According to most spiritual traditions, the path to enlightenment is a slow and tortuous one, to be arrived at only after years of contemplation, deprivation, and mental and physical discipline. However, 17 years ago, a married couple of Indian avatars, Sri Bhagavan and Sri Amma, announced that they had found a way to speed up the process.
The couple created the Oneness Foundation in Batthalavallam, near Chennai (formerly Madras), in south-east India. The Oneness University, near the movement's headquarters in Golden City, states that its purpose is to eliminate mankind's fundamental sense of separation, and to replace it with a feeling of enlightened aware-ness of universal connection.
What distinguishes this pair from most gurus is their assertion that this state can be achieved through a system of energy transmission that rewires the brain. The Oneness Foundation claims to teach people a special meditative and psychological process that eliminates the false sense of separation.
The process is centred around receiving deeksha-a passing on of energy from the two avatars that supposedly allows the recipient to make the leap into enlightenment. This approach has proved to be highly popular, with some 20 million adherents across the globe.
The blessing, usually given with a laying on of hands by a trained deeksha practitioner, is said to pour energy into the Crown chakra (at the top of the head) to help repattern the neural functioning of the brain and, ultimately, dissolve our illusory sense of separateness.
Once transmitted, deeksha behaves like electrical energy, flowing through the spinal cord and rest of the nervous system, and the chakras, or energy centres, of the body. Practitioners claim that it mainly focuses on the brain, activa-ting the frontal lobes while turning down reception in the parietal lobes, which occupy the upper rear parts of the brain's hemispheres.
But is there any evidence that this energy transfer-or meditation in general-can change the brain or eliminate our sense of self?
Uncovering the brain
Dr Andrew Newberg, professor of nuclear medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-author of Why God Won't Go Away (Ballantine Books, 2001), has studied the brain activity of Tibetan Buddhist practi-tioners during meditation. Using special scanning technology, he has revealed that, during deep medi-tation, the brain's prefrontal lobes show an increase in blood flow and neural activity, while the parietal area registers a drop in brain activity.
Newberg has dubbed that part of the brain the 'orientation association area' (OAA) because it gives us our ability to orientate ourselves in space and time, and also provides us with a sense of separateness from the rest of the universe. When this portion of the brain is 'turned off', the person's sense of physical limits and personal boundaries disappear.
In this state, the brain cannot locate the body in physical reality and so perceives a sense of blissful interconnection, a state Newberg refers to as 'Absolute Unitary Being'.
During the intense focus of meditation, the prefrontal cortex, or attention association area (AAA)-an area most scientists believe is involved in higher consciousness-is strongly activated, with dominance of the left frontal lobe, which usually occurs during spiritual integration.
Although deeksha has not yet been subjected to major scrutiny, German biochemist Christian Opitz has carried out extensive tests in India with a brain scanning device that measures electromagnetic frequen-cies in the brain, examining its electrical activity before and after deeksha has been given. His tests have shown significant shifts in brain activity, with the parietal lobes deactivated, and the frontal lobes-the one on the left in particular-registering greater activity.
Another study in 2006, by Stock-holm University and the New Brain- New World organization in Copen-hagen, carried out EEG brain mapping of 12 participants before, during and after a 21-day Oneness University course. Of 26 EEG variables, only a few were found to have statistically significant changes after deeksha. What the researchers did find was a tendency, among 11 of the 12 participants, for the two brain hemispheres to be more functionally balanced after the course, especially in the parietal lobes.
The researchers also found a 50-per-cent increase in brainwaves, with a huge increase in gamma activity (25-42 Hz) in the frontal lobes. Dr Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, observed this kind of brainwave activity in monks during compassionate medi-tation. Gamma waves, in the highest band of frequencies, are seen when the brain is working its hardest: during a state of rapt attention; when sifting through working memory; during deep levels of learning; and in the midst of great flashes of insight.
As Davidson discovered, when the brain operates at these extremely high frequencies, the phases of brain-waves (when they peak and trough) across the brain begin to operate in synchrony, a state crucial for achieving heightened awareness (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 2004; 101: 16369-73).
The gamma state may even cause changes in the brain's synapses-the neural gaps across which electrical impulses leap to send messages to other parts of the body-and to induce a state of oneness (Curr Opin Neurobiol, 2000; 10, 172-9). Newberg and others consider gamma states to be a signature of enlightenment. If more scientific support can be found for these early findings on deeksha, it may well prove to be a fast-track way of getting there.