Brainwaves and States of Consciousness

“Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And three fold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons sleep”

– William Blake

While mystics talk of ineffable states of consciousness, science likes to have some measurable reference points. Although common-sense experience tells us that we go through cycles of waking, dreaming and deep sleep, biofeedback has given us a way to understand these in terms of brainwaves. At the root of all our thoughts, emotions and behaviors is the communication between neurons within our brains. Brainwaves are produced by synchronized electrical pulses from masses of neurons communicating with each other.
Our ordinary states of consciousness are identified by four brainwave patterns:

Beta: 13-30 cycles/sec. This frequency is associated with our normal waking state of thinking, problem solving, and externalized awareness.

Alpha: 8-13 cycles/sec. for adults, 4-7 cycles/sec. in children. Alpha frequencies indicate a state where the mind is becoming empty and receptive. They can usually be produced only with the eyes closed, and they signal the beginning stages of meditation.

Theta: 4-7 cycles/sec. This is associated with drowsiness, inspiration, deep meditation and access to the unconscious mind.

Delta: 0.5-4 cycles / sec. This frequency is associated with deep sleep and paranormal phenomena.

There are also Gamma brainwaves that vibrate at 30 – 42 HZ and sub-delta waves vibrating at cycles below .5 HZ. Gamma brainwaves need to be distinguished from the “gamma rays” known to physics. One source says, “Gamma brain waves are the fastest brainwave frequency with the smallest amplitude. They are associated with the “feeling of blessings” reported by experienced meditators such as monks and nuns, and with peak concentration and extremely high levels of cognitive functioning”. The sub-delta waves seem to underly our basic brain functioning.
As noted above, Beta frequency brainwaves are associated with our waking state of consciousness. They tune us in to the external sensory world and practical thinking within it. Beta waves are essential for us to function in the world. Studies have shown that ADD, or Attention-Deficit Disorder, is associated an inability to sustain Beta waves and a tendency to drift into daydream Theta waves. On the other hand, people who experience stress and anxiety may function too much on the Beta level.
Alpha brainwaves are associated with introversion and relaxation. They indicate a state receptive to learning while keeping a balance between the analytical tendencies of the waking mind and the dreamlike qualities of the Theta state. Meditation enables us to maintain a balance between conscious and unconscious states. Novice meditators fluctuate between low beta and alpha states. They struggle with their habitual tendency to focus on the sensory environment and stressful thinking about the future.
The Alpha-Theta state is the domain of meditation and hypnosis. It opens a door into the unconscious. There are three things that can be done in this state: developing awareness of and removing negative subconscious programs (i.e. belief systems) and installing new positive programs. This can be done through either hypnotherapy, self-hypnosis or meditation. Through meditation, we develop the witnessing consciousness. This is the ability to observe subconscious thoughts rather than embody them. It is a higher form of metacognition, or ability to “think about thinking.”
Hypnotic suggestion is a way of installing positive beliefs in the subconscious. There are various ways of introducing a hypnotic trance state. I use the progressive relaxation approach which is most common. In a deeply relaxed state the subconscious mind becomes receptive and the conscious ego filter is down. Suggestion can take the form of verbal commands, visualizations or metaphorical stories. Again, this occurs within the alpha and theta brainwave range.
Delta brainwaves are associated with deep sleep. Even in this state the unconscious mind is aware and takes in suggestions. Advanced meditators able to maintain awareness in this state. Dr. Jose Silva refers to the “Delta doorway” through which we have contact with a transcendent spiritual dimension. Dr. Silva’s discovery is reminiscent of the Upanishad statement that awareness of the deep sleep state opens a door to abiding joy.
Gamma brainwaves were discovered later and are still controversial. However, a study involving Tibetan monks who were advanced meditators suggests that gamma brainwaves indicate a higher state of consciousness. “A 2004 study took eight long-term Tibetan Buddhist practitioners of meditation and, using electrodes, monitored the patterns of electrical activity produced by their brains as they meditated. The researchers compared the brain activity of the monks to a group of novice meditators (the study had these subjects meditate an hour a day for one week prior to empirical observation). In a normal meditative state, both groups were shown to have similar brain activity. However, when the monks were told to generate an objective feeling of compassion during meditation, their brain activity began to fire in a rhythmic, coherent manner, suggesting neuronal structures were firing in harmony. This was observed at a frequency of 25–40 Hz, the rhythm of gamma waves. These gamma-band oscillations in the monk’s brain signals were the largest seen in humans (apart from those in states such as seizures). Conversely, these gamma-band oscillations were scant in novice meditators. Though, a number of rhythmic signals did appear to strengthen in beginner meditators with further experience in the exercise, implying that the aptitude for one to produce gamma-band rhythm is trainable.
For me, the most interesting and important aspect of this research is the evidence that conscious awareness can intentionally modify and utilize various levels of consciousness. A master can function well in beta for ordinary activities that require wakefulness and attention to the sensory world, rest in alpha for learning and stress release, dive into theta for creativity and even delta for connection to Source. Gamma brainwaves indicate an integration of all states and a higher functioning of consciousness that indicates a further evolution of human consciousness.

Prana: Life Energy

Kabir says, “Student, tell me, what is God?”
He is the breath inside the breath.”
– Kabir, Robert Bly

Prana is the subtle energy of life. It is an aspect of the quantum field. We use the term “subtle” to indicate that this energy is different from the electro-magnetic spectrum available to our usual scientific instruments. However, in 1939, Russian scientist Semyon Kirilian accidentally discovered what has come to be known as Kirilian photography. He discovered a way of measuring the aura surrounding living beings . Yogis have known about this energy for millennia. When our higher centers or chakras awaken we can sense this energy directly.
The aura surrounding our bodies reflects our physical and emotional health. It also reflects our level of consciousness. Enlightened beings are known to have powerful extended auras often depicted as a halo surround them. When we are depressed or ill our auras shrink and become dim. Although often dismissed as “pseudoscience,” people with a sensitivity to energy can sense the fields of others. In my experience I felt the powerful fields emanating from advanced Yogis who I met. Once sitting watching a movie at the ashram, I felt the presence of my guru, who was sitting a few feet behind me as a hot sensation along my back. Energy healers, such as Reiki practitioners or Pranic healers, work effectively with the energy fields of their clients for healing on many levels.
Yoga teaches that there are two aspects of prana: the individual and the universal which is known as Mahaprana. Mahaprana is the universal life-force which permeates and informs everything. Energy healers tap into this cosmic energy and channel it to heal others and themselves. It is one pole of the dyadic aspect of creation: consciousness and energy. In Tantra these are known as Shiva and Shakti. As we develop our consciousness our energy vibration increases. Even stones have an energy signature. As Swami Satyananda stated,
“You know the famous equation of Einstein: E = mc2, that is, matter is energy in its potential state. There is a small scientific experiment which we can use to illustrate this more clearly. If you look at a piece of bone with your naked eye, all you see is a bone. But if you look at the same piece of bone under a super microscope, what do you see? First you see molecules, then atoms, and later the nucleus of the atom. Ultimately, you discover the fantastic behaviour of energy.
The piece of bone, which ‘appeared to be dead matter, was not really dead at all; only our eyes were incapable of detecting the energy within it. Scientists who have gone into the study of energy fields, maintain that the so called dead matter is also permeated with pranic energy. Therefore, prana does not only mean life, it means existence as well. The etymological meaning of prana is ‘life in existence’. Where there is mobility and stability combined, there is prana. If an object is devoid of prana, it will disintegrate”.
I think the reason the materialists are so opposed to the concept of prana is that they can’t see the forest for the trees. The universe is both conscious and alive on every level. Prana, of course, is not just a concept but a deeply felt experience. We struggle with it because of our Western newtonian cartesian paradigm. On a deep subconscious level, we have cut ourselves off from the whole of life. Our modern egos are exaggerated caricatures of the universal principal of uniqueness and individuality. Everything in existence is a unique expression of the underlying wholeness.
As I have been writing this, I felt a need to take a break and go out into the daylight, walk barefoot in the grass and commune with the gnarled tree next to my place. Life, i.e. prana, is all around us but we enclose ourselves in artificial environments. To connect with prana, we need to go out into nature, bring plants into our homes, connect. . . Life, the universe and everything is always there for us. “Seek,” taught Jesus, “and you will find it.”

Pranayama is the yogic science of using breathing techniques to enhance life-energy. According to Yoga, prana is imbibed with the breath along with oxygen. It is also metabolized from our food and absorbed through sun light, moon light and being in nature. In deep states of meditation, we connect directly with Mahaprana, the universal life-energy.
Even if you are skeptical about prana, pranayama has man demonstrable benefits. It reduces stress, elevates blood oxygen levels, improves mood and energy levels, promotes relaxation and prepares one for meditation. Respiration is a bridge between the conscious and unconscious functions of our body-minds. It the only autonomic nervous function that can be brought under conscious control. By properly controlling the breath through pranayama, we can better regulate our emotions and reduce harmful stress responses in our bodies.
In the Yoga tradition there are different breathing techniques which can be categorized as balancing, tranquilizing and vitalizing. The balancing practices bring the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions of the autonomic nervous system into balance. The tranquilizing practices promote the parasympathetic response while the vitalizing practices promote the sympathetic. The balancing practices are used to prepare for meditation and help to balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The tranquilizing practices are used to promote rest and relaxation. The vitalizing practices are used to help one stay awake and alert.
On an esoteric level, Yoga practitioners use pranayama to awaken the latent energy centers or chakras in the subtle body. Advanced practices help practitioners to awaken the dormant kundalini energy which leads to the evolutionary transformation of consciousness connecting the individual consciousness with the Universal Consciousness (i.e. “God”). This is the Yogic goal of these practices and the health benefits are regarded as by-products.
For us modern practitioners, pranayama helps us to overcome the stress of our daily lives and develop focused awareness. Thus, it is a tool for health, success and happiness. It is an essential part of our awakening as cocreators of our realities. It is a means of quieting the “monkey mind” and raising our vibrational frequency. It is a means of empowerment and transcendence.

The Power of Attention

“By using our attention we learned a whole reality, a whole dream. We learned how to believe in society: what to believe and what not to believe; what is acceptable and what is not acceptable; what is good and what is bad; what is beautiful and what is ugly; what is right and what is wrong”.
– Don Miguel Ruiz

Quantum physics tells us that we live in a sea of infinite potential. We use our attention to manifest reality. Because of our conditioning, this is hard for many of us to realize. What we attend to we become. Awakening means realizing that we are not victims of some external reality but the authors. As Amit Goswami writes, “There is no object in space-time without a conscious subject looking at it”.
According to Don Miguel Ruiz our attention has been hooked. This is done through the process of enculturation. Our awareness is controlled by our beliefs, which Ruiz refers to as agreements. Once we accept a belief it becomes subconscious. It becomes a way that we perceive ourselves and the world. Unfortunately, as we noted before, many of our unconscious beliefs are disempowering. For one thing, most of us were not raised knowing that we the creators of our own realities.
Instead we have been programmed to believe that we live in a predetermined material universe in which our paltry consciousness is insignificant. And because we believe that it is! As we progress in meditation we begin to take control of our attention. We develop the ability to exercise lazar-sharp focus as needed, to choose our thoughts and to tune into our intuition. We begin to take control of our experience of realty.
I have a high school friend who is a medical doctor and is a hardline materialist. We have had somewhat heated arguments as to whether an external reality exists outside of consciousness. To him the idea that it doesn’t is absurd. He believes that consciousness is a byproduct of electro-chemical processes in the brain. This is the standard position of scientific materialism (which is different from science itself.) My position is that if there is a reality external to consciousness, we cannot know it. This is a philosophical position elaborated in both Eastern and Western traditions.
The truth is that neither position can be ultimately proven. We need to balance them. There does seem to be a material world “out there,” which is presented to us through our senses. On the other hand, it is up to us to creatively interpret what is really a spectrum of electromagnetic energy through our mind. The mind operates through the brain but is not identical to it. As Daniel J. Siegel writes, “Culture is the way that meaning is transferred among individuals and across generations with groups of people. How this energy and information flow shifts its patterns across time is what cultural evolution involves. This reality of how we have changed as a species involves not the genetically driven evolution of our brains, but the mental evolution of how we collectively pass energy and information among each other across generations. This is the evolution of the mind, not the brain. One view is that for the mind (energy and information flow) to exist it may need to harness the activity of the brain. In this manner, the mind uses the brain to create itself”.
Meditation helps us to differentiate between mind, senses and awareness. It is through awareness that we are able to make changes in ourselves and consequently in our experience of reality. The mind is not the brain and the mind is not awareness, or consciousness. Awareness empowers us to use our attention to create new realities, cultural changes and a new world.

Beyond Ego

Most of us are convinced that we are our egos, which is who we think we are. The ego is part of our incarnation. It dies with the body, which is why we are so afraid of death. Death scares the hell out of who you think you are, especially if you think you are this body.
– Ram Dass

In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali defines ego as the misidentification of the true self for the body-mind instrument. When we incarnate in these bodies, we tend to forget who we really are. Children often have residual memories of some prior experience. They come into this life “trailing clouds of glory.” According to Wordsworth:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, 60
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come 65
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, 70
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended; 75
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Jesus taught, “Truly I say to you, unless you will be converted and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. ” Unless we can uncover our true self under the piles of conditioning we have accepted, we cannot be free. We cannot truly love and are lost in illusion.
Children are generally playful and accepting. They are forgiving, even under the worst circumstances and eager to explore the world, although insecure attachment can undermine them quickly. However, in adulthood many of us are prone to worry and anxiety, insecurity and addiction. We find ourselves far from home. Even in our most intimate relationships we feel fundamentally alone. This is due to the alienation created by our modern ego-conditioning.
Of course, children can also be selfish, aggressive and impulsive. Once when I was talking about the spirituality of childhood, a friend countered that he remembered pushing people out of the way because he was anxious to see a film. Children are seldom little angels! We are simultaneous spiritual and biological beings. The soul, which is intimately connected with spirit, “descends” into the body. The body develops and evolves according to the laws of nature, described by Darwin as natural selection. As infants we are composed of the polar drives of survival and attachment-love; and compassion and empathy.
The early twentieth-century philosopher, Aurobindo Ghosh, posited dual processes of evolution. He wrote, “An evolution of consciousness is the central motive of terrestrial existence. The evolutionary working of Nature has a double process: an evolution of forms, an evolution of the soul”. They evolve together. The ego is rooted in biology. The soul in higher consciousness.
“Sri Aurobindo” was familiar with Darwin and did not contradict him. Instead he said there is something more going on. He writes, “This terrestrial evolutionary working of Nature from Matter to Mind and beyond it has a double process: there is an outward visible process of physical evolution with birth as its machinery,–for each evolved form of body housing its own evolved power of consciousness is maintained and kept in continuity by heredity; there is, at the same time, an invisible process of soul evolution with rebirth into ascending grades of form and consciousness as its machinery.”
Remember the tenant of yoga: the body is an instrument of the conscious soul-being. Sadhana, spiritual practice, is about shifting our allegiance from body to soul. From matter to spirit, form to formless essence. They are not pitted against each other but the awareness of one grows out of the other. Nothing exists without form, but form grows out of emptiness.