oneness.
We then faced a dilemma: It is not practical to use interviews with large groups of people (50,100, or thousands), yet studying large groups is necessary to adequately observe changes in consciousness with meditation. We needed to translate what we had learned into something that could be measured.
The themes that emerged from the interviews, along with specific comments of the participants, guided the development of a “Measure of Expanded Consciousness.” We tested this measure with over 400 participants, including Heartfulness meditators, meditators in other systems, and non-meditators. The resulting measure, which is in its final stages of development, is based upon the answers to35 questions contained in the following five categories:
- Relationship with others
- Judgment of self
- Connection to inner self (heart)
- Greater dimension beyond self
- Acceptance and surrender
The conundrum of measuring changes in consciousness is not trivial. The two approaches – interviews and quantitative measures – give very different, yet related information, each with strengths and weaknesses, neither of which can fully capture consciousness among meditators.
Qualitative descriptions from meditators tap into personal feelings and awareness not previously described. There is a move from a focus on thinking to a focus on feeling, and changes in ephemeral constructs such as intuition, inspiration, humility, and love. Furthermore, this approach offers flexibility and variability of responses, as each person’s lived experience is described in their own words.
In contrast, quantitative data from the “Measure of Expanding Consciousness” can easily be used to study groups of people or populations, but the information is limited by the very nature of trying to fit abstract feelings into concrete words. The data obtained from one measure only provide information based on the content and specific wording within that measure; the information is necessarily limited.
Our solution to this conundrum is to combine the two approaches – to obtain quantitative data from a large group, while simultaneously obtaining qualitative data from a sample of the participants. These qualitative data will allow us to add depth and texture to that which is learned from the “Measure of Expanding Consciousness.” Using this combination, we will explore questions such as:
- How does consciousness change with meditation?
- How do those changes relate to other important concepts such as loneliness, resilience, and depression?
Although we may never fully answer the fundamental question of how consciousness evolves, we may perhaps begin to approach an understanding with increasing precision through combining these two approaches.
Lanfranco, R.C.et al, 2022. Towards a vision from within. Adaptive Behavior. DOI: 10.1177/10597123221080193
Patel, K.D., 2022.The Evolution of Consciousness. Talk given for the 150th birth anniversary of Shri Aurobindo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=eFMWZ_0hDtA
Hester O Connor
Dr Hester O Connor is a Clinical Psychologist who manages a psychology service in the Irish Health Service. She lives in Wicklow, the Garden of Ireland, loves chatting with friends, drinking Darjeeling tea, and listening to pop music.
Meditation is an art form. It is inspired.
It is available to all yet few pick up a brush to explore its potential. There is beauty and expression longing to be revealed, to be experienced. Take a moment. Your creative process has begun.
Thanks for taking up the question of expanding consciousness in a scientific way. Looking forward to your findings.
Thanks for the insight. I thought of taking such research in my institute also. Let me study the deeper dimension and outcome of the meditation.