My work as a consciousness researcher began when I was in my early 20s and read an article about the research done in the 1970s by Joe Kamea with Zen masters in Japan. He found that the deepest practitioners of meditation had the slowest brainwaves and they were more widespread across the cortex than in the other meditators. I learned along the way how naive it was to think that just because somebody shows a certain brainwave pattern, it makes them a zen master, but that article got me started. I was very interested in meditation and two years earlier I had taken LSD for the first time, so seeing those results made me think that perhaps science could be a shortcut to enlightenment and I might be the person who could discover that shortcut. Of course, there was a huge amount of hubris associated with that idea.
Research with the Dalai Lama's Monks
19 years later, I had the opportunity to test this idea, because by then I had developed all the tools and skills I needed to be a neuroscientist, had started a Tibetan Buddhist center, met the Dalai Lama and was about to take a great adventure to India to set up a laboratory in his monastery where I would do the same thing as the article but with better technology and the most accomplished meditators in Tibetan Buddhism as research subjects. I had enormous energy for this project and was able to raise the money to go very easily.
The Venerable Losang Samten — the Dalai Lama’s former attendant — and I hiked up to visit each of these meditators in their retreat huts to talk with them about the research. I didn’t realize then that since we told them the Dalai Lama had recommended them to me, they really couldn’t say no. So one by one, each of the practitioners came down the mountain into a little lab that I built in the monastery and I wired them up to my machines. They sat in a little room wearing what looked like a spandex bathing cap, and I videotaped them as well as recording their heart rate and breathing as they meditated.
I found some interesting things. Their brain waves showed that these meditators were experiencing everything as if for the first time. Everything was fresh and new, they were very relaxed and their minds were very alert. Those are unusual brain patterns to have, but still, I quickly realized I might be going in the wrong direction. It seemed more important to know about their inner experience than to make these measurements. I had misgivings about the whole enterprise that I had been so excited about doing and had been preparing to do for almost 20 years. I needed a way to study the subjectivity of their experience more directly.
When I returned home, I let go of research activity for a time to focus on becoming more skilled in meditation practice and to do other inner work. In doing so, I went from being a scared, materialistic person who was in his head to being a person who could feel emotions, feel love, and be guided by inner experience instead of intellectual curiosity.
Ayahuasca research in Peru and Brazil In 1999, I took ayahuasca — my first psychedelic experience in 25 years. By then, I had more experiential understanding of what I was interested in and felt more confident that I could navigate my inner experience. I wanted to study ayuhausaca and decided to use the EEG tool as I had with the Dalai Lama’s meditators, but I didn't look at it the same way. I knew that taking EEGs of ayahuasca practitioners would be interesting intellectually, but it wouldn't answer my deepest questions. Still, it would communicate to others who had a materialistic view — show that there were real changes going on. So I went to the Amazon jungle and did research with the cooperation of ayahuasca shamans. In the research, I found that right after peaking on ayahuasca, those who could let go and allow for spontaneous visions to arise showed EEG high frequency patterns very similar to advanced meditators doing compassion meditation.
While these results are intriguing, it’s become clear to me that the essence of meditation and ayahuasca experiences cannot be found in quantitative research findings. While the research shows signs that there is something going on, it is nowhere near the heart of the matter, which is in direct experience. For this reason, I see qualitative research, where people tell the story of their experience, as much more important than research that focuses on measurements. This is the kind of research that I’m now interested in doing.
Current focus: Discovery-oriented research In early 2018, I wrote a research proposal to interview individuals who came to a specific healing center in the Andes of Peru. I spent six weeks there. In the interviews, we asked open-ended questions about their experiences with San Pedro. I didn’t know what to expect, but once Jane Brunette and I started to do the interviews, I realized they were all focused around specific kinds of healing, and many had to do with the healing of trauma. I hadn’t done this kind of investigation before about ayahuasca and I was learning a lot from the interviews.
The idea of working with "co-researchers" instead of with "research subjects" came to us during the interviews. The interviewees felt more like collaborators than subjects, particularly one woman who had experienced a lot of trauma. Her interview was quite extraordinary in terms of her understanding of her healing process and her description of the kind of environment she needed for her healing. I learned from this how valuable it was to hear directly from people about what they thought they needed in their own healing. This experience gave us the idea for a new research project, which is discovery-oriented research.
The purpose is to discover new ways of applying spiritual practice, meditation and the use of psychedelics for healing and for opening human consciousness. I almost hesitate to call it research, as the feeling of it is more being with people and sharing, not as researchers and subjects but as co-researchers, experimenting with what it takes for each unique person to release blockages and open. Just as one would use a meditation practice to stabilize the mind, a stabilization practice is necessary for using the medicines, so that will be a focus of our investigation. We want to discover how the approaches of spiritual practice might combine with the approaches of those who use medicine in a way that draws on the best features of both. We will be looking at how to refine these methods so they can work for different kinds of people as tools for their own path of healing and discovery.