Where does this path even go?
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
No one embarks on a journey without knowing the final destination. Many who walk the path of meditation have only the vaguest idea where it goes.
I came across an interesting study years ago by Dr. Jeffrey Martin on persistent non-symbolic experiences. It provides one of the clearer descriptions on the topography of inner landscapes. While he doesn't map how to get there, the path is marked, although not well traveled.
Martin conducted an international study on persistent non-symbolic experience (PNSE), more commonly known as: enlightenment, nonduality, the peace that passeth understanding, unitive experience, and hundreds of other terms. The term persistent denotes a consistent, ongoing experience versus a transient one- however powerful, mystical or ecstatic. His research resulted in a classification system for these types of experiences. It also led to the discovery that these were psychological states that were not inherently spiritual, religious, or limited to any given culture or population.
Instead of levels or stages, Martin proposed 4 locations- where further is not necessarily better. At a particular stage in life, for example, location 1 may be preferable to 3 for some. Locations are clusters of experience that emerged from the data.
Location 1 participants experienced a dramatic reduction in or seeming loss of an individualized sense of self. Their minds seemed much quieter because of a reduction in the quantity and/or emotional strength of self-related thoughts, but there were still some emotionally charged thoughts that could pull them back into more active thought streams. They experienced a range of positive and negative emotions, but these emotions were much more transient and did not have the power over them that they once did. Conditioning could still trigger thought streams and stronger emotions, but even these passed in a matter of seconds. The overall change in their thoughts and emotions left them with a deep sense of peace and beingness. This beingness felt more real than anything previously experienced and made the external world and their former experience of an individualized sense of self seem less real by comparison. This deep peace could be suppressed by external psychological triggers, but would recover once the stimulus was removed. Their sense of self seemed larger and to expand beyond the physical body. There was a new sense of connectedness between what was formerly perceived as the internal and external worlds.
Location 2 participants experienced an increased loss of self-related thoughts as well as a continued reduction in the ability of the thoughts that did remain to draw them in, when compared to Location 1. As they progressed through this location the range of emotions they experienced became increasingly positive. Participants in Location 2 were more likely to feel that there was a correct decision or path to take when presented with choices. Participants who progressed to this location from the previous one reported an increased sense of well-being.
By Location 3, participants had shed their negative emotions, and now experienced one dominant emotion. This single emotion felt like a mixture of various positive emotions such as impersonal/universal compassion, joy, and love. Parts of negative emotions, which one participant called proto-emotions, were sometimes still felt but did not form into full emotions. The single remaining positive emotion was a constant experience and companion for Location 3 participants. The remaining traces of self-referential thought had continued to fall away. In Location 3, participants’ experience of inner peace and beingness continued to deepen. So too had their feelings of connectedness and union/unity. Participants at Location 3 often saw the world as unable to be any other way than it already is in the moment. While all participants expressed this to some degree it seemed to have grown very deep roots by this point. These participants generally did not place importance on choosing the correct decision or path like Location 2 participants.
Location 4. All remaining vestiges of self-related thoughts are gone by this point, as are experiences of emotion. Feelings of deep interconnectedness and union with God, an all pervasive consciousness, and so forth also disappeared. These participants reported having no sense of agency or any ability to make a decision. It felt as if life was simply unfolding and they were watching the process happen. Severe memory deficits were common in these participants, including the inability to recall scheduled events that were not regular and ongoing. Participants who progressed to this location from one or more previous ones reported the highest level of well-being. Often this amazed them as they did not imagine anything could have been better than Location 3.
Virtually all of the participants discussed a pronounced shift in the nature and quantity of thoughts. The nature and degree of the change related to a participant’s location on the continuum. On the early part of the continuum, nearly all participants reported a significant reduction in, or even complete absence of, thoughts. Around 5% reported that their thoughts actually increased. Those who reported thoughts, including increased thoughts, stated that they were far less influenced by them. Participants reported that for the most part thoughts just came and went, and were generally either devoid of or contained greatly reduced emotional content. Almost immediately it became clear that participants were not referring to the disappearance of all thoughts. They remained fully able to use thought for problem solving and living what appeared outwardly to be a ‘normal’ life. The reduction seemed limited to self related thoughts.
There do not appear to be negative cognitive consequences to this reduction in thought.
When asked, none said they wanted their self-referential thoughts to return to previous levels or to have the emotional charge returned to them. Participants generally reported that their problem solving abilities, mental capacity, and mental capability in general had increased because it was not being crowded out or influenced by the missing thoughts. They would often express the notion that thinking was now a much more finely tuned tool that had taken its appropriate place within their psychological architecture.
The amount of self-related thoughts as well as the percentage with emotional content
continued to decrease as participants moved along the continuum. During the earlier parts of the continuum participants could still be ‘grabbed’ by thoughts and have their mind pulled into thought sequences similar to what other research has shown in mind wandering (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006). They reported noticing this process occurring relatively rapidly and stated that this noticing led back to the experience of reduced thoughts. This ‘grabbing’ process also reduced as participants moved along the continuum. At the farthest extreme, participants reported no self-referential thoughts at all.
With PNSE, in a matter of seconds (reported as 2 to 90 depending on the severity of the incident involved, and usually on the extreme low end of the range if not life-threatening) their emotional state would return to a baseline of high wellbeing, and they were no longer reactive or bothered by the incident. They stated that prior to PNSE they would have remained upset much longer in similar situations. Commenting on the difference, they typically speculated that the lack of an individualized sense of self seemed to affect whether or not, and how long, they held onto the perceived injuries from these events.
All participants reported a significant increase in their experience of and focus on what was happening in the present moment along with a dramatic reduction in thoughts about the past and future.
As they moved deeper into the continuum, participants were increasingly able to control their reactivity to external events. As this progression continued this active control faded and became increasingly less necessary. Participants reported simply having fewer and fewer internal experiences arise in reaction to external events.
Many of the meditation techniques shared by participants can be found here: